Academic journal article Western Folklore

Hawks, Horses, and Huns: The Impact of Peoples of the Steppe on the Folk Cultures of Northern Europe

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Hawks, Horses, and Huns: The Impact of Peoples of the Steppe on the Folk Cultures of Northern Europe

Article excerpt

It is a true honor to be invited to offer a tribute to Archer Taylor (1890-1973) in an address to members of the Society that he helped to found. The list of prior speakers in the Archer Taylor lecture series reads like a "Who's Who" of folkloric studies in America, starting with Taylor's friends and peers Bertrand Bronson (1902-86) and Wayland Hand (1907-86) and carrying on with Archie Green (1917-2009), Roger Abrahams, Barre Toelken, and other distinguished North American folklorists, several of whom are with us in this very room. These are among my heroes in the academic profession, and 1 count it as one of my blessings that I have come to know some of them personally.1

Although I never knew Archer Taylor personally, I have made good use of the books he wrote, especially his definitive studies of the proverb and the riddle (Taylor 1931; Taylor 1951). I also have reason to be grateful for his having left much of his personal library, which is representative of his interests in both folklore and medieval literature, to the University of California. Taylor was not just a superb Germanist. His broad horizons encompassed the language groups of the world as well as remote corners of the past. His academic genealogy goes back to George Lyman Kittredge (1860-1941), with whom he studied at Harvard; through Kittredge to the great ballad scholar Francis James Child (1825-1926), who was one of the founders of the American Folklore Society; and beyond that to the great Germanist Jacob Grimm (1785-1863)-the effective founder of what were then the twin sciences of Germanistik and Volkskunde-whose lectures in Berlin in the year 1850 are said to have been attended by Child. So when we trace this thread we are looking at a distinguished lineage indeed.

Significantly for my theme today, Taylor's vision took in Asian as well as European folklore. This dimension of his scholarship is exemplified by his book Comparative Studies in Folklore: Asia-Europe-America, an anthology that treats riddles and riddle collections garnered from the Cantonese community in San Francisco as well as from various parts of Asia (Taylor 1972). Taylor was also the world's leading authority on the Shanghai gesture, on which he published a monograph in the Folklore Fellows series (Taylor 1956; cf. Bäuml and Bäuml 1997:215-19). I am referring not to the 1941 film noir of that name-Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture, which plums the icier depths of upper-class depravity in a pseudo-oriental setting-but rather to the irreverent gesture itself, which involves strategic use of the thumb, the fingers, and the nose. Though you may not know of that gesture by that name, you have probably made good use of it at some point in the past. When things degenerate in the lecture hall, it can be a handy recourse on either side of the podium.


Despite the breadth of Archer Taylor's scholarly interests, the present talk is not one that would necessarily have pleased him as a Professor of German in an academic tradition going back to the Grimms, for what I intend to do is to put pressure on the category of the Germanic. For close to two centuries, this category has often been taken for granted in the academy, but for no good reason except in the field of comparative and historical linguistics. And even in that specialization, the delineation of the Germanic languages as a branch of proto-Indo-European is not as straightforward a matter as is often assumed, given the number of non-Indo-European linguistic elements present from an early date, in languages customarily labeled "Germanic," that are likely to reflect a pre-Germanic substrate (Hawkins 1990). But-1 sense your relief-Germanic linguistics is not my subject today.

What my remarks do pertain to is the Germanic as a cultural category, including the realms of folklore and mythology. In this sense the term can be traced back to ancient Roman authors including the late-first-century Roman historian Tacitus, who described in detailed and somewhat idealized fashion the barbarian groups living to the north and east of the Empire's Rhineland frontier (Tacitus 1999). …

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