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Folklorists explore life from weddings to zombies, El Chapo and even 3D printing

Stories, superstitions and social customs spur folklorists to ask why

Wonder how legends of the Mexican drug kingpin “El Chapo” might affect the hierarchies of migrants crossing the border, the latest in zombie lore or what’s really behind those Michelle Obama conspiracy theories?

Pecos Bill

The legendary Pecos Bill lassos a tornado in this image by Maroonbeard. (Wikimedia Commons image)

Answers to these and other burning questions involving the social organization, cultural norms and superstitions of everyday life will be addressed at the 75th annual meeting of the Western States Folklore Society on Friday and Saturday at UC Berkeley.

The conference will draw folklorists from across the United States and abroad who are coming to hear nearly 80 student and faculty presenters on the topics listed above, as well as:

  • The folklore of veterans from World War II to Afghanistan.
  • How a single violin brought to Butte County during the Gold Rush contributed to masculine social life of the era and to the music-making commonplace in the mining camps.
  • Personages that appear only on TV or computer screens.
  • 3D printing as folk art.
  • Trolls and aliens in a globalizing world.
  • Why Shell Oil named an onshore oil pipeline on the Emerald Isle after the Irish mythic character Fionnuala, one of four children said to have been turned into swans for 900 years.
  • White weddings as socially sanctioned rituals for American women.

A detailed schedule, with locations for the various events, is online.

Distinguished international folklorist Galit Hasan-Rokem, a professor of folklore at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will deliver the keynote at 5:30 p.m. Friday, considering how diverse portrayals of Sirens across the lines of culture and religion in the ancient Middle East can suggest how folklorists can illuminate the study of cultural differences today.

This year’s folklore conference at UC Berkeley underscores the stature and uniqueness of the campus’s graduate program in folklore.

The master’s program draws largely from the inspiration of the late Alan Dundes, an anthropologist who introduced hundreds of students to the field through his wildly popular Anthropology 160 or “Forms of Folklore” course during his tenure from 1963 until his death in 2005. For the main project of the class that continues today, every student has to collect traditional knowledge from their own world and share it with the Folklore Archive.


The elf, as imagined in English folktales, by 19th-century illustrator Richard Doyle. (Wikimedia Commons image)

Dundes was known for his Freudian deconstruction of everything from fairy tales to football and made such an impression that one of his undergraduate students from the 1960s sent him a check in 2000 for $1 million. He used the anonymous gift to establish the Alan Dundes Distinguished Chair in Folklore.

Charles Briggs, who holds that chair today and chairs UC Berkeley’s Folklore Program, will present his assessment of the “Berkeley experiment” in the study of folklore, in which he said “we each take our turn at examining received approaches to the study of folklore, pulling them apart, building them anew and then, in a spirit of utter scholarly seriousness and devious playfulness, seeing how high we can jump over established boundaries.”


  • UC Berkeley’s Folklore Archive contains 500,000-plus items of folklore from nearly 200 countries and catalogued according to genres, such as jokes, legends, songs, mnemonic devices, folk beliefs and rhymes. Special areas include religious, family and scout lore.
  • The Alan Dundes Papers are available for review at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. A story about them appeared in California magazine.