What is folklore? - At the Sign of the Black Cat
What is Folklore?

What is folklore?

This black section of the site is all about folklore.  But what exactly is folklore?   Where does it come from?  Why does it exist?  My ancient edition of Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines it as “embracing everything relating to ancient observances and customs, to the notions, beliefs, traditions, superstitions, and prejudices of the common people”, but it seems to me that nowadays folklore has outgrown this rather limited definition. 

The word folklore itself was coined relatively recently, in 1846, as a convenient term for the belief structures reckoned to underlie what was then known as antiquities, the field of study we would now call archaeology.  It is made up of two old words, folk and lore.  Folk is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘the people’, and lore, also Anglo-Saxon in origin, means something that is taught or learned.  So folklore is simply the learning of (ordinary) people, the common belief structures current in society.

Early folklorists tended to see folklore as somehow preserving ancient pagan beliefs and practices almost unchanged from pre-Christian times, like an insect preserved in amber, and many kinds of customs and traditions were interpreted as the old pagan rites and beliefs, barely changed by the passing centuries.  This view can still be found expressed today by some authors who assert that modern paganism is part of a continuing tradition going back unbroken to the pagan Celtic period and before.    There is no doubt that elements of contemporary paganism are ancient – archaeology confirms this - but recent studies have shown demonstrated that they are much more of a modern reinterpretation and recreation of ancient beliefs that a direct survival through centuries of religious change.

Haunted Landscape
Holy wells
Wilts Folklore Database
Wiltshire folklore index
Sign of the Black Cat
During the twentieth century the study of folklore came of age, and folklorists have recognised that the lore of the folk is a living, changing entity, arising from the hopes, fears, preoccupations, needs and concerns of us ordinary people as we try to make sense of the world we live inLike people throughout the ages, we try to come to terms with the great imponderables of existence – birth, death, religion, war, the passing of the years, and the terrors which lurk outside the comforting circle of lamplight – but what we believe and the way we respond to them changes as time passes and society changes.  Very few people nowadays would ever suggest, like Anne Jefferies in the seventeenth century, that they had been stolen away by the fairies, but a significant number of people maintain that they have been abducted by aliens.

In both cases people are clearly at once afraid and fascinated by the possibility that there might be a race of beings existing alongside us yet apart from us, who might show us wonders or treat us maliciously, as the whim takes them.  That mixture of fear and fascination is the unchanging human response, but how we rationalise and interpret the focus of it – as fairy-folk or alien beings – is the part grounded firmly in our contemporary culture.  And so folklore beliefs shift and transform themselves over the years, telling us much in the process about the nature of the society from which they spring.

Folklore studies encompass many different areas, such as calendar customs, folk song and dance, mumming, myth, legend and story.  My own particular field of interest focuses on what I term the haunted landscape.   This includes not only traditional hauntings (ghostlore), but any tale or tradition linked to a place.  In particular I enjoy seeking out special wells, stones and trees, and you will can read a little about each of those in the links on the left of this black section At the Sign of the Black Cat.

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Page created on 11 June 2007.  Last updated on 29 July 2007
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