USC Digital Folklore Archives / Protection
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Protection

Wet Hair and Headaches

Context:

While out during the weekend, the I was discussing beliefs and where they might have come from with a group of friends. While talking and after hearing some examples of superstitions, the informant brought up several superstitions he heard as a kid.

In the transcript of our conversation, he is identified as S (storyteller) and I am identified as C (collector).

 

S: Apparently, according to my mom, sleeping with wet hair will give you a headache the next morning. Not sure what it is… it’s just something that I was taught.

 

Analysis:

This belief is one that deals with things not to do. I have also heard of variations of this idea. One that I have heard is that sleeping with wet hair will make you sick. Different cultures find the idea of sleeping with wet hair to be something to be avoided but provided different, plausible reasons for doing so.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Knocking on Wood

Context:

The informant is a student at USC. We began talking in a study session room while we were waiting for other people to come. In this account, he is describing a tradition he and his family does.

In the transcript of our conversation, he is identified as S (storyteller) and I am identified as C (collector).

 

C: So, what kind of story do you want to share?

 

S: First one is pretty simple. Something weird that my family does as like a superstition. It’s that, in my family we always knock on wood to break a jinx. For example, we’d just be talking and discussing the worst financial situations like “Oh, we might run out of money or something” but then we would knock on something to break the jinx.

 

C: So like the whole knock on wood thing that other people do?

 

S: Yea, exactly.

 

Yea. So, I don’t know exactly where it originates, it’s just a thing that we saw in the movies one time so when we see something that happens, we just say let’s knock on wood for that.

 

Analysis:

The notion of knocking on wood is generally well known. It’s interesting to see where this family first found the superstition. People draw stories and beliefs from all sorts of things around them. This particular kind of superstitious belief may also help promote a positive mental attitude by changing what might have been a bad notion into something that will no longer happen after completing the action.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Protection

Spitting on the Devil

Description

“Whenever you talk about something good happening, like if you mention you’re doing good, you have to spit over your shoulder three times. The Russians believe that’s where the Devil is, so you’re spitting on the Devil real quick, just to make sure that he doesn’t, uh, to make sure that nothing negative happens. Speaking of that, you usually don’t want to talk about anything good happening in the future or anything, you wanna be pessimistic. Or else it means that it won’t happen, if you talk about it a lot.”

Context

I asked the informant about his Russian culture, and he proceeded to tell me a lot about Russian superstitions and things that his family practices. He said that he first encountered this when he was very young, because when he was young he wanted to talk about what he wanted to do when he was older, but his mother would always remind him to spit on his shoulder, as outlined above.

Analysis

This is interesting to me because as someone who grew up without “culture” aka, my family is generations removed from its original culture from wherever in Europe, I never encountered the idea that talking about the future could be bad. I think this says a lot about Russian temperament that a lot of people talk about — I’ve heard that Russians are in a bad mood all the time, etc. I like the idea that something could be ruined by talking about it, as I’ve had good news that is almost true, but didn’t want to share it with people in case it didn’t actually end up happening.

 

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Magic
Protection

Disease as a result of Possession

Text:

BH: “So when I got chicken pox in like 7thgrade, no wait 10thgrade, yeah, and I remember we came back from the doctors’ with medicines and everything and my mom called my aunt and said “she has chicken pox”, which implied uske andar mata aa gayi hai [she’s possessed by the mata] so for the first three days, I was only allowed to have sponge baths and on the fifth day, the uh fourth day or the fifth day, a pandit [priest like figure] came and he put some oil and coins in a [bowl] and did something – I don’t fully remember but he performed some sort of ritual, uh he touched that oil on my feet. And then – uh it was only then that I was allowed to fully bathe in proper water. Before that I wasn’t allowed to bathe, and they all just saying “uske andar mata aa gayi hai” which like I don’t even know what that really means. And I asked my mom, and she didn’t really have an explanation either.”

BH: “Oh yeah, and I also wasn’t allowed to have onion or garlic because that is what apparently what you do when the mata [possesses you] and I wasn’t allowed to eat non vegetarian food also.”

BH: “I was only allowed to eat all this after 14 days when I wasn’t contagious anymore.”

BH: “The person [affected by the disease] is already in isolation – the family members are already treating you like some sort of untouchable and you’re basically being discriminated against at that point of time – it’s just not a good headspace to be in because you can’t go meet people, and people who visit you can’t come close…And on top of that you hear these terms that you don’t fully understand but seems negative so it just makes you feel even more low. I mean if there was some scientific basis, I would understand, but I just wish there was better terminology for it than using such words.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India. The conversation was in response to my question about any odd things that happened in the informant’s past that she did not agree with but had to partake in anyway. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. Certain key terms have been Romanized and their translations or explanations are given in brackets. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

It is interesting how even now cultural practices and beliefs like possession as an explanation of a disease like chicken pox, which is pretty well understood scientifically, persist. The informant talks about the feelings of isolation and prejudice she faced from her family which put into perspective the harmful effects of such folk beliefs when they are forced on people who don’t understand them or do not want to partake in them. Her confusion also arises from the fact that even the people around her whole seem to truly believe in this tradition don’t have an explanation for it. Often, folk beliefs are so integral to identity that they are not questioned by people who are involved in them.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Re-entry into a Home: Indian Folk Belief

Text:

MM: “See when we return home after a long time, then it is supposed to be pretty auspicious that in front of the main door of the house someone pour oil on like both sides of the door – before you like enter the house.”

MS: “Is it usually when the person is already at the door, or before they show up?”

MM: “No like when you show up, you have to wait at the door, and then someone pours the oil and then you’re allowed to enter.”

MS: “Was there ever a time this ritual was done differently?”

MM: “Yeah there was this one time when we showed up somewhere and they had already put the oil on the doorstep and the door wasn’t even open yet and it was supposed to be like a super bad omen. Like you’re supposed to do it the right way, after the people show up, not before.”

MM: “My grandparents believe in this pretty ardently and some people from my parents’ generation do as well, but we kids like definitely don’t see the point and I don’t think I’d like continue to do it if it were just me.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India, currently doing a study abroad program in America. The conversation was in response to my question about any odd things that happened in the informant’s past that she did not agree with but had to partake in anyway. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

The informant does not really understand the reasons behind the ritual herself, and is adamant in not taking part in it, but she still acknowledges the proper way to do it and the consequences of messing up even the order in which the actions must take place. I think this ritual developed because there was a time when people would often go away for long periods of time and the lack of communication abilities would imply that there was no way of knowing if and when they would be coming back. Further, there was implicitly more of a risk in travel earlier than it is now. The ritual seems to be a response of gratitude for a safe return as well as a prayer that even return be as safe and sound as this one.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Tunnel Folk Belief

J is informant, L is interviewer

Main Piece

J: If we drive through tunnels you have to hold your breath from the beginning of the tunnel until the end. And I- literally my grandpa, because he’s a psychopath as we have already discovered, his explanation to [my mom] was that literally some crane would come down and swipe your head off. So I don’t know what my grandpa was trying to teach us, but yeah.

 

L: So you hold your breath because you don’t want to get hit by a crane?

 

J: Yeah apparently. But obviously, you know that that doesn’t happen, because you’re not dumb. Because you look around and you see that there’s no crane in the tunnel because it is tiny and- anyway, it just doesn’t make sense.

 

Yeah. So but I still do it and like sometimes I mean I obviously don’t force myself, if I’m gonna die, like, yeah you know we’re good. But it’s still something that I think about when I go into town.

 

Background

The informant is Brazilian-American, and currently lives in America. Half of her family still lives in Brazil, the other half is from the U.S.

 

Nationality: Brazilian-American

 

Location: Los Angeles, CA

 

Context:

I asked about any superstitions people had.

 

Notes

I would categorize this as a homeopathic folk belief, but I’m unsure. It’s a protective/preventative belief. You perform and action in order to prevent something from happening. Very similar to knocking on wood. Although the informant doesn’t believe a crane is going to swipe her head off, she still does it, just in case. And for tradition, as well, as it was one that she shared with her grandfather.

 

Cars and tunnels are both dangerous, which can lead to a lot of folklore about them. Especially considering how much time is spent in cars by Americans, it’s no wonder that there’s so much folklore surrounding the two.

 

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Protection

Santo Toribio Romo and Protection

Background

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

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Context

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

Main Piece

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

Thoughts

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

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

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Lucky Penny

Main Piece

AO: “Growing up, I was always told that finding a penny face up was good luck.”

Collector: “Do you still believe it?”

AO: “I’d like to think I do. I still get a smile on my face when I come across a penny on the ground.”

Collector: “Is there any bad luck associated with finding it with the tales facing you?”

AO: “I never though so…it’s more so that it is just regular, or doesn’t possess the same magic. It does not have any affect on you, negative or positive.”

Collector: “Do you know of any other coins being good luck?”

AO: “No, but I think finding money in general is a good sign of fortune coming your way. In the US at least, the penny is the only one that is really associated with the good luck motif, though.”

Analysis

Finding money without an owner in public is clearly a fortunate encounter. Pennies, being the least valuable of American currency, have probably come to mean good luck because they are the most common, but also the hardest to spot. The face of the penny being Abraham Lincoln probably also plays a large part into why the coin is associated with this belief, with the president considered by many as the most influential and often considered a favorite.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Protection

Spitting in China

Main Piece

WY: “Let me think…so it’s like superstition. Whenever my mom hears something terrible or scary she will always spit on the ground. Kind of like a ways to spit out the horrible things so she won’t be hurt by those things.”

Collector: “Where I am from (San Francisco), I know a lot of Chinese people who spit deliberately like that, too, but none of them have ever mentioned that to me. Guess I know now!”

WY: “Yeah. A lot of places in China they probably have the same tradition. Chinese people also do it for general health. They call mucus and other stuff in the system ‘toxins.’ I think the air quality has a lot to do with it, so they just try to make their lungs feel as empty and breathable as possible.”

Collector: “Do you do it?”

WY: “Generally not, but every once in a while when I hear something really terrible, I end up doing it.”

Analysis

I found the informant’s insight on this tradition enlightening because she grew up in an environment where she understood the meaning of it and had had time to process it. She did not hold a strong belief in it, but in desperate times fell back on the practice that she had learned from her mother. It was also interesting to hear how a scientific idea was also put forward in order to justify it for those who would question it. The two beliefs could work hand-in-hand, and do not contradict each other.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative
Protection

Brian O’Donnell

The following is a story about an Irish legend.  The informant is represented by the letter S, and I am represented by the letter K.

Piece:

K: Tell me more of the Irish folklore you know about.

S: So, uhm, another story I’ve heard is – uh – about a man named Brian O’Donnell and uh, it was Halloween night, which is called Samhain, and that’s when the fairies uhm, move from their winter homes to their summer homes – or uh, their summer homes to their winter homes, sorry.  And uhm, when- when they do this- the trouping fairies- when they do this, they’ll usually take somebody into their fairy fort, so that they can make them dance for them, basically.  They dance and dance until the kind of, fall over and die, I don’t know. So, uh, the story goes that- uhm, Brian O’Donnell was wanting to see the fairies or something and uh- uhm he sees them – No!- he sees the fairy fort and he hears them and he goes in and he sees fairies talking about the night of drinking and dancing they’re gonna have, uhm, after they- they bring this girl back. Uhm, so he knows that he can’t just sit around and wait, so he goes and he waits outside the fairy fort for the fairies to come with the girl and when he does, he grabs- he grabs the girl from the fairies and he holds her and he’s saying, “God bless you! God bless you!” ’cause the fairies won’t come near you if you say “God bless you.” Uhm, but one of the fairies turns and slaps the girl, and uhm, gives her the fairy stroke, so from that point on she couldn’t talk. So she couldn’t tell Brian where she lived or where she came from. So, he took care of her for a year, and then, uhm, he knew that the next Halloween, he would have to do something. So he went back to the fairy fort, and he hears, uhm, the fairies talking and saying, remember that night of drinking and dancing we were gonna have, but that Brian O’Donnell, took that fun away from us. Uhm, but we gave her the old fairy stroke, so she can’t tell him anything anyway. But then, he hears them say, “if she only had three mouthfuls of that food on the table right there, she’d be- she’d be telling him everything.” So, he doesn’t hesitate and he runs, and he grabs the food, and he gets out of there and he takes the food back to his house and uhm, the girl takes a mouthful and she starts laughing. She takes another mouthful, and she’s laughing more.  By the third mouthful, she’s able to fully talk and so, uhm, she starts telling him where she lives and how to get there and so, they set out on foot, they didn’t have any horses. And it was about a 2 day walk to where she lived, and uhm, they knock on the door and her dad answers the door, and he passes out from shock because they thought they lost her, but eventually after, he hears the story, and he says, “Brian O’Donnell, you obviously love my daughter very much and uh, I would like to give your blessing for marriage.” So, they end up getting married and there we go.  The end.

Context:

We were sitting at a dining room table on Easter Sunday.  We had just eaten dinner and celebrated the holiday.  We were sitting around and just talking and sharing stories and folklore that we knew about.  The informant is my friend’s younger sister, so she lives at the home we were at and she was sitting with her friend, with me, her brother, and our other friend sat across from them.

My Thoughts:

This legend acts as a kind of heroic model for children, in my opinion.  In a lot of tales, we see characters being brave and heroic which is meant to inspire kids to grow up as courageous young adults.  I think this legend is similar in idea.  One thing I thought was really interesting, in terms of context, is that when the informant was telling me this story, her brother was sitting nearby and before she told me the legend, he said he didn’t think she should tell me because he thinks it’s a real story.  This made me think of the discussion about how different legends are so much more believable depending on where you come from.  I remember discussing that to a lot of Americans, aliens are 100% real, but in other cultures, they’re a complete myth.  In Irish culture, fairies and leprechauns have a large number of believers, but in America, fairies and leprechauns are mythological creatures.  I thought this was so interesting to witness first hand.  Regardless of whether this legend is real or not, though, I thought it was super interesting and definitely serves to act as a model of bravery with hidden religious undertones, which we see with the “God bless you” acting as a safety technique against fairies.  Another piece of context that actually kind of freaked me out a bit was right before the informant got to the part where she said, “God bless you,” one of the other people sitting at the dining room table sneezed, which was super coincidental, but kind of weird in terms of the context.

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