USC Digital Folklore Archives / Magic
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Witch in Georgia

Context: The collector is interviewing the informant for tales. The informant (as GL) is a Chinese USC student who went to high school in Georgia. His classmates told him this story in a history class, the content of which was related with witch hunts.

 

GL: The story happened when there was witch hunting.

Collector: In the US?

GL: Yeah probably. So there were too many hares and they ate up all the crops. So hunters wanted to hunt them down. There was one particular hare that was gigantic, very huge. And so they go consult the witch. They cannot catch the hare so they go to the witch for help. The witch is like, “Okay you guys should just go to this place to find it (the giant hare) and don’t let the giant black dog lose and just let it chase after the hare.” The hunters don’t know what that means. They keep that in mind and they find the giant hare. During the process (of pursuing the hare), a giant black dog jumps out of nowhere and takes a bite on the giant hare’s hind leg. The hare ran off. The giant black dog also ran off. The hunters went back to the witch and was like, “We found the hare, but sorry that we couldn’t keep track with the black dog coming out of nowhere.” But what they figured out was, you know, on the hip of the witch, there was a bite mark like where the dog bit the hare. I don’t remember what happened to the witch later. Sorry.

Collector: Do you think this story happens in Georgia?

GL: Yeah I guess so. You know, there was a time in the 17th or 18th century where there were witch trials and people were suspicious about witches causing misfortunes, you know.

Collector: Do you think people view the story as a legend or just a fairy tale?

GL: Apparently witches are not real. They were just unfortunate women accused as witches. I guess it has some sort of authenticity with it. Well it also can be completely made up by people.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

As the informant has mentioned, the legend is probably developed in the time of witch hunt. People of that period of time blamed natural factors that had negative impact on their daily production on witches and transferred their anger to innocent women. I think the tale is interesting, and it makes people remember the dark time of witch hunt.

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.

Legends
Magic
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Menstrual Blood in the Food

Background

Location: Tarzana, CA

Informant: M.S. - Black, female hairstylist in her late 20’s, born and raised in Los Angeles but has family in New Orleans, LA

Context

Overheard in a hair salon in Tarzana, California. M.S. is a stylist that was working at the salon, speaking to her client. Told in the context of Louisiana witchcraft. The collector has heard this piece of folklore told many times before this encounter.

The Bayous of Louisiana are well known to the locals for being places of witchcraft practice and voodoo. Many local wives-tales revolve around the idea of this witchcraft having real effects. I have summarized the telling in my own words below

 Main Piece

The tale goes that if a woman wishes to “keep” a man, or ensure that she and the man will stay together romantically, she should put her menstrual blood in his food while she is cooking and serve it to him. This will create a mystical and unbreakable bond that influences the man to stay as her partner.

Thoughts

I have personally heard this wives tale told to me from members of my family that still reside in Louisiana. The folklore itself points to both an interest in Louisiana witchcraft and the belief that those methods can be employed by common folk to help them achieve certain goals, specifically when relating to other people and controlling them through supernatural means.  Stories like this circulate and are based in areas of Louisiana that are known for witchcraft, specifically Black, female witchcraft. The informant seemed to tell the story as though she believed there was some merit to the idea of witchcraft, as she expressed that it would be foolish to attempt witchcraft as it could have dangerous effects on the “caster.” It is a common held belief in Louisiana that witchcraft is not to be trusted and should be treated with caution.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Holidays
Initiations
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Eating Almonds at Persian Weddings

Description

“Whenever someone gets married, it’s a tradition to eat almonds at the wedding so that the wife becomes fertile. I first saw this at the first Persian wedding that I went to when I was, like, eight years old. They put little bags of almonds underneath every single guest’s seat during the ceremony. At the end, when they marry each other, all the guests take out the almonds and eat them. Obviously, I was confused when it first happened, and my mom said, ‘Oh, you do this so the wife becomes pregnant.”

Context

I was with friends when the informant offered this piece of information. We had been talking about how people our age (early 20s) are getting married very quickly, which then devolved into a conversation about weddings, both traditional and not. The informant learned about this custom, as outlined in the description, through weddings she celebrated with her own family, and she learned through observation.

Analysis

I think small details like these within larger events or celebrations are very interesting. In high school, I learned a lot about fertility charms, such as the fertility goddesses made of stone. The act of eating almonds raises a lot of questions for me, questions aimed at wanting to know why almonds, why eat them, etc. I’ve not been to many weddings, but my first thought when I encountered this ideal was — what happens if someone is allergic to nuts?

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Magic

A Cat Giving Birth

Description

“They say that when the sun is out and it’s raining, a cat is giving birth. My mother would say it all the time, but I remember one time we were in the car and we were driving, I was a toddler. It’s raining and it’s sunny, and she would say, ‘Oh look, a cat is giving birth right now.’ I asked her, ‘How do you know, mom?’ and she was just, ‘It’s just true.’”

Context

This conversation came when I was discussing the rain back where I am from, and this informant as well as another discussed their beliefs surrounding rain while the sun shines. The informant heard it first from their mother, when they were in the car and driving, as outlined in the description.

Analysis

I found it interesting that I had two different people from two different cultures reflecting on this belief that there had to be something happening because it was raining and sunny at the same time. The closest thing I remember believing is that after a rain, or if there was a rainbow while it was still raining, there was a little leprechaun and a pot of gold at the end of it. My friends would make jokes about God peeing onto Earth, of course, but that was the most of it. I love that different cultures have different explanations, but I cannot begin to think what witches and rain and sun have to do with each other.

 

Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Predicting Children- A Korean wedding ritual

Main Text:

Collector: ” You mentioned the clothing of the bride and groom that is traditional to Korean Weddings, but are there any acts that the bride and groom perform at most weddings that you have been to?”

HK: “I do remember one actually. So after the wedding ceremony, the bride has a white cloth that they have to drape and carry around their arms and someone else would have to carry the bottom of it because they are really long. Usually the groom’s parents will toss little ball-like objects into the air towards the bride and however many the bride can catch with this cloth determines how many kids she will have.”

Collector: “Does the cloth have a specific color like the clothes did?”

HK: ” I think the cloth can be any color but usually I have seen it as a white cloth.”

Context:

After I asked HK whether or not there were specific acts performed at Korean weddings she listed out many traditional pieces ranging from the color of the clothes the bride and groom are supposed to wear all the way to this piece about predicting how many children the new married couple will now have has been to family weddings in Korea as well as in the United States and and observed these wedding rituals in practice. When asked about her interpretation about why Korean weddings contain this act she said that children and family are a large part in Korean culture and that once a couple gets married it is expected that they jumpstart the process to conceiving children, so the act of predicting how many children they will have is a sort of precursor to this. I also asked her why she remembers this ‘performance’ specifically and if she would do it at her wedding to which she responded, ” I remember it because I thought that it was a really cute thing to do for a new family and I like to think I would do it at my wedding too because it is a fun part of my culture.”

Analysis:

The ritual that HK is describing is a ritual that is used in many Korean weddings to present day and the “ball-like” objects that the bride is catching are dates (대추), also called jujubes. While the weddings HK described in particular use the dates as a way of predicting the number of children that the couple is going to have this ritualistic act can also be interpreted in another way that is very similar to her explanation. The dates that the bride catches also symbolize the fertility of the bride and her ability to bear many children. As HK explained, children and family are very important to Korean culture so it makes sense to have such an act in the wedding.

Another explanation for this act is that it could figuratively symbolize the “deflowering” of the bride.  Proof of this symbolic deflowerment is that balls are being tossed into a cloth which is supposed to represent fertility or one’s womb and since the cloth is white , it is also supposed to represent purity and virginity. To many cultures, marriage is not necessarily about love but instead building a home together as well as procreating. This being said, the symbolic deflowering of the bride represents this belief that marriage is all about the next generation and establishing a place for your children in society. I think that this wedding tradition continues in traditional Korean Weddings because it is does, as I mentioned before, serve as a nice precursor for the family that is to be built by the newly married couple, which Korean culture places a heavy influence on.

Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Black Cats Superstition

Main Piece:

“Black cats are bad luck.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 19-year-old female. I asked my informant if she knew of any superstitions people live by.  To this, she responded,  “black cats are bad luck.” My informant does not remember when she first heard this superstition, but she thinks it was around the time of Halloween. She claims she also saw it in a tv show she watched as a child called, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In the show, the black cat was friends with the witch. The informant states that a black cat is a sign that something bad is going to happen. For example, if you are going somewhere and you see a black cat it means something bad will happen in the near future. The informant recalls,

“One time I was driving in the car with a friend and her dad, can’t remember who it was, but we saw a black cat crossing the road and my friend’s dad turned around and drove the other way. My friend says that every time her dad is driving, and he sees a black cat he has to turn around and take an alternate route.”

The informant says she does not believe this is true and feels bad for black cats because everyone thinks they are evil.

I too have heard this superstition that black cats are bad luck. It is interesting to note the association with color. The color black is often used when referencing fear, mystery, evil and death. All of these themes are common around the time of Halloween, so it makes sense the informant believes to have heard this superstition around that time. One also wears black to a funeral to represent the mourning of a loved one. Therefore, seeing a black cat by the color alone can imply death. Death is a mysterious subject terrifying for many people. The black cats’ color can be enough to make people fear the superstition. Cats are also animals that hold a lot of mystery. Often it is said cats have nine lives. This makes the superstition that black cats are bad luck even more fascinating because if the color black is associated with death, and cats have nine lives, could this have some sort of implication that cats can take lives? An intriguing relationship to note.  When looking into this superstition I also found a reference to it in the book Fearful, Spirits, reasoned follies the boundaries of superstition in the late medieval Europe by Michael David Bailey. He also speaks of the association cats have with demonic beings and magical connections.

Bailey, Michael David. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies the Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks Straight Into Your Rice

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never stick their chopsticks straight up and down in their bowl of food. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone, and I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad. The informant told me the she learned this from her parents, and that this taboo is highly integrated into Chinese culture—“no Chinese person would ever be found doing this…” Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 Text:

“Especially in the countryside, when they bury a person, they stick a stick on top of the section of land that they use to bury a person. On the stick, they tie little white strip of cloth to the stick, and this serves as the gravestone.

Because chopsticks are quite literally sticks, we can’t stick them straight up and down into our food because it too closely resembles the gravestone. Doing this is essentially a call to bad luck, because if you do it, you’ll bring death to both you and your family.

I honestly don’t know if I fully believe in this custom, but because it’s been so ingrained in my culture, seeing people do it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it just seems safer to not do it and to teach my own friends, family, and kids to not do it.”

 

Thoughts:

This is a taboo that I grew up knowing, but never understood why it wasn’t allowed. I remember my grandmother scolding me when I was around seven years old for sticking my chopsticks straight up and down in my bowl of rice, but when I asked her I couldn’t do it, she told me that it would give me indigestion. It actually wasn’t until this year, in college, when one of my friends that I made here (who also happens to be Chinese) and I were talking about the weird taboos we had grown up, and she mentioned that the chopstick one seemed to be a stretch because it was supposed to resemble a gravestone. Surprised, I decided to ask my informant about this taboo to clarify the reason for its existence.

I did some further research after my conversation with the informant, and I found out that there is more than one way that sticking your chopsticks straight into your food brings death: apparently, Chinese people stick burning incense into rice to honor the dead. Breaking this taboo can bring bad luck to you because no one is dead, so it’s as if you’re summoning death by honoring yourself. This is an example of sympathetic magic: the Chinese believe that if you make a gesture that resembles something bad in the world, you’re making a calling to it. I also noticed that this is not limited to only Chinese culture—in Japan, sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl is also considered taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of the person who has just died either at their deathbed or in front of the photograph.

 

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection
Signs

Why You Can’t Write Your Name in Red

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 

Text: 

“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.

In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written.  Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).

So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.

Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.

This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.  

 

To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:

Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2

June 2016,

www.visiontimes.com/2016/06/02/a-chinese-taboo-never-write-other-peoples-names-using-red-ink.html.

 

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection

Why You Can’t Split a Pear

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening, and the informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people can’t split pears when they eat them.I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad luck.Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription). In this conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as S.

 

Text:

S: Um, so, um, Chinese people have a lot of traditions that determine what you can and cannot do. So, in my family, my grandparents told us that two people can’t share one pear. In Chinese, the pear is pronounced “li,” but it has another meaning as well, which, when translated to English, means “separate.” So if a couple shares one pear, that means that they’ll eventually separate and can’t keep their marriage. If a mother and daughter split one pear, they have to separate– just, two people can never share one pear. But, for some reason, three or more people can share a pear; it’s just that two people can’t share a single pear or else they’re destined to separate.

 

K: Do you take this seriously?

 

S: I take this VERY seriously. When I cut a pear, only I eat it, only my daughter eats it, or only my daughter eats it. If my husband and daughter unknowingly eat slices of the same pear, then I will make sure to grab a slice for myself and eat it.

 

Thoughts:

Just like my informant, I also grew up with my grandparents telling me of this taboo that I can’t share a pear with someone. Frankly, I agree with it—as a Chinese person, I’m quite superstitious, and even when I think some of the traditions I follow are a bit ridiculous, it never hurts to abide by them just to be safe. The fear about sharing a pear makes sense— “sharing a pear” in Chinese is 分梨(fēn lí), which is a homophone of 分离(fēn lí), which means “to divorce” or “to separate.” This taboo seems to have elements of sympathetic magic, otherwise known as “like produces like.” “Sharing a pear” sounds just like “separate” in Chinese, so by sharing a pear with someone, it’s the equivalent action to separating with them.

In a cultural context, family in China is so important. We are raised to be extremely loyal to our elders; everything we have, from our knowledge to our place of privilege, is because of them. So why would you run the risk of being separated from them? This type of folklore is performed because we like to feel that we have control over processes like relationships. As humans, we have this feeling where we can’t control the bad things that occur over the people we love, so we attach this fear we have to rituals. These rituals, which include taboos and prohibitions are practiced to protect our social bonds.

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