What are the universal characteristics of folktales and folklore? And what do these common terms actually mean? Let’s find out!

You’ve probably heard the terms “folklore” and “folktale” many times in everyday life.  A simple web search for the word “folklore” turns up everything from restaurants and advertising agencies to a hit Taylor Swift album.  But what does the term “folklore” actually mean?  How is it related to a folktale? And what folklore characteristics make a story a folktale? Let’s find out!

Table of contents

What is Folklore?

Folklore generally refers to the cultural characteristics defining a particular society.  Folklore includes both tangible (artwork, pottery, books) and intangible (customs, songs, storytelling) characteristics.  These cultural artifacts tell us what a society believes in, or about their everyday lives.  

Reproduction Lascaux Cave Painting Horses
Reproductions of some Lascaux artworks in Lascaux II by Jack Versloot is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For example, think how important prehistoric cave art is to our understanding of ancient peoples.  Without photography, sound recordings or videos to guide us, cave paintings tell us more about how these people actually lived, the stories they told and their history.

British writer William Thoms coined the term “folklore” in 1846.   Thoms was looking for a simple word to replace awkward terms like “popular antiquities” in describing a culture.  “Lore” means the accumulated knowledge or beliefs held by a group.  While “folk” describes the group itself, typically living in isolation, passing along this knowledge by word of mouth.  

Among the most important folklore characteristics of any culture are its stories – also known as folktales.

What Makes a Story a Folktale?

Folktales are broadly defined as stories passed from person to person, often elders to younger generations.   While folktales today are told in written or visual forms, they originated in the oral tradition, with no credited author.

In ancient cultures, folktales were crucial to societal order.  These stories reflected a society’s core values and laws, telling their citizens how to behave.  But then as now, folktales were meant to be engrossing stories, not boring lectures.  

Folktales teach us about our world’s many diverse cultures in easy-to-understand forms.  But no matter where these folktales come from, they share common characteristics as they:

  • Reflect the values and traditions of their origin cultures.
  • Feature fanciful main characters such as gods, mythological heroes, talking animals – even ghosts!
  • Alternately, main characters may be everyday, relatable people placed in an extraordinary predicament.
  • Communicate a central theme through metaphor.
  • Instruct an audience on proper behavior and societal law.
  • Often feature a main character with great wit and cunning.
  • Present this main character with a crucial decision, showing the consequences of that decision.
  • Illustrate how a particular culture makes sense of the world around them.

Types of Folktales

There are many types of folktales, but most scholars group them under five main categories: Myths, Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales and Tall Tales.


Myths are typically stories explaining natural phenomena, or the origins of life.  Their main characters are supernatural beings like gods, demigods or ancient ancestors.  Early myths were considered sacred texts, like those in the Bible.  Indigenous people in the Appalachian Mountains told numerous myths to make sense of their natural surroundings.

Ancient peoples considered myths to be true while folktales, more often, were not.  But as cultures intermingled and shared stories, many myths became more like folktales with supernatural or magical elements.  For example, when Scots-Irish settlers came to early America, they brought folktales of fairies, giants and elves – supernatural beings with human features, often interacting with actual humans.  

Story Example: Irwin Tarheel and the Fair Folk 

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


On the other hand, legends are folktales with some basis in historical fact.  They mostly involve everyday people, in a narrowly defined geographic region.  Supernatural elements can be added – think “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – but the setting is earthbound and relatable.

Story Example: Lorenzo Dow’s Georgia Curse

A modern variant is the “urban legend” – contemporary folktales circulated via mass media as true stories, with frequently horrific or humorous endings.  They are often classified as doubtful, but plausible, tales that serve as warnings, or a mirror of current societal anxieties. 

Story Example: The Coughing Dog


Fables are folktales with nonhuman characters, especially animals.  These animals may take on human voices or characteristics.  Fables teach us about human nature, with a moral lesson at the end.  The best known animal fables are Aesop’s Fables, first written down by the ancient Greeks and Romans but thought to originate in India.  

Story Example: Storyland Jack

Some fables are “trickster tales” involving a highly intelligent animal surviving on its wit, and turning the tables on its oppressor.  Enslaved Africans brought such folktales to the United States.  Many of these fables evolved into the Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus stories.

Story Example: How Brer Coon Gets His Meat

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are often fantastical tales of legendary deeds, dashing knights, castles, royalty, and magical creatures.  They are the stories of good versus evil we might remember from childhood.  Fairy tales are often folktales that originate in the written word, with a specific author.   

We all know fairy tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but you may not know that “Jack Tales” are also common in Southern Appalachia.  In these stories, a farm boy named Jack relies on his quick wits and sheer luck (and occasional lack of scruples) to defeat his foe.  This shows the frequent cross-pollination of folktales, as Jack could be considered a trickster like Brer Rabbit!

Story Examples: Sop Doll

Tall Tales

Finally, there is the tall tale – a folktale with exaggerated details.  Main characters are typically larger-than-life, solving problems in humorous or outrageous ways,  Tall tales are often linked to real time periods, people or environments. So there are many tall tales about superhuman miners, railroad workers, and cowboys.  There are also the classic “fish stories” – of fish so big they almost sank a fisherman’s boat and thus became “the one that got away.”

Paul Bunyan and Babe Statue
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Although tall tales can be found around the world, they are especially identified as American folktales.  Some believe they originated from bragging contests between early Western settlers.

Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill are examples of famous tall tale characters.


Folklore has defined every human culture since the dawn of man.  Folktales are among folklore characteristics reflecting a culture’s values, beliefs and way of life.  Once passed down only through the oral tradition, storytellers now have numerous options for telling folktales – including the very website you’re visiting!  By doing so, the voices of the distant past, from all over the world, still live on.

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