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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif B52

Harpy. Bird with arms and breasts of woman. – Greek: Fox 111, *Grote I 216f.; Buddhist myth: Malalasekera II 564.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

IV – The Folktale in Ancient Literature

3. Ancient Greek

From ancient Greece we have an abundance of literary records of almost every kind, but not a single attempt to preserve for us an authentic folktale as known and told by the ordinary Greek. The situation is much the same as with Biblical tradition: [437] there is much evidence of the presence of many of our best-known folktale motifs and sometimes indication that many of the more elaborate narratives were known in much the form familiar to us in present-day folklore. But both in the Bible and in Greek literature these narratives are lifted from their natural homely surroundings and are made to serve the purposes sometimes of the writer of sacred books, sometimes of the epic poet, and sometimes even of the dramatist.

From casual references scattered throughout Greek literature we may be sure that something very close to the folktale as known among the peasantry of modern Europe was a part of the entertainment not only of children but of adults. [438] They are frequently spoken of as "old wives' tales," and as filled with all kinds of marvels, including a large array of frightful animals and ogres.

Much more about the real nature of the ancient Greek folktales can be inferred from the way in which they are handled in Greek literature. In spite of the fact that they are often adapted to an entirely different literary medium, it is frequently easy to recognize close analogies to modern folk tales. [439] Sometimes, of course, the literary form may be the original from which a modern folktale has been developed, but a thorough study of the individual cases tends to show that normally the story as it appears in Greek literature is merely the adaptation of a popular Greek form of a folktale already well established in the world. [440]

There is much folktale material in Homer. Besides the Polyphemus episode, the whole series of adventures which Odysseus relates to the Phaeacians is laid in a world of wonders characteristic of the popular tale. Such are the [p. 279] harpies (B52); the sirens (B53); the enchantress Circe, who transforms his men (G263.1); the journey to the world of the dead (F81); the successive transformations of Proteus, the old man of the sea (G311); and the lotus flower that causes his companions to forget the homeward way (D1365.1.1). The Iliad, too, has its folktale motifs. For such, certainly, is Achilles' horse which speaks and advises him (B211.3); the war between the pygmies and the cranes (F535.5.1); and especially the tale of Bellerophon, containing as it does the motif of the hero falsely accused by the queen of attempting her honor (the Potiphar's wife motif, K2111), the letter sent to a neighboring king ordering the hero's execution (Uriah letter motif, K978), and the winning of a princess as a reward for overcoming monsters (T68).

In the myths which arose around the figure of Heracles we have many analogies to modern tales of the deeds of the strong man (Type 650). By his precocious strength, manifested already in the cradle, he overcomes the marvelous serpent, and later performs the whole series of "labors" in which he overcomes monsters, secures the golden apples, strikes off the hydra's nine heads, and brings Cerberus from hell. Some of these deeds are paralleled in the legend of Theseus, who also performs great feats of strength. Particularly like adventures in folktales is the defeat of the minotaur in King Minos's labyrinth where Theseus is helped by the king's daughter Ariadne (G530.2). Another widely used moti

[437] Many of these Biblical traditions have already been mentioned: The Garden of Eden, The Flood, and various explanatory legends (pp. 235ff.), Ruth, Susanna, Daniel, Jonah, Solomon, Moses, and Joseph (pp. 266ff.). For the Apocryphal story of Tobit, see Type 507B, above. For references to later Jewish legends, essentially literary, see p. 266, above.

[438] Ample evidence on this point has been assembled; see Bolte-Polívka, IV, 41ff.

[439] In his Griechische und albanesische Märchen (Leipzig, 1864), von Hahn classifies modern folktales on the basis of their resemblance to ancient Greek myths. The comparisons are often interesting, but the kind of direct relationship which he assumes is in most cases certainly not actual.

[440] Mention has already been made of the story of Oedipus (Type 931), of Rhampsinitus (Type 950), of The Wolf and the Kids (Type 123), coming respectively from Sophocles, Herodotus, Aesop, and Homer.

[441] The Legend of Perseus.

[442] See Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica.

[443] We have here an analogue not only to the Christopher story (Q25), but also to the much more general series of tales in which the gods or saints visit mortals in disguise (K1811).

[444] Cf. Types 513 and 514. These men, each endowed with some remarkable power (supernatural sight, hearing, speed, or the like), appear not only in modern folklore, but in the older written literature of such widely divergent places as Wales and India.

[445] For a good discussion of these relations, see Sven Liljeblad, "Argonauterna och sagorna om flykten från trollet," Saga och Sed, 1935, pp. 29 ff.

[446] For a good discussion of this motif, see Bolte-Polívka, III, 368.

[447] See Bolte-Polívka, IV, 113 ff.

[448] For these, see pp. 265f., above.

[449] For the literary fable, see p. 218, above.


123, 507B, 513, 514, 650, 931, 950


B52, B53, B211.3, D1365.1.1, F81, F535.5.1, G263.1, G311, G530.2, K978, K1811, K2111, T68