Exploring The Origins Of The Most Popular Folktales Across The World

We’re journeying across space and time to explore the origins of the most popular folktales across the world!

Author's Corner Book Culture Classics Diverse Voices Just For Fun Pop Culture
Origins of folktales featured image

Oral storytelling is an ancient practice and an important period in human history and literature. The development of the written story made it significantly easier to pass down stories from one generation to the next. Folktales are stories from popular culture that were originally told by word of mouth before the time of the written story. Let’s explore the origins of popular folktales across the world.

North America: Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

The story of Paul Bunyan originated in the mid-1800s. The lumberjack is said to have worked in the forests of North America during the lumber industry’s heyday. He is said to have been seven feet tall with a seven-foot stride, though some legends depict him as tall as a few hundred meters. He and his giant blue ox, Babe, are credited with everything from creating Lake Superior to creating the Mississippi River. Historians widely believed Paul Bunyan was based on the real-life Canadian lumberjack Fabian Fournier, who worked in Michigan after the Civil War.

Depiction of Paul Bunyan, a giant, plaid wearing lumberjack, and his giant blue ox, Babe. Paul is carrying a large axe and is the size of a mountain.

Tales of Paul Bunyan began orally in the 1800’s. The first written reference to Paul Bunyan was in 1893 in the Gladwin County Record, but the legend wasn’t popularized until 1916 in a pamphlet by William B. Laughead. Ever since, there have been multiple children’s adaptations made about the giant lumberjack, including one by Walt Disney. Travelers can also see giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox all across the United States.

South America: Domingo’s Cat

The legend of Domingo’s Cat originated in Brazil and was told orally. Because of this, it is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the legend of Domingo’s Cat began, though it has much in common with The Master Cat or Puss in Boots from the 17th century. One of the earliest publications of the story was in Elsie Spicer Eells’ Tales of Giants From Brazil, published in 1918. It’s a short fable aimed at children to teach them the value of loyalty and kindness.

A depiction of a cat in a vest presenting a basket of gold to a king on a throne.

The fable is about Domingo, a poor man forced to sell his belongings for food. His only possession left is his cat. Domingo promises not to sell the cat, and the cat in turn promises to help him get money for food. The cat then proceeds to help Domingo get money, a wife who is the daughter of the king, and a beautiful palace of silver, gold, and diamonds. The cat then disappears to help others in need. Domingo’s Cat remains a popular story in South America, and across the world, today.

Europe: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Pied Piper of Hamelin originated in Hamelin, Germany in the Middle Ages during a giant rat infestation that caused the black plague. It tells of the supposed fate of the children that disappeared from Hamelin in 1284. The story is one of the most accurately located fables in terms of its origin. It has since been retold by Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, and Robert Browning. The moral of The Pied Piper story is to always keep your promises. This fable tells of a man in pied clothing who tells the mayor he can lead the rats out of Hamelin for a fee of 1000 guilders. The mayor agrees but refuses to pay the piper when the rats are gone. The piper then leads all of the children out of Hamelin, where they are never heard from again.

The pied piper of Hamelin leading rats away from a city

Many different variations of this story exist. Some say the piper led the children to a river where they drowned. Others claim the piper led the children to a dark cave where they were never seen again. Other stories state the children died from the plague carried by the rats, making the piper the personification of death. More still say that the piper led not just children, but all of the people of Hamelin out of the town. The final popular theory is that the piper made the children into child soldiers. The story of the pied piper is still widely popular and adapted today.

Asia: The Zodiac Story

The tale of the Chinese zodiac can be traced back to the Han Dynasty, although the specific author is unknown. Different versions of the story exist all across Asia, including Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Each animal, the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, represents a single year in a 12-year cycle. The story is largely about the different personalities you can find in a person and about the ones you should admire, and the ones you should not.

Chinese zodiac chart, the Chinese zodiac animals in order around the Yin and Yang symbol.

The Chinese zodiac is a simple story. The Jade Emperor, the first God, declares a race to determine which animals will represent each year. The rat won the race by taking advantage of its disadvantages, but also by stepping on others to get ahead. The Ox was hardworking but came in second place. The pig, lazy after eating and sleeping, finished the race last. The message of the tale is universal. Today, the Chinese Zodiac is still a popular folktale across the globe.

Africa: The Hare and The Lion

The story of the Hare and the Lion has no known exact origins and no known author, though it has been traced back to East Africa. There are also similar versions of the story in Sanskrit dating back to the fourth century. It’s a story that’s been told orally through many different people. The children’s tale is about the importance of wit and intelligence over brute force. In later versions, it can be told as a story of good over evil. In others, it is told to teach the destructive effects of pride and arrogance.

A lion and a white rabbit in front of a well.

The story is about a lion who’s grown tired of hunting. He commands all of the animals to take turns being his prey each day. When it is the hare’s turn, he spots a deep well as he approaches the lion’s den. The lion is angry at the hare’s late arrival and demands to know why. The hare then claims another lion tried to eat him. The lion orders the hare to take him to the lion, and the hare shows him the well. The lion looks in and mistakes his reflection for another lion and pounces into the well, killing himself. The tale remains a popular legend across the world today.

Australia/Oceania: The Rainbow Bird

The Rainbow Bird is an aboriginal folktale that originated in Northern Australia. It tells of the origins of fire and its association with the rainbow bird. The tale is aimed at children and teaches the importance of sharing. While it has been told orally across many different cultures, it was published and popularized in 1993 in a book by Eric Maddern. Today, it is one of the most popular folktales in Australia.

Rainbow Bird by Eric Maddern.

The story is about a time when Australia was dark and freezing. A bird, forced to eat her food raw and cold, asked a crocodile for firesticks. The crocodile refused to share and hoarded all of the sticks for himself. The bird flew down and stole the firesticks, giving them to all those who needed them. As she did so, the fire created beautiful, vibrant colors on her tail, making her into a rainbow bird. Afraid of fire, the crocodile has been living in watery swamps ever since.

Russia: Vasilisa the Beautiful

Vasilisa the Beautiful is a Russian folktale and one of many stories of Baba Yaga, who first appeared in writing in 1755. The story was originally passed down orally but was later published by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev in the mid-1800s. As with many folktales, it was told to children. Primarily the story taught the value of hard work and that beauty, even outer beauty, comes from within. When Vasilisa was eight years old, her mother died. While on her deathbed, she gave Vasilisa a Motanka doll and directed her not to tell anyone she had it. Whenever Vasilisa gave the doll something to eat and drink, it would help her with whatever she wanted. Soon, her father remarried a woman with two daughters of her own who were cruel to the beautiful Vasilisa whenever her father was away.

Vasilisa outside the hut of Baba Yaga, holding a skull torch.

The family moved into the woods where Baba Yaga was rumored to live. The stepmother plotted to send the girl out into the woods so that Baba Yaga would eat her. None of her schemes worked, however, and Vasilisa grew more beautiful every day, much to the stepmother’s jealousy. Eventually the girl was tasked with retrieving a flame from Baba Yaga’s hut to light their house. In exchange for the flame, Baba Yaga ordered the girl to complete several impossible tasks in a single day. With the help of the doll, however, she completed the tasks and took a skull with burning coals home to her step-family, where the coals burned them alive. Vasilisa, however, went on to become a skilled cloth maker and eventually married the Tsar. Today, tales of Baba Yaga are popular across Eastern Europe and around the world.

Middle East: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is an Arabic folktale published in the 18th century in One Thousand and One Nights. It was added in French by the European translator Antoine Galland and is the earliest known written version of the story. It remains one of the most popular tales from the book. A children’s tale told around the world, the story teaches against having too much greed and selfishness. The story is of Ali Baba and his brother Cassim, the son of a merchant. Upon their father’s death, Cassim marries a wealthy woman and becomes well-to-do running his father’s business. Ali Baba is a humble woodcutter. One day, he stumbles upon forty thieves visiting their treasure in a cave. The entrance is blocked by a large boulder that can only be opened and closed with the words “open sesame” and “close sesame”.

Image of Ali Baba holding a sword surrounded by treasure

When the thieves are gone, Ali Baba enters the cave and steals a single bag of gold. Cassim’s wife discovers the gold and forces Ali Baba to reveal where he found it. He shows Cassim the cave and the magic phrases, and Cassim enters with a mule to steal as much treasure as possible. However, he forgets the phrase upon leaving and becomes trapped in the cave, where the thieves find him and kill him. Ali Baba returns when the thieves are gone and retrieves his brother’s body and the thieves learn that someone else must know of their cave. Three thieves each take turns attempting to find Ali Baba’s home but are foiled by the enslaved girl, Morgiana. When she kills the leader of the thieves, Ali Baba is so grateful he awards her freedom and marries her to his son.

Folktales are an important part of human history and literature. These tall tales are an important period in the history of storytelling. They’re universal stories representative of the culture and people they originated from. Now that we’ve looked at only a few from across the world, tell us what you think! Do you have a favorite folktale we didn’t include in our list? For more fascinating folktales, check out this article here!