An Introduction to the Committee on Degrees in Folklore & Mythology

The concentration in Folklore and Mythology is a liberal education in itself, and although most graduates of the program go on to successful careers in medicine, law, business, journalism, and other pursuits, an unusually large number of our alumni and alumnae teach and conduct research in a variety of academic departments. This concentration focuses on the study of society, past or present, through its cultural documents and artifacts, and uses a variety of methodologies drawn from the humanities and social sciences. To concentrate on a society’s folklore and mythology (on sub-national as well as national levels) is to understand its traditional self-definition through its epics, ballads, folktales, legends, beliefs, and other cultural phenomena, including music, song, and dance, and studying a group’s folklore shows how it identifies itself in relation to other groups.

Concentrators conduct independent research on folklore and mythology in a variety of cultures including, for example, African, American, Chinese, Celtic, English, Greek, German, Japanese, Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Scandinavian, and Slavic. Founded in 1967 and the oldest undergraduate degree program in the field in this country, Folklore and Mythology at Harvard has produced many distinguished graduates. Students often form mutually supportive groups; student-faculty contact is by tradition — and structure — very close; and collegiality within the program is highly valued.

Three central courses of the Concentration (General Education 1o97: Tradition, Performance, and Culture, formerly Culture and Belief 16; 97; and 98a) provide an introduction to the field of folkloristics, general knowledge of the theories and methods of the field, as well as a survey of ethnographic field methods and ethnological methodology. 

In addition to this central core, each concentrator selects a Special Field. Roughly speaking, these fields fall into those that are grounded in a particular culture or language (such as African, Celtic, Classics, English and American, German, Near Eastern, Sanskrit and Indian Studies) and those that are not (such as Anthropology, Linguistics, Psychology, Sociology, Ethnomusicology, Performance). Concentrators gain in-depth knowledge of the Special Field by taking at least five half-courses in it. The second half of the Junior tutorial (98b) investigates areas for research at the intersection of the Special Field and folklore proper. The senior tutorial is devoted to the honors thesis required of all concentrators. Current course offerings range from Witchcraft and Charm Magic, to Fairy Tale, Myth, and Fantasy Literature; to African Expressive Culture; to Tattoo: Histories and Practices; to Celtic Mythology; to Quilts and Quiltmaking; to the Folklore of Displacement and Migration.

The dual structure of the Concentration, together with the unique position of folklore studies between the humanities and the social sciences, offers students an insurance policy against parochialism, while at the same time guaranteeing a deep and certain grasp of a traditional discipline. The original faculty legislation founding the program charged that candidates be prepared to do graduate work in the departments represented by their Special Field, as well as in Folklore and Mythology. In fact, our graduates have, over the years, exercised not only those alternatives, but have, like most graduates of the College, gone on to careers in law, business, medicine, and a variety of other professions, including journalism and film.

No special background is required for any Folklore and Mythology course, but good general preparation in languages, literature, history, and expository writing will be advantageous. Our Concentration strongly recommends proficiency in a language other than English, equivalent to that acquired by two years of college study. Generally, languages are very important to advanced work in folklore and in the Special Fields, and prospective concentrators are urged to look to language preparation in high school and from the beginning of their freshman year. In some of our Special Fields, language study may be counted toward concentration.

All potential concentrators should make an appointment with the Head Tutor to discuss Special Field options and suggested courses, by the first Friday in April.