If you’re the person in your friend group who’s always debunking things on Snopes, you deal with legends even if you don’t think of them in those terms!
Broadly speaking, legends are a folklore genre belonging to the larger category of folk narrative, or stories/narratives that are also folklore (being informally-transmitted rather than institutional facets of culture). While it’s also common to see legends being transmitted in other media, such as the newspaper or radio or internet, legends are still considered folklore because they exist in multiple forms and variations that we can document, rather than as static texts that never change.
At their heart, legends are folk narratives told as though true. This is one reason folklorists also refer to them as belief tales. This applies to everything from the story of the hook to the Kentucky-fried rat to local cemetary hauntings.
William Bascom defines legends as “prose narratives…regarded as true by the narrator and his audience” (9, italics in original). He explains:
Legends are more often secular than sacred, and their principal characters are human. They tell of migrations, wars and victories, deeds of past heroes, chiefs, and kings, and succession in ruling dynasties. In this they are often the counterpart in verbal tradition of written history, but they also include local tales of buried treasure, ghosts, fairies, and saints. (9-10)
Legends are distinct from personal narratives for a number of reasons, though both are ostensiby about things that actually happened. Legends are usually told in third person, while personal narratives are by definition told in first person; legends are more widely transmitted on a cultural scale, while personal narratives tend to have smaller circulations.
Similarly, while legends may overlap with myths (definition post coming!), legends take place in historical time, while myths take place in the time of creation of the world. Myths are more likely to be attached to religion than legends, but even this distinction is a bit finicky, as we believe the etymology of the word “legend” comes from the Latin legere or “to read,” meaning to narrate the lives of the saints. But as Alan Dundes explains, “there could be legends of Adam and Eve that would take place after their creation (which would be a myth)” (6).
One example of a legend involving mythical characters is the origin of the fairies or hidden folk. Folklorist D. L. Ashliman has collected a handful of legend texts here, and one of the Icelandic versions has Eve ashamed of her unwashed, dirty children. She hides them from God’s eyes, and he says that they will remain hidden, as the hidden folk. It is thus entirely possible that legends can deal with religious topics and characters, and so we’re looking at factors like context and documented narrative patterns to help us distinguish legend from myth in some cases.
Since legends can be secular or sacred, we sometimes distinguish between supernatural legends (things like ghost stories and hauntings) and historical legends (ones that do not usually contain supernatural elements, but rather are based on real, documented events). Of course, these categories get confused when you wind up investigating things like Civil War ghost legends. Legends also tend to be migratory, as Jan Brunvand observes in The Study of American Folklore: they are “widely known in different places…but when texts become rooted and adapted to a particular place, they are said to be localized” (197). And because folklorists are giant nerds, we have created a migratory legend index to classify these narratives as they travel.
Many people today have heard of urban legends, which are legends set in a modern time and place, usually not with supernatural elements. Folklorists tend to refer to them as contemporary legends, since it’s not just in current times that we have legends specifically tied to our circumstances, reflecting back our social anxieties and fears at us. Well-known urban legends include the ones about gross things happening in fast food, strangers in the home (like the babysitter on acid), and alligators in the sewer.
See also: Legends & Fear
I mentioned Snopes at the top of this post, but I should state that folklorists don’t generally concern ourselves with whether a legend has roots in true happenings or not. We don’t care whether a legend is true or not; we care why it’s compelling enough for people to tell and retell it. What about the plot speaks to the members of a group? Why now and not five years ago? Will it continue to be told in the future? And so on.
The study of legends is a time-honored one in my field, and it’s also one with important contributions to make to the rest of society. We still tell legends, sometimes centuries-old legends, even with modern narratives competing for our attention. Most legends are grounded in the teller’s reality, with a meaningful message (often a warning), and a plot hook that’s hard to ignore. Studying legends helps us hone in on what frightens people – and in these turbulent political times, we need all the help understanding one another that we can get.
For those wanting to learn more, Jan Brunvand is a well-respected folklore researcher and authority on urban legends. I often teach material from his books in my college classes, because his work is both accessible and very, very intelligently done.
Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, ed. Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 5-29.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].
Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.