USC Digital Folklore Archives / Gestation, birth, and infancy
Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Tales /märchen

Nang Nak

Nang Nak (Nang meaning Mrs. in Thai) was married to her husband when he was sent off and had to go away to war. she was pregnant and she died they say when the woman died with baby inside the spirit is very strong and she loved her husband very much. She died and no one told her husband that she had died and when her husband came home she was there to welcome him, but it was actually her spirit. The Asian houses are very tall, and one day she was making curry and pounding the chicken and she dropped the tool all the way down. The husband offered to get the pounder but instead she extended her arm unnaturally and got it. The husband ran away and she cried and cried but at the end he ran away. Everytime you say it in Thailand people will know what you’re talking about. People make it into a movie and people like to go see the movies.


Background: This is a fairly well-know story in Thailand, according to my great-aunt. There have been several movies made about it. She said she used to get really scared as a child because people would circulate this story. She knows it just from hearing it from many different people as a young child. I conducted this interview live at my uncle’s house, so I heard these stories in person, but it was still sometimes fairly hard to understand because my aunt has a very thick Thai accent which is sometimes hard for me to hear, so I have to ask her to repeat certain things. I think this story is a great piece of folklore, especially as it is well known in Thailand and there are a few different versions of the story – regarding what she is cooking specifically and what she drops and picks up with her extended arm, and what happens after the husband runs away. I really enjoyed this piece even though it was kind of freaky.

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Spitting on Babies and Crossing your Heart; Protection from the Evil Eye

A is an 18-year-old woman. She is currently studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. She considers her nationality to be American, but more specifically she is one quarter Greek Cypriote, one quarter German and half Argentinian. that being said, she strongly identifies with her Greek roots. She is fluent in both English and Greek, and is currently learning Mandarin.

A: Oh, you have to do the cross every time you pass a church or God will be angry. It’s a good one. Like my Grandmother will be driving and she’ll do the [sign of] the cross.

Me: God will be angry?Are there reprecussions if you don’t do it?

A: I’m unaware. Oh my God, the Evil Eye! Katherine Dupas still wears hers.

Me; Oh yeah we talked about that in class!

A: There’s an idea that if someone sends negative energy towards you and thinks ill will of you then something bad will happen to you. That’s kind of what it is. If you don’t cross yourself it’s not that you necessarily have something negative towards you it’s that you won’t be as protected by God against the negative energy and stuff from the Evil Eye.

Me: So the Evil Eye is…?

A: Other people being malicious towards you.

Me: So the Evil Eye is the symbol of that? And the cross in front of the church protects you from that?

A: Yeah.

Me: So why do people wear the Evil Eye?

A: Cause then it also protects you from the Evil Eye.

Me: By wearing it?

A: Yeah, cause the Eye looks at the other eye instead of at you.

Me: Ok, I get it now.

A: This is also why old ladies, old Greek ladies spit on babies and small children. When they’re like “ptou-ptou” it’s because there an idea that people who are attractive will incur the Evil Eye because of their beauty people will envy them, so you’re supposed to spit on them for good luck and also make them less enviable.

Me: So you do that to babies because you don’t know or because they’re young?

A: Cause they’re young and adorable, and you don’t want someone to be envious of their adorableness and send them bad vibes.

Me: Aw, who would wish terrible things upon a baby?

A: The Evil Eye works in weird ways.

A talks about

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Babies and Voodoo dolls cure- Egypt

informant: ” babies get sick often right .. cause obviously their immune system isn’t developed fully.. but for people of ancient times and for less educated people.. they don’t know that.. they don’t know how the immune systems developed and what not. So when a baby gets sick its obviously not a medical reason.. so they have like a sort of voodoo doll a paper voodoo doll. and instead of this culture instead of the voodoo doll being something that you use to inflict harm on someone the voodoo doll is used to ward off evil .. so what they get is they get the paper voodoo doll and the doll is supposed to be the baby and you get a needle and you poke the eyes of the voodoo doll over and over and you say something to the effect of from this eye to the other eye i brake this jinx or i brake this curse and you keep doing it for a while i don’t know how long i missed that part.. cause anyone could have jinxed it right..  and so your just kinda like from this eye of this person i’m breaking the jinx on my baby  .. i don’t know it gets kinda dark.. but you get the doll and you burn it so that spirit is burnt while you do that . and then while it’s burning you take the baby and you pass it over the burning voodoo doll back and forth and then once the burning turns into black ashes. you take the ashes .. you take the ashes and put a black cross on the forehead.. both palms and both feet. and you let the baby sleep it off and the baby is supposed to be good in the morning but obviously you didn’t do anything to make it heel. that one is really interesting its really dark my mom told me to pray afterwards .. God let not these stories actually curse us..

Collector: what do you guys call the voodoo dolls

informant: i don’t know

Collector: do they practice voodoo in Egypt?

Informant: No not really anymore

Collector: did they used to?

Informant: Like way back in the day


Informant: You fully appreciate how much literacy plays a part in your life like people back then couldn’t read even the bible so they didn’t know it was contradicting their beliefs

what percentage of Egypt is christian

like 20 i think.


This story comes from sam’s family, his mother specifically. He was born in Cairo and his  family is from Cairo but his parents parents are from the south of Egypt which is the “hicks ” of Egypt. he claims that the south is where more traditional folklore and superstitions come from. His family are Coptic Christians. Sam believes that these superstitions are neither christian nor Muslim but actually developed in ancient Egypt. He moved at a young age to Bakersfield and now attends the University of Southern California.


I found this story interesting because of many reasons, one thing to point out is that this voodoo in Egypt is somewhat like Santeria because it shows traces of syncretism with christianity. Although the ritual involves a doll and fire and non christian practices, the ash is then used to draw a cross over the forehead which is a christian practice during ash Wednesday. Santeria is usually associated with a Spanish conquered culture but in Egypt i don not know what we would call it, because the syncretism is with Coptic Christianity, and the routes of Voudon are much more direct since Egypt resides in Africa. I also found it interesting that voodoo dolls are meant to cure not harm, maybe my informant was lacking information, or maybe it reveals what it’s syncretism with christianity has meant for the rituals particularly making them more pacifist in magical nature rather that dark in magical nature because it would be considered a sin.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy


Informant: If you lose your upper teeth you have to throw it.. bury on the ground.. in the ground.. and if you lose your lower teeth you have to throw it on the roof and this is because.. its a wish for growing your next teeth.. growing straight up.. that’s it.

Collector: did you do this as a kid?

Informant: Yes.


My friend Junsuke who was born and raised in Himeji Japan, told me this story one night that we had been drinking a tad. In comparison to many cultures i have noticed that there are many things that come with teeth. a ritual of sorts and a wish or treat. this may be universal or just widely spread because all humans lose their teeth as kids.

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle

teeth- Venezuela

Informant My parents told me this story and I practiced it as a kid..So.. In the US the tooth Fairy is what picks up children’s teeth when they fall out… but.. in south american culture we change the tooth fairy for the “Mouse Perez” or  in Spanish its  the…”El Raton Perez”  and… the practice is the same … as the .. um … american.. where the child puts the tooth.. under the um.. pillow .. but it’s a mouse.. instead of a ferry.

I recorded this From my friends Girlfriend, Sara Segura, they both gave me an account of teeth customs, and i think together both accounts can be analyzed not as variants but similiar rituals. While this specific account can be analyzed as oichtype of the tooth fairy. She was raised in the United states but both of her Parents are immigrants from Venezuela.

Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Las Mañanitas


The informant is my best friend from middle school. He has a twin sister and is older by a couple minutes. He currently works for the California Gas Company and on the side does voice overs for D.J. drops. 


Every year on my birthday my grandma wakes my ass up early in the morning to sing me Las Mañanitas which is the Spanish version of Happy Birthday. Basically, she’s my alarm clock on my birthday. She’s been doing it for 20 years without fail. I love my grandma, but that shit drives me crazy. She wakes me up at 6AM to sing to me.


Estas son las mañanitas
que cantaba el rey David.
Hoy por ser dia de tu santo
te las cantamos a ti.
Despierta, mi bien, despierta;
mira que ya amaneció.
Ya los pajaritos cantan;
la luna ya se metió
Que linda está la manãna
en que vengo a saludarte;
venimos todos con gusto
y plazer a felicitarte.
El dia en que tu naciste
Nacieron todas las flores
En la fila del bautizmo
cantaron los Ruiseñores
Ya viene amaneciendo
Ya la luz del dia nos dio
Levántate de mañana
mira que ya amaneció
Si yo pudiera bajarte
las estrellas y un lucero
para poder demostrarte
lo mucho que yo te quiero
Con jazmines y flores
Este dia quiero acordar
Hoy por ser dia de tu santo
Te venimos a cantar
These are the mañanitas
King David sang.
Today to be your holy day
you sing them to you.
Wake up, my love, awake;
look already dawned.
And the birds sing;
the moon and got
The morning is bordering
when I come to say hello;
we all come willingly
and plazer to congratulate you.
The day you were born
They born all the flowers
In the row of baptism
It is already dawning
And the daylight gave us
Get up tomorrow
look already dawned
If I could get off
stars and a bright star
to prove
how much I love you
With jasmine and flowers
I agree this day
Today to be your holy day
We come to sing
This version of the happy birthday song is a lot different from the American version. It has many religious ties which makes the song quite unique in its own light. It shows how much Mexican culture intertwines with Catholic religion.
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cameroonian Pregnancy Rituals & Beliefs

My informant is the mother of a USC student. She is an immigrant from Cameroon and came to America with her husband and son before giving birth to their daughter.

“A pregnant woman would, should…at all cost avoid seeing what she would consider as ugly until the gives birth. The fear, is that uh, her baby will become ugly if she does. It is also believed that if she eats a cobra before giving birth that it will speed the delivery of the baby. Again, this—cobra—is a delicacy usually reserved for only, for only the men. If you have not realized it yet, my people in every way see women as less than equal to men. A good woman is supposed to be behind her husband. He must have the last word, she must sleep behind him, she must please him at all cost. This is of course…changing with the access to higher education and influence of western culture. Divorce rates are soaring and more women are opting to marry later, not get married, and not have children…husbands are even blamed when their wives are troublesome because they cannot control her!”


Analysis: This belief illuminates the importance of beauty within Cameroonian culture. Especially in the case of the birth being a girl, it would be desired for her to be beautiful so she could marry a wealthy and handsome husband. In addition, the allowance of women to consume cobra during pregnancy demonstrates that women who are bearing children are considered of a higher status than women who are not, because they are allowed to eat foods that are typically reserved only for men (who are looked at with more respect within Cameroonian society). My informant made a point of reiterating that men in their society are more highly valued than women, however also made note that within the western world these beliefs have lost value due to women in the United States being able to attend school and support themselves without a husband. Of course there are communities and families who still adhere strictly to these beliefs even though they live in a western nation such as America.



Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Italian Superstitions

My informant is my best friend’s mother. She comes from a very Italian family, and learned a lot of folklore from her grandmother. She is a fascinating woman who has traveled the world. She has a wide knowledge of Native American history and folklore. She is involved with the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a diverse group of women from around the world who are devoted to prayer. She lives on Nantucket, so I was able to Skype with her one day to talk about things she has learned from her Italian heritage, in particular, as well as her other vast knowledge of folklore from around the world.


[On her Italian Heritage]

Informant: “I’ll start with my Italian Hertitage because it’s very familiar to me. For example, the Italians were very superstitious for one thing,  I can remember my Great Grandmother would say she could tell the sex of a baby if they used a needle like a pendant over the woman’s belly, if it spun in a circle it meant it was a girl and if it went in a straight line it meant it was a boy. The other one I remember distinctly was my Grandmother said you can never open a gift before the actual date, you should never open it before you birthday because it’s bad luck. I remember being with my mom with her mom once and her mom was not happy about the fact that my mom opened a gift too early… and we left the house and we got to the bottom of the hill [in Italy] and the brakes didn’t work on the car and our car went out into the highway! The present was to blame.”


Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle

Dead Baby Jokes

Informant: I know a lot of dead baby jokes, unfortunately.

Collector: Do you remember any of them offhand?

Informant: I do, actually. They’re all coming back to me. Um, what’s red and silver and keeps running into circles? Or, sorry, circling into walls?

Collector: What?

Informant: A baby with forks in its eyes.

Collector: (gasps). Oh no!

Informant: What gets redder and redder and shorter and shorter?

Collector: What? (muffled by hand over mouth in fear)

Informant: A baby combing its hair with a potato peeler.

Collector: (screams).

Informant: (chuckles at Collector’s reaction).

Collector: These are horrible! I have not heard these before. Like, I’ve heard dead baby jokes before but much more tame!

Informant: Oh yeah. These got terrible.

Collector: …Do you have any more?

Informant: Yeah. Why’d the baby fall out of the tree?

Collector: Why?

Informant: Because it was dead. Why’d the koala fall out of the tree?

Collector: Why?

Informant: Because it was stapled to the baby. Why’d the giraffe die?

Collector: Why?

Informant: The tree fell on him.

Collector: Oh my God.

Informant: Which, you know, doesn’t make sense because why are the giraffes in Australia?

Collector: Yeah. Where’d you hear these? Just in high school going around?

Informant: Yeah! Well, I found them all online.

Collector: You found them online?

Informant: You just look up ‘Dead baby jokes’ and there’s your repertoire of however many dead baby jokes.

Collector: So you took time out of your day to look these up?

Informant: Yep! I took time out of my day to find them. And I told them to people and the ones that I just told you were the best of the best.

Collector’s Notes: We talked a bit about dead baby jokes in class when we talked about humor, and we noted that they come up a lot in booms of baby births.  I also think that it is another way of breaking the tension that comes with talking around taboo topics, such as death, and more seriously, infant death.  It something that has always been a part of our culture, but is seldom really talked about.  People avoid talking about it at all costs, really.  But people can use these jokes to bring up a taboo subject, and talk about it in a way that isn’t tip-toeing around being politically correct or PG.  It’s also a display of a dichotomy of themes.  Mostly people connect babies with the idea of purity and innocence, and murder as the complete opposite.  We take something soft and sweet to heighten to effect of the really horrible topic by contrast.  Also, I think that they’ve been perpetuated because of the clear divide about feelings toward the jokes.  Some are very, very offended, and others think that the conservative need to lighten up and “take a joke.”

What else is interesting about this is the combination of cyberlore and actual word-of-mouth.  In this case, the Informant went online to find jokes that they could later share in person with their friends at school.  I imagine it was a trend and therefore there was more effort put into finding and sharing them.  This is a way that the internet and person-to-person interaction mesh into one being.





Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“String and Ring Test”

The informant’s family comes from the Bahamas. She was born in the Bahamas and is a talented Bahamian woman. Her mother and she were extremely close and she learned a lot of the folklore that she shared with me from either her mother or from being with her mother. Eventually her family moved to Florida where they learned American cultures and were able to compare and contrast the two. 

The custom…

…is performed if a woman is pregnant at her baby shower. A ring is paced on a string and she holds one end of the string in one hand and the other end of the string in the other and pulls the string so that the ring will move. If the ring swings back and forward the baby is predicted to be a boy, and if the ring stays in the middle of the string the baby is predicted to be a girl.

The informant born in the Bahamas and raised in Florida, learned this custom as a young girl. Her mom would take her to baby showers of her mother’s friends. “It was so exciting” the informant said, “to go and experience the pregnant ladies as they would celebrate the new life they were creating”. At these baby showers, very similar to the ones we in American are use to, they perform different customs or rituals to either predict the baby’s gender, when it will be born, and just as a well to celebrate the almost to be mother and the new life she would carry inside of her. To explain it to me (a Wyoming resident with no exotic traditional background) the informant said, “You know like the old wives tales? That is kind of what this is. I know you’ve heard of the saying If the belly is high the baby is a girl and if the belly is low the baby will be a boy, it is really similar to that I guess. My culture just does it [the string and ring custom] for fun, but we actually believe in it [its results]“.

When asked how this tradition started, the informant replied, “I’m not sure, I’ve never asked where they got it from, I just remember it being performed at almost every Bahamian women’s baby showers I’ve went to. I am sure the ones where it wasn’t performed, probably the woman pregnant wanted the gender [of the baby] to be a surprise”. If mothers don’t perform this when they want the gender of their baby to be a surprise, I suspect that usually the custom has correct answers which is really neat.


I think that this custom, ritual, or tradition is sort of similar to the “belief” that Americans have about pregnancy from old wives tales. I was extremely happy when the informant connected her custom to a belief that I was familiar with to help me understand why they do it. Similar to here, I think that the custom is sort of for fun, but when it boils down to it, whatever the results of either how a person is carrying their child or what the string and ring test shows, is a legitimate prediction of the gender of their child until it is born and they are able to learn the truth.