Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Magic

The dancing women bring the rain

This story is about the old women in the village. So the old women in the village all have a…they all belong to a clan. I don’t remember the name of it. But usually when there is a drought they all dance and sing in the streets naked. And it is said that it brings the rain. Now, this is forbidden for anyone to watch, so I really don’t know when it goes on because no one knows when. You just know because the rain came. And if you watch you have bad luck and it’s said that something happens to your eyes. I don’t really know what happens because I haven’t watched—and I wont—so yeah, that’s it. I heard this from my family in Cameroon but I’ve never experienced that.

 

This story appears to have legendary qualities: the story is set In the real world, but its truth is debatable. Coco says cites the existence of a group of women who have the power to summon the rain in times of need yet she has never seen this group of women nor has anyone else (since seeing these women harms your eyes). Therefore, no one really knows if these women exist. Coco says that some claim to have seen them, but those who made these claims had no issues with their eyes. So which isn’t true, the existence of the women or the curse that they put on your eyes if you see them?

 

This story made me think of the ancient Greeks who seemed to have a god for everything because they did not understand fully how to describe the workings of the world in scientific terms. For example, if the sea was incredibly violent and was sinking many ships they might have said something like, “Poseidon is punishing us”. They would assume that the god of the sea was creating these inclement conditions rather than understanding that it was simply a storm that was causing the foul weather. Likewise, if people in this village did not understand the weather, they too might have placed the control of the weather into the hands of some supernatural being or group of people.

 

Coco’s grandmother taught her this story when she was very young, and she learned it when she was a small child. Her village is not highly educated nor is it particularly wealthy. This story of these women could simply be the result a lack of understanding of how weather works.

Magic
Protection

Stun bats for protection

This story is about the significance of bats in Cameroon. We usually stun bats with a broomstick—the weapon of choice in this case—and we tie them to a string and we tie it to the front door. There’s usually only one opening to the houses in the village so it works out, and the bat wards off any evil spirit that would be coming to attack you or any type of negative omen that would be put against your family by some type of black magic. And I learned this by seeing it, by seeing my grandmother do it when she found a bat fly into the house—oh yeah, and the bat has to fly into the house physically, you can’t just get a bat from outside and catch it and do that.

 

Akawkaw “Coco” Ndigpagbor is a student-athlete at USC whose family comes from Cameroon (a country in west central Africa). Her family is quite religious and very superstitious. They have very strong traditions and believe in the power of dark magics and evil spirits. Her family has many rituals to expel or cast out evil spirits from a dwelling, and this example [given by Coco] is one of the most common ways of doing so.

 

The trapped bat offers a form of protection from evil spirits and acts as a kind of protection amulet. Many cultures have used amulets and talismans to ward off evil, but most tend to inanimate objects that can be worn. Some wear a necklace with an eye-shaped pendant to protect them from the evil eye. Some wear garlic around their neck to protect themselves from vampires…

 

Only her family members who live in Cameroon carry out this practice. Her American family—even if they come from Cameroon—does not. One of the main reasons for not continuing this practice is due to the fact that most of her American family lives in Southern California, and they never see bats. Thus, they never have the opportunity to trap one that flies into their house. Coco also mentioned that it is mostly the older generations that did this and that the younger generations did not really believe in the magics and evil spirits that the elders believe in.

Customs
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas in Germany

A German tradition is: on Christmas, all children have to go to bed for approximately like two hours—uh, they have to take a nap from about 4 to 6 pm, and then they all get dressed up and stand outside of the door to the living room where, um…yeah, all the kids are standing outside… and only when the parents sing a specific song are the kids allowed to go inside, and um… every kid has to play a musical instrument or sing or dance or something, and only when everyone is done are you allowed to go in and open your presents. 

 

This German tradition differs greatly from the American tradition, which seems now to be based solely on the giving and reception of gifts. The whole day, in my opinion, has been reduced to economics: spending money, stimulating the economy, partaking in the American consumerism that dominates the culture. Lost are the religious rituals that accompany the celebration of Christmas (for the most part). Rather, Christmas has achieved a more secular significance.

 

Christmas in my family, like in many American families, has been reduced to gift giving and receiving. Weeks in advance my siblings publish lists of material things that they want and where these items can be acquired with the most ease. As my family is not terribly religious, and as many others aren’t either, what else would Christmas signify? How do you acknowledge and celebrate a day whose significance is insignificant to you? Thus, the progression from religion to retail makes sense.

 

I find it interesting and quite cool that Germans incorporate cultural songs and dances into their celebration of Christmas. Sophia admits that most Germans are not very religious, so the replacement of the standard Christian hymns and prayers and affirmations by pieces of German culture feels more natural for them and adds a unique twist to the celebration.

 

Folk Beliefs
general

Ladybugs and food predict the weather

In Germany there is a saying that if you don’t eat up all the food on your plate then the weather will be bad the next day. And it was told to us kids, and since we were scared to have bad weather the next day we always ate up all the food. Um… unfortunately it didn’t’ always work…surprise. Another thing—a similar thing—um… is with ladybugs—if they land on your hand and they fly away from your hand then the weather will be good the next day. And I learned that when I was really young, but, unfortunately, that didn’t always work, so… it’s still just a tale, but I still believe in it.

 

Every culture seems to have superstitions that relate to the predictions of weather. Before sophisticated technology was available, people used to predict the weather by observing animals, the sky, and other aspects of nature. People used to think that higher clouds meant a long stretch of good weather. If a full moon were shining brightly on a perfectly clear night then frost would form, as people believed that the earth had no protection [by the clouds] from the chilling moon.

 

Some of the early folk beliefs that pertained to weather eventually were backed by scientific experimentation. Lucky guess, perhaps, by the early people?

 

What intrigues me most about Sophia’s superstition is that she continues to believe in it even though it is not true in any sense. No scientific evidence has been cultivated to support this claim. In addition, she even concedes that this superstition has essentially been invalidated by its success to failure ratio. She admits that,  “more often than not, these occurrences have nothing to do with the weather.”

 

From a young age it was impressed on her mind that this superstition rang with truth. For many years she accepted it without questioning its truth-value. Even now that she understands the truth with a rational clarity she still holds onto the belief. Perhaps it is out of sentimentality? Perhaps thinking of ladybugs as indicators of change gives her this twinge of nostalgia for the days of her childhood. I would postulate that it brings her back to a place of innocence and happiness, to when things were simple and when imagination was valued over the cool logic of reality.

 

Rituals, festivals, holidays

El Camino de Santiago

RouteFilm The Way the features El Camino de Santiago

When I was a kid we would do this thing called “El Camino de Santiago” which is a walk that actually goes from France all the way to Galicia in Spain—Santiago de Compostela—but instead of doing it like that, we would make a route around my city, around Toledo, starting at one of one of the outside little towns and finishing at the top of the city.

 

El Camino de Santiago appears to be a rite of passage that connects young Spaniards with the countries historical past and inaugurates them into Spanish society. Everyone in Sergio’s city—Toledo—participates in this event, as do many others throughout Spain. Whereas few people male the full trek from France to Santiago de Compostela, the majority complete shorter walks that are meant to represent the long journey between the two countries.

 

Santiago de Compostela is a city in northwestern Spain that is known to be the resting place of Saint James. In the past, El Camino de Compostela was an important Christian pilgrimage akin to the pilgrimage made to Jerusalem by Jews.

 

As the majority of Spaniards complete a shorter version of the walk it can be related to a shorter canonized version of a longer folktale in which the essence of the tale remains but details are altered here and there.

 

Sergio has completed this shortened walk many times but has no intention to make the full journey from France. It is a tradition that his family has upheld for decades. Since they moved from Spain to Miami they no longer continue to make this short trek around their city.

 

I am not aware of any walk in the United States in which the walking represents walking done in the past. There are many charities that use the act of walking to raise awareness and money, but there exists no walk, for example, that represents slaves walking from the deep south to the north with the hope of achieving freedom or of Lewis & Clark walking to the pacific ocean and back.

 

Annotated:

El Camino de Santiago appeared in the 2010 film The Way (directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen), which tells the story of  father who heads to Europe to collect the body of his son who died while making the trek from France to Galicia. Once he arrives he himself decides that he wants to make the trek himself to both avenge his son and test his limits. For the father this walk journey is not so much a rite of passage as much as a challenge he presents to himself.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Shark Oil Hurricanes

Jar of cloudy shark oil in Bermuda

We have this jar—like this little flash of shark oil at home—and what we think is that when it goes cloudy it means a hurricane is on its way. And for the most part, yeah, hurricanes always come when that jar gets cloudy.

 

Rebecca comes from Bermuda, a British overseas territory located in the North Atlantic Ocean. Hurricanes pose a large threat to the inhabitants of the island, thus it is important to be able to predict their arrival in order to prepare. Rebecca’s family is not the only one to use shark oil to predict the weather. “Many families have a jar in their cabinet somewhere. It’s not just me.”

 

As to why shark oil in particular is necessary in the prediction of hurricanes, Rebecca is unsure. According to her it is a common belief that has been around for a long time. More important, its success rate is extremely high. Rebecca can cite countless times when the cloudy shark oil was followed by a storm. It is a belief that she grew up with. The shark oil has been in her kitchen since she was a little girl and she always associated it with hurricanes.

 

There are a number of reasons why I think the shark oil could be an integral part of the prediction process. Sharks are very high on the food chain, and, therefore, capturing one, especially in a time before large fishing boats, would be a tremendous feat. It would be equivalent to capturing and killing a full-grown lion with your bare hands. As a “king” of the ocean, the shark’s oil could act almost as a divine serum that potentially could harness a supernatural power (in the eyes of an indigenous population).  It certainly is a very different way of predicting the weather, but many maritime cultures have sea-based beliefs as to what will signal the coming of inclement weather.

 

I have heard of animals being able to predict the coming of storms—dogs often grow restless under the approaching shadow of a storm—but never have I encountered the use of parts of a dead animal to predict the weather.

Folk Beliefs

Unfaithful Women in Cameroon

Many women and children wear wraps around their waist—kind of like when people tie towels around their waste, but we call it a “wrappa”—and if a woman’s wrappa falls off in public she has believed to have committed adultery. I’m not sure where the origin of this was, but I guess they thought that if your rappa was loose enough to fall off, then you’re a whore or a prostitute because you need to get it on and off easily. In the times that this belief was serious, the woman as usually stoned in the middle of the village—stoned to death—or was just shamed into leaving the actual village, so this offense is very serious because I come from a polygamous area, and adultery is seen as the most humiliating thing you can do to your husband and his other wives and their whole family.

 

 

Polygamy is not something that American’s understand very well. We are a monogamous culture. However, like in this village in Cameroon, adultery is taken very seriously here. Not only does it violate religious code but it violates moral code as well. As opposed to in Cameroon, women in the United States are not physically abused for their transgressions. However, it does seem more socially acceptable for an American man to be unfaithful to his wife. While women have gained much more equality over the years, there still remains this male-dominant atmosphere that stigmatizes women being unfaithful—men can do it, but a woman is called a whore if she is unfaithful.

 

I find this belief to be quite ridiculous. Just because a piece of clothing fits loosely on a women does not mean that she is more sexually “devious” than the women who wraps herself up tightly in her clothing. Say the weather is unbearably hot: why would anyone want to wear anything that fits tightly around his or her body? I find it incredibly stupid that this is this becomes something by which people can judge women and accuse them of being unscrupulous or immoral.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs

Smurfs Peed in My Toilet

Smurf

 Ok…so when I was little I was in my “why phase”—I’m not really sure when that was exactly, I think I was maybe like four or five—you know that point in your life when you just ask why to everything? Ok, so every like, once every like, once every two weeks I would come home and see the bathroom and the toilet was, like, blue! And I would always go to my dad and ask why the water was blue, and he’d always say, “well, because a smurf came and peed in our toilet!” I didn’t question it—I mean… I was four or five so… smurfs exist right!? Um… but yeah, I just never questioned it until I started helping clean the bathroom when I was, like, 8? Until then I believed that smurfs came and peed in our toilet and made the water blue. He thought it was funny. I think its funny too…now that I know, like…I just think it’s a really funny story.

 

Haley’s story touches upon an interesting paradox of childhood: constantly questioning everything about the world but also believing whatever your parents tell you. Haley come from a very intelligent family that is scientifically and mathematically inclined—her mother is a doctor and her father a computer engineer. Being of a rather analytic nature, it is surprising that her parents simply didn’t explain to her that the chemicals in the toilet bowl cleaner made the water turn blue. Haley says that if she ever had a question about anything, her parents would take the time to sit down and thoroughly explain to her the details of what she was inquiring about.

 

I find that, being of such a scientific nature, her parents wanted to experience the magic of childhood in which the fantastical, the supernatural, and the improbable is generally preferred over the banality of reality. For Haley, the blue smurfs’ pee was an escape to a fantasy realm. Yes, she eventually learned the truth about the toilet bowl cleaner, but her mental dislocation from the real world afforded her a wonderful childhood.

Earth cycle
Festival
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Swedish Spring Celebration

Swedish Maypole

So every year we have what’s called “midsummer”—its in June every year. And we have a maypole, which we dress with flowers and all this, like, nice stuff. A maypole is supposed to be a sign for a woman and man. It’s like a big pole… it’s like a cross almost. And there’s this special song that we sing every year, and everyone has em…those things on their heads. What do you call them? Flower wreaths? Yes, flower wreaths. Everyone has flower wreaths on their heads. The song is called “little frogs”. So we have the maypole and there is singing and jumping, and the sounds we make sound like frogs.

 

This Swedish ritual is a celebration of the arrival of spring. The maypole—a pole that bears symbols for both masculinity and femininity—represents the fertility and life that is associated with spring. When I asked why the frog played such an important role in the celebration, Stina replied that the frog jumps, and the jumping is supposed to represent the leap (or the “spring”) from winter to a time of blossom and growth.

 

If speaking in Freudian terms, the pole itself could very well symbolize the phallus and its ability to disseminate its seed and be a catalyst of birth and growth. The flowers could represent the innocence that will soon be taken away once male and female unite.

 

In the United States I have never heard of any celebrations of spring or any particular season in and of itself. Toward the end of the winter we usually keep an eye out for the ground hog that “springs” out of his whole to tell us how much longer winter will drag on. However, there exists no celebration of the spring’s arrival.

 

 

Folk speech

You’ve Sold the Butter but Lost the Money

It looks like you sold the butter but lost the money. This one is when you’re, like, when you look sad…people can say that cuz they’re like…you’ve done something good and you’ve lost it. You have your butter and you sell it and then you lose the money you make. So you do something well but you don’t keep it.

 

This is a rather tricky saying to unpack. In essence, I believe it attempts to say that one cannot sustain the success one has achieved—it is an ephemeral success. This saying seems akin to the American saying, “you’ve dropped the ball”. This saying implies that you’ve done something great (or have been given the opportunity to do something great) but failed to sustain that greatness—you messed up.

 

I believe that my experience in diving perfectly embodies this saying. I am a springboard and platform diver, and in diving consistency is what makes you successful—consistency in practice and consistency in meets. When my coach gives me corrections he always stresses that we take a few moments to reflect on what we’ve just done after we successfully make the correction he asks of us. It doesn’t matter if I am able to make the correction once; what matters is that I am able to sustain the correction, hold on to the change, otherwise I’ve done something great and then lost it—just like this Swedish saying describes.

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