Author Archive
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Seven Fishes – Telugu Bedtime Story

“Once upon a time, there was a king who had seven sons. One day, the seven princes went out hunting; each of the princes caught one fish and laid them out on the ground to dry. However, all but one fish dried. The king as the fish:

‘Fish, why did you not dry?’

The fish said to the king: ‘King, there is hay on the ground so I could not dry.

The king asked the grass: ‘Hay, why are you still on the ground?’

The grass replied: ‘The cow did not eat me.’

The king asked the cow: ‘Cow, why did you not eat the hay?’

The cow replied: ‘The farmer did not feed me the hay.’

The king asked the farmer: ‘Farmer, why did you not feed the cow hay?’

The farmer replied: ‘My mother did not feed me today.’

The king asked the farmer’s mother: ‘Mother, why did you not feed your son the farmer?

The mother replied: ‘The little baby was crying, so I didn’t feed the farmer.’

The  king asked the little baby: ‘Why were you crying?’

The baby replied: ‘The ant bit me.’

The king asked the ant: ‘Ant, why did you bite the baby?

The ant replied: ‘If the baby stick her finger in my home, will I not bite her?’

Context: This tale is a classic Telugu bedtime story for children that I have heard many times growing up. The informant, GH, re-told me a bedtime story on a stressful night, which was a story that she herself had heard when she was a child. GH always remembers her mother and her own childhood whenever she tells the story to my sister and I, and feels more connected with her family by passing down this family story to the next generation. GH thinks that bedtime stories are an important part of childhood–not only to help the parents put their rowdy kids to sleep–but also to develop the children’s understanding of their culture and cultivate interest in reading. She believes that bedtime stories are very important in producing a love for stories, story-telling, and reading in children, which is crucial in a child’s development. Along with this, GH believes that bedtime stories are important for creating a bond between parents and their child.

Analysis: This story has the components of common bedtime stories, such as various animals, kings, and princes. Along with this, it reflects the agrarian society present in much of Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state in which most Telugu people live. The moral of the story also reflects the idea that even a small being, in this case an ant, is capable of creating a big change. In India, most of society is either working class or in poverty, so the moral is representative of the power of the “little man”. The story explains how even the small players can create a chain effect that impacts many different people. Many Indian folktales usually involve how some sort of smart, small animal–such as a crow–vanquishing a large, dumb animal such as a lion. The smart small animals uses their intelligence to outsmart a brawny animal that is trying to overpower them. While the story of seven fishes does not necessarily follow a small animal vanquishing a larger animal, but the ant’s anger towards having his home destroyed leads to a pretty large effect that impacts many members of the society, even going all the way up to the princes of the land.

Along with this, many Indian stories will show that kings that communicate with their subjects and the people in their kingdom will be the most successful and noble rulers. While the role and personality of the king is not explicitly described in this particular story, the king was able to find out the reason why his son’s fish had not dried because he had a good relationship with his subjects–and interestingly, the animals–of his kingdom. If he did not have this relationship, he would not have been able to find the cause of his problem and probably would have had to use a fear factor to get the answers that he wanted. This is an important commentary on the societal hierarchy that is present in India. In Indian society, when the ruler or monarch of a specific region is disrespectful of the common folk, regardless of caste or religion, then it it will be difficult to have a good rapport with them.

There are also particular folklore techniques used in this story that enable those performing it to remember it with ease. Even as a child, I was able to know the story and know exactly what would happen next because of the format and progression of the story. The repetition of the flow, along with cause-and-effect style allow the story to be easily recalled and performed–especially over the various children’s sleepless nights. For bedtime stories especially, the performer of the story needs to be able to recall properly; if the story-teller beings to forget what happens, then the audience will get confused or upset that the story is not being told “correctly.”

This story has significance for GH and myself as this story has been passed down the generations of our family. The story is also one that is specific to the region from which GH is from, so knowing this story is a way to define the region from which the individual is. I had heard this story on many nights before bed, so know whenever my family or I hear the story, we immediately feel calm–or even sleepy–even if it is the middle of the day.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Serbian Derogatory Roma Joke

“So a Roma woman, a gypsy woman, goes to the gynecologist, and the gynecologist has his gloves on. He notices that his gloves are ripped and notices that his wedding ring has fallen into the gypsy woman’s vagina, So he goes and he looks around and then sticks his head in, and then he sticks his whole body in, and he he is walking around in her vagina. And he sees another man in there who seems to be looking for something. He says to the man, “Hey I lost my ring, have you seen my ring?” And the other man says to him, “No, have you seen my horses?”

Context: This informant, SM, is half-Serbian and was telling my friends and I about a specifically vulgar and racist joke that she has heard other Serbian folks tell her. She explains that the Roma people are all over Europe and some parts of Asia, and are nomadic people. They are known as “gypsy” people, which is a derogatory term as they do not like being called as such. Serbians do not have a positive outlook on the Roma people, as they are seen as beggars and pickpockets. SM explains that sometimes they [gypsies] even use their children to get sympathy and get more money. The stereotype that is used by this joke is that Roma women have a lot of children, hence the size of the woman’s genitals in the story. The joke stuck with SM because of how derogatory and misogynistic it was. SM does not agree with this derogatory speech towards this specific ethnic group, and whenever telling the joke she prefaces by stating her own views towards the joke.

Analysis: Jokes, especially crude ones, are incredibly telling and descriptive of the culture from which the joke emerged. Jokes are a reflection of the things that a particular culture find humorous or witty, or can be a way to allow the persistence of certain stereotypes and essentially make fun of them. For example, the ample number of “blonde” jokes that are basically just jokes about how dumb blonde people–specifically women–are. These jokes allowed the spread of this stereotype across various American communities, leaving many blonde people the burden of having to prove their intelligence–even though none of this is rooted in fact. In this case, the Roma people, and the Roma women are being put down in a racist way, and is a reflection of certain Serbian communities’ views on the ethnic group. The experiences and observations of the Roma People by the Serbian society have influenced the way that they perceive these people. These stereotypes bleed into their jokes as a way to connect with the rest of their community, despite its provocative nature.

Along with this, there is a specific demographic to whom we tell stereotypic jokes. SM would never repeat this joke in front of a Roma person, in fear of offending them or them thinking that she shared the views espoused by the joke. This shows that we alter the way that we share folklore based on the context and the audience.

Customs
Earth cycle
Festival
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Holi – Hindu Festival

“So Holi is a Hindu festival, traditionally a religious festival, that kind of symbolizes the beginning of spring and the end of winter. It’s kind of like a fun festival where people kind of get together and meet people and have fun. It usually involves wearing white clothing and throwing vibrant, colored power at each other; there is usually a lot of music and street food involved as well.  However, in recent years, more people who aren’t Hindu have been participating, and it’s become more of a cultural thing that a lot of people celebrate rather than just a strictly religious Hindu celebration. This is kind of due to the fact that we throw colored powder at each other, and people see that as a lot of fun. So a lot more people have gotten involved, especially in the United States and other western countries, where they kind of do a similar thing where they throw colors at each other like Color Runs and such. So Holi has kind of moved to the rest of the world instead of just sticking in one culture.”

Context: The informant is an Indian American student. The informant was describing the spring festival Holi to her roommates following USC’s plan to have a Holi celebration on campus in order to explain exactly what it was. The roommates had heard of the holiday, but wanted to know about why the holiday was celebrated. As shown in the text, SV sees the festival as an easily transmutable tradition that can participated in by anyone, regardless of their culture, religion, or status.

Analysis: The spread of religious festivals and occasions to various regions of the world that may not know that religious backstory is reminiscent of a more secular shift by the ritual. The shift of the Holi festival to other areas of the world demonstrates the universal appeal of the customs associated with the festival. This is demonstrated by the adoption of throwing colored powder in the Color Run, a secular, non-Hindu activity. Having a particular aspect of a festival to be so widely loved allows many people to participate and increase awareness of respective holiday. This is evidenced in the fact that often the parts of each culture that members of other cultures will remember are associated with festivals or holidays. For example, when we think of American holidays, we think of Thanksgiving–which is quite appealing food-wise. This holiday is usually one that is inclusive, and many families will invite others to come and eat with them.

While some would think that this could be seen as cultural appropriation, this goes against the spirit of Holi. In India, where there is a strict socioeconomic hierarchy, Holi is one of the few days of the year where everybody, regardless of religion or caste can go into the streets and celebrate spring. It is an amazing festival that brings everyone together. Therefore, allowing other people–either non-Hindu or not Indians–to participate in Holi, demonstrates the openness of the festival.

Customs
Earth cycle
Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Willow Branches of Palm Sunday – Ukrainian Easter Tradition

“So a week before Easter–before and on Palm Sunday–we got to the church and bless willow branches. We tap the branches on each member of the family, and say, ‘the branch is hitting you, not me, and a week from today is Easter.’ After this, the willow branches are placed over the icons in the household.”

Context: The informant, TH, is a second-generation Ukrainian-American living in Rhode Island. She lives with her parents, along with her maternal grandparents. TH and I were discussing her Easter plans for this year, and she brought up how she had to go to church one week before the actual Easter date. I asked her why she was going to church, and she explained her Palm Sunday tradition that her and her family partake in. For TH, this ritual has importance because it is a very particular and specific religious custom that her family participates in, and they have been doing it for as long as she can remember. The tradition was also a fun one according to TH due to the fact that she and her siblings would chase each other around their house and hit each other with the branches, much to their parents’ chagrin.

Analysis: Religious traditions vary among various different groups and factions within each religion. Not every Christian participates in the same particular traditions that pertain to each major holiday, though most Christians do partake in Easter celebrations. For example, the act of blessing willow branches and placing them over the icons in the house is not something that Roman Catholics would partake in, but rather is quite specific to Eastern European Orthodox observers. There is a very important reason for this disparity between how Christians celebrate Palm Sunday in western Europe or the Middle East and eastern European factions will celebrate the holiday. Palm Sunday is supposed to mark the day that Jesus Christ, the son of God, returns to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover following his visit to Bethany–at least this is how it was written in the Bible. Upon his return, Jesus’s apostles and supporters laid their cloaks and palm branches down to show their faith. Palm Sunday celebrations around the world usually involve blessing palm branches and building crucifixes out of the plant to commemorate the triumphant return of Jesus Christ. However, in Eastern Europe, it is difficult to obtain palm branches so far north, so the tradition was altered slightly, by replacing palm branches with willow, or more specifically pussy willow. This plant is endemic to northern Europe, so it was easier to use it.

Another important aspect of this religious tradition is the way that children remember the tradition. For TH, the tradition was less about the religious significance–while that was important–but more about the memories she had involving the custom. It was something fun that she and her sibling would look forward to and it brought them joy during a strictly religious and stoic festival.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative

Why Pineapples have Eyes – Filipino Legend

“Once upon a time, there was a hardworking woman who lived with her daughter, Pina. They were quite poor, and lived in a hut in a village. The mother worked all day and night in order to make a living for her and her daughter, but Pina never helped her mother with anything. The daughter was extremely lazy and spoiled and only played in the backyard. And whenever her mother tried to get her to do some errands, Pina always made some excuse that she could not find the thing that she needed to do it. Because of this, her mother just ends up doing the work herself.

The mother fell ill one day, so she called out to her daughter to make her some food, porridge. The girl did not listen to her and continued to play. The mother yelled again, and finally the girl stood up and headed into the kitchen. She asked her mother how to make the porridge, and her mother said that all she had to do was to put water in a pot with rice, boil it, and stir with a wooden spoon. Pina goes into the kitchen, and the mother can hear a lot of clanging and drawers banging, followed by the sound of the back door opening and closing. The mother called out to her daughter, asking Pina if she made the porridge. The daughter replies, saying she did not because she could not find the wooden spoon. The mother flies into a rage and says ‘I wish you had a thousand eyes so that you can find what it is you are looking for.’

The mother finally gets up and makes herself porridge. She cannot hear Pina playing anymore, and assumes that her lazy child had gone to her friends house. After this, she goes to bed. Days pass by, and she does not hear from or see Pina at all. She beings to think that her daughter ran away after what she said. When the mother recovered, she looked everywhere for Pina, and failed to locate her. She begins to regret the things she said to her daughter and is afraid that she will see Pina again.

One day, many months later, she is sweeping the backyard. She stumbles across a strange plant growing where her daughter used to play. She pulls it out of the ground and finds a yellow fruit that is covered in a thousand eyes. She realizes what she said to her daughter, and realized that this fruit was actually her daughter. To honor her daughter, she names this new plant Pina. The fruit began to grow everywhere and became popular around the world.”

Context: The informant, SP, is a half-Filipina American living in Rhode Island. SP was discussing various Filipino legends that aim to explain certain phenomena that are large part of Filipino culture. SP heared this legend from her mom, who is a Filipina immigrant. Her mother told her this legend when they were cutting pineapples, and it stayed with her as because it was so interesting to her. SP’s mother also commented on the fact the laziness of the daughter and how she got turned into a fruit because of it.

Analysis: This legend follows a lot of the various components and styles of folk belief. One of the important aspects of folk belief and legends specifically, is that it is a way to explain everyday phenomena. In this case, the legend aims to explain why pineapples have their famous “eye” appearance. Pineapples and other tropical fruits grow naturally in the warm climate of the Philippines, so it is understandable that folk belief will arise that involves an important part of Filipino culture. For example, there is a Native American legend that aims to give reason as to why bears do not have tails. Certain bear species are endemic to the western United States, so many indigenous Americans see these bears as having important spiritual and cultural significance, and thus many legends and myths have arisen. Certain phenomena that seem to be dissonant to the rest of nature are what is being explained by many folk beliefs and legends; they aim to bring order and explanation to an imperfect and confusing world.

Along with this, this legend also reflects the parenting style that many Filipino parents practice. Children are supposed to be extremely obedient and help their parents in any way that they can help to “repay” their parents for all they have done for them. In this case, the disobedient and lazy child causes a great inconvenience to her mother,  so she ended up being turned into a pineapple. This has a lot of significance for what disrespect towards one parents entails in the Philippines.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Itchy Palms – Ukrainian Superstition

“My grandmother tells me that if you have itchy palms, that means that someone will be at the door soon and you will need to shake their hand.”

Context: The informant, TH, is a second-generation Ukrainian-American. She lives with her Ukrainian immigrant grandparents, and tell my friends and I various slightly absurd and random superstitions that her grandmother reminds her of. For TH, she does not actually believe in this superstition, but regardless she still brings it up if she sees me itching my palms.

Analysis: This superstition contains many of the qualities that folk belief and superstitions contain. While most superstitions are somewhat confusing and irrational to people outside that culture, it is rooted in certain traditions and beliefs of the culture. In Ukrainian culture, the doorway and the threshold holds a special power; thus there are various superstitions involving doors. For example, you are not allowed to sit on a doorstep because the ashes of the family’s ancestors would be buried under the doorstep. While the informant did not actually know this backstory, there is some importance that is held for doorways in Ukrainian culture which is evidenced by this superstition.

On a side note, it is also interesting to see another sign superstition that involves itchy palms–the one that is more widely known in the U.S. is that itchy palms means that you receive some money soon. This is an interesting dichotomy, and shows the difference between the two cultures. For Americans, we look favorably upon money and see it as something we all want, while in Ukraine, itchy palms is sometime equated with having to shake hands with someone. This could be indicative of the power that the threshold holds, and also the Ukrainian value of hospitality and generosity. Many Ukrainian festivals and traditions are open to people of all cultures and faiths, and always feed their guests well.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Struwwelpeter – German Folktale to Frighten Children

“Struwwelpeter is the villain in the story, and is about a boy that does not want to cut his nails despite his parents advice, and he is warned of the villain/demon type figure–Struwwelpeter–who has curly blond hair, at least that is what he looked like in the book. He also had very, very long fingernails, and wore this sort of tunic outfit with pants.

So basically, if the young boy refused to cut his nails, his parents told him that Struwwelpeter would come. The boy refused to cut his nails, and Struwwelpeter came in the middle of the night. He cut off not only the boy’s nails but also the boy’s fingers, so he didn’t have any fingers.”

Context: The informant, ML, and myself were talking about the stories that we were told as children that would keep us in line. The informant, being of German descent told me this story that scared him as a child. Struwwelpeter is a German folktale. His mother was read this story as a child, and she used to be terrified by it. This story teaches a lesson in a very brutal, typically German way, according to ML. Most of the German children’s folktales are pretty gruesome, and follows the nature of German parental “advice-giving”. ML’s grandfather used to tell him that the way to get a child to not go near the stove was to hold one of their hands over the burners and possibly singe their hand a little bit, so that it would hurt and they would know that touching the stove in the future would hurt.

Analysis: I agree with ML’s insights as to the pattern this folktale follows. One of the most famous collections of German folklore was the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The stories, while still reminiscent of the tale circulating in German oral history, were “cleaned up”–removing violence and sex–to cater to a wider, and younger audience.For example, Rapunzel was supposed to be impregnated by the prince who visits her tower, but later editions of the Grimms removed this reference to sex, particularly the pre-marital kind. However, the tales from which the Grimm’s stories were derived from children’s folklore aimed to scare the youth into abiding by certain rules and obeying what their parents and society told them; in this case, you must cut your nails if you want do not want to be mangled by this terrifying demon figure.

Along with this, the context in which ML was taught this folk belief shows how folklore can change over time. The informant was told the story by his mother in a way that shows that she was told this story to scare her as a child, but she was not going to use the same story to scare her child. In this way, ML’s mother is no longer spreading this belief as something that the informant should be believing, but rather as a way to connect with her child. Folklore is shown as a way to connect various generations together through similar experiences; in this case, the reluctance for children to cut their nails is somewhat universal. For another version of this tale, see Spence, Robert, et al. Struwwelhitler A Nazi Story Book by Dr. Schrecklichkeit (Philip and Robert Spence). Autorenhaus-Verlag, 2014.

Customs
Game

Paper Fortune-Teller – An American Childhood Classic

“When I was in elementary school, my friends and I used to make this folded paper-contraption, kind of like origami, that was supposed to tell fortunes. Basically, you had to fold a standard piece of loose-leaf, like, 10 times. On each of the folds you would write numbers and colors, and then on the inside flaps, you would write some kind of fortune, like who you would marry or where you would live or what your job would be–or even all of the above.  One person would be the one to ‘move’ the paper contraption back and forth, while the other person would choose the numbers/colors. For example, the if the person chose 3, you would move the paper back and forth 3 times before stopping on the configuration that showed the colors. Then they would choose the color, and the person would read the fortune underneath.”

Context: The informant, ER, is student was born and raised in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, CA. She was a very outgoing and enjoyed doing lots of fun activities with her friends, including making lip-synced music videos and playing quirky games. This game was something that ER and her friends did a lot, repeating the fortune-telling over and over again in order to hopefully get a fortune that was favorable. However, only a few of the friends were capable of constructing the contraption, so you had to ask them to make one for you if you need wanted one of you own.

Analysis: Based on the insights of ER, I can see the how this game is an important piece of children’s folklore that tell us a lot about our culture and the way that children see the world and their lives. With this particular game, we can see how children want to grow up and know more about their future and what they would be like. There is always a level of uncertainty for the future throughout our lives, however, the amount of control that we have over our future as a young child is much less than when we become older and more mature. Children are always anticipating what the future holds for them, and this game is a way to bring some wisdom to this struggle and help them alleviate the uncomfortableness of the uncertainty. Another example of a children’s folk game that involves fortune-telling is a game-called MASH. This game involves writing down lists of various components of one’s future, like spouse name, job and house style and use a specific number to determine which of components on the lists will be your future.

Along with this, the fact that only a few people had the ability to manufacture the paper object, it also created a bit of a power dynamic between the children that want to participate in the game, and those who are able to provide this game. Another interesting fact about this game was the fact that I also grew up with this, despite the fact that I live across the country in Rhode Island. This is demonstrative of the how children across the country are sharing their traditions and customs with each other, and disseminating it moreover. For another version/purpose of this paper device, see Mechling, Jay. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. Edited by Elliot Oring. pp. 105.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Don’t Step on the Books – Hindu Custom

“So basically, if there is like a book on the ground, you are not allowed to step on it, deliberately or accidentally. And you are also not allowed to let them [books] touch your feet, because it’s kind of like, books are seen as this sacred holy thing that gives up knowledge, so we have to give books a certain level of respect. So if you kind of touch the books with your feet or kick them, you are disrespecting the sacredness of the knowledge that the books are giving us.”

Context: The informant was raised Hindu, but is non-religious. She explained to her roommate why she should not step on her books in order to reach a high shelf. For her [the informant], this was something that was told to her throughout her childhood by her parents and grandparents. Though this custom/folk belief is rooted in religious belief, the cultural aspect of the custom is what sticks with her and impacts the way that she lives her life–specifically whether or not she is able step on books.

Analysis: I agree with the informant’s insights about this particular custom. For many superstitions and folk beliefs–especially those that are rooted in religious beliefs–they are not just about religion, but are also influenced by the culture from which the custom was derived. For example, while literacy and knowledge is influential in the Hindu religion, but I believe the Indian culture is also a large factor in how impactful this belief is on non-religious members of the culture. For Indians, intelligence, and more importantly, the acquisition of knowledge is extremely important, and the value of an education has been instilled by many parents into their reluctant children. This shows that even though some see knowledge as sacred based on Hindu belief, there is also a cultural component to the custom. This cultural component of the custom is what carries with the non-religious members of the community.

Along with this, there is a component of homeopathic magic in this superstition/folk belief. As homeopathic magic follows the principle that “like produces like”, this folk belief follows the idea that if you step on a book, then you are disrespecting that book, and thus you are disrespecting knowledge itself. Like placing pins in a voodoo doll to inflict pain on another person, placing your foot on something–which is seen as disrespectful–then there is a greater significance. Books are often placed in front of the god Ganesha, who is god of knowledge and wisdom, so disrespecting books would thus also be disrespecting this god. This is a hallmark of the “like produces like “ phenomenon.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor
Riddle

Watermelon House Riddle

“There was a green house, and inside the green house there was a white house. And inside the white house, there was a red house. And inside the red house, there were a bunch of little children. What is it?

Answer: a watermelon.”

Context: The informant and I were exchanging random jokes while waiting outside of our folklore class. Having just come from another class, we were very tired and hoping to lighten the mood before going in to class. This joke is memorable because her mother told her this joke at her tenth birthday party while her family was eating watermelon.

Analysis: This riddle follows the general application and structure of riddles. Many riddles are seen as a component of children’s folklore, though not exclusive to it, and are meant to sort of be a bit of a brain teaser and led them to think more complexly and critically. These riddles are supposed to be challenging but are capable of being answered. In this case, the riddle involves an object that most people (especially children) have access to, so the answer is easily understood. Most children are initially stumped, but upon realizing what the answer to the riddle, have an “aha” moment. In my experience, and in the experience of the informant, the more you get confused by the riddle, the more you want to share that riddle and stump your peers and those around you to see if they are “smart enough” to answer this difficult and tricky question.

Along with this, the answer to this riddle has an especially child-friendly aspect to it. Food–and fruit specifically–is something that all children and adults can understand and relate to. Due to this, the riddle is especially effective. The answer is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but only those who are clever enough to crack the metaphor will be able to come up with the answer. In this way, those who fail to answer the question will carry this riddle forward as a way to stump the people around them in the way that they were tricked.

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