Introductions to Folklore & Mythology

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Myth: A Very Short Introduction

Robert Alan Segal
Oxford University Press

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Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction

Timothy Rice
Oxford University Press

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Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction

John Monaghan
Oxford University Press

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Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction

Marina Warner
Oxford University Press

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Magic: A Very Short Introduction

Owen Davies
Oxford University Press

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Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction

Malcolm Gaskill
Oxford University Press


Folklore in the United States and Canada

Patricia Sawin & Rosemary Levy Zumwalt

Folklore Theorists

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Morphology of the Folktale

Vladimir Propp

This book is a standard text for English-language students studying folklore theory and outlines the general theory of Functionalism. This well-known and often cited translation of Propp’s work introduces students to his influential theories. Propp’s writing is translated into understandable, smooth English and is presented very clearly in this book. Propp, though perhaps the most famous in the English-speaking world, was only one of a number of contemporaneous European theorists who presented similar ideas. Others included Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eichenbaum. Propp’s theory was developed from examination solely of Russian folktales.

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Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-making I: Homer and Homeric Style

Milman Parry

Examining Homeric epic poetry, Milman determined that it was largely composed of set formulas. The observations of Milman and his student, Albert Lord, and those of Francis Peabody Magoun, were expanded by subsequent scholars and formed the theory that oral narrative is created using formulas. Parry's two articles outline the first examination of oral poetry in light of formulaic patterns.

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Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making II: The Homeric Language as the Language of an Oral Poetry

Milman Parry

Examining Homeric epic poetry, Milman determined that it was largely composed of set formulas. The observations of Milman and his student, Albert Lord, and those of Francis Peabody Magoun, were expanded by subsequent scholars and formed the theory that oral narrative is created using formulas. Parry's two articles outline the first examination of oral poetry in light of formulaic patterns.

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The Uses of Enchantment

Bruno Bettelheim

This work by Bettelheim describes his ideas about the psychological nature of fairy tales. Though viewed as having some limitations, his theories are still influential in the study of fairy tales and are debated in the fields of children’s literature and education.

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Man and His Symbols

Carl Jung

Jung’s theories, available in both English and German, drew together Propp’s Formalism and Freud’s psychological theories. Jung introduced the idea of “archetypes” which epitomize human experiences and manifest as set, universal character types in tales. This work is the last of the author’s career and brings together many of his ideas in one place, as well as presenting them in their most mature form. It was also written with the general public in mind and, thus, presents Jung’s theories with little jargon and straightforward discussions of psychological concepts.

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Hero with a Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell

This significant work is famous for presenting the theory of the “monomyth,” the idea that there are Jungian archetypes underlying the elements of a tale and that all tales follow the same basic structure. Campbell’s theories are developed from study of Western folklore.

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The European Folktale

Max Lüthi

In this book, Lüthi presents five criteria of folktales. His criteria, differently from other theorists like Propp, are stylistic rather than structural. He argues that all folktales are one-dimensional, depthless, abstract, contrastingly isolated and interconnected, and all-inclusive. This work has been translated into English as The European Folktale: Form and Nature. This work links traditional Structuralism to the more nuanced and modern theory of Narratology.

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Once upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales

Max Lüthi

Lüthi uses different fairytales to demonstrate the number of ways in which the tales can be interpreted. This work, due to its date of publication, does not include examples of some of the most modern interpretative lenses, such as Feminism. Lüthi’s original analyses were written in German; however, here exists a well-translated version of his writings in the English language.

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Interpreting Folklore

Alan Dundes

This work contains a number of Dundes’s most well-known articles and presents many of his (often controversial) theories. In his article, “Who are the Folk?,” Dundes contributes the modern definition of “folk” and the modern conception of the remit of folklore.

Areas of Study

Folklorists study anything and everything, from songs to celebrations to knick knacks. The things which folklorists research fall broadly into three categories -- oral traditions, rites and practices, and artifacts (sometimes referred to as verbal lore, customary lore, and material lore). In other words, folklorists study the things people say, the things people do, and the things people make. 

Some folklorists collect and study the ways in which humans express themselves through words. They may research myths, legends, epics, tales, fables, songs, ballads, oral history, proverbs, or riddles, jokes, and word-play.

Lore is the body of knowledge or tradition passed down, historically orally but now through multiple mediums, among members of a culture, society, or group. The term folklore is often used synonymously with the term folktale; however, lore, technically refers to a wider range of expression than just tales. Tales are just one type of lore. 

myth is a sacred narrative (a narrative which is or has been believed), which is part of the belief system of a society, for example origin myths. The main characters of myths are supernatural beings, such as gods, and myths are set in either the distant past or outside of time. People tells myths to explain how and why the world functions. 

legend is a sacred narrative (a narrative which is or has been believed), which is part of the history of a society. The main characters of legends are human, or at least part human, who lived in the past. People tell legends to explain their history and identity.

An epic is a narrative with many episodes about a hero, and is usually connected to myth. Many epics are or have been considered at least semi-historical and are thus legendary in nature, and a part of a society's history. 

A tale is a narrative with one or a few episodes about a character, whether supernatural, part human, human, or animal. It is generally a self-contained story and frequently exists in numerous variants.

variant is a specific version or telling of a tale. A tale has a general plot and elements, but differs in details, narrative style, or construction between variants. 

folktale (also spelled folk tale or folk-tale) is a tale about everyday life. 

fairytale (also fairy tale or fairy-tale) is a tale about everyday life with supernatural elements, such as magical characters, events, or objects.

fable is a tale, typically with animals as the main characters, told in order to teach a lesson or convey a moral.

folksong (folk song, folk-song) is a song which developed as part of the common experience of a culture, society, or group. A folksongs is sung without accompaniment or is accompanied by folk instruments (as opposed to a formal orchestra), is often passed orally between individuals, and exists in multiple variants. The authorship and ownership of a folksong is communal rather than individual. Examples include work songs, songs based on legends, and songs about love. Alternatively, an art song is a song intentionally composed and written down, intended for performance by a professional musician, and is generally accompanied by piano or instrumental ensemble.

A ballad is a type of folksong which is narrative in nature, each verse unfolding part of the story. Some are based on legends, some tell stories of love. 

An oral history comprises the memories and knowledge of an individual conveyed in a narrative. In Folklore Studies, it most often refers to a recording of an interview with an individual or group, which may include stories, songs, jokes, and pieces of community wisdom or knowledge. 

proverb is a short saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice. A proverb usually does not have a single author, but rather is attributed to an entire culture, society, or group. 

Riddles, jokes, and word-play are uses of words which require a certain knowledge or insight in order to be understood, often a cultural, societal, or community specific knowledge. Riddles, jokes, and word-play are uses of words which create a sense of inclusion (or exclusion) between individuals.

Some folklore research examines the ways in which humans express themselves through their actions. Some folklorists study dances, games, holiday celebrations, births, weddings, and funeral rituals, religious beliefs and practices, divinations, superstitions, charms and curses, or folk medicine. 

tradition is a belief or a custom which is passed down through the generations in a culture, society, or group.

belief is an idea held to be true which influences thoughts and behaviors. 

custom is a practice which has been passed down through the generations in a culture, society, or group, and is the accepted way of behaving or doing something for a specific people, place, or time.

practice is the customary, habitual, or expected way of doing something.

ritual is a practice involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed according to a set sequence. The performance of the ritual has some sort of significance, often religious or cultural. 

rite is a ritual which marks a change from one state to another, for example, the passage from childhood to adulthood or the adoption into a culture, society, or group.

Some folklorists study the ways in which humans express themselves through their creations. These folklorists may examine art, buildings, decoration, clothing, jewelry, instruments, crafts, tools, or food (known as foodways). 

An artifact is an object made by a human.

Glossary of Folklore Terms






A detailed examination or study of something so as to determine its nature, structure, or essential features.



1. A group of people which identify with one another through shared elements, such as language, literature, art, and food. 2. The compilations of shared elements amongst a group of people.




A poem, typically derived from ancient oral tradition, which celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic characters of history or legend.






1. magical or supernatural beings inhabiting an "other" realm 2. an "other" realm






1. A sub-class of folktales. 2. Stories of everyday life which include magical or fanciful elements.






1. Research conducted in the environment being studied. 2. The process of collecting socio-cultural information.






A group of individuals with a common culture.



1. The traditional beliefs, legends, and customs of the common people. 2. The collective elements of culture – traditions, literature, language, foodways, music, material culture, etc. – shared by a society.






Stories of everyday life.






A work "in translation" is a work which has been translated from its original language, often into English. 






A traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated.




The use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world.



All of the information which surrounds a piece of folklore (e.g. historical context, language, political environment, social behaviors, beliefs, transmission paths) and should be collected with and connected to a piece of folklore.




1. Senses relating to themes or emblems. 2. A particular subject for imaginative treatment, especially an incident, situation, ethical problem, etc., embodying a central idea that informs a work; a recurrent theme, subject, or image. 3. Generally a distinctive, significant, or salient theme or idea; a recurrent or prevalent characteristic. 4. A motivating, dominant, or regulating idea, especially a recurrent or pervasive one.




1. The sacred truths of a society. 2. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, etiology (i.e., cause), or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.






A tale in existence and maintained through speech, rather than written text.






Research which has been examined by other scholars for accuracy and professionalism.






Something produced by or for the general populace, as opposed to an academic or "scholarly" audience. 




An original document or text created at the time being studied (e.g. folktale). 





An authoritative source of factual information intended for research or consultation on individual matters rather than continuous reading (e.g. encyclopedias, dictionaries, indexes, etc.).






The body of research on a text or topic. 





A text or resource created after the time being studied, which discusses or interprets a primary source (e.g. journal article).






A group of people living together in a specific, socio-political and historical context and sharing a common culture.






A resource which synthesizes primary and secondary sources (e.g. encyclopedia entry, dictionary entry, etc.)




1. The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written, especially the very words and sentences as originally written. 2. That portion of the contents of a manuscript or printed book, or of a page, which constitutes the original matter, as distinct from the notes or other critical appendages (e.g. the actual physical iteration, the recorded variant, of a tale).






The passage of a cultural element (e.g. a tale) from one iteration, individual, or culture to another.



1. A form or modification differing in some respect(s) from other forms of the same thing. 2. A specific iteration of a tale with a specific socio-historical context. 3. A various reading or performance of a tale.