Author Archive
Legends
Narrative

Deceased Shaker Babies

Background

Location: New Lebanon, NY

Informant: J.R. - 23 year old male, originally from New York State, attended the same high school as the collector

Context

This legend has been told to me many times from many different sources, specific to a boarding school in the remote mountains of the New York Berkshires.

The boarding school mentioned was founded on land that once functioned as a Shaker settlement. The Shakers were a religious minority that sought out to create a utopian, self-sufficient society centered on God. Many of their principles required the separation of man and woman, absolute abstinence was expected. As a result, should a woman become pregnant while she was a member of the settlement, she would be cast out of the community. I have paraphrased the core legend as told by J.R. below.

Main Piece

It was told to me that, though the old Shakers that inhabited our dormitory buildings were required to be abstinent, there were times where a woman would become pregnant and attempt to hide her symptoms until the child was born. If she carried to term, she would deliver the baby and either leave the community or, much more nefariously, kill the child and hide the remains. This story over time was transformed into the legend that the remains of the dead babies would be placed in the walls of the buildings they were constructing as a way to give them a “burial.”

Thoughts

While the the folklore is based in historical accuracy , the belief in the dead babies represents a superstition specific to the school that added mystique and served to entertain (or frighten) the students, The urban legend would be shared or performed to freshman as somewhat of an initiation in to the culture of the school. Variations or abbreviations of the story would reappear in conversation, for example, “be careful, don’t get captured by the Shaker babies!” Due to the age of the settlement the school was established on, and the previous history of the land, ghost stories were commonplace in the conversation and folklore of the school and provided a link between the past and the present of a place that remained for the most part, physically unchanged.

 

For more information on the Shaker community and its ties to folklore, see:

Wolford, John B. “Shaker Studies and Folklore: An Overview.” Folklore Forum, 1989, pp. 78–107., doi:10.1.1.491.9188.

Humor
Legends

Peacock for Dinner

Background

Location: Pasadena, CA

Informant: 21 year old male from Austria, living in Pasadena with his father after moving to America.

Context

Heard from source local to the Pasadena area. This area is heavily populated by wild peacocks that live outside among the homes there. This urban legend was told to me in response to my question of where the peacocks came from. I have paraphrased the response below

Main Piece

The informant heard from his father who owned the property in Pasadena, that the peacocks migrated down to the neighborhood from the mountains above. There, the peacocks bred uncontrollably and now was considered an “infestation.” As a result, some residents had taken to hitting the peacocks with their cars and taking the corpses of the birds home to prepare them as meal, in soups, stews and other dishes.

Thoughts

The origin story of the peacocks is interesting, the informant is attempting to decipher how these peacocks came to be so prevalent in the area based off of what he has heard. Due to the fact that there are an overwhelming amount of peacocks living in the neighborhoods of Pasadena, the emergence of the urban legend points to a possible dislike for the peacocks. It also seems somewhat taboo, as Americans culturally do not regard peacocks as a typical bird for consumption. The legend itself seems farfetched, but it also points to the “quirkiness” and interesting characteristic of the neighborhood that so many wild peacocks roam around.

 

 

 

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Salami and Women

Background

Informant: R.P. Italian-Australian Male, 28 years old

Location: Sydney, Australia

Context

Told to me by a 2nd generation Italian male, whose family immigrated to Australia from Italy and Naples a generation earlier. This folklore may be local to the Southern region of Italy. Informant volunteered this information after being prompted.

Main Piece

RP: “I don’t know many superstitions, but I always remember being told that women should not walk into a room if Salami is being served.”

Thoughts

When asked about the meaning being this folklore piece, the informant could not offer a a solid explanation for why this superstition existed. He posited that it could be related to the time of day or where the salami was being served. For much of the early 20th century,  southern Italian women were not allowed to be present in places where men would congregate, for example bars or clubs. This would be considered taboo and the women would be viewed as “working women” should they enter one of these establishments. The belief in the superstition of salami and women may be an extension of this idea and cultural practice.

Interesting to note, this practice of baring women in certain public spaces began to change in Southern Italy with the invention of the television and the viewing of television programs in large public areas due to the fact that most Southern Italian families could not afford a personal television. Instead, the town would purchase a TV for the entire community and would broadcast the programs in bars or town squares where women and children were allowed to frequent for the duration of the show.

Narrative

The Pregnant Student

Background

Location: New Lebanon, NY

Informant: J.R. - 23 year old male, originally from New York State, attended the same high school as the collector

Context

Urban legend specific to a boarding school located in the remote mountains of the Berkshires in New York State, of which I attended. The rumor apparently occurred at least 3-4 years before my freshman year of high school. This urban legend had been repeated and modified over time; I have recorded the core legend here, as told to me by J.R.:

 Main Piece

There was a student and a teacher that developed a secret, romantic relationship. Because of the close proximity that being on a campus allowed, the relationship carried on for a few months, even though the teacher was married at the time. At some point, the student realized that she was pregnant and pleaded with the teacher to get her a pregnancy test so she could confirm. The teacher did buy the test, but was intercepted by school administration, who was unaware of who the student was or her relationship with the teacher. The administration insisted that the teacher inform them of the student’s identity, which the teacher refused to do. As a result, this teacher was fired and soon after he and his wife divorced.

Thoughts

As the collector participated in this folklore when they were a student, they choose to believe the story is an urban legend specific to the school, rather than a retelling of events that actually occurred. The emergence and continued telling of this story could represent the repressed sexuality that students attending the school feel. There are disciplinary consequences for being caught in a sexual act at the school, this heightened a lot of the sexual tensions or feelings that students may have had by making it somewhat taboo. It fits within the archetypes of “forbidden passion” by dramatizing the passion students may feel for one another in the context of a student-teacher relationship. Perhaps this story is a cautionary tale of what could happen if a student was to break the rules and pursue sexual experiences while on campus. This story also represents the very common idea of a student having a relation with a teacher, which is very popular in boarding school settings. The tension between the faculty and his wife is also a popular point of discussion in boarding schools, as salacious or controversial drama that occurs between faculty remains a point of interest for students attending the school.

 

Folk medicine
Foodways
Holidays
Kinesthetic
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Nepali Winter Holiday Food

Background

Informant: S.S. - a current Senior in college in Indiana, originally from Nepal.

Context

S.S. entire family still resides in Nepal and he always felt very connected to his heritage through food and by cooking the traditional meals from his home country. The collector has personally enjoyed S.S. meals and has observed the performance of Nepali culture and heritage while cooking with S.S. When prompted about special holiday meals or dishes in Nepal, the informant shared this which I have transcribed below:

Main Piece

“So we eat something called Kwati which is like a soup/stew. And it’s made out of 9 different beans- black eyed peas, cow peas, black lentils, chickpeas, adzuki, fava beans, soybeans, Mung dal, green peas. They’re all soaked before and cooked for an hour and a half along with garlic and ginger paste. We usually add momos to the soup too which are Nepali dumplings. And you can eat this anytime, especially in winter because of its high protein value and health benefits but during the holiday of Gun Punhi (Goon Poon-he) we make it and it’s a delicacy too. We add a tempering oil to it after it’s done cooking, which is basically heated oil or ghee and you quickly fry ajwain (carom seeds) and pour the mix into the kwati. So in my family and Newari culture, when the soul is served, before eating we have to look at/for our reflection in the soup and then only we can begin to eat it. This is like a ritual significance to show that eating this cleanses your soul and also rids your body of negative energy but it’s also very healthy so a way to tackle the winter.

Thoughts

From my relationship with the informant, I have learned that food is incredibly important in Nepali culture and that Nepalese people feel very connected to the idea of the clarity and pureness of their soul through the food that they create and consume. Much of the food made in Nepali requires a deep understanding of the rituals of cooking, meaning that each step in the making of the dish is specific and has a purpose. For example, the washing of rice multiple times prior to boiling it, from S.S. telling, serves a dual purpose. One is obviously the practical need to wash the rise of dirt before preparing it, but also the idea that cleaning the rice is important for the body and how the body receives it. Often, there are very specific steps and timing involved in the preparation of the meal, adding things at certain times and this requires a very intricate knowledge of the culture and the meaning behind each step from a spiritual understanding.

Legends
Narrative

Missing Prime Minster in Australia

Background

Informant: R.P. Italian-Australian Male, 28 years old

Location: Sydney, Australia

Context

Told to me by a 2nd generation Italian male, whose family immigrated to Australia from Italy and Naples a generation earlier. R.P. was born and raised in Australia and learned of this legend as a young boy playing with friends. The main piece/urban legend itself is based on an event that actually occured in the late sixties, however the legend deviated from the official telling of Harold Holt’s fate by speculating why he may have disappeared. I have summarized the legend below:

Main Piece

In the sixties, there was a Prime Minister, Harold Holt, that was known for being athletic, but a little outlandish. He had been the Prime Minster of Australia for a short time and people were generally okay with him, from what R.P. remembers in the story. At some point, the Prime Minster was swimming in the sea in the region of Victoria. He called out to the press and reporters that had gathered to photograph him “watch how deep I can go!” He then swam directly way from the shore where the reporters were waiting, he kept swimming until everyone lost sight of him. He never came back. He mysteriously vanished into thin air. They sent out search parties to look for him but never found him or any remains. It stunned the country because no one could understand how this man went missing when there were so many witnesses. Some speculate that he was kidnapped while in the open ocean by communists. Some say that he was caught in a riptide and couldn’t escape. Others say that he purposefully went missing to avoid the responsibilities of being Prime Minster. In the end, no one knows what happened, and his body was never found.

Thoughts

When asked about his opinion on why the Prime Minister went missing, R.P. replied that though it’s unlikely, he thinks that the Prime Minster purposefully went missing for some unexplained reason. From his perspective, and based on what he’s heard from members in his family, it may not have been an incredibly unexpected thing for Harold Holt to do. We discussed why some people may believe that Holt was actually kidnapped. R.P. posited that it was likely due to the political tension of the times. There were many reasons in that time period for controversies to spread, and due to the nature of the disappearance, it was easy for people to create conjecture and rumors about the situation. R.P. also offered clarification about the cultural reasons for why this was a particularly popular topic of debate. Because Australia is a relatively removed, yet developed country, certain types of stories will dominated the media cycle for an extended period of time. Because overall, it is a safer country when compared to America, stories about disappearances or other mysteries capture the public and become massive points of discussion, news is often privy to “overreaction” from the public in R.P.’s opinion. It is interesting to me, that in times of political tension, there are often public reactions to events that play on the perception of the event, rather than the practical elements. I liken the debate around Holt’s disappearance to some of the conspiracy theories of the sixties in America, in which distrust infused daily life to the point where people developed many controversial explanations for certain occurrences.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Protection

Santo Toribio Romo and Protection

Background

Informant: A.G.  22 years old current senior in undergrad at USC, third generation from Honduras/Mexico

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Context

A.G. learned this story from his mother who had friends that had crossed the border into the United States from Mexico. Given that Catholicism is a popular religion in that region, many people look to the patron saints for guidance in times of confusion or fear. The saint, Toribio Romo, has become one that immigrants pray to for assistance while crossing the boarder, and has become a widely known figure in the Mexican domination of religion as a result. I have transcribed A.G.’s telling of the story below:

Main Piece

“Before my mom’s friend crossed the border from Mexico to the United States, he did a lot of preparation and praying for the trip. He also talked to a lot of my friends about people they knew that had gone and arrived safely and one of them told him a story about the Santo Toribio Romo. His friend’s  family had traveled across the boarder with another group of their friends. They traveled throughout the day and the night and only stopped when it was necessary but one day, they got lost and then ran out of food and water for a couple of days. They kept walking but had no idea which way to go. As they were walking tough, one of the people in the group said that he saw an oasis and a man who looked like a priest standing next to it telling them to go where he was. Everyone figured that the man was hallucinating from the desert, but they all followed him and hoped it was the way to go. When they went towards the oasis direction, they found out it was the right way to go and eventually made it to the United States. When they all arrived and settled down, the man who claimed to have seen the oasis called his wife and told her what he saw. She told him that it was because she prayed for Santo Toribio Romo to guide them and he was the one who appeared to them near the oasis.”

Thoughts

This story impacted A.G. in its general message of family and the strength of family ties, even in times of separation and turbulence. The initial fear that is experienced when a family must separate in order to immigrate is captured in the story itself, but also the strength and love that is expressed, especially by those that are not making the initial journey with their family. A.G. remarked that the story gave him hope, because to him it illustrated the importance of having family and people who care about you to pray for you and be there for you when you need them, even if they can’t be physically present. It also meant a lot to him, given that his family had experienced something similar and he felt a particular cultural tie to the experience.

There are many stories and variations of stories in which a saint or a guardian angel comes down and intervenes of behalf of the believer and to their benefit. I find that these stories, and belief in them serve the purpose of both inspiring hope, and in validating the religion and the existence of supernatural or other-wordy occurrences that are related to Christianity. Stories like this are important for the morale of people in difficult times, as they can offer a glimmer in an otherwise incredibly difficult situation, yet they still benefit the religion overall if people experience or hear of experiences related to saints.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative

The Legend of El cucuy

Background

Informant: A.G.  22 years old current senior in undergrad at USC, third generation from Honduras/Mexico

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Context

A.G.’s family is originally from South America, namely Mexico and Honduras. His family immigrated to the US when his mother was a child and have strong ties to their heritage, tradition and culture back in their homeland. Many of the stories and traditions that A.G. knows have been passed down from generation to generation, and instill a cultural and familial understanding in the younger generations. The Legend of El cucuy is one such piece of folklore, that is told to young children to scare them into behaving appropriately and being obedient. The story itself has many parallels to ones like La Llorona, or other similar ghost stories that are based around children. A.G. initially heard this story from his uncle, who learned it from his mother, whom would tell him this legend at night when he was a young boy. I have transcribed his telling below:

Main Piece

“My uncle told me that his mother, my abuela, would tell him to behave or the cucuy would get him. Cucuy is like a small, bat eared, hair monster that has huge red eyes and it would kidnap you if you did something bad or misbehaved. He said this his mom would always tell him to go to sleep on time, to behave, never doing anything bad by anybody else and to listen and respect her, which was the most important. If he didn’t behave properly, the cucuy would come and take him into the night. Some of his friends would tell him that when they were up past their bedtime or sneaking something, they would hear screeching or suddenly see red eyes in the bushes. Whenever that happened, someone would be missing the next day. To this day he says he’s still scared of it, especially if he goes back to Mexico”

Thoughts

El cucuy from Mexico that has long been known by the Mexican people and a lot of latin americans. It has traveled to the United States and spread at a tremendous rate. The legend is reminiscent of La Llorona or the American boogeyman due to the similar roles that the stories play; to scare kids into staying in their beds and not misbehaving. When asked about whether this story was relevant when he was a child, A.G. noted that while he was aware of it, it wasn’t told to him in the same way that it was told to his uncle. For A.G. he learned it more as a reference to his culture, and less as a cautionary tale used to make children behave. He also noted that in his uncle’s telling of the story, he naturally began acting out the legend, and made it sound ominous as if he was reciting it to some unruly children and really trying to convince them of El cucuy’s existence. Apparently, there is still superstition and belief in this creature, much the same way that there is belief in Ll Llorona.

It was interesting to me to hear how similar this legend is to other and the role that these legends play specifically when related to children. In the folklore course with Tok Thompson, there has been discussions about the way that folklore is used to teach children about social and cultural norms, and how to behave. It seems that in this case, the myth of El cucuy’s purpose is directly related to scaring children into acting appropriately, in the same way that Cinderella informs them of gender norms. Belief in the legend also prompts real changes in behavior and of perception, for example when a child does act out of turn and “sees” El cucuy in the bush, someone goes missing. This then strengthens in the “validity” of the legend and further impacts the cultural behavior around it.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

Annie Palmer of Rose Hall

Background

Informant: R.R. – 19 year old Jamaican female, currently in her first year of college

Context

R.R. is originally from Jamaica and came to the US when she was 15 to study at a Boarding School in upstate New York. When prompted about any folklore she knew that was specific to Jamaica, she immediately began telling me about the ghost of the “White Witch,” Annie Palmer. She mentioned that it’s a very popular story among Jamaicans, but mostly because the story is used as a tourist attraction. I have transcribed R.R.‘s telling of the legend below.

Main Piece

R.R: “Annie Palmer was the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s a Jamaican ghost story. The history behind her is true but the people who raised her taught her voodoo, some shit went down and they think she still haunts the house. Apparently she did white and black magic and was super crazy. She used to sacrifice animals and use slaves too. She would take the male slaves and have sex with them, but also physically beat them and take their blood. She even killed her husband who owned the house and took all of his money. But then this black slave wizard, Takoo then murdered her with witchcraft and now her spirit haunts the house forever.”

Z.R: “And where did you first hear the story of Annie Palmer?”

R.R: “Just growing up as a kid, it’s a tourist attraction. They do tours there and tell the story.”

Thoughts

This piece represents an example of folklore that has arisen and developed from material that was originally canonized through literature. While a widely told and known story in Jamaica, it was found that many aspects of the tale were actually lifted from 1929 novel, The White Witch of Rosehall, written by Herbet G de Lisser. The property of Whitehall and the folklore behind it serves as a major tourist attraction, and therefore benefits from the creation and belief of the folklore that is derived from the original novel. This is related to our class discussions about the nature of cultural tourism and that there are often times when aspects of a culture are elaborated or even exaggerated for the benefit of the tourism industry. It is interesting that a website that functions to give information about popular tourist sites in Jamaica actually notes that the folk legend itself is not based on real events. Other similar versions of this story appear in New Orleans folklore regarding witches, specifically white witches that were the mistresses of a plantation or manor. The most famous was Madam LaLaurie who apparently also took male slaves as lovers and tortured them, bathing in their blood and other monstrous acts. Perhaps the emergence of the legend of Annie Palmer from literature represents a kind of cultural commentary on the nature of slave owners, specifically white, female slave owners and their cultural impact during the time.

Legends
Magic
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Menstrual Blood in the Food

Background

Location: Tarzana, CA

Informant: M.S. - Black, female hairstylist in her late 20’s, born and raised in Los Angeles but has family in New Orleans, LA

Context

Overheard in a hair salon in Tarzana, California. M.S. is a stylist that was working at the salon, speaking to her client. Told in the context of Louisiana witchcraft. The collector has heard this piece of folklore told many times before this encounter.

The Bayous of Louisiana are well known to the locals for being places of witchcraft practice and voodoo. Many local wives-tales revolve around the idea of this witchcraft having real effects. I have summarized the telling in my own words below

 Main Piece

The tale goes that if a woman wishes to “keep” a man, or ensure that she and the man will stay together romantically, she should put her menstrual blood in his food while she is cooking and serve it to him. This will create a mystical and unbreakable bond that influences the man to stay as her partner.

Thoughts

I have personally heard this wives tale told to me from members of my family that still reside in Louisiana. The folklore itself points to both an interest in Louisiana witchcraft and the belief that those methods can be employed by common folk to help them achieve certain goals, specifically when relating to other people and controlling them through supernatural means.  Stories like this circulate and are based in areas of Louisiana that are known for witchcraft, specifically Black, female witchcraft. The informant seemed to tell the story as though she believed there was some merit to the idea of witchcraft, as she expressed that it would be foolish to attempt witchcraft as it could have dangerous effects on the “caster.” It is a common held belief in Louisiana that witchcraft is not to be trusted and should be treated with caution.

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