Everyone loves using their cultural heritage for spec fic inspiration, but what happens when Americans look to their own folklore for ideas? They find out that most American folklore is terrible, that’s what. But do not despair, for in among the bigoted mess, there are still gems to be had. Listen as we discuss the tall tales of olden days, the mysterious cryptids that might be in your house right now, and the amazing phenomena of phantom airships. Also, some quotes from Zora Neale Hurston, because of course.
Edit: A listener was kind enough to let us know that the “Virginia Dare” figure we mentioned has long been used by white supremacists as a symbol of their hate. The Washington Post has a great article on this, but the short version is she is held up as the true origins of “White America,” despite the fact that the Roanoke colonists almost certainly assimilated with Native Americans to avoid starvation.Download Episode 249 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Mouse. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening music]
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: [in a ‘Wild West’ American accent] And saddle up, everybody, because you’re about ready to hear some tall tales about things that I done did out there in them woods, and they were magnificent—you probably won’t even believe it!
Oren: [in a similar accent] Well howdy and tarnations there, pardners. It sounds like it’s time to talk about some good old-fashioned American folklore.
Wes: [in the accent] You know it. [in regular voice] Okay. We’re not going to do that the whole time, right.
Oren: We could, but we’re not.
Wes: I might lapse. I might lapse.
So, just quickly, we’re talking about American folklore, and by that, we’re talking about United States, European-derived folklore that was infused with the slave trade. American folklore by definition really doesn’t really include the folklore traditions of Native Americans. It definitely stole elements from that, but for the most part, we’re talking about the stuff that was created with the creation of the United States, if that makes sense.
Chris: Lesson the first: American folklore is terrible! A lot of it is terrible! That’s my opinion. My very cultured opinion.
Wes: There’s a lot of it, too. There’s so much of it, and if you want to find anything good, boy, you’ve got to look or ask somebody.
Oren: Most of my knowledge of folklore comes from the 1995 film Tall Tales.
Wes: Was that Kurt Russel?
Oren: I forget, but it’s basically American Gods for folklore. It’s got three folklore characters, one of whom is apparently not even actual folklore, according to Wikipedia. Pecos, or “Peecos,” Bill, the cowboy, who’s the main guy, apparently he was created much later and in the style of folklore characters. It’s also got John Henry and Paul Bunyan, who are actual American folklore characters. And that’s the entirety of what I knew about American folklore before today when I did a Wikipedia binge to learn more.
Chris: Yeah, Wikipedia—I mean, to be fair, if you listen to the actual, original tales that haven’t been changed for modern audiences, of any culture, there’s probably a lot of really bad stuff in there. I’ve read original Brothers Grimm, which is really violent and misogynist. And French folktales, fairy tales, are really classist. Every culture has its problems.
But in any case, when I looked into American folktales, they’re just the embodiment of toxic masculinity. Which, I mean, they’re American, so that shouldn’t really be surprising. But there’s just a lot of stories about how manly men beat up on animals and also possibly people of color and women. To be fair about the animals part, I do think when a lot of these folktales came to be, the American wilderness just seemed a lot more intimidating to white people than it does today. It seemed big and untamable. It seemed like more than a match—or a match—for the manly men [laughs] that are usually at the center of these tales.
Wes: I think it’s also important to know that it’s part of the definition. We’re throwing a lot of terms out around here from “legend,” “fairy tale,” “stories,” “tall tales.” But tall tales in particular almost encouraged the kind of toxic masculinity that Chris was talking about. Because the tall tale, by definition, is just frontier folk greatly embellishing their experiences in the frontier and insisting that it’s true—in a way, to just basically having a peeing contest. “Oh, that happened to you? Well…”
And then they would—there’s a whole section on, I think they’re just called “fearsome creatures,” of which the jackalope is one of them, where they would lie about these things that they saw in the woods to try to make themselves seem cool for how they dealt with it. And so it’s a storytelling genre that brought out the worst in them.
Chris: I have trouble understanding the appeal of a story that’s like, “That dude was so big he drank a whole lake when he got thirsty. You just don’t understand. He’s so big.”
Wes: Which is like, that doesn’t even compare with—that doesn’t even connect with myth, to explain something. In Norse mythology, Thor gets into a drinking competition, but at least they try to say, “That’s why we have tides. Because he was drinking the ocean.” That at least is like, okay, I see what you’re trying to do. [laughs]
Chris: Yeah. So, there’s a lot of stories like that I don’t understand, but it’s a big part of American folklore. The whole Paul Bunyan thing. Davy Crockett was actually a real person. He made up—again, all sorts of, he would just lie all the time about what he did.
Wes: Yeah, he wrote a lot of it down, too—volume after volume of his made-up exploits and stuff.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, he basically wrote his personal self-insert fiction and then sold it to everybody.
Oren: [sarcastically] Excuse me, we call those “memoirs.”
Chris: [laughs] Oh, no.
Wes: This right here is kind of the heart of the problem with this. Because the study of folkloristics in general are basically researchers who will look at music, oral history, jokes, beliefs, fairy tales, tall tales, all of those kinds of things, and they kind of just look at how it’s affected cultures or groups.
And so, for the longest time, with this country—and made popular by Washington Irving, who does have some good folk tales, like Sleepy Hollow, that’s a decent one, and Rip van Winkle persists as well, and then The Devil and Tom Walker. Those are three that I can recommend. I like those. But he also popularized Columbia, who is kind of like a legendary folklore character that was meant to be some kind of weird combination of what everyone thought were the great characteristics and qualities of Christopher Columbus plus the virgin wild of North Americas. That’s why Columbia is depicted as basically kind of a Statue of Liberty precursor—a woman in a robe kind of thing—who’s a holy, spiritual…not spirit holy, but kind of like the spiritual essence of the Americas as defined by Columbus.
Oren: So what you’re saying is that this is gender-flip Christopher Columbus fanfic.
Wes: That’s a good way to put it. And Columbia was really popular until Uncle Sam. And then Uncle Sam kind of just took over. And that was there early…when was Irving writing, early 19th century…and Columbia probably predates that a little bit. Yeah, it’s fascinating, just how that can kind of get twisted for its own reasons. And of course now we know today that Columbus was a monster. And yet we name so many things after him. The District of Columbia comes from that, right? It’s all there.
Oren: That’s the number one reason to make DC a state. We can change the name. Also democracy is important, but I really want it to be called something else.
Wes: I was just thinking, some other folktales that were there at the beginning that persist: Thanksgiving, the tale of the Pilgrims, Squanto the friendly Native American, and how they all came together—that came from an event and persists to this day. It’s kind of a part of our American folklore. Also the story of Jamestown and Pocahontas as well.
Chris: That was a very white-person story about—ugh, God, some of these stories are problematic. This is…I originally started looking into American folklore because we had an article on the site where a very nice guest blogger was encouraging people to just use your heritage in your stories to give it more color. As a white person in the US who is pretty far from European ancestry, it’s like, okay, well, it feels like the American folklore is as close to my heritage as possible. And then, yeah, it was a bit of a disappointment. So much of it is tainted that it’s really hard to salvage anything from it.
Wes: It really is. I do like the folklore around the Roanoke Colony, though. How—her last name escapes me—but the young girl that was born, the confirmed birth in the Roanoke colony before it vanished, was Virginia…something. And the folklore that came from that was that, since she was the first one born there, that her spirit still kind of exists. And there were tales of Virginia—maybe it’s Dare, Virginia Dare. Something like that. That she continued to exist all along the East Coast and would crop up in stories and stuff as this spirit.
Oren: Virginia Dare is a great pulp name. So if that wasn’t actually her name, I vote we change it to that.
Wes: [laughs] Yes, please.
Oren: I mean, I’ll admit that John Henry is definitely my problematic fav when it comes to folktales. Because this is the basic story of the guy who tried to outwork the machine and wins—but then dies.
The reason why I think it’s problematic is that I actually think, intellectually, automation replacing human labor is a good thing, presuming that the benefits are equally shared—which, that’s a huge problem. But assuming that they are, then machines replacing human labor is good. And yet, I have existential dread at the idea of a machine replacing me at what I do. And I kind of hope that I’m dead before machines are able to do that. So I feel for John Henry—I feel it on a visceral level, that, “No, machine, you can’t take my job,” even though, academically, I know that that’s actually a good thing. [laughs] Or at least it should be, you know, economic inequality aside.
Chris: I have to say, the thing I feel like I can pull from American folklore is there’s not as much as I wish, but there’s a number of creatures.
Wes: Yes, creatures are good. There’s a lot of them.
Chris: That we can talk about. And I think that comes with the whole having a lot of folklore about nature because of this idea that the wilderness was large and intimidating to people meant that there’s a number of folklore about creatures and monsters and things. Like Bigfoot being one of the most—
Wes: Yeah, Bigfoot.
Chris: Bigfoot! Yeah, that’s right, we made him up. A Pacific Northwest–specific creature. Although, getting back to the jackalope, cause you mentioned the jackalope. You can consider it folklore if you want, but it was started in the 1930s, so it’s actually pretty recent as far as these tales go, by a couple of brothers who did taxidermy and decided to just make a mounted rabbit head with a deer antler on it. So I don’t know if I would—I mean, definitely now it’s enough in the American mindset that going forward, it’s definitely folklore. But it’s surprising just how much that was made up recently in comparison to these older tales. A couple of guys did a taxidermy rabbit, they sold it to a hotel, that hotel made it popular, and it became a tourist attraction for the town of Douglas, Wyoming. And they still sell jackalope hunting licenses too. They do. They work on jackalope hunting season, which is on June 31st from midnight to two a.m.
Oren: That’s amazing.
Wes: That right there is kind of the power of folklore anyway. You just do one little thing like that, and it can catch like wildfire. A lot of the tall tales and the fearsome creatures come from loggers at logging camps. It’s just like, “You hear about a jackalope?” “What? What are you talking about?” “I saw one. I saw one.” “No you didn’t.”
Chris: The jackalope, it’s funny because we can think of the jackalope as silly, but when it comes to the creatures that lumberjacks made up, that is not even—it’s a drop in the bucket compared to how silly these creatures got. Which were supposedly, when they brought in new lumberjacks, they would basically play a practical joke—
Oren: Yup. [laughs]
Chris: —by convincing the new person that all these creatures were real. That’s where a lot of these made-up creatures come from. It’s just playing tricks on the new guy. Things like, “Hey there’s a fish that, you know, if you tickle it, it will laugh.” And, “There’s this one-legged land creature that hops up and down.” And all sorts of really, really silly stuff.
Wes: I remember that from camp as a kid. People would go on snipe hunts, or be told to go on snipe hunts, and it’s like, “What’s a snipe?” And it’s like, “You’ve got to stay up and hunt it because you’re getting hazed? I don’t know.” I think it is a small bird, maybe. I’m not too sure.
Oren: Go down to the store and pick up a can of elbow grease.
Wes: Chris, did you happen to see the Jersey Devil, speaking of these monstrous creations?
Chris: I’ve looked it up, but I don’t think I’ve read the original tale of it. But I did look it up because I was interested.
Wes: I don’t think I can do words justice. I feel like, if you’re listening and you’re interested, look at a picture of it. I—It’s so weird.
Chris: The picture on Wikipedia, you have a biped, right, so standing on two legs. But they’re horned—
Wes: With hooves, cloven hooves.
Chris: Cloven hooves. And then batwings, because it’s devilish. And…is that a donkey head?
Wes: I think so.
Chris: The funniest thing that I always think about with the Jersey Devil is that the X-Files actually had a hilarious episode that was supposed to be about the Jersey Devil—but—but the people that were supposedly Jersey Devils are just people!
Oren: [laughs] How boring.
Chris: They didn’t have cloven hooves, they didn’t have wings. I don’t—how are these supposed to be Jersey Devils? They’re just wild people, running around.
Oren: They live in the woods. Also, I don’t know what you guys are talking about. It just looks like a person from New Jersey. Ba-dum-tsh….
Chris and Wes: [laughter] Oh no.
Chris: But the Jersey Devil is pretty old. Apparently it was previously called the Leeds Devil.
Oren: Have we asked it what it wants to be called? Maybe it prefers “the Leeds Devil.”
Oh man, can I tell you guys about my favorite piece of American folklore? My absolute favorite? Okay, so this is also pretty recent. This one comes from the late 1800s, and it is called phantom airships.
Oren: Basically UFOs before there were UFOs. Because we didn’t call them UFOs yet. But this was during the time period where airships were being tested. You had hot air balloons that were being converted into powered, often helium- or hydrogen-lifted craft. And experiments were being conducted with them in Europe and in America. And so they were in the news. And wouldn’t you know it, suddenly everyone starts seeing airships everywhere that couldn’t possibly be there.
And there was wild speculation about how this was some kind of secret craft that wasn’t—that someone was hiding. Thomas Edison was a popular idea, that he was the one who was developing the secret craft, and he wasn’t willing to tell the world about it yet. But it was basically just UFOs. People would see something, or thought they saw something, and then they would construct a narrative. And airships were convenient because they happened to be in the news. There were so many of them in 1896 to 97 that it was called the “Airship Wave.”
I just love how creative some of these are. There’s one guy—and this is considered one of the first alien UFO stories. This guy claimed that a mystery airship landed, and some aliens got out and tried to make him go with them but then gave up cause he was too strong. That’s a hilarious story to me. It’s like, “Yeah, aliens tried to abduct me, but I was just too swole. And then they left.”
And then there was one where apparently the crew was very pro–Spanish-American War, which was a thing at the time. So it’d be like if a UFO came out of the sky and was like, “Hey, yeah, definitely should go and invade Syria.” And then left. And it’s like, “That’s a weird thing for you to have an opinion about, alien-UFO-man.”
But my absolute favorite is the one where these people claimed that a mystery airship came down and that a bunch of people in weird suits came out and claimed to be the lost tribe of Israel. And when they were like, “You can’t be the lost tribe of Israel. You speak English.” They were like, “Ah, yes, but we were taught English by the explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby, who was lost, as everyone knows, in an expedition to the North Pole in 1553.” And I was like, my god.
Chris: Somebody worked hard at that.
Oren: I definitely found these by scanning Wikipedia, but I feel like the people who told that story also had just finished scanning Wikipedia, and had just stumbled on Hugh Willoughby and were like, “I definitely gotta use this guy in a mystery airship story.”
Chris: Oren, why would you attack somebody’s very carefully-written fiction that way.
Oren: I love mystery airships, or phantom airships. They’re my favorite. They’re so funny. I just love that people’s ability to make things up is so wonderfully universal.
Chris: I would like to give another weird—I actually have a couple creature stories. One of the weirdest stories that I ran into looking through original tales is this story about these fluting geese.
Chris: It’s very unique. So basically, a hunter goes out, and there’s these geese flying through the sky and making these weird fluting noises. And so the hunter shoots one of the birds down, and it falls, and it continues to make fluting noises. And then the bird is plucked and cooked for dinner and put on the table, and it makes more fluting noises.
Chris: And then there’s a whole bunch of fluting noises as the flock comes around the house, and then the bird lifts off the table, and its feathers come back on, and it makes fluting noises, and it just flies away.
Chris: It’s such a weird story, if you can even call it a story: it’s like, some weird things happened with a fluting goose. And that is it.
Oren: The Fluting Goose, by Howard Phillip Lovecraft.
Wes: [laughs] Oh my gosh, yes.
Chris: I liked it because it was so devoid—it had the same themes of nature is strange and weird and we don’t understand it, but without all of the really big toxic masculinity stuff. Because in the end, there’s no real violence—the guy shoots it down, and it makes fluting noises, but then it just flies away.
Oren: The goose is fine, guys; don’t worry about it. The lesson here is that if you’re going to shoot a goose, make sure it’s the kind that doesn’t leave before dinner. Cause there was definitely a family looking at that hunter like, “We were gonna have goose. But you had to shoot a fluting one. Jerk.”
Chris: [laughs] Oh no.
Wes: Speaking of instructive, Chris brought up Brothers Grimm earlier. But there tends to be an instructive element to ones that are fleshed out more as stories that would be told to kids or things like that. And in this massive tome of folklore that Chris let me borrow, I quickly found that it had a lot of Zora Neal Hurston’s folktales that she collected when she was going across the South and put in her fabulous book called Of Mules and Men. And there’s a couple of her stories in here about Brer Rabbit, Brer Dog.
And I really like this very short one with Brer Hawk and Brer Buzzard that has kind of an instructive quality to it, where basically, the hawk comes up, and he’s like, “Hey, Buzzard, how’s it going.” And the buzzard’s like, “I’m pretty good. I’m just, you know, waitin’ on the Lord to provide for me.” And then the hawk’s like, “What…I don’t wait on anyone to provide for me. I take care of myself.” And the buzzard’s like, “I bet that I’ll live to pick your bones, Mr. Hawk.” And the hawk’s like, “Yeah, right. Watch me. Watch how I live.” And then he soars after a sparrow and accidentally gets impaled on a tree branch.
Chris: Oh, oh no…
Wes: And then the buzzard just comes right over, and he says, “I told you I was gonna live to pick your bones. I was waitin’ on the salvation of the Lord.”
Chris: [laughs] Oh gosh!
Wes: You can feel there’s some kind of…I’m not sure what lesson’s there. But is the message that we’re supposed to trust that we will be provided for? Or, don’t be rash? It’s quite interesting, that kind of story.
Chris: It sounds like it’s supposed to be a lesson about faith, specifically. Like, don’t think that you don’t need God. Something like that, I guess. I’m guessing.
Wes: I think that was a fairly common theme with a lot of…because she’s recording these stories, but it’s, you know how you read a book, you’re reading The Hobbit, and then all the sudden there’s a song. And you’re like, I don’t know the melody, but let’s do this. Of Mules and Men is her interactions with the people telling the stories, and they’re traveling. And then the people then share a folktale that they’ve heard. So they kind of come in and out of context like that.
Oren: Well, if there’s one thing that I’m pretty sure of after researching folklore for a day, it’s that when it comes to the United States and America, Black folklore is way better than white folklore. It’s just better. And it’s also not as well recorded, because racism. And it’s not as easy to find. But John the Conquerer is amazing.
Wes: So good.
Oren: This African American folk character. In some versions, he’s an African prince. In others, he’s just a badass. He’s a trickster, he plays tricks on slave owners and fights racism. And I love him. And there’s a quote by, again, Zora Neal Hurston, about him that I love. I’m just going to read this quote:
“Like King Arthur of England, he has served his people. And like King Arthur, he is not dead. He waits to return when his people shall call him again. High John de Conquerer went back to Africa, but he left his power here.”
And the quote goes on and is more context-specific, but that just really was very powerful. I got shivers. Ooh.
Wes: [interjecting] That’s great. Yeah, that’s good. That’s really good.
Oren: I’m a big fan of the one where John the Conquerer runs off with the Devil’s daughter, because the Devil’s daughter has agency. She and John the Conquerer want to date. And the Devil’s like, “No,” cause presumably the Devil is also racist, and gives John this impossible task and then is planning to kill him anyway.
So the daughter’s like, “Oops. I overheard my dad, the Devil, talking.” And she goes and warns John. And it’s like, “Also, here’s a magic ax.” And then they escape together. And I’m like yeah, give me that agency. Great. I’m into it, lady.
Wes: That’s awesome.
Oren: I don’t know if the Devil’s daughter is also a devil, or a demon, or what. I don’t know what the taxonomy on that is. But I love that story.
Wes: The Devil is pervasive, obviously, in the folklore. Another one that I really liked from Hurston’s book is “Big Sixteen and the Devil.” It’s a brilliant story. It’s basically about, there’s this guy and he’s named Big Sixteen, and they called him that because that was the size of shoe that he wore. He’s this huge guy. Basically, he’s being told—he’s a slave, and he’s being told to do these things. And he has to go…he’s just doing these incredible tasks, right? And then basically, this person says, “The way you did that, I bet you could do anything. I bet you could catch the Devil.” And then Big Sixteen says, “If you get me a nine-pound hammer and a pick, I’ll get the Devil.”
And so he basically just digs to hell and then knocks on the door. The Devil opens the door when he insists that he comes out, and he uses the hammer and breaks his head and drags the Devil back up to earth. And then people are just like, “Oh my gosh, what the heck, get that thing out of here.” So Big Sixteen throws the Devil back down the hole.
And then eventually the story ends with: Big Sixteen dies and goes up to the Pearly Gates to meet Saint Peter. And Saint Peter’s like, “Hey, so you’re a pretty good person, but we know what you did with the Devil. And we don’t feel safe to have you here, because you’re really strong.” And so he’s like, “All right, well, I gotta go somewhere.” And so he goes down to hell. And then the Devil’s wife is like, “Hey, you killed the Devil! You can’t stay here!” And so he’s like, “All right, I gotta go somewhere.” And the story ends with, “So when you see a jack-o-lantern in the woods at night, you know it’s Big Sixteen with his piece of fire, looking for a place to go.” And I was just like, “Oh, man, that’s awesome.”
Chris: [interjecting] Oh, wow, man, that got dark.
Wes: Yeah, it got dark, but it was…it’s a good one. I really like it. I just like the idea of, “You can catch the Devil.” And without missing a beat, he’s like, “Give me a nine-pound hammer and a pick.” [laughs] Starts digging. Let’s do this.
Oren: I’m also just a fan of tall tales that are based on real people but that we can’t really say for sure how much of it is real and how much of it is made up. There’s something fascinating to me about that. I like reading about Calamity Jane. I’m still mad about Deadwood and what Deadwood did to Calamity Jane.
Wes: Oh, yeah, that was not good.
Oren: Okay, I get that she has a reputation for being kind to wounded people, but she also has a reputation for being a badass. So why didn’t you include that part. That was annoying.
And Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ethel Place are fascinating characters. They were real, and we know they existed, but we know very little about them cause they were outlaws. And they didn’t like telling people stuff about them cause then the police would get them. And they’re kind of neat, right? You just look up…maybe they died in Bolivia. Maybe not. I dunno. No one knows. And now that I’ve finished talking about people dying, we are actually at the end of our time.
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: Maybe this podcast ended on that note. Maybe it didn’t. Future historians will never know for sure.
Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo; she lives at therambogeeks.com.[closing music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?