Traditionalism and Folklore
By Charles Upton
Among the Traditionalists, Ananda Coomaraswamy and René Guénon touched upon folklore, but never made an extensive study of it. And Martin Lings, in the anthology Sword of Gnosis, did a metaphysical exegesis of a Lithuanian folk song. That’s about the extent of the Traditionalist treatment of folklore, though Rama Coomaraswamy told me that his father Ananda had made a collection of folk songs with a view toward a metaphysical treatment of them, but never finished the project. Among Sophia Perennis titles, Cinderella’s Gold Slipper: Spiritual Symbolism in the Grimms’ Tales by Samuel Fohr deals with this neglected area, as does Tales of Nasrudin: Keys to Fulfillment by Ali Jamnia, as well as Mining, Metalurgy and the Meaning of Life: A Book of Stories by Roger Sworder.
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy had this to say about the metaphysical dimension of folklore:
[By] “folklore” we mean that whole and consistent body of culture which has been handed down, not in books but by word of mouth and in practice, from time beyond the reach of historical research, in the form of legends, fairy tales, ballads, games, toys,crafts, medicine, agriculture, and other rites, and forms of organization, especially those we call tribal. This is a cultural complex independent of national and even racial boundaries, and of remarkable similarity throughout the world. . . . The content of folklore is metaphysical. Our failure to recognize this is primarily due to our own abysmal ignorance of metaphysics and of doctrines are received by the people and transmitted by them. In its popular form, a given doctrine may not always have been understood, but so long as the formula is faithfully transmitted it remains understandable; “superstitions,” for the most part, are no mere delusions, but formulae of which the meaning has been forgotten. . . . We are dealing with the relics of an ancient folk metaphysics its technical terms. . . . Folklore ideas are the form in which metaphysical wisdom, as valid now as it ever was. . . . We shall only be able to understand the astounding uniformity of the folklore motifs all over the world, and the devoted care that has everywhere been taken to ensure their correct transmission, if we approach these mysteries (for they are nothing less) in the spirit in which they have been transmitted (“from the Stone Age until now”) with the confidence of little children, indeed, but not the childish self-confidence of those who hold that wisdom was born with themselves.The true folklorist must be not so much a psychologist as a theologian and metaphysician, if he is to “understand his material”. . . . Nor can anything be called a science of folklore, but only a collection of data, that considers only the formulae and not their doctrine. . . .
René Guénon, who died in 1951, also dealt with the folklore as the transmission of the Primordial Tradition, in his book Symbols of the Sacred Science:
The very conception of folklore, in the generally accepted sense of the term, is based on an idea that is radically false, the idea that there are “popular creations” spontaneously created by the mass of the people….As has been rightly said [by Luc Benoist], “the profound interest of all so-called popular traditions lies in the fact that they are not popular in origin”; and we will add that where, as is almost always the case, there is a question of elements that are traditional in the true sense of the word, however deformed, diminished and fragmentary they may be sometimes, and of things that have a real symbolic value, their origin is not even human, let alone popular. What may be popular is solely the fact of “survival,” when these elements belong to vanished traditional forms…. The people preserve, without understanding them, the relics of former traditions which go back sometimes to a past too remote to be dated, so that it has to be relegated to the obscure domain of the “prehistoric”; they thereby fulfill the function of a more or less subconscious collective memory, the contents of which have clearly come from elsewhere. What may seem most surprising is that the things so preserved are found to contain, above all, abundant information of an esoteric order, which is, in its essence, precisely what is least popular, and this fact suggests in itself an explanation, which may be summed up as follows: When a traditional form is on the point of becoming extinct, its last representatives may very well deliberately entrust to this aforesaid collective memory the things that otherwise would be lost beyond recall; that is in fact the sole means of saving what can in a certain measure be saved. At the same time, that lack of understanding that is one of the natural characteristics of the masses is a sure enough guarantee that what is esoteric will be nonetheless undivulged, remaining merely as a sort of witness of the past for such as, in later times, shall be capable of understanding It.
The post “Fair Nottamun Town”: Mystical and Alchemical Symbolism in an Appalachian Folk Song is part of my contribution to this genre.