Everyone participates in the reading of legends, myths, or folklore at some point in their lives. Who hasn’t read Greek mythology in school, or the folklore of Paul Bunyan, or tall tales of famous, real people like Calamity Jane or Johnny Appleseed? And what about urban legends? Urban legends are myths told in modern society, in cities or online, unlike many of the old tales set in the countryside. Even now, these get passed around in emails or are posted on the Internet—stories about the serial killer with the knife hanging around Lover’s Lane, Bloody Mary, the terrible smell under the bed in a hotel room or even the computer virus story that may have been true three years ago, but is still sent out as a warning.
A legend (Latin, legenda, "things to be read") is a narrative of human actions told about someone that existed in reality, once upon a time, but the true events have been twisted, making them more fascinating. Legend includes no happenings that are outside the realm of "possibility,” defined by a highly flexible set of parameters. These may include miracles that are perceived as actually having happened. There is the specific tradition of indoctrination where the legend arose, and in which the tale may be transformed over time, in order to keep it fresh, vital, and realistic. It is kinda like that game you played with your classmates in school, where you whisper to the next person a story, and by the time it comes full circle, that story has changed drastically from what it began as.
A myth is a sacred or traditional story that concerns the origins of the world or how the world and the creatures in it came to be in their present form. Myths serves to unfold a part of the world view of a people, or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. Parables and allegories are myths. Nothing is supposed to be real about it at all, even if someone mentioned in the story is a real person, like some famous Virginians in this book. There are stories told about their habits or life that are not true.
Folklore is the traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of a people, transmitted orally. It is popular, but unfounded beliefs. Or, as Merriam-Webster says: “traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people.”
The flavor of people and their culture, all interwove with day to day life when settlers came to the New World. They brought with them their folk tales and beliefs, and founded new ones in the new country. Some old stories mutated into different ones. There were older tales told by the Native Americans who were already living in Virginia before the white man came. Then, when slaves were brought to the New World, they brought with them tales from Africa and changed them, molding them to fit their new home.
Today, in modern times, we continue this with urban legends. Who hasn’t heard of the killer with the hook in lover’s lane? Or who hasn’t said, “Bloody Mary” while staring into the mirror, hoping to make a ghost appear? There’s the hitchhiking woman dressed in an evening gown that is picked up and climbs into the back seat, giving directions to an address to the driver. Once they arrive at the house, though, the driver discovers that she has mysteriously disappeared. When he goes to the door, he is told that his hitchhiker is the daughter of the owner of the house, who had been killed just after she left a party several years before, never making it home. But stories like the hitchhiking ghost existed long before they ended up as urban legends. I know I’ve read stories when it was a buggy or wagon being driven, not a car. So how many urban legends started as folk tales by those who colonized America?
Many of the legends and folk tales told by our ancestors have some kind of moral attached to them. These may be warnings. Watch your womenfolk and children, so that marauding Indians could not kidnap them. Don’t dare approach some old woman living in the woods for a much needed potion to rid one of an unwanted pregnancy, for she may conjure a spell and convince you to crawl into her oven to be cooked.
All of the above are the start of human storytelling, most likely around the campfire at night and told by the village shaman or official storyteller. What stories do you remember and still like to tell?
Like to read some myths, legends, or folklore? You can find some Virginian ones in my book, Haunted Virginia: Legends, Myths and True Tales. And with Christmas fast approaching, books make great gifts. This one can be read by children, grade 3 to adults.