Legends & Fear

Legends & Fear January 28, 2015

As we all know, I’m a fairy-tale expert. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like other forms of folk narrative! In particular, I’ve always loved legends. There’s something about them that captures my imagination, though I’ve not done much original research on them.

In the classroom, however, I bring in legends at every opportunity. I’ve done enough coursework in them that I feel pretty competent explaining what they are as a genre and how we can productively study them (note the “productively” part: spending time debating whether they actually happened is a waste of time, in my opinion, because as students of culture, we’re far more interested in why these stories are compelling enough to tell and retell).

Legends are almost always about fear. Different folklore genres tend to cluster around certain themes and messages, and as I’ve written in regard to sex positivity and folklore, when legends deal with sex, it’s almost always in a negative light.

Having sex outside marriage? You should be afraid that something bad will happen to you. Having sex with a same-sex partner? Likeliness of bad things increases. Performing non-procreative acts like oral sex or anal sex? Be very afraid. Having an affair? More bad news. Masturbating? Uh oh!

The list of sex acts that get demonized in legends goes on and on, and they all link back to one thing: fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the abnormal. Fear of social stigma. Fear of disease. Fear of having your privacy violated. Fear of being mocked.

I love that by studying these stories, we can tap into very basic human fears that take particular expression in this day and age. However, I don’t love the fears that are being normalized here. I want to see sexual diversity being celebrated, not stigmatized. I want to see sexual exploration being done safely and consensually regardless of whether it happens inside or outside marriage, heterosexuality, and vanilla life.

Hopefully by studying the fears transmitted in legends, we can counter these broadly conservative social and sexual messages with other messages and narratives that are more broadly inclusive. In other words, let’s learn from these narratives, and learn from these fears, but not let them define our reality.

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