Folklore Dictionaries, Handbooks and Overviews: A Very Incomplete Review

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I got inspired to do this post while browsing through the interesting list of recommended books on the #FolkloreThursday blog. As wonderful as the list is, I couldn’t help noticing that it feels a bit skewed towards Europe and the UK. Since the booklist is compiled from Twitter recommendations with the #FolkloreThursday hashtag, this skewness is a bit on folks like me, who have interests outside of Europe and the UK, for not tweeting the texts that we use and love. Hence, this blog post.

Obviously, my list is also skewed towards my own interests, and the limits of my time and resources. I compiled it from the reference sections of several of my blog posts, and by scouring my bookshelves and hard drive. Just for the sake of some structure, I limited and organized the list into dictionary-style references, handbooks, and mythic overviews: the kind of resources one might want when beginning to learn about the stories of a particular culture. Since these are all books I’ve used or at least looked through, I added some comments about them, as well. I alphabetized each sublist by title.

One thing I did notice is that I don’t have any good Filipino folk dictionaries or bestiaries. I’ve tried to remedy that, and I’ll add those books to the list when I get them.

John Bruno Hare, the founder of the Internet Sacred Text Archive, wrote that one focus of his archive was “remedying the underrepresentation of traditional cultures on the Internet.” I offer this list in somewhat the same spirit. I hope it’s helpful, and I encourage other people to post their favorite dictionaries, bestiaries, etc., too.


Folk dictionaries and bestiaries may seem less necessary in this age of Wikipedia and Google, but I still find them handy when starting off research, especially if the entries include citations and references to sources. I note which of these do, and which don’t.

Bestiario Mexicano, Roldan Peniche Barrera. Panorama Editorial (1987).
In Spanish. I checked this one out from the library, and I can’t remember whether the entries had citations (I think they did), but I do remember that the entries went into a fair bit of depth. I liked it a lot.

Chinese Mythology A to Z, Jeremy Roberts. Facts on File (2004).
There is also a 2010 edition from Chelsea House that I’ve not seen. The 2004 edition includes a short overview of Chinese religions and mythologies, a list of key gods and mythic figures, and an index (I don’t expect that in a dictionary, but it’s helpful). The entries are extensively cross-referenced, but do not have citations. The “Selected Bibliography” is rather brief. Some nice illustrations.

Fantasmario Mexicano, Marcia Trejo Silva. Editorial Trillas (2009).
In Spanish. Oh, I love this reference. Extensive discussions of the beasts and phantasms of Mexican folklore, urban legend, and precolonial legend — including in many cases the folk talismans to protect against these phantasms. Extremely comprehensive. Each entry includes citations.

Mexican Bestiary/Bestiario Mexicano, Noé Vela and David Bowles. VAO Publishing (2012).
Bilingual (Spanish/English). More informal and less comprehensive than either Peniche Barerra’s Bestiario or Trejo Silva’s Fantasmario, but for Anglophones, it does have the advantage of being in English. The entries have a kind of fireside storyteller’s tone, and no citations. There is no bibliography, either. Great fun to read though, and nice illustrations.

Pacific Mythology, Jan Knappert (1992).
Part of the Diamond Books An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend series. This is the only one of the series that I own and have used. It covers the Pacific Islands and those countries of East and Southeast Asia along the Pacific. Entries are of varying length — and depth. You can definitely tell which countries Knappert knows the most/cares the most about (hint: the Philippines ain’t one of them). I found it rather useful for research on Hawaii, and it looks like it may be quite useful for New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan. It’s rubbish for the Philippines. Entries have no citations. The bibliography is extensive, but like the entries, uneven.


Handbooks can also be handy at the beginning of a research project. They help set me set context when reading myths and legends from a culture group I’m trying to learn about.

Handbook of the Indians of California, Alfred L. Kroeber. U.S. Govt. Printing Office (1925).
Helpful (though rather dry) overview of the Native American tribes of California, their customs and lifestyles. Some brief discussions of myth, but mostly I used this to help me set context for which tribes lived where and which tribes had related customs and beliefs while reading the myths in other texts. Online via the Hathi Trust.

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno. Oxford University Press, (2007)
Broken up into sections on religion, death customs, art, literature, daily life, and more. Really, really helpful for setting the Aztec mythology into the context of the Aztec social structure, customs and religious life.


The texts I included here were ones that I felt made some attempt at an overall view of a particular myth cycle or of a folklore, through example and commentary, or chronological structure. This means I’ve not included some excellent folktale and fairy tale collections, for example the wonderful collections published by Pantheon Press. Inclusion in this section is more subjective than in the above sections, and you may disagree with my choices — but at least I hope I’ve pointed out books (and papers) that you are less familiar with.

Creation Myths among the Early Filipinos, Francisco Demetrio. Asian Folklore Studies, 27:1 (1968).
Brief comparative survey of the creation myths of the different peoples of the Philippines. Synopses of various versions of each myth or myth motif, and citations. Available via JSTOR with an institutional subscription or MyJSTOR account.

El Folk-Lore Filipino, Isabelo de Los Reyes (1889-90).
English/Spanish edition from University of the Philippines Press, 1994. Despite the name, the text skews heavily towards the folklore of the Ilocos (de Los Reyes was Ilocano), but Tagalog and other traditions are mentioned as well. This is an interesting but informal ramble through the customs and beliefs of (mostly) Ilocanos, as de los Reyes personally experienced them. That makes it a bit like Lafcadio Hearn’s writings on Japanese life in tone and coverage, and I confess I’m including it here mostly because I wanted to include more Filipino references. The Spanish and the English are side-by-side, and I’ve caught a few errors in the English translation, but having the translation is still enormously helpful.

Folk Literature of the Philippines, Vol 2: The Myths, Damiana L. Eugenio. University of the Philippines Press (2001).
Professor Eugenio’s landmark series Philippine Folk Literature (8 volumes, I think) is the reference on, well, Philippine folk literature. It’s hard to find, and I don’t own it, though I wish I did. San Francisco Public Library has at least some of the volumes, and Volume 2 is the one I’ve spent the most time with. She classifies the myths by the Stith-Thompson motif index, and cites the sources for the versions of the myths that she collects.

Hawaiian Mythology, Martha Beckwith (1940). A critical survey of all available (at the time) versions and variants of the major Hawaiian myths. Includes synopses of the myths, discussion, comparisons to versions from other Pacific Islands, and citations to sources. Available online at

Hopi Tales, Alexander M. Stephen. The Journal of American Folklore, 42:163 (1929).
The first half of the collected tales were recorded at First Mesa (in Arizona) by the author in 1893, the rest of the tales recorded by him ten years earlier, also at First Mesa. The tales recount the Hopi origin myth: the emergence of humans from the Sipapu, the origins of death, of culture heros, and of key resources of Hopi life. Includes citations and comparisons to origin myths and legends of related peoples. Online via JSTOR with an institutional subscription or MyJSTOR account.

Indian Myths of South Central California, Alfred L. Kroeber. University of California Publications (1907)
The tales are quite brief, synopses really, but it’s interesting to compare the origin stories of the different tribes. The introduction compares and contrasts the mythologies of the North Central California tribes to those of the South Central tribes. Available online at

The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs, John Bierhorst. Quill (1984).
Tales detailing the Aztec creation myth, the gods, and the cycle of myths that recount the founding of Mexico, the coming of the Spanish, into the colonial era. No citations within the stories, and I don’t remember if there was a bibliography (I checked this one out from the library, too), but Bierhorst is a recognized scholar on the folklore of Latin America, so I trust that the book is well-founded.

Keresan Texts, Franz Boas. The American Ethnological Society, New York (1928).
Tales from the Laguna (Kawaik) people of New Mexico — Keresan is the language they speak. The body of the text is a fairly loose collection of stories, but I’m including it in this list because Boas did try to collect and organize together as much of the origin story as his informants would give him. All the fragments he collected are together in one section of the text. Boas also added an appendix on Laguna beliefs, customs, and cosmogony that’s quite helpful as context for the myths and stories. Citations to texts and research on other Keresan peoples. Online via the University of Michigan.

The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg (1909).
Originally in four volumes. Translated from the German. To quote the commentary on Sacred-Texts:

This is a massive collation of the Haggada; the traditions which have grown up surrounding the Biblical narrative. These stories and bits of layered detail are scattered throughout the Talmud and the Midrash, as well as in oral traditions. In the 19th century Ginzberg undertook the task of arranging the Haggada into chronological order, and this series of volumes was the result.

It reminds me a bit of M.R. James’ more modest Old Testament Legends: Being Stories out of some of the less-known Apocryphal Books of the Old Testament. I include Ginzberg’s text in this list but not James’ because Ginzberg’s work is exhaustive (and chronological), whereas James’ volume is more of a sampler, so to speak. It is online at Sacred-Texts. If you prefer epub or kindle format, Project Gutenberg has it as four volumes.

The Mythology of the Ifugaos, Roy Franklin Barton. American Folklore Society (1956)
Selection of myths of the Ifugao people of Luzon, the Philippines. Each myth includes a description of the myth’s ritual use, a synopsis, commentary, and English translation. Four of the myths are also given in Ifugao.

The Myths of Mexico and Peru, Lewis Spence (1913).
I have the 1994 Dover Edition. Overview of the mythology and culture of the Aztec, Maya, and other peoples of Mexico, and the mythology and culture of the Inca of Peru. Spence touches on different topics to varying depth, and it’s not as exhaustive in its coverage as, say, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, but it’s still interesting and useful. Includes an index and a fairly extensive bibliography, though probably most of those sources are difficult to get today, and many, of course, are in Spanish.

Origin Myth of Acoma and Other Records, Mathew W. Stirling. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 135 (1942).
The Acoma are another Keresan-speaking people of New Mexico. This text opens with a more complete version of the Keresan origin myth than Boas’ Keresan Texts; the details of the Acoma version are a little different from those of the Laguna version. Well footnoted, with a nice bibliography. Online at Sacred-Texts.

Traditions of the Tinguian: A Study in Philippine Folklore, Fay-Cooper Cole (1915).
Mythology of the Itneg (aka Tinguian) people of northern Luzon, the Philippines. The first part is the saga of the culture heroes. The second part collects ritual and “explanatory” myths; the third part collects fables and folktales. The introduction gives a table of “leading characters” — that is, the culture heroes — and how they are related to each other. This is super helpful. Also includes abstracts, or synopses, of all the stories, for quick reference. Well footnoted, references in footnotes.

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