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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif A972

Indentions on rocks from prints left by man (beast). (Cf. A901.) – *Fb (stenв) III 552b; *Andree Ethnographische Parallelen (1878) 96; Dh II 8. – Irish: Thurneysen Irische Helden-u. Königssagen 189, Cross; Icel.: Boberg; Danish: Schmidt DF XXXIX 13ff.; French: Sébillot France I 369ff.; India: Thompson-Balys. – N. A. Indian: Krickeberg IndianermРґrchen aus Nordamerika 245, Calif. Indian: Gayton and Newman 59; Aztec: Krickeberg MРґrchen der Azteken 60, 204, and passim; S. Am. Indian (Tupinamba): Métraux BBAE CXLIII (3) 132.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

A. Mythological Legends

The student of popular legend and tradition cannot fail to be impressed with the fertility of imagination with which man has viewed the world around him. The simple taleteller of today, receiving much of his legendary material from an even more unlettered past, finds ready for his use a wealth of accounts, not only of the marvels of the present world and remarkable happenings of historic times, but also even of the very beginnings of the earth and the establishment of the present order of animals and men.

For all those peoples whose religious background is Christian, Mohammedan, or Jewish the legends concerning creation are normally based upon the Old Testament account. [364] But there has been no feeling that this account is so sacred that it cannot be elaborated. A very considerable number of legends have grown up around such Biblical stories as the Garden of Eden and the Flood. [p. 236]

When working within this Biblical tradition, the story-teller has not usually gone back to primeval chaos and divine creation, but has been content to interest himself first of all in the Garden of Eden, in man's creation, and his loss of Paradise. Well known, of course, is the fact that man was made from clay (A1241) and that the first woman was made from his rib (A1275.1). But it is more unusual to hear that Adam's body was made of eight things: his trunk from earth, his bones from stone, his veins from roots, his blood from water, his hair from grass, his thoughts from wind, and his spirit from the clouds (A1291). And it must have been a primitive misogynist who started the rumor that Eve had really been created from a dog's tail (A1224.3).

Satan consistently opposes God in his creation, but he is always unsuccessful except in his adventure with Eve. He has seen God form various animals and then breathe life into them. He tries the same thing, but his animals always remain lifeless (A1217). Another story, apparently for getting that the devil cannot make the animals, divides the creation of all beasts between the two antagonists. The ill-disposition or unpleasantness of certain animals comes from the fact that they are the devil's creations (A1751).

The success of Satan in the Garden (A1331.1) seems to be familiar to all story-tellers, though quite generally the fruit eaten is not that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was certainly an apple, as proved by the Adam's apple where it stuck in Adam's throat (A1319.1). The interest in Paradise Lost and in Adam and Eve generally ceases after they are expelled from the garden, but there have been preserved some traditions which give us a last glimpse of the first mother. She has so many children that she is ashamed when God pays her a visit. She hides some of them, and thus they fail to receive the blessing which God gives to all those who are in sight. This story is given as an explanation of superior and inferior classes of people, of downtrodden races (A1650.1), of the existence of monkeys (A1861.1), or of peoples of the underworld (F251.4).

Legends about floods appear in many parts of the world. [365] Many of these are independent growths, sometimes reminiscent of actual local catastrophes. But the most important of all flood legends is that which tells about Noah and his ark. Wherever Biblical tales have been learned, this one is sure to be popular because of its dramatic and picturesque details. Just as this legend afforded the medieval dramatist one of his best opportunities for a humorous treatment of a Biblical worthy, [366] it has given taletellers everywhere an opportunity to elaborate details afforded by the interesting situation. Perhaps most assiduous in the development of these flood legends [p. 237] have been the peoples of Siberia. In areas farther away from the original home of the Noah legend missionaries have made it familiar, and it often appears along with similar tales from the local folklore. This is particularly true of the North American Indians and of the inhabitants of the Pacific islands.

The escape from the deluge in the ark (A1021), the pairs of animals preserved so that they may escape destruction (A1021.1), and the bird scouts sent out from the ark (A1021.2)—these three elements are nearly always present. The lodging of the ark on the mountain is closely paralleled by many tales in which people escape from the flood by ascending a mountain (A1022), but it is not at all certain that the Bible story is the source of these. In addition to these canonical incidents, popular imagination has supplied a number of details. A few of these will illustrate the manner in which the flood legend has been used to explain the characteristics of some animal or some other present-day situation.

It appears, for example, that the devil was in a way to be drowned and wanted a place on the ark in spite of Noah's objection. One story tells how he forbids Noah's wife to enter the ark until Noah has also invited him in (K485; Type 825). Some say that Noah loses patience and calls out, "The devil! Come in!" The devil comes in and turns himself into a mouse (C12.5.1). After the devil is in the ark as a mouse, he gnaws a hole in the bottom of the ark. Thereupon Noah asks the help of the lion. The lion sneezes, and a cat comes from the lion's nostril and eats the mouse (A1811.2). Two animals are obstreperous and suffer the consequences. The griffin refuses to go on the ark and hence is drowned and is now extinct (A2232.4), and the unicorn is thrown from the ark and suffers the same fate (A2214.3).

Such are a few of the popular variations on the Noah and Adam legends. They will serve to show the way in which popular fancy has handled the sacred writings. Besides these two groups of Bible legends are found many more, such as the Tower of Babel (C771.1) and the confusion of tongues (A1333), and many incidents concerning the childhood of Jesus.

Popular imagination, even among those people who receive their creation legends from Genesis, has many things to say about the universe, and the earth and its inhabitants. Many of these explanations seem very old, and certainly go back to a time before the present religions fixed the thinking of these peoples.

It is clear that nineteenth century scholars exaggerated beyond all reason the importance of the stars in the thinking of our early story-tellers. [367] Nevertheless, such phenomena as the Milky Way (A778), the Pleiades (A773), and the Great Bear (A771) have produced a number of legends [p. 238] concerning their origin. The Milky Way is sometimes thought of as a pathway of souls, as a river, as a hunting party, or as a stitched seam in the sky; the Pleiades are nearly always imagined as seven sisters, and pretty stories are invented to tell how one of them has been lost.

Neither the sun nor the moon occupies a large place in actual legend. [368] Popular imagination has largely confined its interest in the sun to tales about how it is stolen (A721.1). Usually it is thought of as being in the possession of some monster who keeps it hidden in a box or a pot so that it is of no use to mankind. As to the moon, there are two points of interest: the figures on its surface and its monthly phases. One school of mythologists bases its theories upon the observation that the moon with these two characteristics appears to all mankind and furnishes a common object of interest everywhere. The "Man in the Moon" (A751) is not always a man, though he may well be thought of as one who has been sent there in punishment for his misdeeds. What is he doing? Some people imagine he is making a big fire, some that he is carrying buckets of water. Many others contend that we are looking at a rabbit or a frog; and the list could be greatly extended. For the phases of the moon (A755) a number of explanations are given. Most of them seem trivial, and no well recognized stories have attached themselves to this phenomenon. The sun, the moon, and the stars, vast as these are, do not furnish a sufficiently broad scope for the folk imagination. For, outside of the earth they trod on and the heavenly bodies which they could see, our story tellers have imagined many other realms. Some of these are a part of their regular religious conceptions: heaven, hell, and sometimes purgatory. The relation of popular conceptions of these lands of the dead to early folk thought on the one hand and to learned theological disputation on the other is a subject of much interest, but belongs essentially to the history of religions. [369]

But popular imagination has devised still other worlds. Sometimes these are thought of as above, sometimes below, and sometimes merely remote. There are frequent stories of journeys to earthly paradises on distant islands or across mystic rivers or on some inaccessible mountain (F111). The Irish have always been especially fond of stories of marvelous voyages, to the Land of Women (F112), it may be, or to the realm of youth (D1338.7), or to Avalon [370] (E481.4.1) where the dead are healed. But by no means all of the "otherworld" ideas in European folklore are Irish. Many of them [p. 239] are certainly Oriental [371] and others are so widespread as to make source hunting an impossible quest. The rainbow bridge to the land of the dead (F152.1.1) is not confined to Norse mythology, and the mysterious for bidding river which one must ford in order to pass over into the evil land (F141.1.1) was traversed by many heroes before Browning sent Child Roland on his quest for the Dark Tower. Some other interesting concepts concerning the other worlds make clear enough the fact that great distances have never been a part of these popular conceptions. The lower world can be reached by descending a rope (F96) or going down a stair (F94), and a descent from the upper world may be made in the same way, not only by the angels at Bethel, but also by human heroes and heroines. On the way from the sky the rope may be too short to afford safe return. [372]

A very common legend is that of the city below the sea, a kind of sub marine other-land (F133). Such legends may sometimes be based upon a real knowledge of sunken coasts, though this can be true for only a small number. Somewhat analogous to these ideas is that of the sunken continent, the Lost Atlantis (cf. Z692). But that speculation is certainly literary.

In contrast to the number of legends and traditions concerning the heavenly bodies and other worlds, the stories about the formation of the earth, its present conditions, and the establishment of its human and animal inhabitants appear in almost overwhelming numbers. Any realistic view of the available body of oral legend and tradition, whether among primitive peoples or among unlettered groups in our own culture, compels the conclusion that the taleteller's imagination has concerned itself primarily with things of this earth.

The main act of creation of the earth has not ordinarily entered into Western tradition, since that tradition has received as orthodox the explanations either of one of the great mythologies or of the Hebrew scriptures. On the other hand, there are many tales explaining the presence of particular features of landscape (A901). Certain mountains, for example, are said to be caused by stones which are dropped from a giant's clothes, or because God's sieve broke and let through large stones, or because giants hurled boulders back and forth (A965 and A966). Another large group of legends concerns indentions on rocks. These are explained as being the footprints left by some primitive man or animal, frequently by one of the gods (A972).

One of the most common legends, known in the Old World, but a particular [p. 240] favorite of the American Indians, is that of a cliff which has served as a point from which lovers have leapt to their tragic death (A985). Sometimes, of course, this legend is merely a local story and makes no pretense of explaining the presence of a cliff.

Such are a few of the groups of explanatory legends concerning the formation of the land. As to the sea, the most puzzling feature has been the saltness of its water, and various legends have attempted to account for this. The most familiar is the tale of the stolen salt mill which will stop grinding only at the command of its master. A ship captain takes it aboard his ship, and it continues to grind salt until the ship is sunk and the whole sea has been filled with it. [373]

Legends explanatory of the weather are much more common in primitive folklore than in that of the West. There is much resemblance in these legends in all parts of the world, though the ideas are so general that no actual historic relationship between them need be assumed. The tale of Aeolus, who confines the winds in a cave (A1122) and lets them out at will appears not only in classical mythology but also in places so widely separated as Siberia, New Zealand, and California. Similarly widespread is the story of the giant bird who causes the winds by the flapping of his wings (A1125). The bird flaps too hard, and the hero cuts his wings so as to make him more moderate. This latter tale was known not only in ancient Babylonia, but in Iceland as well, and it has been reported among the North American Indians of Nova Scotia [374] and the Negroes of Georgia.

Finally, among weather legends should be mentioned those accounting for the rain and snow. Not much originality is shown in these, the most usual explanation of rain being from tears (A1131.1), or snow from the feathers or clothes of a witch (A1135.1). The latter idea appears in several forms: sometimes she is said to be picking geese and letting the feathers fall.

In relating those legends based upon the Old Testament an account has already been given of the popular traditions concerning Creation and Paradise Lost, as well as the Flood. But there are several stories about the beginnings of human life and culture which are not based upon the Scriptures. Among these are the practically world-wide myths of the theft of light (A1411), and the theft of fire (A1415). The latter is told in especially rich detail in all parts of the world. Some of the correspondences between remote versions of this legend—for example, the preservation of the fire in a hollow reed not only in the Greek myth but in tales from [p. 241] Indians of California and of Bolivia—present an interesting problem of comparative folklore.

By far the largest number of explanatory legends everywhere are concerned with animals, their creation and the establishment of their special characteristics. The teller of folktales is no evolutionist. He has a tendency to explain all present-day animals in terms of the behavior of some mythical ancestor. Some act has brought about the creation of a species of animals or a change in their make-up or habits. We have already mentioned the creation of animals by God and the devil, [375] thus accounting for at least two large classes of creatures, the good and the bad. Three legends of the creation of animals (A1700 to A2199) will illustrate the whole group. The flea is created in order to give women work (A2032.2); various kinds of birds owe their origin to Pharaoh's drowned army (A1901); and the flounder with his flat side is a descendant of a fish only half eaten by the Virgin Mary (A2126).

It is with the special bodily characteristics or habits of animals that legend has mostly concerned itself. Usually, such legends assume that a change was made in an ancient animal and that this change has persisted in all its descendants. Thus in a tale we have already noted (Type 47A), the rabbit laughs at a funny sight and splits his lip so that forever after his descendants are marked by the hare-lip (A2211.2). The ant and the spider have a dispute in heaven. God decides the dispute in favor of the ant and throws the spider out. His great fall and injury account for the narrow waists of modern spiders (A2214.2). We have already learned how the bear lost his tail when his foolish ancestor fished through the ice at the fox's suggestion (Type 2). Many animals have their present colors because an ancestor got into the fire and was burned or singed (A2218), or because in some adventure he has colors spilled on him (A2219.1).

If an animal's characteristics are pleasant, or otherwise favorable, they are often ascribed to a reward given to the ancestral animal for some deed of kindness or piety. A whole series of animal characteristics are accounted for because of help given to Christ at his Crucifixion (A2221.2): the robin's red breast, the permission to flies to eat at the king's table, and the immunity of swallows' nests from destruction. On the contrary, some of the ancient animals were discourteous and were properly punished (A2231). Thus the horse, when the saint wishes to use him, always excuses himself on the ground that he is still eating. The saint curses him, "May you always be eating," and his descendants keep grazing to this day. The flounder also is punished for discourtesy. When God asks him where he is going he does not answer, but merely turns his head. Since that time all flounders have had crooked mouths.

Ancient animals were punished for various kinds of misdeeds. The Aesop [p. 242] fables have popularized the tales of those who make immoderate requests (A2232): the camel who asks for horns and as a punishment is given short ears, and the bees who pray for a sung but are punished by having their first sting fatal to themselves.

We have already noticed in another connection a group of tales in which animals are chastised for their refusal to help in some common task, usually the building of a road or the digging of a well (Type 55). Sometimes such tales are recounted as a part of the cycle of the fox and the wolf and the interest is in the tricks and deceptions practiced. But frequently these stories also explain the present-day characteristics of the animals concerned (A2233). Thus laziness on this occasion explains why the snake may not use the road, why the dog must remain out of doors, or why certain animals may not drink from a river or spring.

Besides rewards and punishments, many other reasons are assigned for the change from the ancient animal which is now seen in his descendants. Sometimes one animal borrows a member or quality from another and refuses to return it (A2241). [376] Sometimes a mere exchange of qualities accounts for some characteristics. [377] A considerable group of tales gives account of contests, usually races, in which the result determines the animal's form or habits. [378] Transformation of a person to an animal is sometimes cited as a reason for certain qualities which suggest human beings. Most famous of these stories is that of the shepherd who is transformed to a bird and still calls his sheep (A2261.1). This tale is used to account for various bird cries. Grimm told a pretty story of this kind about the hoopoe. In his collection is also found the explanation of the enmity existing between the cat and the dog. [379] The cat loses the dog's certificate of nobility and thus forfeits his friendship.

One remarkable thing about origin legends of this kind in countries dominated for millennia by the great historic religions is how few of them ascribe animal changes to the direct act of God. We have already seen in apocryphal accounts of creation how God and the devil both created animals, [380] and how this fact explains many present-day characteristics. It will not do to finish this account of origin legends without mention of the picturesque story of how the hog received his round snout. It seems that in the midst of the creation of the hog a great fire broke out, so that God had to leave the job half done (A2286.1.1).

Though many of these explanatory legends are told over wide areas, [p. 243] the relative number of them which are purely local is much greater than is true with the regular folktale. Such local legends have a great deal of interest for their own sake and for an understanding of the folklore to which they belong. But in a broad treatment of explanatory myths, it is, of course, impossible to do more than indicate the general nature of these legends in Western culture.

[364] For an excellent treatment of legends based upon the Old Testament and still current as oral tales, see Dähnhardt, Natursagen, vol. I.

[365] For bibliography of flood legends, see A1010.

[366] The Play of the Flood (in The Towneley Plays, Early English Text Society, extra series, LXXI).

[367] See p. 384, below.

[368] This, in spite of the fact that some writers on mythology find practically all folktales nothing more than broken down sun myths or moon myths. See pp. 371ff. and 384, below.

[369] For some of these concepts, see the following motif numbers: A671. Hell; A692. Islands of the Blest; A661. Heaven; E481.4. Beautiful land of the dead; and E755.3. Souls in Purgatory.

[370] See A. H. Krappe, "Avallon," Speculum, XVIII (1943). 303-322.

[371] For an excellent discussion of the whole otherworld concept, see H. R. Patch, "Some Elements in Mediaeval Descriptions of the Otherworld," Publications of the Modern Language Association, XXXIII, 601-643.

[372] The rope from the sky (F51) is very popular in primitive tales. The ladder to the upper world (F52) appears more frequently in a religious context, where the upper world is usually the Christian Heaven. One of the most famous medieval books of exempla was called Scala Celi.

[373] This motif appears as a part of a regular folktale, Type 565.

[374] My own investigation of the tales of the North American Indians began with just this point. In his Algonquin Legends of New England, Charles Godfrey Leland had called attention to the interesting parallel between this Indian tale and an Icelandic myth, and he was convinced of historic connections, probably by way of Greenland and the Eskimos. Such connection is, of course, not impossible.

[375] P. 236, above.

[376] For tales of this kind concerning the nightingale and the blindworm, and also the jay and the cuckoo, see Types 234 and 235.

[377] See The Dove's Egg-substitution, Type 240.

[378] See The Pike and the Snake Race to Land (Type 252) and The Ant Carries a Load as Large as Himself (Type 280).

[379] See The Dog's Certificate (Type 200).

[380] See A1751, p. 236, above.


2, 47A, 55, 200, 234, 235, 240, 252, 280, 565, 825


A661, A671, A692, A721.1, A771, A773, A751, A755, A778, A901, A965, A966, A972, A985, A1010, A1021, A1021.1, A1021.2, A1022, A1122, A1125, A1131.1, A1333, A1135.1, A1217, A1224.3, A1241, A1275.1, A1291, A1319.1, A1331.1, A1411, A1415, A1650.1, A1700-A2199, A1751, A1811.2, A1861.1, A1901, A2032.2, A2126, A2211.2, A2214.2, A2214.3, A2218, A2219.1, A2221.2, A2231, A2232, A2232.4, A2233, A2241, A2261.1, A2286.1.1, C12.5.1, C771.1, D1338.7, E481.4, E481.4.1, E755.3, F52, F94, F96, F111, F112, F133, F141.1.1, F152.1.1, F251.4, K485, Z692