What is Folklore?

Material culture is the study of objects. Folklorists look at vernacular architecture, especially houses that are built by hand, such as the house used for the model on this web site. Costume is also included in the study of material culture, as are various cloth items and the traditions of cloth preparation and decoration. Ritual towels, called rushnyky, are especially important in Ukrainian culture. Among their many uses are protection of the home and of people going through important life transitions, such as marriage. Material culture also includes the study of tools and tool making, pottery, woodcarving, glass painting, and the like.

Ritual or social culture is the study of actions; these actions can be considered a form of dramatic expression. Ritual is usually further divided into those rites that mark stages in a human life and those rites that mark the progress of the calendar year. Life cycle rites are those surrounding birth and death and the ritual of the wedding. Yearly cycle rituals include Christmas, Easter, Ivan Kupalo, various holidays marking the return of the dead, among many, many rites.

Verbal culture is the study of words. Folklore began with the study of words, or what is also called oral literature. Folklorists first became interested in texts of substantial size, such as epic poems and long magical folktales. The field has grown and now, in addition to epics and tales, folklorists study songs and stories of all kinds and smaller genres such as proverbs, riddles, incantations and charms.

There are many possible divisions within this area.

Poetry/prose: It is useful to distinguish oral poetry from oral prose. In addition to epics, oral poetry includes historical songs, religious songs, ballads, lyric songs, and songs connected to rituals, such as wedding songs and funeral laments. Prose is folktales, legends, memorates, and fabulates, along with other genres.

Real/make-believe: A distinction between genres that tell fantastic stories, such as folktales, and genres about things believed to have actually happened, such as legends and historical verse has been used.

Ritual/non-ritual: It is also useful to distinguish oral literature that is used in the context of ritual, such as wedding songs and harvest songs, from songs and prose genres that have no set ritual function.