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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Myth, Folklore and Society by Mariam Karim

Myth, Folklore and Society by Mariam Karim

In an increasingly ‘rational’ world, myth and folklore are seen to be pertinent only in the dominion of religion and in schoolbooks. In Greek society with the arrival of new religions the credibility of the old myths and Gods and Goddesses was diminished and they have been accorded the status of beloved fairy tales. In a country like India religion and mythology are closely interlinked even today and each region has its own myths and beliefs that form an integral part of the cultural, social and even political life of a people. Tales everywhere are considered to play a very important role in the development and sustaining of cultures. The well known writer of folktales and raconteur, Henri Gougaud, says folktales help one to ‘become oneself ‘and to live. It  is interesting also to note that psychologists and theorists of sociocultural evolution maintain that folk and fairy tales, and now our modern folklore of cinema and television help us define our own values and guide us in taking life’s major decisions, especially those pertaining to our emotions. Jungian psychology would explain this through the creation of unconscious psychological patterns or mental archetypes.

The folk tale and often the myth are structured entities and follow a set recognizable path from beginning to end, a typical pattern, for the story to arrive at its culmination. It is significant that the narration and the configuration of the tale are so structured that certain value systems are upheld or critiqued.

According to the Functional Model of the analysis of folk and fairy tales proposed by structuralist Vladimir Propp, there are certain “constants” in a tale and each of these has a “function”. For example the hero, the villain, the danger, the trial etc. The intrigue takes place around the key characters or actors – the hero, the quest, the person who sends the hero on the quest (a person or the desire for a person), the magical supplementary, the adjuvant and so on.

Semiotics theorist A J Greimas’ premise is that the characters take on what he calls an abstract quality, and are no longer concrete actors, but “actants”. At the deepest level, he postulates, under the narrative structures can be found discursive structures, where the opposition or conflict between actants constitutes symbolic oppositions such as life/death, sexuality, power, good/evil etc. (This gives us an insight into the ‘moral’ implication of these tales and the sustaining of values and cultures through them).

One can briefly understand the “actancial” model of Greimas’ analysis in this manner:
  1. Plane of manifestation: STORY
  2. Plane of immanence:
NARRATION-- Narrative structures
SYMBOLISM-- Discursive structures

It is interesting to note the distinction he makes between Story and Narration.

The morphology of the tale, as we can see, takes the typical path in which the dénouement reveals certain truths which allow the reinforcing of particular cultural values. Feminist critique of tales, generally at the discursive level, where the female protagonist or sometimes the sender on the quest is imprisoned by an evil ogre or djinn or witch, and is rescued by the male protagonist, is that they reinforce patriarchal values. The male protagonist has to often kill someone or destroy something in order to succeed in his quest. Cruelty is a male value which is lauded and propagated and is required to prove virility.  (Sometimes Gods replace men: Krishna is frequently seen as a saviour of hapless women following from the rescue of Draupadi at the chirharan scene in the Mahabharata).

Folkloric tales were often oral in nature. Even when translated, like the Panchatantra or the Jataka Tales, their original oral nature can be detected in the many repetitions, which are valuable in creating rhythm and cadence as well as building up suspense while telling a tale aloud. Frequently recurring phrases and motifs were also used in this view. (The onomatopoeic content of the repetitions, however, is likely to be lost in translation). Anthropologists often see, in the recurrent motifs in folk and fairy tales, a way of tracing human migrations and exchanges over centuries. Stories change, names change as they travel from culture to culture but the basic motifs frequently remain, from Norse tales to Deccan tales to African. For example it is fascinating to note that the motif of a bird/animal housing a soul can be found in tales all over the world. The belief in the “external” soul stowed away for safety, populates tales across cultures. Another example is that of the number “seven”, significant in many cultures (seven chakras, seventh heaven, seven seas, seven deadly sins, seven tenets of Islam). Ancient religions also adopted this number: the Egyptians had seven gods, Parsees seven angels, Persians seven sacred horses, and Phoenicians seven mysterious kabiris gods.

Cultural evolution theorists E. B. Tylor and Andrew Lang, however, put forward a theory of ‘parallelism’, and ‘psychic unity’, arguing that ‘several cultural elements evolve in parallel and almost simultaneously in different societies’.

Cinema and television serials, our contemporary tales, also reinforce particular values, which have their base in pre-existing values but have evolved and transformed, integrating global values in an increasingly shrinking world where ‘psychic unity’ is a more believable notion.  Their influence cannot be underestimated. Currently they are helping build into society unconscious psychic dispositions and mental archetypes which may be very difficult to break out of. The shape the world takes on may be due to the unconscious influence of stories we hear on a daily basis, the path they take, and their endings.

  1. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. 1976.
  2. CILF. Clés pour le conte africain et créole. 1986.
  3. Greimas A.J. Sémantique Structurale. 1966.
  4. Propp,Vladimir. Morphologie du conte 1928. Seuil, 1970.
Author’s Bio: Mariam Karim-Ahlawat, a pedagogue of French Language and Literature, a freelance editor, and a writer of fiction for children and adults, was born in Lucknow and educated at the JNU New Delhi and the Sorbonne in Paris.

Her first novel My Little Boat (Penguin India 2003) was nominated for the IMPAC International Award 2005 and the Hutch Crossword Award, second novel The Bereavement of Agnes Desmoulins, longlisted for the Man Asian Prize 2009.

Her first play The Betrayal of Selvamary shortlisted for the Hindu Metro Plus Playwright Award 2010, (and will be performed by Pierrot’s Troupe Delhi), her second play Fractals Search for the Real longlisted for the Hindu Metro Plus Playwright Award 2011.

My children’s musical about street children A Bagful of Dreams will soon be performed in Delhi, produced by Mr. Arun Kapur with music by well known author and musician Peggy Mohan. She has contributed short stories to anthologies such the Siècle 21 (Paris), South Asian Review (University  of Pittsburgh) and Our Voice, the PEN International Women Writers Anthology.

She published her first book of folk and fairy tales for children in 1994 Tales Old and New Harper Collins India. Since then she has published a number of children’s books (Tulika Publishers, Chennai) and contributed to anthologies. These are available in several Indian languages.

She also contributes her writings to different journals, such as the Times of India Pluses, Illuminati (an online Indian journal) and three of her books for children figure among the Best Twenty Reads for World Environment Day on Young India Books.

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