The Meaning of Folklore

The Walt Disney Company frequently uses folklore stories as the basis for its films. Here, Disney “princesses” are depicted wearing culturally appropriate, period-accurate clothing.

Much of our understanding of different cultures comes from stories that have survived through an oral tradition, meaning they were passed down verbally from one generation to the next. Cultures pass down their stories over the years, from generation to generation, by word of mouth. Such stories are called folklore. Many of these stories were eventually written down, but many survived over the decades or centuries or even millennia before they were recorded. That’s because until after the Middle Ages, writing was reserved only for the upper classes and certain trades. For many centuries after written language was developed, most people were illiterate, even in cultures that had developed some of the earliest written languages. It was the invention of the printing press that helped make literacy a more widely used skill.  Another reason more folklore tales were not written down until the Enlightenment age was because they were not considered a priority. Even in the early days of written language, written records were often reserved for serious matters of state: laws, religious texts, agricultural records, economic transactions, military strategy, pharmacology, and personal records like births, marriages, and deaths. The skill of writing was not often used for fictional stories in ancient times.

There are different types of folklore, and by studying them, we can learn more about the cultures that created them. These stories reveal much about the beliefs, customs, mores, practices, ethics, and institutions of the cultures they came from. Folklore stories do not have a single author and usually cannot be traced to a specific year. Instead, they are a product of the community that produced them, belonging to all the people who told and retold the stories. In this way, folklore is distinctly different from other types of literature, which have individual authors and dates of publication. Due to this, folklorics is an interdisciplinary study involving literature, anthropology, and history.

Types of Folklore

  • Mythology
  • Legends
  • Fairy Tales
  • Tall Tales
  • Fables
  • Parables
  • Folk Tales


Folklore exists in every culture – in every time period and every place. Unfortunately, because it survived through the oral tradition, the folklore stories we know now are only a small fraction of the ones humans have created. We can only study the stories that were recorded. As folklore stories were passed down from generation to generation, they changed. People added, cut, and embellished as they retold the story. Much like a game of telephone, the version of a story that was recorded centuries later may bear little similarity to the original story. The same thing happens as stories moved from place to place. Often, as one village or one country traded with another, they not only exchanged goods, but information as well. These traders brought their newfound knowledge home, where it was sometimes embraced. In a new place, each story took on a new life, and the people would change aspects of the story to make it more relevant to their own community. These different versions of a story are called variations.

The Role of Folklore

Our ability to create, tell, and retell such stories is an important part of both our survival as a species and our daily lives. Most evolutionary biologists agree that storytelling became hardwired into our human brains because it served a practical function necessary for survival. Storytelling enabled early humans to piece together useful information, to pass on details about tool-making, hunting and gathering, and to synthesize the neurochemical oxytocin that fosters social units (tribes, towns, nations) cultivated by a cooperative spirit and enabled humans to develop social units, organize political systems to manage them, and establish religions to guide them. No society persists without passing on its social values in story form. No political group rises to power without a story that resonates with their constituents. Try to imagine a religion that would not at its core have a great story, a story that allows participants to step outside themselves, to connect with a larger world and universal truths, to share in a narrative that transcends generations.


The Greek word mythos means “story” or “word.” The term “myth” has come to refer to a certain genre (category) of stories.  A myth is a symbolic tale of the distant past.  Myths 1) explain the Origin of the Universe and beings in that universe, 2) are connected to the Sacred and to Ritual, 3) reflect Social Order or Value within a culture, 4) provide a way to understand Nature, 5) involve Heroic Characters like protohumans, superhumans, gods who mediate and establish patterns of life, and 6) reflect actors and actions outside routine experience.  This is all according to Joseph Campbell, an expert on comparative religions of the world.  In the PBS series The Power of Myth, he defines mythology as a “system of images that incorporates a concept of the universe that acts as a divinely energized or energizing presence in the world we live in.”  A myth, he says, is not simply a story, but is “inspired” by nature and exists below the level of consciousness of which we are aware.  It’s “a message from the unconscious to the consciousness,” the first function of which is to inspire awe in the individual and a sense of wonder at one’s participation in the universe.  Myth also serves as a guide for the individual’s social, moral, and spiritual conduct in society.  Campbell maintains that myth reflects an awakening invoked simultaneously as human beings gained a sense of consciousness (self-awareness), and, as we have seen, is a story on steroids, a hyper-energized story.  There is every reason to believe that our prehistoric ancestors were mythological storytellers, at least in part, as illustrated in their oral literature, in their paintings on cave walls, in the miniature statues of animals and themselves, in the music they made with primitive instruments, and the ritual burials of their dead.

Shortly after the rise of civilizations in the Middle East (see chapter 4: The Invention of Writing), the world’s great religions began to emerge around some of the most powerful stories ever told. Mythology is a collection of stories connected to a religious system. Unlike the colloquial meaning of “myth,” the practitioners of a religion did believe these mythological stories to be 100% true. Some of the most famous mythological stories belong to “dead” religions, which are no longer practiced. However, the stories of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans; Vikings; and Celts still survive. Other religions – such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism – are still very much alive, and observers of those religions believe the stories recorded in their religious texts to be true. When it comes to mythology, whether a story is “true” or not depends on an individual’s personal religious beliefs. When we study mythology as a genre of folklore, however, we are looking at what these stories meant to the people who told them and how they developed. American mythologist, writer, and professor Joseph Campbell defined mythology as a specific genre of story that serves to awaken “a sense of awe and mystery in the universe.” He expands on this idea, suggesting that myths furnish a recognition of elementary ideas inherent in the cosmos, validates a moral system with the community concerning the supernatural or sacred, and acts as a guide of individuals through “the passages of human life” (from birth and dependency in childhood, to the responsibility of adulthood, to the “ultimate passage” through old age and death). Myths accomplish this through “universal themes and motifs.” However, religion itself is a much broader term that includes mythological stories along with rituals, moral codes, mystical experiences, and theology (which systemizes and provides a means for the study of religious truths and divinity).

Academia defines mythology (from the Greek mythos for story-of-the-people, and logos for word or speech, so the spoken story of a people) as the study and interpretation of often sacred tales or fables of a culture known as myths or the collection of such stories which deal with various aspects of the human condition: good and evil; the meaning of suffering; human origins; the origin of place-names, animals, cultural values, and traditions; the meaning of life and death; the afterlife; and celestial stories of the gods or a god. Myths express the beliefs and values about these subjects held by a certain culture.

“[A myth is] a story, presented as having actually occurred in a previous age, explaining the cosmological and supernatural traditions of a people, their gods, heroes, cultural traits, religious beliefs, etc. The purpose of myth is to explain, and, as Sir G.L. Gomme said, myths explain matters in “the science of a pre-scientific age.” Thus myths tell of the creation of man, of animals, of landmarks; they tell why a certain animal has its characteristics (e.g. why the bat is blind or flies only at night), why or how certain natural phenomena came to be (e.g. why the rainbow appears or how the constellation Orion got into the sky), how and why rituals and ceremonies began and why they continue.” – Scholars Maria Leach and Jerome Fried

Myths are a part of every culture in the world and are used to explain natural phenomena, where a people came from and how their civilization developed, and why things happen as they do. At their most basic level, myths comfort by giving a sense of order and meaning to what can sometimes seem a chaotic world. Myths tell the stories of ancestors and the origin of humans and the world, the gods, supernatural beings (satyrs, nymphs, mermaids) and heroes with super-human, usually god-given, powers (as in the case of the Greek myth of Heracles or Perseus). Myths also describe origins or nuances of long-held customs or explain natural events such as the sunrise and sunset, the cycle of the moon and the seasons, or thunder and lightning storms.

Mythology has played an integral part in every civilization throughout the world. Pre-historic cave paintings, etchings in stone, tombs, and monuments all suggest that, long before human beings set down their myths in words, they had already developed a belief structure corresponding to the definition of `myth’ provided by Leach and Fried. According to twentieth-century psychiatrist Carl Jung, myth is a necessary aspect of the human psyche which needs to find meaning and order in a world which often presents itself as chaotic and meaningless.

“The psyche, as a reflection of the world and man, is a thing of such infinite complexity that it can be observed and studied from a great many sides. It faces us with the same problem that the world does: because a systematic study of the world is beyond our powers, we have to content ourselves with mere rules of thumb and with aspects that particularly interest us. Everyone makes for himself his own segment of world and constructs his own private system, often with air-tight compartments, so that after a time it seems to him that he has grasped the meaning and structure of the whole. But the finite will never be able to grasp the infinite.” -Carl Jung

Every culture in the world has had, and still has, some type of mythology. The same types of stories, and often the very same story, can be found in myths from different parts of the world. Mythology tries to answer the most difficult and the most basic questions of human existence: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? To the ancients, the meaning of the story was most important, not the literal truth of the details of a certain version of a tale. It was understood in the ancient world that the purpose of a myth was to provide the hearer with a truth which the audience then interpreted for themselves within the value system of their culture. Apprehension of reality was left up to the interpretation of the individual encountering the values expressed in the myths instead of having that reality interpreted for them by an authority figure.

“Myth has two main functions. The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?’…The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.” -Scholar/poet Robert Graves

This remains the essential difference between a sermon and an individual experience with religious mythology; within one’s cultural belief system a sermon can only encourage or reinforce common belief while a myth, though it might do the same, has the potential to elevate and transform individual understanding through the potency of symbolic landscape, character, image, and theme. The ancient myths still resonate with a modern audience precisely because the ancient writers crafted them toward individual interpretation, leaving each person who heard the story to recognize the meaning in the tale for themselves and respond to it accordingly.

“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of men have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” -Professor Joseph Campbell

Origin Myths

An origin myth is a myth that describes the origin of some feature of the natural or social world. Every origin myth is a tale of creation: origin myths describe how some reality came into existence. In many cases, origin myths also justify the established order by explaining that it was established by sacred forces.

An origin myth often functions to justify the current state of affairs. In traditional cultures, the entities and forces described in origin myths are often considered sacred. Thus, by attributing the state of the universe to the actions of these entities and forces, origin myths give the current order an aura of sacredness. Historian Mircea Eliade explained this concept: “Myths reveal that the World, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history, and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary.” Many cultures instill the expectation that people take mythical gods and heroes as their role models, imitating their deeds and upholding the customs they established:

When the missionary and ethnologist C. Strehlow asked the Australian Arunta why they performed certain ceremonies, the answer was always: “Because the ancestors so commanded it.” The Kai of New Guinea refused to change their way of living and working, and they explained: “It was thus that the Nemu (the Mythical Ancestors) did, and we do likewise.” Asked the reason for a particular detail in a ceremony, a Navaho chanter answered: “Because the Holy People did it that way in the first place.” We find exactly the same justification in the prayer that accompanies a primitive Tibetan ritual: “As it has been handed down from the beginning of the earth’s creation, so must we sacrifice. … As our ancestors in ancient times did—so do we now.” – Historian Mircea Eliade

Founding myths unite people and tend to include mystical events along the way to make “founders” seem more desirable and heroic. Ruling monarchs or aristocracies may allege descent from mythical founders/gods/heroes in order to legitimate their control. For example, Julius Caesar and his relatives claimed Aeneas (and through Aeneas, the goddess Venus) as an ancestor.

Larger-than-life heroes continue to bolster the origin-myths of many newer nations and societies. In modern-era colonial contexts, waves of individuals and groups come to the fore in popular history as shaping and exemplifying the ideals of a group: explorers followed by conquerors followed by developers/exploiters. Note for example the conquistadors of the Iberian empires, the Bandeirantes in Brazil, the coureurs des bois in Canada, the Cossacks and the promyshlenniki in Siberia and in Alaska, the bands of pioneers in the central and western United States, and the voortrekkers in Southern Africa.

Creation Myths

One type of origin myth is the creation, or cosmogenic myth, one that describes the creation of the world. However, many cultures have stories set after the cosmogonic myth, which describe the origin of natural phenomena and human institutions within a preexisting universe.

“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” -Douglas Adams, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The distinction between cosmogonic myths and origin myths is not clear-cut. A myth about the origin of some part of the world necessarily presupposes the existence of the world—which, for many cultures, presupposes a cosmogonic myth. In this sense, one can think of origin myths as building upon and extending their cultures’ cosmogonic myths. In fact, in traditional cultures, the recitation of an origin myth is often prefaced with the recitation of the cosmogonic myth. According to historian Mircea Eliade, for many traditional cultures, nearly every sacred story qualifies as an origin myth. Traditional humans tend to model their behavior after sacred events, seeing their life as an “eternal return” to the mythical age. Because of this conception, nearly every sacred story describes events that established a new paradigm for human behavior, and thus nearly every sacred story is a story about a creation.


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