A Preview of Part Two

On Greek, Roman, & Near East Folklore & Early Modern Satirical Drama

Folklore in Aesop’s Fables is featured in Chapter Four to showcase the allegory and animal fable to engage literary studies students with representations of nature and versions of anthropomorphism throughout several works. Folklore as Greek Mythology in Ovid’s the Metamorphoses is featured in Chapter Five to showcase the adaptation and classical allusions on gender equality and ecocriticism. Folklore as fantastic tales and fables in Arabian Nights is featured in Chapter Six to showcase Middle Eastern and Eastern popular folklore and its contribution to the Western tradition. Themes on systemic inequalities and Orientalism are also addressed to navigate intersections between folklore and gender equality and social justice. Folklore as dramatic allusions in early modern Elizabethan drama is featured in Chapter Seven with Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or The Fox to showcase satire and themes on overconsumption, immorality, and ideology. Learners engage in several activities and writing assignments on these folkloric narratives to build critical thinking, textual analysis, and interpretative skills. Intersections with gender equality, reducing conflict, and no poverty are also addressed (UNSDG).

What Does Early, Ancient Folklore Entail?

Folklore is a dynamic transitory and fantastic form of storytelling that has traveled ancient trade routes throughout the African continent to connect the East and West for thousands of years. Early, ancient traditions of folklore operate through metaphor among several storytelling forms – the allegory, animal fable, and mythology, in addition to forms of art and music. As a collective and social cultural practice, folklore shapes and represents linguistic and social cohesion through themes on established values and taboos. Also witnessed in early, ancient folklore is a people’s perceptions of history and religious doctrine within ideology. They reflect limitations of nearby terrain, climate, and available resources.

How Has Folklore been Preserved?

In the 1550s, the Gutenberg printing press helped to preserve classical texts at a larger scale. And, by the 1700s, literature became more widespread through publishing houses. This caused debates over how to define folklore, because publishers changed certain aspects of earlier versions of folktales for popular entertainment.

For example,

  • “Once printed, these story collections became ‘self-contained’. Its anecdotes, like those found in Aesop’s Fables, became formulaic similar to religious parables or the sayings of Benjamin Franklin: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away””Late 1500s printed versions of Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses were circulating among travelers. Once printed, these story collections became ‘self-contained’. Its anecdotes, like those found in Aesop’s Fables, became formulaic similar to religious parables or the sayings of Benjamin Franklin: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
  • By the 1700s, publishing houses created popular versions of the 1001 Nights titled The Arabian Nights, an adaptation with exoticized characterizations of the East that fueled orientalism.
  • By the 1800s, German folktales were also reshaped by publishing houses into popular versions – like the publication of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. These new versions became known as popular antiquities.

In the present day many of us experience vestiges of earlier folklore traditions – like the animal fable and fairy tale – throughout Japanese anime, Disney’s animated films, or Grimms’ fairy tales as children’s literature. Western and Eastern folklore experienced a revival in European romantic novels and poetry.

“Brontë incorporates references to many literary works that include elements of folklore, such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Arabian Nights, and fairy tales or wonder tales like “Cinderella” and “Bluebeard” (Wilson 10).

But we also engage in modern-day versions of folklore

“[Alan Dundes] argues that contemporary urban people also have folklore and suggests that rather than dying out, folklore is constantly being created and recreated to suit new situations” (Bronner 2007).

How is Folklore Understood as a Fusion of the Past with the Present?

Most folkloric traditions overlap with the folklore of neighboring social groups. This is also witnessed in folklore throughout regions populated with communities of different linguistic cultures, such as among Indigenous communities of North America and throughout the regions of the African continent. Enheduanna’s hymns also demonstrate a fusion of different traditions when she decided to combine deities from different religious communities to appease warring rivals. Other earlier instances of fusing folklore include a people’s response to colonization, like in Mexico and other regions in the Americas.

For example, after Spanish conquistadores overtook regional nobility who surrounded the capital of the Aztec empire, its Nahua Indigenous community fused Aztec deities with Catholic religious figures.

“La Virgen de Guadalupe has transcended religion and the Catholic Church” as an expression of postcolonialism as a “symbol of indigenismo”(Mendoza 2013).

statues of indigenus people in a line reaching toward the statue of a the Virgin Mary on the far right

Virgin of Guadalupe in the Basilica CC

How Do Folkloric Animal Fables Vary throughout Traditions?

Like the epic, animal fables share characterizations throughout folklore known as literary tropes.  Examples of common folkloric characters are the trickster figure who outwits unsuspecting characters demonstrated in “The Fox and the Crow” and the figure of the coward in “Belling the Cat,” from Aesop’s Fables. These figures are also common throughout world folklore, regardless of religious doctrine or ideology.

For example, an ancient folkloric tradition in Sanskrit originates from South Asia and has been preserved in the story collection Panchatantra. The animal fable is also part of the Jataka Tales, a collection narrated by Buddha. The stories Buddha narrates represent his previous lives.

While the Crocodile lay on the rock with his mouth wide open and his eyes shut, the Monkey jumped. But not into his mouth! Oh, no! He landed on the top of the Crocodile’s head, and then sprang quickly to the bank. Up he whisked into his tree. When the Crocodile saw the trick the Monkey had played on him, he said: ‘Monkey, you have great cunning. You know no fear. I’ll let you alone after this.’ ‘Thank you, Crocodile, but I shall be on the watch for you just the same,’ said the Monkey. OER “The Monkey and the Crocodile”, Jataka

How has Folklore been Preserved in Light of Climate Instability?

Early, ancient oral folkloric traditions were preserved in the libraries like in Alexandria, Egypt, where its stories were organized as collections. For example, the story collection One Thousand and One Nights has a frame narrative with embedded narratives to organize its body of stories, fantastic tales, songs, and poems. Earlier, more ancient folklore, including the story collection known as Aesop’s Fables have been preserved with inserted anecdotal, moral endings by 200 B.C.E.

In modern times, efforts to record and preserve a people’s traditional folklore show real concerns about the status of world languages and their storytelling traditions, which have been disappearing since the advent of European colonialism, an era that has led to the first industrial revolution and the acceleration of climate instability and environmental exploitation, which the UNSDG also addresses (UNSDG).

In the United States, as McCarty (2015) writes, federal government policies like the 1819 Civilization Fund Act are particularly culpable for Indigenous language decimation (p.5). The boarding school projects advanced settler colonial goals of cultural assimilation through deliberate and organized language erasure, English-only policies, and excruciatingly harsh punishments for children in noncompliance at the schools. (Watson Paskvan 2021)  OER Dissertation 2021

Local communities and institutions alike have made efforts to preserve earlier folkloric traditions. The Mali of West Africa, Indigenous communities throughout the Americas, and community members among many other societies and regions around the world continue efforts to this day to preserve their folkloric traditions. Other efforts to preserve and theorize folklore are witnessed in twentieth-century African American literary works including those by Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison with instances of critical fabulation and Black Studies scholarship, like Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s work on African American vernacular and African trickster figures in The Signifying Monkey (1988).

How is Mythological Folklore Understood in Literary Studies?

Mythology is an equally influential genre of ‘belief’ folklore with origins in ancient world oral traditions. Origin, creation, and story cycle mythological stories allow a culture to negotiate what is beyond human reach and control, through metaphor. Audiences witness fantastic feats of human-like gods set in imagined landscapes and worlds that leave them emotionally and intellectually in awe of the sublime  forces of nature. While they witness the deeds of supernatural omniscient deities, audiences learn religious doctrine, familial genealogy, history, and their own placement in the cosmos and Earth.

“Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or a picture of the universe and allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature” (Campbell, Reflections 56).

Yet mythology also reflects shared beliefs in a sense of superiority over the forces of nature through stories about the cosmos and human history. These beliefs are known as instances of ideological hegemony.

“Now the biblical tradition is a socially oriented mythology. Nature is condemned” (The Power of Myth 22-23).

How Does the Fable Represent Anthropomorphism?

Aesop’s Fables is a popularized adaptation of Western folklore in Greece with Eastern influences from 600 B.C.E. and written down by 200 B.C.E. Human-like animal characterizations known as anthropomorphism are prevalent throughout Aesop’s Fables. When a culture represents nature with human attributes in their folklore and storytelling tradition, anthropomorphism may reflect a method of objectivity and objectification.

“They [Anthropomorphic stories] are, if anything, about how humans became human. Indeed, from this perspective, literature can be said to be about how humans describe themselves as not animals” (Ortiz Robles 2016).

“By regulating human behavior, the fable teaches what it means to be human.”The animal fables in Aesop’s Fables are also represented in a way that adds non-threatening intrigue towards the animal kingdom – nature, while they establish objectivity by their inserted moral lessons. By regulating human behavior, the fable teaches what it means to be human.

While a moral lesson does not vary in different versions of the fable in Aesop’s Fables, the setting and the anthropomorphized species of animals do change, perhaps to accommodate a specific geographic region. Literary anthologist Dr. Puncher calls attention to such variances.

“Reading across these texts, one can track how stories morph from one collection, and culture, to the next. Sometimes the same moral is derived, but the animal changes, according to local fauna of wherever the tale is told being and collected” (Puncher 2022).

Engage in a close reading activity below. This activity asks you to work through a fable to learn how it   represents nature through anthropomorphism. This activity is a fruitful exercise to practice ecologically sensitive interpretative methods.


GOAL: To practice close reading skills, to engage in textual analysis of the animal fable, and to practice interpretive approaches on key literary concepts, like anthropocentrism.

INSTRUCTION: 1) Read the  animal fable “The Wolf and Lamb” from Aesop’s Fables. 2) Take note of what is learned about being human: Its theme addresses how power operates. 3) What do you learn from its theme?

“The Wolf and Lamb” from Aesop’s Fables

Then he called out to the Lamb, ‘How dare you muddle the water from which I am drinking?’

‘Nay, master, nay,’ said Lamb; ‘if the water be muddy up there, I

cannot be the cause of it, for it runs down from you to me.’

‘Well, then,’ said the Wolf, ‘why did you call me bad names this time last year?”

‘That cannot be,’ said the Lamb; ‘I am only six months old.’

‘‘I don’t care,’ snarled the Wolf; ‘if it was not you it was your

father;’ and with that he rushed upon the poor little Lamb and


ate her all up. But before she died, she gasped out—

‘Any excuse will serve a tyrant.’

OER of Aesop’s Fables 600 BCE

Relief of a Roman woman holding a maskSilver mirror with elaborate reliefpainting of a lion and a fox.

Egyptian, Greek, & Persian Animal Fables CC

How are Roman Adaptations of Greek Myth Informed by New Historicism?

Literary scholars are able to place classical works from thousands of years ago within its historical context so they may gain more insight and knowledge about the role of a storytelling tradition in a specific geographic location and historical era. This interpretative strategy allows scholars to make connections between a work of literature and the communities from which it emerged. The works by Ovid, a Roman poet, have been understood through the interpretive approach of the New Historicism. New Historicist critics associate Ovid’s work with the political climate at the time of its composition.

It is well documented that Ovid became a young established poet during the rise of the reign of Rome’s first emperor Augustus between 27 B.C.E. and 14 C.E. Through New Historicism, this interpretative theory relates the content of Ovid’s works in reference to the political events the poet lived through under Augustus’ rule. For example, Ovid worked with Greek classical mythology in Metamorphoses. Throughout his adaptation of Greek myth, Ovid’s own version shows themes on the transformative qualities of human experiences and nature. Ovid’s literary trope on chaos and transformation has also been interpreted by New Historicist critics to demonstrate nonconforming sentiments that were in opposition to the Roman emperor, because it is well documented that Augustus promoted order and permanence throughout the Roman Empire, values that are antithetical to the themes throughout the Metamorphoses.

How Does the Frame Narrative of 1001 Nights Show Narrative Cohesion?

The 1001 Nights represents a compilation of stories from several traditions – including Persian, African, Indian, and the Middle Eastern. Persian influences are identified in its organizing frame narrative with its storyteller Shahrazad who is the narrator and King Shahriyár, since their names are Persian.

The frame narrative includes a series of embedded stories that address themes to complement or allude to its frame narrative that centers on King Shahriyár as the source of conflict, due to his irrational, violent responses toward his disloyal Queen whom he kills.

Discovering the queen’s infidelity, King Shahriyár marries again only to murder his new bride the following day and then marries a new bride only to kill her the next day. To end Shahriyár cyclical violence, Shahrazad, the daughter of the king’s political advisor, persuades her father to allow her to marry the king to distract him from his own violent behavior by telling a story that never ends.

On their wedding night, Shahrazad asks for sister Dunyazad to listen to her story.

The King sent to her [Dunyazad]; and she came to her sister, and embraced her, and sat near the foot of the bed; and after she had waited for a proper opportunity, she said, By Allah! O my sister, relate to us a story to beguile the waking hour of our night. Most willingly, answered Shahrazád, if this virtuous King permit me. And the King, hearing these words, and being restless, was pleased with the idea of listening to the story; and thus, on the first night of the thousand and one, Shahrazád commenced her recitations.“1001 Nights”

Shahrazad expresses the reasoning behind her own decision to marry King Shahriyár in the frame narrative – in order to protect the women of their kingdom, including herself. Shahrazad ends her story with the narrative device known as the cliffhanger, so she may evade death and live another night to continue the story.

How Do Allusions of Folklore Operate in Literary Works?

Folklore became a major component of the canonized literature of the West by the 1600s. Dramatists and poets like Elizabeth dramatists William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Miguel de Cervantes of Spain’s Siglo de Oro all allude to or simply incorporate classical folklore from different traditions into their poems and dramatic works. Folkloric allusions in more recent works of literature are quite vast from Aesop’s Fables, Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the 1001 Nights, Caribbean myth, and even the fantastic travel journals of Marco Polo, Chrisopher Columbus, and John Smith, in addition to allusions to scripture of the Western, Eastern, and throughout the geographic regions of the Islamic faith, including  the Middle East, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.

  • For example,
    • Jonson and Shakespeare incorporated Western folklore, including its allegorical forms in
      • Volpone; Or The Fox
      • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • Cervantes borrowed classical folkloric satire for his picaresque novel
      • Don Quixote de la Mancha (1606)
    • Shakespeare also incorporated Taíno folklore in
      • The Tempest (1610)

What is Western Literary Tradition and the Limits of Cartesian Dualism?

The Western tradition represents an intricate and vast cultural cross-pollination of oral and literary traditions and its knowledge from cultures of different continents, religious doctrines, and historical timelines. Ancient Egypt and Greek and Roman antiquities along with the religious traditions of The Torah, The Old and New Testament, and Eastern, Mediterranean, and Arabic medieval science all have contributed to and are represented in the Western tradition; in addition to recent contribution from Europe and throughout its once colonized regions, throughout the African continent, the United States, and Australia. Dominant trends of Western tradition have affinities with monotheism in contrast to polytheist cultures, as its ‘official’ cultural norm, which sustains ideologies at its base and superstructure. Once holistic, the origins of the Western tradition involved a less hierarchical and hegemonic view of natural history and philosophy.

The modern Western tradition aggravates hegemony through Cartesian dualism reasoning. Modern theories on social order, human and nature, and the Great Chain of Being reflect Cartesian dualism of its rationalism that antagonizes the mind (spirit) with the body (material).

Coinciding with the rise of modern science, a Cartesian understanding of the world arose at the advent of European exploration and colonialism. This era invented the “science of racism” (Morrison 1992) to justify modern slavery, while the world’s Indigenous communities were also vilified as nonhuman to be  displaced, as the work by Historian Brian W. Dippie of British Columbia explains in The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1982).

Literary criticism, especially ecocriticism, provides an explanation of the dangers of cartesian dualism. For example, when inequalities ensue in a culture that indiscriminately applies cartesian reasoning to justify systemic racism or sexism, it is understood to be a social construct that reveals an ideology of denial, of not recognizing the physical world for what it is. Ecocritics explain these sorts of ideological dynamics as signs of ecophobia, an inherent fear of the sublime supremacy of nature.

This construction also aggravates our inescapably inherent ties to nature – the source of all life on Earth. By othering the body, an exilement is performed over less rational beings – fauna and flora, which shows a lack of accountability toward the treatment of the web of life.

How is Nature Understood in Early and 21st Century Folkloric Traditions?

Folklore in early works throughout the Western tradition may refer to nature but, in most cases, only as vessels to address concerns humans have about humans.

“…the single term ‘animal’ is something of a fiction since it is used to group together a vast multiplicity of living beings” (Derrida qtd. in Ortiz Robles 2016).

By the twenty-first century, human activity and treatment of nature have converged in unimagined ways beyond climate and sustainability challenges, to also include addressing concerns with impact and roles of interactive, social technologies through computing communicative innovations.

Addressed in postmodern science fiction, like in the work of Philip K. Dick and the Afrofuturism of works by Octavia Butler, is concerns over our immersion with ‘man-made’ technology. Literary studies of modern-day forms of folklore with intersections on social and environmental justice, especially in ecocriticism, is one interpretative method to begin to understand the role of technology. Scholar of Engineering Carr Everbach’s brief genealogy of techne explains the differences between learning about technology and learning for the sake of knowledge.

Techne can thus also be defined as knowledge for the manipulation of nature on behalf of man. A ship, or a plow, for example, is techne, as each is a means through which man can overcome nature’s forces. At an imperial level, this principle had huge implications. In a shared tradition, the Greeks and Romans contributed to a general Aristotelian ‘Good’ by ‘acquiring’ from natural sources: ‘In their drives to promote their civilizations both the Greeks and Romans also promoted a mindless deforestation of the Mediterranean’, as well as other less obvious detrimental effects such as immense increases in lead levels. (Carr Everbach 2016)

How to Close Read Representations of Nature and Folklore as Allusions?

The literature in this section offers fantastic fables, legends, and mythological collections of stories, along with examples of ecocritical approaches. Allusions to the animal fable and animals in literature are fruitful in literary studies and ecocriticism. They appear throughout world literature as examples of  anthropomorphism to represent human frailty, morality, and other concerns.

For example, witness the dialogue presumably surrounding a common housefly. In this scene from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Marcus kills a fly that crawls across his dish and his brother Titus calls him a murderer:

§  MARCUS: Alas, my lord, I have to kill a fly.

TITUS: ·But how, if that fly had a father and mother?/How would he hang his slender gilded wings,/And buzz lamenting dirges in the air!/Poor harmless fly,/That with his pretty buzzing melody/Came here to make us merry! and thou hast kill’d him. (III, ii, 59 5)

The fly’s fate represents an instance of foreboding, because the fate of Aaron, Tamora’s lover, ends tragically at the hands of Marcus. Ecocritics also refers to scenes in early modern drama to further enhance understandings of representations of nature.

For example:

  • Titus’ view of insects is helpful to understand instances of nature in literature, especially those that uphold an ideology where humanity’s worldview is based on the web of life. Titus’ response places value in nature, through expressions of anthropomorphism.

Shakespearean scholars trace Titus’ response to Marcus back to the classical model of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, a Western version of the web of life that ceased significance since the advent of the Enlightenment. Present-day ecocritics argue that the Great Chain of Being placed humanity more intimately with nature where the mind and body is less hegemonic witnessed throughout classical works.

“Early modern habits of mind, especially as evidenced in such models as the Great Chain of Being, are much better tuned to this kind of systems thinking than minds limited by the reductionism of the high Enlightenment, which no longer looks like good science or philosophy” (Egan 2011).

Shakespeare’s reference to the animal kingdom honors a philosophical hypothesis connected to fauna flora, and the cosmos – an alignment that resembles other cultural philosophies of the web of life.

How to Engage with Folklore and Ecocriticism?

Folklore is a fruitful point of entry to also learn about sustainability through ecocritical readings, which  enhance interpretations of folklore on themes that involve social and environmental injustices. Ecocriticism draws attention to how injustices intersect with representations of nature.

These approaches to folklore have facilitated recent literary studies scholarship since the 1990s, when a new wave of environmentally centered scholarship emerged.

“…an important backdrop to many classical studies in the past, there is now an increasing trend to treat these phenomena with the theoretical and analytical tool set of ecocriticism (and of the ‘environmental humanities’ in general)” (Schliephake 2022).

A similar interpretive approach is featured in the seminal work on Indigenous folklore and storytelling traditions addressed by Joni Adamson in American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place (2001). She challenges those of us in literary studies to place the folklore of non-Western traditions as cultural theorists that inform on ecocriticism.

Consequently, if we want to understand what multicultural

communities and literatures have to teach us,

…we will need to read literature as cultural critique.

Fantastic and mythological tales of Western folklore and literature are also fruitful to address how social injustices intersect with representations of nature.

“Fantastic literature, an acutely self-conscious literature which necessarily foregrounds its status as representation, is well suited to the study of the construction of fictional environments, and so, perhaps paradoxically, the “real” environment” (Sandner 2000).

Other ecocritics also unveil how the ‘real’ environment is represented in classical allusions of folklore,  like in Ovid’s version of Greek mythology in Metamorphoses.

For example, Frank Van den Boom’s ecological study of Ovid’s Metamorphoses argues that

“a literary work that blurs the lines between human and nonhuman embodiment is a useful instrument for rethinking human’s relation to the environment” (Boom  2021).

How Does Folklore Shape Satirical Works?

In the Western tradition, satire dates as far back as classical Greek drama, poetry, and rhetoric. Aristophanes deemed “all theater is satire” and satirical narrative moments are woven in the burlesque drama, poetry, and the novel. The object of criticism of a satire is either nondescript or self-referential, as a comic inverts the aim of a joke or critique onto oneself.

“Puzzling over real-life references might turn out to be as fruitless as searching for the real god invoked by an epic poet” (Greenberg 2019).

Satire in folklore – the fable, animal tale, and allegorical satire – are prevalent, from Aesop’s Fables to the satiric fables in 1001 Nights. Folklore also appears in Elizabethan dramatic works on ecological ruptures like The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s satirical allegory, Volpone; Or The Fox (1606).

The upcoming chapter features Aesop’s Fables, a collection of allegorical fables and animal stories.

Key Points


  • Folklore encapsulates forms like the fable, mythology, allegory, and fantasy
  • Its narrative elements are a rural setting, symbolic characterizations, morality, and secular themes

Featuring Western and Non-Western Folklore

  • Folklore is a culture-centered literary tradition, due to its secular concerns
  • The Western folklore reflects binaries between humanity and nature
  • Non-Western folklore offers insightful ecocritical perspectives on the Great Chain of Being
  • Satire in folklore offers social critiques, guide reforms, and influences twentieth-century folklorists

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