Thematic Sheet

Etiological Tales

Pourquoi stories”


The need to know

People never liked not knowing. They always want to know “Why?” something is as it is. More than that, people are constantly in the search for their identity, as a person, as a community, as a nation, etc. The etiological tales of a culture can be very revealing on their concerns, on the importance they give to certain things. Nowadays, science can explain a lot of phenomenons that were inexplicable before, and while we have more scientific insight on most of the subjects depicted in etiological tales (“Why is the seawater salty?” For example ) we still keep the culture of those stories that our ancestors imagined and told to explain the unknown. Usually, etiological tales are imaginative ways of explaining the reason why something is as it is. As a child, tales infuse the world around us with wonder and magic, and we like to keep this wonder somewhere in our hearts as adults, which is why we continue to tell those tales to our children.

This “need to know” is even more pronounced in young children, especially in the “Age of Why?” from 3 to 6 years old, going up until 10 to 11 years old. During this “Age of Whys”, children ask a lot of existential questions and those stories are told like a good joke! Using etiological tales in school encourages curiosity, observation and reasoning. It encourages children to take the time to observe the world, to ask questions about it and, above all, to change their outlook.

What is Etiology?

The term etiology itself refers to the “cause”, the explanation of how things came to be, how things are now and why, or how things were before and why. Originally, the etymology of the word etiology comes from the Greek word “aetiologia”, which means: “statement of a cause” or “giving a reason for”. Etiology is thus the branch of philosophy that deals with the origins of things or how things came to be as they are now.

An etiological tale is a short story, with a simple structure, in which the “why” is the beginning, and which explains in an imaginary, fanciful or amusing way the why of things, a real fact, a natural or social phenomenon. It is playful, and it is one of the most popular tales we play with. The subjects covered are very varied, from the origin of plants and animals, the stars, the calendar, of trades, places (legends), or supernatural beings: angels, devils, jinns, to the differences between men and women, social organization, etc..

There are also anecdotes of etiology, for example in “Lady Holle” (by Grimm) with the duvet shaken in the morning to make the snow fall to the earth.

By extension, an etiological tale is an explicative tale, it can also be called a “pourquoi” tale, “pourquoi” meaning “why” in French. It is a tale that explain the origin of something, or the origin of a characteristic, or a name for example. Some of the most famous etiological tales in classical literature are those of Rudyard Kipling with his series of “Just-so stories”. In those, he explains things such as “How the Camel Got His Hump” or “The Elephant’s Child (How the Elephant got his Trunk)”. Those fall into the category of etiological tales, but the genre of etiological tales is polymorphic, it comes into various shapes, sizes, styles and subjects.

Some concrete examples of etiological tales that can be found in the library are:

  • Why is the sea water salty? (FR)
  • How the Whale got his throat? (EN)
  • How the Camel got his Hump? (EN)
  • How the Rhinoceros got his skin? (EN)
  • How the animals got their tails? (FR)

In Modern Narratives

We still find a lot of etiological tales, even in very recent tales. Nowadays, other mediums, such as movies, are also used commonly to tell tales, and etiological tales can also be found within this genre. In contemporary popular culture, they can be found, for example, in Edward Scissorhands, (Tim Burton, 1990). The narrator explains to her granddaughter why it is snowing on the city (Edward, by making ice statues with his scissor-shaped hands, causes ice flakes to fall on the city).

The importance of Etiological Tales

Etiological tales gives meaning to the world and infuses it with the kind of wonder and playful admiration that children are well-known for. As adults, it reminds us of the mysteries we still don’t have an answer to and paints reality with colourful secrets. Etiological tales help give meaning to what is around us and cement our common cultural identity. They are an invitation to look at the world differently, in a poetical and playful way. These stories are above all a source of merriment and childish wonder. They are meant to be fun.

The Etiological Tale, cousin of the Myth

Greco-Roman mythology offers many examples of etiological accounts. Floral and vegetal (Adonis, Hyacinth, Daphne) – Astres (Orion, Callisto, the Pleiades, Castor and Pollux, etc.) – Animals (Arachne).


Pick a subject and create your own “Why?” tale about it. It can be a question you are asking yourself, or it can be completely random.
For example:” Why the cat has big eyes?”