Author Archive
Festival
Game
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tug-of-War

Text:  KT: We have a giant tug-of-war, like literally a million people pulling at a single rope at a time. It happens every year, just for fun.

AT: To symbolize what, were you celebrating something?

KT: No idea, maybe we were. But every year there is a rope that is about 3 meters in diameter, and there are offsets of ropes that pull out. And it’s literally a million people, and they shut down the biggest freeway on the island and they see which side wins. And you can just pick whatever side you want. There’s people climbing on the ropes and shouting, it just gets really crazy.

AT: Does someone usually win?

KT: Oh yeah, every time. And there’s usually like three deaths every year. They just don’t give a shit. Five-year-old me was terrified, it’s very dangerous.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him. In this case, the practice scared him. 

Interpretation: KT doesn’t remember the specifics of this festival due to his young age during the time of his participation. He remembers the practices of it, not the festival’s purpose, which is understandable for a child. KT did a good job of providing a primary account of the methodology that goes along with fighting over the largest ropes in the world. Though he thought the people of Okinawa were participating in this large-scale game just for fun, the festival has actually been around for hundreds of years. Tugs-of-war were once held throughout the island to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and to pray for rain. Everyone in the community took part in these rituals symbolizing Okinawa’s spirit of yuimaaru (cooperation). It can be assumed that the festival isn’t as important to the harvest as it used to be, but it still exists as a symbol of Okinawan community.

 

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Okinawa Gargoyles

Text: We had gargoyles in front of every house in Okinawa because people claimed that they were the strongest animals and that without them guarding your house, spirits could get in.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him.

Interpretation: The objects that KT is referring to are called shisa, statues of mythical creatures that are a crosses between lions and dogs. These stone guardians often found placed in pairs outside an area’s entrance and are used to ward off evil spirits. A majority of Okinawan households use the shisa to protect their homes, the gargoyles therefore being a significant part of Okinawan tradition, culture, and identity. However, this type of gargoyle is not specific to Okinawa, but can be seen throughout East Asia. Multiplicity and variations can be seen in the specific designs of the figures. Whether or not the male or female statue sports an open or closed mouth can communicate different functions of the shisa. For example, if the female’s mouth is open, it communicates that she is in charge of spreading goodness. If her mouth is closed, she is in charge of keeping the goodness in the home of who she protects.

 

Folk speech
Riddle

Friday Riddle

Text: Question: A man goes to town on Friday. He stays for three days, then leaves on Friday. How is this possible?

Answer: The horse’s name is Friday.

Context: AA is a student at the University of Southern California studying Business. During the summers when she was in high school, she used to be a camp counselor. People used to tell her this riddle at school when she was a kid. When she went to work as a camp counselor, the kids were telling me this riddle, and it reminded her of being a kid. The following folkloric performance took place in class.

Interpretation: Riddles are not as big in US compared to other parts of the world, and they tend to be seen as an exclusively kid genre. In some societies around the world, riddles can be held in high regard. In some places, for example, you can substitute physical fighting with a riddle contes, or use riddles in part of a marriage ceremonies as a way to test your future son-in-law. The above example of a riddle, however, is mostly known among children, as the way that AA was reintroduced to the riddle at camp is explained above. Riddles, at times, are not popular among adults in our society because adults tend to think our language is fixed, when kids are more flexible to the idea of thinking outside the box. This riddle holds true to providing the essential function of testing the bounds of language capabilities.

AA’s riddle is considered a true riddle. True riddles propose a challenge, and you should be able to follow the clues to reach the answer. Traditional questions and answer structure is employed, as well as specific phrasing along the lines of, “When is A not A?” or “When is A B?” They propose a solution to a seemingly impossible question and generate an apparent “magical transformation” of the language. In terms of the riddle above, if thinking inside the box, it is impossible to enter and leave town on the same day of the week without only staying 1 day or all 7 days (or multiples thereof). However, when considering that prepositions such as “on” can indicate varied states, and that the proper noun “Friday” can be more than just a day of the week, and answer is discovered and the riddle is solved.

Childhood
Musical

Lakdi Ki Kathi

Text: RB: Okay, so it goes like this. It’s in Hindi by the way. Okay, so it goes,

“lakadi ki kaathi kaathi pe ghoda

ghode ki dum pe jo maara hathauda

dauda dauda dauda ghoda dum utha ke dauda”

AT: What does that translate to?

RB: So what it means is that there’s a cart made of sticks, yeah, the cart is made of sticks. The cart is attached to a horse and someone hits the horse’s behind. And the horse runs. And he just runs with a lot of might. Like very fast, that’s it.

AT: Okay, is that supposed to have a special meaning or something? Who taught it to you?

RB: (laughing) I don’t know. I don’t think so, I think it’s a children’s rhyme literally just because everything rhymes.

Context: RB is an Indian-American who lived in India during her pre-school years. She practices Jainism, one of the lesser-known religions of India. She frequently visits returns to India to visit relatives and continues to practice her faith and India’s festivals with other Indian-Americans in Texas. She learned the children’s rhyme above from her parents, and it frequently gets stuck in her head. This interaction took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break.

Interpretation: This children’s rhyme, according to RB, has little in terms of a moral lesson. Other than teaching cause and effect, the rhyme doesn’t seem to go beyond the surface level of singing about a horse riding around and around and around. However, RB bright up the fact that everything happens to rhyme perfectly in this song, suggesting that the song may be the way that it is simply because of its rhyming characteristics. This is not unlike some rhymes in english whose structure and word choice are what makes it beneficial to children, not it’s storyline. For example, “Sally sells seashells by the sea shore” isn’t meant to teach people about the dedication of small businesses. Rather, it exists to help children navigate the difficult world of language, achieving a level of mastery with the help of a friendly rhyme.

Most folklore specifically associated with children has to do with teaching some sort of lesson. In this way, the rhyming function is used to help engage children in confusing syntax and diction to help them better understand their language, still teaching them something, just not a message of morality derived from a tale.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Whistling At Night in Japan

Text: You’re  not allowed to whistle at night because you will awaken spirits that will be drawn to your whistling. I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble with that one.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him.

Interpretation: Superstitions generally entail material that has not been accepted by society/science, but this does not necessarily mean that these practices don’t work.  In the case of the example above, the superstition against whistling at night seems to come from the belief that drawing unnecessary attention to yourself  generally yields unfavorable/unwanted results. At its core, the principle is not unreasonable. KT cited the unwanted thing that would draw near as spirits, but in other parts of Japan, snake attacks, robberies, and abductions are also cited as things that will appear as a result of whistling at night. Essentially, you are disturbing the quiet, and therefore drawing dangerous attention to yourself.

It is important to note that this superstition was largely a result of the silent of the countryside that encompassed most of Japan. However, due to effects of the modernization of Japan and the proliferation of machinery, lights, and noise that now occupies the nighttime air, it is likely to conclude that this superstition will evolve or change completely because of the fact that whistling at night no longer does much in the way of disturbing the normal atmosphere of the night. The principle of avoiding unnecessary attention, which still remains sound in logic, may change to be expressed in different way, possibly a different superstition.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Foodways
Material
Protection

Chopsticks and Rice

Text: So you’re never supposed to stick chopsticks upright in rice. In other words, you can’t just stab the rice because the rice symbolizes the grave.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him.

Interpretation: It is interesting how KT remembers folklore from his childhood that was either restrictionary (such as this one), a belief/practice that scared him, or both. The act of sticking chopsticks in upright in rice is a taboo found in other Asian countries such as China. The reason it is disrespectful is because it reminds people of funerals and is supposed to bring bad luck. this is because at Japanese funerals, a bowl of rice is displayed with two chopsticks standing vertically in the center. When chopsticks are straight upright in a bowl, it’s unlucky. If done in public, you would garner dirty looks as it is bad manners, not necessarily a horrible, unforgivable offense.

Legends
Narrative

Escape From Alcatraz

Text: JC: So there’s an ongoing FBI investigation into the escape of these three guys even though it happened years ago. And there’s never been conclusive proof found about anything like how they escaped, did they escape, or did they die in the water of the bay. Because people have tried to study what the tides may have been like that night, and have said they they could have been swept out into the ocean. Or, that the tide could have taken them to Angel Island, which is this island in the middle of the bay. And so people wonder if they could have escaped by making it to that island, and then somehow survived, and then gotten back onto the mainland. I don’t know there’s a lot of speculation surrounding Alcatraz in particular and I think because it’s part of the history of our region and a really famous mystery, coupled with the fact that the FBI has spent decades investigating in it and has never found anything else out.

AT: How many versions have you heard of what happened

JC: I’ve heard that they died in the water and got swept out to see, I’ve heard that they have escaped onto an island, I’ve heard that they swam to San Francisco and escaped there…

AT: Have you ever heard that they have been sending postcards to their families from other places?

JC: No, I’ve never heard that.

AT: Oh really, that’s the version that I heard. Anyways, what do you personally think happened?

JC: I think they escaped.

Context: JC is a 19 year old history major at the University of Southern California. A resident of Walnut Creek, California near San Francisco and an adamant history buff, JC is well versed in a lot of local legend surrounding his famous and historically colorful place of origin. The exchange above took place over coffee when I asked JC if he knew and slang from the Bay Area. He gave me legends instead.

Interpretation: I like the exchange above because it not only discussed the various folklore surrounding the three escaped inmates from Alcatraz without bias, but it even contained an additional folkloric exchange in which JC and I swapped stories. Alcatraz is interesting because, due to the amount of press coverage and movies made based off of the famous escape, people often forget that nobody is actually sure of anything that took place of the night of the alleged escape other than the fact that there was an escape attempt. Any other information about the escape treated as fact is not fact at all, rather folklore that speculates what could have happened.

This legend is another example of a local legend, for it is tied to Alcatraz itself. It also fits the spirit of a legend extremely well due to the fact that various versions of what actually happened all have a questionable truth value, one of a combination of the possibilities has a strong chance of being proven valid is the FBI investigation continues. Additionally, it is easy to see how the legend of the escape from Alcatraz has taken on a mind of its own, for people often hold a strong opinion of what happened to the prisoners without any evidence to back it up. This is another example of the way that folklore works, often selecting the value of a particular story based off of factors such as order of hearing the specific recounting or who specifically told them about which recounting and choosing based off their relationships to the people.

Legends

The Albino Squirrel

Text: RB: So, squirrels are kind of famous on the UT campus because they try to get as close to you as possible, they will eat out of your hands, and stop in front of cars and dare people to run them over. Basically they are so used to people that they’ve gone crazy. But there is one albino squirrel, the only one in all of UT. And if you see the albino squirrel right before you take a test, you’re gonna get 100% on that test. Or if you see it right before finals week, you’ll pass all your finals.

AT: Have you ever seen this squirrel?

RB: I’ve never seen the squirrel. It’s really sad.

Context: RB is a freshman at the University of Texas studying aerospace engineering. During orientation, she heard a lot of folklore about the campus, including the piece above. The stories told to her at orientation continue to be confirmed and retold during interactions with current students. The interaction above took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break from our respective universities, swapping campus legends.

Interpretation: This legend is interesting because is encompasses a lot of possible distinctions that exist when examining legends. For one, the albino squirrel itself is a legendary creature that serves as an omen of good fortune and engages with themes of luck. Also, the legend described above can be categorized as a local legend, for it is situated in one spot; the University of Texas at Austin’s campus. Additionally, though the legend is still a legend in that its truth value remains questionable, (the effectiveness of said squirrel sighting can not be confirmed by the informant) the existence of an albino squirrel in a place famous for the propagation of squirrels does not seem too far-fetched.

I also find it interesting that the folk beliefs associated with this legend/legendary creature correlate so strongly with things related to specifically college campuses such as good grades and squirrels. UT serves as the perfect breeding ground for this legend, regardless of whether or not if it is backed up by actual sightings. It would be very easy to believe. Lastly, the use of magic is often employed in situations where people feel a lack of control. The fact that merely laying eyes of this squirrel will magically gift you with an A+ seems fitting in situations that involve test taking, where students often experience the sensation of a lack of control over their future.

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Navratri

TextRB: Navratri is an Indian Festival, it’s like celebrated in India. It happens every November, and I think you know, it’s like whenever I wear those really fancy dresses and I’m like, “I’m gonna go dance.” I feel like you know that. But anyways it’s basically just a celebration of dancing and fasting, like a celebration of life. And it’s really good cause what you do is you go to this big dance hall or whatever, and there’s this music, it’s called Garba music. And you can search it up, it’s like very traditional music. And you just dance all night to it. And it’s like a celebration of life. Traditionally, it celebrates three goddesses in Hinduism. It’s like Durga, Lakshmi, and one other goddess. But, it just marks the start of a new season basically. The most famous thing about it is the dance style. So, Garba is a very famous dance style, it’s like folk dancing. But anyone can learn how to do it because it’s just repetitive steps in a circle over and over again. But that’s my favorite dance ever.

AT: Who taught it to you?

RB: My parents. My parents and my grandparents taught it to me. And sometimes they conform the dance style into competitions. People have like competitions with this style now, or people just do it for fun at like any event. It’s just a very big community thing in India. Especially if you’re, like, my type of Indian. Like, I’m Gujarati, which is like from the state Gujarat in India. And it’s originally from Gujarat. So if you see someone else from Gujarat you’re like, “Hey, Navratri, Garba…” It’s our thing. Oh, and my grandmother sewed my dress.

Context: RB is an Indian-American who lived in India during her pre-school years. She practices Jainism, one of the lesser-known religions of India. She frequently returns to India to visit relatives and continues to practice her faith and India’s festivals with other Indian-Americans in Texas. This interaction took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break.

Interpretation: Navratri is typically a nine day-long festival typically celebrated in honor of the divine feminine in India. Navratri is celebrated differently depending on where you are/are from in India, practices surrounding the festival existing in multiplicity and variation. RB mentioned that it was a time of fasting, while others who participate in Navratri see it as a time of feasting. While the pattern varies somewhat by region, generally the first third of the festival focuses on aspects of the goddess Durga, the second third on the goddess Lakshmi, and the final third on the goddess Sarasvati. RB mentioned the first two of these goddesses while failing to remember the third.

RB chose to share this festival with me due to the mere fact that it is her favorite. She holds it special because of the fact that it is specific to the region in India from which her family is from, and the fact that Garba dancing is a point of pride and community that her family and the people from Gujarat share.

For another interpretation of this festival, please see p. 2416-2419 of Stany Pinto’s “Communalisation of Tribals in South Gujarat” (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 39)

general
Legends
Narrative

Mount Diablo

Text: JC: The there’s a mountain near where I live called Mount Diablo, and there’s a story surrounding the mountain regarding how it got its name. Back in 1805, Spanish conquistadores were pursuing the Volvon tribe, or anybody who was resisting missionization. So the tribe entered a thicket, and they the spaniards cornered them. And the Spanish word for thicket is “monte.”

AT: Wait, what’s a thicket?

JC: A thicket is, I don’t know, trees and bushes and stuff, right?

AT: Ah, okay.

JC: And so the Spanish thought that they cornered the Volvon there, and that they were gonna capture them, but the tribe escaped in the middle of the night. So the story is that the spaniards named the it “monte del diablo,” or “thicket of the devil”, because of the native people escaping them. But then, the word “monte” got mistranslated by Americans into “mount diablo,” instead of thicket, because they did not know what “monte” meant. And so the name still lasts today. Even after that, people continued to make up stories about how the mountain got its name, because if you look at a picture of it, people are like, “Oh its peaks are devil horns,” or, “That’s where native people did Satanic rituals.” But none of that is true. And in the 1900s there were all of these newspaper articles speculating how the mountain got its name, but it’s really just because of that original event.

AT: Well is it possible that even that could have been made up?

JC: Totally, because the thing is, there is no primary documentation of it, so most of the information has been orally transferred. The reason I know about it is cause it’s right by my house.

Context: JC is a 19 year old history major at the University of Southern California. A resident of Walnut Creek, California near San Francisco and an adamant history buff, JC is well versed in a lot of local legend surrounding his famous and historically colorful place of origin. The exchange above took place over coffee when I asked JC if he knew and slang from the Bay Area. He gave me legends instead.

Interpretation: I think that this legend is significant due to the fact that it not only engages with the situations regarding the name of a place, but also the translation of a words across three different languages. Firstly, the fuzzy origin of the name of the actual place shows how easily different influences such as topographical features (devil horns), convincing oral tradition (the thicket story), and possibly even predisposed racists views (satanic rituals) can have on the understanding and belief of a place and its history. Additionally, this is a local legend tied to this one specific mountain. So, I find it even more interesting that part of the legend holds this mountain and the confusion around it solely responsible for the supposed mistranslation of monte into mountain instead of thicket. In this way, the “name origin” nature of the folklore surrounding the mountain provided a nexus for other “language folklore” of a similar topic.

Also, I like how at the beginning of this exchange, JC presented his version of the legend as the sole story associated with Mount Diablo that held any validity, only later admitting that other stories surrounding the site existed. Even so, he quickly dismissed them as rubbish. Only when I asked for proof that he had as to why his version was the most valid did he admit that there was no way to actually know for sure due to the lack of evidence. This folkloric exchange therefore provided an example of the way that people treat the folklore that they receive, and though the medium exists in multiplicity and variation, this demonstrated how people tend to hold the version that they heard first as the absolute truth.

For another version of this legend, please see p. 457-470 of Bev Ortiz’s “Mount Diablo as Myth and Reality: An Indian History Convoluted.” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 13 (1989)

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