When I was first assigned the Lowell Edmunds collection of folk tales relating to incest and parricide, I was certainly underwhelmed. A large stack of typed papers from the 1970s seemed to cower in the face of the beautiful manuscripts and photo albums from centuries past that I have had the pleasure of working on. It really had the makings of a bland collection – a professor’s collection of folktales stemming from his 1975 Classics 121 class did not sound like my idea of pleasure reading.
However, as I started looking through the stack of yellowing paper, I was immediately hooked. This seemingly stale collection proved to be an absolute treasure hidden in our overstuffed office space. My attention was first caught by the number of languages I was able to identify in this collection; twenty-two in total: English, French, the French dialect of Creole, Gaelic, Lithuanian, Romanian, Finnish, German, Czech, Norwegian, Latin, Dutch, Hungarian, Greek, Turkish, Latvian, Javanese, Sudanese, a Pohnpeian dialect called Kiti, Yoruba, Italian and Hebrew. Identifying these languages became an incredibly satisfying challenge and I now proudly possess the knowledge that “pojasta joka tappo isäsä ja nai äitisä” means “the boy who killed his father and married his mother” in Finnish.
Hidden behind the mask of languages foreign to me were traditional tales of incest and parricide from cultures all over the world. Fortunately, one hundred forty-four of these stories were translated into English and bound as a course book which was used for Edmunds’ 1975 Harvard course. It was shocking to me how similar these tales from entirely different cultures were. Many even had the same name when translated, such as the Finnish, Creole, French and Irish tales all called, “The Boy Who Killed His Father and Married His Mother.”
Despite the horrifying nature of these stories, it was fascinating to see the common themes among such a diverse range of cultures. This collection presents the underlying truths of mankind. Whether the truths are pleasant, such as laughter, happiness, and love; or shocking and horrifying to the western perspective, such as incest, parricide, and murder, there are consistencies among all cultures. This collection proved to be a small scale example of the elements of humanity, both good and bad, that bind us as inhabitants of this earth and defy culture and custom alike.
Pictured: tales in French, Creole, Hebrew, Gaelic, German, Greek and Finnish.
Not Pictured: the incredible English translations of all these tales that are found in the collection.