USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk Beliefs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Astrology

Collected privately in an empty hallway while his friends played a horror game in the other room, which he returned to after the interview. I began by simply asking, “What do you know about astrology?”

The informant first heard about astrology around the age of 6 or 7, when her family told her about the Chinese Zodiac signs.
Informant: “Astrology? Umm, you mean, like… star signs and stuff? Um… base level, a bit. Like, know, I know there’s like twelve signs and all that, and… um… I d- I don’t know what, what I would say. I know a little bit… The twelve signs, there’s, like, personalities assigned to each of them, and…”

Interviewer: “Do you know those?”

Informant: “All twelve?”

Interviewer: “Any of them.”

Informant: “Uh, Pisces, Aries… Aquarius…”

Interviewer: “Do you know the traits associated with any of them?”

Informant: “Uhh, like, Pisces is a dreamer, super, no super emotional. Cancer is also super emotional. Aries is, like, the, ‘Yeah! I’m awesome!’ self-confident sort of person. Um… Libra is a balanced person… [smacks lips, thinking] Mmm…………. I don’t, [sighs] I feel like I’m going to get Leo wrong. Le- I, I think Leo’s also another very self… not self-important, but, like, self-inflated one. They’re like… ‘Me first, I’m awesome. Let me be courageous and help.’ Um……………… [Quietly, in thought] Yeah Cancer’s super emotional, just like, ‘Ha! I’m here.’….. Yeah I don’t know a lot about all of them, I just know that they exist and there’s a connection between them all [laughs].”

Interviewer: “Do you know what your star sign is?”

Informant: “[Quickly, excited] Uh Pisces!”

Interviewer: “Do you know anything else about it? What it means? How you get it?”

Informant: “Mmmm… It’s- I know you, you- It’s assigned based on the months. Like approximately one per month, but it’s actually shifted over a little bit. I can’t remember if it’s forward or back, like… M- It’s February 28th to March 18th for Pisces, I think, and it’s the last one, so accordingly, Aries would be after that. Umm……. I don’t remember where it originated; I used to know. I used to be a lot more into this stuff [laughs]. Uhhh…….”

Interviewer: “When did you first hear about it? Why did you used to be into it, and not anymore?”

Informant: “It was a middle school thing, I was very, like… I was at that sorta phase where I was like, ‘Ooh let me just get on Google and research a bunch of stuff.’ I did a lot of weird stuff like Googling – specifically the stars. A lot of, like, research on black holes and… that led to astrology cause astronomy is connected to it.”
This informant knows only a little about astrology, but like others, knows about her own star sign. Like some others, she connects astrology to the Chinese Zodiacs.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Astrology

Collected privately in an empty hallway while his friends played a horror game in the other room, which he returned to after the interview. I began by simply asking, “What do you know about astrology?”

The informant first heard about astrology around the age of 7, most likely from his parents when he became curious about star signs.
Informant: “Um….. Well… I personally don’t believe in it. I do know it uses, like, uh, you know, the idea is that if you look at the stars, you can predict what’s going to happen in the future, and that, you know, it’s like a combination of the positioning of the stars and the various star signs and that kind of thing, and then the alignment of the planets and that kind of thing. And you use that to predict other things, like, depending on what month you were born in, for, like, whatever your star sign is, it changes what the meanings are, and, you know, generally, generally, you know, like… like… like with a lot of, like, that kind of stuff it’s just very, very broad statements that you can sort of apply to anything, which means that you always feel like confirmation bias-wise that, um, you know, whatever you’re being told is correct.”

Interviewer: “Do you know what your star sign is?”

Informant: “I’m born in November… and I’ve always forgotten whether I was Sagittarius or if I was something else. I don’t remember, but…”

Interviewer: “Do you know what the traits for each sign are?”

Informant: “No idea… [Sudden realization] I was born in the year of the ra- no was I born in the year of the rat? I think I was born in the year of the rat… But I’ve forgotten what that means as well.”
This informant does not know much about astrology; He is not even sure what his sign is. His understanding is that it is mainly used to predict the future. He also, like some others, connect astrology to the Chinese Zodiac.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Astrology

Collected privately in an empty hallway while his friends played a horror game in the other room, which he returned to after the interview. I began by simply asking, “What do you know about astrology?”

The informant first heard about astrology from his teachers when he was in elementary school, around 6 years old.
Informant: “Ummm, I’m trying to make sure I don’t get it mixed up with astronomy, cause I know there’s a difference, but I don’t know exactly much about it, so… I know it’s not astronomy, right?”

Interviewer: “If I said it has to do with stars and star signs, would you know?”

Informant: “Ooooh that makes s- yeah okay, that’s… Well I know there’s like, a lot of people have the Zodiac sign thing happening? Where they’re, like, ‘Oh this is, like, I’m a Leo,’ or, ‘I’m a Sagittarius,’ or, ‘I’m a Cancer,’ and they can, like, find out where, what the constellation looks like and sometimes it relates back to, like, the calendar, like, kinda like personal, like, type that you are and what you’re about.”

Interviewer: “Do you know what your sign is?”

Informant: “I am a Leo.”

Interviewer: “Do you know what traits match up to each sign?”

Informant: “Not really. Like I think there’s some kind of, like, confidence or leader thing to it? But I don’t take that seriously. Mmmmm… Somebody said Leo’s don’t get along with other Leo’s, and that’s all I got.”
This informant does not know much about astrology, but does know his star sign, as well as some of that sign’s traits. He, like some others, somewhat connects astrology to the Chinese Zodiac, but he is adamant that it is different from astronomy.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Material
Protection

Pre-Race Breakfast

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about some of his experiences at USC; particularly, I asked him if he knew of any strong traditions at USC (aside from the obvious ‘Fight On’!). The subject is a member of the USC Triathlon team and is very active and involved on the team. He described one of the strong pre-race traditions as having a regular breakfast before the grueling, hours-long race. Different teammates have different foods that they eat, but each individual on the team always eats the exact same thing before every race. Though I’ve categorized this as a tradition, this ritual also has elements of folk superstition as well—even though the athletes might not necessarily personally believe that eating the same pre-race food is lucky, it implies that it is a special ritual for them.

Main Piece

“Traditional foods that we’ll have for, like, breakfast, like, it’s not really routine as in like more traditional and meaningful. My food is pretty lame—it’s just oatmeal—but it’s sort of a comfort, like a pre-race food. And like everyone has that. Some people have like PB and J.”

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

“Worms in Your Stomach”

Context & Analysis

The subject used to swim competitively in high school and often had to deal with having wet hair. Her mother used to tell her the belief below to frighten her into keeping her hair down. Even though she recognizes that it is a folk belief, the thought of getting worms in her stomach was a deterrent to tying up her hair (and potentially damaging it). The subject stated that her mother most likely learned the saying from her grandmother, and she is uncertain if it is a belief that is shared by anyone outside of her family. I find it interesting that she continues to heed her mother’s warning despite not believing it herself.

Main Piece

“So my mom tells us that we’re going to get worms in our stomach if we tie our wet hair—not joking. Not joking. Yea. So when I was younger and started swimming I used to see all of the older girls in the locker room tie up their hair in really tight buns after swimming because obviously you don’t like the feeling of wet dripping hair on your back cuz it’s really gross. So I started doing it and my mom was like ‘[Subject’s Name] not only is this going to damage your hair, ‘cuz you’re going to rip it out—’cuz wet hair is weak hair or whatever— but you’re also going to get worms in your stomach’ and I didn’t believe her. But when my grandma was in town she started saying the same thing, and I thought ‘If this old lady is saying something, chances are she knows even more than my mom, so I probably shouldn’t tie it up anymore’ and I’ve never tied it up when it was wet since.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Knock on Wood

Subject: Folk superstition. “Knock on wood”.

Collection:

“Interviewer: On the morning of a race, what would you do if someone said something about your own car running well, or someone else’s team maybe being on the frits, what would you make everyone do?”

Interviewee: When somebody would comment in that fashion, for 22 years of racing in Baja, the old knock on wood would come out. So I would make the whole crew knock on wood. Which typically was chrome molly.

Interviewer: How many. So for you the chrome molly was a good sub- good enough substitute for wood?

Interviewee: Tha- because there’s no wood in a lot of places down there.

Interviewer: So you didn’t do your head?

Interviewee: Nope, we knocked on the car.

Interviewer: Knocked on the car. Interesting.

[laughter from his wife]

Interviewer: Um, how many people were on the crew?

Interviewee: Typically, about twelve of us.

Interviewer: So all twelve people, you’d make them all stop the important work they were doing to make them knock on the chrome molly of the car?

Interviewee: Uhhh, all who were standing around at that time, yes.

Interviewer: So if someone was occupied, say, racing, they would not have to knock on the wood?

Interviewee: They would not have to knock on the wood.”

Background Info: S. Taylor grew up in Southern California he grew up snow skiing, water skiing, motorcycle driving, jet skiing, playing volleyball, and racing cars. He first heard the expression as a kid from his parents and the other adults on trips to the river, the Salton Sea, and Canyon Lake. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, C. Taylor and has one daughter.

Context: This story was shared over dinner after I asked my father if there were any activities, sayings, or traditions for him and his buddies either when they raced in Mexico or when they now attend off-road races. The only piece of shared culture he could recall is himself forcing everyone to knock on wood if something was said to potentially jinx the race.

Analysis: Off-road racing is particularly dangerous, more so than driving on the normal highway or around town, despite there always being a threat of danger. The practice of knocking on wood is employed to counteract any negative effects that might emerge because of someone saying something that is desirable, and you don’t want to jinx it. On the surface, this activity embodies the normal practice of knocking on wood. First, the trigger is a verbal expression of a positive outcome or aspect of a situation then someone says, “knock on wood” which triggers everyone in earshot to knock on wood. Second, it is an expression of people trying to gain autonomy over an unsure or indeterminant outcome or situation. If you say to a friend, “You studied hard for you Organic Chemistry final, you are going to do great!” They might tell you to or they themselves might knock on wood. The indeterminant future contains the material on the test, if the person will remember what they studied, and the grade they will receive. By knocking on wood, a person is showing their desire to control and fix one outcome, usually one that is most desirable to them.

However, the situation is distinct since an unusual material is used as a wood substitute and there is an effort to have unanimous participation by all in a group. First, my dad specifically mentioned that they would knock on the chrome molly of the car. In traditional enactments of the knock-on-wood counter curse, if real wood is not present, the only true substitute is one’s own head (a suggestion that the person’s head is made of wood or that the person is imbecilic for enacting this tradition). As a matter of fact, if one knocks on any other substance, a double jinx is enacted. Here, S. Taylor, cites choosing chrome molly as a suitable substitute because it is the only material present in abundance. I propose that the chrome molly is more significant since it is the primary material that makes up their race car. In racing, not only are the racers not in control of the wiles of fate, but they have very little control over the mechanics of their own car. By knocking on the car, they are enacting additional magic in the sense that they are doing a physical action on something to create a desired effect (be that the race or the car) to ultimately gain “a say” in the outcome.

Second, S. Taylor made it clear in the initial conversation and many times during the meal that everyone present was forced to knock on wood. Typically, only the speaker of the jinx is forced to knock on wood. This differentiation shows the element of teamwork and comradery shaping tradition. By enlisting the whole pit team and the drivers, a sense of importance is being diffused amongst all participants no matter their role in the outcome of the race. All have a shared liability in the outcome. Similarly, it reinforces a sense of belonging and purpose for the group when performing their individual roles. The counter curse is enlisted at the expense of their competitors, increasing morale and restating team members’ responsibility in working towards the success of their team.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Vitamin C

Subject: Folk Medicine. EmergenC and ice cream.

Collection:

“Interviewer: So… I’ve been feeling a little under the weather lately and like I feel like a cold might be coming on. Do you have any recommendations for which to proto push off this impending illness?

Interviewee: Ice cream and EmergenC… It totally keeps you from getting sick though. When you were in your junior year and I forced, well, uh, convinced you to take it every night before you went to sleep, you did not get sick and everybody else was. It’s true. And it’s more- it works better if you take it at night because you’re- it gives more time for your cells to absorb it.

Interviewer: That’s not how the body works…?

Interviewee: Yes! Because you’re- you’re not putting any more food in so you’re not like, your cells can take all the nutrients out of it. It’ll keep you healthy.”

Background Info: C. Taylor grew up in Southern California. She had a close relationship with her mother and paternal grandmother who both believed in the natural healing powers of alternative medicines. C. Taylor has worked at a chiropractor’s office and still receives frequent adjustments. She currently lives in San Clemente, CA with her husband and one daughter.

Context: This story was shared over dinner with my mother and father. While she initially insisted she did not know any folklore, I prompted her with the hypothetical situation included above and received the answer I expected since this is how she treated all my colds growing up. While I had experienced her treatments, I had never asked her about her reasoning behind giving them. She started out using EmergenC in her adult life, but as a child, was forced to drink orange juice by her grandmother to keep from getting sick and to help fight off a cold once it had caught on.

Analysis: Vitamin C is a popular form of alternative medicine, used more in preventing illness than treating it. As the recipient of EmergenC in this story, I can say that while I did not get sick often while drinking it at home, since moving to college I have not continued drinking it and have only gotten sick twice. I think it is more likely that I am not very susceptible to illness in the first place, but perhaps the beverage did provide my system with the extra push it needed to make it through high school. However, when I return home, I always ask for a glass of EmergenC before I go to bed since, to me, it now carries connotations of home and the comforting feelings of being loved and cared for. I would venture to guess that maintaining the tradition of using vitamin C from her grandparents gives my mother a connection to the women who cared for her.

Health is a subject that scares many people since, when we are healthy, we often take it for granted and good health can be stripped from us at any second. It, therefore, makes sense that people turn to readily available products like EmergenC to practice having control over their health (also, orange juice, Vitamin C gummies, or immunity-boosting teas). Keeping the family healthy is of increased importance which manifests in the ritual of taking EmergenC every evening. It helps sooth anxieties of getting others sick by bringing a virus into the house and anxieties of ourselves losing our own good health. The idea of comforting oneself through these self-administered remedies is supported by my mom citing ice cream as having healing properties. Ice cream is satisfying and so when someone feels their worst physically, it makes sense that they would turn to a food that brings them happiness.

 

Customs
Magic
Material

Pre-Test Ritual

Subject: Tradition. “Dress your best to test your best”.

Collection:

“Interviewer: Can you talk about going out to buy that dress my sophomore year of high school… the first time we ever did dress your best to test your best?

Interviewee: So, when I was growing up my mom would always take- when I was taking tests even through college… and buy me something to make me feel… uh… special. And to put me in the best state of mind for my tests. And then when Emerson was taking her first AP test we went out and got a dress and it’s her- was called her AP dress, from that day on… but like I- you- you started not wanting to- a dress, but like we would buy a shirt or some shorts or something. It was always like just dress up, get yourself in the best state of mind to take your test”.

Background Info: C. Taylor grew up in Southern California. She had a close relationship with her mother and paternal grandmother who first introduced her to this custom. She passed it down to her daughter when the tests being taken became significant. She currently lives in San Clemente, CA with her husband and one daughter.

Context: This tradition was shared over dinner with her daughter and husband when talking about various traditions passed down through the women in our lives.

Analysis: While this custom appears indulgent, the principles behind it are simple and could be easily enacted without much pomp and circumstance. This tradition centers around the individual while simultaneously asserting a sense of belonging and responsibility within the family structure.

First, the specific action being performed, shopping and then wearing new clothes to the test, is designed to make the person taking the test feel good about themselves. By putting on the clothes, there is an attempt to feel in control of the situation, even though they may not be. This evokes a type of sympathetic magic in which the practitioner makes themselves physically appear and feel their best to then trigger the best possible results from the test. Hence, it is all about the success of the individual and an attempt to control an indeterminant outcome. Furthermore, the practitioner is physically changing their appearance to commemorate the event, an outward statement that the test is important and deserving of the highest levels of dedication.

Secondly, the build up to dressing your best to test your best presents an opportunity for mother and daughter to go out and perform a self-serving activity that is out of the normal. By performing a distinct activity and making the day a special occasion, an additional level of bonding is introduced. The positive feelings of the bonding trip are then commemorated by the apparel that is donned to make the tester feel confident and supported going into their test. It also simultaneously produces a sense of duty of child to parent, the parent has made an investment in the success of their child and so the child must perform well.

In this way, this ritual is not unlike wearing a pair of lucky socks before a basketball game. A physical item is applied to the body to produce a desired outcome; only in this case, it is the newness of the item that gives it its special powers.

Magic

Heungbu and Nolbu

Main Piece: “ This is one of the most well known stories in Korea it is about two brothers. Heungbu and Nolbu were brothers. Nolbu, the older brother was super greedy and annoying but his younger brother Heungbu was kind and the opposite. The day that their father died, they learned that he was ordered to split his fortune in half for each of them. Nolbu tricked Heungbu’s family and threw them out in order to keep the entire fortune to himself.  But Heungbu didn’t complain. One day Hengbu helped a bird get away from a snake. The next year the bird  came back and gave Heungbu a seed as a thank you present. Heungbu planted the seed in his backyard and found gold inside. Since gold basically means that you are rich they bought a new house and became very wealthy. Nolbu ended up finding out about this and met Heungbu and asked him how he became so rich so quickly because he was jealous. Nolbu heard the secret and did the same with the bird. The bird brought Nolbu a seed the next spring, and Nolbu planted it. But there were no gold and instead his life sucked because there were only elements of destruction, like no wealth and stuff like that so Nolbu and his wife lost all of their wealth. But they finally realized their mistake and asked Heungbu to forgive them and they all lived together happily ever after.”

Background Information: The informant learned this Korean folktale from her parents and she was also born and raised in South Korea. This story is important to her because it taught her that what goes around comes back around and that people who treat others with kindness will always win.

Context: In the informant’s apartment

Thoughts: This story is interesting because of the dynamic of the two brothers, and that this story is about family compared to other folk stories that I have collected that are about individuals. This might suggest that family is very important in the Korean culture, and values like kindness and being humble are important as well.

 

Legends
Magic

Tengu

Main Piece: “My mom use to tell me a story about a Japanese legend. Back in the day there lived an old woman in a village at the foot of Mount Takao in Japan. She would always cook up food like traditional Japanese food like rice and bamboo shoots for the Tengu, (which are magical looking creatures, to eat). One day, the old woman was super sick so her son became worried and went to get water from some hot spring far away. However, he was clumsy so he tripped just before reaching home and spilled all the water. He was pretty disappointed and thought his mom would get mad at him, but then he noticed water springing up from the ground so he gathered it for his mom. When the old woman bathed in this water, she became healthy again. Everyone in the village said it must have been the Tengu who caused water to spring up as a way of saying thank you to the woman for all the meals she cooked for them.”

Background Information: The informant describes Tengu as a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion and are also considered a type of Shinto god (kami) or yōkai ( supernatural beings). The tengu were  thought to take the forms of bird like creatures. The informat learned this story through his grandparents who live in Japan, and he says that this is one of the most classic and well known stories that involve supernatural beings. He also said this story made him less scared of ghosts when he was a kid because in the story the Tengu help heal the woman.

Context: At a restuarant in downtown LA

Thoughts: This story contains magical elements, will the special healing water which reminds me a little bit of the water of immortality. This story also demonstrates the importance of good deeds, and that you should treat others the way you would want them to treat you (the woman making food for the Tengu and the Tengu healing the woman). This story also contains important aspects of Japanese culture, like food (rice and bamboo shoots). After talking to the informant, he said that his grandmother makes rice and bamboo shoots for him when he is not feeling well.

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