Stair to lower world. *Siuts 54.
Stair to lower world. *Siuts 54.
Part Two The Folktale from Ireland to India III – The Simple Tale 4. Legends and traditions A. Mythological Legends
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.  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 ( 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 ( The success of Satan in the Garden ( Legends about floods appear in many parts of the world.  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,  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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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.  Nevertheless, such phenomena as the Milky Way ( Neither the sun nor the moon occupies a large place in actual legend.  Popular imagination has largely confined its interest in the sun to tales about how it is stolen ( 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 ( A very common legend is that of the city below the sea, a kind of sub marine other-land ( 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 ( 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 ( 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.  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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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,  thus accounting for at least two large classes of creatures, the good and the bad. Three legends of the creation of animals ( 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 ( 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 ( Ancient animals were punished for various kinds of misdeeds. The Aesop [p. 242] fables have popularized the tales of those who make immoderate requests ( 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 ( 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 ( 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,  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 ( 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.
 For an excellent treatment of legends based upon the Old Testament and still current as oral tales, see Dähnhardt, Natursagen, vol. I.
 For bibliography of flood legends, see
 The Play of the Flood (in The Towneley Plays, Early English Text Society, extra series, LXXI).
 See p. 384, below.
 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.
 For some of these concepts, see the following motif numbers:
 See A. H. Krappe, "Avallon," Speculum, XVIII (1943). 303-322.
 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.
 The rope from the sky (F51) is very popular in primitive tales. The ladder to the upper world (
 This motif appears as a part of a regular folktale,
 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.
 P. 236, above.
 For tales of this kind concerning the nightingale and the blindworm, and also the jay and the cuckoo, see Types
 See The Dove's Egg-substitution,
 See The Pike and the Snake Race to Land (
 See The Dog's Certificate (
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