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Humanities Releases Special Issue on "The Challenge of Folklore to the Humanities"

Monday, February 19, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson
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Humanities, an international, scholarly, open access journal, recently announced its latest special issue, Vol. 7(1) devoted to “The Challenge of Folklore to the Humanities.” Below, a message from Special Issue Guest Editor Dan Ben-Amos and a table of contents with article abstracts are provided. Individual articles or the whole issue can be viewed or downloaded at:


By Dan Ben-Amos (University of Pennsylvania) —

Dear Colleagues,

Fifty four years ago, Stith Thompson published his article "The Challenge of Folklore" (PMLA 79, no.4 (1964), 357-365) in which he described in broad terms the challenge of folklore to civilization in history and in modernity. In the last fifty years since then, folklore scholarship expanded by leaps and bounds, exploring new directions, new theories, new territories and offering thereby challenging perspectives for the humanities.

Prof. Dan Ben-Amos
Guest Editor



Humanities, Vol. 7, Issue 1 (2018), Special Issue: The Challenge of Folklore to the Humanities


Table of Contents


“The Challenge of American Folklore to the Humanities”

By Simon J. Bronner

Abstract: American Folklore consists of traditional knowledge and cultural practices engaged by inhabitants of the United States below Canada and above Mexico. American folklorists were influenced by nineteenth-century European humanistic scholarship that identified in traditional stories, songs, and speech among lower class peasants an artistic quality and claim to cultural nationalism. The United States, however, appeared to lack a peasant class and shared racial and ethnic stock associated in European perceptions with the production of folklore. The United States was a relatively young nation, compared to the ancient legacies of European kingdoms, and geographically the country’s boundaries had moved since its inception to include an assortment of landscapes and peoples. Popularly, folklore in the United States is rhetorically used to refer to the veracity, and significance, of cultural knowledge in an uncertain, rapidly changing, individualistic society. It frequently refers to the expressions of this knowledge in story, song, speech, custom, and craft as meaningful for what it conveys and enacts about tradition in a future-oriented country. The essay provides the argument that folklore studies in the United States challenge Euro-centered humanistic legacies by emphasizing patterns associated with the American experience that are (1) democratic, (2) vernacular, and (3) incipient.


“The Challenge of Folklore to Medieval Studies”

By John Lindow

Abstract: When folklore began to emerge as a valid expression of a people during the early stages of national romanticism, it did so alongside texts and artifacts from the Middle Ages. The fields of folklore and medieval studies were hardly to be distinguished at that time, and it was only as folklore began to develop its own methodology (actually analogous to medieval textual studies) during the nineteenth century that the fields were distinguished. During the 1970s, however, folklore adopted a wholly new paradigm (the “performance turn”), regarding folklore as process rather than static artifact. It is here that folklore offers a challenge for medieval studies, namely to understand better the oral background to all medieval materials and the cultural competence that underlay their uses.



By Frog

Abstract: Myth has become a fundamental frame of reference for Western thinking. This paper explores the term and category “myth” from the perspective of folklore studies, with concern for the use of myth as a tool in research. The ways in which myth has been used in both academic and popular discourses are discussed. These are viewed in a historical perspective against the backdrop of the origins of the modern term. Attention is given to how historical patterns of use have encoded “myth” with evaluative stance-taking, building an opposition of “us” versus “them” into myth as something “other people” have, in contrast to us, who know better. Discussion then turns to approaching myth as a type of story. The consequences of such a definition are explored in terms of what it does or does not include; the question of whether, as has often been supposed, myth is a text-type genre, is also considered. Discussion advances to aesthetic evaluation at the root of modern discussions of myth and how this background informs the inclination to identify myth as a type of story on the one hand while inhibiting the extension of the concept to, for example, historical events or theories about the world or its origins, on the other. Approaching myth as a type of modeling system is briefly reviewed—an approach that can be coupled to viewing myth as a type of story. Finally, discussion turns to the more recent trend of approaching mythology through mythic discourse, and the consequences as well as the benefits of such an approach for understanding myth in society or religion. There are many different ways to define myth. The present article explores how different approaches are linked to one another and have been shaped over time, how our definition of myth and the way we frame the concept shape our thinking, and can, in remarkably subtle ways, inhibit the reflexive application of the concept as a tool to better understand ourselves.


“Folklore and Sociolinguistics”

By John Holmes McDowell

Abstract: Folklore and sociolinguistics exist in a symbiotic relationship; more than that, at points—in the ethnography of communication and in ethnopoetics, for example—they overlap and become indistinguishable. As part of a reaction to the formal rigor and social detachment of Chomsky’s theoretical linguistics, sociolinguistics emerges in the mid-twentieth century to assess the role of language in social life. Folklorists join the cause and bring to it a commitment to in-depth ethnography and a longstanding engagement with artistic communication. In this essay, I trace key phases in the development of this interdisciplinary movement, revolutionary in its reorientation of language study to the messy but fascinating realm of speech usage. I offer the concept of performative efficacy, the notion that expressive culture performances have the capacity to shape attitude and action and thereby transform perceived realities, as a means of capturing the continuing promise of a sociolinguistically informed folkloristics.


“Folklore and the Hebrew Bible: Interdisciplinary Engagement and New Directions”

By Susan Niditch

Abstract: This essay explores the rich interactions between the fields of folklore and biblical studies over the course of the 20th century until the present. The essay argues for the continued relevance of folklore and related fields to an appreciation of ancient Israelite cultures and their artistic inventions. It concludes with several case studies that underscore the fruitful realizations that emerge from this sort of interdisciplinary humanistic work.


“Folk Drama”

By Lisa Gabbert

Abstract: This article provides an overview of how scholars in the discipline of folklore have approached the topic of folk drama over the past one hundred fifty years, arguing that, despite relative neglect in the field, folk drama is a valuable window into culture and should be taken more seriously. I begin with nineteenth century ideas about ritual drama that stem from Sir James Frazer. I then discuss the growing emphasis on context that emerged in the twentieth century, including overlaps between ideas about folk drama, performance, and theories of play more generally. I conclude by providing a brief overview of the relationship between play, drama, and politics, and suggest that contemporary digital realms, such as YouTube, offer a new ecology of folk drama that brings traditional questions about actors, context, play-frames, audience and transformation to the fore in new and interesting ways.


“Toward a Generative Model of Legend: Pizzas, Bridges, Vaccines, and Witches”

By Timothy R. Tangherlini

Abstract: We propose a generative model of the legend. The model is elaborated based on two case studies, the first of contemporary storytelling related to vaccination on parenting blogs, and the second of historical storytelling related to witchcraft and folk healing in nineteenth century Denmark. The model reveals the interdependent levels of the multiscale model, solving a problem of poor fit related to many two level models of folklore genre structure. The model supports the study of rumor, and the dynamics of storytelling, including the hyperactive transmission state of “viral” stories.


“Myth and One-Dimensionality”

By William Hansen

Abstract: A striking difference between the folk-narrative genres of legend and folktale is how the human characters respond to supernatural, otherworldly, or uncanny beings such as ghosts, gods, dwarves, giants, trolls, talking animals, witches, and fairies. In legend the human actors respond with fear and awe, whereas in folktale they treat such beings as if they were ordinary and unremarkable. Since folktale humans treat all characters as belonging to a single realm, folklorists have described the world of the folktale as one-dimensional, in contrast to the two-dimensionality of the legend. The present investigation examines dimensionality in the third major genre of folk narrative: myth. Using the Greek and Hebrew myths of primordial paradise as sample narratives, the present essay finds—surprisingly—that the humans in these stories respond to the otherworldly one-dimensionally, as folktale characters do, and suggests an explanation for their behavior that is peculiar to the world of myth.


“The Challenge of Oral Epic to Homeric Scholarship”

By Minna Skafte Jensen

Abstract: The epic is an intriguing genre, claiming its place in both oral and written systems. Ever since the beginning of folklore studies epic has been in the centre of interest, and monumental attempts at describing its characteristics have been made, in which oral literature was understood mainly as a primitive stage leading up to written literature. With the appearance in 1960 of A. B. Lord’s The Singer of Tales and the introduction of the oral-formulaic theory, the paradigm changed towards considering oral literature a special form of verbal art with its own rules. Fieldworkers have been eagerly studying oral epics all over the world. The growth of material caused that the problems of defining the genre also grew. However, after more than half a century of intensive implementation of the theory an internationally valid sociological model of oral epic is by now established and must be respected in cognate fields such as Homeric scholarship. Here the theory is both a help for readers to guard themselves against anachronistic interpretations and a necessary tool for constructing a social-historic context for the Iliad and the Odyssey. As an example, the hypothesis of a gradual crystallization of these two epics is discussed and rejected.

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