USC Digital Folklore Archives / Protection
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Sweeping a foot

Informant: “Someone sweeping your foot with a broom…It’s supposed to be bad luck.”

My informant is a middle-aged flight attendant and actor. He has observed this superstition his whole life, but does not recall from whom he learned it. According to him:

“I’m not very superstition but the things that I am superstitious about, I’m very adamant about those things.”

I asked him whether or not he believes it causes bad luck, to which he responded:

“I don’t think it necessarily…I just don’t…it has the potential to because that’s what superstition is. I don’t need that extra mixed in.”

He described the kind of context in which he observes this superstition:

“You know, like suppose you’re in a restaurant, um, and someone’s sweeping, one of the staff is sweeping, and then, they’re trying to get the shit up off the floor, um, there’s a time and a place for that. You don’t sweep the customer’s foot or you don’t sweep around them, you know what I mean? I think it’s incredibly rude…”

My informant is a flight attendant, and so has a fine tuned sense of how to treat a customer’s limited space. Thus it makes sense that he would be so vehemently against violating a person’s privacy and body in this way. He understands and respects the codes of the service industry, and applies them to the way he treats other people in general, regardless of whether or not he is serving them. It also makes sense that a superstitiousness and fear of ill fate would be attached to this behavior. If someone’s foot is swept with a broom, their body is, in a sense, being included with dirt and dust. It is a form of degradation that can signal an equally degrading or unfortunate future.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Never pass a knife

It is a common belief among Greek-Americans that passing a knife or other sharp object will lead to a physical altercation between the person passing and person being passed to. Instead of passing the knife or other sharp object, an observer of the superstition will place it on a table and allow the other person to pick it up.

The informant believes this superstition speaks to the passionate and temperamental nature of Greek-Americans. According to him, “Greek people are always fighting.” But while he observes the tradition, he doesn’t believe it does anything to prevent conflict, as, according to him, Greek people will fight regardless of whether or not a knife was passed between hands.

My informant is a Greek-American student at the University of Southern California. He grew up in a entirely Greek-American family in Long Island, NY. The informant and his whole family have observed this superstition for as long as he can remember. It is always observed at meals and in kitchens, where one most often finds knives. My informant often lovingly mocks Greek-Americans’ tendencies. I think it speaks to his love for the uniqueness of individual cultures, which, as a filmmaker, he is especially attuned to.

This superstition has an interesting self-knowledge verging on self-deprecation to it. It warns that a kind action (sharing an object) between people can easily turn into a cruel one (fighting) and that it’s best to avoid the kind action altogether. In this way, it is not just an arbitrary fear but also a painfully true proverb that speaks to all of our fickle and temperamental natures, not just Greek-Americans’.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Protection

San Simon

Tradition

 

Primary Language- Spanish

Secondary Language- English

Occupation- Factory Worker

Residence- Honduras

Date of Performance- 4/11/16

There is saint named San Simon that came from Guatemala. It is said that he grants your wishes if you pray and praise him. So what I do is buy a candle in his honor, typically in a store that sells a ton of candles, put it on top of a pan with leaves and burn the leaves along with the candle. I then have to walk around the whole house repeating my wish in order for him to hear my wish. I have to make sure I spread the smoke around the house in order for it to work. This then leaves his aroma and leaves good luck, fortune, and money for anyone in the house.

Wendy is from Honduras but currently resides in Los Angeles, California. She learned this ritual while researching saints that grant wishes. Her family was in a tough financial situation and she could not do enough to support them so she decided to praise and pray for San Simon. Her daughter’s father was from Guatemala and he told her about the saint and his powers for wish granting. She bought candles for him and began to praise him hoping that he would help her. After her first attempt, she ended up getting a better job where she would clean office buildings. The job was not magnificent but it was enough to help her family in Honduras more. Coincidence or not, this opportunity founded her faith for San Simon and has made her perform the ritual for years on.

When performing the ritual, you must acquire the materials and spread San Simons aroma around the entire household so when you walk around the house, little by little, your chances of San SImon answering your prayers increase.

Although many know that it may not work all the time, people still keep attempting the ritual until it does because their hope never fades. If it happens once, then people will take the slightest chance they can get and keep performing for San Simon. The ritual is mostly performed by people from Central America. Countries like Guatemala where it originated, Mexico, Honduras, and Salvador. The belief within saints spreads as some people believe or do anything to get a wish granted. The ritual did not pass on well to a person such as myself because it seemed as you were playing the lottery. There seemed to be no difference between wasting money for the slight chance of money or fortune when you also have a small chance for the same earning when you buy a lottery ticket. It is thoughts like these that can end rituals of this type with the next generation, but the folklore will always still be present in countries like Guatemala.

Reeves, Benjamin. “The Drunken, Devilish Mayan God Still Worshipped in Guatemala | VICE | United States.” VICE. N.p., 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

http://www.vice.com/read/worshipping-at-the-altar-of-maximn-the-drunken-devilish-mayan-god-beloved-in-guatemala

Another iteration where San Simon is revered as a devilish mayan god.

 

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Don’t wash your head!

Main piece:

You can’t wash your head on Mondays or right before exams.

 

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

I know it from school. I think my parents might have told me. I don’t know if it works. It’s kind of school related stuff. Something inside me says, “Oh what if it’s true.” I don’t want to risk it. But honestly, I’ve washed my hair a ton on mondays and it was fine! For exams, I feel like I’m washing all the knowledge out of my head.

 

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

I would think about it on Mondays and before exams. I wash my hair on Sundays- if I need to wash my hair, I’ll do it on Sunday but if it’s kind of clean I leave it to Tuesday. Even if my hair is super dirty, I’ll just put it up in a bun and leave it filthy until after my exam.

 

Personal Analysis:

This hints about the importance Ana’s culture places on academics. As she mentioned in her telling, she was worried about washing the knowledge out of her brain. I work with her, and she is constantly studying or doing work for class. Perhaps that is why she’s so concerned about losing the knowledge- she’s put in too much effort to sacrifice any of it to a shower drain! As she was telling me this saying, another co-worker mentioned she had heard the same thing from her Indian parents. It seems as though this saying may not be exclusive to Moldova, but has traveled southeast through Asia and to the Indian subcontinent.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Bury the Broken Glass

Main piece:

I did theater growing up, all through elementary, middle, and high school, and my theater teacher was a character. She basically spoke exclusively in proverbial terms, or in, I don’t know, sayings and quotes, and very very superstitious as well. And so, this one time we… we were a part of a competition play where different high schools from my state would travel to one high school to perform and we’d be judged based on how we performed. And, we did not do that well, we- well, our performance was really, really good. I think it was one of the best performances I’ve ever been in; it was an absurdist play. But, it didn’t make it through. And earlier that day, a cast member had broken a mirror in the dressing room. She found out about it later, and she was livid. She was really, really upset that we didn’t tell her about it, and I guess she went back to the dressing room and grabbed the mirror, and took it with her home, and brought it back later, maybe a week later or something to bury it at the high school where we broke the mirror because I guess she heard somewhere that you need to bury the shards of the mirror to reverse the curse of the seven years, uhm….. So she’s pretty crazy, she’s awesome, I love her, but definitely… pretty wacky.

 

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

Oh, she told us, yeah. She told us, like, the next day, “I went back and I buried the mirror… in the ground of the high school. It just reminds me of her character, and uh… I think, I don’t believe in superstitions, and this is kind of out there, but… yeah. It doesn’t mean anything to me especially, I don’t think there was a curse and that’s why we lost, I just think that they either didn’t understand the play, or didn’t like it for whatever reason, and I don’t think it was reversed once she buried it or anything like that. I wouldn’t bury a mirror… definitely not.

 

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

You bury shards of a mirror… when you break it. Whenever you break it- it’s not exclusive to performances or anything.

 

Personal Analysis:

This superstition is not directly linked to theater, though the informant refers to it as if it were specific to the stage because that was the only time he had heard of it performed. Mirrors are often the source of folk belief, thought of to posses magical powers. Breaking a mirror in many cultures is considered bad luck, though I had never before heard a remedy to this curse. The informant also mentions a 7-year curse. I assume that to be associated with the breaking of the mirror itself- if it shatters, the curse –whatever it may be– lasts for 7 years.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Don’t Tread on Me!

Main piece:

So, uh… in baseball, there’s a universal superstition that in the way on to the field and off, on defense, it’s customary to step over the white line. Never on the white line! Because if you don’t, it’s believed that your team will lose.

 

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

Playing baseball. I don’t like it… I have to do it. It’s not about whether you like it or not. It’s about whether you like winning or not. It means the difference between victory and defeat.

 

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

It would be performed on the baseball field. On every baseball field, everywhere. Only during games. The superstition probably came from not wanting to mess up the line. I bet someone was like, “Man, I hope no one steps on this, I just fixed it. Uh… don’t step on this line, or you’ll lose!”

 

Personal Analysis:

This folk belief was discussed in class as well, so it was interesting to see it revisited outside the confines of a folklore class. The informant had some insightful comments about the origins of the folklore itself, and I must agree that the ritual came to be after a white line on a baseball field was scuffed one too many times. Baseball is one of the most superstitious sports, known for rituals and beliefs that seem outlandish from an outside view but are incredibly coveted by the practitioner. I was lucky the informant was comfortable enough to divulge this ritual with me- most are kept in secrecy, from fear of the act working beneficially for the wrong team.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Foodways
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Gestures
Homeopathic
Kinesthetic
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Sunken head remedy

Iliana Cuellar

“When I was a baby, the soft spot on my head caved which I guess just means dehydration. But my mom is very spiritual and she thought that she could take me to a “curandero” which is a spiritual healer (kind of like a witch) who then held me upside down by my ankles, poured honey on my soles, and smacked my feet which is said to be the cure for the sunken head.”

 

Background: This happened in El Salvador, and as many people cannot afford doctors and hospitals, folk remedies and spiritual healing are the most common forms of treating illness.

 

Analysis: This is a ritual combined with folk remedy. It is not so much mixing ingredients together for homeopathic remedies that might work physically, but more a ritualistic healing. Holding the baby upside down might have been a somewhat logical response to a caving of the head- sending more blood to that extremity. However, pouring honey on soles does not seems to have much meaning beyond ritualistic and spiritual, and smacking feet also the same in that respect. Lack of access to formal doctors and medicine drive parents with sick children to witch healers.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Game
general
Magic
Protection
Signs

The Sandman

LaRose Washington

 

The Sandman

Origin: Puerto Rico

Story: When you go to sleep, the sandman comes into your dreams. He makes sure that you fall fast asleep.

Meaning: he is the one who helps you stay asleep.

Usage: Usually parents say it to their child when they want her to go to sleep. They’ll say, “If you don’t go to bed soon, the Sandman will miss you.” Also adults say it when they are ready to go to sleep. “I’m going to go see the Sandman”.

Analysis: This is an almost folktale creature in its conception, yet mentioning the Sandman usually seems to just be folk speech. While children might conceptualize him as an actual being, it seems that adults use it primarily as a form of expression or euphemism. His usage creates a calm and non-frightening incentive for children to go to sleep, which is probably the only effective way to make them sleep: it would be rather hard to frighten them into obedience with the boogeyman in this case, as they would never go to sleep. Presenting him as someone you would meet in your dreams, therefore, someone benevolent, is probably the best approach parents can make.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
general
Legends
Magic
Myths
Narrative
Protection
Signs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire
Tales /märchen

La Siguanaba Character

La Siguanaba

Origin: El Salvador

Informant: Cesar Henriquez

“Her name was originally Sihuehuet, which is Nahuatl (Native Americans of El Salvador) means beautiful woman. She used her charms and got help from a witch to get a Nahuatl prince (Yeisun) to marry her. After they were married whenever the prince went to war Sihuehuet would have affairs with other men. From one of these affairs El Cipitio was born. The father of El Cipitio was a god called Lucero de la Mañana. Their affair was apparently an insult to the god of the sun (He was the god of gods). Anyway, Sihuhuet decided that one day she was going to get another witch’s help and poison her husband Yeisun during a big event, and take the throne for herself, to eventually give to Lucero. The potion took an unexpected effect and turned Yeisun into a huge monster that killed all the attendants at the festival, and destroyed everything and ate all the food from the feast. Eventually the guards’ struggles paid off and they killed the two-headed monster.
“When Yeisun’s father found out about all of this he was piiiiiissed. So he begged help from the Sun god to curse Sihuehuet and her illegitimate son. The Sun God, having been greatly insulted by Lucero, took this to heart and turned El Cipitio into what I explained before. As for Sihuehuet, he condemned and cursed her for life as well. She would from then on be called La Sigüanaba (or Sihuanaba in some versions of the story) which is also Nahuatl and means hideous woman.
“The legend goes that she is always seen only by men traveling along at night, or by kids lost at night as well. She is always at water’s edge, either a lake or stream or fountain in the city when no one else is around. She is always seen from the back, usually naked, combing her long beautiful hair. She takes the shape of a beautiful woman, or the man’s girlfriend, or the kid’s mother. They say she’s always out looking for her son, El Cipitio. As the men or kids approach her they are more and more captivated by her beauty, or by the fact that they see their girlfriend/mother sitting there naked combing her hair. They get closer and closer and eventually when they get close enough, she turns to face them. She has the hideous face of a horse. When people look at her they are most likely to die, but if they don’t then she goes to touch the men/kid. When she does the person she touches goes insane and it’s incureable. She’ll then lead them out further away from people and leave them lost, away from cities or anywhere that they can be found. It’s pretty trippy honestly and thinking about her face creeps me out.”

 

Analysis: This is an urban legend conflated with mythology. The gods of Nahuatl, the native religion, are part of the mythology, and are responsible for things like sunrise, the sun, animals, etc. La Siguanaba was a mortal woman but interacted with them, which puts her story close to mythological status. She becomes a reviled figure firstly because of infidelity: this is not only against social norms and is meant to warn people away from breaking it, but might also impose male patriarchy against women cheating on men rather than vice versa. Notably, she was only cursed when she got a son from the affair, which would certainly threaten patrilineal systems. Yet when men see her, they only see their mothers or girlfriends: it is unclear whether this points to an existing conception of fidelity for men. Certainly, it seems to warn them against cheaters. Yet also against their own wives and mothers, implying perhaps that even they cannot be trusted.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Magic
Protection

Mal de Ojo

The informant, LF, is a 45 year old woman who grew up in Panama. In Panama, there are a wide range of cultural influences, including American Indian, Spanish, Catholic, and Carribean traditions, each with their own superstitions. Here the informant tells a story about a superstition and a folk medicine tradition that affected her own family:

 

“So there is the belief that some people have what is called in Spanish, “Mal de Ojo”, and it means that you have so much intense energy in you that if you look at something that is weak, like, “Oh, what a beautiful flower!” that it will die. So “Mal de Ojo”, when it comes to babies, it is believed by some people in my country that is very dangerous because babies are vulnerable and defenseless. If you have that power in you and you look at a baby, even though you can be admiring the baby and thinking about how cute it is- if you have Mal de Ojo in you, you can kill this baby. Just by looking at the baby, the baby will get very sick, and they may even die.

So, I’m telling this story because it is so widely believed. And my parents say that it happened in my family- that it happened to my brother. I was really young when this happened so I don’t really remember. The only thing I remember is my brother getting a very bad fever and being taken to the hospital many times. He was really sick. They took him to several doctors and nothing worked. Finally, they took him to a witch.”

Your parents took your brother to a witch?

“Yeah, they were desperate! We are talking about people who believe in science! But they took him to a witch- the witch was a man- he said, “Lay him down on the bed.” And they did. The witch said “Do you see what I see?” My parents didn’t know what he was talking about. The witch said my brother was showing the telltale signs that he had been “hit” with Mal de Ojo- “one of his legs is longer than the other!” And when my parents looked at my brother, they swear- they swear to this day- that one of his legs was longer than the other.

At this point my brother was burning with fever. This man said that the only cure for Mal de Ojo was to go to the person with Mal de Ojo who had looked at the baby, and ask for a garment, like a shirt, and ask the person to urinate on the shirt. And while the urine was still hot, to wrap the baby in the shirt. He said that as the urine evaporated, the fever would break and the baby would get better. But my parents didn’t know who it was who had looked at him. My mom says that the day before my brother got sick, they had been at a public bus station with a lot of people and many people had been playing with him and looking at him.

I don’t remember the rest of the cure exactly. I know it involved a lot of praying and asking for Jesus to help the baby. They also had to get Holy Water from the priest and spray it on the baby. It involved all many elements from both official religion as well as from witchcraft. Eventually my brother got better, but what the medical doctor said was “Listen, there are so many viruses out there that kids get like stomach viruses or upper respiratory infections, and they get a bad fever for days. Since you can’t really treat a virus with antibiotics, you have to wait until the virus is over.” So I guess my brother had a virus like that and it was a coincidence that he got better right after they took him to the witch.”

So you heard this from your parents?

Yes, from my mom.

Was it something a lot of people did?

I do not know if a lot of people do it, but since there are witches who make a living out of this, I suspect it’s really generalized- the belief that you can go to one of these guys and tell them “my boy is sick and I need a cure” or “I’m in love with someone and I need a love potion”. So I suspect that many people believe in that kind of stuff, Personally, I don’t.

So what does this story mean to you?

It means that when people are desperate, they are willing to do anything and believe anything in order to get an answer, or get better, or to stop being scared.

Was this a story your parents shared with other people or was it kept in the family?

I think it was in the family. I think it was a bit of a secret. It wasn’t exactly a happy story that they wanted to share with everyone- it was very scary for them.

 

My thoughts: Before the Spanish came to America, many American Indian cultures had rich traditions of shamanism and folk medicine. Clearly, some supernatural beliefs and folk medicines still live on in Panamanian culture that have origins in the country’s native populations. While something like “Mal de Ojo” may not fit into Western medicine, I thought the commentary about the places where you might catch the illness- public, crowded spaces like bus stops- may have some truth to it. It is easy for an infant with a weak immune system to catch a contagious disease in a public place were many strangers are playing with them. So whether the explanation is founded in the supernatural or the scientific, there is definitely wisdom in this folk belief.

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