Category Archives: Myths

Sacred narratives

Saraswati – The reason not to step on paper and books

Main piece:

AI: So there’s a Hindu goddess named Saraswati who represents, like, knowledge, and a folk thing is that she lives inside all, like, books and paper and shit. So anytime you step on paper and cardboard you have to like, ask for her forgiveness for stepping on her. It was literally so annoying when I was little. It was a thing I was taught to do growing up. Whenever I stepped on paper my parents would be like, don’t piss off Saraswati!

Context:

The informant, AI, was born in the US, but her parents are from India. Both parents grew up in North India but are culturally tamil brahmin (South India.) She learned this tradition from her parents, and even now, she still avoids stepping on books and paper. This story was collected through a phone call.

Thoughts:

I met the informant in high school. We attended a school in Silicon Valley which had a big focus on STEM, and the general culture there was quite academically competitive. I think that this story, while obviously not originating from the Silicon Valley, has a great similarity to the reverence of wisdom and intellect present in SV (although, minus the snootiness). The informant, AI, is still in high school and still in that culture herself––I think the fact that she chose this story is a reflection of the similarities between both cultures.

The Story of Izanami and Izanagi

Main piece: 

EG: So my dad’s from Japan, and there’s this story about how the island of Japan was made with the gods izanagi and izanami, and there was something about how izanagi was stirring the sea to create the island of Japan. And then there was something about izanami hiding a cave, so the sun wouldn’t come up because he’s related to the sun or something. And then she would come out of that cave when she heard music, and that’s why they have Taiko drumming.

Interviewer: And how does that relate to your childhood?

EG: Uh as a kid my family went to Japan every summer so it can relate that way. And since we were in the countryside, or like suburbs, or like near the mountains, there’s a lot of shinto shrines and stuff and a lot of the Japanese kids shows had elements of Japanese folklore like kappa and stuff. 

Context:

My informant, EG, grew up in the US and visited her dad in Japan every summer. Being surrounded by Japanese suburban culture there was a very special experience to her, which is why she remembers the story––especially when Japan in western media is generally only depictions and stories about the very urbanized areas. EG was also the president of the Taiko club at USC, which would explain why she remembered the bit about Taiko drumming. This story was collected over a phone call about her time in Japan.

Thoughts:

Upon doing further research to fill in the gaps of the story, it turns out that Izanagi and Izanami were two, occasionally interpreted as a romantic couple, who created everything as we know it. They created more than just the ocean and Taiko. I think that this story is really interesting because the world springs forth from their bodies; like Izanagi’s eyes became the sun and moon deities, for example. This happens in a lot of other culture’s folklore. A famous example would be the Greek version of the Earth, Gaia, and how the parts of her body create the world. I think it’s interesting that creation stories often have this thread of the world being a singular body.

(For another version of the story of Izanami and Izanagi, please see this link:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Izanagi, Encyclopedia Britannica.)

The Mythical Plant: Kalo

Abstract: A mythical plant that is known as Kalo in Hawaiin but as Taro in English. This plant is named after mother earth known as Papa and the Sky Father Wakea which are two of the most important entities in Hawaii. This planet is a great delicacy for the people of the island and is known as the Polynesian people’s most diverse plant since it was able to feed all ages. The story of the son of the two deities was Kalo in fact and he was stillborn so his parents decided to bury him in the ground. The burial of their sun brought his mother to tears which hit the soil where he was buried and a plant began to grow where he was buried. 

Background: DM is a student at the University of Southern California who is a native Hawaiin and grown up with many Hawaiin tales to explain how her place of living came to be. She finds great interest in the history of her island She grew up her entire life in Hawaii and with that, has heard a lot of folklore. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember when she first heard these stories After reading about famous Hawaiin Folklore, I saught to ask her about what she knows about her Island and its origins. 

Transcript:

P: So tell me about some of the foods or ingredients of the food that you think is significant.

DM: There is a plant that many Hawaiin finds to be important and also used in many delicacies, Kalo. Kalo is the origin of Hawaiin culture it feels like such as there is this lau lau where people roast a pig that is wrapped in Kalo leaves. If you pull the Kalo plant from the ground its root is very nutritious and used to make this paste known as Poi and its purple. This plant has a bigger significance than just being a widely used ingredient, its also named after the children of two entities which are Mother Earth and the Sky Father, Papa, and Wakea. They have some kids and one of them is named Kalo and this child died right when he was born which is so sad. Papa then buried the child and cried after she finished burying Kalo. From her tears, it added nutrients to the soil, and the plant known as Kalo grew. 

Interpretation: 

Kalo is the physical incarnation of nature and being a person of the earth. This myth shows the importance of Nature to the Hawaiin and how they personify all of its elements in an effort to protect nature. This is mainly shown with the connection between Kalo the son being born from the two deities of nature and being the main source of food for the Hawaiin’s. This story has the theme of giving as the deity of earth Kalo used her son to produce a powerful substance to feed the people of Hawaii and also present a symbol of nature to them. One could say that true Hawaiin values nature over most in order to preserve the Islands they live and the deities who protect them and the Island they inhabit. For more on the legend of Kalo, you can read this article: Scroggins, Dan. “The Hawaiian Creation Legend and Taro.” The Real Hawai’i, 10 Mar. 2016, therealhawaiitours.com/hawaiian-creation-legend-taro/.

Story of Saint Juan Diego

Abstract: The story of Juan Diego is one of the more known stories in the Catholic faith and by many Hispanic families as well. His story has influenced much of the paintings and illustrations of our lady de Guadalupe. Juan Deigo first encountered Mary who is the lady of Guadalupe while walking to mass one day. This encounter occurred in a vision where he saw her and he was asked to build a shine on a hill outside of Mexico city. In the end, the Bishop was convinced after seeing a mural of Mary on Juan Diego, and a large shrine was built for Mary. This story resonates with H because she has a painting of this mural in her family room where it’s constantly viewed.

Background: H is a student at the University of Southern California who’s experienced this traditional ceremony from her transition into womanhood. She’s lived in California her entire life and is a first-generation American and her family keeps many of their traditions from Mexico alive in her life.  She believes that the way her Quince was conducted is very traditional but also has a few twists that are uncommon to the format. The topic was brought up during lunch while discussing our family roots.

Transcript:

P: Well I want to know more about the picture you have in your living room, is there a reason for this being here or is it just for show? 

H: That’s a photo of our lady de Guadalupe and it has a lot of history and roots tied in catholic religion since he’s the saint who found out what she looked like through a couple of interactions and one big one. 

P: Tell me about the story of this saint.

H: Ok, Juan Diego was a dude from Mexico near Mexico City and was one of the first non-Spaniards to become catholic and join Catholocism with his wife. So one day he was walking to mass and then he had this vision that he was talking with Mary mother of Jesus. He was astonished by this so he went to the Bishop about this vision he had and how the mother mary told him to build a shine for her. I think it’s pretty weird that she’s like build me a shine. (laughs) 

Juan Diego then left the place of the bishop and was then encountered by the mother Mary again and he explained to her how no one believed him so Mary instructed him to walk on the hill and collect the roses in his robe and bring them to the bishop. He traveled to Tepeyac hill with the flowers and then returned back to the bishop. He dropped the roses from his robe and everyone was in shock because a mural of Mary was on his robe and that’s where we get the illustration from. They quickly built the shrine after that and in Mexico City, they have the original robe which Juan Diego wore to prove the Bishop wrong. We have that photo in our house to pray to and to remind us of the Catholic faith. 

Interpretation: 

From this story, it shows that the catholic faith means a lot to this family and many others with this mural in their home. Not only does it remind them of the story of Saint Juan Diego but it also acts as a constant reminder of their roots how where their religion stems from through these selfless acts of preserving the faith by building shrines to important Biblical figures. H heard of this story from her mother when she was younger and continues to hear about this story when she attended high school and during lent. H doesn’t recall how long this story has been in their family but she knows that her grandma told her mom this story. She assumes its been for quite a while. She’s also heard this story told at church and at her high school.

The story itself seems very skeptical in some sense as it relies heavily on miracles and random chance. At first Juan Diego is mentioned to be one of the first natives to turn to the catholic faith which is important because it contradicts the real idea that a lot of the natives of Central America were against turning to the catholic faith so this willingness may have been used as a way to entice others to do the same. Finally, I find it weird that the mother of Jesus is requesting to have a shrine built for her near Mexico city but later it was found that this shine is meant to hold special powers when it comes to healing and a higher rate of miracle granting compared to others.

Saci: The Brazilian Prankster

Abstract: A description of a Brazilians view of the character known as Saci-pererê. He is a one-legged short creature with dark skin who smokes a pipe and wears a red hat. He is the Brazilian prankster who is said to cause chaos when he teleports in and out. One of the key iterations told is his red cap is said to have a bad scent with doesn’t fair well. Other aspects that were mentioned about the trickster is his willingness to cause little harm to day to day life such as teasing dogs, releasing farm animals and cursing essential items such as chicken eggs to prevent them from hatching.

Background: MC is a Brazilian currently living in Florida and is a student at the University of Southern California. She’s an advocate for Brazilian culture and expresses it by speaking highly of their myths and legends and even partaking in the semi-religious activities such as wearing bracelets with powers to grant wishes to the wearer. She describes one of the few stories heard from parents when she was younger and details it below.

The legend

P: So tell me a legend that’s been with you to this day

MC: Ok so there is this character that I remember known as Saci and he was like a mischievous little guy who always wore a red had only one leg which I thought was so weird. He also had this red hat which when he wore it allowed him to disappear and then reappear and the thing was every time he did this, he caused a small tornado to appear like a dust devil I guess. 

P: So he’s like brazils version of the Norse god Loki? 

MC: Yeah exactly he’s like the Loki in the marvel movies except he bothers all of the locals and enjoys it too. Like what I heard is he tends to mess with your crops and stuff and ruin your day so people try to catch him and contain him to keep him from annoying the hell out of you 

Interpretation:

My understanding of this character really came down to the parallel between Loki and Saci. It seems like he was a character commonly referred to when things went wrong in brazil such as MC made the comment that there was a phrase people said where it went like, “Saci must’ve been here again.” He seems like a great example of a Brazilian Oikotype seen this type of personality has been interpreted into other cultures like Norse Mythology or the Brazilian version of a Leprechaun. It was also mentioned that the story of this character was told by slaves and adapted in a way to scare both the children and fellows members. It seems like this character was a great influence on the culture as a way to explain certain phenomena which they had no explanation for so Saci was a great answer to the question of who released my animals or why there are small tornados across the land.

Pele: Volcano Goddess

Abstract: The goddess Pele also known as the Volcano goddess is a trickster since she favors testing the kindness of people by transforming into an old lady and seeing how she is treated on the Island of Hawaii. Depending on the response, Pele will either protect your home from a volcanic eruption or destroy it. Pele moves depending on the Volcanos active on Hawaii and she currently resides on the big island which explains the Eruption which occurred a few years ago on the island. A volcano is only active when Pele wakes from her slumber. 

Background: DM is a student at the University of Southern California who is a native Hawaiin and grown up with many Hawaiin tales to explain how her place of living came to be. She finds great interest in the history of her island She grew up her entire life in Hawaii and with that, has heard a lot of folklore. After reading about famous Hawaiin Folklore, I saught to ask her about what she knows about her Island and its origins.

DM: Ok there is another person which I’ve heard of named Pele and she’s the goddess of the volcanos around the islands. She’s typically asleep but when she wakes, a volcano will become active but she also moves around like right now she’s hanging out on the big island which is where the volcano erupted a year or two ago. I don’t remember exactly when it erupted but there was footage of people’s homes either being spared by the lava or being consumed but it and that’s because those people were either good or bad to Pele. She finds this out by turning into an old woman and walk among the people to test who will be nice to her and who will anger her. That’s why she either spills lava on people’s homes or leaves them alone. As you can she has like a short temper and is easily agitated and she’s very deceitful as well so good thing she’s not living on my island right now. 

P: So what does she look any different from other Hawaiin women or is she very blended in with those around her? 

DM: She’s untraceable like you can’t tell if she’s there or not so you have more reason to be nice to everyone around you because you might make a volcano goddess mad.

Interpretation: 

It seems fitting that a volcano goddess has a hot head and is easily ticked off by people’s actions or how she is treating when she is tricking the islanders. The Hawaiin people personified one of their most powerful threats which are the volcanoes, a looming threat that seeks to destroyer but also creates more land for the natives. Pele turning herself into a which seems like a very common trend in many stories such as snow white or Beauty and the best where old women represent treachery and seek to cause chaos toward a person or a group of people for their own personal benefit whether it be the enjoyment of others suffering or punishing those for their misdeeds. Pele is an example of a goddess who gives and takes to those depending on how she is treated. Pele seems to be more than a myth because her story also comes with a lesson. Treat those who are older and wiser than you with respect and goodwill come from it such as protection and learning of secrets that may guide your own path. 

Maui: Hawaiin Demi-God

Abstract: A view of the demigod Maui and how he’s influenced popular culture in Hawaii and even inspired a movie where he is featured. The story of Maui varies depending on who tells the story but he is responsible for creating the islands of Hawaii and bring peace to the Polynesians. His defining characteristic is his fishing hook ironically, he’s a bad fisher and is ridiculed by his brothers. In an attempt to prove them wrong, Maui uses his famous fishing hook to reel in a good catch but can’t pull up the fishing line from the water. He uses all of his strength but manages to pull up the islands of Hawaii with his strength. 

Background: DM is a student at the University of Southern California who is a native Hawaiin and grown up with many Hawaiin tales to explain how her place of living came to be. She finds great interest in the history of her island She grew up her entire life in Hawaii and with that, has heard a lot of folklore. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember when she first heard these stories After reading about famous Hawaiin Folklore, I saught to ask her about what she knows about her Island and its origins. 

P: So tell me more about the origins of Hawaii. How did they come to be like what stories have you heard?

DM: Ok so there is the origin story of Maui which one of the most popular ones especially after the release of the Disney movie. 

P: O that’s right so is he very similar to the Disney version of Maui?

DM: In some ways, he has his fish hook to use but the significance of it is different than that in the movie. Instead of being this crazy deity that does all these great things for the Polynesians, I know him from one story and that’s how he was a horrible fisher which I think is funny because he carries around a fish hook. He knew he was a bad fisher and had three brothers which always teased him about his inability to fish well so one day he went on a canoe with them and tried to fish and prove them wrong. He sent out his line and waited then once he tried to pull up the hook it acted like it was stuck on something. So he used all his strength to pull it up and his brothers start to paddle away and they kept pulling for a while until they turned around and saw they reeling in the Islands of Hawaii. 

Interpretation:

This Deity is very important to the people of Hawaii because it explains how their islands rose from the waters thanks to Maui. One thing that was mentioned is how Disney took the legend and applied a few similar characteristics from Maui such as his hook and his powerful strength to perform tasks such as raising Hawaii from the ocean. Another topic was brought up that the people who wrote Moana are native Hawaiians which explains why a lot of the Polynesian culture brought up in the movie is very similar to the traditional Polynesian culture. This is one of the few times when Disney stayed more true to the legend being portrayed instead of adapting it to fit their standards. However, the differences are the brothers of Maui which each symbolize an island of Hawaii since there are 4 habitable islands and 4 brothers in total.  

Curupira

Abstract: An viewing of the Curupira which is a mythological creature that is said to have orange fur and lives in the forests around Brazil. It was said that this creature hunts for hunters and poachers to protect the animals of the forest and is said to have backward feet such that he can never be tracked. He is said to be a demon and in the interpretation by MC, it is portrayed as a demon meant to frighten children. 

Background: MC is a Brazilian currently living in Florida and is a student at the University of Southern California. She’s an advocate for Brazilian culture and expresses it by speaking highly of their myths and legends and even partaking in the semi-religious activities such as wearing bracelets with powers to grant wishes to the wearer. She describes one of the few stories heard from parents when she was younger and details it below.

Transcript:

P: So tell me about a story that involves creatures like fairies or something mythological? 

MC: I have one I think about a character known as the Curupia which is this demon figure who basically has his feet turned 180 degrees so no one can track him when he moving around. They always look the wrong way for him which is creepy to me but also cool that Brazilians got creative with it. The weird thing is that this creature is said to make those random high pitched noises whenever it’s dark or in a forest that no one can explain. On top of that, I think it rides like a pig creature whenever it doesn’t want to travel on foot.  Also apparently he’s kind of like a person who saves the animals from poachers and such.

P: Pretty creepy if you ask me. 

Interpretation:

This character seems to compliment others such as the Saci and others listed as Brazilian folklore. This creature in some cases seems like a beneficial one for the country of Brazil as it seeks to preserve all the creatures of the country and protect them from extinction. The Curupia is a great example of a conservationist in this case and helps the people preserve life and keep the wildlife intact. On the second interpretation of the creature, it acts as a demon bothering those who encounter it and due to its backward feet, it cant be tracked so revenge against it is never an option. It always seems to be out of reach of anyone. The symbolism of good and evil packed into this individual almost shows a balance for the culture and a way to show the world is balanced by both a protector and those who seek to cause conflict. This figure would sure scare myself if I heard it around the same age as MC but for good measure, as it seems it was used to keep some people out after dark along with other myths promoted.

The story of the Popocatepetl

Main piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between informant and interviewer. 

Infromant: The story of the Popocatepetl is of a umm…. I think of an Aztec warrior. He pretty much falls in love with her but is called into battle. So before he goes he tells her dad that upon returning, he will marry his daughter with his permission. The dad allows it and he goes but the news breakouts that he dies in battle. 

Interviewer: So he dies? What happens then with her? 

Informant: No he doesn’t die but the news got to her and the dad and she ends up dying from depression and loneliness. A week later he comes back from war, with riches and honor, but finds out she’s dead. So he asks the dad if he can take her body to give her a proper ceremony. He allows it and Popocatepetl takes her to the top of a pyramid. He holds a torch and watches her body. He plans to stay the night and he does but umm there’s a snow fall and he gets buried in it. Over time, annual rain and snowfall buries them even more and the mountaintop becomes the volcano that you can see from the house in Mexico. 

Interviewer: Oh it’s that volcano? I remember that name but I wasn’t sure it was the same name. 

Informant: Yeah that’s his body… his spirit. And whenever the volcano erupts or has activity… It means that Popocatepetl is remembering his love for the Aztec princess. 

Background: My informant here was my grandma who’s staying with us during COVID-19. She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico but lives in the U.S. with us for the most part. She says that she heard about this story from school textbooks and that she always remembers the story whenever there’s news about Popocatepec’s volcanic activity. For her it represents a true love story and a tragedy. She says that there is no longer love like that one in today’s world. 

Context: I asked my grandma during dinner if she can tell me the story of Popocatepetl because my mom heard it from my grandma but I wanted to get someone else’s view on it so I asked her. She complied and gave me this version while I recorded. Setting was at our house during dinner so it provided nice entertainment and I personally loved the story. 

Thoughts: I really enjoyed the story. When my grandma finished, my sister and I looked at each other and said “wow that’s true love” at the same time. I had known about the volcano for many years but I had never heard about the story behind it. I want to say I don’t believe in it fully but I do admire the love they had for each other. That love is scarce in today’s world so it was nice hearing that story. 

Mexican myth

Main piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: A ritual that you have to do, no matter if you are Mexican, German, Chinese, American… it doesn’t matter what nationality you are. Everyone does this when they go up the first time. 

Interviewer: Wait what? Where?

Informant: Oh umm at the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the ones we’ve gone to in Mexico. 

Interviewer: Oh ok. I know what you’re talking about. 

Informant: When you go up the sun pyramid, you count the steps, all 365 of them and once you’re at the summit. At the top of the pyramid there is a circle etched in the center and a hole where your finger fits. When you’re there, you have to raise your hands towards the sky so that Quetzalcoatl, the sun god, fills you with energy, purifies you, gives you wisdom and fortifies you that year. 

Interviewer: And everyone does it? 

Informant: Ahhh! Don’t you remember when we went, we have pictures of us raising our hands. And the people around us were raising their hands towards the sky. All the people, doesn’t matter what nationality, sex, or religion… Everyone does this when going up the sun pyramid for the first time. 

Background: My informant was my dad. He was born in Mexico City as well. He knows pretty much every touristic area in Mexico because he traveled a lot in his 20s and 30s when he was a marathon runner. He’s taken me to the pyramids before, and after collecting the performance, he helped my mom find pictures of us raising our hands when we reached the summit of the sun pyramid. 

Context: I just asked my dad if there were any cool stories or myths he knew about for a project I’m working on. He asked “what do you mean” and I responded with “anything, a story or a myth” and he proceeded with the myth about the sun pyramid. The setting was in our backyard as we were taking a break from yard work. 

Thoughts: I was a kid when we went to the pyramids of teotihuacan and I remember going up a bunch of steps. The pictures helped me fill in some gaps but I never knew the hand-raising to receive energy was a thing. I thought we did it just as a pose or something, but after hearing the myth, I was impressed with it. It’s something that traces back to the Aztecs and something that tourists from all over the world do, so I found that pretty enticing.