George Laurence Gomme.

Ethnology in folklore online

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SIR JOHN- Lubbock'










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BOOK 398.3.G58 c. 1


3 T1S3 0D1EM350 E


fIDobern Science Series




Edited hy Sir JOHN LUBBOCK, Bart, M. P.

I. The Cause of an Ice Age.

By Sir Robert Ball, LL. D., F. R. S.,
Royal Astronomer of Ireland.

II. The Horse :

A Study in Natural History.
By William Henry Flower, C. B.,
Director of the British Natural
History Museum.

m. The Oak:

A Popular Introduction to Forest
By H. Marshall Ward, F. R. S.

IV. Ethnology in Folklore.

By George Lawrence Gomme, F. R. S,,
President of the Folklore Society,
{Others in preparation.)

New York : D. Appleton & Co., 1,3, & 5 Bond St.









bt d. appleton and company.

All rights reserved.

Electbotyped and Printed
AT THE Applbton Pbbss, U. S. A.


I HAVE sought in this book to ascertain and set
forth the principles upon which folklore may be classi-
fied, in order to arrive at some of the results which
should follow from its study. That it contains ethno-
logical elements might be expected by all who have
paid any attention to recent research, but no attempt
has hitherto been made to set these elements down cate-
gorically and to examine the conclusions which are to
be drawn from them.

It is due to the large and increasing band of folklore
devotees that the uses of folklore should be brought for-
ward. The scoffer at these studies is apt to have it all
his own way so long as the bulk of the books published
on folklore contain nothing but collected examples of
tales, customs, and superstitions, arranged for no pur-
pose but that of putting the facts pleasantly before
readers. But, more than this, recent research tends
to show the increasing importance of bringing into
proper order, within reasonable time, all the evidence
that is available from different sources upon any given
subject of inquiry. Looked at in this light, ethnology


has great claims upon the student. The science of
culture has almost refused to deal with it, and has been
content with noting only a few landmarks which occur
here and there along the lines of development traceable
in the elements of human culture. But the science of
history has of late been busy with many problems of
ethnological importance, and has for this purpose
turned sometimes to craniology, sometimes to archae-
ology, sometimes to philology, but rarely to folklore.
If folklore, then, does contain ethnological facts, it
is time that they should be disclosed, and that the
method of discovering them should be placed before

Of course, my attempt in this direction must not be
looked upon in any sense as an exhaustive treatment of
the subject, and I am not vain enough to expect that
all my conclusions will be accepted. I believe that the
time has come when every item of folklore should be
docketed and put into its proper place, and I hope I
have done something toward this end in the following
pages. "When complete classification is attempted some
of the items of folklore will be found useless enough.
But most of them will help us to understand more of
the development of thought than any other subject ;
and many of them will, if my reading of the evidence
is correct, take us back, not only to stages in the history
of human thought, but to the people who have yielded
up the struggle of their minds to the modern student of
man and his strivings.


At the risk of crowding the pages with footnotes, I
have been careful to give references to all my authorities
for items of folklore, because so much dei^ends upon the
value of the authority used in these studies. I believe
they are all quoted accurately, but shall always be glad
to know of any corrections or additions.

Professor Rhys has kindly read through my proofs,
and I am very grateful for the considerable service he
has thereby rendered me.

Baenes Common, S. W., March, 1892.



I.— Survival and Development 1

II.— Ethnic Elements in Custom and Ritual . . 21

III. — The Mythic Influences of a Conquered Race . 41

IV. — The Localization of Primitive Belief . . .67

V. — The Ethnic Genealogy of Folklore . . . 110

VI. — The Continuation of Races 175

Index 197




There has grown up of late years a subject of in-
quiry — first antiquarian merely, and now scientific — into
the peasant and local elements in modern culture, and
this subject has not inaptly been termed " folklore." Al-
most always at the commencement of a new study much
is done by eager votaries which has to be undone as soon
as settled work is undertaken, and it happens, I think,
that because the elements of folklore are so humble and
unpretentious, because they have to be sought for in the
peasant's cottage or fields, in the children's nursery, or
from the lips of old gaffers and gammers, that unusual
difficulties have beset the student of folklore. Not only
has he to undo any futile work that stands in the way
of his special inquiry, but he has to attempt the re-
building of his edifice in face of contrasts frequently
drawn between the elements which make up his subject
and those supposed more dignified elements with which
the historian, the archaeologist, and the philologist have
to deal.


The essential characteristic of folklore is that it
consists of beliefs, customs, and traditions which are far
behind civilization in their intrinsic value to man,
though they exist under the cover of a civilized
nationality. This estimate of the position of folklore
with reference to civilization suggests that its con-
stituent elements are survivals of a condition of human
thought more backward, and therefore more ancient,
than that in which they are discovered.

Except to the students of anthropology, the fact of
the existence of survivals of older culture in our midst
is not readily grasped or understood. Historians have
been so engrossed with the political and commercial
progress of nations that it is not easy to determine
what room they would make in the world for the non-
progressive portion of the population. And yet the
history of every country must begin with the races who
have occupied it. Almost everywhere in Europe there
are traces, in some form or other, of a powerful race of
people, unknown in modern history, who have left
material remains of their culture to later ages. The
Celts have written their history on the map of Europe
in a scarcely less marked manner than the Teutons,
and we still talk of Celtic countries and Teutonic
countries. On the other hand, Greek and Koman
civilizations have in some countries and some districts
an almost unbroken record, in spite of much modifi-
cation and development. With such an amalgam in
the background, historians have scarcely ever failed to


draw the picture of European civilization in deep col-
ors, tinted according to their bias in favor of a Celtic, or
Teutonic, or classical origin. But the picture of un-
ci vilization within the same area has not been drawn.
The story always is of the advanced part of nations,"^
though eyen here it occurs to me that very frequently
the terminology is still more in advance of the facts, so
that while every one has heard a great deal of the con-
ditions of civilization, very few people have any adequate
idea of the unadvanced lines of European life.

It will be seen that I accentuate the contrast between
civilization and uncivilization within the same area, and
the purpose of this accentuation will be seen when the
significant difference in origin is pointed out.

Dr. Tylor states that the elevation of some branches
of a race over the rest more often happens as the result
of foreign than of native action. " Civilization is a
plant much oftener propagated than developed," he
says.f How true this remark is will be recognized by
any one familiar with the main outlines of the history of
civilization, ancient or modern. An axiom formulated
by Sir Arthur Mitchell that " no man in isolation
can become civilized," may be extended to societies.
Whether in the case of Roman, Greek, Assyrian, Egyp-
tian, or even Chinese civilization, a point has always

* Some confirmation of this from classical history was pointed
out by Dr. Beddoe in his address to the Anthrop. Inst, (see Journal^
XX, 355).

f Primitive Culture, i, 48.


been readied at which scholars have had to turn their
attention from the land where these civilizations were
consummated to some other land or people, whose in-
fluence in building them up is detected in considerable
force. And so it is in the Western world. There are
few scholars now who advocate the theory of an ad-
vanced Celtic or Teutonic civilization. Koman law,
Greek philosophy and art, and Christian religion and
ethics have combined in producing a civilization which is
essentially foreign to the soil whereon it now flourishes.
But with uncivilization the case is very different.
Arrested by forces which we can not but identify with
the civilizations which have at various times swept over
it, it seems imbedded in the soil where it was first trans-
planted, and has no power or chance of fresh propaga-
tion. There is absolutely no evidence, in spite of alle-
gations to the contrary, of the introduction of uncivil-
ized culture into countries already in possession of a
higher culture. And yet it is found everywhere and is
kept alive by the sanction of tradition — the traditional
observance of what has always been observed, simply be-
cause it has always been observed. Thus, after the law
of the land has been complied with and the marriage
knot has been effectually tied, traditional custom im-
poses certain rites which may without exaggeration
be styled irrational, rude, and barbarous. After the
Church has conducted to its last resting-place the corpse
of the departed, traditional belief necessitates the per-
formance of some magic rite which may with propriety


be considered not only rude, but savage. Underneath
the law and the Church, therefore, the emblems of the
foreign civilization, lie the traditional custom and be-
lief, the attributes of the native uncivilization. And
the native answer to any inquiry as to why these irra-
tional elements exist is invariably the same — " They are
obliged to do it for antiquity or custom's sake " ; * they
do it because they believe in it, " as things that had been
and were real, and not as creations of the fancy or old-
wives' tales and babble." Even after real belief has
passed aAvay the habit continues ; there is " a sort of use
and wont in it which, though in a certain sense honored
in its observance, it is felt, in some sort of indirect, un-
meditated, unvolitional sort of way, would not be dis-
honored in the breach." f

The significant answer of the peasant, when ques-
tioned as to the cause of his observing rude and irra-
tional customs, of entertaining strange and uncouth be-
liefs, marks a very important characteristic of what has
been so conveniently termed folklore. All that the
peasantry practice, believe, and relate on the strength
of immemorial custom sanctioned by unbroken sueces-

* Buchan's St. Kilda, p. 35. Mr. Atkinson gives much the
same testimony of Yorkshire. Inquiring as to a usage practiced
on a farm, the answer was : " Ay, there's many as dis it yet. My
au'd father did it. But it's sae many years syne it must be about
wore out by now, and I shall have to dee it again." — Forty Years
in a 3Ioorland Parish, p. 62. Miss Gordon Cumming's example
of the force of custom in her book on the Hebrides is very amus-
ing (p. 209).

f Atkinson, op. cit., pp. C3, 72.


sion from one generation to another, has a value of
peculiar significance so soon as it is perceived that the
genealogy of each custom, belief, or legend in nearly all
cases goes back for its commencing point to some fact
in the history of the people which has escaped the no-
tice of the historian. Ko act of legislation, no known
factor in the records of history, can be pointed to as the
origin of the practices, beliefs, and traditions of the
peasantry, which exist in such great abundance. They
are dateless and j^arentless when reckoned by the facts
of civilization. They are treasured and reverenced, kept
secret from Church, law, and legislation, handed down
by tradition, when reckoned by the facts of peasant life.
That these dateless elements in the national culture are
also very frequently rude, irrational, and senseless only
adds to the significance of their existence and to the
necessity of some adequate explanation of that existence
being supplied.

No one w^ould pretend that modern civilization con-
sciously admits within its bounds practices and beliefs
like those enshrined in folklore, and few will argue that
modern civilization is an evolution in direct line from
such rude originals. The theory that best meets the
case is that they are to be identified with the rude cult-
ure of ancient Europe, which has been swept over by
weaves of higher culture from foreign sources, that
nearly everywhere the rude culture has succumbed to
the force of these waves, but has nevertheless here and
there stood firm.


Now, these being the conditions under which the
survivals of ancient customs and beliefs exist, we have
to note that they can not by any possibility develop.
Having been arrested in their progress by some outside
force, their development ceases. They continue, gener-
ation after generation, either in a state of absolute crys-
tallization, or they decay and split up into fragments ;
they become degraded into mere symbolism or whittled
down into mere superstition ; they drop back from a
position of general use or observance by a whole com-
munity into the personal observance of some few indi-
viduals, or of a class ; they cease to affect the general
conduct of the people, and become isolated and secret.
Thus in folklore there is no development from one stage
of culture to a higher one.

These considerations serve to show how distinctly
folklore is marked off from the political and social sur-
roundings in which it is imbedded, and all questions as
to its origin must therefore be a specific inquiry dealing
with all the facts. The answer of the peasant already
given shows the road which must be taken for such a
purpose. We must travel back from generation to gen-
eration of peasant life until a stage is reached where
isolated beliefs and customs of the peasantry of to-day
are found to occupy a foremost place in tribal or na-
tional custom. To do this, the aid of comparative cus-
tom and belief must be invoked. As Mr. Lang has so
well expressed it : " When an apparently irrational and

anomalous custom is found in any country, the method


is to look for a country where a similar practice is no
longer irrational or anomalous, but in harmony with
the manners and ideas of the people among whom it
prevails." * Here, then, will be found the true meaning
of customs and beliefs which exist uselessly in the midst
of civilization. Their relationship to other customs and
beliefs at a similar level of culture will also be ascer-
tained. "When we subtract any particular custom of an
uncivilized people from the general body of its asso-
ciated customs, in order to compare it with a similar
custom existing in isolated form in civilization, we are
careful to note what other customs exist side by side
with it in corelationship. These are its natural adhe-
sions, so to speak, and by following them out we may
also discover natural adhesions in folklore. But this is
not all. The work of comparison having been accom-
plished with reference to the group of customs and be-
liefs in natural adhesion to each other, there will be
found in folklore a large residuum of manifest incon-
sistencies. I am inclined to lay considerable stress upon
these inconsistencies in folklore. They have been noted
frequently enough, but have not been adequately ex-
plained. They have been set down to the curious twist-
ings of the human mind when indulging in mythic
thought. But I shall have another explanation to give,
which will rest upon the facts of ethnology.

Is it true, then, that the process of comparison be-

* Custom and 3Iyth, p. 21.


tween the elements of folklore and the customs and
beliefs of uncivilized or savage people can be carried
out to any considerable extent, or is it limited to a few
isolated and exceptional examples ? It is obvious that
this question is a vital one. It will be partly answered
in the following pages ; but in the mean time it may be
pointed out that although anthropologists, have very sel-
dom penetrated far into , the realms of folklore, they
have frequently noted that the beliefs and customs of
savages find a close parallel among peasant beliefs and
practices in Europe. More than once in the pages of
Dr. Tylor, Sir John Lubbock, Mr. McLennan, and
others, it is to be observed that the author turns aside
from the consideration of the savage phenomena he is
dealing with to draw attention to the close resemblance
which they bear to some fragments of folklore — "the
series ends as usual in the folklore of the civilized
world " are Dr. Tylor's expressive words.*

I do not want to lay too much stress upon words
which may, perhaps, be considered by some to have
been only a happy literary expression for interpreting
an isolated group of facts immediately under the notice
of the author. But that they are not to be so consid-
ered, and that they convey a real condition of things in
the science of culture, may be tested by an examination
of Dr. Tylor's work, and I set them forth in order to fix
upon them as one of the most important axioms in folk-

* Primitive Culture, i, 407.


lore research. This axiom must, indeed, be constantly
borne in mind as we wend our w^ay through the various
items of folklore in the following pages, and it will help
to illustrate how much need there is to establish once
and for all wdiat place the several groups of folklore oc-
cupy in the culture series.

This way of expressing the relationship between sav-
age culture and folklore suggests many important con-
siderations when applied to a particular area. If peasant
culture and savage culture are now at many points in
close contact, how far may we go back to find the begin-
ning of that contact ? Must we not dig down beneath
each stratum of overling higher culture and remove all
the superincumbent mass before we can arrive at the
original layer ? There seems to be no other course open.
The forces that keep certain beliefs and ideas of man in
civilized countries within the recognizable limits of sav-
age culture, and continue them iu this state generation
after generation, can not be derived from the nature of
individual men or women, or the results would be less
systematic and evenly distributed, and would be liable
to disappear and reappear according to circumstances.
They must, therefore, act collectively, and must form
an essential part of the beliefs and ideas which they

I do not know whether my use of the terms of geol-
ogy in the attempt to state the position of folklore in
relationship to the higher cultures is unduly suggestive,
but it undoubtedly puts before the inquirer into the


origins of folklore the suggestion that the unnamed
forces which are so obviously present must" to a very
great extent be identical with race. It can not be that
the fragments of rude and irrational practices in civil-
ized countries arise from the poor and peasant class hav-
ing been in the habit of constantly borrowing the prac-
tices and ideas of savages, because, among other reasons
against such a theory, this borrowed culture must to a
corresponding degree have displaced the practices and
ideas of civilization. All the evidence goes to prove
that the peasantry have inherited rude^nd irrational
practices and ideas from savage predecessors — practices
and ideas which have never been displaced by civiliza-
tion. To deal adequately with these survivals is the ac-
cepted province of the science of folklore, and it must
therefore account for their existence, must point out the
causes for their arrested development and the causes for
their long continuance in a state of crystallization or
degradation after the stoppage has been effected. And
I put it that these requirements can only be met by an
hypothesis which directly appeals to the racial elements
in the population. There is first the arresting force,
identified with the higher culture sweeping over the
lower ; there is then the continuing force, identified
with the lower culture.

Let us see how this works out. The most important
fact to note in the examination of each fragment of
folklore is the point of arrested development. Has the
custom or belief, surviving by the side of much higher



culture, been arrested in its development while it was
simply a savage custom or belief ; when it was a barbaric
custom or belief at a higher level than savagery ; when
it was a national custom or belief discarded by the gov-
erning class and obtaining locally ?

Translating these factors in the characteristics of
each item of folklore into terms of ethnology, it appears
that we have at all events sufficient data for considering
custom or belief which survives in the savage form as of
different ethnic origin from custom or belief which sur-
vives in higher forms.

But if the incoming civilizations flowing over lower
levels of culture in any given area have been many,
there will be as many stages of arrestment in the folk-
lore of that area, and in so far as each incoming civili-
zation represents an ethnic distinction, the different
stages of survival in folklore would also represent an
ethnic distinction.

The incoming civilizations in modern Europe are
not all ethnic, as the most impressive has been Chris-
tianity. It is impossible for the most casual reader
to have left unnoticed the frequent evidence which is
afforded of folklore being older than Christianity— hav-
ing, in fact, been arrested in its development by Chris-
tianity. But at the back of Christianity the incoming
civilizations have been true ethnic distinctions, Scandi-
navian, Teutonic, Roman, Celtic, overflowing each other,
and all of them superimposed upon the original unciv-
ilization of the prehistoric races of non- Aryan stock.


It appears to me that the clash of these races is still
represented in folklore. It is not possible at the com-
mencement of studies like the present to unravel all the
various elements, and particularly is it impossible with
our present knowledge to discriminate to any great ex-
tent between the several branches of the Aryan race.*
The biography of each item of Ar3^an custom and be-
lief has not been examined into like the biography of
each word of the Aryan tongue. This will have to be
done before the work of the comparative sciences has
been completed. But even with our limited knowledge
of Aryan culture, it does seem possible to mark in folk-
lore traces of an arrested development at the point of
savagery, side by side with a further development which
has not been arrested until well within the area of
Aryan culture.

This dual element in folklore, represented by a series
of well-marked inconsistencies in peasant custom and
belief, proves that the stages of development at which
the several items of folklore have been arrested are not
at the same level ; and they could not therefore have
been produced by one arresting power. Thus the con-
flict between paganism and Christianity is so obviously

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Online LibraryGeorge Laurence GommeEthnology in folklore → online text (page 1 of 15)