USC Digital Folklore Archives / Narrative
Legends

Cannibalism in European Urban Legend

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between my friend, identified as AF, and I, identified as JS.

AF: There is a story that I heard. I heard this summer. I was working in Europe for this summer, in Prague. And my friend told me the story. You know, my friends and I go out at night and that kind of stuff. And my friend told me the story about girls going home with random guys. I though it was a legit story when I heard the first time until I heard more people knew it.

JS: Oh so it’s not a real thing.

AF: Yea, I don’ think so. Apparently this girl and this guy was at the bar, umm they are like talking. Anyway it’s going really well, so they headed off. She goes home with him, and like they had sex whatever, having a good time. And umm she starts really liking him and he starts really liking her. And throughout the next few weeks or so, she starts to have really weird rashes, on her arms and on her legs.

JS: I know that one!

AF: You know the story? Haha. And so they start to get really bad.

JS: Both of them?

AF: No no, just her. You know she start to living there since they are together and stuff. Umm, wait, take it back, it was for a short period of time. it was like two weeks or so. And so then she goes to the doctor and she was like: “What the heck is those rash?” And the doctor was like: “we don’t know, we haven’t seen this kind of rashes before. It’s none of poison ivy, random things, a cream. You are not allergic to anything. We don’t know what this is.” And they were like: “You know let us just perform more tests.” And then she goes back to the guys house, doing whatever, and she got a call from the doctor while she was at the house. The doctor was like: “Well, you not gonna believe this, but have you working with raw meet or anything?” And she goes: “No.” They were like: “The rashes are associated with a meet tenderizer. The one that tenderize your muscle and everything.” And apparently, the guy is a cannibal. Yea, that was it, When my friend told me that story, I like shocked cuz apparently the guy was like super handsome, just totally your average Joe guy. I was like it’s a good story but not good, you know, not to go home with random people I guess.

Background information:

This story is a popular urban legend that takes place in European context. So, when my informant interned in Prague last summer, she first encountered the story when she and her friend rode on scooters in the park. Her friend told AF the story while riding the scooter and my informant was really shocked because she thought it was a real story. As she heard the story couple times, she realized that it was just a story that went around. However, she definitely thinks that this story does a good job telling people not to go home with strangers. After knowing the story, AF became more conscious about the strangers she met randomly in order to protect herself better.

Context:

This piece was collected in an interview with a casual setting. I was having lunch at the cafe and I invited her over to talk about interesting folklore that she knew.

Thoughts:

This is not the first time I hear about the stories. I hear a couple times but with different version. But the story always takes place in Europe. It can be a coincidence or simply because people in America like to visit Europe and they feel more mysterious if the story is put in an exotic context. The story often involves in meeting strangers whether in a bar or through dating app. I feel since dating app and party culture become more and more popular among younger generation, people are not too cautious about the people they meet. And that’s why this kind of story starts to go around among younger generation, especially college students, to alert people about their safety issues. This story, although does not fit into the category of traditional legend story, it adapts younger culture and becomes an urban legend.

 

Legends
Proverbs

The Story Behind Japanese Saying: 情けは人の為ならず (One Good Turn Deserves Another)

Main Piece:

“There is a common saying in Japan, in Japanese it’s: 情けは人の為ならず.

Original script: 情けは人の為ならず

Phonetic (Roman) script: Nasake wa hito no tame narazu

Transliteration: the good you do for others is good you do yourself.

Full translation: One good turn deserves another. 

It means when you do things for someone, it’s not for them, it’s for yourself. So, I mean it connects to the story about like, ummm like an old man walking to a winter mountain, then he finds like three stone, umm what do you call those? Like statues of Japanese monk. It’s like a tiny mini one, really cute. And he’s like: “Oh no, it’s snowing.” It’s statue right? Obviously it has no feelings or anything. But then the old man was like:”Oh my gosh. It’s snowing and it’s probably really cold.” So he makes these like three ummm straw hats for those three stone statues and then place it upon them. Then he will like, you know, get along his life. When he goes home, and the next morning, he wakes up and he opens the front door, and then he finds like this chunk of rice. At that time, obviously rice equals money. So what happen was those stone statue, like the monks kind of came to life and came to life to thank him, saying like thanks for the straw hats. Oh I think he makes like straw coats as well. You know, just like something to put on the statue. And like these rice is just to show gratitude and everything. So yea, this is where this saying comes from. So 情けは人の為ならず is just do something for someone, like yea you are helping them but ultimately you are helping yourself. Like it’s always gonna come back to you. That’s like the saying.”

Background:

My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She knew this saying and the story behind it because her dad told her when she was at a kid. She feels a lot of the time when people do things for someone or even just make friends with someone, they think about benefit or cost they get. But in her mind, because of this saying and the way her dad teaches her, she deems that in order to live a happy life, people need to do things for each other. So my informant is always happy to give out her help and be kind to people even when they are mean sometimes. Growing up embedded with this mindset, my informant feels this saying shapes her action and life attitude.

Context:

She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.

Thoughts

Personally, I really like this folk piece because it’s not like other sayings that only have one sentence, this saying has a story behind it, which reflects a lot of Japanese culture. For example, it talks about Japanese monks which are associated with Shinto and Buddhism religions which are the two major religions in Japan. Also, the straw hat and straw coat that are mentioned in the story are also representations of Japanese tradition. Straw hat is often worn by Japanese monks. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch Ikkyū-san, which is a Japanese anime about the life of a monk. In the show, I often see the character Ikkyū wears a straw hat. In addition, the straw coat, known as mino (蓑) in Japan, is a traditional Japanese garment that functions like a raincoat and is often used in snowy regions. Lastly, the gift of rice reflects the Asian culture as well. If it is a western story, it will probably be gold which is often seen in western fair tales. The presentation of rice shows culture difference between east and west.

 

 

Legends

Little People’s Village

Context:

The informant – my dad, RS – is a white man in his early 50s, born and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, but living in South Florida now. He was raised Catholic on a farm with two siblings. He’s skeptical of the supernatural for the most part, but is pretty familiar with a lot of the Connecticut’s many ghost stories. The following conversation took place in person during a larger conversation in which he told me a number of his favorite Connecticut ghost stories. It was, for the most, part a classic storytelling situation, but at times felt more like a sharing of childhood memories than the dramatic performance of a ghost story.

Piece:

RS: There are a lot of places famously considered haunted in Connecticut, but one that was always really interesting and really stood out to me is the Little People’s Village. If you hike out into this wooded area off the road in Middlebury, you’ll find all these crumbling concrete structures. There’s the foundation of what looks like a small house… there’s these structures built into a hill, one of them sort of looks like a throne, but mainly there are all of these little concrete dollhouse sized houses, scattered all around the area, maybe six or seven of them.

The story I always heard growing up was that there was a couple – a husband and wife I guess – who lived in this little house in the woods. One day, the wife started hearing voices. She claimed that little people – fairies, demons, whatever – were talking to her. She started going crazy and made her husband build all these little houses for the fairies.

She grew more and more obsessed with the little people – they were telling her that she was their queen, so she made her husband build her a throne so that she could properly… rule over the little people I suppose? (laughter). The little people began to feel threatened by the husband, so one day they told the wife to kill him. She did – I can’t remember how the story goes from there. I think she goes crazy and eventually kills herself. But the old legend is that if you go to Little People’s Village and sit in her throne, you’ll die in seven years

Me: Did you ever pay Little People’s Village a visit?

RS: Oh yeah, me and my buddies would go there a few times when we were teenagers. It’s a bit creepy, especially at night. No sign of any little people though. I wonder if any of it’s there anymore.

Me: Did you sit in the throne?

RS: Yeah I did… I’m still alive though!

Analysis:

Upon doing some research, I discovered that the structures behind the story of Little People’s Village were part of an amusement park that featured a trolley line that went out of business in the early 20th century. The “house” was likely a gift shop and the concrete dollhouses were part of a display. Ghost stories are very common in Connecticut, since much of the state isn’t in constant renovation like many other parts of the country, and old buildings and structures are often left to decay, making for both many creepy sights and a more direct connection to the past.

Given the appearance of the structures that inspired the story of Little People’s Village, it’s fairly obvious how the legend developed, since the strange structures out of context beg a more unique and specific explanation than an ordinary old house. I find it interesting that the story features specifically a woman going insane and murdering her husband, since the story could have easily gone a number of other ways while still featuring the little people. However, developing likely in the 1960s, it’s not surprising that stories would lean towards including this somewhat sexist stereotype/archetype of the hysterical woman.

 

 

Folk speech
Legends
Musical

Jo Jones Cymbal Story

Context:

The informant – N – is a 20-year-old white male, born and raised in Los Angeles. He is currently a sophomore at the USC Thornton School of Music studying jazz drum set. He is my roommate and one of my closest friends. Because N has studied jazz for a long time and currently studies under jazz legend, Peter Erskine, I asked him if there were any legends or stories that he’s heard that could be considered jazz folklore.

Piece:

N: Well, I think the most classic jazz legend is the story of when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head during a jam session. The story goes, a sixteen-year-old Charlie Parker shows up to a jam session where Jo Jones is part of the house band. Charlie Parker’s been shedding a bunch of “groundbreaking” hip harmony shit (said sarcastically), but when he goes up to the band stand, he folds on the changes and loses the form. Then, apparently, Jo Jones stopped playing in the middle of the tune and threw a cymbal at Parker’s head. Parker left the jam session, swearing that he’d be back. And apparently that’s what motivated him to lock himself in the woodshed for a year, and that’s why he’s such a legend now.

Me: Do you think that story really happened?

N: Well the movie Whiplash made that version of the story famous, but I’ve heard versions where he just threw the cymbal at his feet, or where he threw his stick bag at him, and the whole audience laughed. I’m sure some version of the story probably happened, but I doubt it’s as dramatic as everyone says.

Me: Why do you think the story has gained so much popularity?

N: I think probably because of Whiplash mainly. And since it’s so dramatic, people always love the stories that make the old cats seem badass.

Analysis:

In addition to its inclusion in Whiplash, I think this legend is likely so popular because it provides lore to the elitist and cutthroat atmosphere of jazz culture. I think it’s a legend that band directors will tell students to ensure that they practice sufficiently before going to jam sessions. Also, it’s a nice story of someone letting an embarrassing situation motivate them, acting as a catalyst for them becoming a legend. I also think it’s interesting that N sarcastically referred to young Charlie Parker as groundbreaking, seemingly implying that the music has come so far since then that it’s humorous to think of Parker’s bebop playing as groundbreaking.

Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Taily Poo

Context:

The informant – BL – is a 20-year-old white male, born and raised in Seattle, Washington. He spent a lot of time hiking and camping in the mountain ranges near Seattle, and, therefore, had a few campfire stories to share. He shared this story with me in a fairly typical storytelling context – outside, alone at night, after I had asked him if he knew any scary stories.

Piece:

BL: This is the story of the Taily Poo. Once, there was a hunter who lived in the forest with his three dogs. Every other day, he would go out to hunt small game. Just rabbits and squirrels… the occasional deer if he stumbled upon it. And one week, he went out and didn’t get anything. And went out the next day, hoping he would get something, but still…nothing. He didn’t see a single lick of an animal. Um.

The following day, he went out, and he brought all three of his dogs, and he saw a squirrel hiding up in a tree. So he shot it down, blew its head right off. The dogs went and picked it up, but something else caught his eye… to his right. A large shape in a tree that he thought might be a panther… but… it couldn’t be a panther? Right? Panthers don’t exist in… Northern America. Um. He thought maybe a cougar. Either way, he was hungry, and he needed some big meat… (long pause, and some snickering).

So he pointed his gun at the animal… and shot it. And he heard a bloodcurdling yowl, and saw something fall off the tree, and the animal jumped into the night. He went to go look what fell out… off… and it was a tail. A long black tail with coarse hair, but still a fair amount of meat on it. So he decided to take it home and cook it up, – maybe put it in a stew.

So he goes home with his dogs, cooks it up. He and the three dogs eat their meal and then go to bed. Um. He wakes up in the middle of the night to some scratching sound. Um. And it’s pitch black, but he looks at the foot of his bed and sees two bright yellow eyes.

(In a harsh whispering voice) “Give it back… Give me back my taily poo.”

The man is petrified. “I’m sorry, what?” he says. (we both laugh)

“Give me back my taily poo.”

The man, realizing that this must be the creature who’s tail he shot off in the forest, pushes the dogs off the bed towards the creature, and they chase it off into the night. He waits for them to return, but when they come back, only two remain. He goes back to sleep. He wakes up later that night, in the early hours of the morning, maybe 1am… to see the same pair of bright yellow eyes, next to his bed this time. Scratching at the side of it with its claws.

“Give me back my taily poo.” Very startled, uh, the man sicks his dogs on the creature, chasing it away into the night. He waits for their return, but only one comes back.

It’s morning now, and he goes out to look for his two other dogs. He calls their names, but no response. He goes and looks for them, but is afraid of getting completely lost in the forest, and so, by sunset, he gives up hope, realizing the creature must have killed them. So he goes to bed that night, hungry, because the forest is bare. Um. Uhhh. Then he wakes up in the middle of the night to a ripping sound. (BL poorly imitates a ripping sound and we both laugh). He jumps awake, thinking it must be the creature, and he’s right. At the foot of his bed… No… revise, revise. On his bed, the creature is pawing and clawing his sheets, ripping them to shreds. It’s yellow eyes gleam in the pure darkness.

“Give it back! Give me back my taily poo!” The man sicks his last dog on the creature, which chases it outside the house. Only a few moments later, to hear a heartbreaking cry, which he only assumes can come from the dog. Now, shaking in fear in his own bed, in the pure darkness, he hears something walking up to his bed. Two yellow eyes peek over the bedframe. And that was the last we only heard of that man…

(We both laugh).

BL: That was terrible…

Me: That’s just how it ends?

BL: Alright…um. When his friends went to go look for him, because they hadn’t heard from him in days, when they show up at his house… his house was no longer there. The only thing that remained… was the chimney.

Analysis:

I think, for the most part, this story is just an entertaining campfire story, relying on the performer’s dramatic performance determine how well it’s received. BL here clearly did not remember the tale too vividly, as he paused with many “ums” and “uhs” to recall what happens next. Though the story is likely mainly for mere entertainment, it does have anti-hunting connotations, with the hunted returning for vengeance on the hunter, which is a common archetype in tales and stories. Also, the creature killing the hunter’s pets creates an interesting comparison between animals that we hunt and animals that we keep as pets. Stories like this often help us cope with the fact that we hunt and eat animals, as we soothe the moral complexity of the issue with stories of the hunted animals enacting vengeance on us.

Myths
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Native American Raven Creation Myth

Context:

The informant – BL – is a 20-year-old white male, born and raised in Seattle, Washington. He learned the following creation myth in elementary school, on a field trip that aimed to teach students about the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. He told me this story after I asked him of any folklore he knew growing up in the Pacific Northwest.

Piece:

Being from the Pacific Northwest, we have a very close connection with our Native American roots. We try to preserve their culture, and language, and stories by passing them down, um, to our children. I learned this one when I was in elementary school, on a field trip where we learned about, uh, the native salmon, the native peoples, and our watershed.

This is a story from the Haida people, who inhabited – and still do inhabit – the coastal Pacific Northwest region. And this is the story of how the Raven – Raven, the trickster – brought light to the world.

In the beginning, the world still existed, but in darkness. Raven existed from the beginning of time, he was on of its first creations, but he eventually grew tired of stumbling around in the dark, bumping into things. One day, he stumbled into something that didn’t feel like a piece of nature. It was a sideways log – many of them stacked on top of each other. Knowing it was a house, Raven peered inside the window, where there was light. And he saw an old man and his daughter. The light was emanating from a box in the corner, peeking out from the cracks of it. Realizing that this must be the only source of light in the world, the clever Raven quickly devised a plan. Um.

He took to the air and flew circles over the house for hours, until he saw the old man’s daughter exit to go collect water from the river. And went she went to the river to fill her basket with water, he transformed himself into a pine from an evergreen, which landed in her basket. And when she drank it, he was ingested. Um. When she returned to her house, he again transformed, only this time, into a tiny human in her stomach. There, he bided his time, waiting until, finally, the girl gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

The old man was so overjoyed at having a grandson that he quickly took to the raven, thinking that he was his own. But the boy, um, turned out to be very curious and very eager to learn about new things. He always pestered the old man about what was in the box in the corner…what the light was coming from. But, the old man threatened his grandson to never touch the box, and to never look inside it, as it held great treasure.

But, Raven pestered and pestered, until, finally, the old man gave in. He went over to the box and opened it, and light poured throughout the house, illuminating all. The old man reached into the box, and took out the sun and threw it to the boy to play with. But, as the boy caught it, he transformed back into his raven form, and caught it in his beak, and flew through the chimney… there’s a chimney… out into the world where he… released the sun into the world. Um. No no no. So as the old man threw it to him, the boy transformed back into Raven, caught it in his beak, and flew through the chimney. He didn’t know how to release it into the world, so he shook it back and forth, little flecks of light flying off, which then became the stars. Eventually, he threw it upwards, where it continued flying, never losing speed. And that’s how we got our sun and stars.

 

Analysis:

As is common with myths, this creation story is likely steeped in the culture of the Native American Haida peoples to whom it belongs, and, therefore, it seems strange to someone not part of this culture. This can be said of the informant, BL, here, who’s personal disconnect from the story was apparent. It was clear from the way he told the story that it was a story with which he was not intimately familiar, but, instead, learned in school when learning about the native people of his hometown. It was clear that he was attempting to recall parts of the story as he told it, occasionally backtracking to correct himself. Either way, the story is a fascinating creation story, and it is interesting to hear a filtered version of this creation myth told from an outsider who had merely grown up learning about this culture.

For further information regarding the Raven as the predominant trickster archetype in Coastal Northwestern America, see David Vogt’s (1996). Raven’s universe. Archaeoastronomy, 12, 38.

Legends
Narrative

Melon Heads of Connecticut

Context:

The informant – my dad, RS – is a white man in his early 50s, born and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, but living in South Florida now. He was raised Catholic on a farm with two siblings. He’s skeptical of the supernatural for the most part, but is pretty familiar with a lot of the Connecticut’s many ghost stories. The following conversation took place in person during a larger conversation in which he told me a number of his favorite Connecticut ghost stories. It was, for the most, part a classic storytelling situation, but at times felt more like a sharing of childhood memories than the dramatic performance of a ghost story.

Me: Are there any other Connecticut legends that you can recall?

 

RS: Ummm… well, everyone always used to talk about the Melon Heads. There were a few roads we called the Melon Head Roads where they supposedly lived. I think people used to say that they were escaped mental patients who inbred with each other for generations, so now they have these big heads, too big for their bodies. Or maybe they were just mountain people who inbred, and the mental patients were from another story. I don’t know, there were a few stories about who they were, but they were all supposed to have these big melon heads and were supposed to violent, crazy cannibals.

Me: Do you remember who you heard this story from?

RS: Oh I’m not sure, everyone knew about the Melon Heads. It was probably my brother.

Me: What do you make of the story? Why did it stick with you?

RS: It didn’t stick with me that much. But when talking about Connecticut ghost stories, that’s one of the first ones that comes to mind. I don’t think much of the story… I’m sure it’s just something kids made up to spook each other out.

 

Analysis:

While I think that it’s likely that the story was made up for kids to scare each other, I find it interesting that this legend revolves around escaped mental patients and inbreeding. There are a number of large asylums in Connecticut, so it makes sense that the story would involve escaped mental patients. Further, it’s likely that this story originated around a time where these asylums were being shut down and mental illness was in its early stages of moderate de-stigmatization, resulting in rumors of escaped inbreeding mental patients among curious and scared children.

 

Legends
Narrative

Dudleytown, Connecticut

Context:

The informant – my dad, RS – is a white man in his early 50s, born and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut, but living in South Florida now. He was raised Catholic on a farm with two siblings. He’s skeptical of the supernatural for the most part, but is pretty familiar with a lot of the Connecticut’s many ghost stories. The following conversation took place in person during a larger conversation in which he told me a number of his favorite Connecticut ghost stories. It was, for the most, part a classic storytelling situation, but at times felt more like a sharing of childhood memories than the dramatic performance of a ghost story.

Piece:

RS: Supposedly the most haunted place in all of Connecticut is Dudleytown in Cornwall. Dudleytown used to be a small town in early colonial times, founded by the Dudley family. There are many versions of the story, but the one I remember is that, I believe, a long time ago, one man in Dudleytown went insane and murdered everybody in the small town. Decades later, they built a new town where Dudleytown used to be, but the town was cursed with horrible misfortune. People either died from disease, or went insane, the population dwindling to nothing overtime, once again. Now, Dudleytown is just ruins, I few miles hike into the woods in Cornwall. Your mother dragged me out there once when we first met to go camping – it’s a big destination for lovers of the paranormal like your mother. Though I don’t believe this, she claims that she took photos of the ruins, and that when she looked at the photos later, strange markings and writing were on the rocks and rubble that weren’t there before.

 

Me: Who told you about Dudleytown?

RS: I believe it was your mother, though I may have heard about it from my friends back when I was a kid.

Me: What do you make of the story?

RS: I’m not sure… I don’t really believe that one man went crazy and murdered an entire town, but I guess I’d have to look into the history of it.

Analysis:

I think the legend of Dudleytown was most likely invented to provide a spooky reasoning for the town being abandoned. Unlike other places in America that are in constant renovation, Connecticut is filled with decaying old buildings, resulting in both a number of creepy sights that beg for spooky stories to explain them and a direct connection with the past. Insanity seems to often come up in Connecticut ghost stories, likely due to the large number of abandoned asylums in the state.

 

Myths
Narrative

Ganesh Origin

Context:

The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore.

Piece:

I’ll tell you a little story about Ganesh. His mother was taking a bath and she told him that, “You know what, I’m taking a bath, don’t let anybody come in here, because I don’t want anybody to come in.”

In the meantime, his father, Shiva, comes to visit, and Ganesh says, “You can’t come in,” because, apparently, he’s never seen his father before.

His father, also a god, says “Of course I can go in, that’s my house.”

And Ganesh said, “No, you cannot go in! My mom said I’m supposed to be guarding the door and I won’t let you in.” The father gets very upset and looks at Ganesh with so much anger, that his head falls off his shoulder.
The mother comes out and sees what’s happened, and is like, “Why did you just do that to our little boy?”

So by that time, his anger has kind of subsided, and he’s like, “Oh my god, we can’t have him without a head. We have to find a new head!” So apparently, he sends people all over the world, saying, “Go find me the first living creature who’s sleeping with its head facing the East. Cut off its head and bring it to me.” So everybody goes everywhere and can’t find someone, because, apparently in India you can’t sleep with your head towards the East, since the sun rises in the East. They go all over the world, and they find this elephant. So what they do is, they cut off its head and they bring it.

And the mother goes, “What the heck! I can’t put that head on my little baby!”

The father says, “Well, I can’t change the rule, I said the first living being with its head facing the East,” so he puts the head on the child, and the child is alive.

The mother goes, “No one is going to worship him! Everyone will make fun of him! Nobody is going to respect him.” So now it is written that, before any prayer or any celebration, – anything – you have to first pray to Ganesh before you can do any official celebration. So now in every part of India, before prayer, or any celebration – a wedding, anything – you must first pray to Ganesh. Ganesh is also the God of removing obstacles, so he’s become a very popular symbol. I have a Ganesh in my house; I think your mom has a Ganesh in your house, too.

 

Analysis:

I was raised around a lot of Indian/Hindu culture, so I’d, of course, heard of Ganesh, but it was really fun to learn the creation myth of Ganesh himself. I’ve heard and read much less detailed versions of this same story, but it was really fascinating to hear this version from someone who is an active participant in the Hindu religion/culture. From some brief research, it seems that there are variations in which Ganesh’s head is physically cut off, and some stories omit the detail about the requirement for the head facing East.

Festival
Holidays
Myths
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Durga Puja

Context:

The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore, particularly about holidays and celebrations.

Piece:

We have another festival that is very… what should I say? It’s the main festival from West Bengal, which is where I come from. And that’s called Durga Puja. Puja is any kind of celebration that involves some kind of religious prayer ceremony. So let me start off with Dussehra. So what happens is, and as you know, our Indian calendar is a lunar calendar, not a solar calendar. So the date of this celebration varies from end of September to end of October, depending on the lunar cycle. It’s actually a nine day festival, but the main days of the celebration are days six, seven, eight, and nine. And on the tenth day, so the story goes like this:

There’s this goddess, Durga, she lives in the Himalayas with her husband Shiva. And she has two sons and two daughters. One of her daughters is the goddess of wealth, Laxmi. Her other daughter is the daughter of knowledge, Saraswati. The other son used to be the sons of fighting battles, Kartik. And then there’s the elephant god, the youngest of her sons, Ganesh.

I’ll tell you a little story about Ganesh. His mother was taking a bath and she told him that, “You know what, I’m taking a bath, don’t let anybody come in here, because I don’t want anybody to come in.”

In the meantime, his father, Shiva, comes to visit, and Ganesh says, “You can’t come in,” because, apparently, he’s never seen his father before.

His father, also a god, says “Of course I can go in, that’s my house.”

And Ganesh said, “No, you cannot go in! My mom said I’m supposed to be guarding the door and I won’t let you in.” The father gets very upset and looks at Ganesh with so much anger, that his head falls off his shoulder.
The mother comes out and sees what’s happened, and is like, “Why did you just do that to our little boy?”

So by that time, his anger has kind of subsided, and he’s like, “Oh my god, we can’t have him without a head. We have to find a new head!” So apparently, he sends people all over the world, saying, “Go find me the first living creature who’s sleeping with its head facing the East. Cut off its head and bring it to me.” So everybody goes everywhere and can’t find someone, because, apparently in India you can’t sleep with your head towards the East, since the sun rises in the East. They go all over the world, and they find this elephant. So what they do is, they cut off its head and they bring it.

And the mother goes, “What the heck! I can’t put that head on my little baby!”

The father says, “Well, I can’t change the rule, I said the first living being with its head facing the East,” so he puts the head on the child, and the child is alive.

The mother goes, “No one is going to worship him! Everyone will make fun of him! Nobody is going to respect him.” So now it is written that, before any prayer or any celebration, – anything – you have to first pray to Ganesh before you can do any official celebration. So now in every part of India, before prayer, or any celebration – a wedding, anything – you must first pray to Ganesh. Ganesh is also the God of removing obstacles, so he’s become a very popular symbol. I have a Ganesh in my house; I think your mom has a Ganesh in your house, too.

So, that is Ganesh’s story, but that is also the youngest son of Durga when she comes to visit. And so the art is her parent’s house. So she comes for those few days, with her children, and on the tenth day, she goes back to the Himalayas to be with her husband. So what happens in West Bengal where I come from, is those days are… it’s a lot of fun, all the schools, offices, colleges, everything is closed. It’s hard for me to explain. They put up all these temporary structures on the streets and stuff and then have these celebrations and, it’s like all over West Bengal. And there is food, there is music, there is lighting. So that is the story behind one of our festivals.

RB: We call it religious, but they are more social religious than just religious, because it all involves inviting people, having dinners, lunches, dressing up, having music and dances. There’s a lot of culture that is associated with these festivals, so it is not that you’re just in the temple, reciting hymns or chanting. That is a very small part. It’s all about dressing up, looking good, and eating food. That is how we keep in touch with each other. At these festivals, at these religious ceremonies as we call it, we go visit each other. We keep in touch with each other and socialize with each other. I think we use it more for socializing and less for religion, which is how it should be.

One thing I want to clarify is that Hinduism is not a religion. It is mostly a way of life. And that is why you can’t be converted to Hinduism: because, either you are born one or you’re not. And if you are born one, you are taught the way of life since you’re born. But, you can still marry into it. We do not require people to change their religion when you marry, because we just think that when you come to a Hindu household, you will learn the way of life. Hinduism does not require that you go to a temple everyday, or pray everyday. They just teach us that everything should be a part of your life: that you clean your house and take care of each other, etc.

Analysis:

It was very fascinating to hear about how many of the primary holidays in India/West Bengal have elaborate creation myths of their own. It seems that many of the holidays are tied in directly with the events of the religion’s mythology, celebrating anniversaries of the Gods’ actions and locations in the mythologies.

It seems as though Hindus really value large social gatherings, and use religious holidays as excuses to throw huge social celebrations. In fact, it seems that the point of many religious occasions is much more social than it is religious. I feel that this is likely the result of a seemingly much more inclusive and accepting religion, that values socializing and lifestyle over religious and social boundaries.

 

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