USC Digital Folklore Archives / Protection
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Protection

Knocking on wood

After declaring something positive regarding his or her future, an observer of this tradition will knock on wood to ensure that the future does not turn out the opposite. Knocking on wood is a way of avoiding a jinx, or the opposite of what one hopes to happen turning into a reality after one expresses that original hope. An observer of this superstition will say “Knock on wood,” literally knock on wood, or do both in order to avoid an ill fate.

My informant always does both, and with a laugh to accompany it because he knows others view it as silly. He doesn’t believe that it literally wards off ill fate, but he does believe that it affects his mental space in a way that manifests into a more positive reality.

I asked him to describe this effect and he said:

“It doesn’t matter whether anyone else is into it, it just matters to me. As long as I get my head ok, then everything else is fine.”

I asked if he learned it from anyone else, to which he said:

“No, I figured it out on my own.”

I asked if anyone else in his group of friends or family observes the tradition to which he replied:

“No, I’m the only freak.”

My informant is a 44-year old massage therapist who lives in Pasadena, CA. He struggled with OCD as a child, and ever since then, has worked hard to maintain a calm inner life. Those with OCD often have their thoughts manifest themselves into ugly realities. They think something irrational, and then they do something irrational. So it makes complete sense that my informant would use this tradition as a technique to avoid that very pattern. I imagine for many, knocking on wood is not just an abstract superstition, but a small yet effective way of quieting their minds.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Protection

Never touch another man’s dice

Informant: “There’s minor traditions that lots of gamblers have and stuff, like you never touch another man’s dice.”

Collector: Is that observed in D&D [Dungeons and Dragons]?

Informant: Yeah, in general, it is. And you almost never reach over for somebody else’s dice. You know, you have your little pile in front of you. If someone needs to borrow one, it’s ok if someone hands you one, ya know, but you don’t go grabbing at other people’s things like that.”

Collector: Is that something you observe?

Informant: “Yeah, yeah, I would say 99% of people that play it…”

Collector: Did you ever make that mistake and then learn not to?

Informant: “[laughs] You know, most people do because of a perceived unluckiness in that if you do that, it, it, it is…I want to say it almost always ends up being a horrible role, you know, somebody else’s dice, especially without permission. [laughs] It always ends up with the worst possible thing that could happen. [laughs] And I don’t know if that’s actually what happens or just everybody notices it, you know what I’m saying? [laughs] But I’ve seen it many a time from some newb that steps up on the mound.”

My informant is a 44 year old male who often plays board games and role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. I imagine he observes this superstition not only because he believes it has an effect on luck but also because it shows respect for other gamers. It speaks to a larger culture of mutual respect and commonly accepted ground rules that exists within gamer culture, one which allows game-playing among lots of people to function smoothly. I find it really interesting that those who take another’s dice are the ones punished with bad luck. In this way, this superstition serves as a warning to keep everyone in check.

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.

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