Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Hindu Traditions

*Note: The informant is an Indian-American student at USC. She identifies with the Hindu religion and is generally in touch with her Indian heritage, though she was born in the U.S. and is thus very Americanized.

INFORMANT: “Hindus have a lot of really specific little things that we can’t do or that are considered unlucky and stuff. Like, there’s a lot. Let me think. Like, we’re not supposed to cut our nails on Friday because it’s bad luck. It’s bad luck to sweep the house with a broom at night. If a woman’s left eye twitches, that means something bad is going to happen to her, but if a man’s right eye twitches, that means something bad is going to happen to him. I don’t necessarily follow all of these, but I know about them. Like, some of them are pretty outdated, but we still know them. I’ve just grown up with stuff like this. Some people may think it’s weird, but all my Indian friends know about it and do the same stuff, so it doesn’t even really seem weird to me.”

These little superstitions and traditions are a good example of folklore that has been passed down through so many generations that the meaning of the tradition might be obscured. At one time, there was probably a clear practical or at least religious reason that Hindu people couldn’t cut their nails on Friday, or sweep the house with a broom at night, but because so much time has passed and so many things have changed, some of these superstitions have no practical purpose anymore, but rather are archaic superstitions carried on because of a sense of duty or loyalty to the religion and the culture.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Protection

Feet / “Bad Eyes”

*Note: the informant is Indian-American and identifies with the Hindu religion. She is in touch with her Indian heritage but she was born in the U.S.

INFORMANT: “And then Hindus or Indians or whatever also have lots of like body language things, I don’t know how to say it, like, gestures. Like if we touch anything with our feet that’s not the ground, say if I touched a backpack with my foot, then you have to touch the thing and then touch your eyes and do that three times. It’s funny, I have a Persian friend who has a similar thing, but for her it’s like if my feet touch another person’s feet, then I have to interlock my pinkies. I have no idea why it’s a thing.

And then we also have this saying, where like, say I’m going to a job interview and I tell a bunch of people about it and then I don’t get the job, they’ll say it’s because someone “put bad eyes on you,” which basically means they didn’t want you to get the job or were talking badly of you and basically put bad luck on you.”

I can’t figure out the context or reason behind the gestures, and neither could the informant, but it’s notable that her Persian friend had a relatively similar tradition. Both have to do with the feet, and not having the feet touch something, so it leads me to believe that these cultures must value one’s feet or see the feet as sacred or something not to be soiled by touching random items or the feet of another. The interlocking pinkies thing brings to mind crossing fingers in America, where someone will cross their fingers if they are lying or if they want something to happen. The saying also seems like it has variants in other cultures – I remember my mom talking about someone giving someone else the “evil eye,” which was first and foremost just a look but also held a sort of bad luck, because that person wished you ill.

 

general

La Llarona

INFORMANT: “So, La Llarona, sometimes in English it’s referred to as “the Woman in White,” and basically it’s a story about a woman who, um, was in love with a man but he didn’t love her back so it was unrequited love, so she drowned her two children in the river in order to be with the man that she loved, but he didn’t want to be with her. So after being refused by him, she then drowned herself in a river in Mexico City. And so, basically with the whole heaven and hell aspect of life, she’s kind of stuck in the in-between, and she kind of wanders around at night in Mexico City, so today a lot of parents use this story as a way to keep their kids from wandering out at night. Or else La Llarona will come and kidnap them. Basically she is said to appear at night around rivers in Mexico, and that’s it. I heard about it in Spanish class and then I went home and asked my mom about it, and she was like ‘oh, yeah.'”

COLLECTOR (myself): “How did your mom learn the story?”

INFORMANT: “I think growing up. It’s a traditional Mexican story that a lot of Mexican parents will tell their kids growing up.”

This legend appears to be a Mexican story within the widespread genre of ‘legends parents tell their children to keep them in line.’ This breed of legend seems to exist in almost every culture – I suppose childrens’ fear of the supernatural is culturally ubiquitous, because they’re more compelled to obey their parents if there’s a supernatural risk involved.

This story was also an interesting case because my friend Taylor is Mexican-American but not very in touch with Mexican culture. She told me that she felt her mother purposely tried to separate her from her Mexican heritage, so she was never told this story as a child, even though her grandmother told it to her mother. In fact, Taylor didn’t hear about the legend until she read about it in Spanish class. On a related note, Taylor did not know Spanish until she took classes in school, another point that makes her feel alienated from her heritage.

ANNOTATION: Several films have been made about the legend of La Llarona, including the Mexican movie La Llarona (1960) and Her Cry: La Llarona Investigation (2013).

general
Legends
Narrative

“People Can Lick Too”

INFORMANT: “So this is a scary story I used to get told all the time as a kid on camping trips or sleepovers or what have you. I’m totally going to mess it up, but bear with me. Okay, so there was this little girl who lived in a house with her family and her dog, and her dog would sleep right next to her bed each night. And she liked this, it made her feel safe to know her dog was there with her, especially when it got dark and she got scared like kids sometimes do in the dark. So whenever she got freaked out at night, she would hang her arm off the bed and the dog would lick her hand, and she would know he was right there with her.

So one night, the house seems eerily quiet, and she gets scared. She hangs her arm off the bed, feels the lick, and tries to go to sleep again. But something just doesn’t feel right, so in a few minutes she hangs her arm off the bed again. Another lick. So she goes to sleep, and eventually in the middle of the night she wakes up and needs to go to the bathroom. So she gets out of bed, walks into the bathroom, and turns on the lights. The whole bathroom is covered in blood, and the mangled body of her dog is crumpled on the floor – every bone in his body is broken. And she looks in horror up at the bathroom mirror, because there, written in dripping red blood, is the sentence ‘People can lick too.'”

 

When the informant told me this story, I wasn’t surprised because I’d definitely heard variations of it before. Ghost stories and scary stories are great examples of folklore because there are so many different variants of each story. Certain defining elements remain the same, but details change based on where you hear the story or just who’s telling it. This story in particular seems to utilize the rule of threes: the girl gets one lick, two licks, and the third time she wakes up, the time she goes to the bathroom, is when she discovers the dead dog and the eery message. This is an effective scary story because it makes you go back and think – it’s not showing you the monster, he doesn’t kill the girl or anything. But the listener automatically backtracks and realizes that it was the dog murderer that was licking the little girl’s hand the whole time!

ANNOTATION: Several other versions of this particular story can be found on the scary story website Creepypasta, including this one: http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Licking

general

Gogol Mogol

My grandma, Harriet, explained to me the Russian/Ukrainian home cold remedy Gogol Mogol. Because our family originated in Russia and Ukraine, this tradition had been passed down to my grandma. However, she didn’t find it effective so she didn’t use it on my mother, and therefore the tradition wasn’t carried on and I didn’t know about Gogol Mogol until she told me.

One makes Gogol Mogol by mixing up an egg yolk and a teaspoon of honey or sugar, and pouring it into a half cup of milk that’s been heated with butter. Sometimes people would add rum or a dash of some other type of alcohol, though I have no idea how that would aid the cold-curing process.

Ostensibly, gogol mogol is supposed to ease a sore throat and help cure cold-related insomnia. My grandma, in telling me about it, couldn’t stress enough that she thought the whole idea was ridiculous, which is a pretty common reaction to a lot of home remedies. I feel like the concept of home remedies in general is treated with skepticism, because people are nervous to trust anything that isn’t approved by the FDA or prescribed by a doctor. However, some people swear by home remedies, especially in other countries, and contrarily, fear and distrust doctors and modern medicine.

My grandma didn’t pass on the tradition, which highlights an important aspect of folklore. If a community or a person fails to carry on the tradition or pass on the piece of lore, it can very easily disappear. I was shocked that I’d never heard about gogol mogol before if it played such a role in my grandma’s childhood. I don’t plan on rekindling the tradition personally, because I agree with her in that it sounds unlikely that gogol mogol could realistically have that many healing properties.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Signs

“Does he go to our church?”

*Note: The informant, Laura, is my mother. She is a lesbian.

INFORMANT: “Because, being gay, we had to hide a lot, there were a lot of ways of describing or asking someone whether they were gay, without actually coming out, or describing someone as gay in a way that didn’t out them  in case they weren’t out. So we said things like, you know, ‘Oh, is she a PLU?’ A person like us? They would also say ‘Does he go to our church?’ or ‘Is he a member of the tribe?’ but that’s also a Jewish thing.”

As a young gay person in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, when being gay was less widely accepted and could often even be dangerous, gay people came up with special terms to identify other gay people without outing others or themselves. These phrases and questions became sorts of secret passwords among the gay community, the most straightforward way to find gay comrades without overtly putting yourself in a potentially uncomfortable or dangerous situation.

At least in the parts of this country where I’ve grown up, it’s becoming a lot more socially acceptable to be an out gay person, so I assume in these parts that questions like these are becoming lesson common. However, there are still many parts of the country and many parts of the world where homosexuality is considered an abomination or a sin, and undoubtedly people in these parts still resort to the use of questions like the church question.

Secrecy is a recurring theme in gay folklore – everything must be discreet, from the foot tapping in the men’s bathroom to the church question and more. Folklore rooted in discretion is interesting because it cements the bonds of members within the group. Outsiders aren’t aware of these traditions and customs – a heterosexual person may not blink twice if a gay person asks another gay person if a third party ‘goes to their church’ – and the customs have a special meaning to those who understand.

Folk speech
Humor

Jewish Jokes

*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandmother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.

The following are several Yiddish jokes. At least in my family, humor is considered an integral part of being Jewish, and there’s a special breed of joke that’s distinctively Jewish. Often these jokes come in the form of long stories that can be customized and drawn out by their teller. They often involve old Jews, rabbis, and/or Yiddish words, and a lot of them emphasize wordplay or poke fun at Jewish stereotypes or non-Jews skewed understanding of Jewish culture.

It’s important to note that when these jokes are told, it’s customary for the teller to speak lines of dialogue in a thick, exaggerated Yiddish accent.

INFORMANT: “So there was a big civic dinner one night at the local community center, and there were a bunch of people there from the local synagogue and the local church. And the main dish was this big glazed ham. So when they passed the ham platter to the rabbi, he shakes his head no, and the priest kind of chuckles and teases him and says ‘Rabbi, when are you going to forget that silly rule of yours and eat ham like the rest of us?’ And the Rabbi replies, ‘Oh, at your wedding reception, Father.'”

This is an example of a Jewish culture clash joke that points out the objective silliness of religious traditions and calls out the hypocrisy of other religions who scorn keeping kosher and other Jewish customs. The Christian priest thinks it’s silly that the rabbi doesn’t eat ham, but the rabbi points out that it’s just as silly that the priest can’t get married.

INFORMANT: “A little Jewish boy goes home to his mother and is excited to tell her about the part he got in the school play. He runs home and tells her, and she asks, ‘Oh, Saul, that’s wonderful, what part are you?’ Saul says, ‘I’m gonna play the Jewish husband!’ And his mother frowns and says, ‘Saul, honey, I thought you said you wanted a speaking part?'”

Jewish jokes often play on the fact that Jewish wives and mothers are perceived as extremely strong-willed and stubborn – they often run the house and are dominant over their husbands. The mother considers the role of Jewish husband a non-speaking role, poking fun at Jewish marital dynamics.

INFORMANT: “So there was this Jewish town and they didn’t have enough men to have a decent number of weddings, so they started importing men from other towns. One day a groom-to-be came in on the train, and two mother-in-laws-to-be were waiting for him. The first one said, ‘Oh, that’s my son-in-law,’ and the second one said, ‘No, he’s MY son-in-law.’ The town called a rabbi to settle the dispute. He gave it some thought and he told them, ‘If you both want the son-in-law, we’ll just cut him in half and give each of you one half of him.’ And one woman replied, ‘No, that’s horrible! Just give him to the other woman.’ And the rabbi says, ‘I will give him to the other woman. The one willing to cut him in half must be the true mother-in-law!'”

This joke is a play on the old Biblical story of King Solomon and the baby, except in that story, the real mother is the woman who tells King Solomon not to cut the baby in half, because she truly cares for her child and wants to see it live, even if it has to belong to another woman. In this variation, the family members involved are sons and their mothers-in-law, a relation that can generally tend to be tense in American culture. The joke implies that all real mothers-in-law dislike and wish harm on their sons-in-law, so the man’s real mother in law must be the one who was about to let him get cut in half!

INFORMANT: “There’s this beautiful lady at a charity ball and she’s wearing an enormous diamond, so another lady comes up to her and compliments her on it. The woman with the diamond goes, ‘Oh, thank you, darling. It’s the third biggest diamond in the world. There’s the Hope Diamond, the Kohinoor, and then this one, the Lipshitz diamond.’

‘You must be so lucky,’ said the other lady, and the diamond lady says, ‘Oh no, but it’s not all peaches and cream. With the Lipshitz diamond comes the Lipshitz curse.’

‘Well, what’s the Lipshitz curse?’

‘Lipshitz.’

This is another joke poking fun at Jewish marital relations and the notion that Jewish people are greedy. In this scenario, the woman with the diamond is excited to have the diamond, but she considers the husband that gave it to her a curse. Jewish wives are often portrayed as being sick of or disdainful of their husbands.

Folk Beliefs
Legends

Jersey Devil

*Note about informant: Laura Zucker is my mother. She grew up in New Jersey.

 

INFORMANT: “So I grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey, and in the southern part of the state of New Jersey, there’s a place called the Pine Barrens, which is a big expanse… uninhabited expanse of pine trees and forest. And there has, for … 200 years been this legend of something called the Jersey Devil that lives down there. And the story is… I mean, it’s kind of like a Bigfoot/Sasquatch thing, but … um, it’s said to be this creature with the head of a horse or a goat and bat wings, and it emits this shrieky… loud, scary, shrieky sound. I don’t know if it eats people or just scares the pee out of them, but it’s, you know, why you don’t want to stay in the Pine Barrens alone by yourself at night.”

COLLECTOR (myself): “Who told you about it?”

INFORMANT: “You know, it was just one of those things that you grew up knowing about. I don’t remember anybody telling me, it was just sort of part of the world that we swam in because we lived in New Jersey.”

Before I posted this, I saw that a student from last year’s class had published a post also called “Jersey Devil,” so I gave it a look and wasn’t entirely surprised to find that my mom’s version of the story and the other informant’s version were pretty different. Some elements stayed the same, like the bat wings and goat/sheep/horse head, but the back stories and the informants’ opinions on the underlying message were very different. While the other informant had a detailed back story about a promiscuous woman, my mom’s version has no such back story – the creature simply exists, and that’s the way it’s always been. The other informant saw the Devil as a warning to women not to be promiscuous, while my mom saw the Devil as a warning for children and others not to spend time alone in the Pine Barrens. I thought it was interesting that the other informant had a more detailed back story, because if I remember correctly, that informant was from Delaware, not NJ. You’d think that my mom, as a Jersey local, would have a richer understanding of the legend than an outsider.

The Jersey Devil is a great example of folklore because the origin of the story is absolutely unknown. My mother can’t even recall a person telling her the story – she says it was just part of the general context of her hometown and her growing up, that it was almost known and understood by default because it was so ingrained in the local lore.

general
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Gigolo

*Note: Taylor is a member of the student organization USC Troy Camp, a group that mentors/tutors students in the South Central L.A. area and raises funds during the year to send 200 elementary schoolchildren from South L.A. to a week-long summer camp in Idyllwild, CA. This week-long camp is completely run by the counselors, and through the year many legends and traditions have developed that are upheld/told each year at camp, carried on by newer counselors as older ones graduate. Because I am also a member of Troy Camp, she didn’t provide any context for this, so I figured I’d do so to minimize confusion. This is a description of one of our many camp songs – this one’s called “Gigolo.”

The informant learned Gigolo when she first joined Troy Camp as a freshman. Older members either teach it to new members directly or just kind of throw them into it because it’s a call-and-response song. Generally, one person will call to another and that person will eventually show the group “how they gigolo,” and the rest of the group will chant. At the end of the song (which can happen after two people or 20 people do their individual gigolos), the person who just gigolo’d will call out all of Troy Camp instead of an individual, and then there is a longer chant that the whole group sings, with accompanying hand motions. The informant and I walked through the song together.

INFORMANT: Hey Jules!

COLLECTOR (myself): Hey what?

INFORMANT: Are you ready?

COLLECTOR: For what?

INFORMANT: To gig (pronounced jig)!

COLLECTOR: Gig what?

INFORMANT: -alo!

COLLECTOR: Ohhhhhhhhhh. My hands are high [raises hands], my feet are low [point to feet] and this is how I gigolo [do a little dance]!

WHOLE GROUP: Her hands are high [raise hands], her feet are low [point to feet] and this is how I gigolo [mimic dance]. Gig… alo, gig- gig, alo- what what? Gig… alo, gig- gig alo!

Then the person who just did the dance calls out someone else, and the song repeats. Eventually…

INFORMANT: Hey Troy Camp!

WHOLE GROUP: Hey what?

INFORMANT: Are you ready?

WHOLE GROUP: For what?

INFORMANT: To gig!

WHOLE GROUP: Gig what?

INFORMANT: -alo!

WHOLE GROUP: Ohhhh! Bang, bang, choo choo train / wind me up and I’ll do my thing / No Reese’s Pieces, no buttercups / You mess with me I’ll mess you up / My back aches, my belt’s too tight / My hips shake from the left to the right / Left, right, left right left right / I turn around, I touch the ground / I get back up, I break it down / My hands are high my feet are low and this is how I gigolo! [group dances]

 

Thoughts: Summer camps are known for having different variations of the same songs, and I can personally attest to that in this case. I went to a different summer camp as a kid, and we also sang gigolo, with a couple small alterations (alo alo instead of alo what what, hands are low instead of feet are low). We also didn’t have the group chant bang bang choo choo train part, though something along those lines did comprise a whole separate camp song we sang! “Bang Bang Choo Choo Train” is also used in cheer camps or by cheerleaders as a cheer.

Camp songs are the perfect example of variants – each camp has a very distinct, concentrated culture, and while the general attributes of the song remain the same, little pieces are different and/or specific to the particular camp at which they’re being sung, just like stories or riddles from different countries have the same general framework but vary in their details. These songs have to have started somewhere, so it makes one wonder how they spread from camp to camp, and where exactly they originated.

Gigolo in particular is a great camp song because it allows the group to learn different group members’ names, and lets everyone interact both between individuals and as a greater group/community.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age
Protection

Hindu Death Customs

*Note: The informant is Indian-American and identifies with the Hindu religion. She is generally in touch with her Indian heritage, but she was born in the U.S.

INFORMANT: “Most of these don’t actually apply to me or my family, but I know some other families who take a couple of them more seriously. Basically, Hinduism comes with a lot of weird customs for, like, death and stuff. I mean, I guess any religion does. But, like, for instance, some Hindus believe that a dead body should be free from all bonds, so they take off any stitched clothes, jewelry, or even hospital wrappings. They bathe the body like that, and then they would wrap it in a new cloth and they would get cremated. There’s also this thing called Sutak where you’re supposed to follow all these specific rules for 12 days after someone dies. Like, you can’t eat candy or food with spices, and you can’t give gifts or anything. I’ve even heard that if you die from a snake bite they won’t cremate you, they’ll just, like, throw you in the water. I don’t even know why. I also heard – and this one’s really gross – that it used to be a thing that when young women died, they would seal off their vaginas before cremating them so that evil spirits couldn’t rape them in the afterlife. There are all kinds of crazy things like that.”

Death customs are some of the richest aspects of folklore – they explain so much about the way a certain group or culture or community acts when alive! Death customs are usually associated with religions, though there are also death customs specific to certain nations of other groups that have little to do with religion. The custom of Sutak brings to mind the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for dead relatives – there is a general respect for the dead in most religions, and family members are expected to pay tribute to their fallen loved ones by abstaining from certain things. I’m interested to learn more about the snake bite custom – whether it’s true, whether it’s still done, and most importantly, why? It might have something to do with the fact that snakes are sacred because a snake is the garland of Lord Shiva, an important Hindu figure.

[geolocation]