Cultural Universals? Folktales, Animals, and the Human Search for Origins

Session Date: 
May 19, 2023

For more than a century, folklorists have indexed a vast number of the world’s folkloric narratives according to varying structures (i.e. tale types) and to discrete elements (i.e. motifs) that commonly appear across cultures. This talk will introduce and analyze several examples of motifs indexed in folklorist Stith Thompson’s system as, "A1200 — A1699. Creation and ordering of human life” and “A1700 — A1799. Creation of animal life.” I will highlight certain narratives that feature stories of human and animal origins, such as a folktale from northern India in which a creator makes humans out of butter only to have the butter melt (A1226.1.), a Finnish folktale in which gulls were first formed from a cat that had been brought to the middle of the ocean on the back of a fish (A1945.1.), tales from Native American communities in which humans are descended from a marriage between a human being and an animal (A1224.0.1.), and a folktale from southwest China in which men are monkeys who have lost their tails (A1224.5.).

Ultimately, I ask whether stories about origins (human origins or otherwise) might constitute a genuine cultural universal? And if so, what might the folkloric representations of human origins say about a contemporary science of anthropogeny?

File 2023_05_19_03_Barker.mp4214.7 MB