Rumpelstiltskin by George Halkett

Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale by Edward Clodd

Rumpelstiltskin by Helen Stratton

Tom Tit Tot:
An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale
by Edward Clodd

Table of Contents



The Story of Tom Tit Tot

Variations of Tom Tit Tot

On the Diffusion of Stories

Incidental Features of Stories

Barbaric Ideas About Names

Magic Through Tangible Things

Magic Through Intangible Things


Words of Power

The Name and the Soul


The Annotated Rumpelstiltskin

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Barbaric Ideas About Names

BEFORE the discovery of iron; before the invention of the art of spinning; before the formulation of the theory of spirits, against whose wiles mortals might successfully plot,--men had found the necessity of inventing signs or symbols wherewith to distinguish one another. Among these was the choice of personal names, and it is in this that the justification exists for assuming the name-incident in 'Tom Tit Tot' to be probably the most archaic element in the story. Barbaric man believes that his name is a vital part of himself, and therefore that the names of other men and of superhuman beings are also vital parts of themselves. He further believes that to know the name is to put its owner, whether he be deity, ghost, or mortal, in the power of another, involving risk of harm or destruction to the named. He therefore takes all kinds of precautions to conceal his name, often from his friend, and always from his foe. This belief, and the resulting acts, as will be shown presently, are a part of that general confusion between the objective and the subjective--in other words, between names and things or between symbols and realities--which is a universal feature of barbaric modes of thought. This confusion attributes the qualities of living things to things not living; it lies at the root of all fetishism and idolatry; of all witchcraft, shamanism, and other instruments which are as keys to the invisible kingdom of the dreaded. Where such ideas prevail, everything becomes a vehicle of magic, and magic, be it remembered, rules the life of the savage. It is, as Adolf Bastian aptly remarks, 'the physics of mankind in a state of nature,' because in the perception, however blurred or dim, of some relation between things, science is born. To look for any consistency in barbaric philosophy is to disqualify ourselves for understanding it, and the theories of it which aim at symmetry are their own condemnation. Yet that philosophy, within its own irregular confines, works not illogically. Ignorant of the properties of things, but ruled by the superficial likenesses which many exhibit, the barbaric mind regards them as vehicles of good or evil, chiefly evil, because things are feared in the degree that they are unknown, and because, where life is mainly struggle, man is ever on the watch against malice-working agencies, wizards, medicine-men, and all their kin. That he should envisage the intangible--that his name should be an entity, an integral part of himself, may the less surprise us when it is remembered that language, from the simple phrases of common life to the highest abstract terms, rests on the concrete. To 'apprehend' a thing is to 'seize' or 'lay hold' of it; to 'possess' a thing is to 'sit by' or 'beset' it. To call one man a 'sycophant' is to borrow the term 'fig-blabber,' applied by the Greeks to the informer against those who broke the Attic law prohibiting the export of figs; to call another man 'supercilious' is to speak of him as 'raising his eyebrows'; while, as we all know, the terms 'disaster' and 'lunatic' preserve the old belief in the influence of the heavenly bodies on human life. Even the substantive verb 'to be,' the 'most bodiless and colourless of all our words,' is made up of the relics of several verbs which once had a distinct physical significance. 'Be' contained the idea of 'growing'; 'am, art, is,' and 'are,' the idea of 'sitting'; 'was' and 'were,' that of 'dwelling' or 'abiding.'


Clodd, Edward. Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale. London: Duckworth and Co. 1898.

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