What is Folklore?

July 16, 2019

“So what do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“What subject do you teach?”
“Folklore? Huh. So you study, like, quilts?”

With absolutely no disrespect to our wonderful colleagues who do study quilts:

We could study quilts! We know some badass folklorists who study quilts! Also, quilts are really warm, and we are fans.

But folklore is a broad discipline. Folklorists study all kinds of different things, and folklore helps shape the lives of every single person on this planet. It’s a massive topic, so buckle up and welcome to our crash course on our very favorite subject.

Folklore is part of the fabric that makes up our everyday experiences – it is informally learned and unofficial information. Folklorist Dr. Lynne McNeill provides a wonderfully bite-sized definition in her book Folklore Rules, identifying folklore as “informal, traditional culture.” Basically, it is the stuff that we learn unofficially, or outside of school or work. Perhaps the most famous definition of folklore is still Dr. Dan Ben-Amos’s “artistic communication in small groups,” which just means how people who know each other well talk to each other and create meaning together. Martha Sims and Martine Stephens write that “folklore is informally learned, unofficial knowledge about the world, ourselves, and our communities, our beliefs, our cultures, and our traditions that is expressed creatively through words, music, customs, actions, behaviors, and materials. It is also the interactive, dynamic process of creating, communicating, and performing as we share that knowledge with other people.” Folklore is the knowledge we use to understand, navigate, and make sense of the world around us, and it’s also how we entertain ourselves and channel our creativity.

We think our PhD advisor really got to the heart of the matter when he once casually said that “folklore is things that go well with beer.” This might sound ridiculous, but humor us for a minute: if you’re drinking beer, you’re probably at some kind of informal gathering with friends and family. You might be celebrating a holiday or birthday, playing a game, listening to music, or dancing – all activities that foster the creation or enactment of folk traditions.

“Now hold up, Sara and Brittany,” you might be thinking. “Isn’t folklore OLD stuff? Ancient traditions? Things people have been doing or saying or stories that have been told for hundreds of years?”

And we would say “Well, yes and no.” And your eyes might roll out of your head. 

SERIOUSLY THOUGH, YES AND NO! Because, yes, part of folklore is absolutely these old traditions and stories – folklore is mumming, and elders telling tales they heard from their elders, and proverbs, and, yes, traditional quilting. But it’s also graffiti, Slenderman, internet memes, and your Friday night gaming group. It’s how you talk to your family and your best friend, and the inside jokes that add dimension to your relationships. Folklore is not just old traditions that never change – it’s actually about the tension between old and new, static and change (shout out to Dr. Barre Toelken!) It’s about forging a connection between the past and the future.

For example, think about the story “Cinderella.” It’s been around for over a thousand years, and in one of its oldest versions, it’s about a young Chinese girl who wishes on magic fishbones in order to meet the prince. Cinderella is still being told and retold all over the world today, and sometimes her shoes are made of glass, and sometimes her foot is made of computer bits, because she is a cyborg. Cinderella stories reflect the past while having enough flexibility to accommodate the present and adapt to the future. 

So say it with us now: folklore is informal, traditional culture. It’s both old and new, and we all make it and interact with it every single day. It can be fairy tales and jokes, legends and ballads, food and tattoos, a lucky hat, a secret handshake, or saying “Bloody Mary” three times in front of your mirror with all the lights off and then screaming like a banshee when your cat startles you, turning on all the lights and hyperventilating… not that we’ve done that, personally.

Folklore is everywhere, and it shapes your life and the world we live in. It’s pretty cool. And it’s worth studying.

P.S. If you’re wondering how folklore shapes your own life, we’ve made a FREE downloadable worksheet to help you start figuring it out! Click here to get it!

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