The Development of Folk-Tales
and Myths 1
The collections of folk-tales and myths of all continents, but particularly
of North America, that have been accumulated during the
last few decades have yielded the definite results that the incidents of
tales have a very wide distribution, that they have been carried from
tribe to tribe, even from continent to continent, and have been assimilated
to such an extent that rarely only is there any internal evidence
that would indicate what is of native and what of foreign origin.
Although these incidents have a wide distribution, they have developed
characteristic peculiarities in restricted parts of the territory in
which they occur. I will illustrate this by means of some examples
selected from among the folk-tales of the North Pacific coast of America.
An excellent illustration is presented by the North American tale of
the Bungling Host. The fundamental idea of the story, the failure of
the attempt to imitate magical methods of procuring food, is common
to the whole North American continent, apparently with the sole exception
of California and of the Arctic coast. The incidents, however,
show considerable variation. Confined to the North Pacific coast are
the tricks of letting oil drip from the hands, of obtaining fishroe by
striking the ankle, and of letting berries ripen by the song of a bird.
The widely spread trick of cutting or digging meat out of the host's
body is practically unknown on the North Pacific coast. The host's
trick of killing his children, who revive, which forms part of the Bungling
Host tale in the State of Washington and on the Plateaus is well
known on the North Pacific coast. However, it does not occur as part
of this story. It is entirely confined to stories of visits to the countries
of supernatural beings.
Similar observations may be made in regard to the prolific test theme.
The dangerous entrance to the house of the supernatural beings is represented
397among the northern tribes of the North Pacific coast by the
closing cave or by the closing horizon; among the tribes farther to the
south, by a snapping door; on the western plateaus, by animals that
watch the door of the house. Heat tests occur frequently, but in some
regions the heat is applied by baking the youth in an oven or boiling
him in a kettle; in others by sending him into an overheated sweat-lodge
or placing him near a large fire. More important differences may be
observed in the general setting of the test tales, which in some areas
are tests of the son-in-law; in others, matches between the inhabitants
of a village and their visitors.
Other examples of the local development of the plot of a story by
the introduction of specific incidents occur, as in the North Pacific coast
story of raven killing the deer, whom, according to the Alaskan tale, he
strikes with a hammer, while in the more southern form he pushes him
over a precipice. Similarly, in a story of a rejected lover who is made
beautiful by a supernatural being the magic transformation is accomplished
in the northern versions by bathing the youth in the bathtub
of the supernatural being, while in the south he is given a new head.
In other cases the geographical differentiation of the tales is not quite
so evident, because different types of stories overlap. This is the case
in the widely spread story of the deserted child. Tales in which a youth
gives offense by being lazy or by wasting food belong to Alaska. Another
type, in which a girl is deserted because she has married a dog,
belongs to British Columbia; but the two types overlap in distribution.
This particular theme occurs in a much wider area on the American
Continent, and other types may easily be recognized in the stories of
the Plains Indians.
Tales of marriages with supernatural beings or animals are often
found in the form of the abduction of a girl who has unwittingly offended
an animal. This type seems to belong primarily to Alaska, while
the theme of helpful animals that succor unfortunate and innocent
sufferers is much more frequent among the tribes of British Columbia.
All these examples illustrate that there are a number of simple plots,
which have a wide distribution, and which are elaborated by a number
of incidents that must be interpreted as literary devices peculiar to each
area. In all these cases the incidents obtain their peculiar significance by
being worked into different plots.
On the other hand, we find also certain incidents that have a very
wide distribution and occur in a variety of plots. Many examples of
398these are given in the annotations to all the more important recent collections
of folk-tales. The local character of folk-tales is largely determined
by typical associations between incidents and definite plots.
In most of the cases here discussed the plot has a general human character,
so that the processes of invention and diffusion of plots must be
looked at from a point of view entirely different from that to be applied
in the study of invention and diffusion of incidents. The latter are, on
the whole, fantastic modifications of every-day experiences, and not
likely to develop independently with a frequency sufficient to explain
their numerous occurrences over a large area. On the other hand, the
stories of a deserted child, of contests between two villages, of a rejected
lover, and other similar ones, are so closely related to every-day experiences,
and conform to them so strictly, that the conditions for the rise
of such a framework of literary composition are readily given. Nevertheless
the plots that are characteristic of various areas should be studied
from the point of view of their literary characteristics and of their relation
to the actual life of the people.
An attempt of this kind has been made by Dr. John R. Swanton, 1
who enumerates a number of formulas of tales of the North Pacific
coast. In this area the following plots occur a number of times:
1. A woman marries an animal, is maltreated by it, and escapes.
2. A woman marries an animal, who pities and helps her; she returns
3. Men or women marry animals and receive gifts; crest stories.
4. Men obtain crests through adventures in hunting or traveling.
5. Parents lose their children; a new child is born owing to the help
of some supernatural being; adventures of this child.
6. A man maltreats his wife, who receives help from supernatural
7. The adventures of hunters; they meet dangers, which the youngest
or oldest one overcomes.
8. War between two tribes, due to the seduction of a woman and
the murder of her lover.
All these stories show a unity of the underlying idea. They are built
up on some simple event that is characteristic of the social life of the
people and that stirs the emotion of the hearers. Some tales of this type
are elaborated in great detail, and therefore conform to our own literary
399standards. To this class belongs, for instance, the tale of a deserted
prince. It is told that a prince fed eagles instead of catching salmon.
In winter when food was scarce he was deserted by his relatives, but
was helped by the eagles, who gave him food. It is told in great detail
how larger and larger animals were sent to him. When the prince had
become rich he sent some food to the only person who had taken pity
on him. By chance his good luck was discovered and he rescued the
tribe that was starving and married the chief's daughter.
Another tale of this kind is “Growing-up-like-one-who-has-a-grandmother.”
This is a tale of another boy who is helped by a supernatural
being, overcomes all the young men of the village in various contests,
and thus obtains the right to marry the chief's daughter. The chief
feels humiliated, deserts him, and the youth kills a lake monster. When
wearing its skin he is able to kill sea game, but finally being unable to
take off the skin he must remain in the sea.
Besides these, there are a large number of complex tales of fixed form,
which are put together very loosely. There is no unity of plot, but the
story consists of the adventures of a single person. I do not refer here
to the disconnected anecdotes that are told of some favorite hero, such
as we find in the Raven legend or in the Transformer tales, but of adventures
that form a fixed sequence and are always told as one story.
Examples of this kind are quite numerous.
It is noticeable that only a few of the complex tales of the last-named
type are known to several tribes. Although enough versions have been
recorded to show that in each area the connection between the component
parts of the story is firm, the whole complex does not migrate
over any considerable distance. It is rather that the parts of the tale
have the tendency to appear in different connections. This point is
illustrated, for instance, by the story of a man who is deserted on a sealion
rock and is taken into the house of the wounded sealions whom he
cures. This story appears in quite different connections in various regions.
Other examples of similar kind are quite numerous.
The literary device that holds together each one of these tales consists
in the use of the interest in the hero that has been created by the introductory
story, and that makes the audience desirous of knowing
about his further deeds and adventures. The greater the personal
interest in the hero, the more marked is the desire to attach to his name
some of the favorite exploits that form the subject of folk-tales. I presume
this is the reason why in so many cases the introductory tales
400differ enormously, while the adventures and exploits themselves show
a much greater degree of uniformity. This happens particularly in the
case of tales of culture heroes. When a large number of the same exploits
is thus ascribed to the heroes of different tribes, it seems to happen
easily that the heroes are identified. Therefore I imagine that the steps
in the development of a culture-hero myth may have been in many
cases the following: An interesting story told of some personage; striking
and important exploits ascribed to him; similar tales of these personages
occurring among various tribes; identification of the heroes of
different tribes. While I do not assume that this line of development has
occurred every single time — and it seems to me rather plausible that in
other cases the introductory story and the adventures may have come
to be associated in other ways — it may be considered as proved that
introduction and adventures do not belong together by origin, but are
the results of later association. The great diversity of associations of
this type compels us to take this point of view.
On the whole, in many forms of primitive literature, the interest in
the personality of the hero is a sufficient means of establishing and maintaining
these connections. Nevertheless there are a few cases at least
in which the adventures conform to a certain definite character of the
hero. This is the case in northwestern America in the Raven, Mink
and Coyote tales, in which greed, amorous propensities and vaingloriousness
are the chief characteristics of the three heroes. In tales that
have a more human background these tendencies are hardly ever
The recorded material shows also that the imagination of primitive
man revels in the development of certain definite themes, that are determined
by the character of the hero, or that lend themselves in other
ways to variation. Thus in Alaskan tales Raven's voraciousness, that
induces him to cheat people and to steal their provisions, is an everrecurring
theme, the point of which is regularly the attempt to induce
the people to run away and leave their property. Mink's amorousness
has led to the development of a long series of tales referring to his marriages,
all of which are of the same type. The strong influence of a
pattern of thought on the imagination of the people is also illustrated
by tales of marriages between animals and men or women and a few
other types to which I referred before.
The artistic impulses of a people are not always satisfied with the
loose connections of stories, brought about by the individuality of the
401hero, or strengthened by the selection of certain traits of his character
illustrated by the component anecdotes. We find a number of cases in
which a psychological connection of the elements of the complex story
is sought. An example of this kind is found in the Raven legend of
British Columbia, in which a number of unrelated incidents are welded
into the form of an articulate whole. The adventures of the Steelhead
Salmon, the Grizzly Bear, and Cormorant, are thus worked into a connected
series. Raven kills Steelhead Salmon because he wants to use it
to deceive Grizzly Bear. He holds part of the salmon in front of his
body, so as to make the Bear believe that he has cut himself. Thus he
induces the Bear to imitate him and to kill himself. Finally he tears out
the tongue of Cormorant, who had witnessed the procedure, so that he
may not tell. Another excellent case from the same region is the story
of Raven's son and Thunderbird. Raven has seduced a girl, and their
son is stolen by Thunderbird. In order to take revenge, he makes a
whale of wood, then kills Pitch in order to calk the whale, and by its
means drowns the Thunderbird. Among other tribes the same tale
occurs in another connection. The animals have a game, and Thunderbird
wins. The defeated guests are invited, and the host's wife produces
berries by her song. Then the Thunderbird abducts her, and the
revenge of the animals by means of the whale follows. In the former
group of tales the incident describing the death of Pitch is brought in,
which ordinarily occurs as an independent story.
In these cases we find the same incidents in various connections, and
this makes it clear that it would be quite arbitrary to assume that the
incident developed as part of one story and was transferred to another
one. We must infer that the elements were independent and have been
combined in various ways. There certainly is nothing to prove that
the connection in which an incident occurs in one story is older and
nearer to the original form than one in which it occurs in another
The distribution of plots and incidents of North American folklore
presents a strong contrast when compared to that found in Europe.
European folk-tales, while differing in diction and local coloring, exhibit
remarkable uniformity of contents. Incidents, plots, and arrangement
are very much alike over a wide territory. The incidents of American
lore are hardly less widely distributed; but the make-up of the stories
exhibits much wider divergence, corresponding to the greater diversification
of cultural types. It is evident that the integration of European
402cultural types has progressed much further during the last two or three
thousand years than that of the American types. Cultural contrasts like
those between the Northwest coast and the Plateaus, or between the
Great Plains and the arid Southwest, are not easily found in Europe.
Excepting a few of the most outlying regions, there is a great underlying
uniformity in material culture, social organization, and beliefs, that permeates
the whole European continent, and that is strongly expressed in
the comparative uniformity of folk-tales.
For this reason European folk-lore creates the impression that the
whole stories are units, that their cohesion is strong, and the whole complex
very old. The analysis of American material, on the other hand,
demonstrates that complex stories are new, that there is little cohesion
between the component elements, and that the really old parts of tales
are the incidents and a few simple plots.
Only a few stories form an exception to this rule — such as the complex
Magic Flight or Obstacle myth — which are in themselves complex,
the parts having no inner connection, and which have nevertheless a
From a study of the distribution and composition of tales we must
then infer that the imagination of the natives has played with a few
plots, which were expanded by means of a number of motives that have
a wide distribution, and that there is comparatively little material that
seems to belong to any one region exclusively, so that it might be considered
as of autochthonous origin. The character of the folk-tales of
each region lies rather in the selection of preponderant themes, in the
style of plots, and in their literary development.
The supernatural element in tales shows a peculiar degree of variability.
In a study of the varying details it appears a number of times
that stories which in one region contain fantastic elements are given a
much more matter-of-fact setting in others. I take my examples again
from the North Pacific coast. In the tale of Raven's battle with South
Wind we find in most cases an incident of an animal flying into the
enemy's stomach, starting a fire, and thus compelling him to cough.
In the Tsimshian version he simply starts a smudge in his house. In
most tales of the liberation of the Sun the magical birth of Raven plays
an important part, but among the Alaskan Eskimo he invades the house
by force or by ordinary fraud. In the Tsimshian tale of the origin of
Raven a dead woman's child flies up to the sky, while the Tlingit tell
the same tale without any supernatural element attached to it. Another
403case of this kind is presented by the wedge test as recorded among the
Lower Thompson Indians. In most versions of this tale a boy who is
sent into the open crack of a tree and whom his enemy tries to kill by
knocking out the spreading-sticks, escapes miraculously when the tree
closes. In the more rationalistic form of the tale he finds a hollow which
he keeps open by means of supports given to him. The available material
gives me the impression that the loss of supernatural elements occurs,
on the whole, near the border of the area in which the tales are known,
so that it might be a concomitant of the fragmentary character of the
tales. That loss of supernatural elements occurs under these conditions,
appears clearly from the character of the Masset and Tlingit tales
recorded by Swanton. In some of the Tlingit tales the supernatural
elements are omitted, or weakened by saying that the person who had
an incredible experience was out of his head. In the Masset series
there are many cases in which the supernatural element is simply
omitted. I am not prepared to say in how far this tendency may be
due to conflicts between the tales and Christian teaching or in how
far it may be due simply to the break with the past. The fact remains
that the stories lost part of their supernatural character when they were
told in a new environment.
I think it would be wrong to generalize and to assume that such loss
of supernatural elements is throughout the fate of tales, for the distribution
of explanatory tales shows very clearly that it is counterbalanced
by another tendency of tales to take on new supernatural significance.
An additional word on the general theory of mythology. I presume
I shall be accused of an entire lack of imagination and of failure to
realize the poetic power of the primitive mind if I insist that the attempt
to interpret mythology as a direct reflex of the contemplation of
nature is not sustained by the facts.
Students of mythology have been accustomed to inquire into the
origin of myths without much regard to the modern history of myths.
Still we have no reason to believe that the myth-forming processes of
the last ten thousand years differed materially from modern mythmaking
processes. The artifacts of man that date back to the end of the
glacial period are so entirely of the same character as those left by the
modern races, that I do not see any reason why we should suppose any
change of mentality during this period. Neither is there any reason that
would countenance the belief that during any part of this period inter-tribal
404contact has been materially different from what it is now. It
seems reasonable to my mind therefore to base our opinions on the
origin of mythology on a study of the growth of mythology as it occurs
under our own eyes.
The facts that are brought out most clearly from a careful analysis
of myths and folk-tales of an area like the northwest coast of America
are that the contents of folk-tales and myths are largely the same, that
the data show a continual flow of material from mythology to folk-tale
and vice-versa, and that neither group can claim priority. We furthermore
observe that contents and form of mythology and folk-tales are
determined by the conditions that determined early literary art.
The formulas of myths and folk-tales, if we disregard the particular
incidents that form the substance with which the framework is filled
in, are almost exclusively events that reflect the occurrences of human
life, particularly those that stir the emotions of the people. If we once
recognize that mythology has no claim to priority over novelistic folklore,
then there is no reason why we should not be satisfied with explaining
the origin of these tales as due to the play of imagination with
the events of human life.
It is somewhat different with the incidents of tales and myths, with
the substance that gives to the tales and myths their highly imaginative
character. It is true enough that these are not directly taken from
every-day experience; that they are rather contradictory to it. Revival
of the dead, disappearance of wounds, magical treasures, and plentiful
food obtained without labor, are not every-day occurrences, but they
are every-day wishes; and is it not one of the main characteristics of
the imagination that it gives reality to wishes? Others are exaggerations
of our experiences; as the power of speech given to animals, the
enormous size of giants, or the diminutive stature of dwarfs. Or they
are the materialization of the objects of fear; as the imaginative difficulties
and dangers of war and the hunt or the monsters besetting the
steps of the unwary traveler. Still other elements of folk-lore represent
ideas contrary to daily experiences; such as the numerous stories that
deal with the absence of certain features of daily life, as fire, water, etc.,
or those in which birth or death are brought about by unusual means.
Practically all the supernatural occurrences of mythology may be interpreted
by these exaggerations of imagination.
So far as our knowledge of mythology and folk-lore of modern
peoples goes, we are justified in the opinion that the power of imagination
405of man is rather limited, that people much rather operate with the
old stock of imaginative happenings than invent new ones.
There is only one point, and a fundamental one, that is not fully
covered by the characteristic activity of imagination. It is the fact that
everywhere tales attach themselves to phenomena of nature; that they
become sometimes animal tales, sometimes tales dealing with the heavenly
bodies. The distribution of these tales demonstrates clearly that the
more thought is bestowed upon them by individuals deeply interested
in these matters — by chiefs, priests, or poets — the more complex do they
become, and the more definite are the local characteristics that they
develop. The facts, however, do not show that the elements of which
these tales are composed have any immediate connection with the
phenomena of nature, for most of them retain the imaginative character
The problem of mythology must therefore rather be looked for in
the tendency of the mind to associate single tales with phenomena of
nature and to give them an interpretative meaning. I do not doubt
that when the anthropomorphization of sun and moon, of mountains
and animals, had attracted stories of various kinds to them, then the
moment set in when the observation of these bodies and of the animals
still further stimulated the imagination and led to new forms of tales,
that are the expressions of the contemplation of nature. I am, however,
not prepared to admit that the present condition of myths indicates that
these form any important part of primitive mythology.
That European myths happen to have developed in this direction —
presumably by long-continued reinterpretation and systematization at
the hands of poets and priests — does not prove that we must look for a
poetic interpretation of nature as the primary background of all mythologies.
The mythological material collected in recent years, if examined in
its relation to folk-tales and in its probable historical development, shows
nothing that would necessitate the assumption that it originated from
the contemplation of natural phenomena. It rather emphasizes the
fact that its origin must be looked for in the imaginative tales dealing
with the social life of the people.406
1 The Scientific Monthly, vol. 3 (1916), pp. 335-343. See also Tsimshian
Mythology, 31st Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1916), pp.
872 et seq.
1 John R. Swanton, “Types of Haida and Tlingit Myths,” American Anthropologist,
N.S., vol. 7 (1905), p. 94.