By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:
- say what constitutes folklore.
- identify aspects of folklore within your society.
- discuss aspects of culture that constitutes folklore.
What is folklore?
In our interactions with our environment, we have come to accept some things to be good, and others bad. The way we perceive these things in the environment are captured in many ways by the culture. These things are often captured in popular beliefs, proverbs, stories, myths, legends, music, our history, and so on. All these are what is usually named folklore. Thus, folklore can be said to be all the knowledge, beliefs and experiences of a group of people. According to Elliot Oring:
“Folklore is that part of culture that lives happily ever after.”
How will you say this in your language? This suggests that folklore has been there and will always be there.
Folklore is usually passed on by word of mouth. This is to say that your great grandfather told your grandfather a story, your grandfather tells your father the same story, your father, in turn, tells you the story. Now, you are also likely to tell your child, and the passing on goes on. Thus, folklore is said to be part of the oral literature of a people.
As we have seen, folklore constitutes the totality of the knowledge, beliefs, and experiences of a people. In today‟s lesson, we shall only look at one aspect of folklore: the folk tale.
Divisions of Folklore
Folklore can be divided into four areas of study. These are artefact, oral tradition, culture and rituals.
These include objects such as dolls, decorative items used in religious rituals, hand-built houses and barns, and handmade clothing. In addition, figures that depict characters from folklore may be considered to be folklore artefacts, depending on how they are used within a culture.
b. Oral tradition
Although folklore sometimes contains religious or mystical elements, it also concerns itself with the worldly activities of everyday life.
It is believed that folklore has many cultural aspects. It helps to validate a culture as well as transmit its morals and values. It can also be the root of many cultural types of music. Folklore can be used either to assert social pressures, or relieve them.
Many rituals can be considered folklore, be it formalized in a cultural or religious system or practised within a family or secular context.
Specific kinds and examples of folklore
Genres or the kinds of folklore include material culture, such as folk art, music, such as folk songs, narratives, such as legends, sayings, such as proverbs, beliefs, such as folk religion, and food; for example, traditional cooking.
We have put folklore into six categories. Now, we shall look at these categories, especially as they apply to our culture.
Our material culture includes our buildings and such things as decorations that we make to our buildings and other things in our environment. Have you seen a picture of the round thatched buildings that we still have in parts of, especially, the northern parts of Ghana. Today, what has come to be called summer huts are often built following this pattern. Why? They are beautiful and are built to keep out the heat.
Also, in many parts of the country, people use colours to paint beautiful patterns on their doorways. Others use such other things as shells to, literally, tile their rooms or the forecourts of their houses.
Our material culture refers also to the instruments we use the creation of other things. In cultures where traditional cloth weaving, for example, kente weaving, is done, the instruments for the weaving are often carved and decorated beautifully. In addition, where pottery is done, the pots, earthenware bowls and the instruments used in grinding or milling are often intricately decorated. I am sure that you know that instrument that looks like the hourglass that is used in grinding such vegetables as pepper, tomatoes, „kontomire‟ and others when we prepare our delicious meals. In parts of the country, it is call the „tapoli‟ or simple as the „ta‟. Is it not beautiful?
All the tools we have mentioned constitute what we are referring to as our material culture.
Think about the material things in our environment that are not imported from another country. Which of them can you say for certainty that were passed on from one generation to another, and to the next, until it has come to us today? That is the kind we are referring to as constituting our material culture, our folklore.
Music is an important element of our culture. It is one of the elements the fall under the folklore of our culture. There are some pieces of music that, as Oring puts it, „live happily ever after‟. Take some of our lullaby, for example. You know that a lullaby is that song that a mother will sing for a baby to lull the baby to sleep, don‟t you? Now these are songs that are an integral part of our folklore.
Have you watched men doing really hard work, such as slash the bush to prepare the land for cultivation? Perhaps you were at the beach when the fishermen have arrived in their boats and are pulling in the catch. What do they do? Yes, they sing. Such songs are called work songs. The song goes rhythmically with the slashing or the pulling at the ropes the nets are attached to.
These are songs that were passed on from generation to generation. We have them today, a nd we shall pass them on. They belong to what we are calling our folklore.
There are other songs, such as the dirge which someone sings when someone beloved to the singer dies. The English also have a similar song called the ballad. It was also originally sung when a loved one died or something terrible happened to someone who the singer loved. Today, all ballads are written. But then, originally, they were orally performed. Like the dirge, they had belonged to the folklore of the English.
Think about the traditional songs that you know. They may be sung on a happy occasion or on a sad occasion. Have they been passed on from generation to generation before they got to us? Such a song belongs to the folklore of the culture.
The narratives refer primarily to the folk tale. The folk tales are common especially in our cultures.
What is a folk tale?
A folk tale is a story. This kind of story is told in a traditional setting. Here are three characteristics of a folk tale:
- A folk tale comes from a particular cultural background, so the folk tale will reflect the culture of the people.
- The folk tale usually has animal characters. Many cultures often have one particular animal that features as the main character in these tales. In most parts of Ghana, it is Ananse, the spider. In some parts of the country, it is the tortoise.
- A folk tale usually teaches a moral or a lesson on right or wrong behaviour.
Why do we have folk tales?
Firstly, the telling of folk tales was part of the process of bringing up young people in the society. We have said that a folk tale will teach a moral. Folk tales, therefore, are told to especially young people to make them learn what behaviour is acceptable and what behaviour is unacceptable.
Folk tales do not educate only the young. The elderly in the society are also rebuked or corrected by the morals in the folk tale. When an elderly person is made aware of the results of wrong behaviour from the folk tale, he or she is likely to change for the better. Perhaps, that was the reason why animal characters were used in these stories. The story will speak indirectly to the elderly person and then he or she may change. The story is about an animal, but if you, a human being, is behaving like that animal, then, you must change your behaviour.
Secondly, folk tales are a source of entertainment. For example, most folk tales have interludes. These are short breaks during which a song is sung. Anybody present during the telling of the story can start the song. Then all others will join in singing the song. After the song, the storyteller continues telling the story.
In some parts of the world the folk tales are called fairy tales. The fairy is usually a creature very much like a human being but with wings and so small that it can actually stand in your hand. The fairy has magical powers and can do many things that are impossible to human beings. It is usually pictured with a wand, a little stick that is used when it performs the magic. Fairy tales are usually for little children. Fairy tales belong to the folklore of those cultures.
Who told these stories?
Today, it is almost impossible to say who first told these stories. These stories are said to be anonymous. This is to say that their creators are unknown. However, in a few cultures, a few individuals have been identified as creators of some aspects of the folklore. For example, among the Anlo Ewes, Akpalu has been credited with the composition of many beautiful poems.
Do you remember any folk tale that you have been told, or that you have read? Remember that originally, these tales were passed on by word of mouth. Today, you may write them down so that we do not forget them. Do not forget, however, that folk tales belong to the folklore of the culture from which it is taken.
Narratives are not always folk tales. There are also the myths and the legends.
A myth is a narrative or something said in order to explain an event that, at the time, it was impossible to explain. Here is an example:
Long long ago, God was very very close to human beings. He was in the sky. One could just reach out and touch the sky and talk to God. Then human being invented „fufu‟. You know, in pounding the boiled cassava, plantain, or yams to get the smooth paste that is the „fufu‟ a pestle is used. This will be raised to pound the „fufu‟. And God was so close. Men had no mercy. Anytime the pestle was raised it hit God on the nose. God went a little farther away. As men ate the „fufu‟ and grew taller and taller God had to move farther and farther away. Then, in order not to be disturbed any longer, God moved as far away as the sky has. That is why the sky is so far from us.
Have I explained why the sky is so far away? That is the kind of thing that the myth will do.Some myths are about people. They attribute certain very mystical events to those people to explain why they are so great. Here is one such myth about the first president of Ghana, Dr Kwame Nkrumah.
One account has it that, one day, when Nkrumah was a little child, his mother was carrying him at her back as they were coming home from the farm. They had to cross a little stream. In the middle of the stream, Nkrumah told her mother that she was standing on a fish. Her mother reached under her feet and caught the fish. They made a good meal of the fish when they got home.
Well! What do you think?
Legends are narratives about people who had really lived. That is why we can refer to some people as living legends. The legends could be legendary for doing very good things or very bad things. There is the legend of the Ewe king named Agokoli. He was so wicked that his people had to run away from him. Of course, there is the legend of Okomfo Anokye, who is the one who united the Ashantis.
Most importantly, remember that myths and legends are part of the folklore of our culture.
Listen to the following:
- From afar, the forest look like one solid mass, but when you are in it, you realize that every tree stands on its own.
- You do not ignore the head and let the knee wear the hat.
- The beard does not recount history for the eyelash.
- No one grows teeth because someone else‟s maize has matured.
- The chameleon says walking positively means moving backward and moving forward. Have you heard any of the sayings above before?
Repeat them to yourself.
Think about them, one at a time. What does each mean?
Take the first one, for example:
From afar, the forest look like one solid mass, when you are in it, you realize that every tree stands on its own.
When you look at a forest a few miles away from it, you may think it will be impossible to walk through it. But then, when you are close to it, you find that there are spaces, at least, spaces enough for you to go through the forest. This is telling us to be careful not to depend too much on others. Everybody must know that he or she will, at one time or another, have to depend on himself. Even in families where we think all is well because there is the impression that there is no problem, if you get close enough to such a family, you will find that this is not the case at all.
There are lots of such sayings in all cultures. What is their use?
They serve as good advice for especially the young ones in the community. Often, your parents will „recite‟ them. They will then be reminding you of something that you have to do, or some things that you should not do.
When are they used?
You will agree that these sayings are used at any time at all. However, you will find that it is during formal functions, such as at a durbar of the chiefs and people of a culture that you are likely to hear more of these. In fact, in many cultures, the chief will usually speak through the “okyeame‟ or a special spokesperson. This spokesperson will re-echo what the chief has said. Often, even if the chief does not capture what he intends to say using such sayings, the linguist will capture it in the wise-saying.
Sayings can be called proverbs or wise-sayings. They carry a message that is often true and this message is meant to offer advice.
Our beliefs are part of our folklore. For example, in most of our cultures, we engage in ancestral worship. We believe that our ancestors intercede for us and can prevent bad things from happening to us. We also believe that if a person works hard in this life and leads an honest life he will enjoy in the next life. This belief determines what we do or will not do
Our food and how we prepare it, and also how we eat it forms part of our culture. In some cultures, when there has been division and a reconciliation or coming together has been achieved, a special meal is prepared. This is often served in one bowl and all to be reconciled will eat from that bowl. I am sure you are also aware that some special meals are prepared and shared during certain festivals.
I am sure you have learnt a few things that we can refer to as folklore. There are more things to learn in our literature lessons. Look around you and identify aspects of the folklore of your culture. We shall be talking more about this in subsequent lessons.
In this lesson, we have learnt that:
- folklore captures all the knowledge, beliefs, and experiences of a people.
- folklore is passed on orally or by word of mouth.
- one form of folklore is the folk tale.
- the folk tale is told to entertain.
- the folk tale is also told to teach young people to behave well.
- the folk tale can also make elderly people change their behaviour.
Prosper Kwesi Agordjor, M.Phil.
John Tetteh Agor, Ph.D.
Modestus Fosu, Ph.D.
William Foli Garr, (Rev.) M.Phil.