A Brief History of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard

The formal awarding of degrees in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard dates to 7 March 1967, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously voted in favor of a motion to establish the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, the oldest American undergraduate degree program of its kind. (1) Those who proposed and spoke in favor of the founding of the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology at that meeting were Albert B. Lord, Charles Dunn, and Einar Haugen, who also served on the committee in its early years, as did, for example, Frank Cross, Daniel Ingalls, David Maybury-Lewis, David McClellan, Rulan Chao Pian, Eileen Southern, Evon Vogt, John Ward and Cedric Whitman. 

In broader terms, however, Harvard’s long engagement with the study of oral literature, of epics and ballads, cosmological and other mythic narratives, popular culture, traditional belief systems and all the many forms of expressive manifestation of culture that constitute the study of folklore and mythology goes back much, much further. And, in fact, there is a direct line that leads from the current generation of Harvard scholars in this field back to that group of distinguished faculty who fashioned the committee, and from them, even further back into the early 1800s; indeed, many of the most storied figures in the history of the University’s commitment to the humanities and interpretive social sciences worked in these fields, among others, Milman Parry, Clyde Kluckhohn, Fred Norris Robinson, George Lyman Kittredge, Francis James Child, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (2)

Indeed, it is anything but accidental that the founding of the American Folklore Society, the key professional association in the field in the US, took place at Harvard in the Faculty Room of University Hall on 4 January 1888. (3) When some eight decades later, in that same room, the Faculty voted to establish a committee to oversee the awarding of degrees in the field, it was noted that the proposed concentration would be both truly interdisciplinary and would "draw strength from the possibility of designing a wide variety of individual course programs and from the provision of tutorial." That foresighted foundation of the program, based on rigorous methodological training combined with flexible and sympathetic attention to the individual student’s intellectual interests, has proved to be a remarkably durable and successful recipe for the lives and careers of the program’s students. Many of our undergraduates have gone on to take advanced degrees in the many fields for which “Folk & Myth” prepares them and have had outstanding careers in the academy; at the same time, as with all concentrations, the overwhelming majority of former students have had rewarding careers in such disparate fields as medicine, law, business, politics, finance, media, the performing arts, and journalism.


(1) Attached please find a facsimile of the minutes of the 7 March 1967 FAS meeting.

(2) This branch of Harvard tradition is detailed in David E. Bynum, “Child's Legacy Enlarged: Oral Literary Studies at Harvard since 1856,” Harvard Library Bulletin 22:3 (1974): 1-37, also attached.

(3) See, for example, the discussion in Stephen A. Mitchell, "HarvardLore: Tradition and Belonging at America's Oldest College," Norveg. The Norwegian Journal of Folklore 43 (2000): 47-65.