I was going to do a post on American mythology, but my recent experience at Comicon has alerted me that the terms of this branch of study are not clear. What is folklore? How is that different from a myth? What about fairy tales? And of course there are urban legends, too; what about them?
What is Folklore?
Imagine a football game, which is relevant cultural knowledge. Two teams face off on opposing sides of a field. Each team consists of players in different positions on the field, who primarily play offense or defense. The team with the ball tries to drive the ball into the goal of the opposing team to score. Players move the ball by passing it to teammates or dribbling it to the other end. Once at the other end, it becomes a matter of kicking the ball past the opposing team’s goalkeeper into the goal. . . . Wait, did you think I was talking about American football?
Yes, I admit, it was a bit of a dirty trick to string people along like that, but most of the world recognizes the game football by what North Americans call soccer. However, the metaphor still holds. Americans grow up with American football, understanding the different positions (quarterback, receiver, center, full back, safety, etc.), the different elements of play (number of downs, yards to achieve a first down, etc.), play strategies (various passing plays, handoffs, punt, quarterback sneak, etc.), the scoring system (touchdowns, field goals, extra points, safeties), and more. All of this is cultural knowledge necessary not only to play the game, but also to appreciate it as a spectator. To those outside of American football culture, watching the game is a chaotic mess. It requires a great deal of explanation to begin to understand it.
Those who play and appreciate football (on either side of the Pond) are each part of a cultural group. Most of the time, this cultural knowledge is passed on in the course of simply growing up as part of the culture. It’s not something that people receive formal instruction about. People don’t sign up for university courses learn about football or Star Trek (though I might take that class).
All of the information about football above is folklore. It goes beyond information, though. Everything related to participating in a culture—including playing the game or spectating—are also covered as being part of the folklore, so folklore is not just information or stories, it is alive as part of the performances, art, and other expressions of a people, such as end zone dances, team mascots and artwork, and even the halftime show. In fact, anything, which is deemed relevant to the culture, would be considered folklore.
Okay, so that doesn’t sound very academic. That’s because it isn’t. Even scholars with a plethora of initials after their names cannot come to an exact definition of what folklore is. The American Folklore Society has over a dozen definitions on their webpage, and that doesn’t even come close to all of them. The University of Missouri’s Folklore Department page has some of the same definitions, but even expands it all the way back to 1884. As a formal academic discipline, it hardly has scientific precision (not that scientists were all that precise back then, either).
I’m not going to attempt a definitive definition. I think the football metaphor helps, but I’ll go a little bit further. Folklore is literally a compound word referencing the knowledge (lore) of the people (folk). Complicating matters is that people can (and usually do) belong to more than one culture simultaneously. I am a teacher, a writer, an academic scholar, a sci-fi geek, comic book nerd, an American, an Arizonan, etc. This is not new as Ancient people could belong to more than one culture, too. A person can be Athenian, a sailor, a citizen, and more. Obviously, we have more options, today.
Each of these specific culture groups contains knowledge and traditions inherently necessary to that group. To be a teacher, I must both have certain knowledge and possess an academic degree. To be a science fiction geek, I must have not just an appreciation but a familiarity with major science fiction works such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and more.
The essence of folklore is that it must serve a function to the culture, either in preserving and establishing the culture, or identifying people as part of the culture. Two people engaged in a discussion as to whether Han Solo shot first clearly identify themselves as belonging to a science fiction (or more specifically Star Wars) culture, just as much as two people arguing over the call of a referee in the aforementioned football game (Soccer or American football, take your pick).
Next week we’ll get into the differences between folklore and mythology