What Makes a Story or Tradition Authentic?: Folklore, the Past, and the Right Now

January 21, 2020

This week’s post grew out of one of the wonderful discussions unfolding in our current course “Kindling a Light in the Darkness: Winter Folklore and Fairy Tales.” We’ve had a LOT of questions and comments circling around the idea of roots: basically, how to trace folkloric stories, practices, or rituals back in time. Underneath those questions lies another set of questions: which stories, practices, and rituals are truly authentic. These questions are fascinating – there’s a reason we get them so frequently in our courses and elsewhere! – but they are often questions without simple answers. So, for our post today, we decided to tackle just a little of the epic tangle that is the Time / Authenticity / Age / Value issue.

[Folklorists have written whole books on this topic, so it’s not going to be easy!]

Folklore is a balancing act between continuity and change (or “conservatism and dynamism,” the “twin laws of folklore process” as brilliantly laid out by folklorist Barre Toelken.) It’s the push and pull between a connection to the past and the influence of the present. It’s about adapting what came before to speak about and to the present. This is how we get urban legends and personalized wedding vows and fan fiction communities – we collect bits of the past and use them to weave something that fits the world we live in now.

A lot of what we create in this way is quite new. Our stories and traditions are connected to the past, but they often have giant leaps or even complete breaks in continuity. Sometimes, they are inspired by our dreams of what the past was, rather than what was. That doesn’t mean what we make is any less powerful. There’s often an assumption that a story or practice has to have ancient roots – that it needs to be directly connected to the ancient in a bright, blazing line – in order to be real or valuable or authentic. And that simply isn’t true.

This kind of thinking can make people tie themselves up in knots trying to prove tenuous (or, sometimes, simply non-existent) connections in order to justify stories or practices that they find meaningful. And that’s just not necessary. (And much of the time, it’s impossible to prove a definitive connection due to passage of time or lack of written records.) If a practice or a story is meaningful and resonates with people, that’s what matters from a folkloristic perspective. Old does not automatically mean better, and something doesn’t have to be old to be authentic. People are constantly creating new folklore, from old traditions, from new experiences, from bits and pieces of things that they encounter throughout their lives. It’s chaotic and unwieldy instead of tidy and linear, and that’s part of what makes it so wonderful!

Folklorists don’t judge folklore based on its age or pedigree. Instead, we care if it brings people together or means something to them or helps them communicate who they are.

It is incredibly common for people to believe that if something is older, then it is more valuable or somehow truer. Or they think that if we could somehow go back to some idealized time, everything would somehow be better because it’s more authentic. But we find the folklorist perspective to be ultimately much more rewarding. We’re no longer trying to force really iffy theories that can’t be proven – instead, we get to spend our time studying and appreciating the things that people love.

P.S. Did you see last week’s post about our new Patreon account and book club?! If not, please do check it out, it’s going to be so cool – plus it’s a great way to support what we’re doing! :).


  1. Jody Helme-Day

    I’ve been listening to a podcast, and in one of the episodes they discuss folk music, and how musicologists have for the most part stopped tracing the origins of different types of music in pursuit of the “origin”. They discovered that all music overlaps and absorbs traits from so many different areas that the idea of “authentic” or “original” takes away the importance of the music, which is that music that resounds with people lasts through the ages no matter where it comes from. And it is passed because it evolves and therefore resounds with different generations. I believe the same happens with stories.

  2. Great blog entry here, and I appreciate the Bendix text quite a bit. I’ve used it to unpack issues of religious belief, most recently in a blog entry about scriptocentrism and Paganism I wrote some months ago, but it’s a versatile contribution to any discussion of folklore where issues of authenticity are concerned.

    1. Thanks! And yes, the Bendix book is great. I found it really helpful in the lead up to candidacy exams 🙂

  3. Kaleo Kinoʻole

    Points well stated and taken, with one (not so) minor caveat: For cultural research, the distinction between authentic traditions and newly created folklore is not trivial. For example, a certain kind of writers of the early 20th century liberally re-tooled and appropriated traditional stories, names, etc in the creation of new material that was often passed on as “authentic traditions”, and likewise, the forced explanations of scholarly works of this time furthered the loss of actual authentic traditions in the same way. In some cases, the origins of the re-purposed elements can be re-discovered, but in some cases the distortion found in the newer text dominate and ultimately displace commonly accepted “knowledge”. To those that would attempt to preserve tradition, neither “new folklore” nor ignorant and insistent rationalizations are acceptable, and the distinction of the contemporary and the traditional remains vital.

    1. Agreed! We only touched the tip of the iceberg with this short blog post. There’s so much more that could be said on the subject.

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