Just So Story
aka: Just So Stories
The Just So Story (also known as a "pourquoi story," "origin story," or "aetiological tale") is a folktale or myth that explains an aspect of nature: the seasons, the weather, features of exotic animals, etc. Some of these are weird enough that relating these to modern ears may elicit cries of Values Dissonance
Named for a collection of children's stories by Rudyard Kipling
, Just So Stories
, which included tales like "How the Whale Got Its Throat" and "How the Camel Got Its Hump" (Kipling had written a kind of tryout called "How Fear Came", explaining how the tiger got its stripes, in The Second Jungle Book
). See the sister trope, Painting the Frost on Windows
Not to be confused with Superhero Origin
. A Creation Myth
is a particularly ambitious Just So Story regarding how Life, the Universe and/or Everything began.
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- Paul Bunyan has got a lot of these: Minnesota has 10,000 lakes because his giant footprints filled up with water. The Mississippi River goes all the way down the country 'cause Paul dug it as a canal to float his logs down (incidentally, the piles of dirt he scooped out became the Rocky Mountains). Michigan looks like a mitten because Bunyan had lost his and subconsciously logged the peninsula in that shape. Lake Superior is so cold because Paul's icebox is at the bottom. The Grand Canyon is the result of Paul dragging his axe behind him. Kansas is flat because he flipped it upside down, so that all its mountains are buried underground. And the moon's so full of craters 'cause Paul kicked a hard-headed splinter cat right into it.
- Same goes for Pecos Bill. He dug the Rio Grande to irrigate his ranch and the Grand Canyon while prospecting for gold. He invented centipede and tarantula as practical jokes, taught the bronco how to buck, and made Death Valley the time he fell off a tornado and left a crater in the ground.
- The Norwegian Fairy Tale "Why the Sea is Salt." The story reveals that it's because of a magical food-producing hand-mill, which a greedy sea-captain set to producing salt. It churned out so much salt that the boat sank, and thus nobody was ever able to stop it. The mill sits on the ocean floor to this day, which is why seawater is salty.
- According to Christian folklore, the dogwood tree used to grow tall and broad until its wood was chosen to make the cross for Jesus' crucifixion. Because it regretted having to be used for such a purpose, God made it so that dogwoods would be small and slender from that point on, thus making them unsuitable for building crosses. In addition, God gave the dogwood its distinctive flowers, with four white petals tipped with rusty red and a crown of "thorns" in the center, which bloom during the Easter season as a reminder of Jesus' sacrifice.
- One of the stories that makes Joel Chandler Harris' "Uncle Remus" stories (supposedly collected from former slaves around the South) so famously racist is one about why people have different skin colors. Long ago, all the people in the world lived in one "neighborhood", and were black. One day somebody discovered a lake outside town that turned your skin white (which was a desirable thing, obviously). The people that jumped at the chance and ran for it got full exposure and thus became white people; the people that walked became "merlatters" (which Uncle Remus assures us includes the Chinese); and the people that came last found that the lake had been used up and were forced to remain black because they were so lazy. Needless to say, this particular tale doesn't crop up in many adaptions...
- Spoofed in the Discworld novel Pyramids, where the citizens of Djelibeybi believe a number of different stories on why the sun moves through the sky: it's being rolled by a dung beetle, carried by a boat, pulled by a chariot, etc. (all of which are based on real myths). A freak accident involving pyramids traps the country in a pocket dimension where all these stories are true, which results in about a dozen sun gods fighting over who gets to carry the sun. This segment even includes one of the priests calling the play-by-play as if it were a rugby match (before being promptly killed for his heresy).
- Also parodied in The Last Hero, with the N'Tuitif tribe that has such myths as How The Giraffe Got Its Long Neck (an ancestor of the giraffe had a slightly longer neck than other animals, and could reach higher leaves, with the longer-necked giraffes surviving more easily to pass their long neck to their children... sound familiar?). Their stories seem to end with a phrase like "This is just a thing that happened" or "and so it is".
- Another Pratchett example is from Nation, where the prologue is titled "How Imo Made the World, In The Time When Things Were Otherwise And The Moon Was Different" and manages to combine three explanations from one story.
- Watership Down includes a generous helping of rabbit mythology. The creation tale has the sun, Frith, make all the animals, only they're all the same and all eat grass. The rabbit, El-ahrairah (Elil Hrair Rah - "Prince with a Thousand Enemies," obviously not his name at the time), began making babies so abundantly that they ate most of the grass, leaving the other animals hungry. They complained to Frith, so Frith blessed them with teeth and claws that made them into the creatures they are today. Many of these changed creatures had a hankering for rabbit meat, and when El-ahrairah heard of it, he began to dig a hole in which to hide. Frith moseyed on up to El-ahrairah and there is the following basic exchange:
Frith: My friend, have you seen El-ahrairah? For I wish to give him a gift.
El-ahrairah: No, I have not seen him.
Frith: Come out, and I will bless you instead.
El-ahrairah: No, I cannot. I am busy. The fox and weasel are coming. If you want to bless me, you will have to bless my bottom.
Frith: Very well. Be it so.
And El-ahrairah's tail grew shining white, and it flashed like a star. And his back legs grew long and powerful. He tore across the hill faster than any creature in the world.
Frith: All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you... but first, they must catch you. Strong digger, fast runner...be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.
- In C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, the narrator mentions a sacred story as to why pigs are an abomination to the local goddess, but does not tell it. More importantly, at one point she comes across a priest in a forest shrine who tells her a story explaining why the seasons change, which she realizes is a retelling of the story of her sister and a local god. Angry that the gods have planted their version of the story in the imagination of storytellers, she resolves to write a book giving her own version.
- In the Warrior Cats guidebook Secrets of the Clans, there are stories explaining how adders came to exist and how tigers got their stripes.
- In Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear, Elodin asks the main character Kvothe during his exams. "Where does the moon go when it is not in the sky?" It was the one question he genuinely did not know. Cue several chapters later, a companion of his tells a childhood story explaining how a young boy learned the moon's name and trapped part of the name in a box. Later events show that the Just So Story is essentially true (except it was a Master Namer, not a boy, and the "box" was actually Another Dimension where The Fair Folk live).
- The Red Mars Trilogy has Big Man, a two-magnitudes-larger Expy of Paul Bunyan, where many of Mars' features are due to Big Man's actions (and with him getting into a competition, and later a fight, with Paul Bunyan himself).
- Although this is not its main purpose, a large portion of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion makes efforts to explain a number of things, such as why the stars were made, why there are seasons, where the sun and moon came from, as well as why the moon is marred and why it deviates from its course to occasionally eclipse the sun, why the center of the earth is molten, and why the earth is round and not flat. The beginning of the book features a proper Creation Myth, which is more spiritual and predates all of these celestial advents.
Myth And Religion
- According to one Greek myth, winter happens when Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter, is forced to stay in the Underworld with her husband Hades for six months (due to eating six seeds). Demeter gets so depressed that she refuses to let anything grow.
- In the original version, Persophone's presence in the underworld coincided with the scorching summer months, which were much deadlier than the mild Mediterranean winters. The story got flipped around as it was relayed to the north.
- Older than Dirt: The Sumero-Babylonian culture had a story about the origin of seasons: Inanna (Ishtar) Descends to the Underworld. The goddess in question goes to visit her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, and is killed there. Her priestess friend (and another deity) bring her Back from the Dead, but she is not allowed to go back home unless she brings back a suitable substitute... her own beloved husband, Dumuzi, because he wasn't visibly in mourning while she was gone. His sister pleads to be taken instead, and ultimately, Ishtar/Inanna allows her to spend six months down there (summer, because Ishtar is with her true love) and he spends winter down there (everything goes dormant because Ishtar misses him so much).
- The form where the seasons are flipped has also been told (scorching summer when she is separated from her love, mild, pleasant, rainy winter—crops still grow in the wintertime in southern Mesopotamia—when they are together). It's possible that both versions were known in Ancient Mesopotamia, as lower/southern Mesopotamia is a flat lowland with a much warmer climate than mountainous upper/northern Mesopotamia (to this day there are strong cultural differences between these regions, which the ethnic and religious divisions of modern Iraq only exacerbate).
- Also, Phaeton, Helios' son, is responsible for deserts and cold places on the earth. Never let your teenager drive the sun-chariot around without a license. (This is also why Africans are black.)
- Most of the Greek myths that go "Zeus shagged/raped a hot human chick and she gave birth to a son" are origin myths explaining one of three things: (1) Where each of the Greek tribes/peoples came from (e.g. the tale of Zeus and Eurymedusa, producing the Myrmidons); (2) How the Greek cities came to be built (e.g. the tale of Zeus and Antiope, producing one of the twins who built Thebes); or (3) Why a particular family got to be king of a city and others didn't (e.g. the tale of Zeus and Europa, producing Minos, who legendarily founded the royal dynasty of Crete). Other gods could step in—for instance, the Kings of Athensnote claimed descent from Poseidon instead.
- Norse Mythology credits earthquakes to the god Loki, who is chained to the earth for ridiculing the gods at a wake held for the god Balder, which considering all the much worse things Loki has done in the past (like being largely responsible for Balder's death, and Balder having to stay dead in some versions of the story), was apparently the last straw. A giant serpent lies above him, dripping caustic poison, but fortunately Loki's wife tirelessly sits between them, holding a cup to catch the poison. However, sometimes she has to empty the cup, and then...
- In one Hawaiian myth, the volcano goddess Pele raised the archipelago out of the ocean one by one in an attempt to outrun her sister the sea-goddess, who kept flooding the islands. Pele's older brother helped her escape, so in gratitude she never lets volcanic steam touch his particular cliffs. Another legend says that Maui pulled the islands up from the ocean floor on a very eventful fishing trip.
- According to Genesis, snakes lost their legs as punishment from God for tempting Eve. Women endure painful childbirth, humanity in general works for a living, and everybody eventually dies because Adam and Eve ate fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but God evicted them from the Garden of Eden before they could eat fruit from the Tree of Life so that they would not have to live in that state forever.
- Also, why are there multiple nations in the world with different languages? Because God wanted to stop us cooperating with each other so we could never again build something like the Tower of Babel.
- Rainbows are a promise from God to never flood the entire world again. The occasional small country, perhaps, but only one at a time...
- There is a remarkable story of the Native American trickster god Coyote that explains why dogs sniff each other's butts.
- Another one from, IIRC, one of the cultures that occupied the four corners states, tells the story of why the vulture/condor has no feathers on its head. Besides the obvious lesson (this trope), a secondary heading for the tale might be something like "why you should never go spelunking in the rear end of Mr. Bear".
- In one Chinese myth, the Sun (a decent but kind of ugly dude) is relentlessly pursuing the Moon (a beautiful but haughty lady).
- In another, the order of the animals of the Eastern Zodiac is determined by a race among said animals including the Cat. The Rat and the Cat, good friends previous to the race, decided to work together to complete it. On the last segment, where the animals had to cross a river, they rode on the back of the Ox, but Rat pushed Cat overboard at the last minute, then used Ox's head as a springboard to launch himself into first place. The Cat was therefore left out of the Zodiac and swore revenge on the Rat ever since.
- More commonly, the Rat told the Cat the feast/race had been moved to the next day, and occasionally the Cat just slept in an extra 24 hours and fought with the Rat for unrelated reasons.
- In another, the animals in the Chinese zodiac appear in this order because of the order in which they attempted to wake Buddha up from his sleep under the fig tree. Also, it should be noted that the Cat comes in place of the Rabbit in Vietnam.
- Maori history, derived from the Hawaiian example above has the demi-god Maui to explain almost everything. He raised the north island of New Zealand when he caught it while fishing. (It was a stingray. The South island is his canoe.) His greedy brothers chopped it up, creating all the mountains. He stole fire from his grandmother and hid it in a tea tree for later use (Tea tree is very flammable.) When the sun went around too fast, making the days short, he trapped it and beat it half to death with his grandmother's jawbone.
- A Native American story says that the first people were made out of cornmeal dough and baked in an oven. The Baker took the first batch out too early, and they were all pasty and pale, so he threw them away across the sea. The second batch he left in too long, and they came out all black and burnt, so he threw them away across the sea. The third batch came out all reddish brown, just right, so he kept them.
- One Popeye short has him spinning a fanciful tale on why the sea is salty (involving a magic device which punishes its owner for being greedy by creating endless salt instead of gold). After the story is told, Swee'Pea lampshades it by given the actual explanation, including detailed scientific terms; Olive Oyl chimes in with, "Anybody knows that, Popeye."
- An animated adaptation exists of two of Kipling's Just So Stories, namely "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" and "How the Camel Got His Hump". It's narrated by Jack Nicholson and has music by Bobby McFerrin.
- Then there's an animated "How the Leopard Got His Spots". Either Ladysmith Black Mambazo or a very similar band did the soundtrack for it.
- A Pinky and the Brain episode subverts this: in Brain's tall tale in the making, Big Johnny Brain Jones Peachpit Bill Boone Crockett is tossed away and lands in a canyon that is, to this day, known as... the Grand Canyon.