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Categories of Folklore

Updated on July 26, 2012

There are so many types of "folklore"

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Folklore as Cultural Expression

Folklore is a term with tremendous numbers of sub-set categories. Types of oral tradition, kinds of folklore stories and narratives are just some of the considerations involved when discussing "folklore."

Within the realms of folklore, you might wish to study or concentrate on the following:

  • dance
  • oral tradition
  • proverbs
  • popular beliefs
  • music
  • legends
  • epics
  • ... just to name a few terms 

Folklore is not just about tall tales and great stories. Studying the tales, oral traditions, format of storytelling in differing genres of folk-story, dances, poetry, music and many other aspects can inform about past and present cultures, superstitions, lifestyles and a whole range of possibilities

Some Genres: Ballad, Childlore, Childrens' Street Culture

A Ballad, in folklore, can be story told literally through song, a spoken tale which relies on a definite and palpable rhythm, a tale told in formal stanzas of lyrical ballad poetry, or a combination of these.

Childlore: child-play, songs, dance, mime, and storytelling, and combinations of these things - primarily enacted by young children. Topics and activities also included in this genre: games, pranks, nicknaming and nickname games, parody, rhymes, superstitions, lyrics, magic/magical practices, minor rites - religious and magical, wit, obscenities, customs, codes, gang lore, daydreaming, dramatizations, solitary play, role modelling and world modelling, fantasy play, comic reading, imaginary heroes, imaginary companions, art, music, and more...

Surprisingly, the world of childlore is very well protected - probably because many 'childplay' activities aren't taken seriously by most of the population. Hence, some of the more ancient story/lore tidbits are still contained inside of the realms of childlore...

For instance, "Ring a Ring O' Rosie" or "Ring Around The Rosies" contains 'coded' terms within which date back to mass death during times of plague - however - it is not known with true accuracy whether the references are to the 1665 Great Plague of London, or even the Bubonic Plague in England, recorded to have happened earlier than 1665.

Other Childlore items which contain coded language that is well-preserved to this day:

  • Mary Mary Quite Contrary - may have references lementing the heavy-handed Catholic rule of bygone ages - or it may be re-affirming the genius of Catholicism after a resurgence of Church power in England, in our recent-past...the childlore may have tidbits about Mary I of Scotland, and 'rows and rows' in the tune may refer to Protestant executions in the time of Mary, Queen of Scotland!
  • Humpty Dumpty - the character Humpty Dumpty may represent King Richard III within Shakespeare drama or a name that was given to a canon on the Edinburgh Castle in England - which, through much use, finally exploded during use, fell to the ground, shattered into pieces and dropped down to the bottom of the Edinburgh Castle wall. Humpty Dumpty may represent young Romanian prince (14th Century) Humperdink who died from falling from the battlement walls of his father's castle to the gound below.
  • Cock Robin - at the Buckland Rectory at Gloucestershire, in a stained-glass window, there is a likeness of a dying robin, pierced by an arrow...The story "Phillyp Sparowe" from around 1508 is similar to the Cock Robin song/rhyme. Phyllyp Sparowe was written by a man named John Skelton. Cock Robin may refer to the fall of the government of Robert Walpole in 1742.

Childrens' Street Culture - the significance of how children have always played a role in creating, perpetuating, extending, transforming and delivering folklore cannot be emphasized enough!

Street Culture created and maintained by children both of old and currently includes an array of activities, and collectively - the knowledge that children pass from generation to generation is maintained through street games, 'fads,' 'crazes,' childplay in the many forms mentioned above - but also is enhanced by the media (newspapers, books, television, popular music, radio) that children interact with.

"Materials" also come into play when considering children's street culture. Seasonal materials, industrial throw-away items and general scavenged objects become part of childplay, and include things like: snowballs, bricks, twigs, old car seats, tires, etc. Literally, the children create what they will and also incorporate their physical creations into their childplay, stories, songs, mime-play, etc. Children, particularly in urban areas (but also in rural towns) will even create 'hideouts,' 'dens,' 'forts,' 'clubhouses,' and actual, functional places and shelters which may then figure prominently into their play, songs, stories, etc.

More Genres: Epic Poetry, Festivals

An Epic is a long narrative poem. Typically, it is a VERY LONG narrative poem. Though the EPIC is also considered a piece of literature, it is also found very often in the form of spoken word oral poetry - sometimes, as well, as song - and it may incorporate, 'in the telling,' forms of story telling as well as sung portions of story.

Well known EPIC poets:

  • Virgil (Ancient Rome)
  • Homer (Ancient Greece)
  • Dante (Middle Ages, Italy)
  • John Milton (17th Century, England)

Well known EPICS:

  • Beowulf (unknown)
  • Paradise Lost (Milton)
  • Divine Comedy - featuring sections, "Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise" (Dante)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh (ancient Mesopotamian epic)
  • Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation mythology)
  • Iliad (Homer - "Odyssey" said to be the work of Homer, as well)
  • Book of Job (in Biblical Scriptures)
  • Aeneid (Virgil)
  • Metamorphoses (Ovid, Roman poet)
  • Bhagavata Purana (Puranic Hindu text/literature)

The above are just a few of the greatest epics

Festival in Folklore:

Community gatherings and festivals played an important role in folklore by providing large groups of people a sense of 'togetherness,' ways to interact, share basic information, spirituality, stories, and identity, as well as to share important political news, goods and services. 

In ages past, festivals were time for elders to share knowledge and since most people were illiterate, an excellent way to pass on large bits of information was orally, through easy-to-remember rhymes, song, ballads, and such. A lot of codified information can be found in songs and ballads known to be sung specifically at certain festivals in the past - much like the codes found in Childlore.

Folk Religion and Folk Medicine

Folk Religion is generally filled with beliefs, rituals, superstitions and such, which have been transmitted through elders and any person who can share the beliefs from generation to generation in any particular culture. These are mostly beliefs passed down outside of any rigidly organized, structured religion, whereby there is no need for the 'learning generation' to be converted to any organized, structured religious body, theology, creed, church, etc.

*Note: Technically, "Folk Religion" is present in every society and age, even right now, wherever you are and in whatever society you're in right now!

There are sometimes tensions between practitioners and deliverers of 'folk religion' versus those who conform to organized religions, church, and formal religions, however, there are often elements of the 'formal religion' of a region present in the actual folk religion beliefs.

For example, there are beliefs known as "folk Christianity," "folk Islam."

Folk religion may answer troublesome questions and offer security and comfort to people in times of need. "Religion," in general - supposes to offer comfort and support to those who are seeking such, so the PURPOSE and APPEAL of most religions carries similar characteristics of attractiveness to people and function for people.

The line between folk religion and magic is quite blurred, which is another reason for certain organized religions to feel suspicious toward those who are involved in folk religion practices. Many Christian religions/sects see any sort of 'magic' as 'wrong' or 'evil.'

Nonetheless, Folk Religion still exists in any society.

Folk Religion is often represented in epics, stories, lore, songs, etc.

Folk Medicine:

Sometimes called 'indigenous' or 'traditional medicine,' Folk Medicine is usually a collection of healing data that is passed down through generations. Sometimes the data is actually called a system of medical knowledge by most cultures and institutions outside of our 'modern medical system.' Most cultures, from all parts of the world have traditional healing methods and folk medicine.

Some categories of folk medicine that are familiar to most people:

  • Acupuncture (Chinese, Asian)
  • Ayurvedic (Traditiona medicine, India)
  • Siddha Medicine (Tamil Traditional medicine, India)
  • Unani (Traditional medicine, India)

Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani, considered a 'trio' of traditional medicine and used together in India.

  • Muti (Traditional Medicine, use of plant/herbal products in nature, South Africa)

Practices, processes of healing, plants used for healing, and other such details can be heavily coded into folk stories, songs, epics, childplay, games, etc.

Archtypes, Stereotypes, Stock Characters

Genre is a blanket term for 'type,' although certain tales/dances, oral traditions, etc., will almost never fit exclusively into the category of just one genre. Listing folklore tales, titles, story formats, dance and music details and the like into something called 'genre' give a person someplace to start when dealing with the broad topic of 'folklore.'

Here are some areas of interest for those who want to learn more about folklore and popular genres:

The archetypes, stereotypes and stock characters are those that appear common and recognizable to almost all listeners/viewers of folktales.

  • Archetypes are basically 'ideal' characters - recognized universally by those who experience the folk legend, tall tale, oral story, etc. For instance, an archetype "Father" has certain qualities and features that people think about when they think of a father figure. More so, the 'father' archetype is supposed to be a father with few flaws - head of the household (in most cultures), responsible toward children and spouse in the family, hard-working, strong, male, etc. The archetype is like a generic version of a father - one that most cultures will understand and recognize.
  • A stereotype version of character is a generic character who has added characteristics and features to further define that the character is part of an exclusive 'set' or type. This could be a 'mother'+stepmother features. In folklore, the stereotypical characters are almost as oversimplified as 'generic' archtype characters, but there will be added aspects of 'race,' 'gender,' 'nationality,' 'natural human qualities' 'some affirmed group in society such as stepmothers, kings' added within the stereotypical model of the stereotyped character.

For instance 'the stepmother' is universally known to be the generic mother but also belongs to the sub-set of mothers who care for children not biologically their own - not to be confused with 'the wicked stepmother!' The latter is more a stock character. The stereotypical 'stepmother,' therefore would be recognized as being re-married for whatever reasons, and to be caring for her new husband's children. People recognize the 'stepmother' as readily as the archtype mother...occasionally the 'stepmother' can be an archetype - so long as listeners/viewers of folklore story circles and dance, readers of folklore tales understand the archetype characters presented.

* Note - the 'stepmother' can be a stereotype because her role and make-up is ASSUMED already by readers/listeners/viewers. In reality, many stepmothers are NOT remarried to a partner and/or looking after his biological children. Some stepmothers are a sort of surrogate mother to a child who has lost his or her mother, and are called mother by children who are not biologically belonging to the woman. Some stepmothers are single, caring for children of siblings who have passed away (ie: an auntie to the child(ren), looking after a dead sister's offspring). Many stepmothers are older sisters looking after younger siblings when parents have passed away. These complexities are not addressed when discussing stereotypes, nor are they important to know in most always is ASSUMED that the stereotypical stepmother IS, in fact exactly what the stereotype outlines for such a persona - a re-married wife, caring for children not biologically her own - so in this way, stereotypes in folklore are quite rigid and universally recognized as characters with very specific qualities.

  • Stock Characters are not easily recognized if one doesn't already know the archtypes and stereotype characters that 'stock characters' represent. Stock characters are almost always more narrowly defined than both archtypes and stereotypes. Some examples of stock characters: the boorish man, the hero, the penny-pincher (man or woman), the vain woman, the wicked stepmother, etc.

NOTE: "Stock Characters" are so much more narrowly defined than archtypes and stereotypes that in the USA, there have been instances of writers, storytellers, playwrights and filmakers attempting to COPYRIGHT to protect "Stock Characters" of movies, plays, books, etc.! Unfortunately, the US courts do NOT allow stock characters to be copyrighted at this time.


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    • mythbuster profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

      Thanks dahoglund

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      10 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Great hub.

    • lxxy profile image


      10 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

      Great stuff, love the bold type. ;)

      Me, I'm most partial to the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins...


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