Magazine article Natural History

Folklore Is Invariably False

Magazine article Natural History

Folklore Is Invariably False

Article excerpt

I once sat in an audience of folklorists listening to a friend's scholarly paper about the abundance of treasure legends in the American West. This distinguished researcher cited narratives of hidden troves from Aztec treasuries plundered by conquistadors, contemporary gold strikes discovered and lost by prospectors, chests of loot hidden by thieves, shipments of bullion lost in storms, personal riches buried by spiteful owners. Next, he regaled us with observations about people who devote their lives to searching for lost and hidden treasure, companies that make their own fortunes selling equipment to fortune seekers, and a world of research techniques centering on antique maps and stories that might lead the clever analyst or decoder to fabulous wealth. Why, he asked, are we so captivated by the notion of lost and hidden treasures? What is it within us that so fascinates us about such folklore?

My friend had put together an inventive analysis. He compared the treasure seekers with those who play the lottery even though the chance of winning is negligible. He spoke of human hopes, religious fervor, despair in a nation of great disparity in wealth, and magic in a world of cynicism. And then he concluded his speech, to a round of vigorous applause, and asked if there were any questions.

Without intending any disrespect, I couldn't resist suggesting what seemed to me to be an obvious answer to the questions my friend had posed rhetorically. "Isn't it possible," I asked, "that the reason there are so many legends about hidden and lost treasures is that there actually are many hidden and lost treasures?"

To be sure, not a lot of them are found. (At least, we don't hear about a lot of them being found; could it just be that a person who finds a fortune doesn't run to the IRS and report it?) But, after all, now and then someone does find a wrecked Spanish galleon laden with riches, right? The National Geographic wouldn't lie. Before Schliemann dug it up, Troy was considered an imaginary place. Sometimes legends are worth listening to for more than mere amusement.

There is a tendency, though, for people to regard legends as the stuff of fiction. Indeed, the word folklore is often thought of as being synonymous with "false" (as in "the facts and folklore of herpes"). Perhaps people assume that the oral transmission of knowledge is as unreliable as the children's party game of "gossip." Remember? The idea was for all the children to sit quietly in a large circle (clearly, an adult-induced context). One person-usually the birthday honoree-takes Billy, sitting immediately to her right, and goes to another room where she tells a short story. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

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.