Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

The Ecological Importance of Folklore

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Belief systems have a considerable effect on environmental attitudes and can therefore play a major role in ecological conservation practices. Looking into belief systems is instrumental in discovering the collective unconscious of a group, that is, the underlying values of a culture: their uncertainties, fears, ambitions, motivations and morals. As C.G. Jung has famously defined it: 

While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been individually acquired,but owe their existence exclusively to heredity[…] the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes.i 

Examining these archetypes is important when thinking about ecological and cultural conservation: They represent collective and inherited patterns of thought. There are multiple belief systems occurring simultaneously in any given place at any given time. While the world’s major religions are highly influential and include archetypes, looking only at organized religion leaves out a breadth of collective knowledge. I choose to examine folklore because of its spiritual, political and historical reaches. Folklore, mythology and storytelling speak to spiritual concepts and values, but they also encompass ideas on contemporary history and localized environments, something that religious texts alone do not; folklore best embodies the collective unconscious of both dominator cultures and partnership cultures.

Dominator cultures ascribe to a set of cultural values characterized as hierarchical, patriarchal and violent. Dominator cultures value rationalism, logic, individualism, competition and commodity. The use of the term dominator culture emphasizes aggressive, masculine tendencies. Partnership cultures are on the other end of the spectrum representing feminine qualities such as intuition or emotion.  Partnership values embrace peace, equality, and community and often rely on subsistence practices as opposed to market or profit driven practices. To borrow Riane Eisler’s terminology, in partnership cultures, social relations are based primarily on linking, as opposed to the ranking of relationships in dominator cultures.ii Belief systems are similarly varied as well: in partnership cultures folkloric or spiritual figures are spatially oriented and are often pantheistic, while figures in dominator lore are temporally oriented and are often theistic. Furthermore, dominator cultures have a linear organization of time and space, whereas partnership cultures may view their world cyclically. 

Looking at the partnership and dominator duality, these differing modes of existence and their subsequent effects on the environment are hard to ignore. A recent popular discussion has been on the positive effects that folklore and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of indigenous cultures (with partnership characteristics) can have on ecological conservation. It’s hard to argue against this point, as these people live so closely within their natural worlds, it seems inevitable that they would have useful knowledge about their environment. But what about the folklore and TEK of dominator cultures? What does the folklore of dominator cultures say about their conservation practices or lack thereof? Why hasn’t nature become fully integrated into dominator culture?

Looking at human consciousness from ancient spirituality to modern folklore elucidates some of the possible causes for our current struggle towards both ecological and cultural conservation, and it points toward possibilities for a sustainable future.

What is Folklore?

Folklore, like any other discipline, has no justification except as it enables us to better understand ourselves and others. -- Roger D. Abrahams, Journal of American Folklore

Scholars seem to agree on the ways folkloric knowledge is transferred (through art, dance, music, stories, literature, etc.), but defining the element that ties all of these manifestations together is often difficult. For this presentation, folklore is a means by which groups of people instruct and entertain each other.iii  The term refers to ways of talking, interacting and performing everyday expression such as proverbs, prayers, curses, jokes, riddles, statements of belief (superstitions), tales, songs, anecdotes, testimonies, rites, reminiscences – all of which emerge on both casual and ceremonial occasions.iv

Folklore and traditional ecological knowledge go hand in hand. TEK is, 

A cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationships of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.v 

While folklore is the representation of cultural ideas, TEK can be the scaffolding for which the cultural ideas being transmitted are bolstered, expressly for ecological purposes. For instance, the people in Meghalaya, India, believe that their forests are filled with deities and if any trees, fruits or flowers are cut, the deities would be offended and wreak havoc in their villages.vi As a result of this folkloric content, traditional ecological practices perpetuate the conservation and biodiversity of the forests. 

Conversely, in dominator cultures, people are generally far removed from their natural worlds and therefore unable to intuit the destruction or ill health of their ecosystems. TEK in its sustainable form “is based on close observation of nature and natural phenomena; however, it is combined with a concept of community membership that differs from that of Western political and social thought.”vii Maintaining a worldview in which a close relationship is formed with all other beings through experience and respect often has positive and harmonious results. In contrast, maintaining a worldview in which all other beings are ranked and filed, and are subsequently disconnected from one other, often results in chaos and instability. 

How Did We Get Here and Why? The First Dominator and Partnership Societies

Earthmaker made the world with trees and fields, with rivers, lakes, and springs, and with hills and valleys. It was beautiful. However, there weren't any humans, and so one day he decided to make some…

-- Dorothy Moulding Brown, Indian Fireside Tales

 Folklore begins with creation stories. We constantly try to make sense of our lives on earth; through these stories, we define our values. As far back as 4300 B.C.E., there is evidence (through creation stories, as well as other archaeological records) of the existence of two opposing and simultaneous cultural structures commonly referred to as the Indo-Europeans and the Old Europeans.viii Though the area of origin, migration routes and timing of these groups is still in scholarly contention, there are many documented theories that make interesting claims about the history and cultures of the Indo Europeans and Old Europeans.

The term Indo-European denotes peoples with common ancestral and linguistic heritage. More importantly, it characterizes a wave of invasions spanning over thousands of years by cultures with patriarchal social structures and folklore that focused on nomadism, war and warrior gods.ix

Prior to the Indo-European invasions, there existed the Old European civilizations. These cultures were characterized (in the archaeological record) by few fortifications, egalitarian social structures and nature-worshipping religious beliefs.x 

Differences in folklore between cultures may be attributed to differences in the cultures themselves. Indo-European tribes were nomadic and constantly at war as they spread out and conquered; they had little time to develop connections to the land, and their religions reflect that. Their gods were nomadic warrior gods that could support them during their conquests. Old European cultures were generally agricultural and sedentaryxi and thus formed relationships with the soil, plants and animals, and their respective life cycles. As the Indo-Europeans – the dominator cultures – conquered the Old Europeans, their folklore absorbed and eventually replaced the nature-revering religious systems.xii 

Applying this model to contemporary cultures yields the same conclusions: two distinct cultural models and value systems, one dominant over the other. The result of such ascendancy has meant a perpetual move away from values that support a connectedness with nature and toward the insistence on human supremacy and consumption, dotted with simultaneous, albeit small, populations of earth-centered peoples.

Modern Dominator Folklore: Charting Human Experience with Imbalance, Aggression and Individualism

Just as the Old Europeans and Indo Europeans constructed worldviews to make sense of their world, so do modern civilizations develop various forms of folklore. There is a great deal of evidence that connects folklore to a culture’s tendency to support conservation practices, but nearly all of it is found only in partnership cultures. This alone exemplifies the gap between cultural beliefs and nature within modern dominator societies.

While there are symbols from nature within dominator lore, the ways in which they are represented serve to illustrate human superiority as opposed to showing an equal balance between human and nature. Popular themes within this lore, such as the hero’s journey, emphasize aggression and opposition and often incorporate natural elements only as obstacles or even as antagonists. These religions also tend to value omnipotent, hierarchical and untouchable gods – those that know all and control all and that stand apart from (and, importantly, above) human beings, physically and spiritually.

Within the dominator culture of the United States, origin stories are about the creation of a great, dominant nation, and the “fathers” of our country serve as great heroes. Figures such as Christopher Columbus and George Washington (battling elements of nature to find victory), as well as Western folk heroes such as Pecos Bill, Calamity Jane, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan – heroes known for facing the wilds of a young America and winning – are on the frontline of patriotic American folklore. Washington was America’s first commander-in-chief and an epic warrior. Christopher Columbus ravenously stole land and freedom from Native Americans. By the time Pecos Bill was 13, the legend goes, “he’d grown bigger than most men, and every critter in the West knew about him. He’d won fights with rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, and even mountain lions, and the critters were beginning to think of him as king”.xiii Paul Bunyan was known best for his logging capabilities and Calamity Jane was best known for dressing, swearing and shooting like a man. All of these historical or quasi-historical figures display aggression and domination over people and land. 

Much of contemporary American folklore is borrowed from the stories of European immigrants, especially stories characterized as “supernatural” or “magical” and are deemed as fairytales. The most popular collection of dominator fairytales is that by the famous Grimm brothers. Electing to collect the stories of the Volk, or the people of Germany, brothers Wilhelm and Jakob created an anthology of fairy tales they collected and published in the 19th century.xiv Grimm’s magical fairy tales, like many other written tales, are often modified and rewritten to fit specific social or political ideological agendas. In the case of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the Grimm brothers stress “the importance of restraining natural instincts and adhering to social norms set by adults.”xv  

If children do not adhere to behavioral prescriptions, they will be overcome by the wolf or another wild creature turned into a mythical monster. These stories teach children to fear nature and respect those above them in the cultural hierarchy.

These folk characters are projections of the dominator psyche representing the collective unconscious. They represent the rapacious lust for domination over land, people, and animals; the importance of economic, social, and familial ranking; the emphasis on the individual or the individual experience; and the imbalanced shift away from the natural world.

Modern Partnership Folklore: Reverence for Balance, Reciprocity and Emotion

Modern partnership folklore reifies the earth-centered pervasiveness within cultures. Instead of perpetually distancing from one another and nature, these societies strive to be close to nature, as demonstrated by their beliefs, stories, songs and rituals. Again, modern partnership folklore is pantheistic and spatially oriented in its rendering of deities, spirits, gods or goddesses, which most often live on or in earth as (opposed to in the heavens). Because nature is so closely linked to partnership belief environmental conservation occurs indirectly.

Seemingly, one of the most popular forms of conservation through folklore is by taboos or trepidation. Many plants and animals are never hunted or touched because folkloric belief explains that they are gods or ancestors – or so protected by them – and should not be harmed or disturbed. This also applies to forests, jungles, bodies of water and other natural resources. 

In Arunachal Pradesh, India, different tribes have varying beliefs about the plants and animals around them, but underlying each story is the presence of deities or powerful spiritual forces manifested as plants and animals. In Hill Miri, for example, areas containing certain plants are actively preserved, and spitting, urinating or throwing stones in the area is prohibited as a means of paying respect to the sacred plant deities.xvi The Aka of West Kameng believe that the destruction (even by accident) of certain ponds and lakes will result in loss of life, and extraction of any resources from Woko, a sacred mountain, is prohibited and will cause bleeding from the mouth and nose, eventually leading to death.xvii Within the Mishmis and the Galos, tigers are never hunted and many rigorous rituals are performed if a tiger is killed by accident as a means of correcting the mistake.xviii 

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, deities are ancestral spirits that take animal or plant form. Despite the constant raiding of crops and gardens, macaques are never hunted, killed or even spoken badly about, and in some tribes, the forests they inhabit are never entered for fear of disturbing the monkeys.xix 

While stories often involve spirits, gods or deities, many involve simple human to animal or plant interaction. There is an Iroquois folktale that tells the story of an elderly woman who was weeping because her crops had not been properly taken care of; the other villagers hear her and join her mourning.xx This story very simply reflects the importance of due diligence when it comes to the environment and the emotional commitment the Iroquois (and similar cultures) have to their natural world. 

Reciprocity and balance are important values central to partnership cultural structures. They live looking through a cyclic lens, not only taking and giving from the Earth, but also understanding the relationships of all beings in order to effectively manage such relationships.

 Biological Implications in Dominator Culture: Health and Harmony

The illusion of separateness we create in order to utter the words “I am” is part of our problem in the modern world. We have always been far more a part of great patterns on the globe than our fearful egos can tolerate knowing… To preserve nature is to preserve the matrix through which we can experience our souls and the soul of the planet.-- Walter Christie, Psychology as if the Whole Earth Mattered

There are obvious correlations between collective belief systems and ecological conservation, as demonstrated above. Based on the underlying cultural attitudes expressed through folklore, it is easy to discern why dominator cultures tend to turn their backs when it comes to ecological conservation. A lack of connectedness with nature goes beyond a crumbling natural landscape, as there is an equally apparent problem in terms of human relationships and human health. 

In his essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond discusses the detrimental effects agriculture has had on modern health. The essay sheds light on how large scale agriculture and farming have impacted human health and interaction, ultimately leading to social and environmental stratification and disease in dominator cultures. He illustrates the dangers of mono-cropping and how large-scale agriculture creates stratified societies run by those who have control of that centralized industry.xxi Partnership cultures are spared because they typically don’t engender the large-scale industrial farming practices that go against their values. Furthermore, partnership cultures tend to be isolated, either physically or ideologically.  

While Diamond’s theories focus primarily on human physical health, it is important to point out the emotional perils in modern dominator cultures when it comes to the culturally constructed “otherness” from nature. In 1979, Edward O. Wilson coined the phrase biophilia, the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.xxii While the hypothesis is complex and often disputed, the fundamental premise seems logical: As humans, we are obviously fascinated and drawn to nature, as we were born out of it. Humans need the company of animals, grass, dirt, trees and the sun. This is why many in dominator cultures are literally sick from the constant disconnection they feel from the natural world. 

An emerging field called eco-psychology attempts to remedy this alienation by regarding humans and non-humans as mutually inclusive and complementary forces, and the once existing balance between them needs to be restored in order to relieve many physical and psychological disorders we face today.xxiii Going back to emotional and physical stress, eco-psychology asserts that the remedy for such ailments has all to do with rejoining nature. At a conference held in 1990 at the Harvard-based Center for Psychology and Social Change, eco-psychologists concluded that “if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behavior leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.”xxiv  

This is the relationship partnership cultures experience, which is why their ecological and social practices are more balanced and therefore sustainable (recall the woman in the Iroquois folktale who cries over her devastated crops: she feels pain when her crops feel pain). It is not enough only to understand the connection between all beings on a scientific level and adapt a certain environmental outlook, but there is also a need to experience and feel the connection between all things. To do this implies taking into account the fragile psychological complexities involved in transforming a culture, a law or a lifestyle. 

Reinvigorating Human to Non-human Connectedness for a Sustainable Future

Call someone’s entire way of life into question, and what you are apt to produce is defensive rigidity. It is elementary psychology that those who wish to change the world for the better should not begin by vilifying the public they seek to persuade, or by confronting it with a task that seems impossible.              --Theodore Rosnak, Ecopsychology

When humans regard plants and animals, stars and planets, rocks and soil as integral parts of their world, then they take certain actions to protect or manage them, either indirectly by tradition, ritual or taboo – as we’ve seen in partnership cultures – or directly by political, social or intellectual action, which occurs in dominator cultures.

Partnership characterizations as a whole serve as a tangible model of a working solution to environmental despair and poor health. Keeping in mind that these cultures are sustained in part by their isolation, a reorganization of ideas should be based around that premise. Some partnership cultures are physically isolated from globalization and modernization (however, this seems to be less and less true); others isolate themselves ideologically by abstaining from media outlets that put fourth false impressions of health and status and by training themselves to be able to point out the subtle imbalances that perpetuate damaging and unsustainable modes of living. Ultimately, there is a need for a shift in values, which would open the floodgates for positive action. For a shift in values to occur, there needs to be recognition of the subtle forms of human centeredness and repression found throughout dominator culture. 

Often, positive efforts to educate the perpetrators of dominator thought fall short, as these efforts often shame dominator values and put forth plans of action that may seem impossible or undesirable, requiring that one abandon creature comforts. However, keeping in mind the psychological intricacies of the manner and incorporating the inclusive ideals of partnership cultures, change can occur. There are many isolated unconventional partnership cultures that have stemmed out of rejection to dominator precepts from which we can learn how to realistically and efficiently approach ecological problems. 

Eco-psychology aims to bridge the gap between culture and ecology. Globally, people now develop initiatives with that intent. Eco-psychological thought posits that every human being has the ability to connect to the interdependent web of life on earth but that humans have become removed because of the underlying dominator value system discussed here.xxv

In action, ecopsychologists explore ways to work with individual personal problems by allowing the individual to see that their problems aren’t just unique but that they are also a small piece of a larger global illness:

The goals of therapy then include not only the ability to find joy in the world, but also to hear the Earth speaking in one’s own suffering, to participate in and contribute to the healing of the planet by finding one’s niche in the Earth’s living system and occupying it actively.xxvi

Deep Ecology may also provide some answers. Coined by Arne Naess, deep ecology is a philosophy in that it guides the way we think and act. Through this perspective, individual beings are able to innately care for the earth as it moves through them and is them.xxvii In his travels, Naess witnessed what he saw as two forms of environmentalism: long range deep ecology and shallow ecology. Long range deep ecology works its way right down the root cause. Shallow ecology focuses on short term fixes, often relying on the same value system that played a part in the causation. Thus, Naess’ ideas were holistic, occupying many parts of the brain, equipped not with Band-Aid approaches but sustainable ones. 

Education is also another important tool for overcoming ecocidal dominator tendencies, not solely through educating by lecture, but also by through experience and intuition. Using Waldorf education as an example demonstrates the power of education through feeling and doing. Traditional Waldorf education entails embracing imagination and intuition in a holistic manner in order for young people to make sense of the world. Using this model, Waldorf children can more easily feel their connection to others and the earth.

While the ideology behind the pedagogy of the Waldorf education paradigm is multifaceted, it is essentially a rejection of exclusively traditional scientific modes of thought that are often abstract and one sided. Waldorf education urges its teachers to teach students how to characterize rather than define their surroundings.xxviii As the line of reasoning goes, while students need to learn the facts what they also need 

Is to see how the facts relate to each other, how the parts of an organism interact in service to the life of the whole creature. You could say that all real knowing is ecological knowing_knowing how something is part of a larger, dynamic context. If we can bring students into this way of knowing, we are preparing them for a life in a world that will not offer them pat solutions, but demand from them the ability to grow and form new ideas in relation to new and unforeseen demands.xxix

How much can we really learn about a frog by dissecting it?  When we walk into a frog’s natural habitat we do not see it isolated and pinned to a piece of paper, its skin splayed open and insides exposed. We can learn a lot more about a frog by observing it in its natural environment, how it interacts with everything around it. By rigidly appealing to only one aspect of the animal (in this case it’s anatomy), we lose any truly holistic connection. Many Waldorf schools or communities also teach and practice biodynamics, a holistic approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. Biodynamics encompasses planetary and spiritual components of horticulture that inherently regards intuition and emotion in contrast to rational and logical thinking. In this way, all elements of nature are accounted for and realized, which bestows a natural harmony for human and non-human relationships.  


These solutions to the on-going destruction of the global ecosystem only serve as examples, not to say that these are the only solutions. There are other environmental activists and educators that address other aspects of this issue, but here I have discussed the deep-rooted cultural complexities of the issue that have non-ecological implications. Focus should go beyond strictly environmental problems and toward the problems resulting from a human and environmental disconnect. 

Relying only on traditional scientific examinations of nature is one-sided and human-sided. Because of culturally-constructed archetypes exemplified through folklore, this technique is perpetuated, leading to an incomplete view of the earth, especially in regard to human’s place here. Digging deeper into our ancestral past, examining history and human consciousness from all angles, and consciously trying to avert programmed dominator norms, can have a huge impact on implementing sustainable change. If we change our ways of seeing and believing then our ways of doing will follow suit.

Photos are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All photos are courtesy of Jonmikel and Kathryn Pardo.

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II. Eisler, Riane. Chalice and the blade. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988.

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XII.Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess. HarperCollins. 1991. p. 401.

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XV.Martin, Ann. Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Bed: Modernism’s Fairy Tales.
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XVIII.        Sakia.

XIX.Riley, Erin and Nancy Priston. “Macaques in Farms and Folklore:
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XXI.Diamond, Jared. “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Discover Magazine. 1987. pp 64-66.

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XXV.          Roszak, et.al.

XXVI.         Roszak, et.al.

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XXIV.         Holdrege.