Folklore Lecture Three: Ancestors and Heroes

By Madronna Holden

The previous lessons in this guided study have used a few examples from mainstream American society, but have focused largely on other cultures.  In this lesson, we will focus on the folklore of contemporary American society, and especially, on your personal experience of folklore as found in your own family or peer group.  Folklore is not only “out there.”  Folklore is all around us.  We only need to know how to perceive it in order to recognize it–and its importance.

 The Need for Ancestors

No people (nor any human individual) can do without a sense of their ancestors.  They give us a sense of who we are, our roots, our possibilities, and of the meaning of our contemporary lives.  When I interviewed the members of pioneer families in southwestern Washington, I found that individuals took care to remember the choices and experiences of their ancestors because of the sense of purpose such memories give them.  The ideals and goals they remembered in the lives of their ancestors also leant particular meaning to their own lives in the present.

Notably, also, the concrete memory of their pioneer ancestors gave their descendents special perspective on the human consequences of American pioneer history.  The persons I interviewed had a critical perspective on the involvement of their ancestors in distant economic markets, on their ancestors’ environmental practices, on their relationships to the Native Americans who saw them through the first hard winters in this area, on the necessity of community in early American society, and on frontier violence, that are conspicuously absent from movie and TV Westerns–or even from most scholarly history books about American pioneers.  James Hillman (a contemporary psychologist who uses cross-cultural folklore to inform his work) has said that a sign of any individual’s coming to maturity is his or her ability to “tell the story” of this parent’s life.  Through this process, the son or daughter assumes an adult status by seeing his or her parents as individuals with constraints and powers and with personal choices (made for good or ill) just like the son or daughter’s own.  According to Hillman, this “telling the story” of our parents not only means we assume equal power with them, but it can defuse the victimized psychological position of an abused child.  One who can honestly and empathetically tell the story of his or her parent’s life automatically releases him or herself from any inordinate psychological power that parent might continue to hold over him or her.

Problems with Impersonal History

Interestingly, in our popular Westerns and in standard history books, the American pioneer assumes epic proportions.  But such an impersonal sense of an “epic” history can be quite dangerous.  Dangerous in that we see that undertaking as devoid of human experience–and human consequence.  The danger exists not only for those others who might stand in the way of such an “epic” undertaking, as in the case of Native Americans who were pushed aside in our sense of “manifest destiny.”  It is also dangerous to those who hold that abstract view of their own history.  Any people who determine their future without a sense of the human consequences of their past, stand a good chance of determining an inhuman future.  By contrast, those who remember their pioneer ancestors in a personal and concrete way see American pioneer history directly in terms of its human meaning and its human consequences.

In this sense, every people has a need to honor the family memories that collectively represent their historical experience as a people.  In focusing on family folklore, we do precisely this.  We value not only the family memories of those with pioneer ancestors, which I have just used as an example.  We also value the family memories of Native Americans, Asian Americans, African-Americans, and of European immigrants who became factory workers in urban areas or have stayed for generations on farms in the Midwest:  in short, we value the personal memories of all of us, whatever our background, since we are all members of the families whose experience (good and bad!) is preserved in family folklore.

To fail to value our personal family memories, in turn, can be not only socially dangerous but also personally disempowering.  Some years ago I participated in an in-school evaluation project for “at-risk” adolescents.  A good number of those I interviewed were suffering severe anxiety in the face of a future they saw as fraught with overwhelming social and environmental crises.  They often felt so overwhelmed by their future because they had so little sense of the past to set it against.  They had no concrete sense of the human proportions of our history; no traditions which told them how ordinary people, step by step (sometimes, over generations), confronted and overcame difficulties; few models to illustrate for them what ordinary human beings could be capable of, fewer models by which to gauge the meaning and importance of their own participation in our history.  These young people sorely needed a personal sense of their past (and some personally accessible heroes, as well–we will return to this idea in a moment).

In this context, the devaluing of her own family history on the part of a member of a pioneer family from whom I was collecting oral history could not have been more ironic.  She was reluctant to share her family history with me as “no one would think it important,” since “these were ‘just’ the things we lived.”  She (and sadly, many others I worked with) discounted her own memories, since they did not match those of the grander, “great man” theory of American history:  since they were “just” the memories of real human lives.  (And after all, what else do we have to remember, as persons and as a people, than human lives?)  But if we are in danger of devaluing the personal lives of many of us in our larger sense of American history (and perhaps in our sense of ourselves as a people), folklore is one remedy for this.  It is the collected sense of human experience, human power, and human perspective, passed on as the expressions and stories and jokes, the customs and rituals of each of our families, that is the stuff of family folklore.

 We Need Our Ancestral Memories

As is made abundantly clear in a tape featuring two Native American poets and one Asian-American poet (“Ancestral Voices,” from the Bill Moyers series, “The Power of the Word,” available from the Linfield College Library), our grandparents, mothers, fathers, and sometimes, siblings, inhabit not only some distantly perceived past, but figure prominently in our own inner landscapes.  They inhabit our psyches as the parts of themselves we have taken into ourselves, and they help to tell us who we are, where we belong, and what we are capable of (and sometimes, for better or for worse, what we are incapable of).  In this tape, these poets (all from traditions where the personal power of ancestral memories are understood and honored) consciously use their ancestral memories to shape their own personal stories, to understand and express their own personal power.

We Need Accessible Heroes

We need our ancestors.  And in the same way, we need our heroes (our personally accessible heroes, not those silver screen, larger-than-life heroes our media creates for us).  Having personal heroes as well as valued ancestral memories would have done much to boost the personal power of those contemporary American high school students I have just mentioned.  And what of our heroes?  How do we recognize them, and what do they do for us?  These are questions it is important for each of you to think about in the context of this lesson.

There are also questions which each of us must answer in our own way.  When I focus on the idea of heroes in my classes, I have students divide into small groups and share their personal heroes and the nature and meaning of those heroes with one another.  That is something you might wish to do with a group of friends or your own family members (this can create an especially interesting discussion between adults and children).

Most of the personal heroes that have emerged from my class discussions have been family ancestors (grandparents are perhaps the most frequent of ancestor-heroes) or non-family adults whom individuals, as children, especially admired.  Interestingly, none of them have been legendary figures; they have all been real people instead.  In their discussion of heroes, students have always listed a sense of personal accessibility as essential to their heroes.

Our heroes must be those whose choices we can think of ourselves as making, those who impress us with their presence as real human beings at the same time that they also exhibit outstanding ways of “taking a stand,” or exceptional ingenuity, persistence, compassion, leadership, or uniqueness (even eccentricity!).  Humility was also mentioned as a trait students liked in their personal heroes.

Our personal heroes illustrate for us, in a concrete way, what each of us are capable of.  They show us a glimpse of our personal future.  They can show us what it is like to live full human lives through all the seasons of our life cycle, young and old; show us how to confront all of our human experiences, powerful or vulnerable, isolated or in good company, with grace, power, and joy.


Family Folklore:  Expressions and Customs

Now we will look at the ways in which we can find folklore in our families and communities. As noted, Franz Boas was once told by a Papago woman from whom he was collecting traditional folklore, “Our words are so short because we know so much.”  What this indicates is the special way in which folklore condenses human experience as it passes it along.  In our readings from Sacred Stories, you will acquire a firsthand sense of the ways in which folklore condenses experience (using metaphor) in order to pass it on.

 Winged Words

Folklore often consists of what Stephen Tauber has called, “winged words”, words that travel on the wings of human telling from one time to another.  These are words that, even as they bring the past to us, represent generations of human experience in the simplest of ways, while affirming the intimacy of those who use such “winged words” among themselves.  In this sense, the verbal expressions of folklore can take on a strong poetic quality.  Like poetry, they use metaphor and highly condensed symbols in expressing the many layers of meaning and experience behind them.  Family expressions are an especially good example of this particular symbolic-aesthetic quality of folklore.  As the authors of Family Folklore put it (p. 151):  “Perhaps as we become more intimate with one another, our conversation moves from prose to poetry.  We compact experiences and relate them not as long explanatory narratives but as terse exclamations.”  Can you think how the expression, “winged words” is related to the statement of the Papago woman, “Our words are so short because we know so much”?  Both indicate the way in which folklore, through metaphor and community understanding amplifies the meaning of single words.  This is also part of giving a word the “power” expressed by Momaday when he says, “A word has power,” when it becomes the instrument by which we meet the circumstances of our lives “on equal terms”.

 Family Customs

Family customs function in much the same way as family stories.  They, too, condense time; they, too, represent the multi-layered experience of their habitual practice each time they are repeated.  They, too, increase intimacy between the members of a group as they practice such common customs.

…and Rituals

As customs are practiced over time and continue to develop their meaning and importance, they may become rituals.  Customs are our social habits, our special ways of behaving that we have in common and repeat over time as members of a particular group.  A ritual has an added dimension.  It has a symbolic density to it that a custom, as merely a way of doing things, repeated over and over, does not necessarily have.  In this sense, a traditional ritual is always a custom, but a custom is not always a ritual.  By performing a ritual, a group expresses both its bonds as a group and its common values and beliefs.  Rituals have a special dimension of meaning to them.  Often but not always religious in nature, ritual actions stand for a whole constellation of common group understandings.  They affirm family (or other group) identity and beliefs in a meaningful, symbolic way.  When they lose their consciously understood symbolic quality, in turn, rituals may become mere customs.  We have many examples of customs that were once rituals but are no longer in contemporary American society, such as decorating Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts.  Such current American customs, which have lost their earlier ritual meaning, are now simply common practices we engage in.  We will see more of the importance and function of ritual in human society in an upcoming lesson.

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