Folklore encapsulates the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through generations via word of mouth.
Recognizable through varied forms such as tales, proverbs, riddles, dances, and dramas, its essence lies in its root of being shaped by the collective memory and experiences of a people over time (Ben-Amos & Goldstein, 2013).
Central to folklore is its ability to mirror societal values and shared human experiences, while also serving as a tool for societal cohesion and identity formation (Bronner, 2016).
There are examples of folklore throughout every known culture, representing stories of where we came from and narratives that pass on morals and the core values of a cultural group.
101 Folklore Examples
1. Famous British Folklore
- King Arthur is a legendary British leader. He’s renowned for his mythical Knights of the Round Table and is said to have defended Britain against Saxon invaders during the 5th and 6th centuries.
- The Lady of the Lake is a powerful enchantress. She is known to have given Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur, playing an instrumental role in his victories.
- Black Dog legends involve spectral canines. They are often associated with the devil and are considered omens of death.
- Will-o’-the-wisp refers to phosphorescent lights. These lights were believed to be mischievous spirits leading travelers astray.
- Pixies are mythical creatures smaller than humans. Known for their playful nature, they are fond of singing and dancing.
- Brownies are helpful domestic spirits. They do household tasks at night in exchange for small gifts or food.
- The Green Man is a symbol of rebirth. This imagery is often depicted in carvings as a face surrounded by leaves.
- Stonehenge legends encapsulate various stories surrounding Stonehenge’s origin, including the belief it was created by the wizard Merlin. The construct is often associated with spiritual and healing powers.
- Morgan le Fay is a powerful sorceress. She is often represented opposing King Arthur.
- Robin Hood is a heroic outlaw. Known for “robbying from the rich to give to the poor,” he represents justice and fairness.
- Kelpies are water spirits. Appearing as horses, they lure people to ride them only to carry them off underwater.
- Banshees are female spirits. Renowned for their mournful cry, they are often associated with foretelling death.
- Selkies are mythological creatures living as seals in the sea but shedding their skin to become human on land.
- Jack the Giant Killer tells of a common man named Jack who outwits and slays numerous giants. It is a popular English fairy tale.
- Ghillie Dhu is a Scottish fairy known to be dressed in leaves and moss. Known for its shy character, it is generally friendly towards humans, particularly lost children.
2. Famous American Folklore
- Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack. His tales often involve his superhuman logging feats and his blue ox buddy, Babe.
- John Henry is a steel-driving man. His story tells of his race against a steam-powered drill, a contest viewing man against machine.
- Johnny Appleseed is a frontier nurseryman. Known as John Chapman in real life, he’s credited for spreading apple trees across the American Midwest.
- Bigfoot and Sasquatch are legendary ape-like creatures. Sightings are often reported in the Pacific Northwest (Bronner, 2016).
- Mothman is a winged humanoid. First reported in West Virginia, it is notorious for being a harbinger of disaster.
- Jersey Devil is a legendary creature. With a varied appearance—often part goat, bat and horse—it’s said to haunt the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey.
- Rip Van Winkle is a man who sleeps for 20 years. His tale explores themes of change and continuity.
- Coyote tales are Native American narratives. The trickster Coyote plays the protagonist in these moral stories.
- Thunderbird is a powerful spiritual figure in Native American myths. Associated with thunder, lightning, and storms, it represents power and strength.
- Roswell UFO Incident is a popular conspiracy theory. It speculates about a supposed UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.
- The Bermuda Triangle is an area in the Atlantic Ocean. Numerous ship and plane disappearances are credited to the mysterious influence in this region.
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells of a headless horseman. This ghost is believed to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in the American Revolutionary War.
- Br’er Rabbit tales are African American trickster stories. They depict a smart, cunning rabbit outsmarting his enemies.
- The Bell Witch is a famous Tennessee ghost. The entity tormented the Bell family for years, according to folklore.
- The Lost Colony of Roanoke refers to the disappearance of an entire English settlement. The only clue left behind was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post.
3. Famous Greek Folklore
- Zeus is the king of Olympian gods. Associated with thunder, lightning, law, and justice, he upholds order in the divine realm.
- Medusa is a gorgon. Once a beautiful maiden, she was transformed into a creature with snakes for hair, who could turn people into stone with her gaze.
- Minotaur is a beast with a man’s body and bull’s head. Imprisoned in the Labyrinth, it was eventually slain by the hero Theseus.
- Hercules is a demigod known for his strength. He is famous for completing twelve labors that required immense bravery and cunning.
- Pandora’s Box is a mythical artifact. Pandora, the woman who opened it, released all the world’s evils, leaving only hope inside.
- Achilles’ Heel refers to the hero Achilles’ only weakness. Although invulnerable elsewhere, his heel—once struck—led to his demise.
- Odysseus and the Trojan Horse is a tale of the cunning Greek hero Odysseus. He devised the wooden horse strategy that led to the fall of Troy.
- Sirens are creatures with the bodies of birds and the heads of women. Their enchanting voices were said to lure sailors to their doom.
- Narcissus is a beautiful youth famed for his self-obsession. He fell in love with his reflection, leading to his tragic end.
- Orpheus and Eurydice are lovers. Orpheus braved the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, only to lose her again by breaking an agreed rule.
- Icarus ignored his father Daedalus’s warnings about flying too close to the sun. The heat melted his wax wings, causing his fall.
- Oedipus Rex is renowned for his unfortunate fate. Unknown to him, he killed his father and married his mother, a prophecy foretold at his birth.
- The Fates are three sister deities. They control the thread of life of every mortal and god, deciding their birth, lifetime, and death.
- Phoenix is a mythical bird. Symbolizing renewal, it burns itself to death only to rise from the ashes.
- Chimera is a fire-breathing monster. Comprising of a lion, goat, and serpent, it was slain by the hero Bellerophon.
4. Famous German Folklore
- The Brothers Grimm Fairytales comprise an expansive collection. Collected by scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, these stories have deeply influenced Western culture.
- Rumpelstiltskin is a tricky imp. In the story, he makes a risky deal with a miller’s daughter, leading to an unpredictable ending.
- Hansel and Gretel are siblings. They escape from a wicked witch after being lost in a forest, marking a tale of resilience and resourcefulness.
- The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a tale of a piper. Hired to rid the town of rats, he retaliates when denied payment by leading away the town’s children.
- Snow White is a beautiful princess. Her tale involves evil witchcraft, a poisoned apple, and rescuing by seven dwarves.
- The Seven Ravens tells of a girl’s search. She embarks on a journey for her seven brothers who’ve been turned into ravens.
- Till Eulenspiegel is a trickster. His tales involve ingenious pranks and reflect on human faults and follies.
- The Valiant Little Tailor is a clever tailor. With the slogan ‘Seven at one stroke,’ he deceives the king and marries the princess.
- Frau Holle is a kind and just divinity. Her tale rewards hard work and punishes laziness.
- The White Snake involves a servant eating a unique snake. Following this, he comprehends animals and toils to win a princess’s love.
- The Nibelungenlied is a Middle-Age epic. It involves tales of heroes, betrayal, and treacherous revenge.
- The Lorelei is a siren. Her mesmerizing song lures sailors to their deaths on the Rhine River rock.
- Wild Hunt is a phantasmal procession. It foretells catastrophe, comprising ghosts or supernatural hunters thundering across the sky.
- Bremen Town Musicians tells about four aging animals. They set off to Bremen, intending to become musicians, but fate takes them on a different adventure.
- Barbarossa refers to Frederick I, a Holy Roman Emperor. A legend claims he sleeps in a mountain, ready to wake when Germany needs him most.
5. Famous Hindu and Buddhist Folklore
- Ramayana is an epic tale. This grand narrative centers on Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravana.
- Mahabharata is another epic, longer than the Ramayana. It narrates the rivalry and subsequent war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, two factions of the same royal family.
- Krishna’s childhood is marked by various miracles and playful mischief. His numerous exploits include battling demons, eating stolen butter, and charming everyone with his flute.
- Samudra Manthan describes the churning of the ocean. Gods and demons joined forces to churn the sea and extract the nectar of immortality.
- Ganesha’s birth involves a unique event. He was created from clay by his mother, Goddess Parvati, which led to a chain of events resulting in him receiving an elephant’s head.
- Durga’s victory over Mahishasura recounts the triumph of good over evil. Goddess Durga was created by the other gods to tackle the buffalo demon Mahishasura who threatened the world’s order.
- The story of Karna is a tragic tale of loyalty and honor. Born with divine armor, abandoned at birth, Karna faces moral dilemmas and tragic death in the Mahabharata.
- The Life of Siddhartha Gautama outlines his journey from royalty to renunciation. This tale includes his Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, transforming him into the Buddha.
- Jataka Tales are stories about Buddha’s previous lives. These accounts impart moral lessons and virtues.
- The Four Sights present four encounters that led Prince Siddhartha to become the Buddha. These include old age, sickness, death, and an ascetic renouncer.
- The Buddha’s Deer Park Sermon marks his first teaching after Enlightenment. Here, he introduced the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path.
- The Monkey King’s sacrifice is a Jataka Tale. The Monkey King willingly sacrifices himself to save his troop, exemplifying selflessness.
- Angulimala was a brutal killer turned ardent follower of Buddha. His story emphasizes the transformative power of compassion and the potential for redemption.
- The Parable of the Mustard Seed highlights impermanence and the universality of loss. Here, a grieving mother comes to the Buddha for help, and he asks her to obtain a mustard seed from a home that has never seen death.
- The Buddha and the hungry tigress involves his sacrifice in a past life. To save the starving tigress and her cubs, the Bodhisattva (future Buddha) offers his body as their meal.
6. Famous Russian Folklore
- Baba Yaga is a fearsome witch. Living deep in the forest in a hut on chicken legs, she’s known for her unpredictable behavior and plot-critical assistance or obstacles.
- Koschei the Deathless is a villain who cannot die. His soul is hidden away, making him invincible unless his soul is located and destroyed.
- Morozko (Father Frost) is a winter spirit. His tale includes teaching harsh lessons to the ungrateful but also rewarding good-hearted beings.
- Vasilisa the Beautiful is a young girl. She triumphs over adversity (usually Baba Yaga) with her wit, bravery, and a magical doll that her mother left her.
- The Firebird is a magical bird. Its glowing feathers are a common quest object, often leading those who seek it into dangerous situations.
- Ruslan and Ludmila tells of a knight named Ruslan. His adventures involve rescuing his wife Ludmila, who was kidnapped by an evil sorcerer.
- Domovoi is a household spirit. Generally benign, it protects the home but could become troublesome if neglected or mishandled.
- Rusalka is a spirit akin to a water nymph. Originally drowned maidens, they often lure men to watery deaths.
- Zmey Gorynych is a terrifying dragon. With three (or more) heads, it is usually bested by a brave hero in folklore tales.
- The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) is a winter figure. The daughter of Spring and Frost, her tale usually concerns her longing for human companionship, ending in her tragic demise.
- Ivan Tsarevich is a classic hero in folk tales. Often the youngest son of a Tsar, he wins the day through his courage and cleverness.
- Maria Morevna is a warrior princess. Her story involves her husband’s attempt to rescue her from Koschei.
- The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish is didactic. In it, a fisherman catches a wish-granting fish while his wife’s escalating demands lead to their eventual downfall.
- Alyosha Popovich is a legendary hero. Known for his strength and wit, he often battles trolls, giants, and other mythical creatures.
- Dobrynya Nikitich is another Russian hero. Popularly depicted as a noble knight, his tales often involve overcoming odds and championing over vile beasts.
7. Famous Children’s Folklore
Children’s folklore is a little different from the above examples, and generally represents children’s stories and cultural ideas that are passed on in the schoolyard. Examples include:
- Ring Around the Rosie is a nursery rhyme. Often sung while dancing in a circle, it’s believed by some to derive from the bubonic plague, although not all agree.
- Bloody Mary is a legend invoked by chanting her name three times in a mirror. It’s a popular scare tactic at sleepovers designed to spook the participants.
- Hopscotch is a classic game. Players hop through squares drawn on the ground, often while balancing a small object (like a stone) thrown into the squares.
- Eeny, meeny, miny, moe is a counting-out rhyme. This popular choosing method helps decide who’s “it” in games.
- Hand-clapping games are rhythmic games. They involve complex movements and rhyming chants, often played in pairs.
- The Floor is Lava is an imaginative game. Children must navigate objects without touching the floor, which is considered to be “lava.”
- Jokes and riddles are fun ways to engage children in language. They often revolve around puns, wordplay, and logic problems.
- Cootie Catcher (or Fortune Teller) is a classic origami game. Players manipulate the folded paper to reveal hidden messages or fortunes.
- Knock-knock jokes feature a set-up and punchline format. They’re often interactive, requiring a response from the listener.
- Red Rover is a game usually played in large outdoor spaces. Teams call each other out, attempting to break the opposing team’s chain of hands.
- Tooth Fairy is a fantasy figure. Children are encouraged to leave their lost tooth under the pillow for this fairy, who exchanges it for a gift or coin.
- Ghosts in the Graveyard is a nighttime game. It merges hide-and-seek with tag, one player acting as the “ghost,” trying to find and tag the “humans.”
- Bubblegum bubblegum in a dish is a counting game. Participants count off feet until only one is left, determining who’s “it.”
- Four Square is a ball game. It involves bouncing a ball within the squares aiming to eliminate others while staying in the game.
- Duck, Duck, Goose is a group game. Players sit in a circle while one walks around tapping heads and naming each a “duck”, until finally selecting a “goose” who gives chase.
The Purpose of Folklore
Folklore serves numerous social and psychological functions that are crucial in shaping and preserving culture.
Firstly, it acts as a window into societal norms, beliefs, and values as well as collective histories, providing a shared cultural repertoire (Sims & Stephens, 2011).
Folklore also plays a significant role in shaping and preserving societal identity and fostering unity among groups (Bronner, 2016). Certain African-American spiritual songs, sung during the time of slavery, represent a vivid reflection of this cultural identity-support institution.
Furthermore, folklore offers a platform for expressing societal anxieties, hopes, and values. For example, traditional Russian fairytales often feature dangerous forests and dark powers as metaphors for life’s challenges (Tursunovich, 2023).
Similarly, children’s folklore plays a vital role in early childhood socialization, educational processes, and the transmission of moral and social standards through generations, as evident in classic tales like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (Tucker, 2008).
Lastly, folk stories can build a sense of continuity and stability through time, linking the past to the present and the future, like the Native American oral traditions that have survived generations (Jones, 2014).
Types of Folklore
Folklore is itself a sub-category of folk culture, which includes not only stories but also dances, pagan religions, crafts, traditions, architecture, festivals and so on. But we can categorize folklore into numerous types, including folk narratives, folk songs, folk speech, folk customs, and folk beliefs.
1. Folk Narratives
Starting with folk narratives, it marks an umbrella term that encapsulates myths (religious tales that delineate cosmogony and cosmology, such as the Hindu story of Ganesha), legends (semi-true stories, rooted in history like the tales of King Arthur), and folktales (“pure fiction” tales, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) (Garry & El-Shamy, 2017).
2. Folk Songs
Folk songs and music encompass the rhythmic expressions of a culture. They might relate stories (the ballad of Jesse James), express emotions or serve as ritualistic tools (sung during traditional dances or rites) (Jones, 2014).
3. Folk Speech (Dialects)
Folk speech includes dialects and idioms specific to a group of people. For instance, the broad spectrum of American English dialects, from Southern drawls to Boston accents (Sims & Stephens, 2011).
4. Folk Customs
Folk customs encompass traditions and rituals that a culture follows during daily life or on special occasions. Certain food traditions of South Louisiana, such as the crawfish boil, highlight this aspect of folklore (Sims & Stephens, 2011).
5. Folk Beliefs
Folk beliefs or superstitions involve traditional beliefs or practices of cultures, which are based on faith rather than logic, like the Japanese belief of “bad luck on Tuesday” (Ben-Amos & Goldstein, 2013).
Folklore vs Myths
Distinguishing between folklore and myths can be complicated due to their overlapping characteristics.
Folklore is an umbrella term encompassing traditional beliefs, customs, tales, and practices passed down within a community or culture through word of mouth (Bronner, 2016). It includes a range of elements from oral narratives (like myths, legends, and folktales) to customs, beliefs, and core values (Tursunovich, 2023).
Conversely, myths are a subset of folklore narratives, explicitly concerning stories that deal with gods, creation, and the understanding of the universe and humanity’s place within it (Garry & El-Shamy, 2017).
Significant in their cultural context, myths often serve a directive function, providing socialization cues or moral lessons (such as the myth of Pandora’s box warning against curiosity and disobedience in Ancient Greek culture).
While both folklore and myths can be narrative-based, the key distinction lies in their content and function. Myths involve deity characters and address metaphysical questions, while folklore includes a broader spectrum of human experiences and cultural practices (Sutton-Smith et al., 2012).
Ben-Amos, D., & Goldstein, K. S. (Eds.). (2013). Folklore: Performance and communication (Vol. 40). Walter de Gruyter.
Bronner, S. J. (2016). Folklore: the basics. Taylor & Francis.
Garry, J., & El-Shamy, H. (2017). Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook: A Handbook. Routledge.
Jones, M. O. (Ed.). (2014). Putting folklore to use. University Press of Kentucky.
Sims, M., & Stephens, M. (2011). Living folklore: An introduction to the study of people and their traditions. University Press of Colorado.
Sutton-Smith, B., Mechling, J., Johnson, T. W., & McMahon, F. (Eds.). (2012). Children’s folklore: a sourcebook. Routledge.
Tucker, E. (2008). Children’s Folklore: A Handbook: A Handbook. ABC-CLIO.
Tursunovich, R. I. (2023). History of the Study of Folklore Ethnografisms. Eurasian Research Bulletin, 18, 199-202.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]