FolkloreMythology

Mythology vs. Folklore

Round one! Fight! Okay, not a fight. It’s just useful to look at the two together in order to better understand both.

Table of Contents

Defining Myth

Odysseus i cyklopen Polyfemos grotta - Nationalmuseum - 157964

Nationalmuseum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a myth. It’s a painting illustrating a scene from Homer’s Odyssey. What makes the Odyssey part of mythology as opposed to folklore?

Folkloristics makes a few distinctions between the two:

  • Myths – fabulous realms, deities, abnormal natural powers
  • Legends – stories that have some basis in the historical career of someone
  • fairy/folk tales – no one believes in them because they are primarily of interest to children  (Doty, 5)

Both myths and folklore reflect the cultures that produced them, but myths go a bit deeper and “are culturally important in a foundational manner”(Doty, 11,) and “reflect what a culture considers to be appropriate for selfhood, and social and political ways of existing” (Doty, 3,). Myths also tend to be very widespread, embedding themselves across the entire culture.

All that being said, there’s no single definition for what a myth is. Here are two more definitions to confuse the issue!

For Elliot Oring, “myth is a term used for a narrative generally regarded by the community in which it is told as both sacred and true. Consequently myths tend to be the core narrations in longer ideological systems”(Doty, 14)

For Donald Mills, “myths are a cultural inheritance, a tradition handed down from one generation to another, and therefore invested with communal values. This explains the close association between a community and its mythology”(Doty, 14)

Both have their pros and cons, and I would argue that they both miss that folklore can be very closely associated with a community and can be considered as valid as anything else. As a working definition, I would say that myth is a collection of interrelated stories produced by a culture that reflects fundamental aspects of the culture, typically from the distant past.

Defining Folklore

Robin shoots with sir Guy by Louis Rhead 1912

Louis Rhead, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is folklore. It’s an illustration of Robinhood in an archery contest. The term ‘folklore’ encompasses a wide range of practices, from art and singing to stories and superstitions, often much more localized than myths. As far as folktales go, there are at least three different types commonly identified:

  • Tale
  • Legend
  • True experience (i.e., “my sister’s boyfriend’s cousin heard…”)

In the ‘tale’ category, we use the ATU Index to categorize further and classify types of folktales. These are the classic “Fairy Tales.” It’s a very dense cataloging scheme, but there are several major categories for tales:

  • Animal
  • Ordinary
  • Magic
  • Religions
  • Novellas
  • Stupid ogre
  • Jokes and anecdotes (Ashliman, 35)

Folklore is information transmitted person-to-person or generation-to-generation by word of mouth (Ashliman, 29) rather than having any ‘canonical’ written collection. While writing down the stories freezes them with one ending, folktales often have multiple endings, depending on the whim of the teller and the audience.

It is also limited to specific cultures. Folklore from the USA is unlikely to be familiar to a person raised in Germany and vice-versa. It can also be highly regional, even within the same culture. If you were raised in, for example, Maine, you’re unlikely to be familiar with folk practices in Alabama.

Conclusion

My argument is that folklore and fairy tales occur within the context of a culture that already exists, with established rules and myths, as opposed to myth, which explains foundational ideas of a culture. For example, medieval witch-lore occurs in the context of Christian mythology but does not form part of the canonical Christian mythos itself.

My point is that there’s a line between the two. Folklore and myth are not the same. There IS a difference. Does it actually matter, though? No, not really. Not for most practical purposes. The line is blurry. They’re all stories, and stories can serve whatever purpose you need them to, folktale, fairy tale, or myth.

You could say that folklore is like fanfiction for a given set of stories dubbed “canonical” by a culture. They use the same characters, same ideas, and same base but aren’t likely to be widely known or accepted outside of certain circles. That comparison isn’t meant to be disparaging to either fanfiction or folklore. Indeed, people have been telling stories about established characters since we developed language. It’s a normal human practice, nothing more, nothing less. The comparison is fitting because they both take something established and add to it, modify it, and enhance it. One just happens to involve corporate intellectual property, and the other doesn’t. Otherwise, the idea is quite similar.

So, where do we draw the line between what counts as folklore and mythology? I’m not sure that we do. By this, I mean that there is less of a line than a nebulous fog between them, and deciding what goes where is up to the individual viewer. What you see here is my view, and it isn’t necessarily correct. Decide for yourself.

Bibliography

Doty, William G.(2007) Myth: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks

Ashliman, D.L (2004). Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks)”Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks

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