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The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 3/The Science of Folk-Lore (Alvarez)

When I read in the pages of the Folk-Lore Journal for September last the modest and generous invitation of Mr. G. L. Gomme addressed to the members of the English Society of which he is the Secretary, to give him their opinion as to the meaning and import of the word Folk-lore, and the terminology of this science, I formed the intention of writing the article which I now publish with great hesitation, thinking that, since I am the only Spaniard a member of that Society, the unmerited honour falls upon me of acting as the mouth -piece of my country in the important scientific discussion which doubtless will follow on the brief notice alluded to on Folk-Lore Terminology, and to which Messrs. Nutt, E. Sidney Hartland, C. Staniland Wake, and Henry B. Wheatley, have already replied in the October and November numbers of the Journal.

The first request, therefore, which I wish to make to my illustrious colleagues, and to as many as read this article, is that they should consider as mine all errors into which I may fall, and all that may be useful in it to Spain alone, if it be my good fortune to suggest anything useful towards the scientific investigation proposed by the Secretary of the English Society, and to which I think the mythographers and folk-lorists of all countries should contribute (or, better, treat together for the purpose of definitively now marking out the limits of this new science), since, because the limits are not yet marked out, it is cultivated by different nations with different tendencies and senses.

Having thus discharged my conscience, I wish, without more preamble, to state at once my agreement with the opinion maintained by Messrs. Gomme and Nutt, that folk-lore and mythology are not, as some assert, one and the same thing. The latter, in my opinion, can only be considered, at the most, either as a branch of folk-lore, or as one of the special aims of this science.

Mythology treats of myths or fictions, of elements mainly imaginary or fantastic, and these elements cannot be considered in any other light than as special products of a cerebral or psychological function, that is, as a chapter in demo-psychology, although these products peculiar for the most part to one stage of civilisation, may still subsist as long as the human intellect has not passed beyond the condition of evolution in which they are ordinarily formed. In reality, myths are still formed, without doubt; but these are, with reference to the average conditions of culture in modern nations, real exceptions. Myths, in my opinion, are after all nothing more than a result of the predominance of fancy over the other and higher mental faculties. The mythical force, which augments and revives in epochs of great disasters and calamities, perchance through the complex phenomenon of atavism, is much stronger in uncultured men than in civilized. The myth-creating powers of Charles Darwin would be nil, or almost nil, in comparison with that of the monks of the Middle Ages, and with that of the labourers and rustics of Dorsetshire.

In this sense I think that Mr. Nutt, in defining folk-lore as the anthropology which treats of primitive man, cannot with strictness exaggerate the distance between this science and comparative mythology, since myths, and the elements to which, when combined with them, they owe their origin, are peculiar to a primitive age in which only a very small number of ideas and a vast number of fancies alone have free play.

Nor do I understand the reason why Mr. Nutt excludes biology absolutely from the region of folk-lore; for whether spirit and body are considered as things essentially different, or whether as distinct phases of the same thing, the result can never be that biological phenomena are equal in men and animals, and the psychological phenomena, on the contrary, different. Even admitting the duality of spirit and body, if there exists a physical evolution it seems natural that there must exist also a psychological evolution parallel and corresponding with that. The arguments of Mr. Nutt do not, therefore, bring conviction to me as to the absolute exclusion of biological phenomena from the study of folk-lore. Nay, more, in the course of my reflections on folk-lore I have been led sometimes to consider that there is in it, in a certain measure, a psychological-biology; and that we can observe in it, better than in any other science, the march and the development of the human intellect through past centuries and ages.

Folk-lore also, as far as it relates to the study of usages, customs, ceremonies, festivals and rights, and in general to all those acts of our life in which the beliefs, sentiments, affections— in a word, all the spiritual energies of a people, are crystallized— appears to me to be a science to which we may give the name of demo-biography, if I am right in thinking that this, with demo-psychology (which I shall explain presently) constitutes the two fundamental branches of folklore, those which Mr. E. Sidney Hartland calls Folk-thought and Folk-practice, or, still better. Folk-wont.

Folk-lore, from the second point of view, the study of popular habits and customs, has close relations with sociology, since the data which it offers to this science, also in its infancy, are of incalculable value. The people stores up in its songs and proverbs—in the first from a sentimental stand-point, in the second from an empirical and inductive point of view—the beliefs and ideas which it has concerning those social relations, which, gathered into gradually more complex groups, constitute the whole of society. The man of the people is not only a lover, a husband, a father, son, brother, friend, but he is also, after his manner, a judge, a chancellor of the exchequer, a privy councillor, a member of parliament, a professor, a workman, an apprentice, &c. &c., and in each one of these conditions, some inherent to humanity and others to the peculiar office or profession of each individual, he learns some social data, facts, or even laws of life, which he quickly stores up in those productions, and without which sociology, if it aspire to be really a science founded on facts, cannot take a step. Folk-lore has, in my opinion, most certainly a sociological aspect; it falls, within certain limits, within the sphere of sociology, as will be readily understood if we consider that the term folk signifies people — the human race: that is, man in the aggregate—the collective man, but not man as an individual. The existence of customary law, and the facts which Mr. Gomme must surely have studied for his work (whether already published or only in preparation we know not) Folk-Moots in the Open Air, will have established this truth for our illustrious colleague [published in 1880 under the title of Primitive Folkmoots'].

It follows from what has been said that though folk-lore, in my opinion, has something in common with psychological biology, something in common with sociology, and, of course, with anthropology also, it cannot be confounded with any of these sciences, nor even form a mere chapter of any one of them. The addition of Mr. Sidney Hartland, which reduces folk-lore to that part of anthropology which treats of the psychological phenomena of uncultured man, seems to me to be correct, but insufficient; correct, because it excludes from the dominion of folk-lore the physiological phenomena of man, which at present can only be studied by means of physiology, and because it substitutes for the words primitive man uncivilized man; insufficient, because there is also matter for folk-lore even in civilized man, and because it does not indicate with sufficient clearness the character of the aggregated, or of aggregation, which the people presents, and precisely by means of which, as we have said, the study of it falls within the province of sociology.

But what is the proper sphere of folk-lore? What are the limits which distinguish it and separate it from the other analogous sciences?

Folk-lore, in my opinion, from one point of view, embraces the whole of life and all the sciences, and is, in its turn, a phase or aspect of them all. To explain myself: Every branch of knowledge which we call scientific has been folk-loric in its origin, and perhaps continues to be so in a very small degree. Since, in fine, human reason and intellect are the media of knowledge, and, from the fact that all men are endowed with intellect and reason, the people, which is an aggregation of men, has some knowledge, more or less imperfect, of all things. A thousand times it has been repeated that alchemy preceded chemistry; astrology, astronomy; counting on the fingers, mathematics; and in the arts, the rude instrument which imitates the monotonous dripping of water as it falls on the ground preceded the infinite and varied tones of the violin; the shapeless sketches, drawn by a pointed instrument on rocks or on the bark of trees, preluded the works of the great masters of sculpture; the staining in monochrome or with a single colour, the pictured marvels which we now admire. Not one of the scientific or artistic wonders of which humanity is so proud has sprung, like light in the Bible record, spontaneously and suddenly from the human intellect.

But if folk-lore, in its extension, embraces the matter of all the sciences by the quality and the degree of knowledge which it supposes, it differs from them all. The people know astronomy and the astronomer knows astronomy; but the latter has built up, upon the first notions of the former, which served him as a foundation, a much richer and more ample knowledge—a superior knowledge, which, in its turn, and very slowly, extends downwards and becomes general in the lower social strata, in which it remains as a deposit of a certain definite degree of civilisation, whilst science goes on advancing in its road, discovering new horizons, and continually laying aside those ideas which, scientific in their day, or perhaps, to speak more exactly, peculiar to the educated classes, are now relegated to the vulgar; whence we deduce that many proverbs which are heard now only in the mouths of old women, or of the uneducated, were in their time considered as sentences of the learned, to such an extent that it would not be difficult by a conscientious study of proverbial lore to distinguish the contingent of ideas which philosophical, moral, and religious doctrines—as influential as the Aristotelian, the Platonic, and the Christian—have successively furnished to our proverbs. To make use of a somewhat humorous illustration, we might say that the man of science deals with the people as epicures do with certain shell-fish, that is, he eats the animal and throws aside the shell; and this, and nothing more, are the dogmas which are consigned to proverbs when they serve no longer for use in the practical facts of life.

Having made it plain then that the subject-matter of folk-lore contains in a certain measure that of all the other sciences, and that the degree of knowledge which it supposes is inferior to their systematised knowledge, we go on now to indicate the conception which we have formed of the subject-matter, people, since only by analysing the component parts of the word folk-lore can we formulate a definition of this science.

The word folk, corresponding to the term volk in German, the Latin vulgus, Italian volgo, Spanish vulgo, according to the authorised opinion of the Italian philologist Stanislas Prato, signifies, according to our judgment, not the whole of humanity nor an abstract personality, but a portion of the human race, a body of men, who, though differing from each other as little as possible, possess a series of common signs and are really anonymous, in contradistinction from that other series of men, who, differing as much as possible from each other, possess a notable personality, to the point of giving a name to a school, a party, a sect, a doctrine, or an epoch. To the former of these varieties of man we now give the name of people, and in this we find the subject-matter of the science which we are studying. The people is that portion of humanity which has not yet arrived by reflection and by culture at acquiring a full consciousness of itself, and to be a real union of individuals, in the full sense of the word. A multitude of men, whose individual effort is lost in history, are confounded in the term people; just as the efforts of each single bee are lost in the honey, which is at the same time the fruit of the work of them all—the product of the contributions of an infinity of flowers.

The very idea of the people as an indifferentiated and anonymous mass pre-supposes a differentiation within humanity, and which appears rationally posterior to the appearance of the latter on our globe, even if its germs might have existed from the beginning.

And we say that we believe the epoch in which the people was formed as a variety of mankind to be posterior to the appearance of this latter on our planet, not because differences did not exist, as there are between individuals of the people itself and between all men, but because those anthropoids who managed to impose themselves on others either by force or craft, if they were tolerated for the reason that wolves do not bite one another, did not form a caste, as happened at a later epoch. The division of power among the strongest supposes already an immense advance in social life. Even among the apes called orators (howlers) there are individuals who, so to say, give the note to their companions, which howl, cry, dance, and gesticulate around, imitating their chief; but these chiefs or aristocratic apes, so to say, never attain to the constitution of a society (or caste) as the Brahmins, for example, or the Shastriyas have formed them even in far distant epochs, and as titles and nobility do in modern times. Humanity presents itself at first as an apparently inorganic and indifferentiated being, which presently unfolds itself and exhibits itself with interior organisms, even to the specification of its functions to the degree in which we see them now in the most civilised lands. Its first division, or separation, seems to be, like that of the cell, into two: one segment, which is represented by the people, and the other, by the series of individuals more differentiated from each, as a group or distinct society.

The people can only be considered as primitive humanity in so far as from it as the stars from the nebulae, were separated, by slow and unappreciable segmentation, at first, the individuals, who by more or less affinity of character, formed the ancient castes, of which the so-called social classes are the remains to-day. But by the fact that this formation was slow, and that the individuals who had not energy enough to break through the barriers that imprisoned them were retained in the common mass by the community of life to which their relative physical or intellectual impotence condemned them, these accentuated the common note, and lived and developed themselves in a more uniform manner and in greater dependence on the conditions of the medium in which they existed. There is, therefore, such a thing as a demo-biology; the people, even as a whole, advances and progresses; superstition and even belief are modified and vary with the course of time; the myths, for example, and the greater errors formed or invented to-day by the people, though analogous, are different from those of primitive man, and for this reason we do not think that the study of the mental phenomena of savage races, past or present, exactly corresponds with the mental phenomena of the people.

The people has for its distinctive, characteristic, and peculiar mark, its intense conservatism.[1] The reason of this is very obvious. Since the number of ideas which it possesses are but few, and as it hears these will greater frequency, they are the more deeply impressed upon the brain. Tradition is charged with the task of transmitting them from mouth to mouth to future generations; and the actions of its life, regulated, governed, and ruled by these ideas, contributes also to the perpetuating of them in manner, customs, and institutions. But as the spur of new necessities excites new forms of knowledge, which result in disengaging, to a certain degree, manners and customs from the significance which they formerly possessed, sometimes these customs, at other times the dogmas on which they wei-e founded, become completely disintegrated, and remain as empty formulae, mere childish rhymes, fossils, and a word of remote ages. In this sense the people is a true reliquary, a quarry, a conglomerate of the remains of lost habits of thoughts and customs, a real museum of antiquities, whose value and price is entirely unknown to the possessor. The people comes to be a kind of most wealthy but ignorant nobleman, who keeps in his garret a multitude of jewels of the worth of which he is entirely ignorant. And in the people there goes on the formation, so to say, of a stratum of thought completely inconscient, a species of furniture useless to it, and which retards and renders difficult its journey on the road of civilisation and of progress.

But if from this point of view the people preserves in store a series of ancient ideas, which united form the materials for study of a science which might be called palæo-ideology or palæontological-psychology, the people, as a mass of men endowed with reason, and although indifferentiated when viewed as a mass, yet distinct when seen with the microscope of science, has still a progressive element, by means of which it continues to receive from nature a multitude of acquirements which it can only learn in the struggles to which the very necessities of life call it. That every kind of life does minister a series of fixed acquirements[2] is a thing so obvious that we have only to fix our thought, for example, on a group of men who live by fishing or by the chase, to understand the different education to which their forced apprenticeship obliges them. Since human knowledge appears to be after all nothing more than the appropriation, the assimilation, and the interpretation of the phenomena which surround us, it is clear that distinct forms of knowledge, sentiments, and ideas, correspond to different media, and that these cannot really be substituted the one for the other. Hence arises the diversification of that mass which we call the people, within each nature or state, and even the relatively greater or less development which this mass can attain to or really possess in each country.

Having stated that which I understand to be the people, and that its knowledge, like that of the sciences, deals with all kinds of subjects, I venture to formulate, without any pretension to exactitude, a definition of folk-lore. This is, in my idea, the science which has for its object the study of indifferentiated or anonymous humanity, from an epoch which may he considered as its infancy down to our own day.

Without being able to specify precisely the moment at which this age may be said really to begin, we believe it to be posterior to the primitive age, because it pre-supposes the formation of the two great groups alluded to; one in appearance indifferentiated, and the other full of appreciable distinctions within itself. But if the study of folklore has its starting-point in this age, the vestiges of which remain not only in the people but in all classes—just as vestiges of childhood remain during the whole life, both in the adult and in the old man — the study of folk-lore should include that of the people during the whole of its life as well in the actual exercise of its mental faculties, and in its practices and customs of to-day, as in the evidences which it preserves, by its customs and by oral tradition, of its anterior exercise of them, and of its past life.

The age, properly called primitive, falls, in our judgment, within the sphere of ethnology, of prehistoric times, and of anthropology. The hatchet, the dagger, or the arrow of primitive man, and his physical constitution, as it may be studied in his skeletons and skulls, do not form the subject-matter of folk-lore, nor do the acts and conceptions of the child belong to it either.

The study of the psychology of the infant, in fact, and the study of that of savage races, can serve only as a medium for analogy, and to control the study of demo-psychology; they have in themselves sufficient importance to constitute sciences independent of folk-lore. The child and the savage of our day find—not only in the humanity which surrounds them, and is in contact with them, but in the very earth which sustains them—a means of culture, a civilisation, which influences them from their earliest moments. The earth itself is also, as it were, educated and civilised by the influence of man, but this does not mean to say that infants, and even savages, in so far as they are archives of traditions, in their different grades of development, do not contain, just as our aristocratic classes do, archaic and traditional elements. In the classes shut out from all communication with the exterior there is, by their very constitution, a multitude of the elements of folk-lore, that is, of rituals and ceremonies, which, though they have lost the raison d'etre of their existence, and the cause which gave them life, are yet true relics of degrees of culture, superior perchance to the popular culture of their own time, but inferior to the popular culture of the present time.

Folk-lore, and in this I think that I am in complete accord with Mr. Sidney Hartland, includes, in my opinion, two chief branches: demo-psychology, or the science which studies the spirit of the people, and demo-biography, which is not the sum of the biographies of the individuals who compose this said aggregate, but the description of the mode of life of the people taken in the aggregate. For purposes of folk-lore, we do not study how it is that John is married to Jane, or how Tom was buried, but the marriage or funeral ceremonies of the men of the people in a given country.

Having mentioned these two principal branches of folk-lore, susceptible in their turn of infinite sub-divisions, I do not think it necessary to state that they have a mutual influence, from the fact that men think as they live, and live as they think.

Here I should conclude these short observations—which I propose to enlarge when Mr. Gomme publishes his promised work on the theme which occupies us—did I not wish to call the attention of my readers in general, and especially of all European folk-lorists, to the advisability of all making known their opinion on the theme proposed by the Secretary of the Folk-Lore Society, in his note on "FolkLore Terminology." To me it seems evident that if folk-lore—a term which, as international, I have been the first to respect—is to form a universal science, it is necessary that men of all nations should contribute to its progress, in order that the meaning which this science receives in Italy, France, Russia, Germany, or Portugal, may not be divergent, but only aspects and tendencies—phases of one and the same order of studies.

To me the people, as I have said, includes, without doubt, an element which we might call static, or passive, and another which we might name dynamic, or active. The former refers to the vestiges which it contains of anterior ideas and civilisations; vestiges transmitted orally from one generation to another, or by means of manners and customs; in a word, by tradition. In this sense, I think that the eminent Pitré has perfectly rightly called the Italian Society of Folk-Lore Society of Popular Traditions. The importance of his labours in folk-lore greatly strengthens his most reasonable opinion. But if the people is the genuine representative of this element, which we have called static or dead, in the people there exists another element, dynamic or living, and not the less important one, nor the one least worthy of study and consideration. In a happy hour the English folk-lorists are reconstructing, by means of the study of superstitions, ceremonies, rites, manners, customs, tales, and games, that proto-history of mankind, that most ancient ideal world, that grand mosaic, whose separate pieces are each one of these productions: but let them study also those facts which teach that there exists an evolution of ideas similar to that of organisms; let them study the manner in which the links of the great psychological chain are intertwined, and the march followed by the human mind until it arrived at the degree of relative development to which we find the feelings, the knowledge, the customs of the men of our day have attained. In the most insignificant songs, in the most neglected phrases—in the most trivial, apparently, of proverbs—there co-exists, by the side of the superstition, of the survival, of the relic of an ideal world completely disappeared, there co-exists a living element, an actual evidence of the psychological functions of the man of the people. In his stores of knowledge, by the side of the error, of the pre-occupation, and of the hasty induction which has mistaken the mere repetition of a phenomenon in a small number of cases for a true law, are to be found the powerful intuition, the delicate observation, and the knowledge of a real property of a being or phenomenon of nature which passes unobserved by the scientific man.

In Spain, at least, if my opinion has any influence, we should cultivate, with no less zeal than the study of popular ignorance, and the imaginary creations which have their origin in the predominance of fancy and of sentiment over reason, the wisdom of the people (lore, lehre, teaching, doctrine, lesson), that which it has learned by its reason and experience, in order to incorporate it into the scientific wealth, unhappily by no means excessive, which we possess, and in order to bring to light the whole mental store of this nation, the most ignorant perhaps of Europe, but not endowed with less intellectual gifts than other more fortunate nations, and which now enjoy a greater progress. The man of the people is, doubtless, the man of superstitions and of errors, but he is also the man of experience and of natural reason, the basis of all scientific knowledge, and of every advance in the great work of human civilisation.

[We are indebted for the translation of this admirable paper to the Rev. Wentworth Webster.]

  1. The authoritative sanction of the illustrious Portuguese mythologist, Theóphilo Braga, confirms this opinion. In a different connection he writes in the Introduction to the interesting work Cantos Populares do Brazil, by Professor Sylvio Romero: "The colony preserves the condition of civilisation which it received at a given epoch, and which its isolation has rendered permanent, in the same way as the individual the farther he has sunk into the lowest social depths the longer he remains in the rudimentary psychological condition from which the cultivated classes have already emerged. Similar is the phenomenon of the survival of customs among the poor."
  2. Speaking of the three elements which concur in the formation of the nationality of Brazil, and consequently in its poetry, Theóphilo Braga says (l.c. p. 23): "In fact in some provinces these elements are clearly to be distingaished after the mingling of three centuries. In the songs of Bahia negro sentimentality prevails as in the Tayeras; in the Ceara the Tupi preponderates exhibited in poetry in the peculiar narrative form of the savannah life of the herdsmen."