Myths and folk tales can be understood as the repositories of the wisdom of the people. Folktales often grew out of times of crisis and upheaval, a therapeutic endeavour to help people make sense of and integrate extreme experiences. A function of story is the it helps us deal with fear as well as communicating strong moral messages. Tales are often of a cautionary nature and teach us to identify risks and foolish course of action. In Scottish folklore the Kelpies carried children to watery graves, while the Quallupilluit, in the Intuit tradition, lived beneath the ice and would steal children into its melting cracks.

The following are two cautionary tales that offer strong moral messages. How might they apply to our current way of life and the problems that they face?

The great oak

In ancient Greek mythology there is a story that tells of a wealthy landowner named Erysichthon who came across a great oak tree that was sacred to the goddess Demeter. His men recognised the tree and responded appropriately, with reverence and awe. Erysichthon, by contrast, saw only the potential for profit which the tree represented and ordered his men to cut it down. When they refused, he decapitated the foreman who had stood to protect the tree, and then proceeded to cut it down himself. When Demeter heard of this sacrilege, she placed a curse on him: Whatever he ate would only increase his hunger. He consumed everything he had including his own children and eventually himself.

The golden goose

One day a poor farmer discovers that his goose has laid a golden egg. He can’t believe his luck! When the next day the same thing happens, the farmer is in celebratory mood, unable to believe his good fortune. Day after day this miracle goose lays golden eggs for the farmer who becomes fabulously wealthy. But soon his attitude changes from one of gratitude to greed. He becomes impatient, wanting to get richer quicker. So, he decides that instead of waiting for the goose to lay the eggs, he will cut the goose open and take the eggs directly from inside the animal. But when he opens up the goose, he finds that there are no golden eggs – and now that the goose is dead there is no way to produce more in the future. The farmer has squandered the means of producing his fortune.