What Folklore Does for Us
By Madronna Holden
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1. Folklore passes on the information and wisdom of human experience from generation to generation. In this sense folklore is the original and persistent technology that gave us human culture in the first place by allowing us to build on our experience over the generations. Oral tradition is the original form of education, in which both social values and environmental knowledge are transmitted.
Stories were so important in traditional Chehalis culture that children “paid” for them by doing tasks designed by their elders to challenge them into personal growth. One such task might consist of bringing back a stick from a distant and foreboding place at night; the distance this stick was placed from the child’s home village would increase with the confidence and personal development of the child.
These people said of their stories: “These will bring you to a place where you can take care of yourself,” and also, “These will tell you how to get along with one another.”
Traditional stories contained both psychological and environmental instructions for living the good life. Thelma Adamson, a researcher among the Chehalis in the 1920’s, remarks that she tried unsuccessfully for months to obtain material on dressing of elk skins, only to realize that one day she was getting this information in the midst of a story.
Mythologies of peoples all over native North America provided geographical maps of various native territories through the Culture Hero’s or Creator-figure’s journeys through those territories.
When pre-Civil War slaves coded their songs with geographical information for finding their way North to freedom, they were practising not only acute political savvy, but honoring the time-honored manner of passing such information on in their original African cultures. The folkloristic “maps” contained in traditional oral literature, in stories and songs and ceremonies of traditional peoples, often contain information about star position and rotation as well as earthly geographical information.
Among the Dogon (a people of Africa), their mythology contains detailed astronomical material that predicts the dates of appearance and re-appearance of stars from distant galaxies , which appearances they celebrate in ceremony. As early Euroamerican explorers noted, geological and even archaeological information was found in traditional oral literatures of the Pacific Northwest.
Detailed information on the nature and usages of local plants was also an integral part of folklore. William Irvin Thompson details how the well-known European tale of Rapunsel (remember “Rapunsel, Rapunsel, let down your hair”?) encoded both astronomical and herbal knowledge of European midwives accused of sorcery during the witch burning craze.
2. Communities create and use folklore as a community-strengthening process, expressing and reweaving their sense of group cohesion. This was true of both the process of passing folklore on and the content of such folklore. The process for transmitting folklore was always an inter-personal one–and usually, as well, quite an occasion for entertainment. An audience to a story was not only given the content of the story to muse over, to take away with them until “it came time for them to use it,” they also had the shared experience of listening to that story.
In many African societies, a storyteller must be encouraged, with either traditional or spontaneous audience responses: the audience collectively works as a kind of “midwife” to a story as they share the experience of the story’s performance not only with the storyteller but with one another. African-American speeches today which are greeted with communal audience response are thus following in an ancient tradition. Indeed, audiences had special parts in a storytelling performance in every traditional culture I am aware of. The process of folklore transmission strengthened links between generations as well. In this process, the elderly gifted the young with knowledge and entertainment, and the young gifted the elderly with attention and respect.
There is, as a Chehalis woman directly expressed to Thelma Adamson in 1926, often a kind of “love” engendered in the process of sharing folklore. In speaking of a special medicinal knowledge that was the privileged domain of women in Chehalis society, she stated that the elder with knowledge of this special medicine would pass it on “to some young woman she loved.” I am often moved at the spontaneous outpouring of feeling of young children whenever I myself tell stories in their classroom. (I have worked with artist-in-residence programs as a storyteller in primary and secondary schools with two local arts councils.) Young children, especially, will rush up and hug me after a storytelling session. A classroom of seventh graders once wanted to know my age and then refused to believe it, since they had assumed me younger than their parents, as somehow part of their own generation, in the connection storytelling created between us.
The shared knowledge of the content of folklore strengthens community solidarity in may ways. Stories, practises, sayings, jokes, in common strengthens a family’s sense of themselves as a family. It was for this reason that a number of traditional peoples throughout the world (who were without our concept of material property) held that their stories were their real property. Among certain native peoples of the Northwest, only persons who belonged to particular families could tell the stories owned by those families. Spirit songs owned by particular individuals had subtle “markers” that indicated “where they were from” and should not be sung unless the singer had so carefully practised a song that its hearers could recognize these subtle markers and thus tell where the song “was from.” On an everyday level, we are all aware that sharing common knowledge with the members of a group gives us a special sense of membership in that group. Most professions in our society have their own “jargon” relating to their work, which outsiders are unlikely to know. Those who are familiar with the terms in this jargon, in turn, recognize one another as belonging to the same special group.
3. Folklore functions as a kind of education for listening and a lesson in concentration for those who hear it. In societies where oral traditional predominates over written tradition, and a “word has power,” as Kiowa storyeller Scott Momaday puts. There is usually some very careful process of education for listening–and especially, for listening to differences, to voices other than one’s own.Stories from the time “when all the animals were people” prompt the listener to empathize with the way other creatures feel, see and respond to their world– how they have familiar cares to our own– and families like our own as well.
Traditional storytelling sessions were often exceedingly long. Among the Chehalis, they might go on for four night’s running. And all the while, children were expected to pay full attention to the proceedings. If they did not, they might be responsible for the loss of a story from their people’s tradition (as noted above). It was also stressed that the story was a gift that should not be treated lightly, but should be attended to with all one’s powers of concentration. After all, in stories were the very tools of survival.
Further, the very act of listening to stories, with their ability to totally engross the listener, is itself an experience in concentration, in listening to another with one’s whole being. Being engrossed in a story is an experience of attention and focus, which in turn readily transfers to other learning experiences. A teacher of first graders told me that her students did better at the math lesson that followed a particularly engrossing storytelling session than they had ever done before, as their total engrossment in the storytelling had spilled over into their other work.
4. Folklore serves to develop a flexibility of thinking and a critical consciousness about events and choices of action. Because the information transmitted in folklore is not transmitted as a fact or a single answer, but is open to listener interpretation, it helps develop initiative and creative problem-solving skills in those to whom it is transmitted.
Folkloristic stories are full of surprises, of spontaneous turns of event; further, their symbolism is both open and exceedingly complex. By educating our children with such stories, we teach them the value of alternatives. We teach that there are many ways to approach a problem, and that a situation has many dimensions, some of them more apparent than others–and some of them, apparent only after additional experience in living. Thus a traditional Chehalis storyteller told me there was no one single interpretation for any story. Indeed, stories might appear mysterious to their listeners when they were told. But they planted seeds that would re-emerge at appropriate times in their listeners’ lives. As he put it, “We know what our stories mean when it comes time for us to use them”.
Whereas a child who learns by rigid formulas may feel stranded and helpless as historical and social situations change (which, of course, they always do), children who have been educated by folklore feel empowered by the sense of their traditional wisdom as a tool for their own use, to interpret and use as they see fit. Time and again, members of societies where oral tradition predominates have expressed to anthropologists their conviction that it is an affront to a child’s integrity to educate him or her with orders or “one right way” of doing things. To educate a child in this way rather than with stories is also considered not to be pragmatic. As a Navajo mother told Dorothy Lee, she must foster her child’s initiative and self-determination in the traditional Navajo manner of education, since she could neither control nor predict her child’s future experiences for it. (The Navajo educated their children by stories rather than precepts.) Incidentally, the New Testament follows this ancient idea in the communication by parable rather than direct answer to the questions posed by Jesus’ audiences.
With the conceptual flexibility of stories comes personal empowerment. Robert Bly quotes a conversation he had with a German therapist who worked in an institution for severely mentally ill individuals. This therapist took on a small experiment. Once a week he began to tell patients who wanted to hear them, fairy tales. All the therapists working in this institution counted their patients vastly improved on two counts after they had attended a number of storytelling sessions: These patients had new ways of conceiving of and expressing their distress, and they had a new and vital sense of alternatives to their situation–they felt that there was a way out of their illnesses. Interestingly, this therapist-storyteller also found that simply reading stories to the patients did not affect their treatment in the same way. He had to tell stories in order for the healing process of storytelling to work, in order, as Bly puts it, for the creative process to come through the storyteller and into the story.
5. Folklore, and especially folklore as mythology, provides us with a sense of our place in the social and natural worlds, a sense of the meaning of our lives and actions. The quality of journey to which Paula Gunn Allen refers in describing myth is, in a very real sense, a journey of human spirit. In this way, mythology functions as a kind of spirit quest, as a guide in our search for ourselves and our human possibilities in our individual journeys through life.
A related concept Allen mentions is the idea of oral literature as integrative in function. Oral literature places nature and culture, action and thought, and ourselves and others (including other species and other times) in dialogue with one another. Mythology shows us a good deal about our meaning and power in this world by showing us our place. That place, in turn, can only be conceived in terms of its own setting within the web of life, in terms of our relationship to the life around us.
“I am alive,” Momaday says, expressing this view, “and therefore I stand in relation.” In its integrative function, mythology teaches us that to reach out to others and empathize with them is also to extend our own possibilities.
6. As noted, folklore is that tool which originally gave us human culture by transmitting the collected wisdom of human experience between generations. In this sense, folklore also functions as what can be called a time-binding device. The transmission of information in folklore serves to link the generations within a society. But folklore has a much larger time-binding dimension as well. When we hear a story two thousand years old, we are re-living a two thousand year old history of the human psyche.
There are some things that distinguish folklore-as-history from the written history that predominates in our society today. Folklore is characteristically cast in a form that is readily accessible to all the members of the group to which it belongs–and it is classically framed, as well, in an experiential style.
The experiential style of folklore serves its educative function quite well. We have heard the often-quoted adage that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. I would add, that to remember history as experience serves as the best guarantee against having to repeat it. We all know of cases where we understand a better choice, but nonetheless seem compelled to make the wrong one, to experience it, in order to learn some lesson for ourselves. Folklore provides its information as participation in the experience of situations and events. Indeed, members of cultures that rely predominantly on oral tradition understand its experiential presentation as a most important part of storytelling performance. A Chehalis woman told me that a good storyteller was the one who told a story “as if you were right there, seeing it happen.” Persons of all ages who want to express the power of particular stories they have heard have told me, “I was right there.” Being “right there,” in turn, allows us to rehearse particular experiences and to feel their consequences. As audience to a story, we have not only the knowledge, but the experience of human living beyond of our single lifetime.
7. Folklore serves to entertain: It is just plain fun. Folklore shows us the delight that exists in the challenge of human living, and the wonder and mystery of our own possibilities in meeting that challenge. This last function of folklore may be in some ways its most important: for it is a function without which all the others would certainly be less effective.
With its delight, folklore entrances us into exploring our own creative possibilities and conceptual flexibility, and helps us attend to and retain the information it imparts to us. As entertainment, it best serves its function of binding together the members of a community; being fun is part and parcel of the sense, in many communities, of folklore as a gift from one generation to another. The humor and the entertainment in folklore also help us deal with personal and social crises in a way that gives us perspective on them without emotional distance: helps us to manage them, even while we also face, confront, and transform them.
8. This point was added to my list by a man of Pit River (northern California) heritage who worked with troubled adolescents. He found that traditional stories foster the self-esteem of those who know them. Owning stories of this type gives one belonging and meaning, as well as the skills to engage one’s world in dialogue and the mental agility and personal presence that go with that. Scott Momaday once said, “I am the story of myself”; I would add that those who know their place in the larger story of their people know how to compose their lives as such a story.
Some of you might also have points of your own to add to this list.
“Get it in writing”, a modern saying warns us–implying that this is the only real and binding form of communication or contract.
Modern industrialized cultures separate folklore and oral tradition from the facts that we put into writing — the attitude Native people encountered when outsiders labeled their traditions as “just stories”. But as the list of the functions of folklore below indicates, the stories of oral tradition cannot be denigrated without losing an essential and critical tool with which to understand ourselves and our communities– and learn from our past.
Indeed, the attitude that puts down oral as opposed to written history has more to do with privilege in mainstream history-keeping than with the comparative quality of history-keeping in oral tradition. Modern industrial cultures tend to assert one “true” story: a “monotheism of story”, as James Hillman has put it.
Those in a position to write history decide what and how that history will be written. But this single story does not reflect the lives and perspectives of persons of all classes and cultures. “The winners write history. The rest of us just live it,” in the words of those I interviewed who kept oral history from the earliest pioneer times in the Pacific Northwest.
For a good part of Western European history very few people could write– in order to learn this skill, one had to have economic means not available to a large portion of the population.
Further, such history was written by the upper classes– the “winners”– so that the lives and perspectives of others who were not on top in this process were simply ignored, overlooked-and entirely devalued. Thus the statement that the winners write history–and that the history they write is distinctly separate from the lives of many who actually live that history.
See, for instance, Lies my Teacher Told Me for the ways in which such slanting takes place in modern school curriculum.
This is a very different manner of history-keeping from that of indigenous oral traditions, which is entirely more democratic. In oral tradition, ALL members of a culture pass on the traditions of that culture in a dynamic fashion. As Leslie Marmon Silko put it in Storyteller (from her ancestral Laguna Pueblo tradition), the story of a people was not complete unless and until it contained the stories of all members of a community.
Oral tradition is more fragile than something written down. As Kiowa writer Scott Momaday noted, oral tradition is always “one generation away from extinction”. But its fragility is also linked to its power: to the fact that it is passed on between people. As a Chehalis grandmother once told me, “Everything important around here is told person to person.”
Such oral history is verified by those who share the experiences it recounts.
I was struck by the personal vulnerability and critical openness of many who told their stories to me — offering critiques of their personal and social choices–as illustrated in another essay on this site. That is what oral tradition has always been about in the shaping of human cultures: passing on the wisdom learned by our elders– their mistakes as well as their successes.
Interestingly, even those from pioneer families used metaphors to express their oral histories when I spoke with them. There was the logger, for instance, who described the generations of his family’s experience on the land by three trees. These trees (he pointed out the surviving one to me) represented something larger about his family’s life than a bundle of facts. They created a bridge of metaphor (the original meaning of the word metaphor is to “carry across”) to deepen the story that linked their life cycles to that of the land.
Metaphor is an open-ended conceptual tool which allows us to see the world as linked and to enter the world of others. Metaphor, that is, tells us how something is like (or linked to) something else.
The metaphorical symbols in stories grow more and more profound as stories are passed on from generation to generation, so that a story that takes five minutes to tell may develop a dense symbolic resonance of meaning indeed–as I found in working with the African “dilemma tale,” “The Five Helpers”– whose symbols reflect both the archetypal hero’s journey–and the elements of the human decision-making process.
Unlike facts metaphors are not exclusive. When we state a fact, it is supposed to finish the matter, to be the last word. Thus we say, “When all is said and done, those are the facts”. But a metaphor doesn’t shut the door on anything. Because a family’s life resonates with three trees–as in one oral tradition I heard– that does not stop it from resonating with anything else.
Further material on folklore on this site:
The material above is taken from my lectures in folklore and mythology at Linfield College. Here are some other lectures from that class:
Lecture Three: Ancestors and Heroes
Lecture Four: Humor and Community; Tricksters and Human Freedom
Lecture Five: Archetypes and the Great Mother
Lecture Six: Men and Women
Lecture Seven: Sacred Geography: The Sense of Home
Lecture Eight: Ritual and Integration
.Here are some of my essays on folklore published in Parabola.
And here is a retelling of a powerful women’s tale from Eastern Europe:
And the ancient story of Inanna descent into the Underworld for the sake of her sister:
More Posts Relating to Oral Tradition
Here are some of the related posts and pages on this site (note that there are also stories sprinkled throughout all the essays here)
The material on this page is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden, all rights reserved. Feel free to link to this site and to contact me for permission if you wish to re-use anything here in print.