Folklore and Urban Legends

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Folklore is the loose, all-encompassing term for legends and knowledge that are passed down orally through the centuries. Distinct from academic knowledge, derived as it is from books and systematised referencing, folklore exists all around us in a variety of forms - from campfire stories to children's rhymes to old wive's tales to ancient song. Often, folklore is highly localised and specific, but equally often common thematic elements can be found in folklore across borders, with names and places changing within a structure that is common to all. Sometimes, morals are embedded within folk tales.

In today's technological mien, it might be assumed that folklore would wither as knowledge becomes increasingly systematised but it seems the yearning to impose meaning onto reality through the repetition of myth and storytelling is deeply ingrained in the human psyche: today, knowledge of so-called "urban legends" is widespread, but they still proliferate through the technological equivalents of campfire gatherings - chat rooms, internet forums and even in the media, where legend is passed on as 'fact' and given a sheen of credibility by a credited byline. This runs a gamut from racist legends to "well known facts" to counter-factual knowledge and belief in homeopathic remedies.

As folklore is so widespread and all-encompassing, some argue that almost all 'phenomena' (in the sense of unexplained experiences) is irredeemably coloured by folkloric motifs. For example, one can see distinct parallels between today's "alien abductions" and earlier folk tales of abductions by faeries and similar mythological beings. Seen through this prism the lack of quantifiable data and provable 'reality' is almost irrelevant to the human experience. Whether people have ever been objectively abducted by either spirits or aliens is a sideshow to reality as experienced by individuals.

This infuriates rationalists who cleave to the importance of data and reproducible results under standardised conditions. To them, folklore and legend stands diametrically opposed to the advancement of human knowledge: since no ghosts can be studied in a laboratory, belief in them in is a squandering of intellectual resources at its most benign and a barrier to progress at worst.

What such rationalists often fail to see is that the history of rationalism itself is peppered with folkloric motifs and 'facts' that were (and are) accepted in the face of a reality that is indifferent to the wishes and whims of humanity.

Tales of impending doom for mankind, for example, have been commonplace for countless millenia. Whereas once they came in the form of religious warnings, allegories and symbolic readings of natural phenomena now they come in dire prognostications about man's overuse of almost everything: even knowledge itself seems dangerous to some. Shelley's Frankenstein has provided a folkloric motif that runs through every argument against nuclear power, the increasing use of computers, genetically modified foods and almost every conceivable advance in technology.

As medieval peasants saw every flood and failed harvest as a sign of God's wroth at the dissolution of mankind, so climatologists and their friends in media and government see the hand of man's tampering with the natural world in every "unusual" weather event. Devoid of self-understanding, they fail to see that they could be little more than modern shaman, crying in the wilderness about fates that may never come.

See also: folklore

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 13th August 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2021


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