views updated May 11 2018


This entry is arranged according to the following outline:

audio-oral transmission (folk literature)
    Folk Narrative
        myth ("a" motifs)
        animal tale (at 1–199)
        ordinary tale (at 300–749)
        religious tale (at 750–849)
        the novella or romantic folktale (at 850–999)
        realistic tale (at 1200–1999)
        jewish legend
    Folk Song (Lyrics)
        religious folk songs and folk music
        secular folk song
    Folk Proverb
    Folk Drama
visual folklore
    Ceremonial Life Cycle
    Ceremonial Jewish Year Cycle
        passover seder
        high holidays
    Varia: Synagogal and Home Ceremonial and Non-Ceremonial Objects
        prayer book
        decorations in the synagogue
        folk dress and costume
cogitative folklore
    Direct (Face-to-Face) Combat
    Compromise (Agreement and Treaty)
    Deceptive Stratagem
    Varia: Beliefs and Customs not Related to Cycles
        folk medicine


Jewish folklore can be defined as the creative spiritual and cultural heritage of the Jewish people handed down, mainly by oral tradition, from generation to generation by the various Jewish communities. The process of oral transmission took place alongside the development of normative, written literature.

Jewish folklore may be classified according to the three main vehicles of transmission:

(1) Audio-oral, including the various branches of folk literature and folk music (discussed in the article on *Music);

(2) Visual, including arts, crafts, costumes, ornaments, and other material expression of folk culture;

(3) Cogitative, including popular beliefs, most of which find their expression in customs and practices.

The science of folklore ("folkloristics") is a discipline which studies the historic-geographic origin and diffusion of folklore institutions, their social backgrounds, functions, intercultural affinities, influences, changes, and acculturation processes and examines the meanings and interpretations of the institutions' individual components.

Folklore is not transmitted through a single medium. Most folklore combines the three categories, one of which, however, usually predominates. Thus, for example, the cogitative background of the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt is expressed through rites, customs, and manners within the framework of the Passover festival. The main literal expression of the festival, however, the Passover Haggadah, is intertwined with audio-oral songs and legends and is recited at the seder which calls for special garb and ritual vessels, e.g., the cup of *Elijah. These constitute the visual elements of the Passover ritual which is comprised of many folk components.

The national cultural heritages of the gentile neighbors among whom the Jewish people has lived throughout its wanderings and dispersions have been assimilated into Jewish folklore. While mutual intercultural contacts are evident in many realms, Jewish folklore has certain specific features common to Eastern and Western Jews which are characteristic of the creative folk ego of the Jewish people. The Judaization and adaptation of universal traditions bear witness to the qualities, trends, and hopes of the Jewish transformers. Through a comparative study of neighboring cultures, normative Jewish religion, and folk evidence which is substantiated by the transmission of many generations and culture areas inhabited by Jews, the special character of Jewish folk tradition may be apprehended. This article is written from the viewpoint of comparative folklore, which frequently reaches conclusions and interpretations at variance with those traditionally held.

audio-oral transmission (folk literature)

Jewish oral literature (in Hebrew and in the various Jewish languages: Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, etc.) has been transmitted alongside the written literature, and both have exercised a mutual influence. Biblical literature (including the narrative tales in the Pentateuch, the legends interwoven into the fabric of the historical books, independent short stories such as the Books of Esther and Ruth, the gnomic (wisdom) literature, and the poetic literature) imbibed much from the oral heritage of the entire Near Eastern culture area. In sanctioning a written document (the Holy Scriptures), the sages differentiated between the holy writings and traditions which were regarded as *Oral Law. Exodus 34:27, "… for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee…," was interpreted as (Git. 60b): "That which is by word of mouth, thou shalt not commit to writing." It was only with the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt (135 c.e.), and the authoritative decision taken in the generation of Rabbi Akiva and his pupils, that the prohibition of committing to writing the oral traditions was revoked. The talmudic-midrashic literature of the tannaim and the amoraim is a mine of information of ancient Jewish folklore (mainly in Aramaic, which was then the spoken language of the people) handed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years before it was formulated. Rich folkloric material has also been preserved in postbiblical literature which was not transmitted in Hebrew: the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the works of Philo and Josephus, the New Testament, and the writings of the Church Fathers.

The various genres of Jewish folk literature are (1) folk narrative, including folktales, legends, jokes, and anecdotes transmitted mainly by word of mouth; (2) folk songs, usually performed or directed by a folk singer, whose music or musical interpretation has the approval and social sanction of the audience and whose text, music, and often gestures (handclapping) and folk dance movements constitute an integral whole between whose components it is hard to distinguish; (3) proverbs and folk sayings which are part of gnomic (wisdom) literature and are perpetuated by a large section of the population, including the common people, in their daily speech; (4) riddles, usually woven into the fabric of a prose narrative (folktale), but constituting an independent literary genre; (5) folk dramas, performed on an improvised stage on specific (festive) occasions by either professional or amateur groups, and composed of several literary folk genres (listed above: stories, songs, etc.), but constituting a genre in themselves, evaluated according to folk transmission techniques.

Folk Narrative

The main kinds of universal folk narratives are also extant in the Jewish oral tradition, though the quantitative proportion between the various kinds differs in comparison with the respective proportion in the neighboring non-Jewish cultural areas. Thus the didactic story, and not the magic tale, is dominant in the Jewish folk narrative; similarly the legend in Jewish lore is a much more popular vehicle of expression than in general folklore.

Folk narrative research in recent decades has, by and large, solved the main classification problems through index systems subscribed to by folklorists. Those systems are general and ethnic (local): type indices and motif indices which are appended to the folktale (Maerchen), legend (Sage), myth, and humorous lore of various cultural areas. Thus the genres of Jewish folk narrative should be defined and described according to the accepted general division, mainly based on Aarne-Thompson's (at) Type-Index and on Stith Thompson's Motif-Index:

myth ("a" motifs)

Myths constitute the imaginative answers to man's queries about the universe (cosmogony and cosmology), the creation and ordering of human and animal life, his own past, etc. They are basically etiological folktales which try to explain various life and nature phenomena and their plot is set in the remote past, at the beginning of creation. The main heroes are supernatural beings (gods, demigods, and cultural heroes) who perform supernatural deeds.

Most of the biblical narratives may, by this definition, be regarded as ancient Hebrew myths which, even after they became part of the "Written Law," continued to influence Jewish legendary lore, although most of the etiological elements were suppressed or omitted by normative monotheistic Judaism. The narrative elements in the Bible should be analyzed in the light of the rich repertoire of ancient Near Eastern mythological texts. Archaeological discoveries, text collections, and studies on the ancient cultures and religions of the Near East (T.H. Gaster, S.H. Hooke, E.O. James, S. N, Kramer, J.B. Pritchard, G. Widengren, and others) have shed fresh light not only on ancient Hebrew oral literature, its transmission through storytelling, and on the prebiblical dissemination of its narrative elements, but on ancient Hebrew folk religion, folk life, folk culture, and on the diffusion of their components.

C.H. Gordon's thesis that "Greek and Hebrew civilizations are parallel structures built upon the same Eastern Mediterranean foundation," stressing the Mediterranean diffusion by different oral vehicles, has not been accepted by biblical scholarship. The premise of general oral relationships between the Jewish and the Greco-Roman oral lore during the Hellenistic and talmudic periods serves as a basis for any comparative approach to the myths as preserved in the apocryphal, pseudepigraphic, and talmudic-midrashic literatures. Many etiological motifs in later Jewish folktales are remnants of ancient myths. In most cases they sanction newly invented or imported and Judaized customs, by stressing their antiquity and dating their origin and first observance to the creation, Noah's ark, the patriarchs, etc. Thus, for example, a midrashic etiological tale (pdre 20) relates the custom of looking at the fingernails during the Havdalah ceremony (Sh. Ar., oḤ 298:3) to Adam, who, endowed with God-like wisdom, brought down fire and light from heaven. The resemblance between this legend and Greek (Prometheus) and cognate myths on the origin of fire (Motif a 1414) by means of theft – a culture hero steals it from its owner (Motif a 1415) – is evident (Ginzberg, Legends, vol. 5,113 n. 104). Similarly, most of the prevailing Jewish etiological stories explaining the origins of fascinating and strange phenomena and of established customs lacking authoritative, written explanations, are elaborated biblical narratives which are based on universal mythical concepts. The process is also manifest in European folklore. Thus the original midrashic story (Tanḥ, Noaḥ 13; Gen. R. 36:3–4; cf. Ginzberg, loc. cit., 190 n. 58) of Noah planting the vineyard with the help of Satan was transformed in European folklore into a typical etiological tale explaining the characteristics of wine (Motif a 2851). Its four qualities, as well as those of the drunken man, stem from the characteristic traits of the four animals sacrificed by Satan while planting the vineyard: the lamb, the lion, the monkey, and the pig. In Jewish and non-Jewish variants of the story some of the above animals are replaced by the peacock, the billy goat, etc. Unlike most of the non-Jewish variants, which are of an etiological character and not of a moralistic nature, the Jewish variants are didactic, severely condemning intoxication – the cause of all sins and the ruin of individuals.

animal tale (at 1–199)

Many of the literary and oral Jewish fables were originally actual animal tales which reflected imaginative contemporaneous views on animal and plant life. (Animal tales which serve to illustrate daily life and to solve actual contemporary problems are transformed into moral fables by the added moral lesson.) The animal tale as an independent narrative genre is at present alive only among Jewish Oriental raconteurs, but even there it is based on the talmudic-midrashic fable and the beasts represent human traits. The main heroes are the lion and the serpent; usually human beings are also involved. The fox from whom the talmudic-midrashic name of the genre, "fox fables," is derived, does not play an important role.

ordinary tale (at 300–749)

These stories are centered around supernatural beings who possess extraordinary knowledge and qualities enabling them to perform magic transformations and to rule the powers of nature, They are set neither in time nor in place, Folktales served as entertainment during all stages of Jewish history. Motifs characteristic of folktales (cf. Gunkel) are found in many of the biblical stories: Samson, David and Goliath, Jephthah's vow (Motif S 241), but especially in the aggadic lore of the Palestinian rabbis who adopted them from oral local (Greek) tradition.

Jewish raconteurs were both writers and disseminators of folktales:


Some of the best-known universal folktales are assumed to be of Jewish origin. Folktales were derived from Jewish written sources: thus the story of King Solomon's judgment (i Kings 3:16–28) influenced the cycle of folk stories about clever acts and words (at 920–929) and the Tobias story influenced the "Grateful Dead" cycle (at 505–508). In many cases the Jewish origin at first is not obvious and has been suggested only after penetrating analysis (Anderson, Goebel), for example (a) at 331, "The Spirit in the Bottle": a man frees an evil spirit imprisoned in a bottle, but instead of receiving the promised reward he is endangered by the spirit whom he then tricks back into the bottle (cf. Grimm no. 99); (b) at 332, "Godfather Death": Death endows a poor man, or his son, with the power to forecast how a sick person will fare according to the position of Death at the bedside, whether he is standing at the head or foot of the bed; Death is tricked, but avenges himself (cf. Grimm no. 44); (c) at 922, "The King and the Abbot": a shepherd substitutes for the priest and answers the king's questions (cf. Grimm no. 152); and many other tales focusing on religious problems (see below, Religious Tale); on cleverness: wit ("outwitting the witty"), humor, answering riddles, performing great feats, and being put to severe tests; and on wise conduct.


The main Jewish contribution to the folktale was in the diffusion and dissemination of narratives from the East to the West. According to Thompson (cf. The Folktale, p. 17) the stories were brought by Jewish merchants from the East to Europe and became known first to the Jewish communities scattered throughout Europe.

Disciplina Clericalis (about 1110), a Latin work by Petrus Alphonsi, contains the earliest Eastern folktales in Western literature. Alphonsi, whose Hebrew name before his conversion to Christianity was Moshe Sefardi, was well versed in Eastern and Jewish traditional lore. The motifs in his work are found not only in medieval European folklore, but also in international narrative folklore (still extant today).

Medieval Jewish scholars translated *Kalila and Dimna and Sindbad into European languages, the oral translations for narrating purposes preceding the literary written translations (see *Fiction). According to B.E. Perry the Book of Sindbad (*Sindabar) originated in Persia from which it passed to India and was assimilated into the rich Hindu folk literature. Leading folklorists of the 19th century (following Benfey) considered India to be the home of the European folktale. Modern scholarship however has shown that a direct chain of oral and written transmission links the Middle (including Persia) and Near East with Europe and that Jewish translators and storytellers were the main transmitters of Eastern (Islamic) culture to the Christian world. In modern scholarship there is full agreement between scholars of literature, both Jews (Epstein, Flusser, Peri, Schwarzbaum) and non-Jews (Holbek, Maeso, Quinn, Thompson), that Near Eastern folklore may have reached Europe directly through Jewish intermediaries and was not transmitted via India.

religious tale (at 750–849)

Playing a most important role among Jewish folktales, the two main themes of the religious tale are theodicy ("God's justice vindicated") and reward and punishment. Several of the widespread universal religious folktales are of Jewish origin; among the best known are at 759, "The Angel and the Hermit," which is representative of the theodician tale, and at 757, "The King's Haughtiness Punished" or "The King in the Bath," which exemplifies the reward and punishment theme. In at 759 an angel commits many seemingly unjust acts which arouse deep astonishment and strong words of protest from his companion the hermit; the hermit, however, upon learning the truth is convinced that each of the strange deeds was just. In many Jewish "legendarized" versions of at 759 God, or the Prophet Elijah, plays the role of the angel, whereas the companion who learns his lesson ("The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice," Deut. 32:4) is a hero in Jewish legend concerned with social justice: Moses (cf., Moses addressing God in Ex. 32:32 "Blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book"), *Joshua b. Levi, or Abraham *Ibn Ezra. Folktales starting with the hero's (a ḥasidic rabbi) enigmatic smile, whose significance is revealed as the plot unravels, also belong to this pattern of theodician tales.

In at 757 a supernatural being (demon, angel, Elijah) takes the boasting king's place (or form) either by depriving him (in the bath) of his clothes or through other means. The wandering king (Solomon, Roderigo, Jovinian) is humiliated and rejected by all as a crazy liar; he is restored to the throne only when he repents of his haughtiness. According to Varnhagen this folktale is of Hindu origin, but the talmudic-midrashic Asmodeus-Solomon legend (Git. 68b; tj, Sanh. 2:6, 20c; pdrk 169a) has influenced most of the Jewish oral versions.

The anonymous, often innocent, simpleton, around whom many religious tales originally centered, tends to be replaced by a historical, famous (talmudic, medieval, or local) sage, martyr, or scholar. The tales thus became part of the Jewish hagiographic lore. In their transitory stage many of the folktales are about one of the *Lamed-Vav Ẓaddikim, the 36 anonymous and mysterious pious men, to whose humility, just deeds, and virtues the world owes its continued existence.

the novella or romantic folktale (at 850–999)

The novella in Jewish lore stresses the problem of fate. As marriages are decided in heaven (Gen. R. 68:3–4; Lev. R. 8:1), even before the bride and bridegroom were born, the question arises: Is this heavenly decision irrevocable or can it be changed? Thus the universal stories about heroes finding their way to each other, after overcoming often insurmountable obstacles, tend to become an integral part of Jewish matrimonial lore.

realistic tale (at 1200–1999)

Best known and the most widespread among the Jewish folklore genres, the realistic tale is mostly comprised of jokes and anecdotes depicting the comic aspects of life, especially as seen through Jewish eyes. The main heroes are fools, wits, misers, liars, beggars, tricksters, and representatives of various professions. The point of the Jewish joke, seemingly concluding it, is often followed by a "hyperpoint" – some clever and sophisticated addition to the humorous story, stressing a new, often specific Jewish aspect. Though the humorous motifs are universal, there is less of visual (situational) humor in Jewish jokes than in universal jests, and there is more of verbal humor, consisting of clever retorts, wordplay, "learned" interpretations of words and sentences, jests, and witty noodle stories. In most Jewish jokes the realistic background is typically Jewish, as are the heroes – well-known local wags (Hershele *Ostropoler, Motke Habad, Froyim Greydinger, Jukha, etc.) whose fame has spread far beyond the border of their original place of activity. There are also "wise" places as, for example, *Chelm in Poland, Linsk (Lesko) in Galicia, etc., whose "wise" inhabitants (in fact, fools) perform the same deeds as their "wise" colleagues – the inhabitants of Abdera (Greece), Schildburg (Germany), Gotham (England), and other "cities of the wise."

Among the droll characters of the Jewish jokes, typical "Jewish" professions and types of socioeconomic failures are well represented: schnorrers ("beggars"), shadḥanim ("matchmakers"), cantors, preachers, but mostly schlemiels and schlimazels. Social misfits, their gawkishness, clumsy actions, and inability to cope with any situation in life make the listener enjoy his own superior cleverness (the feeling is often subconscious). A witty folk-saying distinguishes between the two characters: "A schlemiel is a man who spills a bowl of hot soup on a schlimazel." Whereas the word schlimazel seems to be a combination of the German word schlimm ("bad") and the Hebrew word mazal ("luck"), the origin of schlemiel is obscure and has given rise to many German-Yiddish folk etymologies. It is first mentioned outside of Yiddish in Adalbert von Chamisso's famous German story Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (1813) whose hero sold his shadow to the devil. Many Jewish stories try to identify these types; stories are thus told about Moyshe Kapoyr ("Moses Upside-Down") – the hero of a comic strip in U.S. Yiddish newspapers in the early 1920s – and about similar heroes who are placed in a definite geographic-historical framework. Many of Shalom Aleichem's folk types, Tevye the Milkman and Menahem Mendel, have been given the traits of an irrepressible daydreaming schlimazel. Benyamin the Third, a character out of the world of Mendele Mokher Seforim, is similarly portrayed.

The undertone of sadness and frustration underlining many Jewish jokes is probably rooted in the ceaseless struggle for survival in an anti-Jewish society; the laughter is thus often through tears. While the jokes and anecdotes carry a note of satirical (sometimes even biting) self-criticism, they are a means of consolation as well, either through minimizing troubles and hoping for a happy end ("a Jew will find his way out"; "the troubles of many are half a consolation"), or by relating stories about rich, successful, and influential Jews (the Rothschilds, Baron Hirsch, and Jewish dignitaries "a (person) close to the (royal) court," etc.), with whom the poor Jewish listeners identify.

jewish legend

Many Jewish folktales bear an exclusively Jewish national religious character, and their plot has no parallel in general folklore. They include stories about the Ten Lost Tribes living in their own Jewish independent kingdom on the other side of the miraculous river *Sambatyon, and about travelers who have been there (*Eldad Ha-Dani, David *Reuveni, etc.); stories of attempts to find the Ten Lost Tribes and to identify them in remote parts of the world, especially among strange Jewish communities (the *Bene Israel, *Beta Israel, *Khazars); tales of blood libels and other false anti-Jewish accusations; imaginative descriptions of the Messianic age and attempts to hasten the coming of the Redeemer (through kabbalistic means, by prompting Elijah the Prophet to herald the Messiah); stories about the eternal longing for and aspiration to get to the Promised Land (through a miraculous subterranean passage, by "the jump of the way," etc.); tales about proselytes and the extraordinary circumstances of their conversion to Judaism.

The legendary plot, which usually takes place in a definite period and in a specified place, dominates Jewish folk fiction. Besides an extension of the biblical and the talmudic midrashic story, mainly through translating it in terms of contemporaneous circumstances of the storytelling society (by means of many anachronisms), this type includes many local legends. Its heroes are universal-Jewish characters (biblical, talmudic, and medieval: Elijah the Prophet, King Solomon, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, and Rashi) and local figures (*Judah Loew b. Bezalel (the Maharal) of Prague, R. Ḥayyim Pinto of Morocco, Abdallah Somekh of Baghdad, R. Shalem Shabazi of Yemen, etc.). The dominant narrative motif is supernatural: the miraculous salvation of a Jewish community by the folk hero who is a sage not only versed in the Bible, Talmud, and Jewish law, but can also perform miracles and is learned in practical Kabbalah. Over the past few generations, some of the local heroes have become universal Jewish heroes, such as R. *Israel b. Eliezer Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the ḥasidic movement, who initially was legendary in Eastern Europe only; and R. Ḥayyim b, Attar ("Or ha-Ḥayyim"), whose legend originated in Morocco where he was born, and about whom legends were also woven in Jerusalem where he died. Certain heroes have become narrative stereotypes: King Solomon is the wise judge; Hershele Ostropoler, "the learned wag" who finds clever solutions for every problem and trial; Jukha, the innocent simpleton; and so forth. Many legends of the neighboring culture areas, revolving around non-Jewish figures (Harun al-Rashīd, Nāsir al-Dīn, Baron Muenchhausen, etc.) became a setting for Jewish heroes. Gentile characters in Jewish legends are mostly anonymous and referred to by title: king, vizier, etc. If named, they form a historical substantiation to the supernatural motifs. There are, however, non-Jewish heroes who play a dominant role in legends stressing the Jewish-gentile confrontation and conflict. One of them is Napoleon who recurs in about 150 Yiddish legends, folk songs, sayings, etc. (cf. Pipe).

The Jewish legendary folk hero is depicted as a pious and righteous man who "does justly and loves kindness" (cf. Micah 6:8) and his folk biography thus follows the international pattern (miraculous birth, dangerous exposure, growth in an alien environment, unintentional revelation of divine qualities, etc.). There are many common motifs between Jewish folk legends and tales revolving around biblical and aggadic exemplary heroes: Abraham, Joseph, Moses. The hero's good and "hearty" intention (kavvanah) are of utmost importance ("God requires the heart"), and he is therefore "holy" enough to perform (even willingly) miracles for the sake of the needy and oppressed. Many medieval legends which originated in Jewish oral tradition, as for example tales about a Jewish pope (Elhanan), or the *Golem of Prague, etc., have not survived in this medium, but since the end of the 19th century have been incorporated in chapbooks. On the other hand, many ḥasidic wonder tales which were first written found their way to raconteurs and became an integral part of Jewish oral literature.

Folk Song (Lyrics)

Songs whose lyrics are in Jewish languages and were transmitted orally from generation to generation are defined as Jewish folk songs. The classification may be according to (1) the folk language of the culture area in which the song was written (Yiddish of East Europe, Ladino of the Mediterranean area, etc.); (2) its musical style (Western, Oriental, etc.); (3) the text (contents). Most of the Jewish folk song collections and studies have adopted the last classification, yet the text of the folk song and its music are so intrinsically intertwined in Jewish folklore that no clear-cut division can be made.

religious folk songs and folk music

The biblical books, especially the psalms and their "musical directions," influenced Jewish music, song, and dance and stressed their divine origin. The biblical names and actions associated with singing and playing music (Jubal, David playing before Saul, and his miraculous self-playing harp in the aggadah, Elisha feeling God's hand upon him while the minstrel played, the playing and singing prophets and levites, etc.) generally have a pleasant, positive connotation; thus the song (lyrics and melody) has always been part of the Jewish ritual. Throughout the ages this religious role has been extended from the limited realm of the synagogue (prayer melodies, biblical cantillation, etc.) to all aspects of Jewish religious and sociocultural life. The singing of the whole assembly strengthened the feeling of unity and of the values which were the common heritage of all Jews. Most songs of a religious nature stem from written Hebrew liturgical texts of the siddur or maḥzor. Many of them are, however, either bilingual (combining the Hebrew text and the Jewish vernacular) or sung in the vernacular only. Often the folk song expands or interprets the liturgical text. Thus, for example, the Hebrew verses of Yismaḥ Moshe are interspersed with Yiddish queries, and the song becomes a Hebrew-Yiddish dialogue whose lyrics are Yismaḥ Moshe bemattenat ḥelko. Vi hot men em gerufn? Ki eved ne'eman karata lo. Ven iz dos gevezn? Be-omedo lefaneikha al har Sinai, etc. ("Let Moses rejoice over the gift of his portion. How did they call him – A faithful servant You called him. When did this happen? When he stood before You on Mount Sinai …"). The difference between the refrain (Yismaḥ Moshe), repeated by the audience, and the single strophes, sung by individuals, is emphasized by their melodic distinction. Many of the religious and devotional folk songs, sung as a part of the *zemirot home ritual, became table songs for festive ritual meals at weddings, circumcisions, etc. They stress the close relationship between God, His Chosen People, the Torah and its precepts, and the Sabbath and festivals. As these were sung in the vernacular, all – the learned and the uneducated, young and old, women and children – could actively participate.

Although the melody of the religious folk song is strongly influenced by the artistic idiom of the *ḥazzan, the folk singers and the audience that often joined them considered the lyrics the main feature of the song. On the other hand, many sophisticated groups (especially among the ḥasidim) regarded the words (even when in Hebrew) a limitation of the divine nature of the song and stressed the value of the "pure" (without text) niggun (see *Ḥasidism, Musical Tradition). Many of the melodies, showing traces of local non-Jewish folk tunes, in their Jewish adaptation are characterized by a meditative mood. Traditional biblical cantillation motifs and later Oriental Jewish liturgies led to considerable changes in the adapted and "Judaized" folk tune, and this process was similar to that which had influenced the words.

secular folk song

In spite of the negative attitude of normative rabbinic Judaism toward communal secular singing by both sexes, stemming from the talmudic saying kol be-ishah ervah ("a woman's voice is a sexual incitement"), the secular folk song was part of the life of the individual, the family, and the society on many occasions. The lyrics are very diverse and cover all aspects of Jewish life: the biblical past, the Messianic future, the year cycle, the lifespan ("from the cradle to the grave"), problems of livelihood, work and frustration, social protest, national hope, love, separation, luck, and misfortune.

Texts of the East European (Yiddish) folk song have been collected (An-Ski, Beregovski, Cahan, Ginzburg-Marek, Idelsohn, Prilutski, Rubin, Skuditski), popularized (Kipnis, Rubin), studied, and analyzed (Cahan, Idelsohn, Mlotek, Weinreich) more than any other Jewish folklore genre. Recent annotated collections (Cahan, ed. Weinreich; Pipe, ed. Noy), as well as attempts at scholarly synthesis (see in bibl. Cahan's Studies; Rubin's Voices; Mlotek), see the Yiddish folk song as a well-defined artistic folk genre, both in its melodic (cf. Idelsohn, Sekuletz) and in its poetical form and contents. The lyrics are emotional, tender, and introspective, even if some of them, especially children's rhymes, are at times coarse, satirical, and comic. The melody is, almost always, in a minor key infusing the most joyous and even frivolous words with a touch of tenderness and sadness. According to Y.L. Cahan, the oldest among the Yiddish folk songs, going probably back to the European Renaissance period, are love and dance songs. Older Hebrew influences, stemming mainly from the Song of Songs and from remnants of love songs as preserved in talmudic literature (cf. Ta'an. 4:8–15th of Av song; Ket. 17a – a song "Before the Bride in the West," Palestine) are also evident.

Only a few collections and studies deal with the non-Yiddish, Oriental-Jewish folk song. Comparatively great attention has been paid to the folk song of the Yemenite Jews (Idelsohn, Ratzhabi, Spector) and to the romance and the copla (Spanish ballad or popular song) as sung in Ladino-speaking Sephardi communities dispersed all over the world: Tetuan, Spanish Morocco (Alvar, Armistead-Silverman, Palacin); Salonika, Greece (Attias); Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. (MacCurdy-Stanley); etc. (cf. also Avenary, Ben-Jacob, Gerson-Kiwi, Molho, Pelayo, Shiloah). The study of the Judeo-Spanish romancero ("a collection of ballads or romances"; Katz), is a very young branch of Jewish ethnomusicology (cf. *Ladino Literature).

Modern Palestinian and Israel folk songs are currently alive in Jewish folklore. The Holocaust put a tragic end to the Yiddish folk song which has become a subject for social-historical (Dvorkin), linguistic (Hrushovski), and folkloristic (Mlotek, Noy) studies, but no longer exists as a living tradition. The assimilation and emigration of Oriental Jewish communities, uprooted from their places of birth and traditional folkways, led to a similar process with regard to the Oriental-Jewish folk song transmitted in Ladino, Aramaic (by Kurdistan Jews; cf., Rivlin), and Judeo-Arabic dialects. Even if these non-Hebrew Jewish languages are still spoken by some young Jews, they are not their sole language of expression. Thus it would seem that only the Hebrew Jewish folk song, alive in a Hebrew-speaking society, is likely to survive.

The Palestinian folk song is characterized by two main traits: (1) the Hebrew lyrics; (2) the main theme, which is national. The central idea in the folk song focuses on the return of the Jewish people to their old-new homeland. The hope for the return is variously expressed and the trials and tribulations undergone are as diverse as the songs. Most of the songs were written by Palestinian authors and composers between the two world wars. Many others, dating back to the beginnings of the Jewish national revival and to the rise of the Zionist movement in 19th-century Russia, are strongly influenced by the songs of composers and bards like A. *Goldfaden and E. *Zunser. Some of the themes are: the yearning for Zion, the virtues of physical labor, self-defense, and pioneering in order to rebuild the land into a national home for the wandering Jew.

The Palestinian folk song celebrates the struggles of the young and ardent ḥalutz in his homeland: defense and standing guard (haganah and Trumpeldor songs); road building ("Hakh Pattish"); and agricultural work (Sabba Panah Oref) and love songs (Saḥaki Saḥaki Al ha-Halomot) were imbued with idealistic pathos alluding to national duties and hopes. Many of the Palestinian folk songs served as accompaniment (with or without words) to the various folk dances, The main musical influences on Palestinian folk songs (and folk dances) have been has ḥaidic-Slavic, Oriental-Sephardi, Palestinian-Arabic, and Jewish-Yemenite (*Music in Ereẓ Israel.).

The destruction of the East European Jewish communities, the establishment of the State of Israel, the War of Independence, the 1967 Six-Day War, and other heroic deeds and achievements inspired many songs, but it is doubtful whether most of these will survive either orally or in folk memory during the coming generations. The songs (see Katsherginski in bibl.) written and sung in the ghettos and extermination camps during World War ii were disseminated by oral transmission over wide areas, but their lifespan was limited. In the light of the above definition of a folk song, all songs composed and popular in Israel would be called chansons or folk-styled songs (pizmonim). On the other hand, many Yiddish, Ladino, and other Jewish folk songs, which were adapted for use in Ereẓ Israel (the text translated verbally or with modifications and the music also adapted), started a new folk lifespan in their Hebrew garb.

The establishment of musical research institutes by universities in Israel and the development of the study of liturgical poetry and music into scholarly disciplines, mainly in the training centers for cantors of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Hebrew Union College, and the Israel Institute for Religious Music led to the study, analysis, and elaboration of many aspects of music and song in folk traditions. Data are collected and research is being continued in the field of East European Jewish musical folklore, stressing the role of folk musicians (klezmerim) and folk jesters (badḥanim). Other aspects emphasized are the social role of folk music, the interrelationship between sacred, liturgical, and ḥasidic music and religious folk songs (Geshuri, Vinaver), the music of the various Oriental-Jewish ethnic groups and the interrelationship of Jewish and non-Jewish folk music (Gerson-Kiwi; Idelsohn's Thesaurus; Tunisia-Lachman; Sephardi-Algazi; L. Levy). Many works on Jewish music and musicians (Avenary, Gradenwitz, Fater, Holde, Idelsohn, Rabinovitch, Werner) include studies on the lyrics of the folk song and on folk music.

The influence of Jewish folk songs on Jewish and non-Jewish modern composers is still to be investigated. Jews are among the most important composers of American jazz and the Jewish folk heritage might have had a considerable effect on their compositions. Many Yiddish folk songs entered the main popular musical stream of the U.S. and are sung by leading performers and millions of people (Bei Mir Bist Du Schein, Joseph-Joseph, etc.): through their penetration into a foreign setting, they have become alienated and disconnected from their original Jewish tradition (see also Music and Musical Life in Israel in *Music, and the various articles on the different ethnic communities).

Folk Proverb

A gnomic statement current in tradition, the folk proverb usually suggests a course of action or passes judgment on a situation. Originally, "the wit of one," it becomes in oral folklore "the wisdom of many" and thus is part of the didactic oral folk heritage. The folk saying is genetically related to proverbial lore. Most of the Jewish proverbs have been handed down (since the Book of Proverbs and other Hebrew wisdom literature) in written collections, and in many cases the oral character of the transmitted verse is doubtful. There are however more than one hundred talmudic-midrashic proverbs (cf. Sever) which begin with the statement: haynu deamerei inshei ("this is what people say"), indicating that the saying had prevailed in oral tradition. Proverbial lore was also deeply rooted in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East and there are many parallels of single biblical proverbs found in cuneiform proverbial texts (cf. Gordon, pp. 552f.); in the Egyptian gnomic literature attributed to Amen-em-Opet; in the story (teachings) of *Ahikar; and in others which testify to the wide diffusion and the oral transmission of many biblical proverbs.

Most of the Jewish proverb collections are compilations of single statements, aphorisms, and dicta, excerpted from the talmudic-midrashic and medieval literatures, or from specific post-biblical gnomic treatises, which have been transmitted in writing. The tannaitic Avot, for example, inspired many similar compilations. The classification and arrangement of the material is mostly in alphabetic order following the first word or the "catch word" rather than the subject matter. Only in recent decades have genuine collections of folk proverbs, committed to writing from the living oral tradition of the various Jewish communities, been published. The most comprehensive among them is I. Bernstein's collection of Yiddish proverbs, followed later by paroemiological collections and studies of Ayalti, Beem (Jewish-Dutch), Einhorn, Hurwitz, Kaplan (World War ii death camps and ghettos), Landau, Mark, Rivkind, Stutshkov, and Yoffie. Other culture areas and ethnic groups represented in the various proverb collections and studies are: Judeo-Arabic (Yahuda); Judeo-Spanish (Besso, Kayserling, Luna, Saporta y Beja (Salonika) Uziel, Yahuda); Bukharan (Pinhasi); Neo-Aramaic from Iraqi Kurdistan (Rivlin, Segal); North African (Attal); Samaritan (Gaster); Yemenite (Goitein, Nahum, Ratzhabi, Shealtiel); Palestinian-Hebrew as current in the new kibbutzim and villages (Halter).

Jewish paroemiology has mainly been concerned with the written proverb, especially the Jewish and Arabic sources of the medieval collections and compositions of gnomic folklore as, for example, the 14th-century rhymed Proverbios Morales compiled by R. Shem Tov b. Isaac (*Santob de Carrion de los Condes) for King Pedro the Cruel of Castile (1350–1369); Solomon ibn *Gabirol's Mivḥar ha-Peninim ("Choice of Pearls"), and *Samuel Ha-Nagid's Ben Mishlei (cf. the studies of Ashkenazi, Braun, Davidson, Habermann, Ratzhabi). Only a few monographic studies have been devoted to particular proverbs, folk sayings, definite (Jewish) themes (Attal, Avida, Galante, Jellinek, Ratzhabi), and to proverbial lore in the writings of famous authors as, for example, in the work of Agnon and Shalom Aleichem (Toder). Any collection of Jewish proverbs and sayings in oral tradition shows strong biblical and talmudic-midrashic influences. Thus many Hebrew and even Aramaic literary proverbs and sayings penetrated the oral lore of the Yiddish and Ladino-speaking Jew. In many proverbs, extant in the vernacular, the Jewish allusions and references are so dominant that the proverb cannot be understood by a gentile without adequate explanation. Universal proverbs in their Hebrew form often acquired an original "Jewish touch." The Hebraization of the maxim "in vino veritas" (nikhnas yayin yaẓa sod, "wine entered, secret left") is based on the numerical value (gematria) of the words "secret" and "wine" (yayin, יין = (sod) 70 = סוד). Several recent Hebrew proverb compilations have used a comparative approach in their study of Jewish and foreign proverbs on the same theme (Blankstein, Cohen, Sharfstein).


In ancient Jewish literature the riddle formed part of the narrative plot, as Samson's riddle in Judges 14:14 (Noy, Tur-Sinai, Wuensche), as well as the midrashic riddles through which the Queen of Sheba "came to test Solomon" (i Kings 10:1ff.; cf. Ginzberg, Legends, 4 (1913), 145ff.; Schechter). In medieval Hebrew literature the riddle is however an independent genre and the riddles of Abraham Ibn Ezra, *Judah Halevi, and Judah *Al-Ḥarizi are sophisticated aphorisms which were never part of the living oral tradition. Side by side with the tradition of literary riddles which were often rhymed and multistrophed, there were short and simple oral folk riddles. In the folk riddle proper the story in the question was always paralleled by the same or another relevant tale in the answer (solution), and the two parts could have existed independently. "Catch" questions and witty queries cannot be regarded by the folklorist as folk riddles, although informants and collectors often tend to term them as such.

There are only a few collections of Jewish riddles stemming from oral tradition in East Europe (An-Ski, Bastomski, Einhorn) and Yemen (Ratzhabi), as the genre was never popular with Jewish adults in those culture areas. Many of the riddles refer to biblical events and demand a knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish law and lore of the solver.

Folk Drama

Before World War ii Jewish folk players put on folk dramas in many East European towns and villages, especially on Purim, or during the whole month of Adar. In most places, including yeshivot and klaus, the taboo on playing, decorations, and masks (cf., second commandment) was lifted during the Purim period to allow for merrymaking through stage performances. Playing in the open before a general and unselected audience was however often opposed by the local religious authorities who prohibited the performing of feminine roles by men. The *Purim-Shpil were therefore acted by youngsters of the lower social classes: tailor apprentices and workers.

There are many manuscripts, and printed copies, and descriptions in different works of various Purim shpils. Only one fourth of them dramatize the story of the Book of Esther. Most of them adapted such Pentateuchal stories as the sacrifice of Isaac (see *Akedah) and the sale of Joseph in the light of the midrashic elaborations and interpretations of the original biblical narrative and according to folk fantasy.

Several folk plays depict postbiblical and even contemporary plots, among them the personal tragedy of Rabbenu Gershom b. Judah (Cahan, pp. 246–257), explaining why he imposed the ban on polygamy, and confrontations between Jews (merchant, innocent girl) and non-Jews (robber; cf. Lahad nos, 23–24).

visual folklore

Folk arts and folk crafts comprise the realm of Jewish visual folklore, most of it belonging to ceremonial art. Though the second commandment ("Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image …," Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8) imposed a taboo on plastic arts, associated in the ancient Near East mainly with idols and idol worship, it did not influence the aesthetic view of normative Judaism (see *Art). Throughout the ages Jews, in their homeland and in the Diaspora, have created beautiful vessels, dresses, and other artifacts for the performance of the Torah commandments.

Folk art objects are closely connected with (1) the ceremonial life cycle (from the cradle to the grave); (2) the ceremonial Jewish year cycle (Sabbath and the festivals); (3) varia, including the synagogue, the Jewish home, and other non-ceremonial artifacts.

Ceremonial Life Cycle

Of the four main festive occasions in the life cycle of a Jew, the wedding is the most picturesque: the marriage contract (*ketubbah) which is frequently a parchment, the bridal canopy (ḥuppah), the "good-luck" wedding goblets ("cups of blessing"), the special wedding clothes and jewelry (amulets, rings, etc.) were richly wrought with Jewish and universal love and fertility symbols, traditional images, and biblical verses. The other three life cycle ceremonies are also represented in Jewish folk art:

(1) birth, by childbirth amulets, circumcision plates, and richly ornamented circumcision objects, particularly the handle of the knife, *Elijah's chair, embroidered cushions;

(2) *bar mitzvah, through frequently engraved and decorated cases (battim) for the phylacteries and the embroidered bag for the tallit;

(3) death, through traditional attire and various special objects of the *ḥevra kaddisha including wine cups for the society's traditional annual festive meal (Seventh of Adar).

Ceremonial Jewish Year Cycle

Most of Jewish ceremonial art centers around the occasions of the *Sabbath and the festivals.


The kindling of the Sabbath lights inaugurates the Sabbath in the Jewish home. In Western Europe star-shaped hanging oil lamps were used; these became so typical for the Jewish home that they were called Judenstern ("Jewish star"), Since the 18th century, the suspended oil lamps have been replaced by candles and candlesticks and candelabra which have become precious family heirlooms.

The holiness of the Sabbath is proclaimed by the ancient Kiddush benediction (dating back to the Second Temple period) which is made over a cup of wine. The cup thus became a symbol of holiness, solemnity, and happiness in family life and is frequently made of silver, though it may be of other metals and even of glass. Usually in the form of an inverted dome, preferably with a stem and base, it became customary to inscribe the Kiddush cup with biblical quotations referring to the Sabbath, the festivals, light (Isa. 24:15; Prov. 6:23; 20:27), and the wine blessing. Special tablecloths, plates, and embroidered covers for the two Sabbath loaves are used. The Havdalah ceremony which concludes the Sabath and each festival includes wine, spices (besamim), and a twisted candle. The spice container, hadas, one of the most popular ceremonial artifacts ("no other ritual object shows as many variations," Kayser, p. 89), has many forms. The most common, the tower, originated among West European Jewish communities. It is reminiscent of the city hall tower where, in medieval times, spices and aromatic plants, which were then very precious, were stored. Other forms are: pear-shaped containers, turrets, boxes, fruits, windmills (Holland), fish (North Africa).

passover seder

The most important domestic event among all the Jewish festivals is the Passover seder. The table is festively set following certain prescriptive requirements: symbolic food (*maẓẓot, *maror, etc., recalling the fate of the people of Israel in Egypt and their meal on the eve of their liberation) which are served on special plates and dishes; a cloth-covered tray, or a three-tiered plate for the three matzah symbolizing the priests, levites, and common Jews; the wine cups of glass or silver used for the drinking of the obligatory four cups during the Passover meal; and a special cup, usually the most precious, the cup of Elijah. The plates and other vessels are richly wrought with floral patterns, formulistic ornaments, and biblical scenes.

The Haggadah, the ceremonial text of the seder night, since it is only used in the home and not in the synagogue, was not subject to normative scrutiny and therefore has become the most illuminated of all Hebrew ceremonial prayer books. Most of the illustrations are traditional, transmitted from generation to generation by folk artists, copyists, and printers. Other Passover ceremonial items include an inscriptively embroidered cover for the maẓẓot and decorated *omer scrolls used in the synagogue for counting the 49 days (seven weeks) between the second day of Passover and Shavuot (cf. Lev. 23:15–16).


The paper cuts used for window decorations are the folk art characteristics of Shavuot. As most of them have designs of roses, symbolizing Israel (cf. Song 2:2,16, and the exegetical Midrashim thereto), they are called by the Yiddish folk term reyzele ("little rose").

high holidays

The main ceremonial object of the High Holidays, the *shofar has many interpretations in Jewish ritual, the most common being its role as a reminder of the sacrifice of Isaac. It also calls man to repentance and spiritual regeneration. As the horn of any animal of the sheep or goat family may be used for the shofar, it has various shapes depending upon the local fauna. While it is forbidden to embellish the shofar, either through painting, or by covering its mouthpiece with metal, it may be carved and on several old specimens inscriptions (biblical sentences referring to the shofar, Ps. 81:4, 5; 98:6, etc,) were found.

The traditional garb for the High Holidays is the kitel, a loose garment of white linen, reminiscent of the shroud and reminding the congregation of death and the last judgment. It is held together at the waist with a belt whose silver buckle is inscribed with a biblical verse relevant to the occasion or a quotation from the *Day of Atonement service.


The only significant ritualistic object used during the *Sukkot festival is the box in which the etrog is kept. Generally assuming the shape of the fruit, there are also other forms. Another kind of folk art, especially folk painting, concentrates on the decoration of the sukkah. Besides fruits, vegetables, and the seven "kinds" the Holy Land has been blessed with, the sukkah is also embellished with pictures, verses and proverbs, trimmings, cutouts, and other ornaments.


The main ritual characteristic of the eight-day Ḥanukkah festival is the kindling of lights. The Ḥanukkah lamp, containing eight oil burners or candlesticks (the shammash – the auxiliary candle – is not counted), developed in the West from a simple Roman oil lamp into very elaborate forms. Two definite types can be distinguished: (1) "the bench type," which is usually small, has a back wall, and is often richly and symbolically ornamented; (2) the standing form (candelabrum) which developed during the Middle Ages and is reminiscent of the menorah in the Temple, with the main difference that instead of seven branches, the Ḥanukkah lamp has eight (with the shammash making up the ninth). In the synagogue, the Ḥanukkah menorah is placed to the right of the ark, corresponding to the location of the golden menorah in the Temple. The smaller Ḥanukkah menorah for the Jewish home was developed from the seven-branch standing candelabrum in the synagogue, since the 18th century also adapted for the use of candles.

Many of the motifs of the richly wrought Ḥanukkah lamp are associated with the miracle of the festival: the victory of Judah the Maccabee over the Syrians ("Greeks") in 165 b.c.e, and the burning of the sacred oil in the Temple seven days longer than its actual measure, which was sufficient for one day only. The ornaments are mostly lions (symbol of Judah), the figure of Judith holding the sword and the head of the slain Holofernes, Judah the Maccabee, cherubim, and eagles. The most common inscriptions are biblical, such as Exodus 25:37 and Proverbs 6:23, associated with the Ḥanukkah benedictions and prayers, and verses from the hymn Ma'oz Ẓur ("Mighty Rock of my Salvation").

The long nights of Ḥanukkah were ideal for games and play which, prohibited during the year (the main reason: they were a waste of time which should be devoted to the study of the Torah), were allowed on this occasion. The most popular game, especially with children, was trendl (dreidl, a top; in modern Hebrew sevivon) whose four sides were inscribed with the Hebrew letters נ, ג, ה, ש, standing for the words: נס גדול היה שם (nes gadol hayah sham, "a great miracle occurred there"; in Israel the ש is replaced by פ, the initial of פה (poh, "here")). The dreidl is an example of how foreign material was ingeniously Judaized: the original medieval dice used in Germany by gamblers was inscribed with the four letters: N, G, H, and S, which are the initials of nichts ("nothing"), ganz ("all"), halb ("half"), and stellein ("put in"). The four Hebrew parallel letters of the dice which became sanctified have the same numerical value as that of the word "Messiah" (מָשִׁיחַ = נגהש = 358) and appropriate conclusions were consequently reached. Cards were also Judaized and special "Jewish" card sets, inscribed with Hebrew letters and illustrated with "Jewish" pictures, were used.


The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue from a parchment scroll (megillah) in a traditional chant. It has one roller, as distinct from the Torah scroll, which has two. Since the word for God does not appear in the Book of Esther artists felt free to illustrate it and it is thus the only biblical book in Judaism whose text, while in the form of a scroll, is traditionally illuminated. The cylindrical containers for the manuscript scroll, frequently of silver, are also richly ornamented. The main themes in the Scroll of Esther illustrations are scenes from the story: Haman leading Mordecai while Haman's wife (Zeresh) looks on; Haman and his ten sons on the gallows, etc.; all of them express the wishful thinking of the Jewish minority, oppressed and humiliated by many Hamans throughout the ages.

As Purim is dedicated to remembering the poor, charity, and "sending portions" (Esth. 9:19) and gifts to friends (mishlo'ah manot or Yid., shalakh munes), special plates, often made of pewter, are used for these purposes. Usually quotations from the Book of Esther are inscribed on the plates as well as scenes from the narrative. Here too the triumph of Mordecai is the most popular motif.

Varia: Synagogal and Home Ceremonial and Non-Ceremonial Objects

Many ceremonial objects, whose origin (secular or religious) is often very vague, center around the synagogue and the Jewish home. The mezuzah (doorpost, cf, Deut. 6:9; 11:20), for example, is undoubtedly a Jewish home ceremonial object. A parchment scroll on which are sacred Pentateuchal portions, it is placed in a special metal or wood container and fixed on the upper part of the right doorpost of the house or occupied room (cf. Landsberger). The mezuzah has however many of the characteristics of the *amulet intended for protection. Most of the Jewish sages and rabbinic authorities did not approve of amulets being worn for purposes of protection against sickness, the "evil eye," and misfortune, and condemned the "magic" texts placed inside the amulet as non-Jewish superstition. The amulet could however be worn as an ornament, and it was particularly common among the Jewish population of the Mediterranean countries and of the Islamic culture areas. The ornaments on these amulets were often of a purely religious nature (priestly crowns, the tablets of the law, seven-branched candlestick) which did not hint at the protective qualities of the ornament.

prayer book

The prayer book links the Jewish home, where it is usually kept as a family treasure, and the synagogue, where it is mainly used. The covers and bindings, often made of silver, gilded, or engraved, and inscribed with a biblical quotation and the owner's name or initials, are the prayer book's main adornments.

decorations in the synagogue

The main synagogal ornaments and ritual objects are often part of the synagogue's architecture, Thus, for example, the laver (particularly used by the kohanim before the ceremony of blessing the congregation), often decorated, is built into the wall of the synagogue at the entrance, while the shivviti (the first word in Ps, 16:8: "I have set the Lord always before me") and mizraḥ ("East," designating the direction of prayer) are movable objects (plates or paper cutouts) hung on the wall facing Jerusalem or put on the cantor's stand which also serves as a sounding board.

The religious-ceremonial center of the synagogue is the holy *ark containing the Torah scrolls. Since the synagogue is compared to "… a little sanctuary in the countries" (Ezek. 11:16), the holy ark is reminiscent of the Holy of Holies (Kodesh ha-Kodashim) in the Temple. All objects associated with the Temple and the Torah were particularly cherished: the ark is ornamented with the two tablets of the Law, often wrought with inscriptions, rampant lions, and priestly (blessing) hands, etc.; the ark's curtain is made of costly brocade, velvet, or silk, frequently inscriptively embroidered (silver and gold) with the names of the donors; the wooden or metal (silver) case in which the Torah is kept among Eastern Jews, and the Torah mantle among Western Jews, are adorned with biblical and liturgical quotations surrounded by formulistic, traditional designs (floral or the seven "kinds" the Land of Israel is blessed with).

The *Torah ornaments consist of a crown (silver, often partly gilded and set with precious stones) wrought with biblical scenes and inscribed with donors' dedications; two finials ("rimmonim," pomegranates) to which small bells are attached; the silver pointer used in the Torah reading so that the parchment is not touched by hand; a richly decorated and inscribed *breastplate denoting the occasion of the usage of the Torah for congregational reading (Sabbath, a specific festival). The two columns of the sacred portal of the ark (*Jachin and Boaz) are the main symbol that associates the ark with the ancient Temple (cf., Goldman).

folk dress and costume

The Jewish folk dress and costume are part of the secular folk culture, if it is assumed that the origin of dress has its roots in man's desire to adorn himself. According to the Midrash (Tanḥ. B., Lev. 76) "God's glory is man and man's glory (ornament) is his clothes" (cf. Shab. 113a, 145b; Ex. R. 18; 5; A. Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash, vol. 4, p. 86);thus all Jewish ethnic groups have concentrated on a particular type of dress. Most data about Jewish costumes of the past were gleaned from illustrated minhagim books or illuminated Haggadot, anti-Jewish Christian pamphlets, and travelers' accounts. Ethnographical fieldwork on extant folk dresses of Jewish communities is a very young discipline in the realm of Jewish ethnography and folkloristics (see *Dress).

Until the establishment of the State of Israel and the "ingathering of the exiles" from the various culture areas, the main interest of Jewish art "scholars" centered around ceremonial art and European specimens. Thus the first Jewish museums established in Germany (end of the 19th century) contained less than one percent of non-European material. With the growth of Jewish ethnography, the intensive study of folklore, sociology, and acculturation of the "tribes of Israel," and the establishment of specific ethnographic and folklore museums in Haifa and Tel Aviv there has been a rapid increase of interest in secular Jewish folk art in general, and in that of the non-European Jewish communities in particular. While pre-World War ii folk art scholarship was mainly interested in historical roots (influence of Temple objects and symbols on the *Dura Europos synagogue and on later synagogue art; relation between traditional literary sources and ceremonial art, etc.), modern ethnographers are more interested in material culture in general (including secular folk art) and in ethnocultural and geographical comparisons. The folk museum collections and their various inventory and exhibition catalogs are still the most important source of knowledge of Jewish folk art in the past. These are often verified and substantiated by the testimonies of eyewitnesses or recollections of those who can delve into their own past or have memories of what they were told.

cogitative folklore

Folk beliefs and customs constitute one creative complex. Belief, stemming from subconscious fears and desires and from a longing for psychological security, generates the wish to fight the causes of those fears which are man's hidden enemies. The strategies and tactics of man's warfare against his own fears which proved their "efficiency" and were transmitted (usually approved by social convention) from one generation to the next became folk customs. The customs continued to exist even after the beliefs that served as their basis had long been forgotten. Sometimes beliefs which have become detached from the customs that grew out of them, or from the phenomena which they explain, are regarded by the "progressive" society as "superstitions," due to changes in the society's view of the world and to a new interpretation of the phenomena in question. The novel explanation is in tune with the technological era whose society is fighting the old "superstitions" and "etiological folktales" lacking empirical proof.

Any period of transition, whether renewal and change of status in the cycle of the year (the summer and winter solstices, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, etc.) or in the human life cycle (passage from embryo to child, from life to death, the first menstrual period, etc.) is always fraught with sociopsychological "crises" around which fears, anxieties, and inhibitions concentrate. These crises give rise to customs andrites which evolve in order to overcome the evil forces hostile to mankind that these crises seemed to set into motion. Thus ritual complexes, ceremonies, and festivals develop.

According to this interpretation the Jewish rites of passage in the life and year cycles manifest an interaction between universal beliefs, stemming from the realm of nature, and Jewish religious and national beliefs originating in the sphere of Jewish thinking and culture. The customs revolving around these rites would thus be rooted mainly in sympathetic magic which gradually adopted its Jewish character, mainly from the historical traditions related to the period of the nation's consolidation. Folkloristic research into Jewish customs and the folk beliefs underlying them therefore involves a study of their universal "prehistory" and their "Judaized" history. In universal practice the pouring of water on a stone, a sympathetic magic device to ensure rain and with it the fertility of the earth, animals, and mankind, is paralleled by a ritual performance of the sexual act. Judaized, the water libation rite as found in the Jewish normative books of laws and customs is a sacred ritual which was an integral part of the Sukkot celebrations (Simḥat Beit ha-Sho'evah, Feast of Water Drawing) in the Temple.

Most of the folk beliefs and customs concentrate on the life and year cycles and are usually considered according to these two groupings. Another category includes beliefs and customs not associated directly with one of the cycles – folk medicine, social beliefs, and social customs. The beliefs and customs which center around the Jew's life cycle, constituting the Jewish rites of passage, and around the general year cycle, comprising the Sabbath and the festivals, have throughout the ages undergone the same process of adoption and adaptation as other aspects of Jewish folklore. Thus the life-cycle "crises" in Judaism have universal-biological (*birth, coming of age, *marriage, menopause, death) and corresponding Jewish ritualistic (*circumcision, *bar mitzvah, *wedding, *burial) implications, as have the Jewish festivals and commemorative days.

The customs and their underlying folk beliefs discussed below are considered mostly from the point of view of their origin and function. The classification is according to their primary nature and to their similarity to the practices of hostile confrontation extant in prehistoric societies and in primitive intertribal warfare. Hostile confrontation may thus be divided into three main types: (1) direct (face-to-face) combat; (2) compromise (agreement and treaty); (3) deceptive stratagem.

Common to the three types of warfare is the belief that a person endowed with occult powers can, at propitious moments, compel and overcome supernatural, hostile, and harmful powers (*demons, mazzikim) and force their submission. Jewish literature never associates (ta'amei minhagim) Jewish folk customs and normative customs with their primitive and universal origin which gave rise to the magical elements inherent in them. Only customs of other peoples, usually pagan – neighboring culture or those rejected and fought against – are called magical and superstitions (darkhei Emori, "the Ways of the Amorites"). However, despite the legitimation of Jewish practices through association with biblical verses, hermeneutically explained or Judaized by other means, the belief in evil spirits (see *Demons) has remained basic to Judaism, and in many folk customs their magic nature is still clearly evident. As the existence of demons was presupposed, even in Jewish normative legislation (cf. ru'aḥ in Shab. 2:5; Er. 4:1, etc.), belief in them was not limited to the uneducated classes. This holds especially true in culture areas where the belief in evil spirits, which are hostile to mankind, was deeply rooted among the non-Jewish neighbors.

Direct (Face-to-Face) Combat

Some of the means with which spirits may be combated are specific colors (white, red) light, sound, and objects (iron, salt).

Demons usually dwell in dark places, ruined buildings (Ber. 3a, b), at the bottom of wells (Lev, R. 24:3), caves, dark and shadowy recesses (cf., the word תֶו ָמ ְל ַצ zalmavet, originally meaning "darkness," as for example in Jer, 13:16; or in Job 12:22, interpreted as צְל מָוֶת zel mavet "shadow of death"). They shun the light and therefore act at night. The Talmud (cf. Ber. 43b) commands that a person should not walk unaccompanied in the dark, but by the light of a torch or by moonlight. Similarly, the wedding, as well as other festive processions, was accompanied with torches and candles because of envying and hostile spirits. The Jewish traditional explanation (cf., A.I. Sperling, Ta'amei ha-Minhagim (1957), p. 407, no. 959) gives it an exclusively Jewish character: the gematria value of the two candles carried by the two best men is 500 (double n[e]r נֵר + נֵר), which is equal to the numerical value of God's first blessing to Adam and Eve פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ (peru u-revu, "be fruitful and multiply" = 500), Another explanation (ibid. no. 960) associates the wedding candles and torches with "the thunderings and the lightnings" at the revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:18), comparing the earthly ties of the human pair with the eternal bond of God and the Torah. A national modification of this wedding custom may be seen in the Jewish-Italian custom recorded at Pesaro and Modena (cf. D. Kaufmann, in rej, 24 (1892), 289; Gaster, The Holy and the Profane, 110) where the bridegroom used to be accompanied by a man carrying a torch to which were attached six more lights, three on each side of the main flame. The allusion is to the seven-branched menorah in the Tabernacle and Temple, giving the wedding a Jewish-national character.

Spirits may be confronted with a white object since the color white frightens them away. This notion gave rise to many customs; for example, the white garments of the bride and bridegroom. The Jewish explanatory tradition, which regards the white nuptial attire as a symbol of innocence and penitence (cf. Isa. 1:18), since the espoused are on the threshold of a new "chapter in life," is a relatively late and sophisticated explanation (cf. Sperling, no. 957) of the universal white, as the statutory color of festive attire (cf. Cicero, De Legibus, 2:18–45: "White is the color most acceptable to gods"). The Roman custom harks back to the more ancient folk belief. The Jewish explanation associating the wedding day, a day of joy, with that of death, when the deceased is buried in white shrouds, is also a late interpretation (Kolbo no. 75). The custom of dressing the dead in white was common in ancient Greece (cf. Pausanias 4:1341), but there the white was to guard the dead against the powers of darkness and not a means of purification and a sign of penitence. The universality of the usage (Gaster, op, cit., 11–12), however, indicates that only powers who live under the cover of darkness may be subdued by light.

Spirits may be frightened away by sound. Their abodes cloaked in eternal silence (cf. Ps. 115:17, where the dead are paralleled with "those who go down into silence"), the demons themselves are mute creatures who are scared by such an alien element as noise. Much of the ritual and secular music performed at the various "crises" in a man's life cycle and in the natural year cycle stem from the belief that sound is a magic means to ward off demons (cf. also the common expression learbev ha-Satan ("to confuse Satan") associated with the blowing of the shofar on the High Holidays; rh 9b). Even some of the nonsense words in Jewish children's rhymes (cf., An-Ski, Pipe, ed. by Noy) and folk songs (as, for example, "lu-lu" in the refrains of cradle songs) may go back to the ancient, non-Jewish magic incantations, pointing to the functional character of this kind of folk poetry.

Another universal weapon directed against demons is iron. Spirits were thought to live in caves, mountains, and under stones, which "are cut by iron" (cf. bb 10a). Pieces of iron (sometimes even a real weapon – a sword, a dagger, or a simple knife) are thus placed in the bed or under the pillow of a woman in confinement and later in the child's cradle. In P.C. Kirchner's childbed scenes in Juedisches Ceremoniel (1734), a sword is prominently displayed beside the bed.

The circumcision knife especially is regarded as an effective weapon against demons. According to folk belief the night before the circumcision is the most critical for a mother and child, and a vigil, a "night of watching" (Yiddish: vakhnakht), is usually observed. Children of the ḥeder, accompanied by their rebbe, keep watch at the bedchamber and chorally chant prayers, mainly Keri'at*Shema and Jacob's blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:16). The circumcision knife is often kept under the mother's pillow throughout the night.

The common usage of the sword as a real weapon against invisible demons (Gaster, op. cit., 3–11) led to many compendia of spells and magical formulae being entitled "the Sword" plus the name of a famous hero and wizard. Ḥarba de-Moshe ("The Sword of Moses," ed. M. Gaster, 1896) is one of the most famous and oldest Jewish collections of inscriptions of charms. In the folktales of Kurdistan Jews and in other Central Asian Jewish legends, the heroes go on quests to find the sword of Moses with which the redemption may be hastened (cf. D. Noy, Sippurim mi-Pi Yehudei Kurdistan (1968), 44–47, 59–60 and the aggadic details on the magic sword of Methuselah, in Ginzberg, Legends, 5 (1947), 165f.). In Afghanistan the iron sword is replaced by a cane called "Elijah's staff," (cf. Yeda-Am, 25 (1962), 64) not only because the Jews were forbidden to use swords but also to give a Jewish character to universal magic objects.

Iron is also used as a direct weapon to combat demons during the tekufah (the solstice or the equinox) when, according to folk belief, the waters may be poisoned by a drop of blood spilt by evil spirits from above (cf. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1961), 313, no. 12). Pieces of iron are placed on all vessels containing water and kept in the house to avert this danger. In Jewish lore the use of iron (Sperling, loc. cit., no. 900) is associated with the *notarikon of the Hebrew word for iron בַּרְזֶל (BaRZeL), standing for the four mothers of the 12 tribes: Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah, who (and not the iron) avert all danger. Another explanation (Yesod Emunah, p. 384) changes the original text of Deuteronomy 8:9 from אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל to אֶרֶץ שֶׁבַּרְזֶל אֳבָנֶיהָ, thus adding to the notarikon the letter ש to include the two other matriarchs, Sarah and Rebekah (the ר standing both for Rachel and Rebekah).

Salt, a symbol of mortality, is also an effective "weapon with which demons may be repulsed" (cf. Ezek. 16:4; Shab. 129b). Other means to ward off demons and evil spirits are such symbols of life, health, and regeneration as herbs, honey, and oil. These usually play an important role as magic objects in folktales (cf. Thompson Motif Index, vol. 6, s.v.) and as helpful remedies in folk medicine.

Some of the demons are identified by name. Thus the child-snatching witch in Jewish folklore, *Lilith (often regarded as Satan's wife), seizes newborn babies and kills or injures their mothers. She also represents the "dream girl" who consorts with men in their sleep; because she is not impregnated through the sexual dream, the embittered and frustrated spirit takes her revenge upon the lawful wife and mother. In Jewish legend she was the first wife of Adam but after a quarrel deserted him. She was, however, overpowered by three angels (Sinoi, Sinsinoi, Samengelof) sent by God to bring her back, and she never enters a house in which their names are written. This story, with its emphasis on the three names, is found in most of the written or printed Hebrew amulets (known in Western countries as the kimpettsetl (corruption of the German Kindbettzettel, "childbed-charm")) which were hung in the lying-in chamber. Another kind of kimpettsetl is called Shir ha-Ma'alot ("Song of Ascents"), because it contains Psalm 121 (including verse 6, "The sun shall not smite thee by day, neither the moon by night"), which is one of the verses of the Shir ha-Ma'alot of the Book of Psalms (chs. 120–134).

Compromise (Agreement and Treaty)

Many Jewish customs go back to the notion that the vital and essential can be preserved by giving up the marginal and less important. In many cases the original offering (sacrifice), intended to appease demons, became highly institutionalized religious customs and rites in which God's or his representatives' holiness and superiority is acclaimed and exalted (cf. *circumcision, which is a direct "sign treaty" between God and man; tributes to the priests, *terumot, and to the levites, ma'aserot; etc.).

Similarly, the custom of shaving a bride's head may also be explained as a sacrifice of a part in order to keep and to protect the whole. In many cultures, hair is regarded as a life index (Thompson, Motif Index, d 991, e 174, 12) which possesses an independent soul and is the seat of the vital spirit (cf. the Samson story). The belief in the magic power of hair as the seat of man's "life force" may have given rise to the taboos on cutting hair during the first year (or three years) of an infant's life, and the shearing of pe'ot (sidecurls). According to ritual ("ḥalaqa") the hair is cut after a year or three and is burned; in Jewish folklore the ritual takes place usually on *Lag ba-Omer, at the grave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yoḥai in Meron.

Deceptive Stratagem

Many customs stem from the notion that a wise and learned man can deceive the demons, who are stronger but more stupid than mankind, and thus gain the upper hand in a struggle with them. Various customs are therefore aimed at effecting an artificial change in a man's identity so that he may not be recognized by evil spirits or their representatives and messengers (the *Angel of Death). While in most customs the change is merely that of the name, this may exercise a profound influence on the person's ego, personality, character, and destiny. Meaningful changes of name often foreshadow the course of human destiny and reflect cosmic changes, evidence of which is already found in the Bible (Abraham and Sarah, Gen. 17:5; Jacob, Gen. 32:29; Joshua, Num. 13:16). In a talmudic story (Yoma 83b) Rabbi Meir refused to pass the night in an inn because the innkeeper's name, Kidor, was homonymic to a "negative" verse in the Bible (Deut. 32:20: כּי דּוֹר תַּהְפֻּכֹת הֵמָה, ki dor tahpukhot hemmah – for they are a very forward generation, children in whom is no faith) and thus forebode trouble. A divine decree may be altered by changing a person's name. The well-attested custom of changing a sick person's name in order to bring about his speedy recovery (cf. Sefer Ḥasidim (1957), 245) is still a common practice among all Jewish ethnic groups. The evil forces may also be deceived by "selling" sick children to others so that they assume the buyer's name (see mgjv, 5 (1900), 18). The naming of the newborn child after a strong beast, a lion (aryeh) or a bear (dov), or a harmful animal, the bee (devorah), is also in many ways meant to deceive the evil spirit who is thus frightened away. Many of the naming practices (bestowing theophoric names or the name of a relative who passed away, so that the original name bearer may protect the newborn) stem both from the deceptive and from the compromising concepts. The compromise basis to the custom denotes homage to the supernatural forces as an inducement for their protection and to pacify and appease them through tributes.

Customs relating to sympathetic magic and contagious magic stem from a combination of the compromise and the deceptive trends. Thus by imitating the deeds of a supernatural power man admits its superiority and through his imitation pays tribute to the spirit. At the same time man incites the evil forces to act in his favor by challenging their power of action. The foolish spirits in trying to prove themselves play into man's hands.

Compromise and deceptive elements are also basic to the use of magic objects through which attempts are made to cause transformations in nature or in man. Man in using an object (part of an animal, plant, etc.) which the spirits have endowed with magic power imitates the evil powers and thereby shows his humility and submissiveness. On the other hand, he often uses his newly acquired power to combat the spirits from whom his own power now emanates. Many devices have thus been invented to overcome sterility and barrenness presumably imposed on man by malevolent supernatural forces who are strong enough to prevent sexual intercourse from resulting in conception. Plants or animals which were thought to have fertilizing properties were commonly used as aids to conception. Among the plants eaten were mandrakes and apples; the most popular animals were cocks and fish. Remedies such as touching a woman already with child, swallowing the foreskin of a newly circumcised infant, drinking the water with which a corpse has been washed (thereby transferring to the womb some of the life which has departed from the dead), and crawling under a gestating mare are based on contagious magic. They presuppose man's admission of the superiority of the object which originates from supernatural forces. These cures for barrenness (collected from Jewish informants, cf. Patai, "Jewish Folk-cures for Barrenness" in Folklore, vol. 4, p. 248; idem, "Birth in Popular Custom," in Talpioth, 9 (1965), 238–260; Gaster, op. cit., p. 4), which are not attested in normative Jewish halakhah, but are strongly opposed by it, still reflect general usage. In general folk culture and beliefs, the mandrake, for example, is regarded as a peculiarly potent aphrodisiac and, as such, it is referred to in the Bible (Gen. 30:14ff.; Song 7:14), probably because its root strikingly resembles the human form. Similarly the meat of fish was thought to induce fertility because of its pronounced philoprogenitive tendencies (cf. Gen. 48:16). Crawling under a mare was a means through which a woman could absorb some of the fertility of the mare which gestates for ten months.

Besides Judaized explanations and interpretations, there are many magic objects which are peculiarly Jewish. The sight of the ritual circumcision knife or a bowl of water placed under Elijah's chair at the circumcision ceremony drives spirits away. In folk medicine water in which the kohanim washed their hands before blessing the congregation, especially on the Day of Atonement, is a powerful cure for barrenness and other misfortunes. A uniquely Jewish practice or its explanation may sometimes have linguistic origins. Thus, for example, willow leaves which form part of the Hoshana Rabba rite induce conception not only because of their sympathetic magic qualities, paralleling the fertility of nature (prayer for rain) with human fertility, but because the willow (עֲרָבָה – aravah) and the word seed (זֶרַע – zera) have the same numerical value (277).

Many general practices are Judaized merely by the use of Hebrew (usually biblical verses), the holy tongue, which is believed to be the language of the Creator and the heavenly hosts and as such is a potent weapon against demons. It is often used by Christians and Arabs in their incantations.

A Jewish folk ceremony usually combines with many local non-Jewish magic practices and objects. Thus, for example, among German-speaking Jews a child is given a secular name on the fourth Sabbath after birth at the Hollekreisch ceremony. The invited guests, men in the case of a male birth and women in that of a female, range themselves in a circle (German Kreis) around the cradle. The baby is lifted thrice into the air while the guests call out each time Holle! Kreisch! and while appropriate biblical verses are recited. The magic circle wards off Frau Holle, a succubus in German mythologywho attacks children. (Jewish folk etymology associates the word Kreis either with קרא, "call" or קרע, "tear.") The lifting is a survival of the concept that newborn babies must also be delivered from the womb of Mother Earth who gave birth to Adam, the first man (Gen. 2:7) and from which, according to folk legends, children emerge (cf. Midrashim and Rashi to Job 5:23 and Ginzberg Legends, vol. 5, page 50 note 148). It is also reminiscent of the concept that infants are symbolically sacrificed to the heavenly powers. On the other hand the biblical verses from Ecclesiastes 5:14 ("As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he go back as he came") and Job 1:21 ("Naked came I out of my mother's womb and naked shall I return thither") endow the lifting custom with symbolic and ethical meaning through its counterpart practice, to deposit the dead in the ground soon after death.

A Jewish adaptation of a universal custom often also comprehends the national character of the Jewish people, stressing the everlasting bond between the nation and the Land of Israel. To plant a tree at the birth of a child (a cedar for a boy and a pine for a girl) is a Jewish birth custom which fell into desuetude, perhaps because the people became alienated from the soil and the Land of Israel. The two trees were cut down at marriage and used in the construction of the ḥuppah or bridal bower (cf. Git. 57a). The original universal custom stems from the general concept of the "external soul" (Thompson, Motif E. 710) which associates the life of man with some far-away object. This is a deceptive means whereby the hostility of the spirits may be diverted from their real targets. The Jewish interpretation stresses the Jew's roots in the Holy Land.

The specific Jewish character is also evident in the practice of placing a sachet of earth from the Land of Israel into the coffin of a Jew. The sachet serves as a substitute for actualburial in the Holy Land and ensures the earlier awakening of the dead on the Day of Resurrection. Since the resurrection will start in Zion, the buried need not roll to Zion before being resurrected. The dead are nevertheless buried with their feet toward the East so that they may be immediately on their way to the Land of Israel after resurrection. (This custom is also rooted in the basic concept of deception in which a part sanctifies the whole – pars pro toto.)

Judaizing tendencies exist especially with regard to customs and folk beliefs which are fundamentally contradictory to Jewish ethical teaching and thus threaten the Jewish ethnic ego. The pronounced Jewish character of betrothal and wedding ceremonies resulted from their refinement of the purely sexual relationships between man and woman. Nevertheless the Jewish rites of marriage have throughout the ages in all the culture areas where Jews have lived been accompanied by popular general practices aiming to ward off the evil spirits who envy man and want to abort his propagation (see *Lilith). The customs were, however, not adopted mechanically, but imbued with distinctive Jewish characteristics by incorporating Scriptures into the audio-oral prayers accompanying the rite, and in the Judaized explanation of the origin of the customs. Thus, for example, the bride and bridegroom must wear special wedding dresses and ornaments which originally were intended to protect them against evil spirits who abhor specific colors (white) and specific objects (iron). These have however acquired symbolic and aesthetic values. The clothes worn at the wedding are usually new and appropriate to the new phase of life; the bride's veil is not meant to hide her but is reminiscent of Rebekah who "took a veil and covered herself with it" (Gen. 24:65) when she first met Isaac, and is a sign of modesty. The customs of shaving the bride's head before going to the ḥuppah (and wearing a sheitl (wig)), and of her limping like an animal so as to seem blemished were originally intended to deceive the jealous spirits by showing them an ugly person not worth fighting for. Explanatory literature, however, invested these practices with deep ethical meaning: man should not pay attention to outer form but inner value. Similarly, the customs of strewing ashes on the bridegroom's head and the breaking the glass at the wedding ceremony, which also have origins in general folklore, were interpreted as "reminder(s) of the destruction of the Temple." They were also meant to remind man of his vanity (memento mori).

In Israel, modern social life, especially in the secular sector and in kibbutz society, has stimulated the formation of new customs and the adaptation of religious ceremonies to a secular society which wants to keep the traditional, national folkways. This is evident, for example, in the bar mitzvah ceremony whose religious significance in a secular society is reduced but not eliminated. Since non-observant Jews do not "lay tefillin," which is the most outward sign of the bar mitzvah ceremony and the Jewish initiation rite, regarding them as a remnant of an ancient religious object (a kind of amulet containing scriptural verses), attempts have been made to revitalize the rite with other external symbols and the concept of tefillin has been completely eliminated. Under the initial impetus of the Reform movement, the individual ceremony has been substituted by a collective "confirmation" ceremony similar to that of the Christian rite. This takes place at the *Shavuot festival, chosen because it is the traditional date of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, and consequently the proper season for adolescent boys and girls to celebrate their initiation into full Jewish adulthood. As the Shavuot festival coincides with the end of the school year, the ceremony, at times, bears the character of a graduation. In Israel the collective bar mitzvah has been introduced in nonreligious kibbutzim. The ceremony takes place after the children have performed some task, usually socioeducational, imposed upon each individual child (or pair) by the community, school, or youth movement (e.g., a week's stay in a new settlement with a newcomer's family in order to help them; or in a religious yeshivah in order to learn Jewish ways strange to them). The bar mitzvah child then has to write a composition on his experiences. He further relates his adventures during the performance of the task at the "confirmation" and the lessons derived therefrom are discussed by the whole assembly. These attempts, as well as the endeavors to introduce new agricultural festivals of a secular nature: Ḥag ha-Gez ("the Feast of Sheepshearing"), Ḥag ha-Keramim ("the Feast of the Vineyard," a "renewal" of the ancient Tu be-Av festival) have not been functioning long enough to become an integral and crystallized part of renewed or newly invented Jewish socio-cultural folkways, even in a limited segment of Jewish society. The artificial character of the new folk customs, as well as that of modern Israeli dancesand folk music, is still evident.

Varia: Beliefs and Customs not Related to Cycles

A small proportion of Jewish customs and their underlying folk beliefs are not directly connected with the annual life cycle or with the crises of passage in man's life. Among these the Jewish customs pertaining to diet, nutrition, and food (including the biblical distinction between kosher and non-kosher food; the taboos of eating meat and milk together) and folk medicine practices are the two most important clusters of customs. Attempts have been made to relate them, to regard the dietary laws as part of ancient hygiene prescription, and to consider folk medicine and food customs as means of overcoming anxieties and fears.

folk medicine

Folk beliefs and practices (remedies) for the prevention and cure of diseases have been transmitted by Jewish communities from generation to generation, even where there were normative medicine and physicians. The Bible recommends the use of the mandrake to produce fertility (Gen. 30:14). No decisive differentiation existed between the various ways of ensuring health and fertility and of combating disease and death: asking the doctor's advice, praying, and using folk remedies were all curative means emanating from God, the only healer (cf. Ex. 15:26). In Tobit (6:78) smoked liver, heart, and the gall of a fish are recommended as a cure for casting out a demon or evil spirit. Similar practices still prevail among Kurdish and Persian Jews and are indicative of the antiquity of many of the accepted folk cures.

Evidence of the widespread use of folk medicine in Palestine and Babylonia during the early centuries c.e. can be found in talmudic-midrashic literature. Magic practices and amulets received a Jewish "touch" through the use of biblical verses and by stressing the efficacy of relevant psalms. The tertian fever, for example, was to be cured with an amulet consisting of seven sets of seven articles hung around the neck (Shab. 67a). Amulets were also used against epilepsy (Shab. 61a); these were later sanctified and Judaized through biblical inscriptions. The concept that a cure may be effected by transferring the disease to animals, found so frequently in general folk medicine, is also present in Jewish folk medicine. According to talmudic sources the patient was recommended to go to a crossroad, pick up the first ant with a burden that he saw, and place it in a copper tube which was to becovered with lead and sealed. The tube should then be shaken and an incantation chanted: "What thou carriest on me, that I carry on thee" (Shab. 66b). Although practices of this kind were disapproved of by rabbinic authorities who regarded them as "Amorite rites" (folk practices alien to the spirit of Judaism), they persisted; most of them are based on principles of sympathetic magic. In the Middle Ages there is evidence of a more widespread use of folk medicine among Jews. There are many folk prescriptions in the Sefer Ḥasidim (13th century), most of them derived from the contiguous Christian culture. The remedy against premature birth was for a wife to wear a piece of her husband's stockings or waistband (a practice of contagious magic found in German folk medicine).

There are many folk medicine manuscripts extant from the late Middle Ages (16th–18th centuries) which contain prescriptions against fever and epilepsy. The mysterious nature of these diseases seems to have attracted the special attention of folk doctors in various culture areas. Some prescriptions deal with the improvement of family life, inducing love and fertility. Blood, a frequent element in general folk medicine, is rarely, if ever, used among Jews except in the case of nosebleeding where the actual blood lost is sometimes baked into a cake and, following the principle prevailing in sympathetic magic, is given to a pig (Sefer Refu'ot, 14b).

Besides folk medicine, only a few customs are unrelated to any of the two main cycles of the Jewish year and life. Most of them have a distinctive Jewish character and have been based on Jewish legends and traditions. Thus, for example, feeding the birds in Eastern Europe on the winter Sabbath when the section on manna is read (Ex. 16) is associated with the legend that birds helped Moses defeat his opponents who wanted to prove that the Lawgiver had told a lie about manna. The same legend (cf. Ginzberg, Legends, 3 (1953), 46–47) also gave rise to the custom in Eastern Europe to feed birds on Shabbat Shirah when the section containing the Song of Moses (Ex. 15) was read in the synagogue.

Another social custom prevalent among Jews is to say "God bless you" (the exclamation asuta meaning "health") to anyone who sneezes. This custom is associated with the legend that in antiquity sneezing was a sign which forebode the sneezer's forthcoming death, but which no longer prevailed after the time of Jacob (cf. Ginzberg, Legends, vol. 5, 364, note 357). The origin of the custom, however, is not confined to Jews (Trachtenberg (1939), 306).

Jewish folklore and Jewish religion have always influenced each other. Often adapted from foreign sources, Jewish folklore was profoundly imbued with the Jewish religious spirit but in turn left its mark on Jewish religion. The religious practices extant in the various Jewish communities long ago freed themselves from their underlying superstitious beliefs and bear the character of monotheistic Judaism. However, in Jewish communities removed from the centers of learning and from religious leaders well versed in halakhah there still exist, side by side with the normative religion, complexes of popular beliefs and superstitions. Contrary to the explicit command of the Torah (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:9–14), beliefs in divination, the prognostic arts, interpretations of dreams, and astrology are still rooted in Jewish communities (cf. the still popular reprints of folk books like Goralot Aḥitofel ("Lots of Ahitophel," Jerusalem, 1965); Sefer Ḥokhmat ha-Yad ha-Shalem ("The Wisdom of Chiromancy," Jerusalem, 1966); Sefer Ḥokhmatha-Parẓuf ("Divination According to Features," Jerusalem, 1967) which are widely read and used by ethnic groups). Rabbinic authorities have tried to suppress customs which they regard not of Jewish origin, but in many cases they have not succeeded. Thus, for example, the customs of kapparot (propitiatory rite performed on the eve of the Day of *Atonement) and tashlikh (symbolic casting off of sins during *Rosh Ha-Shanah) are entirely foreign and considered by many Jewish authorities as pagan practices diametrically opposed to Judaism (cf. Rappoport, The Folklore of the Jews, p. 112–117); however, they are still commonly practiced in Jewish communities.


folk narrative: W. Anderson, Kaiserund Abt (1923); A. Aarne, The Types of Folktale (1961 = at in text); T. Benfey, Pantschatantra (1962); M. Epstein, Tales of Sendebar (1967); D. Flusser, in: Tarbiz, 26 (1956/57), 165–84; T.H. Gaster, The Oldest Stories in the World (1952); idem, Thespis (1966); Ginzberg, Legends; F.M. Goebel, Juedische Motive im maerchenhaften Erzaehlungsgut (1932); C.H. Gordon, in: huca, 26 (1955), 43–108; idem, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (1962); H. Gunkel, Das Maerchen im Alten Testament (1917); B. Holbek, Notes to Chr. Pederson's Danish Aesop, A esops levned og fabler (1962); S.H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual and Kingship (1958); E.O. James, The Ancient Gods … (1960); S.N. Kramer (ed.), Mythologies of the Ancient World (1961); Pritchard, Texts; D.G. Maeso, in: Miscelanea de Estúdios árabes y Hebráicos, 5 (1956), 225–48; S. Thompson, Motif Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols. (1955–58) (= Motif in text); H. Peri (Pflaum), Der Religionsdisput der Balaam-Legende … (1959); D. Noy, in: Maḥanayim, 115 (1967), 80–99; S.Z. Pipe, in: Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Studies, 1 (1946), 294–304; E.C. Quinn, The Quest of Seth for the Oil of Life (1962); Ch. Schwarzbaum, in: Sefarad, 21 (1961), 267–99; 22 (1962), 17–59; 321–44; 23 (1963), 54–73; S. Thompson, The Folktale (1951); H. Varnhagen, Ein indisches Maerchen auf seiner Wanderung (1882); G. Widengren, in: S.H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual and Kingship (1958), 149–203; idem, in: Acta Orientalia, 23 (1959), 201–62. riddle: S. An-Ski, Gezamlte Shriftn, 15 (1925), 225–9; S. Bastomski, Yidishe Folksreteishn (1917); S. Einhorn, in: Edoth, 2 (1947), 278–81; 3 (1948), 95–98; Ginzberg, Legends; D. Noy, in: Maḥanayim, 83 (1963), 64–71; Y. Ratzhabi, in: Sinai, 22 (1948), 36–44; idem, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 2 (1954), 36–41; S. Schechter, in: Folk-Lore, 1 (1890), 349–58; N.H. Tur-Sinai, Ha-Lashon veha-Sefer, 2 (1951), 58–93; A. Wuensche, Die Raetselweisheit bei den Hebraeern, mit Hinblick auf andere Voelker (1883). folk drama: Y.L. Cahan (ed.), Yidisher Folklor (1938), 219–24, 310–18; E. Lahad, Yiddish Folkplays (1920), bibliography. folk song: L. Algazi, Chants Sephardies (1958); M. Alvar, in: Boletín de la Universidad de Granada, 23 (1951), 127–44; idem, Endechas judeo-españoles (1955); S. An-Ski, Folklor un Etnografye (1925), 171–91, 195–214; S.G. Armistead and J.H. Silvermann, in: Sefarad, 28 (1968), 395–98; M. Attias, Romancero Sefaradi (1956); idem, La Romanza Sefaradi (1958); idem, in: Sefunot, 2 (1958), 331–76; H. Avenary, in: Sefarad, 20 (1960), 377–94; S. Bastomski, Baym Kval (1923); B. Bayer, in: M. Zmona (ed.), Yesodot Mizraḥiyyim u-Ma'arviyyim ba-Musikah be-Yisrael (1968), 74–78; M.I. Bergovski, Yidisher Muzik-Folklor (1934); idem, Yevreyskiye narodnye pesny (1962); idem and I. Feffer, Yidishe Folks-Lider (1938); Y.L. Cahan, Shtudyes vegn Yidisher Folksshafung, ed. by M. Weinreich (1952); idem, Yidishe Folkslider mit Melodyes (1957); 1. Dobrushin and A. Yuditski, Yidishe Folkslider (1940); Y. Dworkin, in: Studies in Biblical and Jewish Folklore (1960), 201–21; I. Edel, Ha-Shir ha-Ereẓ Yisre'eli (1946); idem et al., Zemer Am (1946); I. Fater, Yidishe Muzik in Poyln (1970); E. Gerson-Kiwi, in: Edoth, 1 (1946), 227–33; 3 (1948), 73–78; idem, in: Studies in Biblical and Jewish Folklore (1960), 225–32; M.S. Geshuri, Ha-Niggun ve-ha-Rikkud ba-Hasidut, 3 vols. (1957–59); idem, in: Yedi'ot ha-Makhon ha-Yisre'eli le-Musikah Datit, 4 (1963), 141–6; S.M. Ginzburg and P.S. Marek, Yevreyskiya narodniya pesnya v Rossii (1901); Y. Goldberg, in: Tsaytshrift (Minsk), 1 (1926), 105–16; 2–3 (1927–28), 589–606; A.L. Holde, Jews in Music (1959); B. Hrushovski, in: The Field of Yiddish, 1 (1954), 224–32; E. Hurvitz, Min ha-Meẓar (1949); Idelsohn, Melodien; idem, The Jewish Song Book (1961); S. Katsherginski, Lider fun di Getos un Lagern (1948); F.M. Kaufmann, Das juedische Volkslied (1919); S.J. Katz, in: Western Folklore, 21 (1962), 83–91; M. Kipnis, Hundert Folk-slider (1949); R. Lachman, Jewish Cantillation and Song in the Isle of Djerba (1940); S. Lehman, A rbayt un Frayhayt (1921), idem, Ganovim Lider (1928); I. Levy, Chants judéo-espagnols (1959); L. Levy, in: YedaAm, 3 (1955), 58–65, 5 (1958), 96f.; R.R. Mac-Curdy and D.P. Stanley, in: Southern Folklore Quarterly, 15 (1951), 221–38; E.G. Mlotek, in: The Field of Yiddish 1 (1954), 179–95; 2 (1965), 232–52; idem, in: For Max Weinreich (1964), 209–28; M. Molho, Literatura Sefardita de Oriente (1960); D. Noy, in: Haifa Yorbukh, 5 (1969), 177–224; A. de Larrea Palacin, Cancionero judío del Norte de Marruecos, 3 vols. (1952–54); M. Pelayo, in: Antología de poetas líricas castellanos, 9 (1945), 349–88; S.Z. Pipe, Yidishe Folkslider fun Galitsye, ed. by D. and M. Noy (1971); M. Prager, Min ha-Meẓar Karati (1956), N. Prilutski, Yidishe Folk-slider, 2 vols. (1911–13); I. Rabinovitch, Of Jewish Music … (1952); Y. Ratzaby, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 5 (1958), 85–89; Y.Y. Rivlin, Shirat Yehudei ha-Targum (1959); A. Rozentsvayg, Sotsyale Diferentsyatsye inem Yidishen Folklorlid (1934); R. Rubin, A Treasury of Jewish Folksong (1950); idem, Voices of People (1963); idem, Jewish Folksongs in Yiddish and English (1965); idem, in: Tatzlil, 8 (1968), 39–48; D. Sadan, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 1 no. 2 (1948), 33–35; no. 3–4 (1949), 30–32; no. 5–6 (1950), Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (1968), 409–17; E. Seculets, Yidishe Folkslider (1959); Sendrey, Music; A. Shiloah, in: Folklore Research Center Studies, 1 (1970), 349–68; K.Y. Silman, Lekhu Nerannenah (1928); A.I. Simon, The Songs of the Jews of Cochin (1947); Z. Skuditski, Folklor-Lider, ed. by M. Viner, 2 vols. (1933–36); J. Spector, in: Reconstructionist, 24 (1958), 11–16; idem, in: Studies in Biblical and Jewish Folklore (1960), 225–84; idem, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 3 (1955), 101–3; vol. 4 (1956), 24–28; Y. Stutshevski, Folklor Muzikali shel Yehudei Mizrah Eiropaḥ (1958); idem, Ha-Kleizmerim, Toledoteihem, Oraḥ Ḥayyeihem vi-Yziroteihem (1959); B. Uziel, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 2 (1954), 75f., 172–7; ider, in: Le Judaïsme Sephardi, 18 (1959), 769–99; Ch. Vinaver, in: Commentary, 2 (1951), 85–87; U. Weinreich, in: Yivo Bleter, 34 (1950), 282–8; U. and B. Weinreich, Yiddish Language and Folklore (1959), nos. 294–347 (bibl.); E. Werner, in: hjs, 6 (1944), 175–88; idem, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (1949), 950–83; idem, The Sacred Bridge (1959); L. Wiener, in: Germanica, 2 (1898), 1–26, 33–59; A. Yaari, in: ks, 35 (1960), 109–26; 36 (1961), 264–72 (bibl. on Badḥanim). visual folklore: Mayer, Art; D. Davidovitch, Battei Keneset be-Polin ve-Ḥurbanam (1960); B. Goldman, The Sacred Portal, A Primary Symbol in Ancient Jewish Art (1966); M. Golnitzki, Be-Maḥazor ha-Yamim (1963); Goodenough, Symbols; J. Gutmann, Juedische Zeremonialkunst (1963); S.S. Kayser, Jewish Ceremonial Art (1959); F. Landsberger, A History of Jewish Art (1946); idem, in: huca, 31 (1960), 149–66; G.K.L. Loukomski, Jewish Art in European Synagogues (1947); M. Narkiss, in: M. Davis (ed.), Israel, Its Role in Civilization (1956), 194ff.; J. Pinkerfeld, Bi-Shevilei Ommanut Yehudit (1957); Roth, Art; A. Rubens, A Jewish Iconography (1954); idem, A History of Jewish Custom (1967); Ch. Schwarzbaum, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (1968), 435–40, 484f.; H. Volavková, The Synagogue Treasures of Bohemia and Moravia (1949); idem, The Pinkas Synagogue in Prague (1955); R. Wischnitzer, Symbole und Gestalten der juedischen Kunst (1935); idem, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews (1949), 984–10 l 0; idem, The Architecture of the European Synagogue (1964). cognitive folklore: I. Abrahams, Jewish Customs and Ceremonies (1954); I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1960); J. Bazak, Le-Ma'lah min ha-Ḥushim (1968); Y. Bergman, in: Edoth, 3 (1947/48), 58–66; L. Blau, Das altjuedische Zauberwesen (1898); R. Brasch, The Star of David (1955); Y.L. Cahan, Shtudyes vegn Yidisher Folksshafung (1952), 275–8; S. Daiches, Babylonian Oil Magic in the Talmud and in Later Jewish Literature (1913); A. Daron, in: Transactions of the 11th International Congress of Orientalists (1897), 259–70; Eisenstein, Dinim; L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (1949), 1327–89; A.S. Freidus,, Studies in Jewish Bibliography and Related Subjects in Memory of Abraham Solomon Freidus (1929), lxxviiiff.; T.H. Gaster, The Holy and the Profane: Evolution of Jewish Folkways (1955); J. Jacobs, Customs and Traditions of Israel (1955); E, Tov, Sefer ha-Toda'ah (1960); E, Langton, Essentials of Demonology: A Study of Jewish and Christian Doctrine (1949); S.M. Lehrran, Jewish Customs and Folklore (1949); R. Lilienthal, in; Yidishe Filologye, 1 (1924), 245–71; A. Marmorstein, in: Edoth, 1 (1945/46), 76–89; J. Nacht, Simlei Ishah (1959); D. Noy, in: Onot ha-Shanah, 1 (1959); R. Patai, Adam va-Adamah, 2 vols. (1942–43); idem, Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual (1947), 4f.; S. Raskin, Aron-hakodesh.. Jewish Life and Lore (1955); I. Rivkind, Yidishe Gelt (1959); J. Soetendorp, Symbolik der juedischen Religion; Sitte und Brauchtum im juedischen Leben (1963); I. Sperling, Sefer Ta'amei ha-Minhagim u-Mekorei ha-Dinim (1957); J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939, repr. 1961); idem, The Devil and the Jews (19612). year cycle beliefs and customs: A. Ben Ezra, Minhagei Hagim (1963); T.H. Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year: A Modern Interpretation and Guide (1956); P. Goodman, Rejoice in Thy Festival (1956); S. Goren, Torat ha-Mo'adim (1964); H. Leshem, Shabbat u-Mo'adei Yisrael (1965); Y.T. Lewinski (ed.), Sefer ha-Mo'adim, 3 (1953); J. Morgenstern, in: jqr, 8 (1917/18), 34–37; N. Wahrman, Ḥagei Yisrael u-Mo'adav (1961); M. Zobel, Das Jahr des Juden in Brauch und Liturgie (1936); H. Schauss, The Jewish Festivals (1938); idem, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (1962); M. Rabinovitch, Ḥol u-Mo'ed (1965). life-cycle beliefs and customs: L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948); E. Ki-Tov, Ish u-Veito (1963); R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East (1959); H. Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew throughout the Ages of Jewish History (1950); Ch. Schwarzbaum, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (1968), 428ff. birth and circumcision: E. Brauer, in: Edoth, 1 (1945/46), 129–138 (Kurdistan); W.F. Feldman, The Jewish Child (1917); M. Gaster, in: Folk-Lore, 11 (1900), 129–62; T.H. Gaster, The Holy and the Profane (1955), 3–41; A. Landau, in: Zeitschrift des Vereins fuer Volkskunde, 9 (1899), 72–77; J.Z. Lauterbach, in: ccary, 42 (1932), 316–60; R. Lilienthal, in: mgjv, 25–26 (1908), 1–24, 41–53; M. Molho, in: Edoth, 2 (1946/47), 255–69 (Saloniki); R. Patai, in: Folklore, 54 (1943), 117–24; 56 (1945), 208–18; A.M. Posner, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 4 (1956), 41–44; A. Pritzker, ibid., vol. 1 no. 1 (1948–53), 87–90; vol. 2 (1954), 22–23, 215–8; H. Schauss, in: Yivo Bleter, 17 (1941), 47–63; M. Zobel, in: Almanach des Schocken Verlags (1939), 98ff.; I. Zoller, in; Filologishe Shriftn, 3 (1929), 121–42. bar mitzvah: A. Ben-Gurion (ed.), Yalkut Bar-Mitzvah (1967); T.H. Gaster, The Holy and the Profane (1955), 66–77; J, Nacht, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 3 (1955), 106–11; 1. Rivkind, Le-Ot u-le-Zikkaron (1942). marriage: L.M. Epstein, The Jewish Marriage Contract (1927), incl. bib I.; I.Z. Lauterbach, in: huca, 2 (1925), 35 1ff.; Y.T. Lewinski, in: Yeda-A m, vol. 3 (1955), 91–97; Maḥanayim, 83 (1963). death: S. An-Ski, in: Filologishe Shriftn, 3 (1929), 89–100; J. Avida, in: Edoth, 2 (1946/47), 217–25; A.P. Bender, in: jqr, 6 (1934/35), 317–47, 667–71; T.H. Gaster, The Holy and the Profane (1955), 137–95; Ch. Chajes, in: Filologishe Shriftn, 2 (1928), 281–328; A. Pritsker, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 3 (1955), 20f., 115–17; 4 (1956), 38–40; 5 (1957), 26–28; Ch. Schwarzbaum, in: Yeda-Am, vol. 6 (1960), 14–18. folk medicine: Y. Bergman, Ha-Folklor ha-Yehudi (1953), 178–94; M. Bernstein, in: Studies in Biblical and Jewish Folklore (1960), 289–305; M.M. Firestone, in: Journal of American Folklore, 75 (1962), 301–10; M. Grunwald, in: Jirbuch fuer juedische Volkskunde, 1 (1923), 222–6; M. Kosover, Yidishe Ma'akholim (1958); R. Patai, in: Folklore, 54 (1943), 117–24; 56 (1945), 208–18; H.J. Zimmels, Magicians, Theologians and Doctors (1952). add. bibliography: D. Ben Amos, "Jewish Studies and Jewish Folklore," in: Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division D (Art, Folklore, and Music), ii (1990), 1–20); G. Hasan-Rokem, "Jewish Folklore and Ethnography," in: M. Goodman (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (2002), 956–74, incl. bibl. The Israeli Folktale Archive at Haifa University in Israel (founded by Dov Noy) houses 25,000 narrative texts. An archive for proverbs at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (founded by Galit Hasan-Rokem) houses 7,500 sayings. The Institute for Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University publishes the journal Jerusalem Studies in Folklore.

[Dov Noy]


views updated Jun 08 2018


FOLKLORE . Folklorists have been interested in religion as an area of research since the beginnings of the discipline in the nineteenth century, although early folklorists often conceived the beliefs of folk cultures not as religion but as superstition or magic. Many folklore scholars were grounded in scientific rationalism to the extent that they dismissed the beliefs of the folk as ignorant superstition, even if these beliefs were part of systems that functioned in ways similar to organized religion. By the early twentieth century, folklorists and other social scientists recognized the link between religion and folk belief, but condescended toward both. From the positivist perspective of folklore studies as a "historical science," superstition and religion were both considered prescientific. In 1930 Alexander Krappe stated in The Science of Folklore : "Superstition, in common parlance, designates the sum of beliefs and practices shared by other people in so far as they differ from our own. What we believe and practice ourselves is, of course, Religion" (p. 203). Krappe implies the dichotomy that later folklorists called folk/elite, with the folk an invention of an intellectual elite who always defined folk as inferior because they were construed as rural, isolated, and uneducated.

On the other hand, folklorists were part of a larger intellectual tendency to romanticize the folk, including idealizing certain beliefs and practices associated with folk culture. Folklorists' attitudes towards the folk were similar to anthropologists' attitudes toward the primitive. According to George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer in Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (1986), anthropologists have idealized the primitive since the nineteenth century: "Theyprimitive manhave retained a respect for nature, and we have lost it they have sustained close, intimate, satisfying communal lives, and we have lost this way of life and they have retained a sense of the sacred in everyday life, and we have lost this [spiritual vision]" (p. 129). Folklorists were similarly nostalgic about the folk and their beliefs, imagining some folk beliefs as representing a spiritual connection to nature that civilized people had lost and perceiving the folk as leading more sacred lives than people in modern urban environments. This romanticized construction of folk belief was maintained simultaneously with the opposite academic construction of folk belief as pathological. For instance, in the United States folklorists represented Appalachian people as a folk in ways that sometimes reinforced the stereotype of the irrational superstitious hillbilly and at other times projected the image of the wise old mountain healer who was spiritually close to nature.

Superstition and Religion

Most folklorists made a distinction between superstition and religion, even when evidence indicated a close connection between beliefs and practices assigned to different categories. The religious orientation and theoretical approach of the researcher were factors in making this distinction, as were issues of race and class. A comparison of the 1920s and 1930s research of white folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett and black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston illustrates the complexity of the cultural representation of folk belief and religion in folklore scholarship. Puckett and Hurston viewed the African American tradition of hoodoo or conjuration in very different ways: Hurston as a religion and Puckett as superstitious behavior. Puckett was still theoretically grounded in the outdated nineteenth-century concept of cultural evolution, while Hurston was trained in the then current school of cultural relativism. Puckett, in his extensive collection Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), associates superstition with "uncultured and backward classes of society" (p. 6), people who had not advanced up the ladder of cultural evolution as far as the educated elite. He therefore saw such African American folk practices as midwifery as "murderous lore" that "should be replaced by modern scientific knowledge."

Hurston rejected Puckett's pathological view and saw hoodoo and conjuration as a systematic religion comparable to Christianity. In a 1929 letter to the poet Langston Hughes quoted by Robert Hemenway in his "Introduction" to Hurston's Mules and Men (1935), Hurston writes "I am convinced that Christianity as practiced is an attenuated form of nature worship" (pp. xixxx). After citing several Christian rituals that contain nature symbolism, she proclaims, "Sympathetic magic pure and simple. They have a nerve to laugh at conjure." She accepted the spiritual efficacy of hoodoo to the point that she studied with a hoodoo priest and was initiated into the practice and came to believe that conjuration worked in particular instances. She argued against the pathological perspective toward folk belief, but in order to present a more positive picture of African American folk belief, she tended to romanticize black southern folk culture as closer to nature and more spiritual than modern societies. Hurston's subjective position as an African American ethnographer caused her to see her own culture in a more positive light than Puckett as a white sociologist/folklorist born and brought up in a southern racist society could. Despite their differences, Hurston and Puckett confronted the same problem that scholars had encountered since the invention of the folk in the eighteenth century: how to differentiate folk religion from other forms of religion.

Folk Religion

In his seminal 1974 essay "Toward a Definition of Folk Religion," Don Yoder points out that "the discovery of folk religion in Europe had come at the time of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when rationalist clergy attacked folk 'superstitions' in sermons and ministerial periodicals" (p. 3). By the nineteenth century, German scholars had included religion as an important component in the study of Volkskunde (folklife), and by 1901 a German Lutheran minister used the term religiose Volkskunde (religious folklife) for the first time. In the twentieth century, European folklorists conducted extensive research on the religious beliefs and practices of folk groups throughout Europe among both Roman Catholics and Protestants. To German and other European scholars, the folk were uneducated peasants living in isolated rural areas, so that folk religion could be differentiated from other forms of religion on the basis of the elite/folk hierarchy: folk religion was simpler, contaminated by superstition, and often at variance with official church dogma. Yoder used this long-standing dichotomy as the basis for his definition of folk religion as "unofficial" and "relatively unorganized" in opposition to official organized religion: "Folk religion is the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion" (p. 4).

The same basic dichotomy worked for folklorists and anthropologists as they began to study the religious life of peoples in the New World. Folklorists especially were looking for the equivalent of the European peasant in new environments so that any isolated, rural, and relatively uneducated people were designated folk, and folklorists began to collect such religious expressions as hymns, sermons, customs, and rituals from them. The definition of folk religion as religious practices of peasants persisted well into the twentieth century; William A. Christian Jr., who wrote the entry on "Folk Religion" in the original 1987 edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion, directed his attention to "past and present-day sedentary cultivators and pastoralists of Asia, North Africa, southern Europe, and Latin America, and historically to sedentary cultivators in northern Europe and North America as well" (vol. 5, p. 370). His definition of folk as pastoral leads him to conclude that the folk had disappeared from North America and northern Europe as a result of urbanization and industrialization, in contrast to such folklorists as Richard M. Dorson, who answered "yes" to the question posed in the title of his 1970 article, "Is There a Folk in the City?" Many of Dorson's examples came from European immigrants and southern rural migrants in heavily industrialized Gary, Indiana, so that the peasant idea was still underlying the conceptualization of folk.

Folklorists and anthropologists also conducted field research on religious folklore in both urban and rural areas in Central and South America, where their theoretical concern was with cultural syncretism. They examined the way native religions merged with official religions. Yoder cites the "example [of] the mélange of African primitivism and Roman Catholicism that is in Haiti called 'Voodoo,' or the syncretism between Catholicism and native Indian religious beliefs and practices in Central and South America" (1974, p. 2). The fieldwork of Hurston offers an example of how syncretism also influenced folklore field research in the southern United States, since she recognized the Catholic elements in hoodoo in New Orleans. Anthropologists and folklorists still considered religious folklore in socioeconomic class terms as associated with peasants, although some had migrated to cities bringing their religion with them.

Throughout the history of folklore scholarship on religion, the folk/elite dichotomy has been a basic underlying principle, whether in the study of European peasants, African Americans, Appalachian whites, or people whose religions merge native and European elements. This began to change for some folklorists in the 1960s when they started to study urban and suburban folklore and gradually expanded their research to include educated people of a higher socioeconomic class, recognizing that folklore had adapted to technology so that new genres such as "xerox lore" became the subject of scholarly books. Finally, Alan Dundes could answer the question asked in his 1980 article "Who Are the Folk?" by saying that, in essence, we all are: a folk group is any group with any one linking factor. Once the folk/elite dichotomy had been undermined, folklorists who conducted research on religion were freed to reconceptualize it in nonhierarchical ways.

In 1995, Leonard Norman Primiano, in an important essay entitled "Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife," challenged the assumption of folk as inferior: "Scholars within the discipline have consistently named religious people's beliefs in residualistic, derogatory ways as 'folk,' 'unofficial,' or 'popular' religion, and have then juxtaposed these terms on a two-tiered model with 'official' religion" (p. 38). This implies the existence of a "pure" religion that is "contaminated" by the folk in their everyday religious practices. In order to correct the problems inherent in this hierarchical dichotomy, Primiano suggests a new term and a new theoretical concept: "Vernacular religion is, by definition, religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand, interpret, and practice it" (p. 44). There is no opposition here between folk and elite since all religious practitioners would be included no matter what their socioeconomic class: every individual interprets religion within the context of his or her everyday life (the vernacular dimension of life). Priests, rabbis, prophets, shamansno matter how high in the hierarchy of their respective religionswould all practice vernacular religion in the sense that they make individual interpretations of religious meaning and practice in everyday circumstances. This approach avoids the condescension of the old elite/folk dichotomy and attempts to treat religious practices with respect by concentrating on the experiential aspects of religion. Primiano recognizes that vernacular contains some of the same pejorative connotations as folk, and some folklorists prefer to continue using folk religion as the scholarly term, but the theoretical concept of vernacular religion has been widely accepted in folklore studies.

Folkloristic Approaches to the Study of Religion

Concepts of the folk and definitions of folk religion have had a basic influence on theoretical approaches folklorists have used in the study of religion, and as these concepts and definitions have changed, so have the approaches. Since most folklore studies are grounded in field research, the best way to understand theoretical approaches in folklore scholarship is by examining representative individual studies since the early 1900s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, antiquarians were interested in religious folk customs as survivals of previous savage or barbarian times; they thought collecting the beliefs and customs of peasants could provide an understanding of the past. The concept of cultural evolution that was the basis for the survivalist approach had been discredited by the late nineteenth century, but some anthropologists and folklorists continued to base their interpretations of folk beliefs and religion on it well into the twentieth century. Puckett clung to cultural evolution as an explanation of African American folk beliefs in the 1920s, and Ovidiu Birlia used cultural evolution as the basic approach for his entry on "Folklore" in the 1987 edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion. However, for most anthropology and folklore scholars, cultural relativism had replaced cultural evolution by early in the twentieth century. The history of anthropological and folkloristic studies of religion continued to overlap as the new paradigm of cultural relativism developed models that then became dominant influences on the study of religious folklore.

Especially important was the anthropological approach that came to be known as functionalism. Bronislaw Malinowski's fieldwork among Trobriand Islanders became the basis for the functional explanation of magic belief and related behavior that he articulated in a 1931 essay, "The Role of Magic and Religion." His "anxiety ritual theory" influenced the anthropological and folkloristic study of a wide range of behaviors, from primitive magic to everyday superstitions to rituals in religious settings. He invited this widespread application by suggesting that such behaviors were found in both primitive and modern life: wherever there is uncertainty in human endeavors, there will be magic and ritual to help relieve the anxiety that arises from that uncertainty. Rituals, whether they are as mundane as not walking under a ladder or as elaborate as Catholic priests blessing fishing fleets, function to give a psychological sense of control over uncertainties in life. The functional approach was grounded in scientific rationalism as a way of explaining what seemed to be irrational behaviors; a functionalist might say that when modern educated people base their actions on "magico-religious" beliefs, their behavior is analogous to primitives. As folklorist Bonnie Blair O'Connor pointed out in her 1995 book, Healing Traditions: Alternative Medicines and the Health Professions, the functionalist approach is implicitly condescending to the people whose beliefs are being studied; "they" are not capable of understanding their own behavior the way "we" educated researchers are. This was a submerged problem as long as the subjects were classified as "primitive" or "folk," but as the concept of folk expanded beyond rural, isolated, relatively uneducated groups, the issue emerged as politically significant.

In retrospect, present-day scholars can see that condescension toward research subjects was a theoretical problem all along for folklorists, including those conducting research on folk religion in the United States. Most American researchers in folk religion concentrated their field research on fundamentalist Christians in the rural South. These American versions of European peasants were conceived of as the folk, and if a researcher wanted to study the full range of their traditional life, then their religion had to be includeda circular way of defining folk religion, but it went uncontested throughout most of the twentieth century. Despite the fact that there were a range of religions to study in the South, folklorists concentrated on the most conservative fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations, undoubtedly because they were large in number but also because they fit preconceived notions about the folk. The very conservatism of their religion made it seem more traditional, and from the educated perspective of the folklorist, fundamentalists were seen as more exotic than mainstream religions that were in many cases closer to the folklorists' own religious background.

In the 1960s and 1970s, folklorists studying fundamentalist Christian conversion experiences began to use such theoretical approaches as the one Victor Turner described in his 1969 book, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. One of the first folklorists to use ritual process theory was William Clements in his 1976 article "Conversion and Communitas"; he identified Turner's ritual states of "liminality" and "communitas" in the experiences of fundamentalists he interviewed in Arkansas. Clements posits that since "many folk Christians are poor, uneducated, and without social prestige," their experience of communitas functions "in a compensatory manner" to make up for their lack of "social commodities" (pp. 4445). Following Clements, Patrick B. Mullen discerned the same ritual pattern in conversion narratives among evangelicals in "Ritual and Sacred Narrative in the Blue Ridge Mountains" (1983), and Jeff Todd Titon applied Turner's theory to religious expression in Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church (1988).

Unfortunately, ritual process theory continued the tendency toward condescension in the study of folk religion by applying it mainly to lesser-educated religious groups. Although folklorists concentrated fieldwork on lower socioeconomic fundamentalist religious groups in the rural South, Turner's ritual pattern can be seen across a wide spectrum of religions among various socioeconomic classes and in rural, urban, and suburban contexts. There was also a residual effect of scientific rationalism in this approach in that ritual process suggests social and psychological explanations for religious conversion experiences, rather than considering the possibility that they are spiritual experiences. A valuable corrective to the tendency to condescend toward fundamentalists was the 1988 collection of essays Diversities of Gifts: Field Studies in Southern Religion. The editors, Ruel W. Tyson Jr., James L. Peacock, and Daniel W. Patterson, and the contributors self-consciously tried to counter stereotypes by depicting fundamentalist religion as complex beliefs and behaviors in closely observed cultural contexts.

Folklorists theoretically refined the ritual process approach by applying it to contexts that required multiple interpretations, recognizing that communitas and liminality have significance beyond their religious meanings. A good example of this is Sabra Webber's study of the Islamic tradition of Ramaān. In "Ramadan Observed" (1984) she synthesizes Turner's ritual theory with cultural politics, seeing Ramaān as a space for the negotiation of religious and political meanings. She bases her study on her own fieldwork in Tunisia and on other ethnographic accounts from North Africa, where Ramaān combines elements of ritual and festival. Ramaān is a lunar month-long fast in which the breaking of the fast at the end is an important element. Webber sees Ramaān as a local liminal event that must be examined within a larger "liminal period in North African and Arab-world history" (p. 187), a publicly recognized awareness of great change between more stable periods. "Ramadan at its most basic has become a paradigm that various political and social groups, as well as individuals, are seeking to use to represent their values" (p. 188). This multivocality complicates the concept of communitas: "while at a community level a kind of communitas is achieved, at the individual level it provides, for some people, an opportunity for intensification of pious or recreational behavior" (p. 191), and for others an opportunity for coming of age, an expression of Muslim identity in opposition to other religions, a statement of acceptance or rejection of modernity, and even, for some, a declaration of revolution. Webber's field research indicates an ongoing negotiation by Muslims about the meaning of Ramaān. Unlike the research on ritual among fundamentalist Christians, where the interpretation comes from outside observers, Webber's use of ritual theory incorporates interpretations from within the group, thus avoiding conde-scension.

Webber's research is one indication of a broader shift in the study of folk religious behavior from the nineteenth century to the present: a movement away from considering the folk and their beliefs as inferior. Folklorists accepted the underlying elite/folk hierarchy for a very long time, but once that was questioned, resistance to it created an effort to remove pejorative judgments from the documentation and analysis of folk religion. One result of this movement is folklorist David J. Hufford's "experience-centered" theory, which tries to avoid prejudging religious experiences. In a book and a series of articles, Hufford has identified the condescension toward and dismissal of spiritual experiences as a major scholarly problem in folk belief and folk religion studies. He began to formulate his approach to such phenomena in his 1982 book, The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, by researching the cross-cultural "old hag" or "Mara" tradition in which people wake up paralyzed in the night thinking that some supernatural entity is pressing down on their chests. The experience transcends religious difference with reports from Jewish and Christian believers, as well as from Islamic sources, where the experience is related to the jinn, an evil or mischievous spirit that visits during the night.

Hufford has also applied his approach to other spiritual phenomena, such as out-of-body experiences and visitations from the dead, in his essay "Beings without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Study of the Belief in Spirits" (1995). His approach to these experiences is grounded in phenomenology: he is critical of preconceived assumptions that explain the behavior in psychological or cultural terms, as, for instance, having Freudian symbolic meaning. Rather, his approach concentrates on the experience itself as reported firsthand by the person involved, opening up the possibility that the experience was an actual contact with another dimension.

Many folklorists who study religion have accepted Hufford's theoretical model as a useful balance to the social construction of reality that might view all such spiritual experiences as "deconstructed 'situated hallucinations,'" a phrase used by Margaret Mills in a 1993 article in which she urges folklorists to strive for a sense of what "feels real" in the lives of the people that they study. On the other hand, Patrick B. Mullen in his 2000 essay, "Belief and the American Folk," points out that researchers can never determine the exact nature of the "core experience" itself, that the experience is always mediated by the person in the act of telling it to the researcher. Mullen argues that folklorists should not just be interested in the core experience but also in the "examination of narrating, the process of communicating a supernatural or spiritual experience in a specific cultural context" (p. 137). A folklorist does not have to accept or reject a spiritual experience as real in order to examine the cultural process whereby the experience was communicated to others. This suggests that the performance approach, which has been a major component of folklore studies since the 1960s, still has relevance for the study of the expressive dimension of folk religion today.

Performance Approaches

Performance theory was part of a 1960s and 1970s paradigm shift in folklore studies that incorporated the contextual analysis of anthropology with the ethnography-of-speaking approach of sociolinguistics and the Kenneth Burke rhetorical approach of literary critical theory in order to examine folklore not as static text but as part of a dynamic cultural process. The emphasis was on the specific situation in which the folklore was communicated, the performance context. Richard Bauman defined performance in 1992 as "an aesthetically marked and heightened mode of communication, framed in a special way and put on display for an audience" (p. 41). This certainly describes many cultural expressions that occur within a religious context, and although folklorists concentrated on verbal art in secular storytelling at first, it was not long before theoretical principles from the performance approach were being used to interpret narrating in religious contexts.

Kirin Narayan's 1989 book, Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching, is based on field research in India, where she observed and participated in storytelling sessions conducted by a Hindu holy man, Swamiji. Narayan employs performance and other approaches to analyze the way Swamiji uses storytelling to teach people who come to him seeking spiritual guidance. She focuses on eight folk narratives in specific performance situations, taking into account the personality and character of the storyteller and dynamic interactions with his audience in order to explain how religious "truths are made comprehensible and persuasive through the medium of stories" (p. 243). Swamiji's stories communicate general religious principles, "yet by telling a story instead of making a generalizing statement, Swamiji endows these principles with a vital immediacy" (p. 244). Narayan's study of Hindu storytelling has application to storytelling in a wide range of other religious settings.

The performance approach mainly concentrated on narratives, but it has been applied more broadly to sermons, hymns, rituals, and other religious expressions. One of the first studies of religious expression as performance was Bruce Rosenberg's The Art of the American Folk Preacher (1970), but he goes back to an earlier model, the oral-formulaic approach, for his primary theoretical focus. In many ways, the oral-formulaic approach of Albert B. Lord and Millman Parry was a precursor of performance theory because of its emphasis on oral performance. In The Singer of Tales (1960), Lord formulated the oral-formulaic thesis based on fieldwork he and Parry had conducted on performances by South Slav epic poets that provided the evidence of certain oral formulas that also occur in written poetry. Rosenberg identified similar themes and formulas in improvised oral sermon performances by American preachers. Gerald Davis later argued in "I've Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know": A Study of the Performed African American Sermon (1985) that formulas are indeed part of the African American preacher's performance, but they are culture specific and related to rhythmic patterns that are not the same as those used by epic poets. In both studies, belief is not so much an issue as the artistic dimension of the performance, and this gets at one of the problems that folklorists have faced in using a performance approach to religious expression: such studies contextualize traditional religious communication in terms of the specific circumstances of performance, but tend to leave out the dimension of belief.

As Diane E. Goldstein states in her 1995 article, "The Secularization of Religious Ethnography and Narrative Competence in a Discourse of Faith," many researchers treat "belief issues as essentially external to the scope of research. The folklorist's concern with verbal artistry provides grist for such an approach in that it often lays stress on 'the verbal' and 'the art' to the neglect of the underlying cognitive aspects of culture" (p. 23). We are reminded of Mills's concern that folklorists are leaving out the felt experiential nature of belief and practice in ethnographic descriptions. Goldstein points out that scholars tend to separate language from religion in order to avoid belief as a factor, and consequently they have not fully understood the cultural meaning of religious experience. She says that the performance approach concentrates on art in a way that leaves out the performer's sense of the divine, thus secularizing religious communication and making the approach inadequate as a means of understanding the cultural process being examined. The term performance suggests a metaphor underlying the theory, which prompts Goldstein to ask, "Why would you use the dramatistic metaphors of stages and actors if you knew about religious experience?" (p. 29).

Some folklorists respond that no matter how divinely felt the experience itself is, it is communicated from one human to another in social contexts that sometimes require the speaker to engage a listener through artistic means. The specific context of communication must be taken into account; some contexts require performance techniques and others do not. As most performance scholars recognize today, an effective theoretical approach to folk religion would combine performance and culturally based theories. The "keys" that define performance in Bauman's Verbal Art as Performance (1977) are culturally relative, so that a specific religious performance situation must be examined within its larger cultural frame, including the role of belief. The researcher needs to be "fluent" in the keys of the particular culture being studied. Goldstein points out that this has not been the case in many performance studies of folk religion, but this is not the result of a flaw in the theory, but in its application.

Goldstein's example from her own fieldwork illustrates the importance of taking the group's beliefs into account when examining communication about religious experience. She compares testimonies by two different women in an evangelical worship service; one seems to the researcher to be more articulate and effective and the other halting and ineffective, but to people in the congregation the inarticulate testimony was deemed more sincere and ultimately more authentic and divinely inspired, at least partially because it was not a smooth performance. Their belief system privileged effect over style: "touching the hearts" of people in the congregation was thought to be a sign of divine inspiration. In Bauman's terms, the competency of performance was not evaluated on the basis of artistic keys, but on authenticity of belief. Performance theory still seems relevant here: even if the qualities of performance are lacking in one testimony, they are made apparent by the presence of performance keys in the other. The important thing is for the researcher to be familiar with the relationship between aesthetics and belief in the particular religious culture under scrutiny.

Cultural Studies Approaches

Performance approaches to folk religion concentrated so much on the aesthetic dimensions of a specific situation that they neglected larger cultural and ideological issues that informed the performance itself, as J. E. Limon and M. J. Young point out in their 1986 critique of performance studies in general, "Frontiers, Settlements, and Development in Folklore Studies, 19721985." Limon and Young also criticized folklorists doing performance studies for their concentration on verbal art and neglect of material culture. These imbalances were partially corrected by the growing influence of cultural studies on folklore scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s.

Folklorists using cultural studies approaches helped fill in the gaps by examining power relations within folk religion contexts, including numerous studies of both oral traditions and material culture. For instance, in the 1993 essay "Multivocality and Vernacular Architecture: The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island," Joseph Sciorra traces the history of a neighborhood grotto built by a group of Italian-American men in New York. He interviewed some of the builders to situate the tradition within local culture, and he also placed his study in the larger context of the history of Catholic grottoes in Europe and elsewhere. His research indicates the social and political reality of the official/unofficial dichotomy in folk religion. This may be an imagined construct, but it was manifested in the exercise of power by local church authorities in an attempt to keep religious activities within the control of the priests after local parishioners started their own neighborhood processions and grottos. The struggle took place over many years, but the folk parishioners were able to maintain the Mount Carmel grotto that still stands today as an attraction for thousands of visitors to an out of the way neighborhood on Staten Island.

A similar study by Suzanne Seriff in 1991, "Homages in Clay: The Figural Ceramics of José Varela," focuses on a Mexican-American folk artist whose clay figures often depict religious themes. Like Sciorra, Seriff's theoretical approach to folk religion is grounded in cultural politics and ethnic identity, focusing on power relationships between dominant and minority cultures. Seriff, Sciorra, and other folklorists concerned with cultural politics see religious and spiritual issues not just in aesthetic terms, but also within ideological contexts. Varela's folk art can be understood best through his "concern for community and his passion for the past as a fortification against the spiritual and cultural isolation of being Mexican in an Anglo-dominated world" (p. 162). Varela worked for low pay at an Anglo-owned brick and tile factory in a small Texas town; he "surreptitiously" used clay from the factory to create his figures and fired them in the factory kiln. Some of these he gave or sold to friends, and later in life he sold them at markets in San Antonio. He also donated his time to the local Catholic Church in order to build an outdoor grotto to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who "symbolizes the sacred essence of the Mexican community" (pp. 148149). Varela "has created a productive niche for himself and his fellow Mexicans in part by creatively manipulating the conditions of his own oppressionthat is, by transforming the materials of the factory in which he works into familiar and fantastic forms to be circulated among members of his own community" (p. 163). Folklorists often assume the role of advocates for the people they study, and Seriff and Sciorra's research suggests that they have defined the folk as oppressed and disenfranchised within the context of their religious practices in order to argue for their rights.

Feminist Approaches

Feminist approaches to folk religion share the political perspective of cultural studies while providing a more specific ideological focus. Seriff and another folklorist, Kay Turner, conducted field research that produced the 1987 essay "'Giving an Altar': The Ideology of Reproduction in a St. Joseph's Day Feast." "This woman-centered altar tradition provides a splendid case in point for understanding folklore practice and performance through a feminist orientation" (p. 446). Their approach combines performance and feminist concerns by viewing the feast of Saint Joseph as a creative symbolic expression of women's power of reproduction. The feast "gives dramatic and aesthetic recognition to the sustaining values of nurturance, care, comfort, and supportthe birthright of the mother," but it moves from the religious to the ideological in that "religious belief is specifically wedded with the ideology of reproductionit is through the care and nurturance shown to the Holy Family on this day that the importance of women's daily caretaking of the earthly family is sacralized" (p. 458). This study indicates how folklorists have gone beyond performance in a narrow aesthetic sense by viewing religious artistic communication within a broader ideological frame including feminist principles, and beyond verbal art to consider foodways and other aspects of material folk culture. Turner expanded the scope of her research in folk religion to include a variety of women's altars across cultures in Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women's Altars (1999).

Susan Starr Sered uses a similar feminist perspective to examine an entirely different religious group in Women as Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem (1992), and the principle of women's empowerment underlies her research as well. She moves beyond the focus on one genre of religious expression to consider a range of expressions and behaviors including life stories, rituals, nonverbal gestures, and everyday experiences. As in other feminist folklore studies, Sered analyzes women's religious activities within the context of a dominant patriarchal culture and identifies strategies whereby these largely illiterate women become experts at rituals that are concerned with maintaining the wellbeing of their families. She traces their empowerment in terms of both gender and age: "The Jerusalem women describe a shift from relative ritual powerlessness when young, to intense ritual respect and involvement in old age and especially widowhood" (p. 138). By focusing on illiterate women, Sered may be reinforcing the old concept of the folk as an oral culture, but this reinforces her feminist ideological perspective by concentrating on a group that is socially marginalized in the modern world.

Like Sered, Elaine J. Lawless began her scholarly research by concentrating on subjugated women within an already marginalized culture in Handmaidens of the Lord: Pentecostal Women Preachers and Traditional Religion (1988), but then she switched to more middle-class religious cultures in Holy Women, Wholly Women: Sharing Ministries of Wholeness through Life Stories and Reciprocal Ethnography (1993). The development of her research over those years illustrates a broader shift in folk religious studies from rural, relatively uneducated, fundamentalist religions to urban and suburban, educated, "mainstream" religions. In Handmaidens of the Lord, Lawless examines the process whereby women in a religion that considered them inferior and submissive to men could become respected preachers and leaders in their congregations. She concentrates on their life stories and sermons using both feminist and performance approaches. She analyzes preaching styles in performance terms, but the keys to performance reveal images directly related to their experiences as women. These stylistic devices then become verbal strategies that work to secure leadership roles for women in the church; specifically, the reproductive images used in women preachers' sermons are seen as part of a "maternal strategy" to reinforce the role of preacher as "Mother" to the congregation. As with other cultural studies approaches to folk religion, power relationships are the focus within a religious setting.

Lawless used her research in fundamentalist churches to begin to formulate the concept of "reciprocal ethnography" in which the field-worker is obliged to share her research findings with the subject. This collaborative research process requires an ongoing relationship between the folklorist and the person providing information about his or her culture, including discussion between ethnographer and subject on possible scholarly interpretations, and then incorporating the consultant's response in the final report. This approach is complicated by differences in levels of education, socioeconomic class, and religious belief between researcher and subject. Lawless writes in a 1992 essay, "'I Was Afraid Someone Like You An Outsider Would Misunderstand': Negotiating Interpretive Differences Between Ethnographers and Subjects," that she failed to take her consultants' responses into account in the published version of Handmaidens of the Lord, but she began a dialogue with one of the preachers later. This woman felt that because Lawless was a religious outsider she had misinterpreted her sermons, and Lawless herself came to believe that the preacher's responses should have been included in the book in order to make the scholarly interpretation fuller and richer.

Holy Women, Wholly Women is a product of reciprocal ethnography, taking into account the detailed responses of the women preachers who were the subjects of the research. However, in this case, the women were closer to Lawless in terms of education and religious beliefs, making the reciprocal process less difficult and the results more collaborative. Lawless uses feminist and performance approaches, but this time with mainstream, more highly educated preachers, again interpreting figurative language in their sermons, especially metaphors of nurturing, as revealing particular views and strategies of women. Differences in class and education have been transcended by gender in her two studies, and in both cases Lawless has situated herself subjectively within the study of religion.

Reflexive Ethnography

Subjectivity has taken on increasing importance in folk religion studies, developing from the earlier "invisible ethnographer" of "objective" research to the visibly foregrounded first-person narrator of reflexive ethnography. David J. Hufford has made the most comprehensive statement of the significance of reflexivity in folklore studies of belief in his 1995 essay, "The Scholarly Voice and the Personal Voice: Reflexivity in Belief Studies." Hufford argues for the necessity of the researcher situating himself or herself subjectively within the ethnographic enterprise, saying that this is especially important in studies of belief and religion because of the need to make clear the influence of the researcher's assumptions on the representation of the religious belief system of an "other." He points out that all too often the "objective" stance masks a position of disbelief in religious ethnography. "A reflexive analysis of our scholarship enables us to distinguish among the beliefs of our informants, our scholarly knowledge, our personal beliefs and our occupational ideology. This permits coherent discourse and various warranted moral actions" (p. 71). Instead of hiding one's own beliefs, the scholar should make them clear, thereby allowing different interpretations, including moral or ideological ones, to be stated directly, rather than implied as subtext.

Reflexivity in religious ethnography also opens up the possibility of fieldwork and analysis by members of the religious group, and this is a growing approach in folk religion studies. The "native" perspective is another position among many subjectivities and is legitimate as long as it is recognized reflexively; no longer can the insider's position be seen as less objective than the outsider's since they are both subjective. A good illustration of this is Nikki Bado-Fralick's Coming to the Edge of the Circle: A Wiccan Initiation Ritual, in which she uses her dual perspectives as a Wiccan priestess and as a scholar trained in folklore and religious studies to examine a Wiccan religious ritual. Bado-Fralick frames her study in terms of her subjectivity, allowing her to explore such ethical problems as dealing with secrecy and to examine processes of identity formation from within. Her research also indicates how folklorists have blurred the line between folk and popular religion, recognizing that both are systems of belief and practice as complex and worthy of study as the more academically privileged mainstream organized religions, and thus resisting the dismissal of such religions often implied in terms such as New Age.

Another study of what might be classified as New Age religion is Roseanne Rini's 1997 dissertation, "Elizabeth Kelly: Contemporary Spiritual Teacher and Healer," which was based on extensive interviews with a healer and psychic, Elizabeth Kelly, who was widely respected and consulted by well-educated people in the small college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Rini initially contacted the woman healer for personal advice and came to know her as a friend and to consult with her on a regular basis. Their personal relationship gradually expanded to include a researcher/consultant dimension, and Rini was able to gain a greater understanding of Kelly's belief and practice from a perspective that included her roles as scholar and believer. Reflexive ethnography has legitimized this kind of research within one's own religious groups in ways that were unimaginable in the past.

These examples of research in New Age religion illustrate that the scholarship in folk religion has expanded well beyond the old paradigm of the folk as peasant, and these and other examples from folklore scholarship since the early twentieth century indicate that the theoretical approaches have grown from simple survivalism to a complex pluralism of choices. The folk are now conceived as any group of people with any linking factor, although approaches grounded in cultural politics tend to focus on disenfranchised and oppressed minority groups as the folk. Folkloristic approaches to the study of religion have developed along similar lines as the general shifts in postmodern theory, with a special emphasis on performance, cultural studies, and feminism. Underlying all the various definitions and approaches used by folklorists to study religion is the ongoing concern for individual experience within specific everyday situations and broader cultural contexts.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology and Religion; Folk Religion, overview article; Popular Religion.


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Tyson, Ruel W., Jr., James L. Peacock, and Daniel W. Patterson, eds. Diversities of Gifts: Field Studies in Southern Religion. Urbana, Ill., 1988.

Vrijhof, Pieter, and Jacques Waardenburg, eds. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. The Hague, 1979.

Webber, Sabra. "Ramadan Observed." Papers in Comparative Studies 3 (1984): 183192.

Williams, Peter W. Popular Religion in America: Symbolic Change and the Modernization Process in Historical Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1980; reprint, Urbana, Ill., 1989.

Wilson, William A. "Folklore, a Mirror for What? Reflections of a Mormon Folklorist." Western Folklore 54 (1995): 1321.

Yoder, Don. "Toward a Definition of Folk Religion." Western Folklore 33 (1974): 215.

Patrick B. Mullen (2005)


views updated May 11 2018


Folklore is that part of a culture learned informally and interpersonally in groups whose members have a common bond. Communities such as a village or urban neighborhood as well as families, ethnic or religious groups, occupations, and regions generate and perpetuate traditions expressing shared values. Transmitted by word of mouth and demonstration, folklore takes many forms, from oral literature (proverbs, songs, tales) and material culture (architecture, crafts, food) to behavior that combines words and body action (superstitions, customs, games).

Folk knowledge was central to the lives of many Americans at the start of the nineteenth century. But institutions arising in the period 1820–1870, such as public schools, sheet music, popular magazines, and factories, would begin to fill the educational, recreational, and material needs once served by folk culture. This time of great change also saw the closing of the frontier, the building of a transcontinental rail system, and a demographic shift from country-side to city, breaking down the isolation that had fostered dependence on folklore for survival and quality of life.

Collectively, writers of the period who had grown up in tradition-based communities must have witnessed this transformation of American society with a mixture of regret and relief. Their literary uses of folklore, whether as the foundation of a work or for "local color," were both an attempt to recapture a vanishing way of life and an acknowledgment of the progress they were experiencing.

With a few exceptions, the serious study of American folklore did not occur until after 1870, as manifested by the establishment of the American Folklore Society in 1888 (along with academically based scholars, early members included Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and George Washington Cable). Our knowledge of antebellum American folklore thus depends heavily on the work of imaginative writers, with little contemporaneous "scientific" fieldwork documentation to corroborate their reliability. For most of those authors, folklore was grist for the creative mill, not a collection of cultural gems to be accurately recorded.

Early literary uses of folklore can be a valuable resource that allows folklorists to fill in missing information. A methodology for assessing the authenticity of folklore in literature should include consultation of biographical materials to determine under what circumstances the author encountered the lore, and comparison of perceived folk materials with those in later "scientific" collections from the same culture believed to be continuous since the author's time. To literary scholars, on the other hand, folklore is of interest as one source of an author's inspiration and for its contribution to a work's artistic success.

Whereas historical events certainly have had a role in shaping American folklore, geography has been an even stronger influence; it has provided a template for the diversity of the country's population and physical environment. The regional character of American folklore will therefore be the basis for this review of some noteworthy cases of literary use.


Marking the beginning of the survey period, and also illustrating the "detective work" of analyzing folklore in literature, is Washington Irving's (1783–1859) "Rip Van Winkle" (1819). At first glance, the story seems to be a European fairy legend transplanted to New York State that Irving might have heard from descendants of early Hudson Valley settlers. But the story's endnote hints at a very different source: "The foregoing Tale, one would suspect, had been suggested . . . by a little German superstition about the . . . Kypphäuser [sic] mountain" (p. 57). Living abroad in 1817, Irving met British novelist and folklorist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), who encouraged him to explore German folklore. Soon thereafter, while learning German, Irving came across the folktale "Peter Klaus" in either Volks-Sagen (1800) by Otmar (Johann Carl Christoph Nachtigal) or Volks-Sagen, Märchen und Legenden (1811) by Johann G. Büsching. It concerns a goatherd who awakens from a twenty-year slumber, after drinking fairy wine on the Kyffhäuser Mountain, to find his village dramatically changed.

Although elements of "Rip Van Winkle" are nearly identical to those in "Peter Klaus," a close reading shows the German tale to be merely Irving's Old World springboard for a distinctly New World work of fiction. Further, mention of possibly genuine Catskill Mountains legends (the bowling ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew and the Postscript's Native American lore) is grafted to the conclusion. Although the main plot of "Rip" thus is not based on American folklore, the discovery of, and comparison with, its source material more clearly reveals Irving's creative contributions in this seminal work of American short fiction. (His other famous story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" [1820], most likely had a similar German inspiration in the headless-horseman Rübezahl legends published by Johann Karl August Musäus.)

Studies of folklore in literature often are by scholars whose literary training and focus has caused them to overlook their subjects's inclusion of material folk culture (which became part of American folklore study in the 1960s). Such is the case with Kevin J. Hayes's Melville's Folk Roots, which examines the largely nautical superstitions, legends, tall tales, proverbs, and songs in the works of Herman Melville (1819–1891), mostly acquired firsthand in his early sailing experiences. But Melville did not restrict himself to this verbal lore; some of his richest uses involve traditional food, art, and architecture. For example, chapter 32 of White-Jacket (1850) describes a type of sailor's pie called dunderfunk as "made of hard biscuit, hashed and pounded, mixed with beef fat, molasses, and water, and baked brown in a pan . . . in the feeling language of the Down Easter, [it] is certainly 'a cruel nice dish' " (p. 134); chapter 15 of Moby-Dick (1851) gives a recipe for New England chowder: "It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt" (p. 65). Both dishes create a sense of place, the first on sea to illustrate shipboard resourcefulness with limited stores, the second on land as Nantucket hotel fare.

Chapter 57 of Moby-Dick describes the folk art of scrimshaw: "In Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth . . . in their hours of ocean leisure" (p. 269). This occurs as part of a critique of visual depictions of whales, Melville's point being that only artists who have actually seen the animal are capable of portraying it accurately (and, by extension, only those who have experienced the world can truly know it). This example of both occupational and regional folklore thus supports one of the author's philosophical themes. Finally, Melville's short story, "I and My Chimney" (1856), revolves around a type of vernacular building known to architectural historians as the New England Large House (a late-eighteenth-century development of the saltbox). Melville uses the dwelling, modeled on his real-life Berkshire farmhouse, Arrowhead, as a playful, pre-Freudian allegory of emasculation. The narrator's wife wants to tear out the massive central chimney with which he identifies to create a more fashionable hall: "'What!' said I, 'abolish the chimney? To take out the back-bone of anything, wife, is a hazardous affair'" (p. 289).

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) was both a poet and pioneer folklorist whose Legends of New-England in Prose and Verse (1831) and The Supernaturalism of New England (1847) were early attempts at preserving his region's "traditionary lore." Although much of his material was gleaned from printed sources, some evidently was taken from oral tradition. It should thus come as no surprise that he incorporated this lore in his poetry. A good example is "Telling the Bees" (1858). In his note to the somber poem the folklorist in him explains, "A remarkable custom, brought from the Old Country, formerly prevailed in the rural districts of New England. On the death of a member of the family, the bees were at once informed of the event, and their hives dressed in mourning. This ceremonial was supposed to be necessary to prevent the swarms from leaving their hives and seeking a new home" (p. 59).Whittier's appreciation of the custom's origin, indicative of the English background of early New England folklore, is confirmed three decades later by British writer Thomas Hardy's description of the same tradition in one of his Wessex Tales, "Interlopers at the Knap."


A rich vein of folklore runs through the antebellum literature known as "humor of the old Southwest." Southern writers such as David Crockett (and his exploiters), Johnson Jones Hooper, William Tappan Thompson, George Washington Harris, and Thomas Bangs Thorpe broke from British literary models by using rustic speech, characters, and manners to comically portray their region. Allowing for the fictionalization and exaggeration, their works provide valuable insight into America's frontier folkways.

Some contemporary critics of Washington Irving accused him of plagiarism. The following passages illustrate how closely parts of his famous story follow his German source.

"Rip Van Winkle"

On a level spot in the centre was a company of odd looking personages playing at ninepins. They were dressed in a quaint outlandish fashion—some wore short doublets. . . . By degrees Rip's awe and apprehension subsided. He even ventured, when no eye was fixed upon him, to taste the beverage, which he found had much of the flavour of excellent hollands. . . .

[The villagers] all stared at him with equal marks of surprise, and whenever they cast their eyes upon him, invariably stroked their chins. The constant recurrence of this gesture induced Rip involuntarily to do the same, when to his astonishment he found his beard had grown a foot long!

"Peter Klaus"

Peter . . . came at last to a smoothshaven green, where twelve ancient knights, none of whom spoke a word, were engaged in playing ninepins. . . . [He] saw at once that their . . . slashed doublets belonged to a fashion long past. By degrees his looks grew bolder, and noting . . . a tankard near him filled with wine whose aroma was excellent, he took a draught. . . .

These people only stared at him and fixed their eyes upon his chin. He put his hand unconsciously to his mouth, and to his great surprise found that he had grown a beard at least a foot long.

"Peter Klaus" as published by Otmar, translated by Thomas Roscoe in The German Novelists (1826), and reprinted in A Harvest of World Folk Tales, edited by Milton Rugoff (New York: Viking, 1949), pp. 371–373.

A pioneer of this genre was Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870), whose Georgia Scenes (1835) is set in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1790s. Teachers then were paid directly by parents, who would withhold pay for the days their children were freely given a holiday. In Longstreet's sketch, "The Turn Out," the pupils barricade themselves in the log schoolhouse and prevent the teacher from entering until he is forced to

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grant them a holiday. This curious school ritual had its origins in sixteenth-century Britain and is the subject of Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth's story, "The Barring Out" (1796). In America, "turn outs" are documented as early as 1702, but Georgia Scenes is the first literary treatment, followed by Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier School-Master (1871).

Another Longstreet sketch, "The Gander Pulling," features an even more unbelievable, but no less real, tradition. Vaguely inspired by medieval jousting tournaments, this brutal sport of the frontier South and Midwest required contestants to gallop their horses along a track while trying to yank the greased head off a live male goose suspended by the feet from above. Travel writers Henry Bradshaw Fearon and George William Featherstonhaugh described the sport in the early nineteenth century, but again, Georgia Scenes is the first fictionalization, followed by The Crockett Almanac 1840.

Perhaps the finest (from the folklorist's perspective) literary use of folklore for the period, if one of the most obscure, is Hardin E. Taliaferro's (1811–1875) Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859). The author, a Baptist minister and newspaper editor in Alabama, wrote the book following a visit to his Appalachian home community in Surry County, North Carolina. His recollections of boyhood neighbors emphasize the tradition of storytelling, in particular tall tales, a folktale type favored by many regional humorists (perhaps because it relies on the same hyperbole as do their writings). Taliaferro, however, managed to produce a work of literary merit with few of the genre's usual distortions.

At the same time, Fisher's River is a reliable American folklore document for the 1820s, a good half century before the first serious research. Early variants of folktales are told in dialect in the social contexts in which the author originally heard them. He did not even fictionalize the narrators's names (although he chose to hide his own identity with the pen name "Skitt"). These include Larkin Snow, the miller, whose stories entertained customers waiting for their meal to be ground, and gunsmith Uncle Davy Lane, whose "Ride in the Peach-Tree" substitutes a peach pit for the cherry stone used by Baron Munchausen in an eighteenth-century European variant of the hunting yarn. The seed, rammed down the barrel of the narrator's rifle when he runs out of regular ammunition, is fired at a large buck, which then runs off. A few years later, the narrator climbs from a cliff into a peach tree to gather the fruit, only to have the tree, which he discovers to be growing from the shoulders of the same stag, run off with him.

The best nineteenth-century literary portrayals of African American folklore, such as those of Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908) and Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932), appeared too late for the period under consideration. Two earlier nonfiction works, however, give a promise of things to come. While Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) was intended as abolitionist polemic, its details of slave culture anticipate the ex-slave oral histories recorded in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Work Projects Administration. Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) describes the Maryland plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd as having "the appearance of a country village. All the mechanical operations for all the farms were performed here. The shoemaking . . . the blacksmithing, cartwrighting, coopering, weaving, and grain-grinding, were all performed by the slaves on the home plantation" (p. 37). Slave fare consisted of "coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs . . . [to] devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons" (p. 45).

As protection from whippings, a fellow slave advised Douglass to carry "a certain root . . . always on my right side," but in a note the author distances himself from such magico-religious practices: "This superstition is very common among the more ignorant slaves" (pp. 67, 73). Charles Waddell Chesnutt would later fictitiously elaborate, in The Conjure Woman (1899), on the empowering sense of control afforded slaves by this African-derived belief system.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), literary critic, friend of poet Emily Dickinson, abolitionist, and commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a Union Army regiment of freed slaves, devotes a chapter of his Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870) to the spirituals he jotted down at night in the outfit's Civil War camp. The chapter was first published as an Atlantic Monthly article in 1867, the same year field-collected variants of twenty of his thirty-seven songs appeared in Slave Songs of the United States, compiled by pioneer folklorists William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, a confirmation of their authenticity.

Hardin E. Taliaferro's Fisher's River contains a wealth of tall tales the author heard while growing up in the North Carolina mountains in the 1820s. The following is narrated by Larkin Snow, whose "ambition consisted in being the best miller in the land, and in being number one in big story-telling." The tale has a European precedent in The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (London, 1785, in which the fast-running animal is a hare) and is first reported for the United States in 1808. In this sketch, Taliaferro also offers insight into the traditional Southern Mountain approach to fox hunting, which dispenses with "riding to the hound."

He would occasionally feel of his meal—while the old tub-mill would perform its slow revolutions as though it was paid by the year—to see whether it was ground fine enough to suit him. He would then give you one of his peculiar looks . . . and would tell you the story of the

Fast-Running Dog

"You see," said Larkin, "a passel uv fellers cum frum 'bout Rockford, Jonesville, and the Holler to have a fox-hunt, and kep' a-boastin' uv thar fast dogs. I told 'um my little dog Flyin'-jib could beat all thar dogs, and give 'um two in the game. I called him up and showed him to 'um, and you mout a hearn 'um laugh a mile, measured with a 'coonskin and the tail throwed in. I told 'um they'd laugh t'other side o' thar mouths afore it were done. They hooted me.

"We went out with 'bout fifty hounds, and, as good luck would hev it, we started a rale old Virginny red fox, 'bout three hours afore day, on the west side uv Skull Camp Mountain . . . Not fur from Shipp's Muster-ground they passed me, and Flyin'-jib were 'bout half a mile ahead on 'um all, goin' fast as the report of a rifle gun. Passin' through a meader whar thar were a mowin'-scythe with the blade standin' up, Flyin'-jib run chug aginst it with sich force that it split him wide open frum the eend uv his nose to the tip uv his tale. Thar he lay, and nuver whimpered, tryin' to run right on. I streaked to him, snatched up both sides uv him, slapped 'um together, but were in sich a hurry that I put two feet down and two up. But away he went arter the fox, scootin' jist in that fix. You see, when he got tired runnin' on two feet on one side, he'd whirl over, quick as lightnin', on t'other two, and it seemed ruther to hev increased his verlocity. He cotch the fox on the east side uv Skull Camp, a mile ahead uv the whole kit uv 'um."

Hardin E. Taliaferro ("Skitt"), Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859; New York: Arno, 1977), pp. 148–151.


A limited grounding in the culture of the American West typifies the antebellum writers who depicted this region's folklore. A case in point is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's lengthy poem, The Songof Hiawatha (1855). Sparked by the East's (and his own) Romantic fascination with Native Americans, Longfellow (1807–1882) wrote in an 1854 journal entry, "I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians. . . . It is to weave their beautiful traditions into a whole. I have hit upon a measure, too, which I think the right and only one for such a theme" (S. Longfellow 2:247–248). That measure was the trochaic tetrameter, or "tom-tom" beat, of the Kalevala, a Finnish folk epic compiled by Elias Lönnrot (1849, German translation 1852). The traditions Longfellow chose to weave were tales of the Algonquin trickster hero Manabozho, collected in Michigan among the Ojibwa (Chippewa) by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864) and published in his Algic Researches (1839). Some tales in that study had been rendered into English by Schoolcraft's half-Ojibwa wife and chief interpreter, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bame-wa-was-gezhik-a-quay, 1800–1842). Longfellow said of the pioneer ethnologist, "I have pored over Mr. Schoolcraft's writings nearly three years before I resolved to appropriate something of them to my own use" (Keiser, p. 192).

Folktales often found their way as fillers into antebellum periodicals such as the Spirit of the Times and Yankee Blade, published in New York and Boston, respectively. As an illustration of westward migration, the following excerpt appeared in the 18 December 1845 issue of the Cherokee Advocate of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, under the heading "Indian Fables." Using the pen name "Aesop," the contributor, missionary Samuel Worcester Butler, "accidentally stumbled on" the story among the Cherokees in Oklahoma after their forced removal from Georgia on the Trail of Tears. It is the first American report of "The Tar Baby," made famous by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880). The research of folklorist Florence Baer suggests that the folktale was brought from West Africa and that southeastern Indians borrowed it from blacks, perhaps in the eighteenth century.

"Once upon a time," there was such a severe drought, that all streams of water, and all lakes, were dried up.

In this emergency, the beasts assembled together, to devise means to procure water. It was proposed by one to dig a well. All agreed to do so except the hare. She refused because it would soil her tiny paws.—The rest, however, dug their well, and were fortunate enough to find water. The hare beginning to suffer with thirst, and having no right to the well, was thrown upon her wits to procure water. She determined, as the easiest way, to steal from the public well. The rest of the animals, surprised to find that the hare was so well supplied with water, asked her where she got it. She replied, that she arose betimes in the morning and gathered the dew drops. However, the wolf and the fox suspected her of theft, and hit on the following plan to detect her. They made a wolf of tar and placed it near the well. On the following night the hare came as usual, after her supply of water. On seeing the tar wolf, she demanded who was there. Receiving no answer, she repeated the demand, threatening to kick the wolf if he did not reply.

She receiving no reply, kicked the wolf, and by this means adhered to the tar and was caught. When the fox and wolf got hold of her, they consulted what it was best to do with her. One proposed cutting her head off. This the hare protested would be useless, as it had often been tried without hurting her. Other methods were proposed for despatching her, all which she said would be useless.

At last it was proposed, to let her loose to perish in a thicket. Upon this the hare affected great uneasiness, and pleaded hard for life. Her enemies however refused to listen, and she was accordingly let loose. As soon however as she was out of reach of her enemies, she gave a whoop, and bounding away, exclaimed, "This is where I live!"

As a presentation of Ojibwa mythology, however, Longfellow's poem is less than reliable. One problem is the name of his protagonist. A week after the previously quoted journal entry he wrote, "Work at 'Manabozho'; or, as I think I shall call it, 'Hiawatha' — that being another name for the same personage" (S. Longfellow 2:248). Hiawatha was said to have united the warring tribes of central New York into the Iroquois League around 1570; he had no connection with the more westerly Manabozho. The confusion of the two figures began when Schoolcraft, taking some poetic license himself, read a group of Hiawatha legends and made him into an Ojibwa god. Longfellow compounded the error and further departed from his source material by emphasizing the more creative side of Manabozho's character, that of culture hero. Not all of Longfellow's borrowings were from print, however; Schoolcraft arranged for him to meet Mendoskong, an Ojibwa chief, who supplied firsthand information. This rare early collaboration of a folklorist, folklore informant, and creative writer is remarkable in itself.

The Indians of the Great Plains made a literary appearance as early as 1827 in James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie, a westward extension of his Leatherstocking novels. However, Cooper (1789–1851) had never been within a thousand miles of its Wyoming setting, relying for his details on the 1823 account of Stephen H. Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains. In contrast, Francis Parkman's (1823–1893) travel narrative, The Oregon Trail (1848), offers a realistic (if superficial) eyewitness account of Dakota (Sioux) traditions, especially customs and material culture.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865) launched struggling journalist Mark Twain (1835–1910) into the literary spotlight. Rooted in the Southwestern Humor genre, the story is said to be based on folklore, but the nature of that lore is unclear. In an Angels Camp, California, saloon, Twain heard former steamboat captain Ben Coon tell of a frog-jumping contest. Whether Coon's yarn was a local tall tale or an account of an actual gold miners's recreation, similar stories in California newspapers of the 1850s suggest a tradition of some kind. Although Twain's story paints a less detailed portrait of life in the gold fields than Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868), it did inspire a California tradition of its own: in 1928 the Angels Camp Boosters Club began its annual Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee.


Partly as a response to the disruptions of the Civil War and the nostalgia of the Centennial, the later nineteenth century ushered in a golden age of folklore in American literature. If regional diversity arising from early settlement and the frontier experience can be said to mark the literary use of folklore from 1820 to 1870, the following decades would see for American letters a greater ethnic and gender inclusiveness, revealing more fully the colors and textures of the country's folk-cultural patchwork. Such literary masters of folklore as Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, and George Washington Cable would come into their own, soon followed by the likes of Rowland E. Robinson, Charles Chesnutt, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin. But the antebellum writers of this survey pointed the way, establishing a precedent for using folklore to reconnect American readers to their roots in traditional culture.

See alsoBlacks; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Humor; Indians; "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"; Moby-Dick;Oral Tradition; "Rip Van Winkle"; The Song of Hiawatha;Tall Tales


Primary Works

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. In The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, edited by William L. Andrews, pp. 21–97. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Irving, Washington. "Rip Van Winkle." 1819. In TheLegend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Selections from Washington Irving, edited by Austin McC. Fox, pp. 39–59. New York: Washington Square Press, 1962.

Melville, Herman. White Jacket; or, The World in a Man-ofWar. 1851. New York: Grove Press, 1956.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Melville, Herman. "I and My Chimney." 1856. In GreatShort Works of Herman Melville, edited by Warner Berthoff, pp. 275–302. New York: Harper and Row Perennial Classic, 1966.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. "Telling the Bees." 1858. In TheComplete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, Cambridge Edition, pp. 59–60. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894.

Secondary Works

Brown, Carolyn S. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Carey, George. "John Greenleaf Whittier and Folklore: The Search for a Traditional American Past." New York Folklore Quarterly 27, no. 1 (1971): 113–129.

Cohen, Hennig. "American Literature and American Folklore." In Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore, edited by Tristram Potter Coffin, pp. 238–247. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Cuff, Roger Penn. "Mark Twain's Use of California Folklore in His Jumping Frog Story." Journal of American Folklore 65, no. 256 (1952): 155–158.

Dorson, Richard M. "The Identification of Folklore in American Literature." Journal of American Folklore 70 (1957): 1–8.

Dorson, Richard M. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow: NewEngland Popular Tales and Legends. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946.

Hayes, Kevin J. Melville's Folk Roots. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999.

Jones, Steven Swann. Folklore and Literature in the UnitedStates: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies of Folklore in American Literature. New York: Garland, 1984.

Keiser, Albert. The Indian in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Leach, MacEdward. "Folklore in American Regional Literature." Journal of the Folklore Institute 3 (1966): 376–397.

Longfellow, Samuel. Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 2 vols. Boston: Ticknor, 1886.

Pochmann, Henry A. "Irving's German Sources in The Sketch Book." Studies in Philology 27 (1930): 477–507.

Pronechen, Joseph S. "The Making of Hiawatha." New York Folklore Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1972): 151–160.

Williams, Cratis D. "Mountain Customs, Social Life, and Folk Yarns in Taliaferro's Fisher's River Scenes and Characters." North Carolina Folklore Journal 16 (1968): 143–152.

John A. Burrison


views updated May 18 2018


FOLKLORE. In spite of its relatively short history, the United States has developed a rich seam of folklore that reflects both the nation's rapid transformation from agrarian to industrial and the multicultural society which has emerged from that transformation. Whether it be Mormons in Utah, Pennsylvania Amish, Cajuns from Louisiana, Appalachian mountaineers, African Americans from the Mississippi Delta, Mexican Americans in California and Texas, Minnesotans of Scandinavian extraction, New England Yankees, Chinese Americans in San Francisco, or Jews, Italians, and Irish from New York, Chicago, and Boston, America's heterogeneity, its geography, and its regional characteristics ensure that a diverse and constantly evolving culture contains a folk tradition that renders the United States unique among the industrialized nations. Whereas European countries can situate folk traditions within medieval time spheres, and Japan, for example, possesses ancient customs that represent a purism that links all of its people, America's folk heritage, its unwritten voice, has been aided, if not configured, by a cultural cross-fertilization that has seen different groups borrow from and interact with each other. Although in relative terms the United States can be seen as a young nation, it is also the world's oldest existing fully fledged democracy, and the vigorous nature of America's accelerated metamorphosis has ensured a vibrant folk culture that has manifested itself through various mediums including art and popular culture. It is therefore fitting that the convergent forces existing within a country of extremes should emanate from the "folk" themselves, promoting a national identity that continues to resonate throughout the globe.

American Folk Culture in the Nineteenth Century

The term "folklore" was first coined in 1846 by an Englishman, William John Thoms, and was a phrase used to describe the study of the ancient system of customs and beliefs practiced by common people. Subsequently in other nations, folklore became a means of establishing a unified national culture that also included language, music, and literature. To an extent these criteria applied to the United States in the nineteenth century as it began to forge an identity of its own. In contrast, though, to some nations in Europe where aristocrats sought proof of their own nationhood through the customs and language of the peasant class, America's literate population, already accustomed to a communicative spirit generated by newspapers, periodicals, and books, rejected the concept of an autocratic ruling elite. This is not to say that there was not already a burgeoning folkloric element rooted in Old World mythology such as the witch tales of New England and Appalachia. In general, though, tales and ballads about trappers, hunters, explorers, adventurers, and a myriad of liminal American characters that had experienced captivity, revolution, and the wilderness meant that folklore had taken on an American guise which embodied the country's exceptionalism.

There were also existing aboriginal cultures predicated almost entirely on the oral tradition. However, it was the Native Americans themselves who became objectified within the wider society while their culture remained firmly enclosed within the tribal environment. Subsequently, their myths and traditions remained, and still remain, detached and ethically different from the main body of the nation's folk traditions.

By the mid-nineteenth century, it was increasingly clear that the divisions perceived to exist between folk culture and mass culture were beginning to be blurred. American folk characters of that time embodied the principles of individualism and liberty while perpetuating ideas of nationhood and anti-elitism. All-American heroes such as Davy Crockett and Kit Carson were mythologized through almanacs, newspapers, and dime novels that anticipated the Superman comic boom a century later. The frontier and the West continued to be a source of fascination well into the twentieth century as Crockett and Carson plus a plethora of Western characters from Jesse James to Calamity Jane were, through the medium of the moving picture, ensconced forever within the nation's consciousness.

As well as influencing the course of popular culture, folklore was, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, a topic that required intellectual pursuit. As anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians attempted to situate an unwritten past through songs, myths, yarns, aphorisms, games, and numerous oral histories, folklore became very much a product of modernity. By the time the American Folklore Society (AFS) was founded in 1888, the United States had suffered a civil war and an economic slump; it had also undergone an accelerated industrial revolution that had seen its cities grow from cow towns and industrial ports to sprawling urban landscapes where immigrants and refugees from southern and eastern Europe brought their own folk traditions. The AFS's membership was drawn from mainly middle-class professionals who saw an opportunity for scientific research that reached outside the university curriculum. By the 1890s, the AFS had branches in cities across the United States, eclipsing by far similar organizations in Europe. It would be easy to view such an institution as emblematic of a subliminal yearning for a simpler, preindustrial America idealized through the rose-tinted spectacles of a socially and economically privileged, predominantly eastern, professional class. However, prominent folklorists of the late nineteenth century, for example T. F. Crane and Lee J. Vance, would offer the unearthing of "primitive" materials as valid evidence of humanity's advancement. In this sense, it could be argued, folklore was intrinsic to the modernizing process as folk specialists set about researching isolated communities in order to promote the benefits of what came to be known as the Gilded Age.

African American Folklore

Collectors and folklorists such as the first president of the AFS, Francis James Child, who compiled an extensive catalogue of British-based folk songs the final volume of which was published in 1898; Cecil Sharpe, an Englishman who made several trips to the Appalachians between 1916 and 1918 to document the "Elizabethan" ballads of Kentucky; and Vance Randolph, who initially visited the Ozarks of Arkansas during 1920 and discovered a powerful British influence within the local folk culture, provided a case for those who insisted there was no such thing as a quintessentially American folk heritage. Thus, even in those environments relatively unaffected by mass culture and industrialization, extant folk traditions were unequivocally linked to Great Britain, suggesting a regional homogeneity that was untypical of America as a whole. In this context, how does one assess African American culture and its contribution to an identifiable American folklore?

The unavoidable fact that African Americans were denied, through slavery, the educational and economic advantages enjoyed by the majority of U.S. society provided the conditions for the birth of a vibrant and inventive folk culture. Although informed by both African and European elements, in essence what emerged from the plantations of the South resembled conventional notions of folklore inasmuch that it was a mythology steeped in an oral tradition of trickster tales, animal stories, and work songs. Fundamentally, whereas the rest of America had an already-established written tradition, most slaves were never allowed the opportunity to achieve any adequate level of literacy. Of course there are exceptions, given the proliferation of written slave narratives, but such instances are relatively rare.

In contrast to Native Americans, whose traditions and myths were never allowed to enter into the dominant realm, African Americans, partly because of language and Christian belief, possessed cultural traits that were instantly recognizable to whites. As the songs of Stephen Foster and the blackface minstrelsy craze that proved to be the nation's most popular form of entertainment for the best part of a hundred years would help to testify, there was a long-held fascination with black America. Though distorted by sentimentalism, parody, and racist caricature, it was a fascination which allowed for a certain amount of cultural cross-fertilization.

Beginning with the publication in 1867 of William F. Allen, Charles P. Ware, and Lucy M. Garrison's Slave Songs, there would be a steady flow of African American–oriented folk material that would be absorbed into white society through various mediums including music, literature, and the pages of the Journal of American Folklore. In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers were first assembled to perform Negro spirituals. The Fisks, who refined the spiritual to make it acceptable as a serious art form to white audiences, would subsequently travel to England, appearing before Queen Victoria. Mark Twain and the Czech composer Antonín Dvo[UNK]ák, who embellished his New World Symphony (1893) with the sacred folk melodies of former slaves, admired the Negro spirituals as truly great American music.

In popular fiction, Joel Chandler Harris's chronicling of slave folk tales, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, published in 1880, provided a predominantly white readership with an amusing foray into the world of the plantation. In writing the Uncle Remus stories, Harris incorporated the dialect of the Gullah islanders, an isolated community that resided off the coast of South Carolina. Believed to have retained many African oral inflections, the islanders were of some interest to folklorists. Years later, George Gershwin would live among the Gullah people while researching his 1934 "folk opera" Porgy and Bess, a musical version of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward's Porgy. Dubose Heyward, incidentally, was a white southerner who spent years observing the folk characteristics of the Gullah community in Charleston.

Although white novelists were initially responsible for illustrating the folkways of black America, it would be African American authors who would successfully combine the oral traditions surfacing from the nineteenth century with modernist literary forms. Although Paul Laurence Dunbar's dialect verse drew national acclaim in the early 1900s, it would be those black writers and poets who rose to prominence in the wake of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance who would successfully intertextualize trickster tales, folk songs, and other folkloric elements into their art. Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, and latterly Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison are all examples of African Americans who would evoke black oral traditions in their written work. Thus, African American literature has taken from folklore in order to give historical license to a people whose past had hitherto only been written through the eyes of the enslaver.

The interchange between the black folk tradition and the white literary tradition suggests a synthesis that transcends racial barriers. To an extent, this is often repeated in American folk music. In the South, historically the most racially segregated region in the United States, there was (and is) a huge public domain of folk songs that have continually traversed the color line. Songs that seem to typify an America undergoing industrialization and urbanization, such as "Casey Jones," "Stagolee," "Frankie and Johnny," and "John Henry," have passed back and forth between the races only to be claimed by both. The South has produced white blues singers and black hillbilly groups, while jazz emerged from its African American folk roots in New Orleans to become a quintessentially American art form. White country music owes much to African American blues. In 1926, one of the first artists to perform on the Grand Ole Opry was a black harmonica player called DeFord Bailey, who improvised nineteenth-century folk tunes such as "Fox Chase" which he had learned from his father, a former slave from East Tennessee. White hillbilly's first million-selling artist, Jimmie Rodgers, who developed his musical style working with African Americans on the railroad, produced a number of highly successful blues sides between 1927 and 1933, while African American blues singers like Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Blind Lemon Jefferson would include traditional white forms in their repertoires.

Put in this context, one could certainly argue that the interchange between southern black and white folk traditions, especially in folk song, produced a synthesis of sorts which could almost be defined as a single southern folk culture.

Folklore, Mass Culture, and Multiculturalism

The blurring of folklore and popular culture that was hinted at during the nineteenth century through the depiction of folk characters in dime novels, almanacs, and newspapers took on another dimension with the technological advancement that succeeded World War I. Radio, the phonograph, and the cinema all provided a facility for mass communication in an era when the unfettered consumerism of the postwar Jazz Age was followed by the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During this period, America was becoming a more fluid society, with African Americans and rural whites from the South migrating to the urban centers of the North and the Midwest. Of course, these migrants brought their folk customs and their traditions with them. Ironically, as many Americans became effectively displaced, they developed a keener sense of their own regional heritage. For example, blues artists who migrated to Chicago during the 1920s would, in many of their songs, express a yearning for their southern homeland—a yearning that reflected the feelings of many whites as well as African Americans.

As southerners moved north, the children of those immigrants that had poured into the United States over the previous fifty years were gradually being assimilated into the wider society. The first-ever jazz phonograph recording, "Livery Stable Blues," was performed by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white ensemble led by the son of Italian immigrant Nick La Rocca. With the expansion of the entertainment industry and Tin Pan Alley, songwriters such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, Jews from New York's Lower East Side, were composing ditties portraying an idyllic America that evoked Stephen Foster's sentimentalized version of a pastoral South. Gershwin and Berlin, blues singers from Chicago, white jazz bands from New Orleans: none of these were creating folklore; they were instead helping to produce commodities for the mass market. However, they were also prompting an idea of a common folk heritage that was rooted in the pastoral. Similarly, cinema portrayals of western heroes from the previous century added to the illusion of a rural America that predated mass immigration and urbanization. So, even for the children of immigrants, a perception of an American past was constructed that was all-inclusive.

The New Deal epoch and the ascendancy of the Popular Front during the 1930s produced a celebration of the people that was reflected in the photography of Dorothea Lange, whose "Migrant Mother" signified the stabilizing effect of the family and the dignifying presence of women at a time when many men were forced to travel the length and breadth of America searching for work. Lange was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that was, between 1935 and 1943, responsible for sending folklorists, writers, and photographers out on field trips to observe the cultural mores, oral histories, education, political views, and medical needs of families in case studies that spanned twenty-four states. The work of the WPA marked a trend that had witnessed folklorists and collectors set out to explore the treasures that existed within America's cultural undergrowth.

Prompted by the anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, Zora Neale Hurston made several exploratory journeys to the South to unearth a wealth of African American folktales, rhymes, and jokes which would find the light of day in her groundbreaking chronicle of African American folklore Mules and Men, published in 1935. For folk music, under the auspices of the Library of Congress folk song archive, John and Alan Lomax first went to the South in 1933 recording folk songs, reels, and obscure country blues by performers, some of whom had never left their locality. John Lomax was also responsible for bringing Huddie Ledbetter out of Angola State Penitentiary and to the attention of folk music. Lomax also conducted several notable interviews for the Library of Congress including Leadbelly, the now-legendary Oklahoma folk poet Woody Guthrie, and the Georgia blues singer Blind Willie McTell. To complement the Lomaxes' field recordings, the maverick avant-garde filmmaker-artist and part-time anthropologist Harry Smith uncovered dozens of vinyl recordings from between 1927 and 1932, a time when record sales plummeted. Smith's collection, which covered southern traditional music from Appalachia to Texas, found its way to Folkways Records and was eventually released as the Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. The anthology would have a huge effect on the folk boom of the early 1960s, a time when folk music had become firmly entrenched as a vehicle for political protest.

Quite clearly the celebrating of a people's culture was a concept held dear by the political left. In 1968, the organizers for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's March set up folklore workshops for African American, poor white, and Hispanic participants. This notion of unity through diversity was evident in folk festivals that were first staged in the 1930s, a time when institutions such as Tennessee's Highlander Folk School took sharecroppers and trained them to be union organizers. One of the tactics employed by Highlander to attract both blacks and whites into workers' collectives was the conversion of Negro spirituals and traditional folk songs into songs of solidarity. "We Shall Not Be Moved," for example, became a rallying cry on the picket line.

Seemingly, the whole political climate of the 1930s and 1940s lent itself to the reinterpretation of folk songs as propaganda. Woody Guthrie rewrote countless traditional folk songs so as to convey a political message. "John Henry" became "Tom Joad," "The Ballad of Jesse James" became "Jesus Christ," and Leadbelly's "Good Night Irene"—itself based on a traditional melody—became "Roll On Columbia." Guthrie came from a generation that was influenced by phonograph recordings. By listening to the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as a young man, he was inheriting an oral tradition, but one which had become universalized by twentieth-century technology. The radio, in particular, furnished a network that spanned the country. The fireside chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt epitomized the "folksy" or homespun quality that has characterized many American heads of state from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan.

The radio then, whether regional or national, engendered a spirit of community that encouraged a perception of American identity among its listeners. The fact that commercial interests became interwoven with folklore established a trend that carried on into television. From the early sponsorship of the Grand Ole Opry and the 1930s King Biscuit Flour blues broadcasts in Helena, Arkansas, to present-day television commercials advertising beer that evoke rural Mississippi and the Delta blues, the business community has promoted folk culture as an exemplar for American identity in order to sell its own product.

In spite of the view that folklore has become more of a commodity than a people's culture, there is still much to suggest that oral traditions, folktales, and songs will continue to flourish in an age of spiraling technology and global communication. The Internet and the World Wide Web now provide access to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, and any number of folklore centers, all of which contain elaborate chronicles of migrant narratives, field recordings, blues songs, and transcriptions of WPA interviews. American folklore is not static and there is still an immense amount of material that remains unrecorded and underresearched. Events, disasters, and wars all produce their unwritten histories though technology has helped to preserve those histories. Who is not to say that rap music represents an extension of the African American oral tradition, or that the AIDS memorial quilt signifies a folk heritage which predates the industrial age? The revival in American "roots" music, the boom in handicraft sales, and the success of television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies are all examples of how folklore, commercial interests, and popular culture blend into one another. In this respect, folklore allows the past and the present to meet head on and interacts with popular culture and the commercial world in a way that has almost become an American tradition in itself.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Bronner, Simon J. Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore; An Introduction. New York: Norton, 1968.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1996.

Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Filene, Benjamin. "'Our Singing Country': John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of the American Past." American Quarterly (December 1991): 602–624.

Grundy, Pamela. "'We Always Tried to be Good People': Respectability, Crazy Water Crystals, and Hillbilly Music on the Air, 1933–1935." Journal of American History 81, no. 4 (March 1995): 1591–1620.

Kelley, Robin D. G. "Notes on Deconstructing 'The Folk'." American Historical Review 97, no. 5 (December 1992): 1400–1408.

Levine, Lawrence W. "The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences." In Levine, The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.



views updated Jun 08 2018


The word folklore has a precise genesis, August 1846, when William Thoms, an English antiquary, used it as a substitute for the expression popular antiquities. In spite of the simplicity of the word's components—translating literally into the lore of the folk—it is difficult to find an accurate definition of folklore, because it refers both to a field of learning and to the whole subject matter of that field. Folklorists identify three main elements when they attempt to explain the nature of their work: They see folklore as a diversity of forms of expression, grounded in tradition, by means of which a community manifests its own identity.


The "Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore," adopted on November 15, 1989, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), offered the following definition of folklore: "Folklore (or traditional and popular culture) is the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group or individuals and recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity; its standards and values are transmitted orally, by imitation or by other means." This definition manages to bring together the main key words—tradition, community, and identity—on which folklorists concur when they attempt to explain the nature of their discipline. Other elements of the UNESCO proposal, however, are open to debate or to questioning. The idea, for instance, that folklore is transmitted orally has been questioned by Alan Dundes (1989) and does not correspond to the present conception of folklore. In the early twenty-first century, folklore might include, for example, autograph or recipe books, and the domain of electronic communication taking place on the Internet and cellular phones. The quotation above tries to summarize the folk component of the word. When it comes to the lore element, the usual practice is to list the diversity of expressive forms: beliefs, customs, skills, and the broad range of verbal genres such as legends, personal stories, riddles, proverbs, and songs. Richard M. Dorson (1972) tries to regroup the matter in four sectors: verbal forms on the one hand and, on the other hand, the manifestations of folk-life—material culture, social folk customs, and performance folk arts. It is precisely the diversity of the materials and their dissimilarity that challenges any attempt to define the discipline, according to Barre Toelken (1979), who offers, however, a brief definition that adds the two important notions of informality and dynamism. Folklore's substance consists of "tradition-based communicative units informally exchanged in dynamic variation through space and time" (p. 32).


An aura of nostalgia may still surround the notion of folkloric traditions, a legacy of the origins of the discipline in the nineteenth century. At that time, customs, beliefs, or expressions of simple folk, mainly peasants, were seen as survivals of ancient cultural systems. Folklorists from urban milieus thought that they could restore traditional rural cultures represented by the "backward" groups they were studying, groups who were supposed to have resisted to the so-called advanced industrial culture. Tradition is no longer viewed as something fixed in a past that folklorists should resurrect. Tradition gives meaning to the present and builds the future through making reference to the past; it entails change and creativity. The way the performer of a song builds upon preexisting models and repertoire leaves room for interpretive innovation and adjustment to new contexts. In order to remain within the boundaries of folklore, however, a balance must be kept between individual creativity and the respect for what a community considers its tradition. It is precisely through this common agreement on what constitutes its beliefs, customs, and verbal lore that a group defines its identity. Change and creativity within a sense of continuity are essential; otherwise, the group can become oppressive. A perverse manipulation of tradition may occur when the sense of a common heritage is invoked for nationalistic or racist motives. There is something paradoxical in this kind of fallacious recourse to traditions at a time when the world is experiencing the globalization of means of communication and the rapid changes brought about by this phenomenon.


Until the last two decades of the twentieth century, the general practice was to associate folklore with socially or geographically marginalized groups. This opposition between folkloric communities and those who studied them was a reflection of nationalism and of a romantic vision of the people. It has been replaced by a more inclusive and diversified notion of what constitutes a group expressing its own identity through a specific folklore. The term folk does not refer to a single homogeneous entity: Everyone belongs to a variety of groups "national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, occupational, familial—each with its set of identifying traditions." Sexual identity must also be added to this "onion-skin layering of multiple identities of each individual" (Dundes 1989, p. 16). One of the earliest categories to be socially recognized, sexual identity, generates a rich and elaborate repertoire of divination techniques, songs, proverbs, tales about gender roles, and crafts specific to men and women. Identity groups develop significant forms of expression and behavior that bring their members together and function as means of identification and cohesion. Even formal institutions such as academia, law, and government create their own peculiar folklore, made up of common ways of talking or behaving that are not the product of a specific training but built up and transmitted as a result of more or less codified interactions between their members. The "folk," according to Dundes (1965), refers to "any group of people whatsoever who share one or more common factors" (p. 3).

Identification with a group through a common set of traditions becomes a problematic issue in the context of multiple forms of diasporas that are the result of market forces, political upheavals, and mass communication. Original forms of folklore are emerging from new types of global communities that are building up through the Internet and the cellular phone. Such new forms coexist with the local elder who orally transmits old tales to the grandchildren of the community. The phenomenon of multicultural and diverse societies leads, on the one hand, to forms of hybridization or creolization, for example, to a process of cultural cross-fertilization; on the other hand, it may result in a sometimes intolerant promotion of a certain group's image. Ethnic slurs, what folklorists call the blason populaire, have always been a way for a community to build its cohesion, to define itself vis-à-vis another group, which can belong to a different race, country, village, or soccer team. Another example is provided by the antifeminist slurs so evident in jokes, proverbs, and riddles. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which this type of folkloric tradition has contributed to the formation of deep-seated prejudices.


To some degree, folklore in a multicultural, globalized society still carries the elements of loss and nostalgia that were evident at the origin of the discipline in the nineteenth century, the time when the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and other collectors compiled customs and beliefs from rural areas or stories of oral traditions to prevent them from disappearing. The sense that heritage, which identifies a community, should be preserved, can be commercially or politically manipulated. Local traditions, crafts, or festivals become products that are sold to tourists and other consumers looking for images of authentic traditions. In 1950 Richard M. Dorson coined the word fakelore for this kind of manipulation, which began, in fact, at the origins of the discipline when the Scottish poet James Macpherson in the 1760s invented the legendary Gaelic bard Ossian. Fakelore, however, cannot simply be dismissed as inauthentic. It plays an important cultural role, especially in the elaboration of representations and myths that contribute to foster national or ethnic identity. One can mention the paraphernalia that accompanies the revival of Celtic culture or the many revival festivals with their parades of folkloric costumes, their dance performances, and their demonstrations of traditional crafts. These events try to keep alive traditions that are more or less accurately reconstructed, sometimes with the blessing of folklorists who work hand in hand with their promoters.

This connection between what one might call genuine research and the use of folkloric data for ideological or political ends has also been evident since the very beginning of the discipline. Its development during the nineteenth century was concomitant with the process of nation building in Europe. The best examples of this close relationship come from relatively small countries such as Finland, Hungary, and Ireland, known for their activity in collecting and studying folklore. This quest for the voice of one's people, for the soul of the folk that the German poet Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) found in folktales, songs, and national heroes, can be legitimate, especially among groups who feel a loss of identity because of oppression or colonization. During the 1930s, however, in a Germany demoralized after its defeat in World War I, the misuse of folklore, in continuity with the Herderian concept of the folk, contributed to the promotion of Nazi ideology. In the mass of folkloric literature produced at that time, fake anti-Semitic proverbs were published alongside genuine data. In the postnationalist multicultural societies of the twenty-first century, however, folklore can become a tool for the promotion of human rights. Working with groups of immigrants or grassroots movements, folklorists, both scholarly and amateur, have found ways to preserve these groups' identities, to give them voices and hence, political powers.


If one assumes that folklore is concerned with vernacular forms of culture, in the aesthetics of everyday life, women's traditions and the way they shape their identities should represent an important part of what is studied. Historically this has not been the case; men have been responsible for most of folklore's production and much of its content. Since Claire Farrer's collection of essays (1986 [1975]) and Francis A. de Caro's bibliographical survey (1983), women folklorists have raised this issue and have analyzed the relative absence of women's voices in the practice and study of their discipline. They refer to Herder and the founding fathers of Romantic nationalism as representing a worldview that has infiltrated folklore research. This worldview is based on the assumption that patriarchy reflects the inviolable natural order of the world and that the social organization of a nation is modeled on the nuclear family. Tradition, designed to preserve the social order, is seen as the expression of the forefathers' wisdom passing through the male line from father to son.

The result is that little attention has been paid to women's folkloric production in comparison to that of men; women were usually used as informants only when men were not available. When they have not been ignored, genres identified with women have been denigrated, as is evident from the expression old wives' tale. Even a cursory look at the forms of folkloric expression associated with women reveals their diversity and their importance for the communities in which they are produced. Some deal with issues that are specific to sexuality and family life. An important body of lore is related to women's reproductive functions from menstruation to menopause, including love magic, courtship and marriage customs, birth practices, and child care. Women act as healers and practitioners of folk medicine. Many of the traditional art forms created by women have often been neglected, regarded merely as aspects of their domestic activities, even if certain outstanding forms of needlework have attracted the interest of researchers—for example, quilts or folk costumes, a distinctive mark of identification in traditional societies. In addition to multiple forms of needlework, women's crafts that are accompanied by folklore include cheese making, soapmaking, butter churning, and gardening. Beyond the domain of daily activities, the important field of historical and heroic female figures has gained attention, with work on the Amazons, saints, the Virgin Mary and her cult, and the controversial topic of ancient goddess worship, among others.

As does any other group, women define themselves by their identification with different communities, some of them including men, others specifically female, such as nuns, nannies, waitresses, and female prostitutes. With the redefinition of gender identities, other ways of self-identification—as lesbian, trans-or bisexual, for example—are being explored and folklores are developing.

As mentioned some explanation for a lack of attention to the voice of women in folklore can be found in the theoretical assumptions of the discipline's founding fathers. On the one hand the nationalist bias tended to see cultures as homogeneous gender-neutral ethnic entities. On the other hand a model of performance based on public or formalized areas favored forms of expression proper to men, whereas those practiced by women, such as recipes, lullabies, and songs, are mostly confined to the private domain.

Fieldwork practices, generally based on the contributions and concerns of male informants, tended to neglect female forms of expression. Nevertheless, in spite of these shortcomings, folklore may offer theoretical grounds for addressing gender issues, mainly because it recognizes that categories, among them gender, are cultural constructions of reality and that they reflect the diversity of forms of collective identifications. Its interest, since its origin, in vulnerable communities under threat from majority cultures, can easily shift—especially now that more women folklorists work in the field—to give increased attention to forms of expression in relation or opposition to patriarchy.


In the nineteenth century the first question that was asked about legends, customs, and other forms of folklore concerned their origin. Did a tale, a song, or a legend appear at several places at the same time or in just one place from whence it was disseminated? Related to this concern was the belief that fragments of lore had to be identified and collected in rural areas because they constituted survivals of earlier rituals. As folklore was seen as relics of ancient mythologies, one of the goals of the folklorist was to reconstruct the myths of gods and heroes from these fragments.

This belief in the possibility of retrieving the original form of a folkloric item underlies the historical-geographical approach, also known as the Finnish school of folklore. According to the premises of this method, a form, for instance a tale, originated at one time in a precise place and then spread from there. The folklorist then has to collect all the variants of this tale, find their common plot, and then, by comparing these variants, locate the place where the story appears in its purest form. This effort resulted in invaluable collections of folkloric items. In 1910 Antti Aarne published his catalogue of types of folktales, which was expanded by Stith Thompson, who also compiled and classified narrative units of stories in his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The critics of this approach express doubts about the possibility of finding all the possible variants of a tale and remark that it reduces the tale to an abstract plot, lacking the aesthetic and human components that make it relevant to the performer and the audience.

The diffusionist theory, which is likewise concerned with the ways items of folklore travel, does not look for sources but studies how cultures borrow from one another. Psychoanalytical folklorists used myths and folk-tales to find Freudian symbols. Sticks, knives, pencils, and trees represent the male genitals, whereas the female organs are symbolized by caves, bottles, boxes, jewel cases, and gardens. Attention has also been given to the structures underlying myths, legends. and folktales. In his Morphology of the Folktale (1928), Vladimir Propp shows that folktales revolve around a recurrent series of thirty-one types of action—functions in his terminology—themselves organized in sequential arrangements. The structuralist theory is most prominently represented by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966); he argues that similar invariant features can be found in myths around the world and that they can be related to the logical structure of the human mind.

In parallel to this work on the textual expressions of folklore, a number of folklorists in the second half of the twentieth century expressed less interest in genres and forms than in the role folklore plays in a given community. The functionalist theory looks at its role in educating the young, promoting values or censuring disapproved attitudes, fostering solidarity, or expressing protest. In this approach great importance is given to the environment in which a form takes on its meaning, with a shift from merely compiling collections of data to situating them in the cultural context of their performance. In this context, fieldwork and the development of ethical and honest relationships with informants become the cornerstones of the folklorist's work.


It goes without saying that the first requirement for folklorists is to manifest a real appreciation for the traditions they are studying; dismissing them as backward survivals or romanticizing them with nostalgia are equally disrespectful. The ethical problem resulting from the tension between the right to information and the legitimate restrictions a group may put on the dissemination of their lore is a crucial aspect of folklore research. Some aspects of a ceremony may be taboo for outsiders, and publishing them might be seen as a religious offense. Such cases are normally dealt with through ethical and policy regulations applying to research involving human participants. In a context of freely available information, a question remains: Is it possible to protect and copyright folk materials? In certain communities some performers are seen as owners of the stories or songs they perform. Even when this is not the case, should not the community itself be considered the owner of its tradition, not the folklorist, or those who want to patent healing plants, or pop singers who earn considerable revenues with folk songs without recognizing their origins? Since the 1960s, developing countries have tried to regulate the use of folklore traditions, and UNESCO has begun to address these complex and difficult issues under the umbrella of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

see also Anthropology; Blood; Boys, Construction of; Folk Beliefs and Rituals; Folk Healers and Healing; Food; Funerary Customs: I. Non-Western; Funerary Customs: II. Western; Gender Identity; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Gender Stereotype; Girls, Construction of; Legends and Myths; Maiden; Marriage Bed, Rituals of; Mermaid; Rough Music.


Aarne, Antti, and Stith Thompson. 1961. The Types of the Folktale, ed. and trans. Stith Thompson. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Ben-Amos, Dan. 1971. "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context." Journal of American Folklore 84(331): 3-15.

Ben-Amos, Dan, and Kenneth S. Goldstein, eds. 1975. Folklore: Performance and Communication. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.

Blacker, Carmen, and Hilda Ellis Davidson, eds. 2000. Women and Tradition: A Neglected Group of Folklorists. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Briggs, Charles, and Amy Shuman, eds. 1993. "Theorizing Folklore: Toward New Perspectives in the Politics of Culture." Spec. issue, Western Folklore 52 (2-4).

Collins, Camilla A., ed. 1990. "Folklore Field Work: Sex, Sexuality, and Gender." Spec. issue, Southern Folklore 47(1).

de Caro, Francis A., comp. 1983. Women and Folklore: A Bibliographic Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Dorson, Richard M., ed. 1972. Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dundes, Alan. 1965. The Study of Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Dundes, Alan. 1989. Folklore Matters. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Farrer, Claire R., ed. 1986 (1975). Women and Folklore: Images and Genres. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Van Gennep, Arnold van. 1937–. Manuel de folklore français contemporain. Paris: Picard.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hollis, Susan Tower; Linda Pershing; and M. Jane Young, eds. 1993. Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Jackson, Bruce, ed. 1987. "Folklore and Feminism." Spec. issue, Journal of American Folklore 100(398).

Jordan, Rosan A., and Susan J. Kalčik, eds. 1985. Women's Folklore, Women's Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leach, Maria, ed. 1949–1950. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. 2 vols. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. 2nd edition. trans. Laurence Scott; ed. Louis A. Wagner. Austin: University of Texas Press. Originally published, 1928.

Radner, Joan Newlon, ed. 1993. Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Thompson, Stith. 1955–1958. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. 6 vols. Rev. edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Toelken, Barre. 1979. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore." Available from

                                              Madeleine Jeay


views updated May 14 2018


Forms of verbal art

Some functions of verbal art


Folklore means folk learning; it comprehends all knowledge that is transmitted by word of mouth and all crafts and techniques that are learned by imitation or example, as well as the products of these crafts. Objects which are mass produced and knowledge which is acquired through books or formal education are a part of culture, which includes the total body of learning, but they are not folklore. In nonliterate societies folklore is virtually identical with culture, but in literate industrialized societies it is only a fragment of culture. Anthropologists and humanists have defined folklore differently, but their definitions are in fundamental agreement in excluding all learning that is transmitted by writing.

Folklore includes folk art, folk crafts, folk tools, folk costume, folk custom, folk belief, folk medicine, folk recipes, folk music, folk dance, folk games, folk gestures, and folk speech, as well as those verbal forms of expression which have been called folk literature but which are better described as verbal art. Verbal art, which includes such forms as folktales, legends, myths, proverbs, riddles, and poetry, has been the primary concern of folklorists from both the humanities and the social sciences since the beginnings of folklore as a field of study, and it is with this principal segment of folklore that this article is concerned.

European interest in folklore goes back at least to the sixteenth century and the age of exploration, but the modern study of folklore is generally considered to date from the early years of the nineteenth century, when the Grimm brothers began collecting German folktales in the field. The term folklore was first introduced into English in 1846 by William John Toms, who urged that accounts of “the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, &c., of the olden time” be recorded in Britain for future study and for comparison with the materials which were being recorded in Germany by the Grimm brothers and other scholars.

Forms of verbal art

A variety of forms or genres of verbal art have been distinguished by folklorists, but neither the categories nor the terminology has been standardized. The following categories have proved useful.

Prose narrative. Myths, legends, and folktales are three important kinds of prose narrative or “tale,” which is one of the most widespread forms of verbal art. The differences between myths, legends, and folktales are hotly disputed, but distinctions similar to those made here are recognized in some nonliterate societies and have long been employed by students of European folklore.

Myths. In the society in which they are told, myths are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the past. They are taught to be believed, and they can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief. Myths are the embodiment of dogma; they are usually sacred, and they are often associated with theology and ritual. Their characters are usually not human beings, but they often have human attributes. Myths account for the origin of the world, of mankind, of death; for characteristics of birds and animals; or for features of the landscape. They may recount the activities of the deities, their victories and defeats, their friendships and enmities, their love affairs, and their family relationships. They may “explain” details of ceremonial paraphernalia or ritual, or why taboos must be observed.

Legends. Like myths, legends are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are usually secular rather than sacred. Their principal characters are human, and they concern a period less remote than that of myths. They tell of migrations, wars and victories, deeds of past chiefs and kings, and succession in ruling dynasties. They include local tales of buried treasure, ghosts, fairies, and saints. Legends correspond to Sagen in German and traditions populaires in French.

Folktales. Prose narratives that are regarded as fiction are called folktales. They usually recount the adventures of animals or humans, but ogres and even deities may appear in them. A variety of subtypes can be distinguished, including drolls or noodles, trickster tales, tall tales, dilemma tales, formulistic tales, and moral tales or fables. Folktales are known as Marchen in German and as contes populaires in French. They have been known as fairy tales in English, but this is inappropriate both because fairies seldom appear in folktales and because narratives about fairies are usually regarded as true. Some folklorists use the term Märchen in English while employing “folktale” to include all three categories, but this is unnecessary when “prose narrative” better serves this purpose.

The distinction here between truth and fiction refers only to the beliefs of those who tell and hear these tales, and not to our beliefs, to historical or scientific fact, or to any ultimate judgment of truth and falsehood. In diffusing from one society to another, a myth or legend may be accepted without being believed, thus becoming a folktale in the borrowing society. Occasionally the reverse may also happen. In a period of rapid cultural change an entire belief system and its mythology may be discredited. Even in cultural isolation there may be some skeptics who do not accept the traditional system of belief. Nevertheless, it is important to know what the majority in a society believes to be true at any given point of time, for people act upon what they believe to be true.

Aphorisms . Proverbs, maxims, and similar terse, sententious sayings can be grouped together. Again usage varies, but in this article proverbs are distinguished from “proverbial phrases” or metaphorical comparisons and from maxims or mottoes like “Honesty is the best policy,” which can be applied only in the literal sense. Proverbs have a deeper meaning, one which can be understood only through the analysis of the social situations to which they are appropriate. While prose narratives are world-wide in their distribution, proverbs are primarily an Old World genre, important throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Proverbs have been reported from the Americas and from Oceania, but not in large numbers and not with sufficient documentation to determine whether they are in fact proverbs or some other form of aphorism.

Riddles . Riddles differ from proverbs in that they require an answer, but they may also be concisely stated. African riddles are usually phrased as short declarative sentences, rather than as questions, so that they resemble proverbs in form and so that initially it may be difficult for an outsider to recognize the implicit question to which he is expected to provide the correct answer. Riddles vary considerably in their form of statement; and many European riddles take the form of rhyming poems, as in the case of Humpty Dumpty. Riddles again are primarily an Old World genre, although some have been recorded in other parts of the world.

Poetry, tongue-twisters, and verbal formulas . Poetry is widespread, at least in the form of song texts, but has received far less attention than the forms of verbal art mentioned thus far. Tongue-twisters have been recorded in various parts of the world but have been little studied. Incantations, invocations, passwords, greetings, and other verbal formulas have also been neglected by folklorists, although they appear in linguistic studies and in ethnographic descriptions of ritual and etiquette. Like tongue-twisters and some song texts, verbal formulas are often obscure in meaning and both difficult and almost pointless to translate. Comprehension is often less important than correct recitation, and verbatim accuracy may be essential to their religious, magical, or social effectiveness. In view of this it is not surprising that these forms have received less attention than prose narratives, proverbs, and riddles, in all of which both comprehension and communication are involved.

These forms of verbal art are not watertight compartments, as the case of rhyming riddles suggests. Dilemma tales, which are widespread in Africa, leave the solution up to the audience. Often classified with riddles, they are clearly a borderline form; they seem usually to call for argumentation rather than a correct answer. Trickster tales may be either myths or folktales; and ballads are narratives in songs. Some tales incorporate songs in the development of the plot, and others end by quoting a proverb to summarize a moral. The social significance of verbal art is stressed in the following section, but its aesthetic attributes are also important. Their study provides a common meeting ground for the humanities and the social sciences that is rarely if ever equaled in other data on human behavior. Language imposes limitations on the artist in folklore as the medium of expression does in the graphic and plastic arts, music, or the dance. In the case of verbal art the medium of expression is the spoken word, and verbal art is subject to the limitations of the phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary of the language. For this reason linguists are best qualified to consider the question of style, which can be defined as what the artist is able to achieve within the limitations of his techniques and media. Linguists have, in fact, contributed several important discussions of this subject. More often they have recorded prose narratives as a convenient means of collecting texts for linguistic analysis, with the result that many of the most accurately recorded and carefully transcribed collections of verbal art are to be found in linguistic studies.

Some functions of verbal art

Amusement is an obvious function of folktales, riddles, and tongue-twisters, but verbal art has other, more important functions.

Education . In nonliterate societies verbal art plays a major and often explicitly recognized role in education. It is important to learn myths and legends because they contain information that is believed to be true. Proverbs are often characterized as the distilled wisdom of past generations. Learning the values of a culture as they are expressed in proverbs is similarly considered important -in its own right; without some command of proverbs, individuals in many African societies cannot effectively fulfill their roles as adults. Whereas African proverbs are considered to be the province of adults, riddles are for children. Riddles teach the characteristics of plants, animals, and other things in nature, as well as some features of technology, material culture, and social structure. Even folktales that are regarded as fictitious are recognized by Africans as important in the education of children, because so many of them are moral tales. The importance of verbal art in education has been noted in nonliterate societies throughout the world. Verbal art provides a medium for the transmission of knowledge, values, and attitudes from one generation to another and thus contributes to the continuity of culture.

Social control . Verbal art helps to maintain conformity to cultural values and accepted patterns of behavior. It is widely used to express social approval and disapproval, to apply social pressure, and to exercise social control. Proverbs, songs of ridicule, and even riddles and folktales may be used to criticize those who deviate from the accepted norms and social conventions. On the other hand, proverbs, praise names, and praise songs give recognition and reward to those who conform. African proverbs are especially important in this respect. When action is contemplated that may lead to social friction, open hostilities, or direct punishment by society, proverbs can be used to express warning, defiance, or derision of a rival or enemy. They may also express advice, counsel, or warning to a friend.

Because of the high regard in which they are held, and because they are considered especially appropriate to adult life, African proverbs are highly effective instruments of social control. Because they express the morals and ethics of a society, they are convenient standards for appraising behavior in terms of the approved norms. And because they are pungently, sententiously, and wittily stated, they are ideally suited for commenting on the behavior of others.

Social authority . Verbal art serves to validate social institutions and religious rituals. Malinowski showed how, in the Trobriand Islands of the Pacific, myth provides a warrant and a charter for magic, ceremony, ritual, and social structure. Myths can be cited as authority on questions of religious belief and ritual procedure, and to justify rights to land, fishing grounds, social position, tribute, or political authority. This important function can be seen in many societies, but it is not confined to myth. When dissatisfaction with or skepticism of an accepted pattern is expressed, or when doubts about it arise, there is usually a myth or legend to validate it; however, a moral folktale or a proverb may serve the same purpose.

Sociopsychological function . Verbal art provides a psychological release from the restrictions imposed on the individual by society. Ever since Greek myths were recorded in writing, it has been recognized that characters in myths do things that are regarded as shocking, sinful, and even criminal in daily life. Myths and folktales provide an opportunity for people to talk about kinds of behavior that society prohibits them from indulging in, and about kinds of success that they can scarcely hope to achieve themselves.

This can be illustrated in our own society by “dirty jokes” and, formerly, mother-in-law jokes. In the case of the latter, their popularity has declined as fewer young couples live with their in-laws and the family is increasingly fragmented. In American Indian societies that practice mother-in-law avoidance, the trickster violates his own mother-in-law. Tales of polygynous marriages feature far more prominently among the monogamous Pueblo groups than in societies where polygyny is accepted. In West Africa the Ashanti and Daho-means recognize the value of being able to criticize and laugh at authority and other matters, both secular and sacred, in a way they cannot do normally, through folktales and songs. Even riddles and tongue-twisters, although considered the province of children, sometimes involve sexual references that are considered off-color by adults.

The familiar theme of rags to riches, the widespread tale of the magic flight or of the seven-league boots, and tales of resurrection after death are also meaningful in terms of psychological release. Viewed in this light, verbal art reveals man’s attempt to escape in fantasy from the restrictions of his geographic environment, from his own biological limitations as a member of the human species, and from the repressions imposed upon him by society, whether these result from social and economic inequalities, from sexual taboos, or from the Ashanti taboo against laughing at a person afflicted with yaws.

Cultural continuity . When the functions of education, control, authority, and release are viewed together, it can be seen that verbal art has the broader function of maintaining the continuity and stability of culture. It is used to inculcate customs and ethical standards in the young, to reward the adult with praise when he conforms or to punish him with criticism or ridicule when he deviates, to provide him with rationalizations when he questions the institutions and conventions of his society, and at the same time to provide him with a compensatory escape from the hardships and injustices of everyday life. It operates to ensure cultural continuity from generation to generation through its role in education, by emphasizing conformity to the accepted cultural norms, and through the validation of social and religious institutions. By providing a psychological escape from the institutions and norms which it sanctions and enforces and by providing discontented individuals an opportunity to talk about forbidden forms of behavior, rather than practicing them, verbal art preserves the established customs and institutions from direct attack and change.

Political uses of verbal arts . Despite the fact that verbal art serves to continue and stabilize culture, it has also been used for the purposes of political propaganda and social change. During the emergence of the independent nations of Africa, myths, legends, and song texts have been used to promote ethnic unity, regionalism, nationalism, anticolonialism, and pan-Africanism.

The Yoruba creation myth provided the basis for the Society of the Children of Oduduwa (Egbe Omo Oduduwa), established for the purpose of uniting the people of the Western Region of Nigeria, and Bakongo mythology has been used for political purposes by Joseph Kasavubu’s Abako party in the Congo. In Katanga a common myth has been cited by politicians to show why the Lunda, Luena, and Chokwe should unite in support of Tshombe and his Conakat party, or, conversely, why the Luena and Chokwe should join in opposition to the Lunda. African praise songs have been adapted to honor new political leaders; songs of allusion have been used to criticize colonial officials and rival politicians; and the hymn “God Bless Africa,” first sung publicly in 1899, has been adopted as a closing anthem by the African National Congress and as the unofficial national anthem of several African countries, and it was sung at the 1958 Conference of Independent African States in Accra, Ghana.

In the Soviet Union in 1936, the Communist party “discovered” the effectiveness of folklore as a political weapon. Scholars reversed earlier theories that regarded folklore as a product of the upper classes filtering down to the lower classes, and claimed that the working people were the creators of folklore.

Folktales and songs have been used to advance the theme of the class struggle in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cuba, and elsewhere. The Nazis used Teutonic mythology to promote their idea of a master race. In earlier times Krylov used fables to needle the Russian aristocracy, and the first Chinese edition of Aesop’s Fables was suppressed by officials who recognized their satire and suspected that they had been invented locally. Further study of the political uses of verbal art, which have only recently been recognized by folk-lorists, will undoubtedly reveal other instances of this kind.

The recording of verbal art is a well-recognized field technique in linguistic and anthropological research, and it can be helpful in studying political attitudes. Verbal art provides useful materials for school curricula and important data for the study of law, values, psychology, and history in non-literate societies. Writing and industrialization have undermined its social significance far more in urban United States than in most literate societies, but they have never destroyed verbal art or the other segments of folklore.


[Directly related are the entriesCOMMUNICATION; DRAMA; HISTORY, article onETHNOHISTORY; Music, article onETHNOMUSICOLOGY. Other relevant material may be found inCRAFTS; HISTORIOGRAPHY; MYTH AND SYMBOL; PRIMITIVE ART.]


BASCOM, WILLIAM (1954) 1965 Four Functions of Folklore. Pages 279-298 in Alan Dundes (editor), The Study of Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: PrenticeHall. ⇒ First published in Volume 67 of the Journal of American Folklore.

BASCOM, WILLIAM 1955 Verbal Art. Journal of American Folklore 68:245-252.

BASCOM, WILLIAM 1965a Folklore and Literature. Pages 469-490 in Robert A. Lystad (editor), The African World: A Survey of Social Research. New York: Praeger. ⇒ A bibliography appears on pages 558-560.

BASCOM, WILLIAM 1965b The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78:3-20.

BENEDICT, RUTH 1935 Zuni Mythology. 2 vols. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 21. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

DORSON, RICHARD M. 1959 American Folklore. Univ. of Chicago Press.

FISCHER, JOHN L. 1963 The Socio-psychological Analysis of Folktales. Current Anthropology 4:235-295.

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Edited by Maria Leach. 2 vols. 1949 New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

GRIMM, JAKOB; and GRIMM, WILHELM (1812-1815) 1948 Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Complete ed., rev. Translated by Margaret Hunt; revised by James Stern. London: Routledge. ⇒ First published in German.

HERSKOVITS, MELVILLE J.; and HERSKOVITS, FRANCES S. 1958 Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-cultural Analysis. Northwestern University African Studies, No. 1. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

JACOBS, MELVILLE 1959 The Content and Style of Oral Literature: Clackamas Chinook Myths and Tales. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Publications in Anthropology, No. 26. Univ. of Chicago Press.

MALINOWSKI, BRONISLAW (1926) 1948 Myth in Primitive Psychology. Pages 72-124 in Bronislaw Malinow-ski, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press; Boston: Beacon.⇒ A paperback edition was published in 1954 by Doubleday.

OPLER, MORRIS E. 1940 Myths and Legends of the Lipan Apache Indians. Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, Vol. 36. Philadelphia: The Society.

RATTRAY, R. S. 1930 Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales. Oxford: Clarendon.

RAUM, O. F. 1940 Chaga Childhood: A Description of Indigenous Education in an East African Tribe. Oxford Univ. Press.

THOMPSON, STITH 1946 The Folktale. New York: Dryden.

THOMPSON, STITH 1953 Advances in Folklore Studies. Pages 587-596 in International Symposium on Anthropology, New York, 1952, Anthropology Today: An Encyclopédic Inventory. Univ. of Chicago Press.


views updated May 08 2018


Folklore has played a vital role in the lives of the Russian people and has exerted a considerable influence on the literature, music, dance, and other arts of Russia, including such major nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers and composers as Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Igor Stravinsky.

A folklore tradition has existed and flourished in Russia for many centuries, has been collected and studied for well more than two hundred years, and is represented by a variety of large and small genres, including oral epic songs, folktales, laments, ritual and lyric songs, incantations, riddles, and proverbs.

A simple explanation for the survival of folklore over such a long period of time is difficult to find. Some possible reasons can be found in the fact that the population was predominately rural and unable to read and write prior to the Soviet era; that the secular, nonspiritual literature of the folklore tradition was for the most part a primary source of entertainment for Russians from all classes and levels of society; or that the Orthodox Church was unsuccessful in its efforts to repress the Russian peasant's pagan, pre-Christian folk beliefs and rituals, which over time had absorbed many Christian elements, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "double belief." The fact that the Russian peasant was both geographically and culturally far removed from urban centers and events that influenced the country's development and direction also played a role in folklore's survival. And Russia's geographical location itself was a significant factor, making possible close contact with the rich folklore traditions of neighboring peoples, including the Finns, the nomadic Turkic tribes, and the non-Russian peoples of the vast Siberian region.

Evidence of a folklore tradition appeared in Russian medieval religious and secular works of the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries, and conflicting attitudes toward its existence prior to the eighteenth century are well documented. The church considered it as evil, as the work of the devil. But memoirs and historical literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries indicate that folklore, folktales in particular, was quite favorably regarded by many. Ivan the Terrible (15331584), for example, hired blind men to tell stories at his bedside until he fell asleep. Less than one hundred

years later, however, Tsar Alexis (16451676), son of Peter the Great (16961725), ordered the massacre of practitioners of this and other secular arts. Royal edict notwithstanding, tellers of tales continued to bring pleasure to people, and on the rural estates of noblemen and in high social circles of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Moscow, skillful narrators were well rewarded.

The earliest collection of Russian folklore, consisting of some songs and tales, was made during the seventeenth century by two Oxford-educated Englishmen: Richard James, chaplain to an English diplomatic mission in Moscow (16191620), and Samuel Collins, physician to Tsar Alexei (during the 1660s).

The first important collection of Russian folklore by Russians was that of folksongs from the Ural region, made during the middle of the eighteenth century and published early during the nineteenth century. At about the same time a real foundation was laid for folklore research and scholarship in Russia, due largely to the influence of Western romanticism and widespread increase in national self-awareness. This movement, represented in particular by German romantic philosophers and folklorists such as Johann Herder (17441803) and the brothers Grimm (Jacob, 17851863; Wilhelm, 17861859), was mirrored in Russia during the early years of the nineteenth century among the Slavophiles, a group of Russian intellectuals of the 1830s, who believed in Russia's spiritual greatness and who showed an intense interest in Russia's folklore, folk customs, and the role of the folk in the development of Russian culture. Folklore now began to be seriously collected, and among the significant works published were large collections of Russian proverbs by V. I. Dal (1801-1872) and Russian folktales by A. N. Afanasev (1826-1871).

But the latter part of the nineteenth century signaled the most significant event in Russian folklore scholarship, when P.N. Rybnikov (18311885) and A.F. Hilferding (Gilferding, 18311872) uncovered a treasury of folklore in the Lake Onega region of northwestern Russia during the 1860s and 1870s, including a flourishing tradition of oral epic songs, which up to that time was believed to be almost extinct as a living folklore form. This discovery led to a systematic search for folklore that is still being conducted during the early twenty-first century.

During the Soviet period folklore was criticized for depicting the reality of the past and was even considered harmful to the people. Until the death of Stalin in 1953 folklore scholarship was under constant Party supervision and limited in scope, focusing on social problems and ideological matters. But folklore itself was recognized as a powerful means to promote patriotism and advance Communist ideas and ideals, and it became a potent instrument in the formation of Socialist culture. New Soviet versions of folklore were created and made public through a variety of mediaconcert hall, radio, film, television, and tapes and phonograph records. These new works included contemporary subject matter: for example, an airplane instead of the wooden eagle on whose back the hero often traveled, a rifle for slaying a modern dragon in military uniform, or marriage to the daughter of a factory manager rather than a princess.

Since the 1970s, Russian folklore has become free from government control, and the sphere of study has expanded. During the early twenty-first century, folklore of the far-flung regions of the former Soviet Union is being collected in the field. Many of the older, classic collections of Russian folklore are being republished, old cylinder recordings restored, and bibliographies published, mainly under the direction of the Folklore Committee of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in St. Petersburg and the Folklore Section of the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow.

Among the most important narrative folklore genres are Russian oral epic songs and folktales, which provide a rich diversity of thematic and story material. The oral epic songs are the major genre in verse. Many of them concern the adventures of heroes associated with Prince Vladimir's court in Kiev in southern Russia; the action in a second group of epic songs occurs on the "open plain," where Russians fight the Tatar invaders; and the events of a third group of songs take place near the medieval city of Novgorod in northern Russia. The stories are made up of themes of feasting, journeys, and combats; acts of insubordination and punishment; trials of skill in arms, sports, and horsemanship; and themes of courtship, marriage, infidelity, and reconciliation. Some popular songs are about the giant Svyatogor, the Old Cossack Ilya Muromets, the dragon-slayer Dobrynya Nikitich, Alyosha Popovich the priest's son, and the rich merchant Sadko.

The leading genre in prose, one that is well known beyond Russia, is the folktale, which includes tales of various kinds, such as animal and moral tales, as well as magic or so-called fairy tales, similar to the Western European fairy tales. Russian magic or fairy tales often tell a story about a hero who leaves home for some reason, must carry out one or several different tasks, encounters many obstacles along the way, accomplishes all of the tasks, and gains wealth or a fair maiden in the end. Among the popular heroes and villains of Russian folktales are Ivan the King's son, the witch Baba Yaga, Ivan the fool, the immortal Kashchey, Grandfather Frost, and the Firebird.

See also: firebird; folk music; pushkin house


Afanasev, Alexander. (1975). Russian Fairy Tales. New York: Random House.

Bailey, James, and Ivanova, Tatyana. (1998). Russian Folk Epics. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ivanits, Linda J. (1989). Russian Folk Beliefs. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Miller, Frank J. (1990). Folklore for Stalin: Russian Folklore and Pseudofolklore of the Stalin Era. Armonk, NY:M.E. Sharpe.

Oinas, Felix J. (1985). Essays on Russian Folklore and Mythology. Columbus, OH: Slavica.

Oinas, Felix J., and Soudakoff, Stephen, eds. (1975). The Study of Russian Folklore. The Hague: Mouton.

Sokolov, Y.M. (1971). Russian Folklore, tr. Catherine Ruth Smith. Detroit, MI: Folklore Associates.

Patricia Arant


views updated Jun 27 2018

folklore. Despite the presence of what might be described as folklorists avant le mot, such as William Camden (1551–1623) and John Aubrey (1626–97), folklore as a discipline really became established early in the 19th cent. Its immediate origins are in German scholarship, with the works of the brothers Grimm being of central importance, the coining of the English term ‘folklore’ being attributed to W. J. Thoms (1803–85) in 1846. By the later 19th cent. folklore was an established, and in many ways scholarly, field of study. Its practitioners included enthusiastic amateurs, many of them country parsons and the daughters of the gentry, and such major figures as Andrew Lang (1844–1912), and Cecil Sharp (1850–1924), whose researches into folk-song and folk-dance were of lasting significance. The coming of age of folklore in England was symbolized by the founding of the Folk-Lore Society in 1878.

At its widest, folklore was an all embracing discipline, attempting to comprehend the totality of ‘traditional’ culture. Defining what traditional culture is in this context can be contentious, but, generally, folklorists have concentrated on forms of culture transmitted orally or by imitation. So the folklorist will study such elements of the oral culture as songs, stories, proverbs, and riddles, the broader social phenomena of games, ceremonies, and rituals, and also the products of material culture, including buildings and all sorts of artefacts. The early work was on peasant culture, and folklore still seems to be a discipline which flourishes best when the rural world is being studied: Sharp's work, indeed, is to some extent distorted by an idealization of the English ‘peasant’. Work on the folklore of industrial workers and their communities, notably of miners, does, however, indicate some of the broader possibilities of folklore studies.

In its search for the origins of human behaviour and its interest in the ‘primitive’, 19th-cent. folklore had much in common with the anthropology of the period, and some of the founding fathers of the latter discipline, notably Sir Edward Tylor (1832–1917) and Sir James Frazer (1854–1941), drew on ‘folkloric’ sources in their attempts to imagine primitive humans. Yet folklore in England did not become institutionalized as a university discipline in the way that anthropology was, and there are still few British (and more particularly English) universities which offer it as a degree subject.

Folklore's relationship with history remains problematic. Many historians, especially those working on mainstream political or economic history, seem to regard folklore as an ill-defined and unrigorous subject whose eclecticism denies its status as a serious discipline. Yet this seems unduly harsh on a field of study which, despite its appeal to the amateur, has at certain points created high standards of scholarship, for example in the analysis and classification of folk-songs and folk-tales. With the broadening of the subject-matter of history, there are now many historians, particularly cultural historians and those social historians interested in the history of mentalité, whose concerns are very similar to those of the folklorist. Both groups study ‘culture’ defined in a broad, anthropological sense, and concern themselves with customs, orally transmitted culture, the significance of folk-tales, and material culture.

Thus although the grand theory and the search for the origins of human culture in the ‘primitive’ of the late Victorian folklorists, and the eclecticism of later practitioners, may not be to the taste of modern historians, a dialogue with folklore, or at least the incorporation of elements of human behaviour studied by folklorists, can enter the historian's agenda.

J. A. Sharpe


views updated May 18 2018

folk·lore / ˈfōkˌlôr/ • n. the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. ∎  a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people: Hollywood folklore.DERIVATIVES: folk·lor·ic / -ˌlôrik/ adj.folk·lor·ist / -ist/ n.folk·lor·is·tic / ˌfōkləˈristik/ adj.


views updated May 14 2018


This entry consists of three distinct articles examining folklore, folk heroes, and folk culture in the Americas.

John W. Roberts

Latin American and Caribbean Culture Heroes and Characters
Dellita Martin-Ogunsola

U.S. Folk Heroes and Characters
LaRose T. Parris