Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Narrative

The Bad Lady

I collected this piece of folkore from a co-worker who grew up in Tampa, Florida. He told me about a common story that was used to scare children into behaving. His learned it from his parents, who would tell him the story in order to make him behave. Nowadays, he finds the story amusing, but when he was a child he took it very seriously and was very scared of it.

“Sometimes she’s referred to as “the bad lady” other times she’s referred to as “the swamp lady” The common theme of the story and the story I was told as a child was that there was a woman who would live in the swamps in the Everglades who was kind of like a witch who would have whole groupings of gators that would live on her property in these swamps, that she would be very close to and have a deep-seated connection to, like she could speak to them, control them and if you were bad your parents would threaten to drive you into the swamp and she would put you in a cage above the gators and depending on how bad you were she would lower you farther and farther into the lake and you’d have to try to survive with these gators. If you were really bad, your parents would just say “put him in” and you would be thrown to the gators and she would control them to whether or not they were going to kill you or how they were going to go about it based on her judgment of your crime.

So, I remember when I was five years old, I really didn’t want to go to church, and I knew I wasn’t allowed to go to church if I didn’t have shoes on, so I told my parents ‘I’m not going to put my shoes on. You can’t make me go.’ And they threatened to take me to the bad lady and leave me there with a ‘he goes straight to the gators’ thing and I very quickly put on my shoes and went to church. I was devastated when I was a little bit older and I realized there was no woman who would do this, that was against the law! But, I don’t know, it was a really common thing growing up, I would talk to my friends and be like ‘Did your mom tell you you were going to go to the bad lady?’ and they were like ‘Yeah, she’s real’. It was like Santa Claus”

This piece of folklore feels very specific to the location it comes from, since swamps and alligators don’t exist outside of a specific geographic region. So, it makes sense that the swamp lady would be in Florida, and that this specific story probably wouldn’t exist in a different state. It’s also interesting that children learned the story from their parents, and not from other children.

Customs
Holidays
Material

Birthday Pan Dulce

My mother told me about this piece of Mexican birthday folklore from her family. Her father is from Mexico (Zacatecas specifically), and her mother is Caucasian, so she learned this tradition from her father (who learned it from his parents) This folklore is very important to my mother, because it’s a connection to her father’s heritage and is also a fun family tradition.

Every birthday, the birthday person is woken up by the other family members in the household by playing the song “Las Mananitas” (the morning song) The family members start the music while entering the birthday person’s room with a bed tray of Mexican sweet bread (pan dulce), Mexican hot chocolate, and presents. The pan dulce can be purchased from a local bakery (panaderia) or made at home, although the process of making it can take a long time, because the bread dough has to rise twice. So, having homemade pan dulce was always a very special occasion.

Because this only takes place within the family, it has become one way to indicate who belongs in the family. For example, after my cousin got married to her husband, when it was his birthday, my cousin’s family came into his room playing the song and holding pan dulce. It was surprising to him, but it was also an unofficial way of welcoming him into the family.

 

Folk medicine
Folk speech

Heal, Heal Little Frog

My roommate told me about a Spanish rhyme that her mother would say whenever she or her brother got hurt. She knows the rhyme originated in Puerto Rico, but she isn’t sure if it came directly from her Puerto Rican mother or another source. She has fond memories of hearing this rhyme, because even though she was hurt, it was very soothing to hear and could make her feel better.

“My mom, when me or my brother would get hurt as a child, she would…it’s kind of like kissing the wound better, but a little more intricate, because she would rub above it and go ‘Sana sana colita de rana, si no sana ahora, sanaras manana’  Which, the English translation is ‘Heal, heal, little frog. If you don’t heal today, you will heal tomorrow’ I guess the interesting bit is that it was always my white mother who would say this to me, even though my other mother was Puerto Rican… She might have learned it from my other mom or my abuelita, but she also lived in a lot of Spanish-speaking areas so it’s possible she picked it up from somewhere else”

Contagious
Folk Beliefs

Indian Joe

My roommate grew up in Houston, and she told me a piece of folklore from her time at a Girl Scout camp in Texas. She participated in the production of the folklore while she was at camp, but it is not something she believes is true now.

“I went to this girl scout camp, Camp Agnes Arnold, which is a little bit outside of Houston, kind of in the Conroe area. But we had a marker that everyone assumed was a grave for Indian Joe. And you always had to give the grave a very wide berth on your way back to the cabins, because if you stepped on it, it was going to rain for the rest of the week and your entire week would be spoiled because you stepped on Indian Joe’s grave”

Q: Who told you about Indian Joe?

“I…think it was probably a camp counselor at first. Either that or one of the older girls, because I had been going to that camp since I was eight or something, so I don’t necessarily remember the original source. But I remember I would warn other girls to stay away from Indian Joe’s grave so that we would have nice weather”

Q: Did anyone know who Indian Joe was?

“I want to say… I don’t think it was anything more than the basics. He was an Indian who had settled in the area and it was his land and then he had eventually died and been buried in that area, and it was just one of those things, like, show respect for the Indian grave”

In areas where Native Americans once lived, the foklore seems to come from two things: fear and respect towards the Native Americans. In this example, stepping on the rock will result in something bad (the stereotypical “Indian curse”) but it also seems to stem from a desire to be respectful to the grave, perhaps to make up for the past.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Crow Cawing Outside a Window

My roommate’s parents were both born in Indian (she was born in the United States) so she sat down with me in my apartment and explained some folklore that she learned from her parents. Her relationship to the folklore isn’t necessarily that she truly believes in it, but that it’s an important part of her culture and something she thinks about from time to time.

She told me about a belief she learned specifically from her grandparents in India:

“A crow cawing outside your window means expect a guest. This was something that my parents never said to me. It was my grandparents.When I was in India looking out the window and you hear the ‘caw, caw’ my grandparents would be like, ‘Oh, there should be a guest coming'”

Q: Did you hear other people say the same thing as your grandparents?

“I would say I knew other people who believed it, but no one ever was like, ‘ah, I hear a crow, a guest is coming’ But it’s one of those, like, ancient things that I guess, turned into a saying.”

This folklore is not necessarily a proverb, because it’s not a fixed phrase statement. It could be considered proverbial speech. It could also be categorized as a folk belief, since a crow is considered to be a sign that someone is coming.

Holidays

Valborg

My friend was born in Sweden to a Swedish father and American mother, but moved to the United States as a child, so she sat down with me and told me about the different holidays that are celebrated in Sweden. Some were holidays she had celebrated frequently, while some she hadn’t personally celebrated. Since Valborg is celebrated primarily by college students, she wasn’t old enough to celebrate it when she lived in Sweden, but she was still aware of the customs.

“On April 30th, there’s a celebration called Valborg, which dates back to the Vikings, and basically all of Sweden, they light up bonfires along the coast and it starts in Upsalla and goes all the way up. It’s basically done by all the students and they have boat races and barbecues. It’s basically to celebrate the pagan flower goddess, kind of, it’s all about fertility. You’re supposed to remove your hat at a specific point and people march and stuff and it’s basically the guys who do it and that’s like the start of summer.”

This holiday fits in with the other Swedish holidays in that it marks the beginning of a season. Also, although many Swedes are Lutheran, the holidays are not based on Christian religion, but pagan gods and goddesses.

For more information, see: “Walpurgis Eve.” Sweden. Swedish Institute, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

Folk Beliefs

Never Sleep With Your Feet Facing North

My roommate’s parents were both born in Indian (she was born in the United States) so she sat down with me in my apartment and explained some folklore that she learned from her parents. Her relationship to the folklore isn’t necessarily that she truly believes in it, but that it’s an important part of her culture and something she thinks about from time to time.

“Never sleep with your feet facing north, always sleep with you head facing the north, because that is where God is. Putting your feet in that direction is disrespectful”

Q: So, sleeping with your head and feet in a certain direction is part of religion?

“It’s religious-based, because our main god, Ganapati, he…long story short, they needed to find a head for him. That’s why he has an elephant head. And they had to go find…like, get the head of the first animal that was facing north. And it was an elephant, so he has an elephant head. North is where God…everything good is in the north”

Q: So is the south considered bad?

“I don’t think it’s considered bad, it’s just that North is where the gods live. West, East, South… no gods live there, so we don’t even particularly care.”

Q: Does your family all follow this direction?

“It’s one of those things that’s always in the back of your head, like ‘never put your feet facing the north’ In my house at home I actually sleep facing south, but when I came to college I was like ‘oh this is north, I will sleep this way.’ I don’t believe that I will be curse or that I’m going to die because I slept in the wrong direction, but it’s something you think about”

Q: Do other people take it more seriously?

“I think so. I know when I would go home and visit my grandparents, they’re in flats, so there’s not a lot of space, so we’d have to combine beds and it was really inconvenient the ways the two beds combined, but it was like ‘you have to face sleeping north so this is how the beds will be arranged’ But that was one thing, at home. I only have experience at home. My grandparents didn’t care when we went to a hotel, they were like, yeah whatever. It’s more like your primary bed is a big deal”

 

This folk belief has a basis in religion, but it doesn’t seem that there a large consequences for not following the belief. Unlike some folk beliefs, there is not really a set punishment for disobeying; instead, what is important is conveying respect to the gods.

Folk Beliefs

Karma

My roommate’s parents were both born in Indian (she was born in the United States) so she sat down with me in my apartment and explained some folklore that she learned from her parents. Her relationship to the folklore isn’t necessarily that she truly believes in it, but that’s an important part of her culture.

“We believe, or like, in general, not like I’m a crazy person…bad things happen to you because you’re paying for deeds that happened from your previous life/your previous birth. And so, shit happens now because you did something bad in a previous life. It’s also like karma.”

Q: Is karma related to reincarnation?

“Karma means you pay for every deed. So, this is a form of karma.”

Q: What would be an example of karma?

“Well, the way we interpreted it was when my dad got sick, it was because in a prior life or a prior form he had done something bad and this was… he was paying for it now.”

Q: How widespread is this belief?

“Pretty universal in Hinduism”

Q: Where did you first learn about karma?

“From my parents. It was one of those principles I grew up with. So, it was like, don’t be mean to people, because it’s going to come back and bite you. What goes around comes around. That’s how it started, because when you’re little you’re like ‘What is reincarnation, I don’t know’ And then when you learn about reincarnation…it’s applied on a larger scale

 

 

Game

Kitty Wants a Corner

My roommate, who grew up in Michigan, told me about a theater game that she learned at a theater camp.

The game is called Kitty Wants A Corner. To play it, you stand in a circle with one person in the middle and the goal is to not be in the middle (it’s kind of like being “it”). The person in the middle goes to each person in the circle and stands in front of them, looks them in the eye, and says “Kitty Wants a Corner” as though they’re the kitten and want a spot to sit. You don’t want to give up your space in the circle, so you’ll say “No, go ask my neighbor” so the person moves to the next person in the circle and says the same thing. In the meantime, other people in the circle, mostly people behind the person who is it, will make eye contact with each other, and silently agree to switch places while the person in the middle is distracted. The person in the middle can intercept the switch and try to get a spot in the circle, and the person who didn’t make it all the way has to be in the center.

My roommate learned it at camp in Michigan, so she was surprised when they played it at her improv class at Second City in Hollywood. She thought it was strange because the person teaching the game in Los Angeles had no connection to Michigan. The informant had also only ever played the game at the camp before, it wasn’t part of her high school theater program at all. It’s likely that this game spread through actors moving around (which is common) since I have also heard of/played variations of this game, but it wasn’t exactly the same thing. If the game was an official “theater game” it would be the same everywhere, but there’s variation in how it’s played in different places.

Myths
Narrative

Sleeping Bear Dunes

I collected this piece from my roommate who grew up in Michigan. She told me this story while we were in our apartment. She said she knows it because it’s something everyone from her area of Michigan knows about. Every year she would vacation to the dunes with her family and her parents would tell her the story and park rangers would tell the story as well.

“There’s this folklore in Michigan that most Michiganders, that’s what we’re called, know. Especially those from Northern Michigan because it has to do with the sleeping bear dunes, that’s what they’re called, up by Traverse City, it’s like, Northern…if you hold your hand out it’s the pinky part of it, it’s right on the coast of Lake Michigan. Anyway, there’s these really large sand dunes there and you can climb them and everything. And there’s a story and a bunch of children’s books written that it had to do with…these bears, these giant bears, back…it was probably Native Americans who came up with the story, because that whole area is very Native American-esque. These bears lived in the upper pensinsula so you’d have to cross Lake Michigan to get there and there was this giant wildfire that sparked, I’m sure there were stories of how the wildfire sparked but I don’t really remember that. And…this fire started and there was this momma bear and she had two babies and they were like, black bears, I don’t know, and they were running away from it, running away from it, and they hit the shore, Lake Michigan, so they jump into the water and they just kept swimming, and somehow the momma… I guess the babies couldn’t swim very well and so they didn’t really make it all the way across…. It’s kind of sad. And then the momma bear did though, so she got all the way to the other side, to the main part of Michigan, where the sand dunes are. And she was hoping that maybe they would catch up behind her, they were just a little slow…so she laid down on the shore and waited for them. She just laid there waiting for them to catch and she never moved, so I guess she died, technically, laying there, and the sand covered her and it just kept building up and building up and that’s what created the dunes and there are these two islands right off the coast of the sand dunes, I forgot what they’re called, maybe they’re big bear and little bear, I don’t know, and it’s the legend that those are the two baby bears who didn’t quite make it…It’s actually really sad.”

It seems that this folklore has gone through a few different evolutions. Based on the informant’s memory of the legend, it likely came from the Native Americans in the area, but then became part of the lake folklore, for park rangers to tell vacationing Michiganders. Now there are lots of children’s books written about it, but my informant felt that the children’s books were created after the legend was passed between different people, and not the other way around.

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