“One might say that Zeus declared that love and soul were one – a unit that cannot be broken.” (Foley and Banerjee 2009: 81)
This post serves two points: continuing the discussion of the essential components of mythology (at least as I see it) and somewhat clarifying a pair of terms that may have become too interchangeable in modern use (again, at least for my liking). The comics/picture books pairing is in the works, but at this time it’s a bit more juicy to poke at the myth/folktale distinction.
While folktales have nowadays become interchangeable with fairytales, I prefer the first term, since the latter has a distinct linguistic connection to stories about fairies. We could further argue that the folktale/fairy tale pairing is somewhat akin to the comics/graphic novel pairing; however, the latter case is more complex still. The term folk in this case reflect better the nature of these stories (their social, cultural influence), their origin and consequently their original adult nature, where the fairy aspect has become distinctively suited more to the Disney generation of cuteness, princesses and happy endings.
The most obvious similarity between myths and folktales can be traced to the seemingly universal appeal and application of the so called heroic journey, which draws heavily on Rank’s and Campbell’s monumental research of mythology proper (a topic that will probably get its own post as well in the future). The model of the heroic journey pits either the mythic or the folktale protagonist against a foe, creating a conflict that (for the most part) finally gets resolved in the end. This heavily abbreviated notion is, however, where the similarities between myth and folktale end, since mythological storytelling reflects greater uniqueness and severity of the mythic narrative. The ideologically greatest difference that can be (paradoxically) because of its intrinsic nature most frequently overlooked is the worldview in which a particular hero lives. For each folktale hero, who achieves a local, microcosmic success, there is the mythic hero, who transcends on a more global, macrocosmic level. While the folktale hero is localized to the point that the world revolves only around his or hers microcosmos, the mythic hero is the transcultural power that affects the macrocosmos itself.
There is no denying the entertainment value of folktales and transcultural symbolism of myth, but the two characteristics are much too intertwined, so this alone cannot be the distinguishing factor between the two traditions. As much as myths can be used for the purposes of entertainment, so can folktales touch upon universal issues of upbringing and its consequent phobias. Nevertheless, the mythic figures of cultural importance still cast a longer shadow. Therefore, Cinderella’s predicament shapes only her own existence, while Heracles is the Pan-Hellenic hero whose actions liberate the (progressive Greek) world from the savage surroundings.
While myth provides a particular hero with particular traits, we typically find more general, “stock” characters in the realm of the folktale. There is only one mythic Heracles (Hercules, for the borrowed Roman version), yet, there are plenty of Jacks (of all trades) in folktales. What is more, sometimes the protagonist is relegated to merely a position or a title, such as the king or the princess. The second main difference can be seen, is the use of magic in folktale as opposed to skill in myth. While both traditions make use of helpers and guides (essential figures in the heroic model), the Cinderellas of the world rely more heavily on the magic-wielding fairy godmothers and their unparalleled beauty. Staying in the Greek mythic world, the Hellenic tradition was especially wary of extremes of any kind; hence the “two commandments” at the Delphic oracle: nothing in excess and know thyself. Consequently, extreme beauty that is the main attribute of many of the folktale heroines becomes a burden in the mythic world. At least for the originally (beautiful) Medusas of the world, who get raped and transfigured into monsters … or you can call them obstacles for the heroes to overthrow. (This, coincidentally, is a profound reversal from those demons such as gargoyles, which have been turned into guardians.)
The two Delphic instructions especially refer to the mortals in connection to the Olympian gods. Knowing oneself is not the modern mantra of actually knowing yourself in hopes of bettering yourself. Back then this was NOT the idea that you should be all you can be, a common (and quite big a) mistake that people still make ... in hopes of connecting the great thinking of old to the modern individualism. Greeks were a lot of things, but they were still political animals. No, knowing oneself refers to knowing the limitations of mortality and consequent lower status as opposed to the gods. Thus, the mortal should not dare to rival them in any shape or form, or they will swiftly deal with such blasphemy. You had to have known yourself, so you would keep your ego in check and not fuck up … like Niobe for example, whose fourteen children ware struck down by Apollo and Artemis, since the mortal woman was too brass to point to her self-imposed greatness as the mother of more than just two “mere” twins of the goddess Leto. The Niobe example is particularly striking, since she exhibits hubris (excessive pride), another principle not to be trifled with, as well as breaking the nothing in excess rule by having her litter and raving about it.
Interestingly and despite its underlying superficial character portrayal and the deus ex machina resolution, the folktale approach to storytelling seems nevertheless as popular (if not more) than myth. Where myth is labeled as fictitious and fake, the folktales are more readily taken as they are. Perhaps the Hollywood incorporation of the latter has played a large role in the mainstream acceptance of the stories, yet their underlying role in upbringing of any child may prove to have an even greater role. It is easier to accept folktales (especially as fairytales) as child-friendly, while myth occupies a more adult realm and essentially caters more to adults. (It’s a similarly underwhelming issue that comics go through because of the lack of comprehension of their subject matter.)
We have to be aware that folktales as we know them now are essentially watered down versions of the original, darker stories (of the brother Grimm fame), where devourings, decapitations and mutilations were the “happy-ever-afters” of the time, representing an extreme educational and pedagogic tool that parents in the middle ages had in their repertoire. Paradoxically, myth in its truest form is precisely a story meant to teach children of the tradition of the time. Myth, however, was centered in ritual and carried a greater cultural and religious weight, so the stories were designed not merely “for all ages” but were treated extremely serious. While the original grim folktales come closer in their seriousness, the mythic narrative in its essence still desires and needs to be viewed seriously. The scientific era has, however, deconstructed the overbearing factuality of most myths of the world. While the folktale has been adopted by becoming more acceptable and “baring” to the sensitive, liberal minds of the present time, myth has in its original, ever influential form, remained steadfast in its serious resolve, which has gravely downplayed its importance (except within the original religious tradition).
From a technical perspective and bearing in mind the model of simplification for amplification, we can actually be quite precise as to why folktales are so readily accepted. While the folktale characters may be less defined, this simplification is the very driving force of appeal. Through them, the (young) readers can reflect their human nature and the story allows them to (subconsciously) incorporate basic human aspects of their development. The reader becomes the hero of the story titled Less is more that s/he tries to complete through the cooperation with the characters of the folktales, where the implementation of magic becomes the wish fulfillment and the desire of children to be at the level of adults. The physical powers and mental skills of mythic heroes serve a similar purpose. We can view them as better role models, since the stress is more on hard work and bravery than reliance on supernatural aid as in folktales … but there’s plenty of passive mythic character with silver spoons far up a certain crevice, so tread lightly.
After the mythic stage and the magic state, the superpowers of superheroes in comics represent the next stage in this development. As such, myth, folktales and comics are popular reads for the younger audience, yet superheroes share the same mythic “deformity” in trying to implement magic realism to the fact-oriented adult culture bereft of the natural affinity towards open-mindedness and imagination of the younger generations … It’s nice to day daydream, but reality tends to slap you upside the head, if you’re not careful.
The relationship between myth and folktale is a fascinating account that requires future in-depth study, since it extends many a generation and spreads through various cultures. Such an analysis is bit too extensive, but I can briefly touch upon a story that may be the purest example of the separation of the mythic boundaries and emersion into the folktale tradition; namely, the Roman story of Cupid (the Greek Eros) and Psyche, originally found in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass. (I suggest you read the story for yourself, otherwise the following analysis could be a bit dreary.)
Forbidden love in a common romantic motif that has been glorified and dispersed through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (Ol’ Will’s mythic underbelly is a story in itself.). The mythic core of the story in centered round the beauty of Psyche (a clear violation of the Hellenic “nothing in excess” criteria), Cupid’s love for the mortal girl (against his mother’s wishes in a typical Greek dynastic struggle) and Venus’ jealousy of her, because of which Psyche undergoes three Heraclean tasks and achieves immortality (an honor bestowed to only few morals). The folktale elements include positioning Venus as the wicked stepmother, attempting to trick and destroy her self-imposed younger foe, Psyche’s three jealous sisters, her succumbing to their will, her despair over seemingly impossible tasks and (magic) helpers rooted in the natural world, plus Cupid’s beseeching of Jupiter to overstep his bounds and not only reversing Psyche’s punishment after again succumbing to temptation but granting her immortality.
Despite the fact that Zeus was the most powerful Greek god, the Hellenic gods had power over particular areas and did not meddle in each other’s affairs. Further, certain rules, such as oaths and promises were considered universal and unbreakable. Roman adaptation of such notions follows suit, in this case in Jupiter, the Roman Zeus. Jupiter’s imposition and seemingly excessive use of power for the sake of love (which was virtually nonexistent in the divine Hellenic world that the Romans have adopted) and marginalization of Venus (a prime Roman goddess) seems to suggest either some Christian influence or a less serious treatment of the “old” gods.
Typically, the story places in the limelight the union of opposites that reflects the relationship between myth and folktale, soul and love, sacred and profane. A very unsympathetic reading of the story, however, sees Psyche earning everything by not only doing anything remotely worthy, but despite repeatedly failing on her “heroic quest”. Beauty, her main attribute, is held in the highest regard, while her self-perceived distress marks her as the poster child for the over-romanticized damsels in distress. On the other hand, Cupid’s unwavering love for the mortal girl is self-imposed and relates more to his own desire to break free from his overbearing mother, the divine wedding serving as the final nail in the coffin of Venus’ “vampiric love” for her son.
If the story has a moral, the combination of the passive waiting for prince charming and mistrust in him, are not on the list. The only rational explanation of the overabundance of good fortune for Psyche lies in her name – meaning soul. If the soul is immortal and eternal, its place is among the gods; however, the realization of this seemingly farcical heroic journey opens another possibility and begs the question of whether or not the soul as such transcends both the mortal and the divine. The eastern notion of the divine breath revolves around the celestial exchange and the cycle of life. However, if mortal beauty becomes sublime, the gods are no longer needed, since their divine presence resides in the human. The heroic journey becomes a mere means of experiencing one’s life; however, it is this very life cycle that can inevitably lead to immortality through one’s deeds and through art. Subtly, this story moves more towards this direction, since the Roman culture (through which the Greek myth emerges) had a more pragmatic nature, while the aspect of metamorphosis in Apuleius’ storytelling (akin to Ovid’s) embraces political and satirical tones as well.
This heavily abridged analysis of the story of Cupid and Psyche marks a clear shift from traditional Hellenic myths, whose charge was more cultural than political. While transformations were common in Greek myths as well (cf. Apollodorus), the main distinction of the story in question is not so much rooted in the Greco-Roman syncretism but in the emergence of a new genre that will forgo the gods as a supernatural backdrop for a more nature and magic based folklore elements. In either case, the heroic quest remains essentially the same, since its archetypal roots do not merely grasp the subject matter as its own source of imaginative power, but are in fact part of the human condition called life – the proverbial immortal state of constant change.
Apollodorus. (2008). The Library of Greek Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Apuleius. (1999). The Golden Ass. London: Penguin Classics.
Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Commemorative ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Foley, R., & Banerjee, S. (2009). Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche. New Delhi: Campfire.
Ford, C. (2000). The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. London: Bantam Press.
Thury, E., & Devinney, M. (2009). Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vandiver, E. (1991). Heroes in Herodotus: The Interaction of Myth and History. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Publishing.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …