origin stories


origin stories
   For centuries, there have been folktales which set out to explain how a custom began, why a *place-name was given, how some feature of the landscape was formed, why an animal, bird, or plant has certain characteristics. They not only explain, but, in many cases, supply a justification by reference to a prestigious authority or a notable past event, the more impressive the better. Examples from the religious sphere include legends claiming topographical features resulted from a saint's act or a *judgement on sinners (see *wells, *trees, *standing stones, *Semerwater); pious stories linking animals or birds with Jesus (see *donkey, *owl, *robin); customs validated by a link with the Christian calendar (see burning *Judas, *catterning, *souling).
   Secular stories to account for local customs are fascinatingly varied, some containing a fair degree of historical accuracy, while others are colourful pseudo-history, or even jokes. Several events were allegedly founded by a noble medieval benefactress (see *bread and cheese dole, *Haxey Hood Game, *Tichborne dole); some supposedly celebrated a victory, for example catching a traitor (*Hunting the Earl of Rone), foiling French invaders (*Pad-stow), or simply outwitting a rival village (*Painswick). Street *football in several places was said to have originated in kicking an enemy's head - a Scotsman's at Alnwick (Northumberland), a Dane's at Chester. People giving money to a *Jack-in-the-Green were following the precedent of 'a lady who found her long-lost son as a sweep, and then she gave a celebration each year' (Judge, 1979: 45-51). Tinsley Green claims its *marbles championship began when two Elizabethan gentlemen, rivals in love, staked the lady's hand on a marbles match.
   Besides these tales, which arise from within folk tradition, there are origin theories which were initially proposed by intellectual observers, but now permeate popular culture. One type claims a 'historical core of fact' underlying a fantastic or nonsensical item: for example, a dragon legend is 'really' a memory of Viking attacks, a nursery rhyme is 'really' about the Plague. The other is *Frazer's theory that folk customs are survivals of *fertility cults. Performers, press, and public now largely ignore individual origin tales in favour of a single all-purpose explanation: it is prehistoric and *pagan (preferably *Celtic), and whatever it may look like now, it was 'really, originally' a fertility ritual. Thus origin tales, like other aspects of folklore, evolve to reflect current tastes.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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