1902 Encyclopedia > Folk-lore


FOLK-LORE This word, formed in imitation of such German compounds as "Volksepos," "Volksfest," "Volks-lied," has recently become current in the English language as a convenient though somewhat vague general heading under which to arrange all that has been observed or recorded of the traditions current among the " common people" of different countries, civilized or uncivilized, whether in ancient, mediaeval, or modern times. Each nation and each locality has, of course, a "folk-lore" as it has a language; and it is obvious that to set forth any given folk-lore, with all its stratifications, in a comprehensive and orderly way, would virtually be equivalent to exhibiting fully the past and present intellectual, moral, religious, and social condi-tion of the people to whom it belonged. An exhaustive account of the folk-lores of the world would be equivalent to a complete history of the thoughts of mankind.

The eccentricities of traditionary story and traditionary practice have always been found a more or less interesting and amusing study by the contemplative observer of human nature; and almost all travellers and historians, from Herodotus downwards, have occasionally condescended to add something to the general collection of curiosities in that department. But to make a thorough investigation of the " vulgar antiquities " of any country, and especially of one's own, was, until very recently, regarded as childish and use-less. An exception, indeed, was made in favour of the folk-lores of ancient Greece and Borne, as being intrinsically beautiful and exceptionally instructive. But the very fact that these had been beautified by artistic treatment impaired their usefulness from the purely antiquarian point of view; and in any case the floating traditions of Attica and Latium were too few, too fragmentary, and gathered from too narrow an area to furnish adequate data for the anthropologist and the sociologist. Here, as in so many other instances, it was necessary that men should greatly extend the area of their investigations before they could rightly understand that which alone they were curious to know.

It was in Germany that the study of folk-lore first entered upon its scientific stage. One of the earliest symptoms of the awakening of a wider and more sympathetic interest in the various products of a nation's mind, its legends and its tales, its manners and its customs, its laws, government, religion, and daily life, was the appearance in 1778-9 of Herder's celebrated collection of popular songs. But the new day was fairly ushered in by the successive publications of the brothers Grimm, more particularly of the Kinder- und Haus-Mdhrchen in 1812, and of the Deutsche Mythologie in 1835. The latter work, which was closely dependent on the former, showed for the first time what results may be hoped for by an intelligent investigator, if only, laying aside all prejudice, he will put himself to the trouble of collecting largely and widely, and of interpreting faithfully and rationally, a nation's oral traditions and unwritten customs. It was seen that, although many relics of the past had been irrecoverably lost, enough had been preserved to furnish conclusive proof of the oneness in faith as well as in speech of the Teutonic race, and also to give indications, in many instances, of the precise points at which the divergences had occurred. This new knowledge, derived to a large extent from the skilful use of folk-lore " collected from the mouths of old women in the spinning-rooms of German villages," acquired an altogether peculiar interest and importance from the other discovery by which the philological labours of Bopp and others had been crowned,—the discovery, namely, of the original unity of all the Aryan races, and the demonstration of the fact that the Teutons themselves were but one branch of a greater family, including Hindus and Celts, which had at one time inhabited the central plain of Asia, and before dispersing eastward and westward, had developed an ineffaceably characteristic speech, civilization, and religion. The identification verbally of Dyaus, Zeus, Jd(vi)s, Tiw, Zio, and Tyr was followed, as investigation proceeded, by the identification really of many of the strange forms in which religious sentiment had found expression ; and comparative mythology became an inseparable companion of comparative philology. (See MYTHOLOGY and PHILOLOGY.) It was thenceforward obvious that every mythology, in the Aryan family at least, however puerile or absurd it might at first sight appear, was a fit subject for scientific investigation, and capable of yielding scientific results. The problem in each case was to trace the nursery tale to the legend, and the legend to the myth, and the myth to its earliest germ, and as far as possible to indicate the foreign interpolations when they occurred, and account for the local accretions. In this way the history of a story, like the history of a word, was frequently found to be more interesting and more instructive than the history of a campaign. Once this had been realized, the new field of folk-lore found many skilled labourers; and the quantity of material available for examination and classification rapidly increased. Each fresh comparison made it increasingly plain that in groundwork and plot the stories current among the Indo-European peoples were substantially identical. The reader of the fables of La Fontaine found nothing essentially and absolutely strange in the Pankatantra or Hitopadesa; the Indian ayah was discovered to have unmistakably the same stock of stories as the German, Norwegian, or Celtic nurse. In a few cases, indeed, it could be shown that the wide dif-fusion of some particular fable was attributable to migra-tions which had taken place within the historic period j and in other cases it could hardly be doubted that certain very remarkable coincidences were still mere coincidences and nothing more ; but in a great majority of instances, it was plain that the notion of borrowing or copying having occurred was inadmissible, and that nothing could account for their constant similarity except the theory of a common origin. They were " primitive or organic legends, represent-ing one common ancient stratum of language and thought reaching from India to Europe;" the others were secondary or inorganic, consisting of " boulders of various strata carried along by natural and artificial means from one country to another."

The aboriginal Aryan legends may be arranged under one or other of two categories, the myth or the fable. That primitive fables actually exist, stories expressly invented for a moral or didactic purpose, seems a well-established fact. The fable of the King and the Bee, for example, crops up alike in India, in Greece, and in Norway, in forms that cannot be accounted for by direct oral or literary transmis-sion ; and it would seem that the story of the Master-Thief (dpxos (f>rjXrjrea>v) which is to be met with in the Hitopadesa, in Herodotus, in the Tales of the Alhambra, and which is current in Norway and also in the Western Highlands of Scotland, must probably also be regarded as embodying at least a fable-germ. The organic fables, however, are not so numerous as the organic myths,—those stories, that is to say, which, whether based on mistaken metaphor or distorted history, are at least the product of the unconscious play of fancy. The same characters and the same incidents constantly recur under innumerable names and shapes. " The story of the heroes of Teutonic and Hindu folk-lore, the stories of Boots and Cinderella, of Logedas Bajah and Surya Bai, are the story also of Achilleus and Oidipous, of Perseus and Theseus, of Helen and Odysseus, of Baldur, and Bustem, and Sigurd. Everywhere there is the search for the bright maiden who has been stolen away, everywhere the long struggle to recover her. The war of Ilion has been fought out in every Aryan land " (Cox). What we are accustomed to associate with the name of William Tell is told of many archers under other names, in England (William of Cloudsle), Germany, Denmark, Norway, Iceland,, and Lapland; the same story of the young hero dying in the fulness of youth is told of Baldur and Isfendiyar, Sifrit,. and Achilles. The stories vary widely under the influence of climate, religion, and civilization, and yet remain substantially the same. The sun-myth, when transferred from southern to northern latitudes, cannot but undergo some change of shape; the dramatis personce are as various in each fable as the fauna and flora of the regions in which it is told. Odin, when no longer recognized as a deity, becomes simply the wild huntsman or Hellequin; when civilization makes even such a being no longer credible, he still survives possibly as Harlequin or Robin Hood.

Hitherto the systematic study of comparative folk-lore has been almost exclusively confined within Aryan limits. But the successful application of scientific method in that field has encouraged many labourers in other regions, and an amount of material is being accumulated which may be expected ultimately to yield very important results in ethnology and anthropology. So far as the savage tribes of the world are concerned, it would seem that the greater proportion of trustworthy data is to be derived from that department of their "folk-lore" which manifests itself in traditionary practices; but in no case, indeed, can the com-parative mythologist afford to overlook the qualifying or corroborative evidence supplied by what may be called comparative " ethology." Every custom has an instructive history if we can but succeed in interpreting its lore. In ascertaining when, where, and how any given tribe came first to worship plants, or animals, or ghosts, we get de-finitely nearer the solution of the fundamental problem of anthropology. Even the modern usages of social and domestic life, the observances that accompany such incidents as marriage, birth, and death, when skilfully read, are cap-able of telling us something at least of the condition of pri-mitive man. See ANTHROPOLOGY, ANIMISM, DEMONOLOGY, FIRE, FUNERAL BITES, MARRIAGE, &C.

Literature.—The oldest professed collections of English folk-lore are those of Aubrey (Miscellanies, 1686, and frequently reprinted), and Bourne (Antiquitates Vulgares, 1725). The latter was incor-porated by Brand in his Observations on Popular Antiquities, 1777, republished by Sir Henry Ellis in 1813, and again in 1841. The Emery-Day Book of Hone appeared in 1826, and The Year Book in 1829. Among the more recent publications of a similar class may be mentioned the Book of Days, and Popular Rhymes of Scot-land, by Chambers. Max Miiller's Essay on Comparative Mytho-logy was first published in 1856; Dasent's Tales from the Norse, with an introduction, in 1859; Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands in 1861; Kelly's Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition and Folk-Lore in 1863 ; see also Hardwick's Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore (1872); and Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, by W. Henderson, with an appendix on Household Stories, by S. Baring-Gould (1876). As for Germany, since the publication of the Kinder- u. Hausmdhrchen (1812), and of the Deutsche Mythologie (1835), "the myths, the legends, the nursery-tales, the songs, proverbs, and popular customs of the Scandinavo-Germanic race have had a whole host of faithful expounders and affectionate illustrators, who have scarcely left a single foot unexplored of that vast and interesting field of tradition " (De Gubernatis). Special reference may be made to the Deutsche Mythologie, by Mannhardt, and to the Zeitschrift fur Deutsche Mythologie und Sittenkunde, edited by Mannhardt and Wolf (1853-1859). The collection of Norse popular tales by Asbjornsen and Moe (1842-3) has for the most part been translated by Dr Dasent (as above). Castren has given an account of the mythology of Finland (Finnische Mythologie, edited by Sehiefner) ;. Kreuzwald of the popular tales of Esthonia (Ehstnische Mahrchen, 1869); and Afanassieff of the folk-lore of Russia. The Slavonic mythology has been specially treated by Popoff, Kaisaroff, and Hanusch ; while Osinski and Grohmann have dealt respectively with the folk literatures of Poland and Bohemia. Hahn has published a collection of Gricchische u. Albanesisehe Mahrchen (1864), in the introduction to which he gives forty " story-roots " (Marchen- und Sagformeln) ; and something has been done for the folk-lore of Rome by R. H. Busk (1874). For Spain reference may be made to Fernan Caballero ; for Brittany to Villemarqué ; for Iceland to Powell and Magnusson among others ; for Eskimo tales to Rink. Radloff has dealt with the folk literature of the Turkish races of south Siberia ; and a volume of Kalmuck and Mongolian Tradi- tionary Talcs was published in 1873. For Corea, see Dallet (Église de la Corée, 1874); for China, the works of Doolittle and Dennys; for Dardistan, Leitner ; and for Southern Africa, the Zulu Nursery Tales, by: Rev. Henry Callaway, M.D. (1866), and the Hottentot Fables and Tales of Dr Bleek (1864). For American folk-lore, see Brinton's Myths of the New World, and Bancroft's Races of the Pa- cific. The works of Sir John Lubbock, and Messrs Herbert Spencer, Tylor, M'Lennan, and Morgan deal largely with the folk-lore of various savage tribes. As hearing upon the general subject of com- parative mythology, see the works of Kuhn, especially his Herab- kunft des Feuers und des Gottertranks (1859) ; Bastian (Der Mensch in der Geschichie) ; Roth (Ueber den Mythus von den filnf Menschen- gcschlechtern) ; Max Miiller (Lectures on Science of Language, 2d series, and Chips from a German Workshop), vol. ii.) ; M. Michel Bréal (Hercule et Cacus, Étude de mythologie comparée, and Le Mythe d'Œdipe) ; Husson (La Chaîne Traditioncïle, Contes et Légendes au point de vue Mythique, 1874); Fiske (Myths and Myih-makers, 1873); and Gubernatis (Zoological Mythology, 1872). (J. S. BL.)


It was first suggested by Mr Thorns in the Athenceum of 1846 (p. 862). Its equivalent does not actually occur in German.

See Max Mutter's paper "On the Migration of Fables," in the Contemporary Review for 1870, republished, with additions, in Chips from a German Workshop, vol. iv.
The Hottentots, for example, have a version of the " vestigia nulla retrorsum" fable, and a number of traces of the stories of Kenard the Fox. The Zulus also have tales resembling that of Jack the Giant-Killer. See Max Muller, Chips, ii. 212 ; iv. 156. So with the large family of stories which turn on the idea of gods wandering on earth in the likeness of men.
Max Muller, Chips, ii. 245.
Max Muller, Chips, ii. 232; iv. 153. Sir George W. Cox also
finds that the legend of " The Carter, the Dog, and the Sparrow " would never have found its way into the nurseries of German peasants if written by Grimm himself in imitation of some other Aryan tale (Mythology of the Aryan Races, i. 124—129, 167).
_ 5 Cox, Mythology of the Aryan Races, i. 124 seq.

6 But also, it ought to be added, among Turks, Mongolians, and Samoyedes,—in other words, beyond the Aryan territory.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries