Author Archive
Myths
Narrative

American Alabama Tribe Myth: Fire

Informant: I have a myth I heard from an Alabama tribeswoman I used to work with. Want to hear that one?

Interviewer: Sure.

Informant: At the start of the world, Bear owned Fire. It kept him and his people warm and let them see even when it was dark. One day, Bear came to a forest. On the forest floor, he found tons of acorns. He set Fire at the edge of the forest, and began to gorge himself on the delicious acorns. As the acorns around him began to run out, the wandered deeper into the forest.

While Bear was eating, Fire was burning at the edge of the forest. Soon, though, Fire had burned up nearly all of its wood. It began to shout “Feed me! Feed me!” to Bear, but Bear was too far away.

Man, however, was not far away, so he, hearing Fire’s cries, wandered over. Man hadn’t seen Fire before, so he asked it what he could feed it to help out. Fire explained that it ate wood, so Man picked up a stick and fed fire. Then he grabbed another, and another, until Fire’s hunger had been quenched. Man, meanwhile, warmed himself by the Fire. He sat nearby, feeding it wood and enjoying its warmth and colors.

After a while, Bear returned to Fire, but Fire was angry at Bear for abandoning him. Fire blazed brighter and brighter until it was blinding to Bear, and told Bear to leave it alone. Fire’s heat scared Bear away, and Bear could not get close enough to carry Fire back with him. Man and Fire were left alone, and that is how Fire came into the possession of Man.

Context: My informant is an eighty year old woman from a very scientifically/factually inclined Midwestern family. This performance was done over Facetime with my informant, since she lives in Seattle. Otherwise, however, it resembled a classic storytelling situation.

Background: My informant heard this story from one of her coworkers while working at a company in Alabama. It stayed with her because she enjoyed how well the story personified the wildness of Fire, but also thought its dependence on other beings for “food” made a lot of sense. Furthermore, the fact that Fire had not been found by Man, but rather had been inherited by a member of the natural world also stuck with her.

Analysis: Personally, I thought the story was great. It shares many similarities with myths I’ve heard from my own home region in the Pacific Northwest, primarily through its use of animals as characters and its personification of elements such as fire. It also demonstrates a really interesting progression where an important facet of our own life – in this case Fire – is not discovered by the ingenuity of mankind alone. Rather, mankind receives Fire from nature, as if we were successors of animals and part of the natural world, rather than detached from it.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb

Informant: There once lived a boy named Conrad, who loved to suck his thumbs. He sucked his thumbs day in and day out, and when his mother told him not to, he did anyway. Finally, his mother gives up, and tells him that if he keeps sucking his thumbs, the tall tailor will find him and cut his thumbs off.

But, as soon as Conrad’s mother had left the room, he immediately began to suck his thumb again. But, his mother had not been joking. The door burst open and a tall man with a pair of huge shears ran into the room and chased Conrad down, cutting off both of his thumbs.

Now Conrad has no thumbs.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this story from his parents when he was younger, although he clarified that it was in a joking light, rather than a serious one. He seemed to think the tale was useful for keeping rowdy or otherwise disobedient children from retaining bad habits or bad behaviors.

Analysis: This story struck me from the moment I heard it as quite brutal. Cutting off a child’s thumbs is an uncharacteristically serious punishment for as small a transgression as thumb-sucking. However, it did strike me how the seriousness of the tale reflected the culture of Germany itself. Germany, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, has developed a culture of strict order, one that especially stresses the importance of a superior’s orders. This tale is reflective of this cultural attitude – the child, after displaying disobedience, is given a brutal punishment as recompense. I especially enjoy this tale for its short and to the point attitude. This is a story to listen to and heed the warning of. It isn’t told to entertain children. It is told to caution them.

Annotation: Consult this source for another version of this tale

Hoffman, Heinrich. “Struwwelpeter.” The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, Virginia Commonwealth University, germanstories.vcu.edu/struwwel/daumen_e.html.

Annotation Comment: This is an alternative source for this tale found in the Virginia Commonwealth University database. It doesn’t seem to diverge significantly in terms of narrative, but interestingly, this version seems to be prose. Since the story is translated to English, and the words are in English, I’m inclined to believe this is a modification further down the line. Furthermore, the story has an author attached, an impossibility for folklore, which makes me think that this prose-form of the tale was a modification by Mr. Hoffman to the original.

 

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Sie Hat Nicht Alle Tassen Im Schrank

Original: Sie hat nicht alle tassen im schrank

Translation: She doesn’t have all the teacups in her pantry

Full translation: This phrase is used when one is trying to say someone else is crazy. When used, one is implying that the person in question is not entirely right in the head.

Note: This piece of folk speech was only provided using the pronoun “she”. However, he/she can be interchanged and the phrase would still work in conversation.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this piece of folk speech used almost interchangeably with any other permutation of “that person is crazy” both in the city and in the countryside. He does not see it as a piece of folk speech, but rather as another piece of his vocabulary. When someone is acting crazy, this phrase comes as naturally as simply saying “That person is crazy” in German.

Analysis: I was especially excited by this folk speech because it closely resembles a similar phrase used in the United States. In the US, the phrase “the lights are not all on upstairs” shares a similar meaning, to imply that the subject it is referring to is somehow not right in the head. The two phrases most definitely appear to be oikotypes – regional variations of a piece of folklore. Interestingly, however, the German use of “teacups” and “pantry”, more traditional objects may suggest that the German phrase is actually the original, from which the American phrase was derived. Considering there is a sizeable German population in the US, this could most definitely be the case!

Foodways
Material

Řízek

Interviewer: You said you had a family recipe?

Informant: So you take a piece of meat, usually it would be turkey or pork, but it could be whatever honestly. A lot of people use chicken. You first flatten it out by hitting it, so you basically make it into a flat piece of meat. Then, you have three key steps.

First, You have flour. You put the meat into the flour and cover it all with flour. Then, there’s egg, beaten, you cover the whole thing in the beaten egg. The final step, you cover the whole thing in breadcrumbs, that you would traditionally make yourself from old leftover bread. Then, you fry the whole thing, flip it in the middle of the frying process.

Interviewer: Then serve?

Informant: Yeah, then serve. Usually you would serve it with mashed potato and a pickle.

Interviewer: You said your family modified the recipe a bit?

Informant: Every family does it a little different. What changes usually is the type of meat people use, whether or not they add other stuff to the mix. Maybe herbs or something, each family uses different things. Furthermore, you could not use meat at all. A lot of people just use different vegetables and make this recipe with them, which strays further away from the original recipe but, it’s still a variation that’s common. Personally, me and my family use turkey. We think it gets the most tender during the frying. Also, we add a few small pieces of rosemary into the batter , not a lot, but enough for it to be noticed.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old Czech national attending school in the United States. He’s lived in Prague for most of his life, and Czech is his first language. The interview was conducted face-to-face in a college dorm room.

Background: My informant was taught how to make Řízek by his grandmother while back home in Prague. He likes Řízek because Czech cuisine is a fusion of German, Austrian, and Slavic cuisines, and as a result doesn’t have many uniquely Czech dishes. My informant told me that, because of this, Řízek is considered a sort of “national dish” in the Czech Republic, and is thus close to his heart. My informant himself has made it many times, and considers Řízek one of his favorite dishes.

Analysis: Usually, recipes don’t strike one as the material for folklore, but Řízek is an excellent example of the malleability and word-to-mouth nature of cuisine. The dish apparently had origins stemming from Italian “chicken parmesan”, but used flour and breadcrumbs to make up for a lack of flour. From there, ingenuity led to it further being changed, to the degree that the meat, herbs, and even recipe of the batter itself are subject to interpretation. Řízek is a dish of variation, everyone makes it differently. I also found it interesting that the dish was considered uniquely Czech. Considering that the Czech Republic is still a young country, it appears to be a valuable source of national pride. One might note the use of folklore in this instance to reinforce a nationalistic attitude.

 

Folk speech

No Pig Was There

Slang: Kein schwein war da

Translation: No pig was there

Full Translation: There was no person there, no one was around or present at that point in time.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this piece of folk speech used mainly within his village in Germany, but also at times in Frankfurt and other major metropolitan centers, albeit used less frequently. He likes it because it showcases an interesting motif common within German folk-speech, namely, the use of “pig” or pig related objects. To him, the phrase doesn’t necessarily have any significance emotionally, but is rather an important part of his speech – he confessed that he used it often while in Germany.

Analysis: On the surface, this piece of folk speech appears bland. It’s simply a slang term used to ‘spice up’ language. However, I was intrigued by the use of the word “pig” in place of the word person. Pigs were, and to some degree, continue to be a staple of German agricultural life. This piece of folk-speech seems to imply that, at one point, they were so integral to German life that they found their way into common speech. This seems to be backed up by the fact that, in more rural areas, this construct is more common, whilst it is less likely to be used when one is speaking German in more urbanized areas, separated from livestock.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Story of the Inked Boys

Interviewer: Got any other German fairytales?

Informant: I do, actually. This one is one of my favorites – it’s interesting because it shows a tolerance that Germans seemed to have forgotten at some later points in our history.

Three boys are laughing and playing in a field outside of their village, near a road. As they play, a Moor, a black man, comes down the hill, carrying a green umbrella. The Moor is quiet and polite as he makes his way down the road, but when the boys notice him, they grab all of their things and rush over and start insulting the Moor. The boys sing songs and make fun of the Moor’s dark skin and how its so black it’s as black as ink.

St. Nicholas, who lived nearby, heard the boys and what they were doing, and he shouted at them to stop. But, the boys didn’t listen. They kept laughing and shouting at the Moor, continuing to make fun of his skin color.

St. Nicholas is pissed at this point, so he takes his huge ink pot that he used for his quill and grabs the three boys. Then, he goes and takes each one of them… and dunks each one into the black ink until all of them are just as dark as the Moor. Then, he takes them out and puts them next to the Moor, who is laughing super hard at this point. St. Nicholas taught them a lesson about harassing people who look different from themselves.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this story from one of his neighbors from his village in Germany. He has a personal love for this tale, as it was one of the first to be told to him in his childhood, but also because of the general message it sends – one of punishment against not only intolerance, but xenophobia. The children make fun of the Moor due to his difference. My informant points out that St.Nicholas places the children into the Moor’s shoes not only to punish them, but also to make them experience life from the point of view of their victim.

Analysis: I believe my informants tale outlines a curious societal quirk inherent in whatever communities it originated from. It appears to be poised against intolerance towards foreigners, especially of African descent, at a time when such intolerance was widely acceptable. It makes a point to not only punish rude children, but also to make them experience life from the point of view of those they wronged. From a more objective lens, one might also point out the motif of threes at play here as well. Three boys are present in the tale, rather than a single one.

Humor

Purple Passion

Due to the length of this story, a transcript is not provided. Instead, the audio clip of the Purple Passion story is attached to the Folklore database article. (Link)

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This anti-joke was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room. The informant made sure to take long pauses and deliberately spoke in an awkward manner to further extend the length of the anti joke. This, in turn, made the lack of a punchline all the more frustrating.

Background: My informant heard this story from  one of his friends while sitting at a bar. He appreciates this story because of how elaborate it is. The story weaves an intricate web of events, all centered around the use of a single term – “Purple Passion”. His story, by its end, is nearly ten minutes, and yet, it has no punchline. Instead it ends abruptly and unsatisfyingly, and the reader reacts accordingly, with anger, surprise, and frustration.

Analysis: Purple Passion is an expertly built anti joke, that, when properly delivered, demonstrates the efficacy of such constructs. In wasting the time of its subject so expertly, the story actually has a greater chance of spreading itself. Since ones time is wasted, telling the story to another person might appear to “settle the score”, and thus leads to its continued retelling. I personally enjoyed the story to the end, as it’s structured in a very deliberate manner – it is constantly building up to an ending, before suddenly turning the boy, and, by extension, the listener, towards another false objective.

Humor

The Jungle Joke Competition

Interviewer: What’s the jungle joke that you mentioned earlier?

Informant: Ok, so, the king of the jungle, a lion, decides that he wants to hear the best joke in the jungle. He gathers all of the animals of the jungle around him and announces that whoever tells a joke that gets everyone to laugh will win. But, if their joke does not make every single animal laugh, then they will be killed.

The elephant immediately begins to tell his joke, thinking that he will no doubt win the competition. After he finishes, the crowd is silent. No one thinks the elephant’s joke is funny, and so the king of the jungle murders him.

Next, the parrot comes forward. The parrot tells his joke and half of the crowd erupts into laughter. The other half is silent though, so the king of the jungle kills him too.

Then, the giraffe steps forward. The giraffe pauses, then begins his joke. When he finishes, every single animal in the crowd laughs – except one, the turtle. The king of the jungle pauses for a moment, waiting for the turtle to join in, but the turtle never does. So, the giraffe is killed too

Finally, the jaguar strides forward and tells his joke. The jaguar, who mostly likes to hunt, doesn’t know many jokes, and his joke is terrible. Only one animal laughs – the turtle.

After the King of the Jungle kills the jaguar, he asks the turtle why he laughed. The turtle says “the giraffe’s joke was hilarious!”

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This joke was told in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

Background: This informant heard this joke from his parents, both of whom are from Chihuahua, Mexico. He enjoys it and remembers it because of the turtle and his delayed reaction. He and many of his friends and family use “Don’t be the turtle” to chide someone when their reaction is delayed or they did not respond to ones question or statement.

Analysis: I personally enjoyed the joke a lot. It doesn’t rely on wordplay or any sort of cultural knowledge, all the listener has to know is that a turtle is slow – this makes the joke relatively accessible. At the same time, the use of a somewhat brutal method of punishment, that is, death, for a bad joke, also makes the stakes higher for the animals and adds to the hilarity of the situation, since, at the end of the day, death is a ridiculous punishment for not making everyone laugh. I also found it interesting that the motif of threes finds its way into this joke as well. Though there are four animals, the giraffe, the animal to tell the best joke, and whose joke elicits laughter from the most animals, is the third to tell a joke.

Folk speech

Get Yourself Together

Original: Ponte las pilas

Phonetic: ˈpõn̪.te las ˈpi.las

Translation: Get some batteries

Full Translation: This piece of folk speech is telling whoever it is directed at that they are”out of batteries” or out of energy or work ethic, and that they need to refill or else they won’t be able to functional. It boils down directly to “don’t be lazy”

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This proverb was recited in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

Background: My informant can’t remember exactly who he heard this saying from, but is relatively certain it was in a familial setting. To him, it’s simply a natural way of telling someone that they’re being lazy, and that they should consider putting more effort or attention into whatever they’re doing. To him personally, he sees it as a harsher way of telling someone to get more motivated. He’s only used it friends and family, and considers it as almost borderline rude.

Analysis: This example is perhaps unique amongst the folk speech that I have recorded. Many phrases are hard to assign to a single period due to the general difficulty of tracing word-of-mouth materials. However, this example appears to have contemporary origins. Since its referring to batteries specifically, it must have originated sometime in the past fifty to one hundred years, making it a relatively recent piece of folk speech. In terms of the phrase itself, I think that its short length – three words – makes it an easily repeatable phrase, which makes it hard to forget as a result. This could potentially explain its widespread use in Mexico, despite its seemingly recent origins.

Legends
Narrative

La Llorona

Interviewer: You said you had a ghost story?

Informant: Yeah… so La Llorona is supposed to be this woman somewhere in Mexico who was married and had two kids. Her husband either cheated on her or did something similar to anger her. She was super angry at her husband, and, trying to figure out a way to get back at him, she started to think. One night she took her two children to the river, thinking she would play with them. When she got there, though, she thought of a way to get revenge on her husband – by taking their children. Since she had nowhere to go, she decided she would take the kids, to try to harm her husband in return. But, since she had nowhere to go, she instead took her kids and drowned them in the water. At first, she felt good about this, you know, her rage justified it, but after cooling off, she realized that she had killed her beloved children. Obviously, she was distraught, so she went back to the same river and drowns herself in it.

When she reaches the gates of Heaven, she’s stopped and asked by St.Peter about the location of her children. She doesn’t want to say she killed them, so she says she doesn’t know, and so St.Peter sends her back to Earth to look for her children. Until then, she’s trapped between reality and the afterlife, she’s a ghost.

Now, she patrols the streets of towns late at night looking for her kids, the ones she killed, crying out “Mis hijos, mis hijos” while weeping, which is how she got her name “La Llorona”, which translates to something like “the weeping woman”. If she finds kids out late at night, she’ll mistake them for her own kids at first. But, if they’re not her own children, she kills them to try to take the place of her own.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This legend was told  in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

Background: My informant can’t remember where he heard La Llorona from – maybe his parents, maybe his friends, it’s a very common story in Latin America. He thinks La Llorona is used to keep kids and people in general from going out late at night. This is not, however, just to keep people from staying out late. According to him, la Llorona is used to keep people from staying out past 3 AM. This is because, in Latin America, three is a number associated with God. In the afternoon, 3 PM is considered lucky, but 3 AM, at night, is considered odd and unnatural. Even he  doesn’t feel comfortable going out that late, and told me a brief story of a friend of his who noticed a weird fog and distant cries when she was out at 3 AM.

Analysis: This account of La Llorona demonstrates not only how the legend helps keep people inside and orderly at night, but also a connection to the deep Catholic roots many communities within Mexico maintain. Though not part of the story, many people choose to mark 3 AM as the time when La Llorona begins to stalk the streets, a number commonly associated with God and the Holy Trinity. Interestingly, the use of the number three also reflects a common trend in many other pieces of folklore – namely, a propensity for things to crop up in threes or occur at times with threes in them. Personally, I’ve noticed weird things happening really late at night, whether they’re odd weather or sounds. I’m not sure whether or not I myself believe in la Llorona or similar ghostly apparitions, but I’m still inclined to spend my late nights inside rather than out.

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