Introduction to Folklore: Why Stories Make Us Human

Why stories make us human

Travelling bards
Johann Gottfried von Herder
William Bascom

What is folklore?

Folklore refers to the stories and beliefs of a particular culture or group. From spirits and monsters, to enchanted worlds, these stories have been around for thousands of years, shared over campfires and sung beside beds in every corner of the world.

Folklore can be seen as an expression of the collective imagination, with its stories reflecting the beliefs and values of cultures throughout history. These stories examine profound themes such as good versus evil, love and loss, and life after death.

Folk tales exist in every culture on earth – from the great superpowers to the tiniest tribal communities. What is striking is how often these stories share common themes.

Many of these stories are as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago. The world is changing at an alarming rate, but folklore shows that human nature stays much the same.

Types of folklore

There are many types of folklore, but the most common examples are myths, legends and fables. Though these three forms of folklore may seem similar at first glance, they each serve distinct purposes in storytelling.

Myths are stories which explain the origins of natural phenomena; they provide explanations for why things happen in the world around us. Legends are tales about heroic figures who often perform extraordinary feats; they celebrate heroes who inspire us to be brave and noble. Fables, on the other hand, are moralistic stories with a lesson at their core; they offer wisdom on how we should behave towards one another.

Despite these differences, these approaches all share one common trait: they help us navigate the world around us, and be better versions of ourselves.

A universal experience

Folklore is a universal phenomenon, and found in cultures all around the world. From the ancient Greek myths of gods and goddesses to the Native American tales of Coyote, the trickster-spirit, stories have been an important part of human culture since the dawn of time. Even today, films like Star Wars draw heavily upon classic mythological archetypes while books like Harry Potter use fantasy creatures to captivate readers young and old alike.

The universality of folklore can also be seen in its ability to transcend cultural boundaries. While different cultures may tell stories that reflect their own beliefs and values, they often share similar themes. For example, many stories feature heroic characters overcoming monsters, or characters entering strange, enchanted realms. No matter where we come from or what language we speak, these themes resonate with us all.

The spread of folklore

Before the invention of writing, folklore was spread primarily through oral tradition. Traveling bards and storytellers would travel from village to village, sharing stories of gods and heroes that had been passed down for generations.

They often picked up new stories on their travels, which they later transmitted to other cultures. This allowed people to learn about different customs and beliefs without ever leaving their homes.

Word of mouth was another important way in which folklore was shared. Stories were told around campfires or during long journeys – a method of storytelling which is still used today. These small, personal exchanges of folklore allowed people to better connect with one another by sharing their experiences and beliefs about the wider world.

The study of folklore

Johann Gottfried von Herder, an 18th century German philosopher, was one of the first people to recognize the importance of folklore in understanding human culture. He argued that these stories were essential to preserving cultural identity and should be studied as part of a nation’s history. His work laid the foundation for modern folkloristics – the scientific study of folklore.

Today, scholars from many disciplines are interested in studying folklore; anthropologists use it to understand different cultures while linguists examine how language is used in storytelling. By looking at how these stories have evolved over time we can gain a better understanding not only about our past but also about ourselves today.

Why humans tell stories

William Bascom, an American anthropologist and folklorist, proposed four functions of folklore: entertainment, education, validation, and control.

Entertainment is perhaps the most obvious function of folklore; stories provide us with an escape from reality and allow us to spend time with different characters and worlds. In terms of education, a story can provide moral guidance and allows us to learn about right and wrong without having to experience it ourselves.

Folklore can also be a source of validation, as it justifies a culture’s beliefs and rituals; for example, stories about rain gods justify the ritual of praying before a harvest. An extension of this is social control: folklore can be used to deliberately change a person’s behavior, with stories introduced into new societies to transform the way they think.

Do animals tell stories?

Humans are not alone in telling stories. Studies have shown that animals such as chimpanzees use vocalizations to describe their recent experiences, while bees use complex dance routines to communicate the location of nearby food.

But when it comes to storytelling, no animal comes close to human beings. This is due to the evolution of our brains which allowed us to develop language skills more effectively than other species.


Our capacity for storytelling has provided an evolutionary advantage, as it allows us to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next without having direct experience with it ourselves.

For example, when early humans were learning how to hunt they would share their experiences with each other by telling stories about successful hunts or near misses. These tales helped them remember what worked and what didn’t so they could become better hunters over time.

Ancient folklore

It is hard to know when humans first started telling stories, but folklore has been a part of our lives for thousands and thousands of years.

The concept of Dreamtime is an ancient example of Aboriginal folklore. This spiritual belief system refers to an era in the distant past when ancestral spirits created and inhabited the world. This belief system has been integral to Aboriginal life for 65,000 years, providing tribes with a sense of cultural identity and a divine connection to the natural world.

Dreamtime stories are still told around campfires, allowing members of the community to come together and share their knowledge. These tales are also used as teaching tools for younger generations, imparting lessons about morality and respect which other children were also taught all those thousands of years earlier.

Modern folklore

Folklore is not just a feature of history; it also exists today. Urban legends have become increasingly popular as people share stories and anecdotes online. These tales often feature mysterious or supernatural elements, such as ghosts, monsters, and curses. They are designed to shock and surprise readers while also providing an entertaining escape from everyday life.


The internet has made it easier than ever for these stories to spread quickly across the globe. This has created an interesting dialogue between different communities. This global exchange of storytelling means that folklore today is as powerful now as it has ever been before.

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