More to us than pixies, fairies and witches

5th March 1999 at 00:00
The Folklore Society, one of the oldest learned groups in the world,hopes to raise its profile with a new website, writes Sally Ballard

The British Isles are fertile ground for myths and legends: fairies down the bottom of the garden, a monster in Loch Ness, little people on the Emerald Isle, even Merlin himself are all well-grounded in superstition and local fiction.

But while some may scoff at these as so much stuff and nonsense, the Folklore Society has to take them rather more seriously.

The society was founded 120 years ago and is one of the world's oldest learned societies. Its aims then were to study traditional culture and its origins throughout the world. Now it has grown to embrace pop culture as well as customs and beliefs, traditional narrative, drama, music, language, art and craft, song and dance and even oral history.

Red Riding Hood, fairies, local customs and legends have been traditional folklore staples, but so too are tales of alien abduction, crop circles and LSD-soaked transfers in the playground.

"Folklore is a dynamic process, never a static, artificial ancient thing. It is constantly changing," says Dr Juliette Wood, the society's president.

In a bid to make itself appear more contemporary and relevant, the Folklore Society has launched a website, which it hopes will raise its profile and rescue it from the dark ages of pixies, elves and witches by portraying it as a modern repository of learning, which boasts one of the largest folklore libraries in the world. "We are part of a culture that is very much on-going," says Dr Wood. "We feel we want to reach out more, that we have a public information function and we want to demystify folklore."

The society's early membership comprised mainly academics, but also cultured Edwardian women denied a standard academic education. These lady members apparently took themselves off enthusiastically to all parts of the world, in order to gather data on tales and beliefs.

"The society's role has changed dramatically since then," says Dr Wood, who adds that it is experiencing an upsurge in interest which she attributes to the approaching millennium. "People have been showing a tendency to feel unsure of the present, wary of the future and therefore look to the past for security."

The Children's Folklore Group is a offshoot of the society. It looks at how children communicate, their singing rhymes, playground games, urban legends and how they express their fears. This group has plenty of material for storytellers, teachers and psychologists, says Dr Wood, a writer and university lecturer who specialises in Celtic myths.

Dr Wood believes that folklore has always been imbedded in the school curriculum - from primary lessons which might teach nursery rhymes and Victorian playground games, right through to secondary school lessons on sociology, where a class may look at the customs and traditions of a particular culture.

The Folklore Society produces publications on various aspects of folklore, sponsors research and makes its library and archive material available to member students and scholars. Members receive an annual journal, newsletters and occasional booklets.

"If we have a specific inquiry about some aspect of folklore, such as the origin of a festival or a query about children's folklore, then the librarian will check and see if we have books on the subject and either photocopy relevant sections, or give the name of the books which hold the information," explains Dr Wood.

The library, housed at University College London, is open to members, and a telephone inquiry service is available.

* The Folklore Society, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. Tel: 0171 387 5894. Website:

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