Folklore, Pandemic, and You

Folklore, Pandemic, and You April 9, 2020

Being a folklorist in a time of global pandemic is interesting, and our discipline’s insights aren’t as useless as one might think. Here, I go into some of what we bring to the (socially isolated) party.

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash. In public domain.

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but moving all my classes suddenly online has left me with a bit more free time (after the initial scramble, since wow, I’ve never taught online before). So I’m back with a blog post, and hopefully more to come, about why knowing something, anything, about folklore is actually really really useful now, for at least two main reasons.

Folklore as Analytic Tool

First, understanding folklore as a form of cultural transmission helps us wade through all the information and disinformation happening on multiple levels right now. Recall that we tend to define folklore as informally transmitted traditional culture – basically, the parts of culture we’re more likely to learn peer-to-peer and face-to-face than in a book or through an institution (though folklore also exists on the internet, as I’ll get to shortly). Crucial to note is that this definition does not include whether or not folklore is true or false; sometimes it’s clearly one or the other, sometimes it’s murky, and sometimes the murkiness is the point (as when people tell an urban legend or joke to test the social waters around them).

When it comes to health matters, the variable relationship of folklore to truth value is important to keep in mind. People share rumors and conspiracy theories about illnesses – such as COVID-19 – precisely because there’s a lack of factual data available, and sometimes what is available is contested for a variety of reasons.

Hence I love this YouTube lecture that my colleague, Dr. Andrea Kitta, gives about how COVID-19 relates to existing folklore genres like rumor, gossip, conspiracy theory, and legend. She defines all these terms and gives examples. It’s a wonderful teaching and education tool. (and if you liked that, you’ll love her hour-long lecture about the history of the anti-vaccination movement!)

Even better, the academic press that published her recent book The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore has made it free to download and read! So you can gain an even better understanding of how and why cultural materials around illness spread the way they do.

There’s also a fantastic article on the Smithsonian’s website about the values (and dangers) of folklore in a time of pandemic. The author provides a brief report about COVID-19 that is in circulation and sounds “real” and breaks down why we’d classify it as a rumor (a fragment of a story told as though true, though it may well not be) in the current context. The post also identifies another highly relevant folklore genre circulating right now:

One of the folkloric genres that is especially relevant at this time is folk medicine, which includes folk remedies and cures to combat illnesses, especially when more conventional medicine has been ineffective. One such belief, debunked by the New York Post and New York Times, is that you can gargle with warm water and salt or vinegar to eliminate the coronavirus. Even one of the panelists on the March 21 episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me cited a variant—albeit skeptically—in which gargling with hot water will supposedly force the virus into your stomach, where your stomach acid will kill it.

The post also brings in humor such as jokes and memes, which folklorists also lay claim to studying. And boy, are the coronavirus memes some mix of entertaining and grisly and incisive. This brings me to the next aspect of folklore I plan to discuss.

Folklore as Social and Soulful Balm

People turn to folklore in times of crisis as well as in everyday, mundane life for the simple reason that folklore is artistic communication: it is inherently entertaining, amusing, patterned, sociable. As mentioned above, the COVID-19 memes and jokes are taking off, and this is because people use humor to address social anxieties and share social commentary.

In another way, folklore is social glue; the traditions and rituals we follow help bind us together, even if we’re screensharing across socially isolated households to trade sourdough tips or celebrate Passover.

My colleagues, Dr. Brittany Warman and Dr. Sara Cleto, address this aspect of folklore beautifully in their blog post “Folklore? Now? Um, There’s a Pandemic Going On”: or, How Folklore Will Help You Weather the Storm. Taking a narrative angle, which of course I approve of, Warman and Cleto write:

There are people who will scoff at this, but we know (and we know you know): stories have power. And stories are one of the most incredible tools in the folklorist’s arsenal of enchantment and connection.

They also point to the connective qualities of being creative in the moment, whether it’s cooking something new or old, or reading a story to a younger family member over the phone or Facetime:

This kind of creativity doesn’t have to be picture-perfect or Instagram worthy. It can be spontaneous, imperfect, experimental. It’s about finding a meaningful spark and sharing it with others. […] None of these stories (or acts of creative expression in small groups) have to be earth-shattering in and of themselves. It’s the willingness to be vulnerable, to connect, to play, and to make or share something meaningful with your fellow humans that matters.

Where tradition and creativity come together, that’s folklore. Where the community and the individual meet, that’s folklore. Where we use the tools of the past to author ourselves in the present, and imagine our future, that’s folklore. The creativity going into DIY face masks? Folklore. The jokes about working from home, or trying to do XYZ while socially distancing? Folklore. Quarantini recipes? Folklore.

Rituals and rites of passage structure our days, weeks, months, and lifetimes; storytelling can give us hope to sustain us, or cast doubt on existing power structures, or both; material culture like foodways can literally and emotionally provide sustenance.

What I’ve devoted my life to studying is so, so relevant right now, and you don’t need a degree in folklore to recognize that or make it work for you. Folklore comes as naturally to us as language, and whether we’re using it to interrogate current events or weather them, we’re participating in traditions as old as humanity, and hopefully we can use that knowledge to keep moving forward, being creative, and being kind.


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