Darwin Featured: ‘Folk-lore in the Old Testament’

-By Diane Newland, Darwin Bookseller

Remember, you can browse our Darwin rare books room stock online too, by heading over to our Antiquarian and Rare book collection on Abe books. 


If you are interested in ancient folk-lore then these three volumes of ‘Folk-Lore in the Old Testament‘ will keep you very happy for a long time. They contain a seemingly exhaustive set of examples from all over the world, which intriguingly echo, or relate to, stories of the Old Testament. I originally found the two volumes only, with the gilded spine titles, but on scouring the warehouse for a volume one, found a complete set, although the gilt has worn off these.


Folk-lore usually consists of customs, tales and beliefs that are shared by a group of people and actively passed down through each generation. Obviously the stories of the Old Testament are ancient ones, and it is exciting, and at times shocking, to read how these were lived out, in so many similar ways, in so many disparate places.

The whole text is split into four parts; ‘The Early Ages of the World’, ‘The Patriarchal Age’, ‘The Times of the Judges and the Kings’, and ‘The Law.’ 

I must admit, on face value these titles are not exactly screaming ‘read me.’ Or maybe that’s just me. When you look further at the chapter titles within each part, however, it all begins to sound far more interesting. Within each part there are numerous chapters, with titles like ‘The Witch of Endor,’ ‘The Waters of Meribah,’ ‘Jacob and the Mandrakes,’ ‘The Bird Sanctuary,’ ‘Sacred Oaks and Terebinths,’ ‘Boring a Servant’s Ear,’ ‘The Bitter water,’ and ‘The Gold Bells.’ Each contains dozens and dozens of stories along the theme of each title, with origins ranging from Madagascar to Scotland, from New Guinea to Wales, from Indonesia to Scandinavia, from Cambodia to Armenia…and many more.

Subject matter covers the creation of the world, a great flood, dreams, sacrificial skins, sacred stones and worship of stones, weeping as a salutation, cross-cousin marriage, earning a wife by service, legends of the mandrake plant, evoking the dead, symbolism surrounding birds, the veneration of oak trees, terebinths and sacred groves, the use of bells and gongs to ward off misfortune and evil, folk-lore about milk, superstitions intended to save the lives of children, and numerous stories of procedures for poison ordeals, as well as the trial of animals including… lawsuits against rats!

If you have any anthropological leanings at all, these volumes will fascinate and inform, beyond all measure. It is extraordinary how humans, all over the world, have created such rich mythology, and constructed such layered beliefs and ritual, to create meaning from which to conduct their communal lives together. Without an agreed communal meaning, life not only can appear confusing and pointless, (which obviously presents a huge unconscious challenge to humans, whatever culture they are born into) but it can also lead to anarchy, chaos and disintegration of a society, all potentially dangerous to long term survival. So it seems we are made to search for meaning, even if it is to come to an existentialist point of view that we can define our own meaning in life, and come to rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.

Whatever view of life we take, reading folk-lore, myths, stories and legends created by our ancestors, can only enrich and deepen our own experience, for the short time we are on this earth, and remind us of what rich story-tellers we all are capable of being.

I think it is also important to read other cultures stories and beliefs to gain a wider view of humanity, its wisdom as well as its stupidities, if only to prevent us from investing too much store in our own culture’s belief systems. A healthy scepticism is a powerful tool. But even that won’t bring us the peace and harmonious living that we all secretly crave. For that, we ultimately need to see through all the stories, all the big myths, all the tiny tales, including all the little stories of our own, and be willing to exist right on the precipice of life as it unfolds second by second. Easier said than done, as anyone who’s practised meditating will know!

So meanwhile, in between times, let’s read as many stories as we can, enjoy some, feel the full horror of others, marvel at our capacity to create beauty, use our imaginations, and find meaning in the smallest thing, and in doing so, alert ourselves also, to our seemingly insatiable need for illusion, even delusion…and the fine line we tend to blur between our stories and our beliefs.

Our stories live on, far beyond our own lives, as these tales of folk-lore attest to. So let’s hope the stories we make today; in print, in society, and through living our own daily lives, contain enough joy, wisdom and essential truths, to actually be useful and inspiring for the humans of the future.

Amen. (Or Amun…who was apparently the ancient Egyptian god of the sun and air, and of all of creation….)


As well as these three volumes of informative  and ancient Folk-lore tales, in our Darwin room, we also have; ‘The Nandi. Their Language and Folk-Lore’ by Hollis, ‘Curious Myths of the Middle Ages’ by Baring-Gould, published in 1888, ‘Dorsetshire Folk-lore’ by Symonds Udal, published in 1922,  ‘African Folk-Tales’ by Yoti Lane, ‘Folk-Tales of Bangladesh’ by Jasimuddin, ‘Welsh Legends and Folk-Tales’ by Gwynn Jones, and many many more online, as well as in our huge bricks and mortar main book shop. 



We are all surrounded by stories (even if you don’t work in a massive building full of books and book lovers), so do you have a favourite myth, folk-lore or ancient tale to share? We love sharing stories here, as you can probably imagine, so do tell us about your favourite, and what it means to you.

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