African Folklore


folktale, general term for any of numerous varieties of traditional narrative. The telling of stories appears to be a cultural universal, common to pre-industrial, ancient, and more modern and developed societies alike. Even the forms folktales take are demonstrably similar from culture to culture, and comparative studies of themes and narrative techniques have been successful in showing these relationships. Among the foremost folklorists of the 19th cent. were Oskar Dähnhardt in Germany, S. O. Addy in England, Paul Sébillot in France, and Y. M. Sokolov in Russia. Major 20th-century scholars in the field include Franz Boas, Richard Chase, Marie Campbell, and Stith Thompson. Folklorists make distinctions among the categories of folktales. Legends and traditions are narratives of an explanatory nature concerning creation and tribal beginnings, supernatural beings, and quasi-historical figures (e.g., King Arthur, Lady Godiva). These stories are related as fact and concern a specific time and place. Fairy tales are entirely fictional and often begin with such formulas as "Once upon a time …" and "In a certain country there lived … ." Popular examples recount the supernatural adventures and mishaps of youngest daughters, transformed princes, mermaids, and wood fairies and elves (e.g., Cinderella, Rumplestiltskin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel). Animal tales abound in every culture; most of them are clearly anthropomorphic, the animals assuming human personalities. Such tales are classified according to three subdivisions: the etiological tale, or tale concerning origins (e.g., Great Hare and Coyote among Native Americans); the fable pointing to a moral (Aesop's fables); and the beast epic (e.g., Reynard the Fox; see bestiary). Myths, which are more difficult to define satisfactorily, treat happenings of a long-ago time; they generally concern the adventures of gods, giants, heroes, nymphs, satyrs, and villains, as well as etiological themes. There is also a rich tradition of African-American folktales. See also mythology; monsters and imaginary beasts in folklore; elf; fairy; goblin; gremlin; troll.


See S. Thompson, The Folktale (1946); V. O. Binner, American Folktales (1966) and International Folktales (1967); R. M. Dorson, America in Legend (1974); H. Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore (1975), A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore (1976), and The Tiger's Whisker and Other Tales from Asia and the Pacific (1995); A. Clarkson and G. B. Cross, World Folktales (1984); H. L. Gates, Jr. and M. Tatar, The Annotated African American Folktales (2017).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

African Folklore: Selected full-text books and articles

Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature By Janice Lee Liddell; Yakini Belinda Kemp University Press of Florida, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 16 "'A Girl Marries a Monkey': The Folktale as an Expression of Value and Change in Society"
The Black Cloth: A Collection of African Folktales By Bernard Binlin Dadié; Karen C. Hatch University of Massachusetts Press, 1987
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom By John W. Roberts University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990
Librarian's tip: "The African Trickster Tale Traditions" begins on p. 22
Allegories of the Wilderness: Ethics and Ambiguity in Kuranko Narratives By Michael Jackson; Charles S. Bird; Ivan Karp; James Fernandez; Luc De Heusch; John Middleton; Victor Turner; Roy Willis Indiana University Press, 1982
Content and Context of Zulu Folk-Narratives By Brian M. Du Toit University Presses of Florida, 1976
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.