Author Archive
Folk speech
Proverbs

Gods live 3 feet off the ground (Chinese Proverb)

离地三尺有神灵

li di san chi you shen ling

away ground three feet exist divine/numinous spirit

There are gods and spirits 3 feet off the ground.

Even when you think you’re alone, the spirits are still watching you, so don’t act differently even if you don’t think anyone is watching.

Chinese proverb usually used by parents as a warning to their children. It’s comparable to Christian families warning their children that God is always watching them, but with roaming spirits. This is related to the Chinese folk belief in spirits of the deceased who act as gods. By convincing a child that they are constantly being watched, the child would be from the parents’ point of view more likely to behave even when they think no one is around. This was used often when I was a child and my mother expected to be away for a while and wanted me to finish my homework before using the computer.

However, threat is not the only application of the proverb, as it also implies karma. Even when you do something good and no one sees, it ticks a point in your favor and the gods always know who’s in the right.

Festival
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Lakota Deer Woman

BE: When i was a kid i was told this legend, and i’ve heard it many times, the Lakota believe this and the other plains tribes do it too as far as I know. There is a creature called Deer woman and she shapeshifts into a woman, a human woman, and she goes to pow wows. And she’ll be at the pow wow all night as a beautiful woman, and the last dance is the rabbit dance and it’s the dance where the lady picks the man. And she’ll pick whichever young man she wants, and he’ll dance with her, and she gets him to take him home, and  then when she’s going home with him she turns back into a deer. And it scares him and you know, bad things can happen. And they say that part of the lore is, when you’re dancing with a girl that you don’t know, or even a girl you do know, always check her feet, because deer woman, when she shapeshifts, her feet still remain a deer’s feet, so under the bottom of her dress, because her dress is long, if you look, you won’t see human feet, you’ll see deer feet.

Me: Cloved hooves.

BE: Yeah, the cloven hooves. And there was a guy that said that he’d gone to a pow wow, and there was a girl he met there, and he was supposed to take her home, and he decided at the last minute he wasn’t going to, and he ditched her, and left. And then when he was driving home from the pow wow – this is a true story – when he was driving home from the pow wow, a deer went in front of his car, and caused him to wreck and total his car.

Me: So just for reference, what’s a pow wow?

BE: A pow wow is a gathering where you have dancing and food and things like that. They usually compete with the dancing, it’s a Native tradition. It’s like a party.

Me: Where were you told this?

BE: Oh I wasn’t told this since I was a little kid. My dad told me this, my grandma’s told me it. It was in South Dakota, but I’ve heard it in California too, from people, but South Dakota’s where you hear it. And she follows the pow wow circuit, she didn’t have to be in the plains, but that’s pretty much where everybody – all the sightings I’ve heard of, she’s been.

Me: So do you think there’s a moral for the story?

BE: I think it’s to teach young men and women to be modest, and not to just go home with somebody. And if you do, they say to check her feet, but what they’re really saying is know who you’re going home with. That’s the moral of the story.

Me: So is this just a story told in passing or?

BE: No this is a warning that you get when you’re a teenager and you go to pow wows, especially the boys, but that’s the warning you get, is you better look out, because that beautiful girl might not be who she seems.

Me: So in what situation would you tell that story to someone?

BE: (laughing) I would tell it to SI (BE’s son), if I were taking him to a pow wow when he was young! And I’d tell people that when – honestly I’d use it for what it is, it’s a moral. But it’s also just something that you pass along, it’s something that people need to know, because if there’s really deer woman out there, you need to know that.

Me: Do you remember – since you said you were a little kid, do you remember how old you were? Like before double digits?

BE: I’m sure I was probably… about 8 or 10? I was old enough to know what they were saying, so probably 10.

Me: So did the deer woman have a name or is the name just deer woman? What was the Native name for it?

BE: I don’t remember but the name translates to Deer Woman.

Me: So is it a Lakota Sioux story?

BE: I don’t know where – but all the plains tribes believe in it, as far as I know. They may call it something else, but the Lakota call her Deer Woman, because that’s what she turns to. She’s not a nice person.

Later, BE gave me some additional details about the boy who wrecked his car after the pow wow:

The guy’s name was [H], and he was driving in his truck back from the Pow Wow. The accident happened around 1979 or 1980 when he was 16. He actually had a GF at the time and thats why he initially decided against bringing the girl home with him. [H] is a really honest type of person, so if he had just totaled his truck after the pow wow because he was drunk or something, he’d tell everyone that, but that was the story he told. I think the Deer Woman could sense he was having adulterous thoughts, and that’s why she went after [H].

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

Fast work is a shame for its master (Bulgarian Proverb)

Original Script: Бързата работа, срам за майстора.

Phonetic Script: burzata rabota sram za maistora.

Literal Meaning: Rushed work is an embarrassment for a master. (Note: The informant translated the literal meaning as “fast work is a shame for its master,” but English is his second language.)

бързата – /burzata/ – fast
работа – /rabota/ – work, job
срам – /sram/ – shame, embarrassment
майстора – /maistora/ – master, skilled craftsman

Implied Meaning: It’s better to be slow and careful than fast and sloppy; don’t rush to get something done.

BD does not remember the first time he has heard this phrase spoken. He had heard it from his parents, but to him, the significance of the phrase is that it reminds him that good work takes time and effort, and it’s more important to produce good, finished paintings than it is to call a lot of rushed pieces “done.”

This proverb sounds fairly standard but I could not think of any English equivalents off the top of my head. With some research, I found some similar quotes:

The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty. – Proverbs 21:5 (Other similar quotes can be found throughout the rest of the Bible as well)

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Protection
Signs

A Grave of Rice

It’s bad luck to stick chopsticks into a bowl of rice, burying the tip. Supposedly this is because the chopsticks resemble the headstone placed on a grave, and reminders death are extremely inauspicious in Chinese society.

The correct way to set a table, and to place chopsticks on a bowl of rice, is to lay them across the rim of the bowl with the tip pointing toward the center of the table. This is because it is also rude to point the tip at anyone sitting at the table, but usually the people across the table are too far away for the sign to take effect.

I was made aware of this taboo when I stuck a pair of chopsticks into a bowl of rice when I was young, and JL, my mother, caught me in the act. I was setting the table for my family at the age of 8, and was allowed to begin eating first. I stuck the chopsticks in the rice to see if it would stay secure, and my mother caught me before anyone else could see, and she said it would have been very rude for my grandparents to see, and that they would have been a lot harder on me than she was.

She had actually found out about the taboo the same way when she was a child. This is a fairly obscure taboo in Chinese dining etiquette, so most people don’t find out about it until they’ve broken it once. When etiquette is broken in a public setting, it is also rude to mention the offense except in private, between two parties who trust each other, usually parents to children.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Myths
Narrative

Navajo Skinwalkers

This story takes place in the Arizona desert, when the informant SI saw some strange lights in the shape of a human flickering in the distance.

SI: Have you heard of a skinwalker? My friend told me about it when we saw some strange lights in the desert, at night nonetheless. I mean, I’ve heard of it being mentioned in passing, but my friend was telling me about it and the lore sounded familiar.

Skinwalkers look like humans, but they’re actually ancient, bloodthirsty monsters that take the appearance of wolves, bears, and other dangerous animals. They don’t attack humans unless one of their own gets killed, but they can shapeshift to look human. That’s why the Navajo only use sheep and other prey animals for their stuff, because if they used a wolf, bear, coyote, whatever, it could have been a skinwalker.

Anyway, it was in an Arizona desert, in Navajo territory. He told me about it basically how I just told you, but he was really uncharacteristically quiet and never said the name. When the story started sounding familiar, I asked him “are you talking about skinwalkers” and he freaked out and told me to be quiet, because if they heard me they might attack us. Then we heard a rustle in a nearby brush, and we bolted. Had my gun in hand and everything.

He doesn’t really believe in the supernatural, but that gave him a serious case of the spooks. We drove to a road, but walked out into the desert. The road was pretty much abandoned. We kicked so much dirt spinning the tires out and jetting. I was mostly just messing with him, but I was a bit perturbed because what if it was some cartel coyote? His fear was a skin walker, mine was a cartel transport.

SI: Oh, forgot to mention, the lights looked like torches in the way distance that were dancing in a humanoid sized circle. So either someone fire dancing in the middle if the desert, doing some ritual dance thing, or it was a signal for traffickers. The flames kept going out and relighting, and there were anywhere from 1 to three when they were lit. Definitely wish I had my binoculars

Me: Do you know where your friend heard about skin walkers?

(At this point SI texts his friend who he had the experience with)

The textlog from the friend is as follows, SI asked the questions at my prompting:

NJ: from my mother, then some more from my family, and things they saw in the rez

SI: What did you hear from your family?

NJ: crap like seeing something running on the horizon

a spooky tale about on in the middle of the rez.

some things about them wanting to steal your hair or their strange rituals

one about their gathering place

idk. i don’t remember my childhood that well

SI: How was the story told to you?

NJ: just in a “yeah they’re out there, but whatever” kind of way

like you’d warn somebody about grizzly bears

my mom wasn’t worried since she lived in the city, not the rez

 

Me: SI, How’d you hear about them yourself?

SI: I heard it years ago in passing, from a friend of a friend.

The origins of the story are probably related to the types of animals the skinwalkers take the form of. Predators are difficult sources to renew compared to prey, as they are sustained by energy provided from other animals.

The Navajo word for skinwalker is yee naaldlooshi, which refers to the way they walk on all fours in their animal form. George R. R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire has some of the main characters (the stark children, plus the wildlings) act as skinwalkers by being able to possess the bodies of animals, especially wolves. In the novel, they are referred to as skinchangers or wargs. However, in Norse mythology, wargs are actually just wolf beasts, and there is no mention of them being shapeshifters.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Granny Said Two Things

Ба́бушка на́двое сказа́ла.

Babushka nadvoei skazala.

Grannie said two things.

No one can know anything for certain; all things have two sides.

This proverb’s meaning is difficult to ascertain just from the wording, as it has been shortened. A longer version of the same proverb is, “Granny was telling fortunes, said two things.” It alludes to the ambiguous nature of prophecies.

 

Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Magic
Protection
Signs

Pickled Grudges

Pickle a food item, and keep it for 40 days because that’s how long a grudge should last. On the 40th day, you have to throw it away to remove the grudge.

The belief is that the pickle withers and dies in place of the relationship between the people involved, so that the grudge would not poison their connection.

LB mentioned this as an extreme of grudge-holding among her people when she jokingly told me she would hold a grudge toward me and strike when my guard was down. While she was joking about her grudge, she used this story as an example of how I should beware around her, because her people (Armenians) are supposedly infamous for holding out grudges for extreme measures of time.

LB first heard this from a friend of hers who was carrying out this practice at the time, over a perceived snub from a close friend. Because she could not act out toward the friend as they saw the wronging unevenly, and their long-term relationship is more important to her than the perceived wrong. She placed a cucumber in a jar of vinegar for 40 days, and on the 40th, the jar should be broken to release the resentment. The cucumber is used as a sacrifice in place of an important relationship.

LB’s friend’s jar actually never made it to day 40, as it broke on its own on day 35. While it was a mess to clean up, LB’s friend took it as a sign that the grudge had run its course before the time was even up.

Legends
Protection

22 Off Ramp in Garden Grove

KT: We took this trip to Garden Grove, and they say if you drive by at night don’t take the off ramp to Brookhurst on Garden Grove because there will be an accident. And I remembered getting told that while driving there and for some reason I decided to take a detour instead. And like a minute after I turn off I hear 2 cars crash, it was spooky! It could have been me man!

Me: What did they tell you about the ramp?

KT: They say there was a woman who had a kid in the car when she got in an accident, and the kid died, so now she wanders around the area looking for her kid or something. Or she’s looking for the people who killed her kid, or something like that. My professor told me about some people driving by there who saw a woman trying to cross the road, but they can’t see her until the last second, so they slow down late and stop right in the intersection.

Me: It was already known for accidents?

KT: It used to be, yield to left turn off the freeway, so people coming off at night don’t think there’s anyone driving by there. They changed the layout there, and also that thing I said about visibility. You can’t see people crossing there.

The following article is one of many describing actual accidents that happen at that off-ramp. The stories exist to warn people away from driving in the area, because it is legitimately dangerous due to impractical ramp design.

http://abc13.com/archive/6418270/

 

general

United We Are Stronger (Bulgarian Proverb)

Сговорна дружина, Планина повдига

zgovorna druzhina planina povdiga

A united team can lift a mountain.

If you work together, you can achieve more than if you worked alone.

сговорна -/zgovorna/ – united or conspired
дружина -/druzhina/ – party or company
планина – /planina/ – mountain
повдига – /povdiga/ – to lift

United we are stronger is a proverb in English that has essentially the same meaning.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Protection
Signs

Fire and water must never meet

A feng shui master once told my informant that when fire and water meet within a household, conflict would arise. By fire, he refers to stoves, fireplaces, and other sources of heat, while by water he refers to faucets and pot spouts.

A few years ago, my informant lived in a house with poorly laid out kitchen, as the sink and kitchen counter each faced the stove and fireplace. Since she had a rotating faucet, the master warned her to never directly face fire and water toward each other, because it would lead to conflict. My informant really took this to heart, but her husband always dismissed her insistence on doing things exactly the way she was told to. One of the worst fights that they had had actually sparked from my informant noticing that the faucet was pointed toward the stove, which she took it as proof that her husband didn’t care if there was conflict in the family, while her husband, who prided himself on being logical, resented how she wanted him to subscribe to superstitious rituals and actively rebelled against her wishes.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it only reaffirmed my informant’s belief in feng shui.

 

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