Posted by: Nancy Keim Comley | August 12, 2014

Folklore and Writing

IMG_8388I have been wrestling with the subject matter of this blog post for some days. The problem with me is that at the word ‘folklore’ I tend to get completely over-excited. Hand waving may even ensue. To me folklore is one of the most fascinating subjects. It inspires my fiction writing. Understanding what people do as a community and why they do it is always interesting.

Recently I was in Iceland. One morning, as we drove out to look at some volcanic formations, the guide mentioned that the longish piles of stone by the side of the road were from the middle ages.

Why? Why had people carried a lot of heavy rocks to this place and put them into a number of big piles? There had to be a reason. I had seen lines of roundish cairns that were used as a guide by travelers across the interior but these piles were a different shape. When asked the reason behind the mounds the guide explained that that area had been where, by tradition, criminals were executed. People piled the stones on the bodies of the dead felons to keep their spirits from roaming.

These stones were a physical expression of a folk belief. Fear, sadness, disgust at the crimes perpetuated (one of the convects was a serial killer who threw his victims bodies into a pond) and a hundredfold other emotions coalesced into the idea of putting a big pile of stones on top of a dead body. Those heaps of stones ensured that those who had threatened the community could never come back and, in turn, this comforted people and helped them feel safer.

As the very respected folklorist, Michael Owen Jones, explains, in folklore “…the forms and processes studied have in common at least three characteristics. They are symbolic, they are learned or generated in people’s firsthand interactions, and they are traditional, exhibiting continuities and consistencies in thought and behavior through time and space, respectively.” (1)

To quote him again: “The stories that people tell are not simply a dispassionate reporting of facts but dramatic performances vividly portraying some aspect of an event, in the process engaging teller and listener alike in a host of associations and possible inferences. Rituals convey meanings that transcend the mundane, invoking associations and feelings that otherwise are often ignored, discounted, or suppressed in our workaday lives. In other words, something visible is taken to stand for the invisible, whether ideas, qualities, or feelings. Even customs are symbolic. As “our” way of doing things, these traditions define behavior and express identity.” (2)

As a writer I not only mine folklore for ideas (note to self: what happens if someone removes those stones and the spirit gets out?) but for people’s/character’s motivations. People do things for a reason. Piling stones on top of the bodies of those who disturbed the community and put its cohesion in jeopardy strengthen the bonds of the group and brings them closer.

IMG_8422I’d love to hear if anyone else has a love of folklore or has been inspired by folklore.






1) Jones, Michael Owen. Putting Folklore To Use. Kentucky:  The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

2) Jones, Michael Owen. Putting Folklore To Use. Kentucky:  The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.


  1. Yikes! I will never again be able to look at unusually shaped cairns in a benign way. Are you familiar with the works of Juilene Osborne-McKnight? Her fictional works ( are based on myths and are so brimming with folklore. You may enjoy them…if you write to her, tell her Robin Bonner says “hello”!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the recommendation! It was a little surprising about the cairns – the have so many all over Iceland I kept checking to see what shape they were.


  3. […] I have always loved the stories people tell themselves, each other and the world (in fact I wrote a blog post about it last year). The scrambling part wasn’t just because I’d worked hard. Some […]


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