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Gather 'round the campfire
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Urban legends
Fiction over fact
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How it didn't happen
Many familiar elements of the Paul Bunyan story, such as Babe the Blue Ox, were invented by known authors for an advertisement campaign.
It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him.
—Charles Dickens, Frauds on Fairies

Fakelore is manufactured folklore, a literary tale presented as folklore rather than as the invention of its author; folklore that is inauthentic or not genuinely traditional. The key difference between fakelore and genuine folklore is that fakelore will be represented as being somehow traditional when it has in fact been newly coined, usually by an identifiable author.

Fakelore is often intentionally quaint or old-timey, and not infrequently has some kind of commercial or moralistic agenda, while genuine folklore responds to live concerns among the people who circulate it, and is often "repetitive, clumsy, meaningless and obscene".[1]

Fakelore is also related to folklorism, which originally related to the use of folklore by commercial interests such as the tourism and movie industries. It refers generally to the use of folklore themes outside the context of the folk process, including the academic study of folklore itself.

"Real" folklore is usually much younger than commonly perceived, and much of it was "rediscovered" or invented out of whole cloth in the nationalism craze of the early 19th century, in the cause of nationalist pseudohistory.[citation needed] That is not to say the tales (whether "real" folklore or not) aren't entertaining, but their value as historical or anthropological documents has to be judged with that in mind.

There is also commonly confusion in the popular mind between writers such as the Brothers Grimm who claimed to be serious recorders of folk tales (although there is controversy over how much of the original stories they changed), and writers like Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen who aimed to write moral or entertaining stories for children but did not pretend to catalogue existing folk traditions and therefore did not (intentionally) write fakelore even if their stories have now become part of wider culture and tradition.


  • Tall tales featuring the semi-legendary cowboy Pecos BillWikipedia, who rode his horse Widow-Maker with a rattlesnake whip and once lassoed a tornado, actually first appeared in the Century Magazine starting in 1917. The character was in fact invented by Edward O'Reilly. He also appears to have influenced the rock song Who Do You Love by Bo Diddley.
  • There is some evidence that the character of Paul Bunyan may have been originally an authentic folk figure. But his fame largely rests on promotional materials from the Red River Lumber Company starting in around 1916. These advertisements are the source of many of the stories.
  • The famous folk song Follow the Drinking GourdWikipedia is thought to (rather transparently) code instructions for fleeing African-American slaves to travel the Underground Railroad. It was first published in 1928, though it was allegedly collected in the 1910s. It is not attested in any form before the American Civil War.[2]
  • The widespread belief in pagan survivals has influenced folklore revivalism and altered the context and plot of surviving folklore. Neopagans in their early days were fond of inventing stories about how they had been initiated into ancient pagan traditions by conveniently dead relations; this body of lore is known generally among pagans as "Grandmother stories".[3]
  • The Disney effect: for most people, the canonical representations of folktales such as Snow WhiteWikipedia, CinderellaWikipedia, Sleeping BeautyWikipedia and The Snow Queen are the ones presented in the Disney films, which often alter and bowdlerize the source materials.
  • Bobby Mackey's Music World is a nightclub in northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, that has a hole in its basement floor that's supposed to be a gateway to Hell. The club promotes a completely fabricated history of events that includes a dance hall girl committing suicide, gunfights between Cincinnati mobsters, and secret Satanic rituals.[citation needed]
  • The character of the Slender Man was created on June 10, 2009 by Victor Surge on the Something Awful forums. He is a bugbear of the "Bloody Mary"Wikipedia or "Mary Worth" type, a story that previously inspired horror films like Candyman, and has become a figure invoked in children's "ostentation" (i.e. supernatural dare) play. Several acts of violence have been committed by children in his name.[4][5]
  • The Blair Witch Project, which employed one of the first internet-based viral marketing campaigns, heavily utilized this in its promotion. The studio created a website and a mockumentary for the Sci-Fi Channel (now called Syfy) claiming that the film was the actual recovered footage of three student filmmakers who vanished in the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, while also crafting a detailed pseudo-mythology about the supernatural force alleged to be responsible for their disappearance. They did a good enough job that people still believed it was real years after the "missing filmmakers" went on talk shows and revealed that they were actors.[citation needed]
  • OssianWikipedia was a fake 3rd-century Celtic/Gaelic poet invented by Scottish author James MacphersonWikipedia in the late 18th century. It fulfilled a desire for ancient Scottish tradition, while allowing Scots to compete with the Irish who actually had lots of genuine old poetry: Ossian's verse was particularly popular with Scots, while Hibernian experts such as the antiquarian Charles O'Conor were dubious and the Englishman Samuel Johnson was a prominent skeptic of both their authenticity and literary merit. On the flipside, dismissing Ossian makes it easier to condemn genuine Scottish traditions. Ossian's supposedly ancient folk tales were translated into several languages and admired by famous fans including Jefferson and Napoleon. They influenced literary Romanticism, and played a big part in kicking off the Celtic Revival and even Scottish Nationalism. People still look for crumbs of genuine Gaelic literature in Macpherson's creation.[6][7][8]
  • Folk songs were often polished or made up by "collectors". Robert Burns's collection of old Scottish folk songs for The Scots Musical Museum included many of his own compositions, and other greatly-rewritten lyrics; other collectors such as Walter Scott also rewrote extensively.[9][10]
  • Fake Arabian tales proliferated from the late 18th century following the publication of various English and French editions of the One Thousand and One Nights (aka Tales of the Arabian Nights). The original One Thousand and One Nights was at least based on genuine folk tales (albeit possibly of Persian origin), some dating back c. 1000 CE.[11] But their success inspired various fakes including the stories of al-Madhi (Contes du Cheykh el-Mohdy, 1835), written by Jean-Joseph Marcel, an Arabist who accompanied Napoleon's army to the Middle East, and William BeckfordWikipedia's decadent novel Vathek (1786) which he claimed was translated from Arabic. This tied in with a wider interest in the sexy Orient, paintings of harem girls, etc.
  • Drop bearsWikipedia, described as large carnivorous koalasWikipedia that drop from trees onto unwary humans, were made up to scare tourists in Endor Australia. Apparently Australia's real wildlife wasn't badass enough. (Oddly, some fossil marsupials may have hunted in this manner, but they died out before humans evolved.)
  • Many cryptids can be considered fakelore, since the legends in their modern forms are often fairly recent and their descriptions usually do not conform to any pre-existing legends. For example, sightings of the Loch Ness Monster date back to 1933 at the earliest, and the notion of Bigfoot as a hairy ape-like creature is no older than the 1950s. The Chupacabra is another good example-- often assumed to be a centuries-old part of Hispanic folklore, it in fact dates back no earlier than 1995.

In search of the primitive[edit]

Fakelore, unlike folklore, often has a fairly obvious motive. People seek to invoke the authority of immemorial tradition for whatever it is they're selling. Fakelore is also created by alternative medicine businesses, which often present their wares as being part of a tradition of natural healing—the idea being that their wares are concocted from herbs and plants that have been used in folk medicine.[citation needed]

A similar vein is found in some martial arts schools. Exposure to wuxiaWikipedia films or the Kung Fu television series leads some practitioners to mix fortune cookie spiritual platitudes, talk of bushidōWikipedia and similar philosophies, and other orientalizing woo into the disciplines and exercises of the martial arts. A number of white North American authors have written poetry pretending to be east Asian, including "Yi-Fen ChouWikipedia" and "Araki YasusadaWikipedia".

Native Americans have frequently been appropriated as mouthpieces for various sorts of fakelore, often with a conservationist or environmentalist agenda. The noble savage stereotype is the typical motivation for the creation of fake Native lore — the idea being that Natives live at peace and oneness with the earth and are repositories of ancient wisdom about ecology and herbalism.[citation needed]

Native American impostors and fakelore[edit]

Greenpeace's flag ship Rainbow Warrior was named after a bogus Native American prophecy that allegedly foretold the rise of the environmental movement.[12] The actual origin of the alleged prophecy is a 1962 book titled Warriors of the Rainbow by William Willoya and Vinson Brown. The book was in fact an evangelical Christian tract that aimed at the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity.[13] It follows the long tradition of attributing noble or sentimental words to Native Americans, such as:

  • The famous Chief JosephWikipedia speech ("I will fight no more forever"), actually attributed to the Chief by a White lawyer covering the surrender.
  • A similar, flowery speech on ecological piety ("Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people…") is attributed to Chief SeattleWikipedia; it came from a television show from 1971, and was written by screenwriter Ted Perry for the Southern Baptist Convention's Radio and Television Commission.[14][15]
  • Regarding Native Americans south of the Rio Grande, remember all that hullabaloo about the 2012 apocalypse that the Maya supposedly predicted? Well, they didn't. 21 December 2012 was the end of a Grand Cycle on the Mayan Long Count calendar, but the Maya didn't expect the world to end with that Grand Cycle, hence why their calendars keep going after that date. Ethnic Maya still exist in Mexico and Central America, and they were rather confused and annoyed at the hype stemming from outsiders' apocalyptic misinterpretations of their traditions.

There is also a long tradition of Whites posing as Native Americans, often to deliver some kind of woo-laden message that would sound better in the mouth of a noble savage:

"Iron Eyes Cody", the famous crying Indian from the Keep America Beautiful series of public service advertisements, was actually an Italian-American actor.
  • Grey OwlWikipedia was the name adopted by Archibald Belaney, a Canadian born in the U.K., who adopted an Ojibwe identity once in Canada and wrote a series of books espousing conservation platitudes in the 1930s. He went further than many of his successors, and actually bothered to learn the language.
  • Iron Eyes CodyWikipedia, the famous crying Indian from the 'Keep America Beautiful' campaigns, was actually an Italian American actor born Espera DeCorti.
  • In the 1970s, the tales of Carlos Castaneda concerning the drug-induced hallucinations of the shaman "Don Juan" later proved to be a hoax.
  • "Hyemeyohsts Storm", author of Seven Arrows (1972), another fake-Native text popular among hippies, was also an impostor whose real name is Arthur C. Storm. He claimed to be Cheyenne; when his book appeared, the Cheyennes announced they'd never heard of him, and that his account of their traditions and religious beliefs was wrong. This did not prevent it from becoming a best seller.[16]
  • Somewhat more sinister was the Indian impostor Asa Earl CarterWikipedia, a Ku Klux Klansman who, as "Forrest Carter", wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Education of Little Tree.
  • Unsubstantiated claims of Native American ancestry have been made by a number of public figures, including Johnny CashWikipedia, Ward Churchill, Steven Seagal, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.[17][note 1]

Controversy also circles around John G. Neihardt's Black Elk SpeaksWikipedia, another book by a White author for a White audience, which is based on a series of interviews with Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, mediated by Black Elk's son as translator. While New Agers find inspiration in the book, the Lakota do not find it authentic to their traditions, and the accuracy of its account has been questioned by scholars who have edited and examined the original materials.[18]

Native American and similarly exotic themes were favored by the makers of patent medicines. Dr. Morse's Indian Root PillsWikipedia were sold with a tale of a fictitious "Dr. Morse", who spent three years among the Natives and returned with their traditional herbal remedy secrets. No Dr. Morse was ever affiliated with the business. The celebrated Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company of Connecticut hired many Natives (not many Kickapoos, though) to stage Wild West shows to promote their concoctions. They, too, were vaguely alleged to derive from Native herbal knowledge.

Fakelore as multicultural attire in children's literature[edit]

In recent years, children's readers and textbooks include alleged folktales from non-Western cultures, in an attempt to appear multicultural. Unfortunately, few genuine folktales are well suited for the purposes of the editors of the books in question. They are, after all, the products of non-Western cultures. They are often morally ambiguous and inconclusive. They may contain adult humor. They may also refer to non-Christian deities and polytheistic religious values. The gods of Greece and Rome were not chaste or non-violent,[19] and neither are the gods of many other polytheistic religions. As Eliot Singer notes, "Real myths are usually complex, sometimes long, full of death, violence, retribution, hatred, sex, bodily function, and gruesome imagery. They are likely to have closure that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable."[20]

They do not share the ideas of contemporary Western educators about, say, the level of violence appropriate for children's reading. They do not share Western attitudes towards phlegm or excrement, or the appropriate treatment of such themes in children's literature.[21] Collected tales from an oral tradition are told using techniques appropriate to oral performance. The need to adapt these tales to the familiar narrative structures used in printed stories inevitably alters and distorts them.[20]

But educators wish to present non-Western material in their textbooks. To avoid the risk of material that may lead to actually expanded cultural horizons, the sources are bowdlerized and distorted, with frequent outright invention. Editors make the source material comfortable, teachable, and conforming to Western narrative structures and Western received ideas about childhood. In doing so, they conceal the "otherness" of the non-Western cultures they supposedly represent.[20]

The northwestern Native character "Mucus Boy" turns into "Clamshell Boy". Trickster figures generally don't make good role models; they suffer serious distortion at the hands of editors who want more conventional heroes. Coyote doesn't generally learn a moral lesson about laziness in authentic folktales, but he does when the folktale "Coyote Goes for Salt" is turned into the children's book Coyote and the Dancing Butterflies. Ecological piety and other approved-for-children agendas are often written into traditional lore in a way that distorts them, as in the children's book The Prince and the Salmon People. Its editors altered a traditional story about the relationship between humans and salmon into a "powerful, timely message" about "overfishing, concrete dams, polluted rivers, and hatchery fish".[20]

Compare the frequent omission or deliberate mistranslation of Shinto themes in commercially distributed English versions of children's anime, the removal of even innocuous nudity, and the alteration of gay and transgender characters.[22][23]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. In October 2018 Warren released a report on a DNA test which had results consistent with her having had a Native American ancestor in the mid-1800s, which is what her family tradition indicated.


  1. Dorson, Richard M. (1963). "Current Folklore Theories". Current Anthropology 4 (1): 101.
  2. Kelley, James. "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'". The Journal of Popular Culture 41.2 (April 2008): 262-80.
  3. See generally Adler, Margot (1979). Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-3237-9.
  4. Romano, Aja. (2012) The definitive guide to creepypasta—the Internet’s scariest urban legends. The Daily Dot.
  5. Gabler, Ellen (June 2, 2014). "Charges detail Waukesha pre-teens' attempt to kill classmate". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  6. Ossian, the ‘Homer of the North’, and the truth behind the world’s greatest literary hoax, Independent, 21 Oct 2016
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Ossian.
  8. Ossian: Fact or Fiction, Legacies, BBC, accessed 20 Feb 2020
  9. A ‘cargo of Songs’: Robert Burns, the Hastie manuscript and The Scots Musical Museum, Robert Irvine, British Library blog, 2014
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on One Thousand and One Nights.
  12. Brown, Michael (1989). The Greenpeace Story. Dorling Kindersley. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-1879431027.
  13. Tarleton, John. Interview with Michael Niman
  14. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens & Chief Seattle, Museum of History and Industry; Seattle, Washington, June, 1990.
  15. Chief Seattle did allegedly make an elaborate speech that was recorded in 1891, but that too is believed to have been a literary invention by a White amanuensis.
  16. Hyemeyohsts Storm,
  17. Chavers, Dean (Jsn. 17, 2013) Around the Campfire: Fake Indians. Native American Times
  18. DeMallie, Raymond (Nebraska University Press, 1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, ISBN 0803265646.
  19. A. P. HerbertWikipedia, Rex v. Headmaster of Eton, in Misleading Cases in the Common Law (Punch, 8 January 1930)
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Singer, Eliot. Fakelore, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children's Literature, Michigan State University
  21. See Levi-Strauss, Claude, "The proper uses of excrement", in Mythologiques: The Naked Man (Univ. Chicago, 1990; ISBN 0226474968)
  22. See the Wikipedia article on Sailor Moon (anime).
  23. Allison, Anne (2000). "A Challenge to Hollywood? Japanese Character Goods Hit the US". Japanese Studies (Routledge) 20 (1): 67–88.