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What is the definition of folklore?

The definition of folklore is the traditional customs, beliefs, and legends of a particular group of people that are passed down from generation to generation through stories.


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Folklore consists of the traditional customs, beliefs, and legends of a particular group of people that are passed down from generation to generation. Folklore may be passed on through oral storytelling, written materials, or the observation and imitation of behavior or rituals. As folklore is often communicated through unofficial and unrecorded methods, it is ever-evolving as a result of flaws in memory, variations in skill, or a particular individual’s interests or desires. Folklore provides entertainment and preserves a community’s culture and behaviors. Folktales are an important element of folklore, though folklore can also be found in fables, fairy tales, epics, riddles, proverbs, and myths.

Folk comes from the Old English word folc, meaning “people, laity, nation,” and lore comes from the Old English word lar, meaning “learning, knowledge, teaching.”

The word folklore first appeared in a letter written by English writer William John Thoms to a magazine called The Athenaeum in 1846. Thoms suggested it be used to replace terms like “popular literature” and “popular antiquities.” He intended folklore to encompass the “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc.” of a group of people. This definition was later expanded to include written records of beliefs, legends, customs, and practices. 

Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala, an epic poem composed by combining traditional Finnish songs, is largely influenced by folklore. Other epics such as Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Beowulf, are deeply rooted in the folklore of their peoples and places. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife are novels that draw heavily upon folklore. 

see: folktale, ballad, fairy tale, myth, proverb, riddle

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Folk Tale