Why Have a Folklore Blogger at Patheos

Why Have a Folklore Blogger at Patheos March 21, 2016
Mumming for St. Kadri's Day in Estonia
Mumming for St. Kadri’s Day in Estonia

As I stated in my intro post, I’m excited to be bringing my decade+ of academic folklore training to this blog. But maybe you’re wondering…what is folklore, and why is it relevant to a blog about religion, spirituality, and atheism?

The way we define it, folklore is traditional, informally transmitted culture. Maybe you’ve heard someone say “Oh, that’s just folklore” or “oh, that’s just a fairy tale/myth/old wives’ tale/etc.” but that’s not the association we use in academic folklore studies. I think we have Mythbusters to thank for some of this, but ah well. That meaning of folklore, as false belief, definitely applies to some of what we study, but not all of it.

Basically, when a folklorist and a cultural anthropologist want to study a given culture, we have some things in common (fieldwork; social science analytical tools and theories; some historical ties). But where the anthropologist might be interested in any and every part of a culture, the folklorist wants to know who the storytellers are, who’s responsible for passing on traditions, and who tells the best jokes. We’re after the parts of culture that are expressive, that are performed, and that are natively recognized as special and worth doing. That’s what the “informally transmitted” part of the definition I gave above means: because folklore is not passed on through institutions, it’s something people engage in because of its entertainment value and its relevance to their lives.

My colleague Lynne McNeill said it best, and here I quote from my blog post Why I Kinda Don’t Care About Origins:

“The significance of folklore studies as an academic field comes back to the idea that folklore exists as a form of cultural expression without the anchor of institutional culture.” (Folklore Rules 33) McNeill goes on to use  examples from the literary canon (we can’t just decide to ditch Dickens if we don’t like him anymore, since his contribution to Western literature has become institutionalized) and the law (we can’t simply decide to stop following certain laws if we don’t feel they’re relevant any longer) to illustrate her point.

But when we’re talking folklore, we’re in a different realm entirely: “Folklore, on the other hand, isn’t institutionally determined. That urban legend no longer speaks to something we  care about? Gone. That custom no longer meets the needs of that family? Done – never happens again. While we may record the legend or a description of the custom in an archive so that we remember it was once relevant, there’s no formal organization still making us tell the legend or practice the custom. Unlike reading the past works of a famous author or obeying an outdated law, the moment folklore is no longer relevant, we simply stop using it.” (33-34)

So, why am I here? Because folklore straddles the realms of belief and disbelief, the sacred and the secular, institutional and vernacular religion. Some folklore genres are embedded in belief, such as legends, which are narratives that are told as though they’re true (even though, as we all know with urban legends, they’re probably not). Superstitions are another folklore genre based in belief, whether we’re talking weather signs, predictions, or good/bad luck indicators. Other folklore genres hinge on disbelief: with fairy tales, no one actually believes that Once upon a time really happened. With jokes, no one believes that a priest and a rabbi walked into a bar, or that a horse ordered a drink. Studying folklore and trying to get the cultural insider’s view on what’s true and what’s false keys us into the broader belief system of a given culture.

Folklore also deals with topics that are sacred and holy, as well as those that are mundane and secular. Creation myths are sacred narratives about the origins of the world and humankind, and we study those. Rituals that are meant to connect the human world with the divine one, or the realm of the dead, are also of interest to us. At the same time, we study slang and playground games, things that are so mundane as to seem trivial to some. So long as we’re tuned in at the level of culture that oscillates between tradition and variation, it’s all fair game.

Finally, folklorists play a role in studying religious cultures at various levels. We’re less interested in things at the institutional level, since folklore thrives on variation. But we’re pretty good at examining how institutional texts and contexts get filtered through folk processes to become localized examples of folk culture. My colleagues who study vernacular religion define it as “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand and interpret it” (Leonard Primiano quoted by Per Smith). This means we get to document how a given region celebrates a saint’s day, and how holidays change over time and space, and how folk dramas depict religious figures. We also document the expressive culture of non-believers, since they compose a unique folk group that’s fairly recent in human history.

In the case of my picture for this post, a masked mumming celebration that happens yearly in Estonia, I got to participate in St. Kadri’s Day by joining a group of folklorists (both local and not) who dressed in white clothing and masks to go around singing and asking for treats. This includes men, too, so that’s a curious instance of religiously-sanctioned cross-dressing. It’s a saint’s day celebration, yes, but Estonia is a pretty secular country for the most part (repeated religious colonization and forceful conversion will do that, I suppose). And yet the vernacular religious practices persist. I’m not a mumming expert (I’d point you to my colleague Stephen Winick’s blog for more info), but bringing religion into dialogue with expressive culture helped me make sense of that unique experience.

So if you’ve come to Patheos wanting to learn more about the cultural side of belief, religion, disbelief, atheism, or any of their intersections, you’ve come to the right place. I work a lot with secular genres – such as folktales, fairy tales, body art, and dance – but I also touch on the religious stuff. And learning how tradition and folklore work in one instance can help illuminate how they function in another instance.

Next up I’ll talk about the belief paradigm I bring to my scholarship, as an atheist-agnostic culturally-Jewish feminist.

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  • Kevin P. Hepp

    No need to explain yourself. We talk a lot about myths, folklore, fables, and all types of social constructs here. Especially when religion comes up.
    I grew up with an awesome mom that encouraged us to read. She got us books of folklore and fairytales from all over the world. Some of my favorite we from China and Norway. At the same time she is very religious, so we were also exposed to the religious stories. After growing up i found the other religions had a rich folklore tied to them. It is one of my favorite subjects.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Very cool! I like to distinguish between folklore and myth and religion – even though of course they all overlap – whenever I start chatting with new folks, just because there are sometimes misconceptions due to the way each of these words can have multiple meanings.

      Norwegian folktales are great! I haven’t read as many Chinese folktales, except of course for the 9th century Chinese version of Cinderella, which is the first printed version of the plot we have a record of (it makes sense in cultural context, that footbinding might’ve been the detail about small feet that stuck with the European version once it traveled west across the Silk Road).

  • pablo

    Welcome! Looking forward to your blog. Been interested in folklore since reading Jan Brunvand’s books back in the day.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Thank you! Yes, Brunvand’s work is wonderful. When I teach urban legends I tend to rely on him a fair bit.

  • Leloi

    Welcome! I loved studying cultural anthropology in college. I also studied art history and part of analyzing art is understanding the cultural context it came from. My favorite random class in college was Mythic Science. It compared geology with stories about that geology (example… Pele made the Hawaiian chain compared to the Pacific Plate moving over a hot spot).

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, folklore and cultural anthropology have a fair bit of overlap. I love the idea of Mythic Science… in my experience, a lot of mythology is fairly sophisticated, and doesn’t always conflict with the scientific explanations for things either.

  • roberto quintas

    that’s a better article than those one from John Halstead and his “atheist paganism”, whatever it is…

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Oh, hm, that sounds intriguing. I wonder what atheist paganism looks like…

  • Joe

    Welcome on board.

    As a fairly strong atheist, and metaphysical naturalist, I can still see the cultural importance of folklore, and its merits as a social science.

    Actually, the podcast ‘Lore’ by Aaron Mahnke is one of my guilty pleasures. Sometimes it’s nice to turn off my critical thinking faculties and enjoy a good spooky story.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Thanks for chiming in. One of my points is that while not all folklore is empirically true, that doesn’t make it all automatically false either (the famous example of folk medicine turning out to be, well, medicine, is people chewing on willow bark to relieve aches and pains). Are the cultural stories we tell about ourselves any less false than other ways of representing identity, such as statistics?

      That sounds like a great podcast… I’ll have to check it out!

  • Anna

    This sounds awesome. Can’t wait to read more.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Very cool, thank you!

  • Hilary

    Woo hoo! More non-thiest cultural Jewish feminism for the atheist channel!!! Yay!

    Agnostic Jewish lesbian myself here, grew up with Jewish folklore and storytelling.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Wow, I’m glad to be adding my voice to this demographic on this site! This certainly gives me food for thought for my next installment in this introductory series.

      Nice to meet you, and hopefully when I get around to posting about Jewish folklore, you can add your perspective.

  • Maoh

    I look forward to this! Folklore is a fascinating subject to me.
    Also, on that subject…. which folklore are you drawing on by calling yourself “Foxy”?

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Thank you!

      I think when I came up with the “foxy” nickname, it was in part a pushback against the idea that academics aren’t supposed to be sexy (so that drew on the vernacular English use of the word foxy to mean flirty, coy, sexy). But I also had this general idea of foxes in folklore as tricksters, particularly in European and Euro-American lore. See, for instance, this tale type: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0105.html

  • Pofarmer

    Sounds like an interesting ride. We’ll see. Thanks!