The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Folklore: The beliefs, traditions, rituals, stories, and other creative expressions of ordinary people, or folk, that have been transmitted orally or shared by example through successive generations. Folklore encompasses a wide range of community traditions that tend to evolve over time and that may be articulated through ballads, tales, epics, dramas, legends, and myths, as well as through less “literary” forms such as folk tales, folk dramas, folk songs, folk dances, proverbs, maxims, riddles, nursery rhymes, superstitions, spells, and plant and animal lore. Social customs and rituals regarding key life events such as birth, death, courtship, and marriage are also aspects of folklore, as are the traditions associated with the communal construction of quilts, houses, and barns.

W. J. Thoms, a nineteenth-century English scholar, coined the word folklore in 1846 as an Anglo-Saxon alternative to the Latinate phrase “popular antiquities,” which referred to the intellectual heritage of the peasant class. Subsequently, in the late 1800s, the Folklore Society of London treated folklore as a discipline, not just a subject of study, asserting that folklore involves “the comparison and identification of the survivals of archaic beliefs, customs, and traditions in modern ages.” Later, Alexander H. Krappe, an American scholar who also approached folklore as a discipline, maintained in The Science of Folklore (1930) that folklore allows us to understand the unwritten “spiritual history” of past civilizations by focusing on the sayings of common people rather than on histories written by intellectuals.

With the expansion over time of the term folk to all people who lived before the industrial age, the scope of the term folklore has likewise been broadened. Increasingly, it is not limited to the traditions of earlier cultures but encompasses the distinctive traditions of any community, past or present, with widely shared interests, purposes, and attitudes toward everyday life. In addition, although these attitudes and their expression have generally been recognized as folklore only when conveyed orally, some scholars have recognized as “folkloric” certain traditions and customs transmitted in writing.

Most experts have acknowledged that folklore has five basic characteristics, the first three being the most important. Folklore must be: (1) primarily transmitted orally; (2) rooted in tradition; (3) available in different versions or texts; (4) anonymous; and (5) eventually standardized. Most scholars also agree that folklore is shared and passed on at the grass-roots level of society rather than being formally taught via societal institutions such as the government, schools, churches, and so on. Privileging its aesthetic aspect, scholar Dan Ben-Amos summarized folklore as “artistic communication in small groups” in his essay “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context” (1971).

Although folkloric genres and traditions have customarily been distinguished from the literary, musical, and dance forms associated with so-called high culture, folk conventions, motifs, and lore are commonly incorporated into these more “sophisticated” forms.

EXAMPLES: Folkloric superstitions, such as the beliefs that walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, and crossing paths with a black cat bring bad luck, as well as the belief that throwing spilled salt over your shoulder will counter the bad luck entailed by the spill; proverbs such as “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “out of sight, out of mind”; maxims such as “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” and “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Examples of children’s folklore include the sidewalk superstition “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” and nursery rhymes such as “Ring Around the Rosy,” which is often said to reference a very serious subject: the bubonic plague.

The influence of ancient folklore traditions on classical literature is evident in works such as William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606), in which the tragic hero disinherits his honest daughter for saying she loves him only as a daughter should. With regard to more contemporary works, the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) reflects the ancient folkloric theme of men bewitched by fairy women.

Eliot Wigginton’s Foxfire books — especially The Foxfire Book (1972) and Foxfire 2 (1973) — extensively collected and preserved Appalachian folklore including ghost stories, snake lore, burial customs, and information about planting various crops in accordance with astrological cycles. Urban legends — a much more recent phenomenon — have been similarly collected by folklore professor Jan Brunvand in ten compilations including the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2002) and Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid (2004). In the animated musical adventure film The Book of Life (2014), a group of children is taken on a tour of Mexican folk myths and legends.