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Shared Stories: Common themes in myths and legends across cultures

There are many examples of similar themes in the mythology of different cultures. For example, the Thais, the Chinese, and Japanese and the Koreans all have a tradition about a rabbit in the moon. They differ on what the rabbit is doing, however. The Thais say it is dehusking rice. The Chinese claim it is pounding medicine, and the Japanese and Koreans say it is making rice cakes. But the lore of all four cultures agree that the rabbit is using a mortar and pestle to accomplish said tasks. Considering that these four countries are not too far apart geographically, such similarities are hardly surprising. After all, stories flow across borders, and the origin of some tales are older than the nations who claim them.

Peoples belonging to the same linguistic family also tend to have common elements in their folklore - the Uighurs of East Turkestan and the Turks of Turkey may be physically separated by many countries in between, but they both have stories of the folk hero Effendi Nasreddin Hodja. It is not surprising when distinct cultures that are geographic neighbors or linguistic cousins share common elements in their tales and myths. What is more fascinating are the similar themes that occur in the traditions of geographically distant and linguistically distinct cultures. Here are some examples of common motifs in folklore from around the world:

  • Animal-to-other shape-shifters - Brazil, Peru, Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand
  • Composite creatures:
    • Mermaids - Cameroon, Japan, India, Malaysia, Thailand
    • Centaurs - Cameroon, Greece
  • Underwater civilizations - Cameroon, Peru, Brazil, China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia

Claims are sometimes made about one culture being 'older' or 'better' than another. The *other* culture is often one that the speaker knows very little about, a typical example being someone claiming that European civilization is older and better than African civilization. But if only those who despise Africans (or any other people) knew more about the people and their folklore and history, they may realize that Africans (or other people) are not that different from themselves.

On the other hand, parallel legends or similar customs are sometimes used as 'evidence' to 'prove' that one society owes its lore and culture to another. In their eagerness to prove the alleged 'donor culture' is 'superior', some might take the route of denying the indigenous creativity present in all peoples. Similar stories in different countries do not necessarily indicate a 'copycat' phenomenon. Here are some examples of interesting parallels in stories from distinct cultures which may or may not owe any influence to each other. All that can be fairly said is that these similarities attest to our common human imagination:

Half-serpent-half-human deities in Dogon, Hindu and Chinese myths

Soninke and Chinese legends of the Slayer of the Snake God

The returnee from the underwater world - similarities in Amazon and Japanese legends

Parallels between The Sundiata Epic and The Lord of The Rings

Comparing Chinese and Hebrew creation and flood myths