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A legend (Latin, legenda, "things to be read") is a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude. Legend, for its active and passive participants includes no happenings that are outside the realm of "possibility" but which may include miracles. Legends may be transformed over time, in order to keep it fresh and vital, and realistic. Many legends operate within the realm of uncertainty, never being entirely believed by the participants, but also never being resolutely doubted.
Legend, typically, is a short (mono-) episodic, traditional, highly ecotypified historicized narrative performed in a conversational mode, reflecting on a psychological level a symbolic representation of folk belief and collective experiences and serving as a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs."
Etymology and origin
Legend is a loanword from Old French that entered English usage circa 1340. The Old French noun legende derives from the Medieval Latin legenda. In its earliest English-language usage, the word indicated a narrative of an event.
By 1613, English-speaking Protestants began to use the word when they wished to imply that an event (especially the story of any saint not acknowledged in John Foxe's Actes and Monuments) was fictitious. Thus, legend gained its modern connotations of "undocumented" and "spurious", which distinguish it from the meaning of chronicle.
In 1866, Jacob Grimm described the fairy tale as "poetic, legend historic." Early scholars such as Karl Wehrhan Friedrich Ranke} and Will-Erich Peukert followed Grimm's example in focussing solely on the literary narrative, an approach that was enriched particularly after the 1960s, by addressing questions of performance and the anthropological and psychological insights provided in considering legends' social context. Questions of categorising legends, in hopes of compiling a content-based series of categories on the line of the Aarne-Thompson folktale index, provoked a search for a broader new synthesis.
In an early attempt at defining some basic questions operative in examining folk tales, Friedrich Ranke in 1925 characterised the folk legend as "a popular narrative with an objectively untrue imaginary content" a dismissive position that was subsequently largely abandoned.
Compared to the highly structured folktale, legend is comparatively amorphous, Helmut de Boor noted in 1928. The narrative content of legend is in realistic mode, rather than the wry irony of folktale; Wilhelm Heiske remarked on the similarity of motifs in legend and folktale and concluded that, in spite of its realistic mode, legend is not more historical than folktale.
In Einleitung in der Geschichtswissenschaft (1928), Ernst Bernheim asserted that a legend is simply a longstanding rumour. Gordon Allport credited the staying-power of some rumours to the persistent cultural state-of-mind that they embody and capsulise; thus "Urban legends" are a feature of rumour. When Willian Jansen suggested that legends that disappear quickly were "short-term legends" and the persistent ones be termed "long-term legends", the distinction between legend and rumour was effectively obliterated, Tangherlini concluded.
The word legendary was originally a noun (introduced in the 1510s) meaning a collection or corpus of legends. This word changed to legendry, and legendary became the adjectival form of legend.
In the narrow Christian sense, legenda ("things to be read [on a certain day, in church]") were hagiographical accounts, often collected in a legendary.
Because saints' lives are often included in many miracle stories, legend, in a wider sense, came to refer to any story that is set in a historical context but that contains supernatural or fantastic elements.
Legends are tales that, because of the tie to a historical event or location, are believable, though not necessarily believed. For the purpose of the study of legends, in the academic discipline of folkloristics, the truth value of legends is irrelevant because, whether the story told is true or not, the fact that the story is being told at all allows scholars to use it as commentary upon the cultures that produce or circulate the legends.
Hippolyte Delehaye, (in his Preface to The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography, 1907) distinguished legend from myth: "The legend, on the other hand, has, of necessity, some historical or topographical connection. It refers imaginary events to some real personage, or it localizes romantic stories in some definite spot."
From the moment a legend is retold as fiction, its authentic legendary qualities begin to fade and recede: in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving transformed a local Hudson River Valley legend into a literary anecdote with "Gothic" overtones, which actually tended to diminish its character as genuine legend.
Stories that exceed the boundaries of "realism" are called "fables". For example, the talking animal formula of Aesop identifies his brief stories as fables, not legends. The parable of the Prodigal Son would be a legend if it were told as having actually happened to a specific son of a historical father. If it included an ass that gave sage advice to the Prodigal Son it would be a fable.
Legend may be transmitted orally, passed on person-to-person, or, in the original sense, through written text. Jacob de Voragine's Legenda Aurea or "The Golden Legend" comprises a series of vitae or instructive biographical narratives, tied to the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. They are presented as lives of the saints, but the profusion of miraculous happenings and above all their uncritical context are characteristics of hagiography. The Legenda was intended to inspire extemporized homilies and sermons appropriate to the saint of the day.
Legends in folklore
Legends are used as a source of folklore, providing historical information regarding the culture and views of a specific legend's native civilization. "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" is the most popular and well known American legend. The traditional tale type involves a young girl in a white dress picked up alongside of the road by a passerby. The unknown girl in white remains silent for the duration of her ride, thanks the driver, and quietly gets out at her destination. When the driver turns to look back, the girl had vanished. Often there a third character is included at the destination to add further suspicion to the girl's existence by informing the driver that they haven't seen anyone all night. "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" and stories like it, display the fears and anxieties that a particular social group has. For example, the hitchhiking tale speaks to America's fascination with the road and also the anxieties that are inherent to travel.
Examples of famous legends
- The founding of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital
- Cenodoxus, or the Damnation of the Good Doctor of Paris, told as an event justifying the sanctification of St Bruno
- Celtic Legends
- Don Juan
- El Dorado
- Fountain of Youth
- Holy Grail
- Helen of Troy and the Trojan War
- King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
- Legends of Africa
- Crimean legends
- Loch Ness Monster
- Philosopher's stone
- Robin Hood
- Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome
- Táin Bó Flidhais
- Vlad the Impaler; stories of his cruelty have attained legendary status, most likely spread after his death by his enemies.
- William Tell
- Robert Georges and Michael Owens (1995). Folkloristics. United States of America: Indiana University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-253-32934-5.
- Norbert Krapf, Beneath the Cherry Sapling: Legends from Franconia (New York: Fordham University Press) 1988, devotes his opening section to distinguishing the genre of legend from other narrative forms, such as fairy tale; he "reiterates the Grimms' definition of legend as a folktale historically grounded", according to Hans Sebald's review in German Studies Review 13.2 (May 1990), p 312.
- Tangherlini, "'It Happened Not Too Far from Here...': A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization" Western Folklore 49.4 (October 1990:371-390) p. 385.
- That is to say, specifically located in place and time.
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "legend"
- Patrick Collinson. Elizabethans, "Truth and Legend: The Veracity of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs" 2003:151-77, balances the authentic records and rhetorical presentation of Foxe's Acts and Monuments, itself a mighty force of Protestant legend-making. Sherry L. Reames, The Legenda Aurea: a reexamination of its paradoxical history, 1985, examines the "Renaissance verdict" on the Legenda, and its wider influence in skeptical approaches to Catholic hagiography in general.
- Das Märchen ist poetischer, die Sage, historischer, quoted at the commencement of Tangherlini's survey of legend scholarship (Tangherlini 1990:371)
- Wehrhan Die Sage (Leipzig) 1908.
- Ranke, "Grundfragen der Volkssagen Forshung", in Leander Petzoldt (ed.), Vergleichende Sagenforschung 1971:1-20, noted by Tangherlini 1990.)
- Peukert , Sagen (Munich: E Schmidt) 1965.
- Stimulated in part, Tangherlini suggests, by the 1962 congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research.
- Ranke, "Grundfragen der Volkssagenforschung", Niederdeutsche Zeitschrift fur Volkskunde 3 (1925, reprinted 1969)
- Charles L. Perdue Jt., reviewing Linda Dégh and Andrew Vászony's essay "The crack on the red goblet or truth and the modern legend" in Richard M. Dorson, ed. Folklore in the Modern World, (The Hague: Mouton)1978, in The Journal of American Folklore 93 No. 369 (July–September 1980:367), remarked on Ranke's definition, criticised in the essay, as a "dead issue". A more recent examination of the balance between oral performance and literal truth at work in legends forms Gillian Bennett's chaprer "Legend: Performance and Truth" in Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith, eds. Contemporary Legend (Garland) 1996:17-40.
- de Boor, "Märchenforschung", Zeitschrift für Deutschkunde 42 1928:563-81.
- Lutz Röhrich, Märchen und Wirklichkeit: Eine volkskundliche Untersuchung (Wiesbaden: Steiner Verlag) 1956:9-26.
- Heiske, "Das Märchen ist poetischer, die Sage, historischer: Versuch einer Kritik", Deutschunterricht14 1962:69-75..
- Bernheim, Einleitung in der Geschichtswissenschaft(Berlin: de Gruyter) 1928.
- Allport, The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Holt, Rinehart) 1947:164.
- Bengt af Klintberg, "Folksägner i dag" Fataburen 1976:269-96.
- Jansen, "Legend: oral tradition in the modern experience", Folklore Today, A Festschrift for William Dorson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 1972:265-72, noted in Tangherlini 1990:375.
- Harper, Douglas. "legendary". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary legendry
- Georges, Jones, Robert, Michael (1995). Folkloristics. Indiana University Press.
- Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography (1907), Chapter I: Preliminary Definitions, et passim
- Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks (1959)
- Catholic Encyclopedia article Literary or Profane Legends
- Timothy R. Tangherlini, "'It Happened Not Too Far from Here...': A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization" Western Folklore 49.4 (October 1990:371-390). A condensed survey with extensive bibliography.