Author Archives: Rebecca Witzel

You do not speak of the Devil in Switzerland

“En parlant du loup”

Trans: talking about the wolf

This is a piece of folk speech told to me by my friend from Switzeland.  It is used when someone appears who was just being talked about.  It is a very similar on the English phrase “speak of the devil”

The phrase is interesting because it villianizes the person who is appering by comparing them to a wolf.  This is interesting because the phrase is often used after two people have been gossiping, which is something that is societally “bad.”  Instead it bonds the two gossipers together in opposition to the bad person they were just talking about.

The Great Han

Every year at hanukah my mother tells the story of hanukah and afterward, when the historical story is done, she tells this story which was told to her by my grandfather:

Item:  So everyone knows about Santa Claus coming down and bringing presents to the Christian children but Santa has a best friend too.  His best friend is named the Great Han.  Every year at hanukah the Great Han sets out in his giant flying menorah with each candlestick filled with presents for the little children.  The Great Han flies around delivering all the presents to the good jewish children.  And you know, when Christian children are bad they get coal, well, the when the Jewish children are bad they get a cow dropped on them.  So every year at Hanukah tim all the little Jewish children go outside and hold hands and dance in a circle around the fire hydrants singing this song.  The lyrics go:

Han Han Han We’re waiting for you now

Han Han Han Please don’t drop a cow

At this point my mom would have me and the friends my brother and I had invited preform the dance.  We’d all hold hands and dance around in a circle singing the song.

This tradition was passed down from my mom from her father.  I believe he made it up.  I have no memory of her preforming it before he died, however.  It only began to show up as a tradition when I was around 11 but we do it every year.  For my mother it symbolizes her connection to her father and for us it was a symbol of community between our family and friends.  The tradition is so silly and lighthearted that it serves as a celebration of happiness more than a tradition of religious significance.  There is an acceptance that the Great Han does not exist and will not drop a cow on you, so there is no reason to be scared.

This tradition was so important to my family that when I went to college my mom insisted that I be skyped in for the telling of the Great Han story.

There is religious significance in it, however, in what it takes from christian folklore of Santa Claus.  Both are male figures who ride on flying objects and bestow gifts to the good children and punishment to the bad children.  It shows an insecurity among the jewish community to equalize their holiday with the much more popular christian holiday by creating folklore around Hanukah.


The New Jersey Devil

When I asked my roommate if she had any folklore from New Jersey she replied “Yes, New Jersey has a devil.”  This is an urban legend that tells of a woman who gave birth to a devil like creature that disappeared into the swamps immediately after being born.  The creature has the head of a goat, the body of a kangaroo like creature and bat-like wings.

My roommate did not have any personal stories about the New Jersey devil but noted that it was where the state basketball team gets its name.  She also compared the creature to other mythical animal creatures like the Sasquatch.

This story is interesting because it is very similar to myths like the Chupacabra and Big Foot, but unlike those myths it is specific to New Jersey, which builds a sense of pride in the people who are active and passive bearers of this piece of folklore since they are bonded together by identity.


A Swiss Proverb

I don’t remember the context in which my friend told me this proverb but it had something to do with someone being rude to me and her advising me to ignore it and move on rather than take it to heart.  What she told me (translated from French) was:

The train of your insolence is riding along the tracks of my indifference.

In French it goes “Le Train de yes sarcasm’s role sue les rails de mon indifference”

She told when she was growing up in Switzerland her mother told her to tell this to a kid who was bullying her.  Whether it was her indifference or the poetic wording of her phrase that threw him off, she claimed that this worked and he left her alone after that.

The poetic speech of this proverb seems to heighten the message behind it.  The speaker is showing that they are above the person they are speaking too not just because they are not letting their tormenter bother them, but also in the way they speak.

Words of Wisdom

Everything in moderation.  Even moderation.

Essentially, the key to a happy life is not to over indulge, but even a lack of overindulgence must not be overindulged all the time.  My mother has given me this advice on multiple occasions.  I’m pretty sure she made it up, but I have told it to many people since I believe it to be good advice.  Primarily when I want to eat a large amount of unhealthy food.

The proverb itself is guarding against unhealthy behavior and provides insight onto the human psyche.  No one can be in control all the time.  When you try to moderate everything you do, your desires become uncontainable and will find a way of expressing themselves, often in unhealthy ways.  By making sure to moderate your moderation you are dealing with the issue of keeping your id at bay.

Da Nile

When I was pressuring my dad to give me folklore, he told me a proverb completely unrelated to our discussion:

“Denial (da-nile) ain’t just a river in Egypt”

I can’t remember the exact context, but I was being obtuse about something and he was teasing me while also imparting wisdom.

The phrase itself utilizes the way the word “the” is pronounced phonetical like slang.  It is therefore interesting from a class point of view, since the speaker, whether they are educated or not is speaking the way an uneducated person would so there is a sense of playing with class when it is spoken by my dad.  From an African American perspective there may be a small issue of heritage in there since the nile is located in africa.  The reference is vague at best since few African Americans are descendent of Egyptians, but the issue of heritage may still play a role.  The wisdom is still being imparted either way.  This phrase is therefore a good example of how a lesson is being learned through humor

Red Rover

Red Rover is a children’s game that I played as a kid and my friend, who works as a preschool teacher, told me about her students playing.

The game works like this:

Two groups of children stand opposite each other in an open space.  Each of the two groups form a line and grasp hands forming a chain.  The group that has been selected to go first will decide on a player from the opposite team and call out “Red Rover, Red Rover send (players name) right over.”  The player who has been called then runs from their side to the side that called them in an attempt to break the chain with the force of their body.  If they succeed in breaking the chain they return to the side they began on, but if they fail they join the other team.  The game ends when all players are on one side.

This folklore was significant to my friend because she played it as a child and she is witnessing other children playing the same game, which connects her with the children she teaches.

The game is interesting because although it is a game played on teams the teams change throughout the game, so there is no set opposing forces.  This most likely fosters unity between the group who take part in the game

Any Woman should be Lucky to Marry a Cornell Gentleman

Item: When you get married at the chapel at Cornell the building was not designed with a room for her to prepare and wait.  The only room separate from the main building is the crypt, which happens to also be the place where the founders are buried.  So the legend goes that if the bride gets cold feet, the ghosts of the founders will rise from their graves and escort her down the aisle because any woman should be honored to marry a cornell gentleman.

I first heard this story when I went on a college tour of Cornell, but I asked my friend about it, since she goes there.  She liked the story because along with being fun and mystical it makes her school look good, since any woman would be lucky to marry a man who went there.

I think this is an interesting superstition because it is very connected to the liminal aspect of the marriage ritual.  The legend is about the time right before the marriage occurs, while everything is still in flux and everything can still go wrong.


A group of people sit in a circle and close their eyes.  Someone is selected to play God.  God is the narrator of the game, and always someone who has played the game before.  God walks around the circle two times.  The first time he walks around he selects who will be the mafia by tapping a player once on the shoulder.  The second time around he selects the angel by tapping that person twice on the shoulder.

God then says “Mafia wake up?”  The mafia then chooses who they would like to kill by pointing at them. God then says “mafia go back to sleep”.  Then God tells the angel to wake up and asks “Angel who they would like to save”.  The angel can save anyone in the circle including themselves by pointing at them.  God then tells the angel to go back to sleep and the townspeople, which consists of everyone, including the mafia and the angel, to wake up.  God then tells a fictionalized version of the nights “events” where someone was murdered.  The person who was murdered is now out and no longer has to go to sleep when God tells the rest of the townsfolk to, so they learn who the mafia is, but must keep this information a secret.

If the angel chose to save the same person the mafia chose to kill, God will add on a twist ending where the person does not die.  God then narrates a town summit where the townspeople meet to arrest who they believe to be the mafia.  Everyone accuses who they believe to be the culprit and the town takes a vote.  After the vote the person who the town believes to be the mafia “put to death” in a narrative told by God and the townspeople are told to go back to sleep.

The game then repeats from the beginning with God telling the mafia to wake up, then the angel, then the townsfolk.  If the townspeople chose the actual mafia, no one is dead in the morning and the game is over, but if they chose the wrong mafia, another person dies and they rehold the town summit.  The game repeats until the true mafia has been put to death.

My friend used to play the game when she was in high school and they had substitute teachers but it was also a staple game at camps and in any large groups.  The target age are generally adolescents as the subject matter is much darker than other children’s games.

The game is very different from most other folklore that deals with mystery and death in that it turns the sinister topic into a game and makes it fun.  A town plagued by the mafia is not a light subject matter but in the contact of this game if becomes something fun.

The Goat Room

At Williams College in Massachusetts the frat system was dissolved in the 1960s but all the old frathouses still exist and have been converted into dorms.  They are identifiable as frat houses because they still feature the fraternities old symbols on the wall.  One of the most interesting hazing traditions that this frat took part in was at the end of the initiation process the current members of the frat would take all the prospective members into this room.  They would then bring in a goat and tell the prospectives they had one final task to complete before becoming a member.  Any man who sought entry into the house would have to have sexual intercourse with the goat that night.  The brothers would then leave and come back in the morning.  When they returned they would ask the prospective members who had “fucked the goat.”  Some would step forward.  Instead of lauding them for their dedication to the fraternity these men would be chastised in front of the group for their blind following of such a vile order.  They would be asked to leave and not admitted into the fraternity.  Those who had refused to have intercourse with the goat would be lauded for their strong character and offered a spot in the frat.

I went to visit the informant at her college and we participated in a 24 hour theater festival.  We were rehearsing in the goat room and I noted that I recognized the symbol on the wall as a frat symbol.  My friend and the other girl with us then proceeded to tell me the full story.

I think this story is very interesting because it plays with the expectations of fraternity culture.  You expect the brothers to come back and kick out those who refused to follow orders but in fact the opposite is true.  However the act still portrays fraternities in a negative light.  The prospective members underwent a traumatic experience and in the end they were not accepted.  This is perhaps even more traumatizing than following orders that lead to acceptance.  Either way the story prizes individual thinking over a group mentality.  It is also interesting to note that this story exists in a school where fraternities do not.  The story is probably making a commentary on the evils of the fraternity system and how the school is better off without them.