Folklore: Native Americans and Puritans

The folklore course that I hope to teach in the spring is split into two parts. In the first part, after I define folklore (which could be an entire course by itself!), I focus on types of folklore and their appearance in literature. The second part of the course looks at how folklore is interpreted and reinterpreted.

When it comes to organizing material, I'm a big fan of the historical approach. This is difficult with folklore since tales exist in one time, disappear, then crop up in another time. Nevertheless, when teaching American-anything, it is always a good idea to start with Native Americans and Puritans.


Regarding Native American myth and legends, I stuck to New England tribes: the Penobscot, Algonquian, and Pequod, for example.

A great deal of Native American folklore was not taken down until the 1800s or later--consequently, using Native American folklore for "historical" purposes is fraught with problems. Nevertheless, I discovered several folktales that I plan to also use in my Working Women course.

"Corn Mother," for example, stresses the importance of corn to many Native American tribes and the connection between corn and women's work. In "Corn Mother," the human-goddess First Mother sacrifices herself, so corn can grow, thereby saving her family and their descendants.

Other tales, like "Big Eater's Wife" (which is also very funny), stress the importance of a woman's grinding tools: her mortar and pestle. This connection of women to food preparation tools is a general motif in older folktales and myths. In Good Wives, Laurel Ulrich points out the importance of basic kitchen tools to Puritan women: a family's wealth was determined by their kitchen pot. When survival becomes a community's main concern, access to food becomes a source of power (just watch Survivor or Big Brother).

Like most folklore, Native American folklore also includes trickster tales. In many such tales, Coyote appears as a dangerous trickster; in others, the trickster is "Glooscap" who seems to be less dangerous than Coyote but still respected. From my reading, "Glooscap"'s character seems to be a combination of Hermes, Loki, and Br'er Rabbit.

For a decent collection of Native American myths and legends (with source notes!), I recommend American Indian Myths and Legends, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz.

Native American myth and lore in literature: Contemporary Native American poets include Suzanne Rancourt and Cheryl Savageau. Both writers use mythical imagery in their poems. Also, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about The Old Man in the Mountain, a supposed Indian legend about an Abenaki chief waiting for his Mohawk wife to return, but there's no evidence that the tale originated amongst Indian tribes; more likely, Hawthorne made the whole thing up!

Speaking of Nathaniel Hawthorne . . .

The Puritans also had folklore. Oddly enough, they did not bring over beliefs in elves and fairies from England, but they did bring over beliefs in magic. Basically, Puritan folklore falls into three categories:
Magic (Witches)
I'm going to deal with religious folklore in this post.

What is "religious folklore"?

In (most) religions, there is a core theology. That theology is official--preached on Sunday, printed and discussed in manuals, textbooks, dissertations, etc. Religious folklore is what members tell each other about the theology/day-to-day practice of religion. The Puritans had tons of it.

We know about Puritan folklore mostly due to Increase Mather. The Mathers were the radio-talk-show hosts of their day, and Increase Mather really should be commended for collecting verbal accounts of folklore in true radio-talk-show host fashion. He may have had an agenda (what Mather didn't?) but in his collections (which he does not refer to as folklore), he bothered to distinguish between word-by-word accounts versus summarized accounts versus "I heard that someone said that" accounts. Pretty amazing!

The tales that come under "religious folklore" have to do with tales of providence and tales of judgment--basically, tales of good people who are rescued fortuitously from natural disasters, boat wrecks, and having their brains busted out of their skulls versus bad people who are struck by lightening, lose their sight, and have other hideous things happen to them.

These tales are staples in religious and pseudo-religious cultures (I had to throw "pseudo" in there for all the environmentalists who started saying that Katrina was a judgment for America's bad environmental practices--talk about starting a myth!) although while I was reading Increase Mather's tales, I kept thinking of those shows which focus on animals who providentially save their owners--there isn't a direct religious connection, but it's the same idea.

To be fair (to me), there isn't always an religious connection in Mather's tales either; he really gets excited about the kid with the brain problem: "[The surgeon] gently drove the soft matter of the bunch into the wound and pressed so much out as well he could; there come forth about a spoonful; the matter which come forth was brains and blood (some curdles of brain were white and not stained with blood): so did he apply a plaister . . . This child lived to be the mother of two children; and (which is marvellous) she was not by this wound made defective in her memory or understanding."

I can't close this section without referring also to religious folkways. Religious folkways, like religious folklore, grow up around the day-to-day (month-to-month) practice of a religion. A good example of a religious folkway occurred recently in my congregation (recently, as in June).

The young children usually sing a song for the entire congregation on Mother's Day and Father's Day. When I say "usually," I mean "usually for those of us who grew up in the church." However, the head of our children's organization did not grow up in the church--she's been a member approximately seven years. She was completely taken-aback by the whole singing thing. Witnessing her reaction was a real eye-opener to me; I suppose if anyone had asked me, I would have said, "Yeah, it's a folkway" (it certainly isn't proscribed), but I had never really thought about it. Talk about a custom being perpetuated simply on the basis of expectation! I supported her not going through with it (can't throw things, even customs, at people's heads at the last minute), but she ended up agreeing (to be honest, nobody really cares about the singing; they just want the kids to stand up and look cute).

Puritan folklore in literature: Anne Bradstreet's poetry ("Deliverance from a Fit of Fainting" and "Deliverance from Another Sore Fit") and, of course, Hawthorne. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne particularly relies on the lore of "omens" as indications of providence or judgment.

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