What do we call metaphorical phrases that describe weather phenomena, like The devil is beating his wife? Read on to find out what this tiny folklore genre is!
When folklorists are classifying texts of folklore, what do we do with the following items?
- The devil is beating his wife (simultaneous sunshine and rain)
- Potato wagons rolling across the sky (meaning thunder)
- Angels having a pillow fight (when it snows)
- God urinating (for when it rains)
So, we know that traditional phrases might be folk speech, or proverbs, or folk simile or folk metaphor. I think one could make a compelling argument that these kinds of phrases might be folk metaphor, because they contain an implicit comparison. But then, they seem to have explanatory power of some sort, whereas folk metaphors are purely descriptive?
Instead, we call this traditional genre the dite (pronounced like deet as in the first syllable of the word “detail”). According to Alan Dundes, the genre term was invented by Carl von Sydow, the same tireless folklorist who gave us the concept of active vs. passive bearers.
As Dundes points out, dites are functionally different from proverbs:
Unlike proverbs, which pass judgment or recommend a course of action, a dite simply describes or respond to one specific situation. Many dites refer to meteorological phenomena, for example, “The devil is beating his wife” for the co-occurrence of rain and sunshine. (28)
One might say “an angel flew through the room” or “an angel has passed through” (note that this is free-phrase to a degree) when you’re sitting in a room, and everyone falls silent at the same time. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard other dites to describe this phenomenon, but I’m blanking on them at present.
Köhler, writing in 1865, finds that the Grimms likely knew the phrase, and it was also known in Spanish literature. An essay on Finnish epic corroborates its existence too. What does it mean? Dundes suggests:
The dite discussed by Köhler may be alluding to the “angel of death” who is thought to come to collect the souls of those about to die. Implicit in any case is the equation of death and silence. The “dead” are silent as opposed to the “living,” who can speak. In this context, one would speak to ensure that all those present remain living. Presumably, the angel has passed through (the room) without stopping to seize an unwary soul. But whatever this bit of folk angelology may mean, anyone who researches it will have to begin with Köhler’s original brief note on the subject. (29)
Dites may be a small genre of folklore, but they’re still worth discussing. As expressive phrases to explain natural and social phenomenona, they may offer insights into worldview, as well as about the circulation of folklore over space and time.
Dundes, Alan, ed. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1999.