The Truth of Folktales

I’ve been engaged in aspects of Scottish Gaelic oral tradition for over two decades and have been advocating their value and importance for as long. Now that I have a young child, I read traditional stories to her in Gaelic and often wonder what impact they have on her, and how they have subtly shaped minds – thoughts, values, and behavior – in the past.

Back in March of this year (2019), National Public Radio aired a fascinating episode about how the Inuit use storytelling to educate and socialize their children. One of the generalized observations of this practice is that:

Oral storytelling is what’s known as a human universal. For tens of thousands of years, it has been a key way that parents teach children about values and how to behave.

Modern hunter-gatherer groups use stories to teach sharing, respect for both genders and conflict avoidance, a recent study reported, after analyzing 89 stories from nine different tribes in Southeast Asia and Africa. With the Agta, a hunter-gatherer population of the Philippines, good storytelling skills are prized more than hunting skills or medicinal knowledge, the study found.

Today many American parents outsource their oral storytelling to screens. And in doing so, I wonder if we’re missing out on an easy — and effective — way of disciplining and changing behavior. Could small children be somehow “wired” to learn through stories?

“Well, I’d say kids learn well through narrative and explanations,” says psychologist Deena Weisberg at Villanova University, who studies how small children interpret fiction. “We learn best through things that are interesting to us. And stories, by their nature, can have lots of things in them that are much more interesting in a way that bare statements don’t.”

This rings very true to me, and one of the examples provided by the NPR episode relates to the dangers of drowning in waters that are omnipresent in the Inuit’s environment. To warn children away from these dangers, “If a child walks too close to the water, the monster will put you in his pouch, drag you down to the ocean and adopt you out to another family.”

Scottish Gaels will recognize this story pattern right away: the same basic warning is epitomized by stories about the each-uisge (“water-horse”), which accumulated a set of related beliefs and motifs in the Scottish Highlands.

A likely depiction of an each-uisge on a symbol stone at Aberlemno (the place name itself signifying a watery confluence)

It is clear to me that Gaelic oral tradition is a hugely complex, rich, and sophisticated cultural eco-system serving many different functions for people in different ways and contexts. It was essentially the medium of learning for all but the few élite who supplemented it – until the eighteenth century – with a vigorous and deeply rooted literate tradition. The céilidh house was the focal point of the oral tradition, where all members of the community could gather to share their vast store of stories, songs, riddles, proverbs, and other genres, and to apply them to their contemporary circumstances and challenges.

The Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell described the tradition as he experienced it in South Uist, but this would have been equally true of other parts of the Highlands in the eighteenth century:

It was not a question of a few people knowing a few songs or stories by heart and reciting them occasionally at some party or concert: it is a case of a number of people knowing forty or fifty traditional songs, or scores of stories, and not the same songs or stories, but often different ones, so that the total runs into thousands of different songs and many hundreds of different stories …

Strange Things (1968), p. 8

He goes on to quote the Swedish folklorist C. W. von Sydow in this discussion:

Among the richest and most outstanding folk-traditions in Europe is that of the Gaels in Ireland and Scotland, and it is one of the most important objects of European folk-tale research to pay as much attention to it as possible. Its rich vitality is to attributed partly to the fact that people have had their present dwelling places so long, partly that there used to be professional narrators, there being nothing analogous to them in Teutonic territory.

One of the results of a community investing their minds and energy in stories such as those of the each-uisge is that the world is alive with energies and beings with whom human beings can have relationships, and that demand respect. This is quite different from the view of the universe as a dead machine mindlessly obeying the rules of physics which the scientific revolution produced. Some of these stories explicitly warn Gaels not to over-exhaust the natural resources in their environment (a topic I explored in the Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World), but in an even more general sense, they contribute to an animistic worldview, as Sean Kane comments in his wonderful book Wisdom of the Mythtellers:

The events that happened there were compelled by greater-than-human powers, the powers which intersect with our world at various points … The myth teaches that these sacred places are to be respected for their own sake, not for what human beings can make of them. Myth, in its own ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear. …

The stories remembered by the mythtellers were pictures of the flow of life and information from special places on the earth where that energy was felt most keenly. Once the power of the place is lost to memory, myth is uprooted; knowledge of the earth’s processes becomes a different kind of knowledge, manipulated and applied by man.

Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1994), p. 50

And indeed, efforts to uproot Gaelic myth and the traditions of telling folktales (and this is not an appropriate time to examine the details of terminology like “folktale” or analyze specific genres of oral tradition) have long been under attack. The very first book printed in Gaelic – an adaptation of the Book of Common Order, rendered into Classical Gaelic as a church text and published in 1567 – castigates Highlanders for having more interest in the “vain, hurtful, lying, worldly tales about the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the sons of Milesius, and the heroes and Fionn mac Cumhnaill with his warriors” than the “truth” of the gospel. The church opposed the secular folktale tradition (and note that the first characters noted by the writer were the native Gaelic gods), in other words, because it distracted Highlanders from church teachings, which meant that they were putting their souls in peril.

All of the evidence suggests that such warnings did little to suppress Gaelic appetites for these traditional oral narratives for another two centuries. It was the cataclysmic changes that were ushered in by the interference of a ruthlessly anglocentric government, occupying the Highlands literally and Highland institutions culturally, in the aftermath of Culloden that instigated the dramatic decline of the oral traditions.

Still, for at least a generation or two, church ministers knew that it would be easier to reshape oral traditions to carry messages of their own rather than destroy them altogether. Most of ministers in the eighteenth-century Highlands were themselves Gaels who had heard stories about unsuspecting children playing near lochs being lured by the each-uisge, leaping upon the backs of the beautiful creatures, only to be drowned at the bottom of the dark waters. Understanding them implicitly to be cautionary tales, they made them oral missionaries of the triumphant Protestant regime: the children were playing on the Sabbath, according to the revised versions, and one of the party was saved simply because he had a Bible with him.

This was only a temporary respite in the war on secular Gaelic tradition, however, especially since the school-master, armed with an English-only curriculum, soon appeared in every Highland parish to humiliate the young and old who paid heed to “foolish stories.” There was no physical evidence, after all, for eich-uisge or fairies or other supernatural beings, such as the stories claimed. And with the bedrock of Gaelic tradition cracked and broken and stigmatized, other forms of cultural expression were similarly brought into disrespect and disrepair.

From a modern anthropological point of view, we can appreciate that the function and utility of traditional narratives does not depend upon the “truth” of their content. The fact that such emissaries of a coldly intellectual modernity confused literal reality with the Higher Truth of Stories is symptomatic of the ways that coloniality has destroyed indigenous cultures and ultimately failed humanity. And that’s a very sad story.

One thought on “The Truth of Folktales

  • Aye, it’s terribly sad, and regrettable that many “oral traditions” are viewed, by western/modern man, as less accurate than the written word. Such narrowmindedness neglects the fact that the history keepers, and story tellers, were expected to memorize the detail, not simply remember the story.

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