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date: 09 December 2022



  • William Hansen


Folktales are traditional fictional stories. Unlike works of original literary fiction, they are normally anonymous narratives that have been transmitted from one teller to another over an uncertain period of time, and have been shaped by multiple narrators into the form and style that are characteristic of oral narratives. The transmission of traditional tales is predominantly oral, but in literate societies such as Greece and Rome, transmission also takes place via written works.

“Folktale” is an umbrella term for a number of subgenres: the wonder tale (commonly known as the fairytale), the religious tale, the novella, the humorous tale (with its subforms the joke and the tall tale), the animal tale, and the fable. Since there was no ancient notion of folktales as such, no compilation of folktales exists from antiquity—only compilations of particular genres of folktales such as the fable and the joke.

Unlike myths and legends, folktales are narrative fictions, make no serious claim to historicity, and are not ordinarily accorded credence. They differ from myths and especially from legends in their handling of the supernatural.


  • Greek Literature
  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Latin Literature
  • Roman Myth and Religion


Folktales are traditional fictional stories. “Traditional” means that the stories have been transmitted from narrator to narrator sufficiently to have acquired the form and style that is characteristic of traditional oral narratives the world over. The transmission of folktales is predominantly oral, but in literate societies such as ancient Greece and Rome, it was common for traditional narratives to be transmitted by both oral and literary channels.

“Folktale” denotes not a single kind of story but is an umbrella term for different genres of traditional narrative fiction. The principal genres of the folktale found in classical literature are the wonder tale (commonly known as the fairytale), the religious tale, the novella, the humorous tale (with its subforms the joke and the tall tale), the animal tale, and the fable. Since there was no ancient concept of, or term for, folktale or for most of its forms, many genre categories in current use are modern analytic creations that have been devised by folk-narrative scholars for the purpose of study and communication. Only a few, such as the humorous tale and the Aesopic fable, are native categories for which the Greeks and Romans had terms.

Although folktales, like myths and legends, are narratives that are formed and transmitted predominantly in oral tradition, they differ from myths and legends in several ways. Most importantly, in terms of their poetics, folktales are presented as accounts of imaginary events, whereas myths and legends are formed as reports of actual events. Myths and legends make a claim, however strong or modest it may be, on the listener’s belief, whereas folktales do not.

Forms of the Greek and Roman Folktale

Wonder Tale

The kind of tale that is commonly known as the fairytale is termed magic tale or wonder tale by folk-narrative scholars, since magic and an atmosphere of wonder are characteristic of the genre, whereas fairies appear infrequently. In the familiar plot of a wonder tale, a young protagonist sets out into the world, encounters the supernatural, overcomes various obstacles, and succeeds by virtue of good qualities such as kindness or perseverance. Marvelous elements such as talking animals, magic objects, witches, and ogres are commonplace, not to mention princes, princesses, and palaces. The wonder tale is the most complex form of the folktale.

Although there are several ancient narratives of magic and wonder that may be classified as fairytales—for example, the tale of the woodcutter and the golden axe1—there is only one, the tale of Cupid and Psyche, that fits the classic profile of what is today thought of as that of the fairytale. The story appears in the Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass (4.28–6.24), by the Roman novelist Apuleius. The tale of Cupid and Psyche is generally agreed to be an ancient version, somewhat allegorised, of an international folktale.2 In this widely known tale, a young woman weds a supernatural bridegroom. He forbids her to do something, usually to look upon him, but she breaks the taboo, after which he departs. She sets out to find him, coming eventually to the house of his mother, a witch (or, in Apuleius’s novel, the goddess Venus, who behaves like one). The girl’s hostile mother-in-law assigns her a series of seemingly impossible tasks, which she manages to accomplish with the help of her husband and other beings such as kindly animals. In the end the bride and bridegroom are happily reunited.

Religious Tale

The religious tale is a traditional fiction that portrays an aspect of the relationship of humans and gods, such as a deity rewarding or punishing human behavior, or a deity giving humans a lesson in the way of the world from the viewpoint of the gods. For example, a poor man became sick and made a vow of a hundred oxen to the gods if they should preserve him. Putting him to the test, the gods restored his health. Since, however the man possessed no actual oxen, he formed a hundred oxen out of clay and sacrificed them upon an altar, saying that he had fulfilled his vow. The gods, wishing to repay him in kind, sent him a dream in which they told him to go to the seashore, where he would fetch a thousand drachmas. He ran happily to the shore, where pirates seized him and carried him away. When they sold him, he fetched a thousand drachmas.3


The novella is a realistic, sometimes complex tale of traditional fiction. Deception is a common theme.

Thus, a tale relates how a certain man of Miletus, fearing that his country might be invaded, sailed to Sicily where he deposited his gold with a friend who was a banker. Sometime later he sailed back to Sicily to recover his deposit. But the banker, although acknowledging that he had received the gold, claimed he had returned it. The two men quarreled, and the Milesian challenged the banker to swear an oath. The banker devised a deceit whereby he hollowed out a fennel stalk, melted down the gold, and poured it into the hollow stalk, which he pretended to employ as a walking-stick. After asking the Milesian to hold his stick, he swore that he had returned the gold to the depositor. In his anger the Milesian threw down the fennel stalk, which broke apart, revealing the hidden gold as well as the deceit. The Milesian recovered his property, but the banker hanged himself from shame.4

Many novelle are ribald, such as the renowned tale of the widow of Ephesus.5 A woman of Ephesus was renowned for her fidelity. When her husband died, the mourning widow accompanied his corpse to the tomb with the firm intention of joining him in death. Meanwhile, in the cemetery, a soldier guarding the corpses of several crucified thieves noticed a light in a tomb and went to investigate. Inside the tomb he discovered the beautiful matron and her maidservant. He offered them food, which eventually they accepted, and in time the soldier and the widow became intimate—indeed, so amorously involved that the soldier failed to notice that someone stole one of the corpses he was supposed to be guarding. The widow came to his rescue by substituting the corpse of her late husband for that of the missing thief.

The bawdy tale of the Ephesian matron is the kind of novella that the Romans called a Milesia (sc. fabula), or Milesian tale. The term arose from a Greek composition entitled Milesiaka, published in the 2nd century bce by a certain Aristides (2). The book seems to have been a compilation of licentious novelle. Unfortunately, it has not survived.

Humorous Tale

The humorous tale is a narrative of traditional comic fiction. For example, the son of a numbskull was playing with a ball. When the ball fell into a well, the boy leaned over its edge and, seeing himself reflected in the water, asked for his ball back. When he did not get it, he complained to his father. The man leaned over the edge of the well and, seeing his own reflection, said, “Sir, give the boy back his ball.”6

An ancient cycle of comic tales played upon the stereotype of the extremely delicate inhabitants of Sybaris. Thus, after Smindyrides the Sybarite spent the night sleeping on a bed of roses, he woke up and complained of blisters.7

When a humorous tale lays its weight on a climactic ending, closing with a punchline, it is termed a joke. Thus, a numbskull wanted to lie down and go to sleep but did not have a pillow, so he told his slave to put a jug down. The slave said the jug was hard. “Well, fill it with feathers, then,” he said.8

A humorous tale consisting of outrageous exaggerations is known as a tall tale. Lucian recounts how he, his companions, and his entire ship were swallowed whole by a great fish 150 miles in length, inside of which they found wrecked ships and other human beings.9 Lucian’s True Stories illustrates the fondness of raconteurs of such lying tales for recounting their alleged experiences in the first person. With similarly comic exaggeration, a certain Antiphanes reports that there is a city where the weather gets so cold that words freeze in the winter, so that only in the summer, as words thaw, do people hear what they spoke about during the past winter.10

Animal Tale

The animal tale is a traditional fiction in which the principal characters are animals. These characters usually display a mix of animal and human behavioral traits.

Thus a bat, a berry bush, and a seagull once formed a partnership and went into business. The bat borrowed some money, the berry bush contributed some clothing, and the gull bought some bronze. Off they sailed, but a storm arose and sunk their ship. Ever since then, the gull has been diving into the sea in the hope of finding its bronze, the bat does not show itself by day for fear of encountering its creditors, and the berry bush, looking for its clothes, takes hold of the garments of passers-by.11 This tale offers whimsical aetiologies for characteristics of its animal and plant characters.


The fable is a simple, traditional fiction that is employed to convey a message metaphorically. The Greeks and Romans called fables “Aesopian tales,” associating the genre with the renowned fabulist Aesop, a possibly historical character of the 6th century bce. The principal characters in fables are most often animals, but they can otherwise be humans, gods, plants, and the like.

In a well-known Aesopic fable, a tortoise and a hare disputed about their relative speed and decided to have a race. Confident in its natural swiftness, the hare did not take the contest seriously but lay down beside the road and fell asleep. But the tortoise, quite aware of its own slowness, did not cease running and so passed the sleeping hare and won the race.12 In written collections of fables, compilers often append an epimythium, or “after-tale,” to the narrative, giving the application, or moral, of the tale.13 The point of the present fable, as the anonymous fabulist points out, is that hard work can trump natural ability when ability is neglected.

Sources of the Ancient Folktale

Since neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a concept of, or term for, the folktale, no ancient author thought to collect and publish a miscellany of traditional fictional narratives. As a result, the sources for our knowledge of ancient folktales are eclectic, consisting of (1) narrations of, or allusions to, individual tales in context, (2) compilations of tales by genre, and (3) adaptations of individual tales in literature and comedy.

Narrations in Context

Narrations of tales in context are of two sorts, first-order and second-order. In one, an author narrates a story for his own artistic or rhetorical purposes, as when Plutarch relates the Aesopic tale of the fox and the crane in the course of his discussion of topics of conversation that contribute to or detract from the success of a party. He recommends broaching uncomplicated topics that everyone can discuss. Persons who introduce complex subjects are no more fit for parties, he says, than Aesop’s fox and crane. A fox once hosted a crane for dinner, serving broth on a flat stone that the crane was unable to consume. The crane in turn invited the fox, serving the meal in a narrow-necked jar into which the fox was unable to insert its mouth. Similarly, Plutarch concludes, when philosophers raise complex topics at symposia, they irritate most of the symposiasts, who cannot follow, and the spirit of the party is ruined.14 Here the essayist illustrates his argument by comparing the human social situation with an imaginary one featuring animals that behave much like humans.

In second-order narration, an author relates a tale not in his own voice, but in the voice of a character in an invented social situation within his composition, as when the novelist Petronius has one of his characters, Eumolpus, recount the humorous novella of the widow of Ephesus to an audience of fellow passengers and sailors aboard a ship (Sat. 109–113). Represented storytelling is very common in Greek and Roman literature from Homer onwards. An advantage of contextual narrations of both kinds is that the narratives are embedded in storytelling situations, whether the situations are real or invented.

Sometimes, however, authors only allude to a tale, deeming it to be well known to their readers or audience. In one of Aristophanes’s comedies, a character mentions a woman who “held up a garment to the light for her husband to see, and so managed to let her lover, who had been hiding, to escape” (Thesm. 498–501). In this case the playwright is thinking of an international folktale that is well known to folk-narrative scholars, so that the plot can easily be filled out from later texts in which the tale is related fully. It is one of several ribald tales in which a woman is entertaining her lover when her husband unexpectedly arrives home. In this tale she facilitates her lover’s escape from the house by showing her husband a fabric, which diverts his attention; in some versions the husband has only one good eye, in which case the ruse is all the easier to pull off.15

In some cases, however, ancient authors allude to stories that are no longer known and so cannot be filled out with certainty. Thus, Tertullian mentions nurses telling children at bedtime a tale or tales about “the Towers of the Lamia and the Combs of the Sun” (Tert. Adv. Valent. 3.3 Fredouille). No one now knows what lies behind the allusion, which Tertullian must have regarded as too obvious to explain.


Compilations, particularly fable compilations, are a rich source of folktales. The earliest attested collection of Aesopic fables is the Aisopeia, composed by Demetrius of Phalerum toward the end of the 4th century bce. Although Demetrius’s work has not survived, a papyrus fragment containing a few tales from a fable book in Greek prose (Rylands pap. 493) probably gives a glimpse of its nature, which was that of a handbook. Presently other authors published other compilations of fables. Phaedrus published a collection in Latin verse in the 1st century ce, and Babrius published a collection in Greek verse. In addition to compilations by named authors, several anonymous compilations of Aesopic fables in Greek prose have been preserved, beginning with the so-called Collectio Augustana, or Augustana Collection, which dates to the 2nd or 3rd century ce. Other collections in Greek and Latin followed, some in prose and some in verse, the former composed in the spirit of the practical handbook, the latter in the spirit of literature, however modest. For the researcher, the advantage of compilations is that they bring together many tales (the Augustana Collection, for example, contains 231 fables), whereas their principal disadvantage is that the narratives lack individual contexts of transmission that might illustrate their uses and meanings.

For the study of ancient folktales, a bonus offered by the fable collections is that the ancient fabulists’ criteria for what constitutes a fable are quite generous. The compilers admit into their collections not only fables in the strict sense but also other kinds of story such as novelle, humorous tales, religious tales, animal tales, and aetiological narratives.16 Hence, the ancient fable collections are excellent sources not only of fables but also of other genres of folktale.

The only other kind of folktale collection that survives from the ancient world is a jokebook entitled Philogelos, or Laughter-Lover, which is attributed to a certain Hierocles and Philagrius, about whom nothing certain is known. Since several of the witticisms are datable to the 3rd or 4th century ce, the collection in its present form cannot be earlier than this, but other jokes reflect earlier historical events, while most of the jokes are simply undatable. It is likely, then, that, like the anonymous collections of Aesopic fables in Greek prose, the virtually anonymous Philogelos is a compilation of Greek jokes of different dates that developed over time as successive authors and copyists added to it, subtracted from it, and otherwise modified it.

The idea of jokebooks, at least, seems to be much older, since they are mentioned in Roman comedy. In one play, the parasite Gelasimus consults several such books from his collection in order to equip himself with ridicula (Plaut. Stich. 400, 454–455), and in another play the parasite Saturio boasts of having a chest full of jokebooks at home (Plaut. Persa 392–395). Since these plays were adaptations of Greek comedies performed in the 4th and 3rd centuries bce, it is reasonable to suppose that jokebooks existed in Greece by the 4th century. Since these early compilations of wit do not survive, one cannot be sure exactly what sort of witticism they featured.

No other collection of traditional narrative fiction has survived. Around 100 bce, Aristides (2) published a work entitled Milesian Tales (Milesiaka), which appear to have been ribald novelle, and the book was popular enough that it was translated by Sisenna into Latin in the 1st century bce, but the Greek original as well as the Latin translation are lost, and no other ancient collection of novelle has come down to us.


A third source for texts of ancient folktales consists of literary and dramatic adaptations. This is listed as a separate category because folktales that have been reworked for another purpose are sometimes disguised or distorted in such a way as not to be easily recognised.

Plautus’s comedy Miles Gloriosus illustrates a straightforward case of folktale adaptation. The play presents two neighbouring houses, in one of which there dwells the braggart soldier Pyrgopolynices with the courtesan Philocomasium, whom he abducted. The courtesan’s lover Pleusicles moves in next door and cuts a hole in the wall between the two houses, allowing the girl to come and go unnoticed between the two residences. When the soldier’s slave spots her elsewhere, she is represented as being Philocomasium’s twin sister, Dicea. After this, complication is piled upon complication.

The basic situation and action were long ago recognised as being those of an international comic folktale.17 Unsurprisingly, the playwright modified the story in order to adapt it to the conventions of the comic stage, such as making the folktale’s married woman into the comedy’s courtesan, thereby avoiding the unseemly situation of a married woman having sexual relations with more than one man. Still, the parallels between the play and the folktale are striking. Plautus’s work was based upon a lost Greek comedy, Alazon (Braggart), which in turn must have been based upon the oral tale. So just as the Greek tragedians drew their plots mostly from Greek myth and legend, the comic playwrights, it seems, drew some of their stories from the folktale.

A less obvious, and so less certain, instance is the relationship between Plautus’s Menaechmi, which was based upon an unknown Greek comedy, and the international folktale known as “The Twins.”18 Both the play and the oral tale present the adventures of twin brothers. One of two identical twins sets out, ends up at a distant town, and marries. Subsequently, the second twin sets out to find him and arrives at the same town, where he is mistaken for his brother, an error that he exploits. After several complications, the two brothers are happily reunited and return home together. A possible relationship between the play and the oral tale does not readily suggest itself because the apparent source, the folktale of the twins, is not a humorous story. However, it is a tale that turns upon a confusion of characters, which was a favorite comic device in New Comedy.

False Friends

Some international stories are recounted only as folktales, others only as legends, and still others are told in one place and time as folktales and in others as legends. In short, genre is sometimes persistent and sometimes mutable. An example of genre variance is the tale of “The Blinded Ogre,” which has been collected from oral storytellers in many lands, almost always as a folktale, whereas in ancient Greece it was one of the adventures of Odysseus, ruler of Ithaca and participant in the Trojan War, who was accordingly a character of heroic legend. Indeed, instances in which essentially the same story is found anciently as a legend and in modern times as a folktale are numerous. Many scholars have cited stories such as that of Odysseus and the Cyclops as folktales because the ancient stories have folktale analogues in modern tradition, or because the scholars think they recognise “folktale motifs” in ancient myths and legends. But it is incorrect and confusing to characterise as folktales Greek and Roman stories that for the ancients were narratives that made a claim to historicity.19 If one counts such stories as folktales or such motifs as folktale elements, the category of folktale ceases to be useful. Much scholarship on the ancient folktale from the early researchers onwards is marred by such vague and unclear treatments of narrative genres.

Peculiarities of the Folktale

Myths, legends, and folktales are much the same in the nature of their composition. Characteristic features of the worldwide oral narrative form and style were described long ago by the folklorist Axel Olrik.20 But folktales do differ from myths and legends in at least two significant ways: in their poetics of fiction, and in their treatment of the supernatural and unnatural.

Poetics of Traditional Fiction

Whereas myths and legends are credence narratives, folktales are not. The genres of myth and legend are designed for belief, and in order to enhance their credibility, narrators form them in such a way as to make them appear historical, giving them the sorts of features that are found in reports of actual events. Typically, the principal characters are named and often fit into well-known genealogies, and the action is set in a definite time in the past and is localised in specific places. For example, Odysseus is the son of Laertes and Anticlea, and rules the island of Ithaca; he is contemporary with such notable figures as King Agamemnon of Mycenae and the great warrior Achilles; and he fights in the great war at Troy. Knowledge of the characters and events may be attributed to a trustworthy source, such as, in the case of Homer and Hesiod, the Muses. In short, myths and legends are constructed in such a way as to make a claim upon one’s belief. Whether they succeed or not is another matter, just as is the question of whether they contain any historical truth or not.

In contrast, folktales are fictions, and usually straightforwardly so. Narrators normally make little or no effort to present them as accounts of actual events. Accordingly, their characters and places are usually vague or generic, such as “a widow,” “a king,” “a stag,” “a stream,” “a Sybarite,” and so on, and their events take place in the indefinite past. So in the tale of the widow and the soldier, the only specific information about the characters and setting in Petronius’s narration is that the action transpired in Ephesus; otherwise, the principal characters are unnamed, and the events are set at an unspecified time in the past. In the telling of the same story by Petronius’s contemporary Phaedrus, not even a locale is given.21

In this respect, the poetics of traditional fiction differs strikingly from that of literary fiction. Important characters in ancient Greek and Roman novels, such as Xenophon of Ephesus’s Ephesian Tale and Petronius’s Satyrica, are all named, the sites of the action are specified, and the temporal settings are clear, as though the novels were reports of actual events. Anonymity of actor, place, and time is characteristic not of fiction as such, but of traditional fiction.


Characters in folktales respond to the supernatural and the unnatural in a peculiar way. Indeed, how characters react to the supernatural largely depends upon whether the story in which they appear is generically a myth, legend, or folktale.

In the earliest era of the cosmos, in which Greek myth is set, the world is suffused with supernaturalism. Since the elements of the physical world (Earth, Sky, etc.) and the anthropomorphic gods are divine beings, everything is initially divine and therefore supernatural. At the advent of human beings, both divine and non-divine beings exist, but the two groups—gods and humans—seem to view each other rather like neighbours. Since the gods are present, not hidden, humans do not encounter them with surprise and fear, as we see in Hesiod’s depiction of a meeting of gods and men at Mecone to decide how meat is to be apportioned between them (Hesiod, Theog.), and since in the earliest period death is not yet an aspect of human existence, there are no ghostly phenomena. In the mythic era, the uncanny, the mysterious and wholly other, does not exist.

Human awe and fear of the supernatural first appear after the gods, angered by humans and Prometheus, withdraw from close interaction with humans. The supernatural world is now hidden from the natural world of human beings, although at any time it can suddenly intrude. Now the encounter of a human being with a deity is viewed as frightening and potentially dangerous. Once the goddess Aphrodite came disguised as a young maiden to the hut of the hero Anchises, seduced him, and then revealed her true nature to him. The youth begged her not to harm him, for it was dangerous for a mortal to sleep with an immortal (Hom. Hymn Ven. 175–190). As with deities, so with ghosts. In a report of astonishing events that allegedly took place in Amphipolis in the 4th century bce, a certain young man carried on an affair with a mysterious young woman who visited his room nightly. Presently the youth, Machates, learned that the woman, Philinnion, had died some months earlier and that his lover was therefore a revenant. When word got out, the entire city was in consternation and responded by burning the girl’s body and by performing purificatory sacrifices, while for his part Machates killed himself.22 Supernatural phenomena were not of course only erotic. At the haunted battlefield at Marathon one might hear every night the ghostly sounds of horses whinnying and of men engaged in battle. The spirits did not take kindly to anyone who deliberately attempted to witness these happenings (Paus. 1.32.3–4); that is, it was dangerous do so. So awe of the supernatural appears among humans after the Olympian gods withdraw from the world of humans, becoming distant and invisible, and after death enters the world. In legend the world is two-dimensional.

In this respect the folktale is strikingly different. Characters in folktales show not the slightest fear, awe, surprise, or even curiosity at supernatural or other extreme phenomena. If they encounter a deity or a talking animal, they treat them as something quite ordinary. Thus a religious tale relates how a woodcutter grieved after he accidentally dropped his axe into a river. The god Hermes came along and, learning what had happened, descended into the water and brought up a golden axe, asking the man if it was his. When the woodcutter said it was not, Hermes brought up a silver axe. When the man said it was not his either, Hermes brought up the man’s original axe, and presented it to him along with the golden and silver axes.23 The tale continues, but what is pertinent here is that the appearance of Hermes causes no awe or fear in the woodcutter, who interacts with him as matter-of-factly as he would with a human being. Similarly, in the tale of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche encountered in succession the goddesses Ceres, Venus, and Proserpina. She responded to them all as little more than very powerful females. And when a river reed addressed her, and later also a stream of water, an eagle, and a tower, she behaved as though such events were the most natural thing in the world. In the same way, humans and animals in Aesopic fables such as that of the fox and the woodcutter converse with each other totally without surprise that they are able to do so.24 In folktales, then, the supernatural and unnatural are not at all secluded from the natural. Reality has but one dimension, somewhat as in the mythic era. Folklorists term this characteristic of folktales as a genre “one-dimensionality.”25

Discussion of the Literature

The publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812–1815), with its comparative notes on folk narratives from other times and places, prompted interest among many learned persons in traditional oral tales. From around the mid-19th century until around the mid-20th century, folk-narrative scholars devoted themselves to documentation and historical investigation of the oral folktale. They collected tales in the field, published compilations, filed them in archives, and classified them by genre and plot. In an attempt to reconstruct the history of individual tales, they developed the so-called historic-geographic method of folktale study.

To facilitate the investigation of individual narratives, folklorists began as early as 1910 to publish indices of traditional narrative plots, termed “tale types.” Of the many such tale-type indices that have been compiled, the most extensive is Hans-Jörg Uther’s The Types of International Tales (2004).26 Also catalogued were motifs, the small narrative units of which traditional narratives are constructed. Stith Thompson compiled the Motif-Index of Folk Literature in the 1930s and revised it in the 1950s.27

Scholarly attention to the Greek and Roman oral tale in particular can be said to begin with the publication, in 1857, of Wilhelm Grimm’s “The Legend of Polyphemus,” a comparative investigation of the Homeric story of Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus (Od. 9.105–542) and texts of ten similar narratives, mostly folktales, from more recent tradition.28 Presently, classical philologists searched ancient literature for evidence of folktales and for parallels to, or analogues of, modern folktales. For example, Ludwig Friedländer published a comparative study of the tale of Cupid and Psyche and modern folktales in 1860, which he eventually developed into a survey of the evidence for folktales in ancient Greek and Roman literature.29 Otto Crusius found traces of folktales in ancient proverbs (1889).30 Ludwig Radermacher surveyed folk narratives in Homer’s Odyssey (1915), and a decade later W. R. Halliday included a chapter on ancient folktales and fables in his survey of Greek and Roman folklore (1927), while H. J. Rose included a chapter on “Märchen in Greece and Italy” in his work on Greek mythology (1928).31 In the same decade, Wolf Aly published a study of folktales and legends in Herodotus (1921) and wrote the article on “Märchen” for Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft (1928).32 The main concern of classical scholars was to document the existence of folktales and of analogues of modern folktales in ancient literature, mostly by comparing ancient and modern narratives. Much of the research of folklorists and classicists was summed up by Johannes Bolte and Georg Polívka in their history of the folktale, part of their extensive commentary (1913–1932) on the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen.33

From the mid-20th century onwards, the interests of folklorists shifted from diachronic to synchronic phenomena and methods. The earlier interest in the history of individual tales gave way to a focus on the structure and form of stories, prompted by the work of the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp and others, and on contextual approaches that emphasise narrators, audiences, performance, and the process of transmission over the plot and content of texts.34 The prestige previously enjoyed by early texts was transferred to phenomena of the present day, which can be directly observed.

In classical studies, no single research question has dominated the interests of scholars of the ancient oral tale, partly because the folktale is made up of different genres that tend to be studied by different scholars: novella scholars study novelle, fable scholars study the fable, and so on. Moreover, the techniques of modern folkloristics do not transfer well to the study of antiquity; the micro-ethnographies that characterize the performance approach are better suited to live observation than to literary study. However, comparative studies of ancient and modern stories continue to thrive, and questions about the tale of Cupid and Psyche and the origin of the fairytale continue to occupy classicists as well as folklorists.35

Primary Texts

Wonder Tale
  • Hansen, William. The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017.
  • Wright, James R. G. “Folk-Tale and Literary Technique in Cupid and Psyche.” Classical Quarterly 21 (1971): 273–284.
  • Zimmerman, Maaike, et al., eds. and comm. Apuleius Madaurensis: Metamorphoseon, Books IV 28–35, V and VI 1–24: The Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Text, Introduction and Commentary. Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 2004.
  • Cataudella, Quintino. La Novella Greca: Prolegomeni e Testi in Traduzioni Originali. Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, n.d. [1956 or 1957].
  • Trenkner, Sophie. The Greek Novella in the Classical Period. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1958.
  • Andreassi, Mario. Le Facezie del Philogelos: Barzellette Antiche e Umorismo Moderno. Lecce: Pensa Multimedia, 2004.
  • Baldwin, Barry, trans. and comm. The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1983.
  • Hierocles. Philogelos, ed. R. D. Dawe. Munich and Leipzig: K. G. Saur, 2000.
  • Thierfelder, Andreas, ed. and comm. Philogelos: Der Lachfreund von Hierokles und Philagrios. Munich: Heimeran, 1968.
  • Gibbs, Laura, trans. Aesop’s Fables. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Hausrath, August, ed. Corpus Fabularum Aesopicarum. Vol. 1, fasc. 1–2. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1959–1970.
  • Holzberg, Niklas. The Ancient Fable: An Introduction. Translated by Christine Jackson-Holzberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
  • Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to him or Closely Connected with the Literary Tradition that Bears his Name. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1952.
  • Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. and trans. Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • van Dijk, Gert-Jan. ΑΙΝΟΙ, ΛΟΓΟΙ,ΜΥΘΟΙ‎: Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature, with a Study of the Theory and Terminology of the Genre. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Link to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Aly, Wolf. 1928. “Märchen.” In Real-Enzyklopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Edited by A. Pauly, et al., vol. 14, 254–281. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1893.
  • Bolte, Johannes, and Georg Polívka. Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, vol. 4, Zur Geschichte der Märchen. Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1930.
  • Dégh, Linda. Folktales and Society: Story-Telling in a Hungarian Peasant Community; A Reissue with an Afterword. Translated by Emily M. Schossberger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
  • van Dijk, Gert-Jan. ΑΙΝΟΙ, ΛΟΓΟΙ,ΜΥΘΟΙ‎: Fables in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Literature, with a Study of the Theory and Terminology of the Genre. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Ranke, Kurt, et al., eds. Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. 15 vols. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977–2015.
  • Friedländer, Ludwig. “Das Märchen von Amor und Psyche und andere Volksmärchen im Altertum.” Revised by Otto Weinreich. In Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms in der Zeit von August bis zum Ausgang der Antonine. Edited by George Wissowa, vol. 4, 89–132, 9th and 10th ed. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1921.
  • Haase, Donald, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. 3 vols. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood, 2008.
  • Hansen, William. “Greek Mythology and the Study of the Ancient Greek Oral Story.” Journal of Folklore Research 20 (1983): 101–112.
  • Hansen, William, ed. Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
  • Hansen, William. Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Hansen, William. “Folktale.” In The Homer Encyclopedia. Edited by Margalit Finkelberg, vol. 1, 291–293. Chichester, U.K. and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
  • Hansen, William. The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
  • Hausrath, August, and August Marx. Griechische Märchen, Fabeln, Schwänke, und Novellen aus dem klassischen Altertum. 2d ed. Jena: Diderichs, 1922.
  • Heldmann, Georg. Märchen und Mythos in der Antike? Versuch einer Standortsbestimmung. Munich: K. G. Saur, 2000.
  • Holbek, Bengt. Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Danish Folklore in a European Perspective. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1987.
  • Jason, Heda, and Aharon Kempinski. “How Old Are Folktales?” Fabula 22 (1981): 1–27.
  • Lüthi, Max. The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Translated by John D. Niles. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986 [1982].
  • Olrik, Axel. Principles for Oral Narrative Research. Translated by Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992 [1921].
  • Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.
  • Propp, Vladimir. The Russian Folktale. Edited and translated by Sibelan Forrester. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.
  • Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1946.
  • Thompson, Stith. A Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books and Local Legends. Rev. ed., 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955–1958.
  • Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, Based upon the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. 3 vols. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.


  • 1. Perry 173; ATU 729 The Merman’s Golden Axe; William Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 42–44. “Perry” is the conventional reference for individual tales in Ben Edwin Perry, ed., Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to him or Closely Connected with the Literary Tradition that Bears his Name (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1952). “ATU” is the conventional abbreviation for Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (3 vols.; Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004), and refers to individual tale-types catalogued in that index.

  • 2. ATU 425B The Son of the Witch. On the tale of Cupid and Psyche and its analogues in modern folklore see Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 100–114. A minority of scholars rejects the majority view that the tale of Cupid and Psyche derives from an ancient folktale, arguing instead that Apuleius’s tale is a work of original literary fiction that actually gave rise to the fairytale as a genre. On this controversy see Georg Heldmann, Märchen und Mythos in der Antike? Versuch einer Standortsbestimmung (Munich: K. G. Saur, 2000); Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 110–112.

  • 3. Perry 28; ATU 778 To Sacrifice a Giant Candle; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 435–439.

  • 4. Conon, Narr. 38; ATU 961B Money in the Stick; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 279–284.

  • 5. Petron., Sat. 110.6–113.9; ATU 1510 The Matron of Ephesus; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 266–279.

  • 6. Philogelos 33; ATU 1336A Not Recognizing Own Reflection; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 257–261.

  • 7. Ael. VH 9.24; ATU 1290B* Sleeping on a Feather.

  • 8. Philogelos 21; William Hansen, “The Seer and the Computer: On Philogelos and Modern Jokes,” Classical Bulletin 77 (2001): 87–102.

  • 9. Lucian Ver. hist. 1.30–2.2; ATU 1889G Man Swallowed by Fish; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 261–264.

  • 10. Plut. Mor. 79A; ATU 1889F Frozen Words (Music) Thaw; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 146–147.

  • 11. Perry 171; ATU 289 A Bat, a Diver, and a Thornbush Shipwrecked.

  • 12. Perry 226; ATU 275A The Race Between Hare and Tortoise.

  • 13. On epimythia see Ben Edwin Perry, “The Origin of the Epimythium,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 71 (1940): 391–419.

  • 14. Plut. Mor. 614d-615a; ATU 60 Fox and Crane Invite Each Other.

  • 15. ATU 1419C The One-Eyed Husband; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 225–227.

  • 16. Ben Edwin Perry, ed. and trans., Babrius and Phaedrus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), xxii–xxix.

  • 17. ATU 1419E Underground Passage to Lover’s House; Eduard Zarncke, “Parallelen zur Entführungsgeschichte im Miles Gloriosus,” Rhenische Museum 39 (1884): 1–26; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 453–460.

  • 18. ATU 303 The Twins or Blood Brothers; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 450–453.

  • 19. On the confusion between folktale and legend in H. J. Rose’s Handbook of Greek Mythology (1928), see Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 9. More recently, in The Nature of Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), G. S. Kirk writes: “Kronos is chosen by Gaia, mother Earth, to be her champion because he is the youngest and bravest of her children. That is a typical folktale idea, as in the father-son conflict” (p. 37); “Oedipus himself has a bizarre name redolent of folktale, if indeed it means ‘swollen-foot’; his exposure by his parents, his rescue by a shepherd, his winning the kingship of Thebes by solving the Sphinx’s riddle—all these, too, are folktale elements ” (165).

  • 20. Axel Olrik, Principles for Oral Narrative Research, trans. Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 41–61.

  • 21. Petron. Sat. 110.6–113.9; Phaedrus, Perotti’s Appendix 15 (Perry 543).

  • 22. Phlegon, Mir. 1; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 392–397.

  • 23. Perry 173; ATU 729 The Merman’s Golden Axe; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 17, 42–44.

  • 24. Perry 22; ATU 161 The Farmer Betrays the Fox by Pointing.

  • 25. Max Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature, trans. John D. Niles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 4–10.

  • 26. Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, Based upon the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (3 vols.; Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004). Cf. David S. Azzolina, Tale Type- and Motif-Indexes: An Annotated Bibliography (New York and London: Garland, 1987).

  • 27. Stith Thompson, A Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books and Local Legends. (Rev. ed., 6 vols.; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955–1958).

  • 28. Wilhelm Grimm, “Die Sage von Polyphem,” Abhandlungen der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschatft zu Berlin, philologische-historische Klasse (1857): 1–30. The story of Odysseus and Polyphemus is a version of ATU 1137 The Blinded Ogre; see further Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 289–301.

  • 29. Ludwig Friedländer, Dissertatio, qua Fabula Apulejana de Psyche et Cupidine cum Fabulis Cognatis Comparatur, Progr. Königsberg 1–2 (1860), which is not accessible to me. This early work developed into his classic essay “Das Märchen von Amor und Psyche und andere Volksmärchen im Altertum,” in Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms in der Zeit von August bis zum Ausgang der Antonine, ed. Georg Wissowa (9th and 10th eds.; Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1921), vol. 4, 89–132. The essay appeared in successive editions of the Darstellungen from 1862 onwards. An English translation was published as “The Story of Amor and Psyche and other Traces of the Folk-Tale in Antiquity,” in Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire, trans. A. B. Gough (London: George Routledge, 1913), vol. 4, 88–123.

  • 30. Otto Crusius, “Märchenreminiscenzen im antiken Sprichwort,” Verhandlungen der Versammlungen deutscher Philologen und Schulmänner 40 (1889): 31–47.

  • 31. Ludwig Radermacher, “Die Erzählungen der Odyssee,” Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlich Akademie der Wissenschaft in Wien, philologische-histolrische Klasse 178.1 (1915); William Reginald Halliday, Greek and Roman Folklore (New York: Cooper Square, 1963 [1927]), 74–114; H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, including its Extension to Rome (London: Methuen, 1928), 286–304.

  • 32. Wolf Aly, Volksmärchen, Sage und Novelle bei Herodot und seinen Zeitgenossen (2d ed., Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969 [1921]); “Märchen,” RE 14 (1928): 254–281.

  • 33. Johannes Bolte and Georg Polívka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, vol. 4 (Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1930).

  • 34. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (2d ed.; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Notable works that exemplify the performance approach are Richard Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1984 [1977]), 3–58; and Linda Dégh, Narratives in Society: A Performer-Centered Study of Narration (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1995).

  • 35. Comparative studies of different genres of the folktale include Graham Anderson, Fairytale in the Ancient World (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); William Hansen, “The Seer and the Computer: On Philogelos and Modern Jokes,” Classical Bulletin 77 (2001): 87–102; Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread; Mario Andreassi, Le facezie del Philogelos: Barzellette antiche e umorismo moderno (Lecce: Pensa Multimedia, 2004); and Daniel Ogden, In Search of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: The Traditional Tales of Lucian’s Lover of Lies (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2007). On the question of Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche and the origin of the fairytale, see Heldmann, Märchen und Mythos, and Hansen, Ariadne’s Thread, 110–112.