Author Archive
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Protection

Break a Leg

Content:
Informant – “Break a leg is when you wish to wish an actor good luck in a theater. You can’t say good luck, you instead say break a leg.”

Context:
JK – “When did you first hear it?”

Informant – “I heard it many years ago when I was performing and around stage people. They just told me that’s what you do.”

JK – “Why do you think this practice exists?”

Informant – “I was told that the gods of the theater, if you told someone good luck, the mischievous gods would intercede and that person would screw up. But if you didn’t say that, if you told them the opposite, the gods wouldn’t have anything to respond to and they wouldn’t notice that person. It could also be that the applause would be so great that you would have to take a bow. And the traditional bow, in the Victorian bow, you would have one leg in front of the other and to bow you would break your leg. Well not literally, but it would be like bending your knee in a weird way.”

Analysis:
There is also a humor to the wish. Before it became a cliche, telling someone to break a leg may have been a way to get them to laugh and relax before going on stage.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Sailor Superstition: Dolphins swimming in the wake are good luck

Content:
Informant – “Dolphins are considered good luck when they swim with the ship. And it’s bad luck to kill a dolphin.”

Context:
JK – “Where does this belief come from?”

Informant – “I just think that dolphins are friendly to humans. They have a long history of…there’s stories of them chasing sharks away and swimming with humans. They are sweet creatures and really intelligent. That level of intelligence demands respect.”

JK – “Where did you hear it from?”

Informant – “I just grew up with that. My father would tell me about dolphins. And there have been a couple of times in my life where I’ve actually seen it. They’ll play in the wake of the ship. It’s really neat.”

Analysis:
There seems to be very logical reasons for this superstition. So much so, that it hardly seems superstitious. Dolphins are historically friendly/helpful creatures, so a pod following your ship is definitely a good thing. It’s hard to think of a valid reason to kill a dolphin, so it makes sense why doing so would be seen as bad luck.

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Saint John’s Tide

Content:
Informant – “Saint John’s Tide is on Midsummer, the eve of June 21st. There’s a big fire. Everyone gathers around the fire and one at a time they throw their intentions for the new year into the bonfire. Where you want to be in the coming year, what you want to do, whatever. Then you leap over the fire.”

Context:
Informant – “It has very pagan roots. It’s the longest day of the year. After this, the days get shorter. As winter approaches, our thoughts move away from the external. We begin to self contemplate more. It’s a good time to think about your plans for the coming year.”
The informant learned about this ritual in the 70s, but she doesn’t remember exactly where. She thinks she was invited to one.

Analysis:
Throwing your intentions into the fire is very reminiscent of Greek prayer burning. Jumping over the fire sounds like a trial, a way to prove yourself worthy of your desires. It sounds like a test, a purging of old weaknesses and fears before the dark, scary winter comes.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Setting an extra plate during Christmas

Content and Context:
Informant -“I remember my mother did this several times. At the Christmas meal, my mother would set an extra seat and an extra place setting. Now the tradition is in case someone shows up, but I always associated it with the people who weren’t with us. That’s how I like to think of it.”

JK – “The people who aren’t with us. Does that mean people who have died or people who just aren’t there?”

Informant – “Either way. When I say prayers at home now, I always add that I ask god to take care of those who aren’t with us. That means your dead grandparents and those who are away.”

JK – “Did the Christmas tradition lead to this added prayer?”

Informant – “Maybe the thought did. Not consciously. It just seemed to me that our meals couldn’t possible be complete without recognizing the absence of those who couldn’t possibly be there.”

Analysis:
It’s interesting that the informant did not carry the tradition forward, but rather his interpretation of the ritual. While his mother wanted to be prepared for unexpected guests, the informant wanted a reminder of guests that weren’t coming.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Material
Narrative
Protection

Saint Christopher Medallion

Content:
Informant – “When I was being raised, Saint Christopher was an important saint. All of us, the kids, got medals, little medallions that we wore, that were Saint Christopher medals. Saint Christopher was the patron saint of travelers.
Now Christopher means Christ carrier. And the legend is that he was a big person, almost a giant, and he came upon a little boy on the bank of a stream and the little boy asked him to please carry him over to the other side. And so Christopher said sure and proceeded to carry him on his shoulders across the river, and as he went further and the water got deeper the boy got heavier and heavier, and it took all his strength, and when he finally reached the shore, exhausted, he asked the child ‘My gosh how could you weigh so much?’ And the child revealed that he was really Christ and that he was carrying the weight of the world. And then he disappeared.”

Context:
Informant – “I grew up with it. And while I was growing up, Christopher was touted as being a real person, but more recent research has found that there is no real record of his existence. The first mention of him was like 3 centuries after he supposedly existed. So they say he’s pretty much a legend.

JK – “What were the medallions for?”

Informant – “It was really a religious good luck charm. It was supposed to protect us from the travails of travels and journeys and all that.”

Analysis:
There is an interesting connection between the medallion and the story. One wears a medallion around one’s neck. You feel the weight at the back of the neck – the same place where you would feel the most weight if you were carrying someone on your shoulders.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Dropping cutlery brings guests

Content:
Informant – “If you are handling cutlery…flatware…if you drop a fork you can expect a visit from a woman. If you drop a knife, expect a man. If you drop a spoon, expect a child. And if you drop a bunch of silverware expect a bunch of people”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it from my mother. It’s just a superstition. I never felt that it was true. Although, you know, it could be that, when you are setting formal tables and all, it’s for feast days. And if you drop something during feast time, you are expecting people anyways. Sort of a self fulfilling thing.”

Analysis:
The association with knives and men is probably intentional (men are traditionally the warriors). And young children are usually spoon fed, so that association also makes sense. I’m not sure why women are linked to forks. It could just be the only item left.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Signs

Kilachand Hall is Haunted

Content:
Informant – “Kilachand Hall is supposedly haunted. That’s where the honor students live. It used to be a hotel. The most famous resident was a playwright named Eugene O’Neill. There was also another famous writer there who won a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer or something. I don’t know. But anyways, O’Neill died in this hotel. And BU bought the building and turned it into a dormitory. Strange things have been going on on the fourth floor ever since, cause that’s where he lived. Apparently he died there. Lights inexplicably dim. Elevators stop working and open on the fourth floor for no reason. There are knocks on the door when no one is outside.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it on my college tour. It makes me not what to live there haha.”

Analysis:
Eugene O’Neill did in fact die in Kilachand Hall (formerly known as Shelton Hall). I think this legend is popular because it is a reminder that a famous person died in the building. It adds panache to the idiosyncrasies of an old building.

Folk Beliefs

The Princeton Gate Superstition

Content:
Informant – “The lore is that you can only go through the gate once as a Freshman and you can only leave through the gate as a senior or you won’t graduate.”

JK – “So how do you get onto the campus then?”

Informant – “This is just the main gate. There are other gates.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it on an official college tour.”

Analysis:
When you are college student, your campus can feel like your whole world. You can lose track of the outside world and become totally immersed in your college’s culture. This superstition is an exaggeration of that feeling. You enter this new world as a freshman, and then you are trapped there until you graduate. Passing through the gate before graduation is like leaving the world too early (i.e. not graduating).

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Never Say Macbeth

Content:
Informant – “You know the story of Macbeth. There are a lot of witches in that play. Legend has it that the curses that they say are real. If you say the name of the Scottish Play in a theater needlessly, that theater is cursed. The name summons the witches and curses. To reverse it, you have to run around three times in a circle and spit, or say your favorite curse word. You also get shunned by your cast, which is not fun.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it from my freshman theater teacher. He was crazy. I said Macbeth in class once and he yelled at me ‘YOU NEVER SAY THE SCOTTISH PLAY’S NAME.’ He almost threw a chair at me.”

Analysis:
I can’t think of any practical application for this superstition, so I believe it exists to create a more complex theater subculture. If you know about it then you are more of an theater person than those who don’t.

Folk Beliefs
Humor
Legends
Narrative

Matthew McConaughey arrest story

Content:
Informant – “Have you heard the story of Matthew McConaughey’s arrest? It’s a local legend at this point. So McConaughey lives up in Westlake. And apparently, one night, he was making a lot of noise so his neighbors called the police. When the police arrived, they went around the back of the house and there was Matthew McConaughey, completely naked, smoking a joint and playing the bongo drums. Imagine being the officer to see that. McConaughey is living his best life.”

Context:
Informant – “I don’t know if it’s true. I think it is. I don’t know where I heard it from though. It’s like a famous story in Austin.”

Analysis:
I think the story is so popular because it humanizes an A-List celebrity. Here’s a critically acclaimed actor, someone we put on a pedestal, breaking social norms and restraints and generally acting ridiculous.

[geolocation]