Folktales, Folksongs, and Proverbs in Lur/Iranian Daily Life

Erika Friedl Melds Folklore and Ethnography to Develop a New Anthropological Genre

in Anthropology of the Middle East
Mary Elaine HeglandSanta Clara University, USA

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Erika Friedl, Folk Tales from a Persian Tribe: Forty-Five Tales from Sisakht in Luri and English, Collected, Transcribed, Translated and Commented on by Erika Friedl (Dortmund, Germany:Verlag für Orientkunde, 2007); Folktales and Storytellers of Iran: Culture, Ethos, and Identity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014); Warm Hearts and Sharp Tongues: Life in 555 Proverbs from the Zagros Mountains of Iran (Vienna: New Academic Press, 2015); and Folksongs from the Mountains of Iran: Culture, Poetics and Everyday Philosophies (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018).

In her previous books, as in these, using unique, creative, and pioneering methods of research, analysis, and presentation, Professor Erika Friedl has done far more than any other scholar to uncover aspects of Persian culture. In her books, Friedl has developed new genres. In her famous Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village, she developed the genre of anthropological short stories. The stories are based on ethnography but are written in the literary format of short stories. Women of Deh Koh was such a pioneering genre that at first Friedl faced difficulty getting it published. Some presses said it is not literature so we can't publish it. Others said it is not anthropology so we can't publish it. Finally, the Smithsonian published it and then Penguin. The New York Times reviewed it and evaluated it as one of the most influential books of the year.

Friedl's Children of Deh Koh: Young Lives in an Iranian Village also presented a new genre—an actual ethnography of children and how they see, learn to analyse, and manoeuvre in their worlds. This was an almost insurmountable task—particularly since Iranian children, as she found, were taught not to express themselves but to answer questions according to what they believed their inquirers to expect. She had to turn to highly original research strategies—even examining the leftovers of children's play, for example.

In her 2021 book, Religion and Daily Life in the Mountains of Iran: Theology, Saints, People, Erika broke new ground through in-depth, long-term fieldwork to analyse how people of Sisakht in actuality see and practice religion, adapting it to their daily lives. Through half a century of careful listening and observing, the flexible, variated, forgiving, changing nature of their understandings of their lived Islam is uncovered, in contrast to Western view of Iranian Muslims as submissive and obedient to the ‘Islamic’ beliefs and dictates of the Islamic Republic of Iran leaders. To explain their critical, experience-based, argumentative, doubting approach to religion and their emphasis on goodness and responsibility to others as most important to living a Muslim life, Friedl crafted the terns ‘gnostic realism’ and ‘vernacular logic’.1

Because her other books have created new pathways, it is not surprising that Erika Friedl's work with folklore also develops a new approach. In her four books on folklore, Friedl applies her gifted, in-depth long-term fieldwork to ferret out the meanings, applications, and discussions around aspects of folklore, rather than analysing texts of folklore separated from their ethnographic, everyday living contexts—thereby combining two fields of study into the ethnography of folklore.

Friedl's contributions are all the more noteworthy in that they are based in a smaller Iranian setting. Most anthropological studies in recent decades have taken place in middle and upper-middle class Tehran. They introduce us to the lives of people who are dealing with heavy influence from global culture and are far from the ways of life that produced the rich cultural works of art documented and analysed in these volumes. The people in Sisakht more recently have also been influenced by media, education, the internet, and global culture. The tales, songs, and proverbs known to the older generations will surely gradually disappear. Friedl's colleagues in Sisakht know this and are grateful that she has preserved many of their cultural treasures for their children and grandchildren.2

Her first book focusing on folklore, Folk Tales from a Persian Tribe: Forty-Five Tales from Sisakht in Luri and English, became Volume 37 of the Contributions to the Cultural History of the Islamic Orient, founded by Prof. Dr. phil et. jur. Otto Spies, and edited by Prof. Dr. Ulrich Marzolph. The Introduction provides knowledge about the setting, context, and goals of the volume. In the first part of the book, Erika introduces us to each of the storytellers—whom she knew well, their lives, and their storytelling careers, followed by the stories they contributed translated into English. For each, comments and explanation give us better understandings of the meanings to local people; philosophical principles they reveal; different and changing versions; social change; and connections with everyday life, ideas, and practices. The second part of the book, ‘Luri Texts’, includes a note on transliteration, the texts—transcribed with the Latin alphabet—of the 45 tales, and finally, for each, a listing of the ‘Tale Types and Motifs’ according to three folklorists.

Erika's collecting, transcribing of Luri with the Latin alphabet, translating into English, and providing ethnographic-based explanations and commentaries represent thousands of hours of work for Dr. Friedl and her local storytellers and assistants and conveys the richness and creativity of Lur culture and the dedication of all contributing to recording these precious cultural productions. As Erika notes, this volume is a ‘historical document’: with TV, the internet, media, iPhones, tapes, and other prolific modern preoccupations, these stories are no longer a main means of entertainment. Interest is them is declining. This volume and all of the work and insight behind it provide a precious contribution, by putting oral culture into print and permanence. The transcriptions into Luri with the Latin alphabet provide the valuable service of documenting the Luri language—otherwise rarely found in print—and how it is changing; story tellers often use Persian words. Erika's foremost interest lies in understanding the ‘stories as projections of the narrators, as comments of storytellers on various cultural features and on their own situation, and as clues to their world views’ (21). For Friedl, ‘tales are vehicles of transmission of basic tents of the shared culture’. They ‘express existential themes’ (21). Many of the stories communicate the realities of life in Sisakht some decades ago and related philosophical tenets, such as poverty in spite of hard work; necessary subservience of underlings; inability to resist the powerful; need to be wily to survive; justified prevalence of lies, deceit, and violence; accepted authority of fathers and older brothers; invisibility and substitutability of females; dreams of wealth; challenges to achieving marriage; and importance of fulfilling traditional values and responsibilities to others.

Folktales and Storytellers of Iran: Culture, Ethos, and Identity combines three disciplines—folklore, ethnography, and literary analysis—and further develops the new genre of the ethnography of folktales and storytellers. As Friedl has herself commented, ‘As to this book, combining ethnography and folklore was more of a challenge than I anticipated, mostly because folklorists don't “do” much ethnography, and ethnographers don't “do” much folklore. I had to (re)invent the genre mostly on my own while trying never to lose sight of the fact that my foremost allegiance is to the people who let me in on their lives’ (written communication, 20 February 2015).

The Introduction includes a brief discussion of the history of folktale study and interest of anthropologists in folklore, declining in recent years, especially regrettable for Iran; ‘Aim and Methodology’; and ‘Ethnographic Background’. This book differs from the first in that it deals with folktales not only from Sisakht but also from other Zagros Mountain areas of Iran, collected by other scholars. Friedl has reviewed more than 150 folktales for the folklore aspect of the work. ‘Data I: Sources’ describes the folktales the Lorimers collected, especially the 28 tales from Bakhtiaris and some Kermani tales; the 17 tales Lama'e gathered from further south in Boir Ahmad; the 45 Friedl herself collected; the 18 tales from Luristan that Amanolahi published; and the 40 tales Ghaffari collected from the north-eastern area of Boir Ahmad. In ‘Data II: The Tales’, the author explains the two types of tales in Lur areas: the epics and the short, realistic ones with everyday characters and simple plots, from which ‘we can elicit the ethos of a tribal people that otherwise people nowhere express as clearly’ (15). Erika comments on how humour is valued, and narrators found ways to bring out funny moments even in drama.

Another main difference from the earlier book lies in the organisation. Instead of introducing a storyteller, then the translations of their stories, and, finally Friedl's discussion and cultural analysis of each, this volume organises topics into chapters, with illustrative references to various stories interspersed with commentary and analysis. The chapters include the following:

  1. 1.How Narrators Live in Their Tales: Two Cases
  2. 2.Family as Drama: Siblings
  3. 3.World of Women
  4. 4.Animals, Plants and People's Wisdom
  5. 5.God's Ways
  6. 6.People and Other Powers
  7. 7.The Philosophy of Everyday Life

Appendix 1 includes the complete texts of four tales. Appendix 2 lists each of the tales from each collection, indicating the chapter(s) in which they are discussed.

Friedl is a thorough student of literary analysis and of other contextualising scholarship. The inviting text is not broken up by references, and erudite scholarly discussions are rather put into footnotes at the end of the book.

Professor Erika Friedl is—more than any other scholar I know of—able to analyse the meanings of the folktales as understood by the tellers and the audience and the applicability of the folktales’ meanings to their lives, relationships, and culture. She sees how the folktales uncover ideas, understandings, philosophies and meanings about life, culture, and reality which are sometimes otherwise unexpressed. As the world view and culture give rise to these folktales, unpacking them through in-depth participant observation over a 50-year span allows the reader a privileged view into Persian culture. I cannot imagine a more insightful and skilled ethnography of folktales and storytellers nor a more penetrating investigation of Persian culture and the people who conceptualise, practice, and convey it.

This book is a significant contribution as a model that can be applied in other locations for how to use the ethnography of folktales and their tellers to uncover culture and how people practice, distil, and convey their culture. It is a reminder to social/cultural anthropologists about the efficacy of ethnographic knowledge about folktales to reveal central aspects of society and culture and therefore attend to them for their relevance to the scholars’ own topics of investigation. This book is of great significance in gathering so many folktales, in the light of globalisation which erodes time and interest in telling and listening to folktales. It will be useful to all those—academics in other fields as well as the general educated reader—who are interested in understanding Iranian society and culture. It makes for a very good read—Erika Friedl tells us the folktales, acquaints us with some of the tales’ tellers, and uses the ethnographic context to elucidate how the stories reveal central aspects of Iranian culture and society.

As an ethnographer who looks at the folktales and the storytellers within an ethnographic context, Friedl sends out a challenge to folklorists. Rather than conducting a formal, linguistic analysis of folktales in isolation away from their social and cultural contexts, she is highly cognizant of the fact that whole cultures are behind folktales.

It is the cultures, worldviews, and philosophies of people as well as the personal experiences, conditions, and personalities of the tellers which stand behind each telling of a folktale. The telling of folktales, as oral stories, is very much influenced by the surroundings. Thus, to really understand tales, what they mean to their tellers and to their audiences, and how they are influenced in each telling by social, political, economic, philosophical, and personal issues, one needs to conduct intensive, long-term, highly perceptive anthropological participant observation. One must engage in ethnography to understand how folktales and tellers emerge out of their worldviews and cultures; how they are related to people's lives and people's understandings of their world; and how they express values, philosophies, and rationales for action in a specific cultural context.

Only this highly empathetic, perceptive, and observant scholar who has conducted intensive fieldwork for more than seven years over several decades is able to give us such an in-depth and insightful understanding of Persian culture and society. Through her analysis of folktales and storytellers, performed in the light of her long years of highly perceptive ethnography in Iran, Friedl has been able to excavate the central aspects of Iranian culture—often lying buried below the surface—more than any scholar I know of. As she herself has stated, she has paid close ‘attention to oral clues in tales, songs, and proverbs because as projective devices they furnish unrehearsed comments on the people's ways of life in their own words’ (written communication, 20 February 2015). Anyone who is interested in Iranian ethos, philosophy, worldview, identity, and culture needs to read this book.

The Introduction of Warm Hearts and Sharp Tongues: Life in 555 Proverbs from the Zagros Mountains of Iran provides a brief history of proverbs and proverb study relevant to this book; discussion of the significance of ‘Context and Meaning’—ethnography to understand their relevance to everyday life, local identities, ambiguities, philosophies, and changes; discussions of ‘Proverbs in Iran’; ‘Purpose and Assumptions’; ‘The Collection’; and an ‘Ethnographic Sketch’. As illuminated by Friedl's intense and extensive ethnographic work in Sisakht, the proverbs convey the variable, changing and even contradictory meanings for people during the lifecycles of the sayings and people's realistic, experiential, this-worldly, poverty-challenged philosophies—generally at odds with the formal Shi'i theology issued from the Islamic Republic of Iran leaders. The translations and contextualising ethnographic explanations are entertaining, amusing, and sometimes rude. They demonstrate people's amazing wisdom about the realities of their situations and lives and the related culture. They emphasise hard work, self-sufficiency, patience, tenacity, refraining from arrogance and pride, behaving justly, concerns of this world, this troublesome life, the difficulties children bring, the deception and lies of others, how relatives can be demanding but hopefully supportive in the end, and acceptance of reality, among so many other messages/cultural analyses.

Friedl often gives examples of how people have used the proverbs in their everyday interactions. Their uses document some common aspects of history and culture. Others understand the references, although the speakers and the audience may see somewhat different meanings and advice in them.

The proverbs are divided into chapters according to topics. ‘I: Lurs, Lurs’ includes ideas about what it is like to be a Lur, Lur identity, expectations of a man who is a Lur, and views about themselves. ‘II: The Way It Is in the Natural Order of Things’ deals with reality and how one must accept the ways of the world, difficult though they may be. Two proverbs caution: ‘Every up also has a down’; and ‘You sowed barley, you'll harvest barley; you sowed wheat, you'll harvest wheat’ (42). Two other examples urge people to accept the way things are: ‘You can't milk an ox’, meaning, for example, don't expect mullahs to be anything but stingy; and the similar ‘Nobody has seen a snake's feet, a chicken's milk, a Mullah's bread’ (43).

‘III: God Is Great and the World Is Turning’ expresses people's common feeling that God is way above and not too much concerned about us, or we have to do what is necessary as God is way up there, or we just have to accept what God gives or doesn't give, or ‘God forgives trifles’ (61) and religious requirements that we just are not able to carry out. Some of these proverbs deride officials, religious rituals, or people who put on religious airs. ‘IV: The Old, Death and the Dead’ reveals the common negative view of old people, criticises all of the crying and attention to the dead who were ignored while alive, and states the common sense that, since no one has come back to report, who knows what happens after death, and other ideas about the elderly and the dead.

Other chapters focus on proverbs about ‘V: A Life of Work and Work as Life’; ‘VI: Matters of Food’; ‘VII: Heart, Health and Pain’; ‘VIII Full House’, about children and relatives; ‘IX: Passion, Marriage and What Women Say’; ‘X: Generosity and Obligations’; ‘XI: Wisdom and Knowledge’; ‘XII: Beware’; and ‘XIII: Words, Words’.

Folksongs from the Mountains of Iran: Culture, Poetics and Everyday Philosophies breaks barriers in that it is an ethnographic study of folk songs. From her seven years of living in Sisakht, in the same setting over a span of 50 years, Friedl has gained in-depth, detailed ethnographic knowledge and can explain the more than six hundred folksongs she collected, complete with the cultural context, relationships, concerns, assumptions, and expectations of people in this community. She describes typical settings for when the songs are performed along with diverse explanations of people in the setting, changes over time, modifications, even differences of opinions and debates over meaning. In many cases the verses would not be understandable without Friedl's ethnographic explanations. Through the unique combination of folksongs—in the genre of folklore and in-depth, long-term ethnographic field research—Friedl is able to look at these folksongs as texts developed by people in the fieldwork site to explain how they view, think about, criticise, understand, and make comments about their own culture, society, relationships, expectations, and values. These lyrics are sometimes a way to hear from people whose voices otherwise are not available, not possible in the social and cultural situation. The texts are self-generated, almost without exception, performed spontaneously upon appropriate occasions, and thus escape the censorship and influence which might well apply if asked about their views and critiques by a researcher.

The songs are gripping, fascinating, telling. One is amazed, for example, at the overwhelming attention to sex, passion, attraction, and sexual innuendo, symbolism, and play—given the quite repressive policies of the Islamic Republic government toward any mixing of the sexes before marriage. One does not tire of reading the hundreds of verses. They tell much about the culture, society, ways of life, and change over the five decades and more Friedl has learned about through her anthropological field research. Sometimes what is not there is so telling—for example, female views, emotions, and critiques are in very short supply, further testifying to the androcentric nature of Lur society that many lyrics reveal.

These short verses, as treated by Friedl's anthropological analysis, become texts with which people in her research site talk to the readers about themselves, their concerns, attachments, fears, desires, and even their tactics for reaching goals. They are evocative, often surprising, and well-honed. Friedl's commentary after each verse provides valuable contextual knowledge and insightful analysis and often includes different meanings offered by people in the settlement of Sisakht.

This book is a highly original contribution, the first of its kind. Erika transcribes the Luri verses, provides a translation in English, and then adds a commentary, explaining the meaning, typical contexts, and contextual ethnographic knowledge. Often comments, meanings, and different understandings of local people as well as typical settings for performance are added. Sometimes the author notes substitutions, use of Persian language words added, and changes. We see the verses not as timeless pieces but as impacted by changes in society and specific singers or reciters. We learn much about social, cultural, political, and religious transformations for Lur people through the lyrics and Friedl's commentary. Sections often have introductions which give the ethnographic background for the verses in that section. This helps the reader to better grasp intentions and the feelings and forces influencing the performers.

The ethnography of folksong lyrics is a new genre and, in my view, a highly welcome one. It seems so commonsensical—as do so often barrier-breaking, pioneering efforts—to see lyrics as texts serving as channels for people to express their ideas about themselves and their culture and society. Probably it has not been done before, as far as I know, partly because it is a huge task, possible only for a researcher with very expert linguistic knowledge, highly skilled observational and intuitional skills, years of ethnographic research, and a great deal of time for transliteration, translation, research about relevant literature, and access to people in the environment as well as to other researchers all who can and are willing to spend hundreds of hours answering questions and explaining. It requires a person to be versed in two fields and able to find ways to combine those two fields—folklore and cultural anthropology.

This book makes innovative contributions to two fields. And in addition to folklore and cultural anthropology, it makes large and original contributions to the field of Iranian studies. Through the sections of lyrics and ethnographic discussions, the manuscript also makes profound and unique contributions to such fields as: religious studies; the anthropology of work and economics; sexuality and gender; family and kinship; the study of ideas about death and afterwards and mourning; social and cultural change; and ritual. As a researcher who has worked in an area not too far away from Sisakh, I can say that based on my own fieldwork, the conclusions and commentary of Dr. Friedl seem entirely well-put and reasonable.

Friedl works with research in other relevant fields, even for example, finding parallels in views about religion between Sisakht of these last few decades and ideas about religion in the Shah Nameh. The author's discussions are erudite and insightful; she has found very relevant theoretical discussions to enrich her analysis. She pulls in materials from several other bodies of materials about Zagros Mountains song lyrics and points to the commonalities.

Organisation is clear and logical, as in the other books; material is divided into topical sections. The introductory materials are well-explained, telling about the aims of the study. Frequently an introduction to a setting gives crucial ethnographic background and insight that basically few if any people other than Dr. Friedl would be able to provide. The format of first transcription from the Lur language, then translation, and finally commentary by Dr. Friedl and sometimes from locals as well seems very appropriate. Dr. Friedl is one of those relatively rare anthropologists who is a writer and editor as well as an anthropologist, and the language is beautifully phrased.

No one else could have produced this book—or the other three. With more than seven years of fieldwork spanning more than 50 years in this field research site, Erika is also extremely skilled at gathering folkloric materials—stories, proverbs, and lyrics. She is highly experienced at using folkloric materials as texts for windows with which to see into ideas, critiques, and commentaries of local people about themselves, their relationships, and their culture. She applies a nuanced and academic approach to sometimes sensitive topics. Friedl's language is forthcoming and matter-of-fact about delicate political and religious issues.

This manuscript is amazing in its scope, depth, the topics it covers, the deep cultural understanding it demonstrates and conveys, the obvious trust and spontaneity displayed by locals as they comment and share their attitudes and meanings with the author, the sensitivity we see Friedl practice in the process of fieldwork, and the amazing lyrics themselves that so often show such emotion, passion, and sometimes distain or criticism. Some conclusions that can be drawn may be surprising to readers who assume that Iranians follow the dictates of the Islamic Republic of Iran. From Friedl's work we learn about the this-world orientation, lack of penetration of Shi'a Muslim formally required beliefs and practices into the worlds of villagers, the decline of earlier ways such as herding, husking rice, making butter, milking animals, and violent warfare.

This book is a gem. It will be a classic in anthropology, ethnography, folklore, and Middle East and Iranian Studies. From reading this book and the other three, one can grasp the worldviews, ideas, and culture of a sector of the Persian population. Most likely much of what we learn will also tell us about Iranian culture and society in general.3

Mary Elaine Hegland, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology Santa Clara University, San Jose, CA



See the review of Erika Friedl's Religion and Daily Life in the Mountains of Iran: Theology, Saints, People by Mary Elaine Hegland in American Ethnologist, forthcoming. This book can be seen as a companion to the brilliant, also ground-breaking, book by Friedl's husband, anthropologist Reinhold Loeffler: Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), with its startling portrayal of multiple perspectives among Sisakht men and the wide array of choices in the cultural repertoire for religious beliefs and practices.


For other publications (in German) by Erika Friedl and Reinhold Loeffler documenting the rich culture of Boir Ahmad, see Reinhold Löffler and Erika Friedl, Eine Ethnographische Sammlung von den Boir Ahmad, SüdIran, Vol. 21, 1967 and Reinhold Löffler, Erika Friedl, and Alfred Janata, Die Materielle Kulture von Boir Ahmad, SüdIran, Vol. 28, 1974, both from Archiv für Völkerkunde, Wien, Museum für Völkerkunde. These volumes provide a complete inventory of the material culture of Sisakht, Boir Ahmad including explanations about production and use, precious photos and drawings from 1966, 1970, and 1971, and texts explaining each item. At that time, most of what people used in daily life was produced by hand throughout rural Iran. Because factories, often in foreign countries, have taken the place of local hand-producers, these volumes provide valuable documentation of disappearing culture. These two volumes on material culture together with the four books about the ethnography of folkore under review and Friedl's and Loeffler's many other publications about Sisakht amount to a comprehensive presentation and discussion of life in a tribal/ethnic community in Iran. Surely, nowhere else in any anthropological research site do we have such full documentation of culture.


To this corpus of work by Erika Friedl on the ethnography of folklore should be added several of her articles: ‘Boir Ahmad Mockery: A Research Note’, Iranian Studies, 1977, 10 (4): 281–286; ‘Folksongs from Boir Ahmad’, in Mardomshenasi, 1978, Vol. 2; ‘Representations: Proverbs, Adages, and Riddles: Iran’, in Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures, General Editor Suad Joseph. Consulted online on 19 September 2021,; and ‘Deep Jokes from Boir Ahmad, Iran’, 67–76 in Terra Ridens—Terra Narrans, Festschrift zum 6 5. Geburtstag von Ulrich Marzolph, Vol. 2, 2018, Regina Bendix and Dorothy Noyes, eds., Dortmund, Germany: Verlag für Orientkunde.

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