USC Digital Folklore Archives / Old age
Myths
Old age

Vision before death

My informant is an American from New York, whose family originally came from Poland 100 years ago. His grandfather was a baker and his grandmother was a peasant girl.

“In my family, when my relatives are dying, they will always see someone who is dead before them, like they’re calling them. Like when my grandmother died, she saw her husband. (But how do you know about that? They’re dying right?) Yeah, but you know, like, when my grandma was dying, she would say ‘did you see grandpa? Grandpa was here.’ It’s within a few days, that week. And my aunt did that too, ‘I saw Raman’, which is her husband, who died 20 years before. I don’t know, who knows?”

There might be some other scientific explanations on that phenomenon, but I think it also make sense to me that when people are dying their brain uses this way of reasoning to release their fear toward death: there is still a good side about death that you’re gonna meet with your beloved one who has also been dead.

 

Customs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Korean Birthday Count

Main piece:

In Korean, the new year counts as a year. So I’m technically nineteen or twenty in Korea.

 

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?):

My mom- when I was younger, I would ask my mom’s age. This was when I was really young. And my answer would always change. And when I realized they were always changing… I asked why. She explained that she gets mixed up about her age because America doesn’t count new years as a birthyear. It’s almost like a communal birthday for everyone. It has to do with renewal, and rebirth, um… like a new year. New year is one of the biggest holidays in Korea. It’s like Christmas and thanksgiving combined. And I think since it follows the lunar calendar, It follows the idea that we change on the same day as well. Like against our will. I don’t identify as twenty years old. To me, it doesn’t make sense, and I guess that’s my american side. I feel 18, if not younger. So, it’s not very particularly special to me other than the fact that it represents how much Korea loves new year. My mom is technically 50, but I think in Korea she’s 53 or 54, I don’t even know. I think Korean’s just love being older than people. It’s so hierarchy based. Even if you’re months older, the younger one has to respect you. If an older person hits you on the train, no one can save you. They’re allowed to because they’re old.

 

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

This is performed every new year. When you’re born, you know how in america you’re 0 years old? You’re already a year old in Korea, they count in the womb. And you get another birthday on New years, and then another on your actual birthday. So you’re always one or two years older than your biological age. So my mom would be like “I’m forty!” “I’m forty two!” “I’m forty one!” and I’d be like mom what are you…?

Personal Analysis:

This piece was especially hard to follow- I needed the informant to explain to me time and time again how exactly the years were counted. It reflects an innate belief among Koreans that the elderly should be respected. The older a person is, the more prestige and immediate respect they receive. In American society, women strive to be younger, even going so far as to lie about their age. In Korea, there are traditions put in place to extend the age of a person meanwhile their biological age remains the same. The piece also touches upon the importance placed on the lunar New Year. It is so important that Koreans count it as a year on their own age, and everyone in the country celebrates their birthday with the moon.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Old age

Baba Yaga

Ekatherina Chumakova

 

Баба Яга (Old Lady Yaga)

Baba Yaga

“A scary old witch who lives in the forest in a hut that has chicken legs. She is usually like a boogeyman figure who will kidnap and eat children if they don’t behave, or if they wander alone into the forest. Baba Yaga is generally malicious, and flies around in a stoop with a broom for steering. She eats children and hapless travelers in the forest, and is said to be immortal. At the same time, if you’re a hero in a legend, she will give you tests and if you pass them, she can’t eat you and must grudgingly point you in the right direction. She is not always immediately evil: often she will pretend to be a kind old lady who is very hospitable, and will offer you a place to stay for the night. But most of her hospitality is a trap: the water with which you bathe might be boiled, the food might trap you in her clutches, and the bed makes you fall asleep so she can prey on you. However, she is often wise and if you can use common sense and get around her sometimes obvious traps, she will aid you in your quest.”

Analysis: This is a legend which also has links in numerous fairytales. Propp identified her as a typical villain figure, or, more often, a test for the main hero that he needed to pass in order to succeed. Baba Yaga does not usually seem an active figure unless she is dealing with children. This is probably used in stories to children in order to make them behave and not wander off into the woods. When it comes to adults, however, Baba Yaga does not seek them out but rather waits for them to come to her. There are many, many different conceptions of Baba Yaga in Russian folklore. Her appearance as an old woman both gives her an appearance of wisdom and age, and might also represent the separation of old women from society and family life in some respects: she is no longer bearing children, nor can she actively participate in household chores. In the village life in Russia, old women were sometimes seen as a burden, one more mouth to feed that had no concrete wisdom to give (being a woman). The idea of old women as witches is also a very popular one in Russia and Europe. That she has a broom reinforces the image. However, it does not accuse all old women of witchcraft, unlike Europe and the US: this is a singular character with a single name, as well known as ‘the boogeyman’ or ‘La Siguanaba’ in other cultures.

 

Customs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Kenyan Funerals

Description: “Since there are 42 tribes in old traditions. I’m in from four different tribes. Luya Kikuyu, Luo and Messai. For traditions we adhere to the Luo traditions the most. But even still it’s not, we’re kinda moving away from that. It’s kind of more for the older people.  After the person is taken to the funeral home, they’re brought back to the family home and put in a room, like where people are. If they had family near by. And then there’s a process of two or three days until the burial which normally happens close to the family home. There’s a burial site which is usually right near the home where the whole family is buried. The burial site is close to where you live as opposed to you being close to the burial site. It’s better to be buried with your family but if not that’s ok. But like in the city and like where I live people are buried in the cemetery. So there’s that difference compared like to my grandma’s place. There’s usually a service where they service food before the burial service and then everyone gathers around. A few people say a few speeches about the person. And then, after that the actual burial happens. They throw in roses at the coffin as it goes down there. Once it goes all the way down people will throw soil like take handfuls of soil and toss it in. If there’s enough time everyone will throw soil in but most of the time there’s not enough time so it’s usually just the main family characters, people that were close to the person. And then after that there’s also food is served. Traditional foods are like beef stew, mazen beans, rice, mashed potatoes, things like that.”

2. He knows about these customs because his grandmother told him. He’s been to some funerals but nothing exactly like this one.

3. I walked into his room and asked if he could tell me about Kenyan folklore. This was one that he told me.

4. Because Kenya is so new, It’s adopting the Western traditional methods of funerals. That’s why he’s only been to contemporary funerals. Still, there are not too many differences between his way of funerals and the Western way. We carry a lot of the same traditions and ideas.

Foodways
Holidays
Life cycle
Material
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Dia De Los Muertos

“Day of the Dead. It is just the celebration of the past ancestors. It’s celebrated before Halloween or on Halloween, I’m not sure. Wait – it’s November 1st. we usually celebrate it by going to the cemetery and having a picnic, setting up their favorite food and celebrating their memory. Who they are and who they are as a person.”

 

Do you have a favorite memory from this day?

“When we celebrated my grandfather. We celebrated his memory here in the States. We set up a little shrine for him and set out some of his favorite food: sweetbread and molé.”

 

When did you start celebrating this day?

“When my grandfather died so when I was like five.”

 

Who usually participates in this tradition?

“Usually the whole family. Usually go to the big family plot and visit all of the family members, the ones from recent memory.”

 

Analysis:
I think this celebration is very popular in one form or another for many cultures in order to celebrate the dead. I think it is unique that the informant and his family in their culture celebrate all of their dead on one day. They remember their recently deceased and memorialize them. This tradition enables the family to mourn and celebrate the passing of important people in their lives and bring them together as a whole.

Gestures
Old age

The Traditional Kenyan Greeting

“When you greet someone who you consider reputable or older than you, you greet them by shaking their hands with both of your hands. You keep on holding on until they acknowledge you and say thank you. Usually, you do it with people you don’t talk to every day, like the parents of your friends.”

In Kenya, it is traditional to shake another’s hands with both of your own hands when greeting an elder or a person of high status. Because the other person is meant to have the control, it is they who decide how long the handshake should last. You are only supposed to let go after you have been acknowledged.

The informant, Alastair Odhiambo, is a 19-year-old international student who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. Alistair and his family have deep roots in the country, so he is confident that he knows a great deal about Kenyan folklore. Although Alastair does not remember who taught him how to properly shake an elder’s hand, he does know that he picked it up after observing how other Kenyan children interacted with their superiors. He claims that Kenya has long valued respecting elders, so this tradition is only a reflection of that belief.

It is always interesting to see how ancient values and beliefs are still maintained in today’s modern culture. Even though it may not seem like much, the way young Kenyans shake the hands of their elders says a lot about the country and what they believe in. It reveals that all elders and people of high status must be treated with honor and respect. The fact that Alastair was able to learn this common practice simply by observing others tells us that it is popular and that it is used quite often.

 

 

 

 

 

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Myths
Narrative
Old age
Signs

Lechuza (Mexican folklore)

TK: What did you learn growing up in New Mexico? Any good folk tales or proverbs?

TB: My aunt used to tell us about the Lechuza. She was an old woman who could turn into an owl. I guess she was a witch.

TK: What did she do?

TB: I’d have to check for all of it. I remember she was supposed to have stolen babies, and would sometimes fly over your house at night. You could tell if she was around when you heard an owl. My aunt told us we were supposed to whistle at the owls and they would leave, it was like scaring her off. Except those normal sized ones were harmless, but they were like her messengers or something. The lechuza was supposed to be a lot bigger, like human sized. Sometimes people would shoot …. or try to injure the owl if they thought it might be a lechuza and then they would find a body the next morning of an old woman, but I never heard about that being for real.

THE INFORMANT: Male, mid-twenties, who grew up in a second-generation Mexican family in Santa Fe, NM. He was reluctant to recall the details of the story, but grew more enthusiastic after he recalled certain elements. He also recalled that his aunt was very spiritual and would often tell stories of this type to him and his brother and sisters while they were growing up, although now he does not put much stock in them, but still finds them interesting.

general
Gestures
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Respect for your Elders

S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.

S: Do rituals count as folklore?

Me: Yeah.

S: Ok, so like, one of the things is like when you meet an elderly person, you like place their hand on your forehead.

Me: Like your hand. on your forehead?

S: No, like I would take your hand and place it on my forehead, like the elderly person’s hand. Like, it’s called, um, Mano. M-a-n-o. Yeah, so it’s just like a sign of respect, you do that with everyone, like even people you don’t meet (know), like if their really elderly. And like you always add like the word po, p-o, at the end of every sentence.

Me: P-o?

S: Yeah, ’cause it’s just like a sign of respect for, like, regardless of gender, you just, you like add it. so you say like, oh, like in the Philippines you’d say like “Oh, come, let’s eat,” and then you would add po at the end. It’s just something like that. It has a lot to do with respect and just like valuing those kinds of uh, values.

Me: Valuing their age I guess. And like their wisdom maybe?

S: Yeah. Exactly.

S explains the ritual, or practice, in the Philippines when meeting an elderly person. You take their hand and place it on your forehead. You do this out of respect, to honor their years and their wisdom. Respect is a common theme in both the Chinese and Filipino traditions and rituals that S has talked about, as well as many other Asian cultures.

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cherokee Death Rituals

The informant is my grandmother, a Cherokee woman born in 1932. She worked as a nurse for her entire career, though has been retired for some time.

In this piece, my grandmother talks to me about Cherokee death rituals, and what our family does when someone passes away.

M: There’s this ritual we Cherokees do when someone passes away. We did it when your grandpa passed away, and we did it for everyone since then.

Me: Okay, what is it?

M: We usually only do it with the boys in the family. When one of the men in the family die, we go and prepare the hole where they will be buried, but many times they won’t be buried for a day or two. So, all the older boys in the family, like your cousin Eric and Pat, go out and camp next to the grave to protect it from bad spirits.

Me: Oh, really?

M: Yes. Pat and Eric and Randy and them went out during that winter storm a few years back to protect your grandpa’s grave.

Me: So do they do this at every grave?

M: Mostly just those who are buried at the family cemetery.

Me: Who else is buried there?

M: My dad, his brother. My brothers. Your grandpa is the only Barber buried there.

Me: What does the rest of the family do while they’re out there camping.

M: Usually the night before the funeral everybody comes to someone’s house, like my sister’s for your grandpa’s funeral, and we sing songs.

Me: Any kind of specific songs?

M: Some old Indian songs. Songs from a long time ago.

Me: That’s really nice. It’s a sad thing, but it’s nice.

M: Yeah. I think your grandpa would have really loved his.

This ritual features a lot of different actions taken place by various members of the family. I think the reason the men are the ones who sit by the grave site comes from old traditions where men were the protectors. This was there responsibility, and in a way their honor, to protect the open grave so that their relative could have a peaceful rest, undisturbed by evil spirits. It kind of gives me “it was the least I could do” vibe. I also think singing songs is a way for the family to remember their loved one and what they liked. Songs are very important in people’s lives, and can reveal certain things about them: what’s said in the lyrics, what kind of song it is. It makes use feel connected in a way to hear the songs a deceased relative loved, because we know they would be listening to the song too if they could.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Old age
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese Funerals (Taiwan)

This is a Chinese thing. After someone passes away, like Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, whoever, it’s like a very long two-week, three-week ordeal where there’s a ton of praying, there’s a funeral where you go to a funeral home and then you pray for hours. You have to do like a special thing where you like put your hands together and bow and nod your head, it’s very, just….culture. Culture.

 

Do you say things? Is it silent prayer?

 

Yeah you have to say like, I don’t know, my mom told me I forgot. Sorry. But okay so for the death thing, they’ll…I cant remember exactly but they take the body to like a temple where it gets burned…

 

Is this after the praying?

 

Yeah, there’s praying for like a week, not like a straight week, but like – get up, go pray, get up, go pray, get up, go pray. So yeah you pray for a week while everything’s being prepared, like all the ceremonies are being prepared. So then you go to the temple, and while the body’s actually burning in the furnace you keep praying, a ton of people are there, even the grandchildren. You keep praying while it’s burning, and then afterwards my mom told me that they took out the tray, or whatever he was on… There were still some bones left, because bones don’t burn unless they’re cracked, unless the heat from the fire cracks them open or something. So apparently my grandpa’s femur bone and like tibia or something was still left there, so the grandkids have to go and pick those up…and then I forgot what she said they did with them! Um, I’m pretty sure they burned them or somehow like, crushed them. So they eventually burn all of them. And then they put him in this little box, his ashes. And actually there might be some other traditional things in there, sorry I don’t know. So, I mean this is for my family, I’m sure if you’re richer I’m sure you get like a special temple somewhere like really nice, but he was actually a veteran, so he was buried in the veteran cemetery. And it’s way different than our cemeteries, it’s like green grass, it’s taken care of by caretakers every single day, it’s beautiful, it’s up in the hills kind of, it’s really nice. So the whole family was there, my cousin, uncle, aunt, grandma, and other family members, and one of my cousins put the box on his back, they strap it on so they actually carry it up the mountain, all the way up to where his gravesite is. And then you bury the box in the ground. Also I don’t think you wanna like, take pictures of this because it’s kinda like, you’re capturing the soul, and you don’t wanna do that cause then the soul wont be able to go up to heaven. Or like the Chinese heaven. So I mean they didn’t take pictures of the box directly, but they took pictures of like the hills and stuff. And then they just pray some more, like say their goodbyes at the grave.

 

ANALYSIS:

This is a funeral ritual which involves a very lengthy and specific process for proper mourning, treatment and burial of the body and ashes, and symbolic acts. There is a specific time period of mourning, and even poses and physical actions in mourning; there are specific roles that different family member play in the ritual according to their ages; there are superstitions and beliefs regarding how the deceased’s spirit or soul gets to heaven, and how to do everything correctly so as not to interfere with that transition. The whole process seems to be both in support of the dead family member’s transition to the after life, as well as the family members remembering, honoring, and making sacred that person and their life.

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