folklore, mythology, cultural studies and related disciplines



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Folklore, mythology and cultural studies

Paper prepared for a research seminar at National Centre for English Cultural Traditions (NATCECT), University of Sheffield, 19 May 2004

Bob Trubshaw

In this seminar I want to explore the ways in which folklore, mythology and cultural studies overlap. The emphasis is on folklore, myth etc in the modern day world rather than historical or 'traditional' aspects.


A key aspect of my interest in folklore can be summarised in one word: 'transmission'. This is one part of Alan Dundes famous tri-part definition of folklore 'form – function – transmission' [In these post-functionalist times I have suggested in Explore Folklore that 'function' should be thought of as being as much about 'context' – e.g. within a folk group – as 'merely' function, but that's not especially relevant to today's thoughts.]

'Classic' folkloric transmission is of course aural, between members of a 'folk group' (I use the term folk group in its widest sense i.e. two or more people who share some lore).

A key function and context of the lore of such folk groups (and I include customs and customary practices in such lore) is to create identity, often through narrative and fragments – e.g. in jokes – which allude to a larger (shared but unstated) narrative. While the members of the group originally create – and develop – the tales, in large part it is the tales that create the group, if only by who is excluded from the in jokes, nicknames, and the like.

However, many aspects of the Internet – from emails, blogs and DIY Web sites – have many of the aspects of aurally-transmitted lore. For example, the same sort of in jokes, nicknames and scurrilous humour that helps to define face-to-face folk groups all has equivalents on the Internet.

A key aspect of folkloric transmission for me is that is in essentially 'unmediated', in contrast to mass media where editors, commercial considerations and much else have an influence – sometimes a very great influence – on what is disseminated.

For me, folklore is less about what is being studied than as about the processes by which ideas are transmitted. By putting the emphasis on transmission my approach to folklore means that I am using the word 'folklore' less as a noun or collective noun and rather as a verb – folklore as a 'process'. For reasons that I will come back to in a few minutes I think folkloric transmission – 'folklore as process' – has something interesting to offer to mythologists and Cults Studs.


If thinking of folklore mostly as a process seems a little quirky, then I am afraid that my take on mythology is even more quirkish. I am certainly not using the term in the pejorative sense of 'something which is essentially untrue' – a tall story – even though this is an early (but not the original) meaning of the Greek word mythos.

Most people, for very good reasons, think that myths are something to do with religion – perhaps along the lines of the old adage 'other societies have myths, we have religion'. The error is an honest one as prominent twentieth century mythologists – notably Mircea Eliade – promoted the idea that myth equates to religion, or that myths are in some way 'sacred stories'.

In some sense it is sort of true. But it misses a whole lot of extra 'trues'. If we take myths to transmit the 'deep structures' that create our understanding of the world and our society and culture, then religion is most certainly part of these 'deep structures'. But so too is politics. And also the myths that underpin commerce, science, even how we think we know, and how we think we think, and how – or why – we think of ourselves as individuals. All these 'deep structures' are all-but taken for granted in a given culture – including our own – that we are not aware that they are socially constructed and socially transmitted.

Lance Bennett has referred to myths as being like the lenses of spectacles – they determine how we see the world, but we almost always look through them rather than look at them.

As we are among friends I hope the technical term 'cosmological myths' is permissible. Contra to the way astrophysicists misuse the word, 'cosmology' is not about the origins of the universe (mythologists' term for that is 'cosmogony'). 'Cosmological' myths are, for mythologists, the myths that provide the deep structures about how we think about time, space, property rights and social relationships such as kinship and kingship, gender and status. Somewhere into the midst of these cosmological myths come religion, politics, and the like.

As well as thinking of these deep structures as cosmological myths, we can also think of them as ideologies. Indeed, I use the terms 'cosmologies', 'deep structures' and 'ideologies' in an non-exclusive, overlapping manner.

But there is more to myths than ideologies. They are always elaborated into a sequence of events, a story, a drama, or some sort of narrative. One of the leading modern mythologists, Bruce Lincoln, has suggested that we can think of myths as ideology plus narrative.

Indeed, in traditional societies myths are usually told as fairly elaborate stories or sagas, in comparatively ritualised settings, perhaps using a somewhat archaic language (just as the King James translation of the bible deliberately adopted an already archaic form of English).

However, in modern societies myths manifest in the modern world as 'fragmentary references, indirect allusions, watchwords, slogans, visual symbols, echoes in literature, film, songs, public ceremonies, and other forms of everyday situations, often highly condensed and emotionally charged.' (Flood 1996: 84)

In modern society myths are mostly communicated by mass media, although among folk groups there is also folkloric transmission of ideologies through mythic fragments. This is something I will come back to after I have dipped my toes into cultural studies.

What has not changed is that myths are essentially verbal. Traditional mythical entities were depicted in pictures, carvings, masks and other iconic forms. Traditional myths may be alluded to or re-enacted in ceremonial, ritual, drama, dance, magic and other forms of symbolic activities. But these images and activities are not, in themselves, myths. The mythic aspect is essentially verbal: ideologies held together with narrative.

In exactly the same way modern myths find their most fluent expression in the 'non-written' media of cinema, TV and computer games. But, despite the importance of visual images in these media, the narratives rely greatly on the verbal aspects of the script and on mythic motifs that are essentially verbal distinctions rather than purely iconographic.

Although a little pompous in his wording, my use of the word myth fits well with Jaan Puhvel's definition from the opening of his 1987 book Comparative Mythology:

    In myth are expressed the thought patterns by which a group formulates self-cognition and self-realization, attains self-knowledge and self-confidence, explains its own source and being and that of its surroundings, and sometimes tries to chart its destinies. By myth man has lived, died and – all too often – killed.
This definition seems especially poignant at a time when one economically and militarily-dominant culture is currently inflicting its simplistic myths on the rest of the world. These myths are killing and ruining the lives of people in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, south Asia and numerous other places. Furthermore, all the westernised world is living by the same political and economical myths, and the same ideologies are being inflicted on every nation (with the arguable exception of North Korea).

origins of folklore and mythology

Much as it may surprise many lay people, politics has always been part of folklore and mythology. Both disciplines share the same ideological origins. Pioneer folklorists collected traditional European and Scandinavian myths, legends and lore as part of emergent nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Giuseppe Cocchiara's 1950s study of The History of Folklore in Europe argued that the study of folklore has been strongly linked to emergent nationalism throughout Europe since the Renaissance. Initially the emphasis was on epic songs.

German, Russian, Swedish, Serbian and Finnish songs and sagas were collected and arranged to form epics between 1806 and 1835. Significantly, interest in national epic poems and the subsequent interest in folklore developed first in Germany, Finland, the Baltic states and Ireland. At the time these countries were ruled over by other nations. Even in Spain, the fashion for popular culture during the late eighteenth century was a way of expressing opposition to the French-led Enlightenment. Anti-French attitudes in Germany also led to less interest in the Enlightenment there too. This also significantly influenced British folklore, not least the largely-invented notions of Scotland, Wales and Ireland having a shared 'Celtic' culture.

Nineteenth century folklorists then went on to take an interest in the cultures of the countries that were steadily being colonised. European folklore was taken to be the fossilised from of 'primitive' rural cultures that have evolved to become the current more Úlite urban culture. But traditional societies did not have this synchronic overlap – 'savages' only had their 'primitive' customs and lore. So the term 'myth' was adopted for the lore of non-Western cultures, with all the pejorative prejudices intact.

By the later part of the nineteenth century the study of mythology had developed and this too began to be used to support nationalist agendas. One clear example of how an apparently 'abstract' mythic motif, that of sacred central places, has become intimately implicated in politics is the way that academic interest – which on the surface is quite dispassionate – has focussed on one specific example of such sacred centres – the Holy Land and Jerusalem. The first clear reference to Jerusalem as the centre of the world dates back to the second or third century BC. Over succeeding centuries the symbolism of Jerusalem as the centre of the world became increasingly complex as Judaic, Christian and Islamic claims intertwined. 'By myth man has lived, died and – all too often – killed' very often in the Holy Land.

origins of cult studs

Keeping things political, let's shift from the foamy to the custard. Cultural studies is a child of the 1960s, although its parents can be traced in British literary criticism from the 1930s onwards plus German and French intellectual ideas of the late 1950s onwards.

Cult Studs takes the ideas of Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and Theodor Adorno (1903–69). In passing, these are exactly the same people who the folklorist and wonder tale expert Jack Zipes cites as his formative influences, although seem to be otherwise rather unknown to folklorists.

But exactly what are 'cultural studies'? The term is seriously slippery, in large part because there are at least four rather different 'species' – or at least 'races' – of cultural studies. These can be thought of as the French, British, American and Australian versions.

British cultural studies in the 1970s centred on the University of Birmingham but proliferated in the then-polytechnics. Although its left wing political roots were always very visible, different manifestations grafted with such diverse disciplines as literary criticism, psychology, linguistics, communication theory, history, media studies, and sociology.

In the 1970s British cult studs studied very parochial subjects like the teenage girls' magazine Jackie and the TV news review Nationwide. Much of their writing concerned the British class system of the time. None of these appealed to US and Australian academics who, understandably, looked to their own popular culture. Subsequently American academics developed their own equally eclectic versions of cultural studies 'imported' directly from French theorists, and the Australians went on to mix and match from the British, French and American approaches.

The French academics included Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau. Closely related was the popular writing of the Italian Umberto Eco. While Barthes, Foucault and Eco have achieved a certain amount of fame or infamy, Certeau has been comparatively overlooked in the anglophone world. This is unfortunate as his studies of the ways dominant culture is interpreted, subverted and made into a bricoloage of 'scraps' is especially relevant to modern 'folk' culture, lore and custom.

Certeau's bricolage manifests as, say, the slang and dialects of street cultures; the wider syncretism of 1970s punk; or 1990s 'cyber punks' (such as author William Gibson, Erik Davis, Mark Dery, Steven Shaviro, Sadie Plant).

Since the late 1980s 'popular culture' (a problematical term) has become epitomised, at least among cult studs, as 'commercial culture' – such as tabloid newspapers, TV game shows, Levi jeans (and their adverts), Madonna, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on and so on. Such culture is often termed 'mass culture', presumably because it relies on the 'mass media' for its dissemination. I find the term 'mass culture' somewhat problematical as it suggests a 'culture of the masses'. Perhaps the terms 'commercial culture' or 'hegemonic culture' would be more accurate.


You can't get very far into cults studs without running into the term 'hegemony'. In the 1920s and 30s the Marxist sociologist Antonio Gramsci argued that, '... the rule of one class over another does not depend on economic or physical power alone but rather on persuading the ruled to accept the system of beliefs of the ruling class and to share their social, cultural, and moral values'.

Gramsci called this concept 'hegemony'. If a social group can be persuaded to accept the ideology (cultural, social, and moral) of another group then hegemony is established and the 'hegemonic group' will be able to dominate or control the other group. Hegemony can be established either by coercion or more subtly by what are usually termed 'consensual' processes. These all-but invisible processes of domination are made to seem 'natural', so that the oppressed consent to their subjection.

The pioneer British cultural studies researcher Stuart Hall picked up on Gramsci's ideas of hegemony. Whereas Gramsci had seen hegemony as the power struggles between a state and its inhabitants, Hall broadened hegemony to encompass the whole domain of social and cultural life. Hall also looked specifically at the ways hegemonic domination could be uncertain and contested.

'Audiences' (more often best thought of as 'consumers') for popular/ commercial culture are, according to cult studs, able to resist, oppose, negotiate and manipulate the 'given' messages. Although quite whether such so-called 'semiotic resistance' really empowers the members of the 'audience' or amounts to very much depends on where one looks.

More interestingly, at least from the perspective of folklore, in the 1980s the Marxist social historian E.P. Thompson looked specifically at how popular culture – i.e. 'folk customs' – contested the hegemony of the eighteenth century British gentry. This suggests that the real opportunities for oppositional readings are in those areas of popular culture that are not primarily transmitted by mass culture. In other words those that might be regarded as 'folk customs' and 'folk lore'.

Areas not usually looked at by cult studs, such as the lore and customs of people brought together by shared employment or leisure interests, are also examples of 'semiotic empowerment'. Indeed they may offer more rewarding examples than looking for 'semiotic resistance' to so-called 'popular culture' although, clearly, only a small part of the ideas and activities of such 'folk groups' can be considered to contest hegemonic ideas.

Conspicuous examples of British counter-cultural 'folk groups' since the 1950s include trade unions, WEA, folk music clubs. Other examples include mods and rockers, hippies, skinheads, punks, rap music (and indeed the whole hip hop culture), so-called 'New Age travellers', 'rave culture' (with the whole free festival 'scene'), and British Asian bhangra music.

Robert Wallis and Jenny Blain's recent study of modern paganism in last December's Folklore explicitly discusses how folkloric cultural transmission 'contests' hegemonic popular culture.

In contrast to cult studs, folklorists (even those interested in contemporary legends) have yet to get beyond recognising that popular culture – such as folklore – may create polysemic responses, other than perhaps the recognition that there may be ambiguity about whether the teller of the tale believes it or not.

[The terms 'polysemy' and 'plurality' derive from different academic disciplines. They overlap considerably but, when a distinction is made, 'polysemy' usually denotes some degree of intentionally 'subversive' alternative interpretations whereas 'pluralism' merely acknowledges that interpretations are relative to cultural preconceptions, so different cultural starting points naturally lead to different interpretations (and some of these may be very different to the 'dominant' cultural view, or 'privileged' academic interpretation).]

comparing and contrasting folklore, mythology and cultural studies

One of the leading British cult studs, John Hartley, has been quoted as saying that cultural studies is 'the study of power within the context of meaning' and sees it less as a fully-mature discipline and 'more of a critical, questioning, quizzical, not-quite-discourse...

Cult studs discuss how 'popular culture' conveys cultural conceptions of 'power' and 'dominance', and how the 'audience' creates 'resistance' and creates (or at least adapts) its own notions of 'power' and 'dominance'. This sort of discourse is not representative – indeed not usually present in – folklore journals. Folklore is seemingly apolitical, blind to the ideological content.

E.P. Thompson suggested one of the reasons why British folklore studies floundered in the 1920s and 30s was because folklore was abandoned by those with a left wing or radical approach as the subject matter was deemed too conservative. Social historians of that era looked at the rise of the trade unions and such like. Only with the formation of the History Workshop Journal in the mid-1970s did folklore begin to find its place in left-of-centre academic discourse. And even then it was hardly at the focal point.

Likewise mythology has been led by academics with right-of-centre attitudes, who effectively denied that mythology was relevant to politics and the 'everyday world' at all. Apart from some work on political myths, there has been very little interest in modern day cosmological myths. The only important exception is perhaps the History and Philosophy of Science – and the so-called 'science wars' of the 1980s and 90s – where a systematic attempt was made to draw attention to the far-from neutral ideologies that are regarded as a priori 'truths' by most scientists, and rarely if ever questioned by science's prodigious offspring which make up the many aspects of 'technology'.

While modern day myths seemingly differ greatly from those of oral societies, they retain the thinking of pre-literate societies. As Walter Ong discussed in detail back in 1982, thinking in oral societies differs greatly from the way thinking evolved after the advent of writing. Philosophy and science rely on literate records and work by inductive or deductive arguments. In contrast, myths use narratives to explore such 'abstract' notions as origins, causes, goals and changes.

The narrative form makes myths more persuasive. In a profound way myths cannot be refuted. The processes of conscious 'objections' to the underlying ideologies are somehow side-stepped. From within a culture or society myths affirm the values, customs and beliefs of the group, reinforcing the 'bonding' between its members. For the members of such groups such myths have an unquestioned 'truth'. Whether providing a satisfying explanation for the group's origins or reiterating derogatory comparisons with those 'outside' the group, or a multitude of other such functions, myths provide the basis for the distinctions that enable social and personal identity to be asserted.

In some way myths come in 'under the radar' of rational thinking. There is an underlying link here to our cognitive processes. In the early 1990s cognitive linguistics picked up that narrative is primary to our perceptions. We see 'mini-stories' before we see the 'what' or 'why'. In a way, our minds think first in terms of verbs rather than nouns. To justify this counter-common-sense statement would take more time than I've got, so just bear with me for the moment. The interest for me is that myths have been thought of as the lenses of our conceptual spectacles. Furthermore myths are transmitted, especially in the modern world, as narrative fragments. And our cognitive processes are all-but hard-wired for recognising narrative fragments (albeit far more fragmentary than most 'mythic fragments').

While modern day myths are mostly transmitted through the hegemonic mass media, folk groups and folkloric transmission processes – either face to face or, increasingly, through the Internet – are the key way in which oppositional approaches to hegemonic ideologies are developed and communicated.

further reading

Ashman, Keith and Philip Baringer (eds), 2001, After the Science Wars, Routledge.
Barthes, Roland, 1973, Mythologies,
Bennett, W. Lance, 1980, 'Myth, ritual and political control', Journal of Communication, 30, 166–79.
Brooker, Will, 1998, Cultural Studies, Teach Yourself.
Cocchiara, Giuseppe, 1981, The History of Folklore in Europe, Institute for the Study of Human Issues; English translation by John N. McDaniel of Storia del folklore in Europa Editore Boringhieri, 1st edn 1952, 2nd edn 1971.
Danser, Simon 2004 – various contributions to Foamy Custard Web site.
Doty, William G., 2000, Mythography: The study of myths and rituals, University of Alabama Press; 2nd edn (1st edn 1986).
Eco, Umberto, 1987, Travels in Hyper-reality, Picador.
Flood, Christopher G., 1996, Political myth: A theoretical introduction, Garland.
Flowers, Betty S., 2000, 'Practising politics in the economic myth' in T. Singer, The Vision Thing: Myth, politics ands psyche in the world, Routledge.
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett, 2002, The Myth of the American Superhero, William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Lincoln, Bruce, 1999, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, ideology and scholarship, University of Chicago Press.
Puhvel, Jaan, 1987, Comparative Mythology, John Hopkins UP.
Rorty, Richard, 1980, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Blackwell.
Storey, John, 1999, Cultural Consumption and Everyday Life, Arnold.
Storey, John, 2003, Inventing Popular Culture, Blackwell.
Thompson, Edward P., 1979, Folklore, Anthropology and Social History, Noyce.
Thompson, Edward P., 1993, Custom and Culture, New Press.
Trubshaw, Bob, 2002, Explore Folklore, Heart of Albion.
Trubshaw, Bob, 2003, Explore Mythology, Heart of Albion.
Turner, Mark, 1996, The Literary Mind: The origins of thought and language, Oxford UP.
Wallis, Robert J. and Jenny Blain, 2003, 'Sites, sacredness and stories: Interactions of archaeology and contemporary paganism', Folklore 114:3, 307–322.
Zipes, Jack, 1979, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical theories of folk and fairy tales, Heinemann.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2004


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