Chapter 3: Types of Folklore
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37 DOI: 10.7330/9780874219067.c003 Chapter 3 Types of Folklore Here’s what this chapter won’t do: this chapter isn’t here to give you numerous examples of folklore in the sense of giving you stories to read, customs to try, beliefs to learn about, or anything like that. You can go Google that stuff if you’re interested in it, or hit the library and find an interesting collection of folklore to peruse. What this chapter is here to do is tell you about some of the main types of folklore that folklorists have studied and give you one or two cool examples of how each one has been approached or analyzed. Sound boring? It’s not. As I’ve said in earlier chapters, folklorists study a variety of genres, or types, of folklore. After reading this section, you should be able to identify many of the most common ones and to understand how they’re different from each other. What distinguishes a legend from a myth? A calendar custom from a rite of passage? You’ll find out! You’ll also discover how the differences in genres can affect the way the folklore functions in society. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of ways to approach each and every genre of folklore, but after reading this section, you’ll have at least a few analytical tools in your folklorist tool belt right off the bat. If nothing else, you’ll come away with some solid examples of what a close examination of different types of folklore can reveal. While there are more genres of folklore than can possibly be listed in one place, one easy way to divide them initially is into these four basic categories: Types of Folklore 38 things we say (like jokes, songs, folktales, myths, and legends) things we do (like calendar customs, rituals, games, and rites of passage) things we make (like handmade objects, collections and assemblages, and folk art) things we believe (like superstitions, supernatural creatures , and folk religion)1 It’s probably already obvious that there’s a good deal of overlap here, especially when it comes to the things we believe. For example, a legend is something we say about something we believe; a friendship bracelet is something we make that reflects something we believe, and a rite of passage is something we do to indicate something we believe. But as with all the not-so-clear-cut divisions we’ve made so far, this one is a useful tool for conceptualizing the breakdown of folklore, even if it’s an oversimplification. This chapter is going to walk through these four main categories of folklore, describing the main identifying characteristics of each and offering some initial examples of analysis.2 Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how tired of reading you are at this point), there’s not enough space in this short handbook to address all (or even most) of the subtypes included in each general category of folklore. Instead, each section below will focus on one or two major genres of folklore within that category, as an illustration of the possibilities. Things We Say The category of things we say encompasses all the folklore that comes out of our mouths or through our fingertips and onto a piece of paper or a screen. That means jokes, slang, proverbs, riddles, mnemonic devices, rhymes, songs, oaths, toasts, greetings, leavetakings —basically tons and tons of forms of folklore—but the most famous, the most well-known, and the most studied forms of verbal folklore are stories.3 It’s probably not something you’ve ever thought about consciously , but there is a big difference between beginning a story with Types of Folklore 39 “Once upon a time . . .” and beginning a story with “You’ll never believe what happened to my aunt’s hairdresser’s cousin’s roommate last week!” The main difference is in how we expect our listeners to react to the story we’re about to tell, and this is an excellent illustration of how important the distinction between genres is in the realm of folk narrative. When it comes to things we say, folklorists have mainly studied the longer forms of folklore: the legend, the folktale, and the myth.4 You probably can already guess that it’s a folktale that begins with “Once upon a time,” and a legend5 that begins with the friend-of-a-friend connection.6 So, what’s the difference? Well, for one...