Category Archives: Folklore

Final Thoughts (for now) about Oral Narratives

I’ve written so far about the conditions necessary for an oral narrative to be passed down unchanged. To be preserved at all, the people who tell the story must find some value in it for their present lives, regardless of what it meant to their ancestors. And to be passed down unchanged, it must be told for some purpose that would be hindered if the story is altered.

These conditions are difficult, but obviously not impossible, to meet. And, just as obviously, a narrative can potentially be perceived as worth being told by any society that encounters it. If a story were to emerge anywhere that, for whatever reason, resonates with people in most cultures, it could easily spread worldwide in a remarkably short amount of time; certainly much shorter than the 4,000 years calculated for an individual to become a universal genealogical ancestor. This might even happen if, after the story began to spread, it ceased for some reason to be told in its culture of origin. However, if a society that adopts a story uses it for a different purpose than did the society from which the story was learned, the likelihood of it remaining unchanged would be altered as well.

The conclusion that this all leads to is that, even if it were known that a particular traditional story were inspired by a historic event, the observed present distribution of the story could not be used to determine the location where that event had occurred, or to reconstruct the specific details of the event. That information would need to be obtained from a different source.


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More Thoughts About Oral Narratives

Back in February I explained why the ultimate origin of a traditional story isn’t an especially interesting or important question. However, I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what I was saying. I’m not at all claiming that a traditional story can’t be passed down essentially unchanged over long periods of time; I’m saying that it won’t be passed down unchanged, or at all for that matter, without there being a reason.

In societies without writing, like Mesopotamia at the time the Gulf Oasis would have last been above water, stories can’t sit unread in an archive waiting for some scholar to rediscover them at a later time. There’s no possibility of a story surviving unless it’s told. And people don’t just randomly talk into the air; storytellers have a purpose (or purposes) in mind. So a story that nobody has a reason to tell will disappear.

The willingness of the teller to make changes in a story depends critically on the purpose for which it is told. If a story is told purely for entertainment it doesn’t matter how it changes in the telling, as long as the audience finds the result entertaining (compare the fairy tales of Charles Perrault with their Disney descendants to see a great example of this). If the story is part of a magical ritual, or an invocation to a deity who might be offended if everything isn’t done perfectly, there is a very strong incentive to tell the story exactly the same way each time. It’s not enough just to say the story is sacred, however; it’s the purpose that matters. A sacred story used to instruct children in the proper way to behave might be capable of absorbing some changes, even while other parts of the story remain constant. The only way an oral story remains constant over time is if it has to in order to fulfill the purpose for which it is told.

(And, of course, all of the above only applies if we’re considering things from a human perspective. If an omnipotent God wants a story to be passed down unchanged, he is quite capable of causing that to happen.)


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Further wild speculation

After I wrote the blog post from two weeks ago, speculating that the “Ararat” of Genesis 8 might refer to Arrata in southwestern Iran, rather than Urartu in Anatolia, I stumbled over a very interesting article from 2014. The article is by Mohammed El Bastawesy, and it’s titled, “The Geomorphological and Hydrogeological Evidences for a Holocene Deluge in Arabia.”*

According to this article, during the late Pleistocene there was a massive lake occupying most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. At some point between 13,000 and 8,500 radiocarbon years ago the lake suddenly broke out of its basin – the article doesn’t explain why, but the entire region is geologically active. The water flowed north and east into what is now the Persian Gulf, which at the time, if you recall my earlier post about the Gulf Oasis, was dry and very likely habitable.

That makes three separate sources of flooding for the oasis: 1) Sea level rise, which is known to have happened but would not have happened suddenly without other conditions (such as breaking through a natural levee) that are not known to have been present. 2) River floods, which have not, to my knowledge, been conclusively shown to have occurred, but can nevertheless reasonably be assumed to have happened from time to time. 3) The emptying of this megalake, which is known to have happened and to have been sudden.

Before getting too excited, however, we need to remember that the very latest time period that all this could have happened is still a couple of millennia before anybody could possibly have written the story down. An oral narrative would only be passed down over that distance of time if each succeeding generation found it relevant to their own concerns. If not, after a few centuries the story would almost certainly be changed beyond recognition, if it survived at all. So, as I said earlier, this is wild speculation. But I think it’s interesting nonetheless.

*Published in Arabian Journal of Geosciences 8 (5): 2577-2586.


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Traditional Narratives – Why a Story’s Origin Isn’t Important

I said last time that the origin of a traditional narrative is not a particularly interesting or useful question. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s easy to understand if you think about your own stories. Every one of us has stories we can tell about interesting or unusual things that we’ve experienced. If you’re like most people, you know a few stories about things that happened to your parents before you were born. And possibly a few from your grandparents, although most likely not very many. The more generations back you go, the fewer stories you probably know. Why don’t you know those stories? Obviously because nobody told them to you. Even extremely interesting stories don’t tend to get passed down once there’s nobody alive who remembers the people who experienced them. They don’t become sacred history.

The principle here is that narratives are only passed on if they are in some way important to the living people who hear and tell them. An interesting anecdote that happened to somebody you know is important because of the relationship you have with that person. A sacred story – a myth – is only passed on as a sacred story if it is relevant to the lived reality of the people telling and hearing it. Just being old doesn’t make it sacred. When considering myths, therefore, the question that needs to be answered is not how did this story get started, or what historical basis it might have, but what does it mean to the people for whom it is sacred.

Now, this is all assuming we’re talking about an oral narrative. Written texts are a little different. A text that is considered sacred may contain passages that are not especially important to current readers, because the sacred character of the text as a whole precludes changing or removing them (c. f. Biblical genealogies for many modern Christians). With a written text, the question to be considered is what did this story mean at the time it was added to the canon – which may or may not be the same as the time it was first told, or even first written down. Oral traditions, however, do not have the kind of connection with a greater whole that would keep then in the “canon” once they are no longer relevant to modern listeners.

So when you find that certain myths are present in many different cultures all over the world, that’s an indication that certain ideas are relevant to the lives of people in a huge variety of natural and cultural environments. And that’s a very interesting finding, because it may be telling us something about the way the human brain works, if we’re just clever enough to figure it out.


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Flood Stories

Following up on my last post, the worldwide flood is easily the most commonly encountered myth just about anywhere you look. Generally the flood leaves only a bare handful of survivors who frequently, although certainly not always, stay alive by taking refuge in a box or other container. In some myths the survivors are human, in which case everybody in the present world descended from them. In other cases they are divine or semi-divine beings, and the creation of mankind occurs after the flood. In any case, the flood seems to serve as a type of return to the primordial, watery chaos out of which the world was first formed, and serves to separate an ancient world of supernatural beings from the current world dominated by humans.

Now, before I go any further, I need to make it clear that I am approaching this subject as an anthropologist. Therefore, by “myth” I mean a sacred narrative, believed to be true, which often plays a central role within a larger belief system (Lehmann, Myers, and Moro 2005:54). I specifically do not mean that it is fictitious or false. Myths express sacred truths to believers, and there is nothing about the status of a story as myth that prevents it from also being historically accurate. (Nor, it must be said, is there anything that requires it to be. The historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of any narrative, is simply not relevant to its being a myth.)

In addition to the Great Flood story, there are some other myths that are found all over the world. Examples include:

  • A man makes a long journey to the world of the dead to try and recover his wife. He finds her, but on the return trip he violates some sort of prohibition, resulting in his being unable to bring her back to the world of the living (often called the Orpheus myth, after the protagonist in the Greek version of this story).


  • With the world originally covered in water an animal, often a duck or other water bird, dives down to the very bottom and returns with bit of mud from the bottom under it’s fingernails. From that bit of mud, dry land is created.


  • People obtain fire by stealing it from a group of divine or semi-divine beings. Often the theft is carried out by animals, who are pursued and pass the fire from one to another as a sort of relay.

Many other myths are widespread within geographical regions. (The monster slaying Hero Twins being one example that is found throughout much of North America.)


To relate this back to my last post, when we’re discussing narratives like these, that are widely distributed throughout the world, it must not be assumed that the story in question had not been part of any particular cultural tradition for millennia prior to the oldest textual record of it that survived to the present day. In the absence of evidence that the story was not part of certain cultural traditions prior to a particular date, we can not make any assumption about who had that story first. Therefore, any speculation about borrowing in one direction or another is unwarranted. Applied to the specific situation of the ancient near east, I consider it likely that the Great Flood story did not originate with any of the historically identified cultures of the region, but is quite a bit older than any of them.

In addition, we also need to keep in mind that the origin of a traditional narrative isn’t a particularly interesting or useful question. That, however, will need to addressed in another blog post.


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Comparative Cosmogony – a Minor Rant

I’ve been reading Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context by John H. Walton. Chapter 1 gives a good survey of the cosmological material, that’s accessible to people (like me) who don’t read any ancient near eastern languages. The discussion of various theories of borrowing in one direction or another is interesting and seems, from my layman’s point of view, to be reasonably well balanced. But any time I see any discussion along those lines, it always leaves me desperately wishing that scholars of ancient near eastern literature would do at least a little reading in world mythology and the anthropology of folklore. There seems to be no recognition whatsoever that some of the themes that are the biggest areas of contention – especially the flood story and the idea of a watery primordial chaos – have a worldwide distribution. These elements are far more likely to be revealing something about the way human brains work than to be cases of borrowing from one “original” story.

That said, the comparisons of ancient narratives (irrespective of any borrowing that may or may not have occurred) has been interesting to read, and I’m looking forward to see what Walton has to say about other literary forms.


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You better watch out

I’ve blogged several times about my interest in what I like to call fantastic ethnobiology, a term I use for creatures that exist as cultural knowledge, but which do not physically exist, and which also do not have any particular religious significance. (I make that distinction both to avoid causing unnecessary offense and because I believe the difference really is important in understanding the phenomenon.)

In keeping with this interest, and in view of the season, I was therefore quite happy to find a website that has some first person accounts of sightings that can definitely be described as fantastic.


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Archaeologists don’t dig dinosaurs

But sometimes we do uncover fossils in an archaeological context. In the case reported here, marine fossils seem to have been used in a religious context at Palenque. The Maya of the Late Classic period apparently knew that they had uncovered the remains of long dead sea creatures.

However, I would not be so quick to conclude that finding those fossils caused the Maya to believe that the world was originally covered with water. A primordial ocean is such a widespread element in mythology that I find it far more likely the fossils merely reinforced an existing cosmogony. It will be interesting to see what further research will turn up.

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More old ethnographies

I’ve discovered that the Internet Sacred Text Archive hosts a decent collection of ethnographic works dealing with American Indian religions and oral traditions. Scanning the available titles, I see works by Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, C. Hart Merriam, Edward Sapir, Constance Goddard DuBois, Julian Steward, Frank Cushing, James Mooney, and a number of other well respected and careful researchers. This looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun to explore.

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Giants in the Earth

I stumbled on this in an autobiography of Buffalo Bill Cody (p. 207):


While we were in the Sand Hills, scouting the Niobrara country, the Pawnee Indians brought into camp, one night, some very large bones, one of which a surgeon of the expedition pronounced to be the thigh bone of a human being. The Indians claimed that the bones they had found were those of a person belonging to a race of people who a long time ago lived in this country: That there was once a race of men on the earth whose size was about three times that of an ordinary man, and they were so swift and powerful that they could run alongside of a buffalo, and taking the animal in one arm could tear off a leg and eat the meat as they walked. These giants denied the existence of a Great Spirit, and when they heard the thunder or saw the lightning they laughed at it and said they were greater than either. This so displeased the Great Spirit that he caused a great rain storm to come, and the water kept rising higher and higher so that it drove those proud and conceited giants from the low grounds to the hills, and thence to the mountains, but at last even the mountain tops were submerged, and then those mammoth men were all drowned. After the flood had subsided, the Great Spirit came to the conclusion that he had made man too large and powerful, and that he would therefore correct the mistake by creating a race of men of smaller size and less strength. This is the reason, say the Indians, that modern men are small and not like the giants of old, and they claim that this story is a matter of Indian history, which has been handed down among them from time immemorial

As we had no wagons with us at the time this large and heavy bone was found, we were obliged to leave it.

With nothing further to go on, I have to assume for the moment that Buffalo Bill is telling the truth, and that his account should be taken at face value: The party was shown some very large bones, one of which the surgeon thought was human, and one or more Pawnee Indians related the story that is given here. Throughout the nineteenth century, newspaper account record a great many hoaxes involving giant skeletons, or sometimes mummies, but I have no evidence that this particular case involves any deception, either on the part of Buffalo Bill or that of his Pawnee informants.

As the bone was not kept, there is obviously no way now to determine it’s actual origin. Very likely it came from some species of extinct megafauna that could not be readily identified by either the Indians or the Buffalo Bill party. There are a number of conditions under which organic material such as bone can be preserved for many thousands of years. It was probably not a fossil, that is, a mineralized bone, since it is hardly likely that the fact that the object was made out of rock instead of bone would have been overlooked.

Giants, of course, are found in the traditions of an enormous number of cultures, from every part of the world. The same is true of world-destroying floods. In this case the two motifs are explicitly connected, with the giants all drowning during the flood. This juxtaposition is far also from unique, appearing in traditions as widely removed from one another as Chumash and Hebrew.

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the Pawnee to speculate as to how this story connects to other narratives, or what role it may have played in Pawnee culture. Most of the ethnographic information I’ve studied comes from peoples west of the Rocky Mountains; in California, the Great Basin, or the Southwest. Timothy Pauketat has argued* that at least some nineteenth century Pawnee religious rituals might have been derived from practices carried out at Cahokia, but I can’t say what relevance, if any, that connection might have for this story.

Since there is no indication that this story has any particular religious significance, I would tentatively classify it as an example of what I’ve been calling fantastic ethnobiology: cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in nature, and which are not functioning in a religious context. (Yes, I know there are some problems with this definition, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment. I’ll go into it in more detail in a future blog post.)

As I said, I only stumbled on this account by accident. It’s from a culture that’s outside my area of limited expertise, but I nevertheless found it interesting enough to be worth thinking about.


* In Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi

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