Monthly Archives: April 2011

Superstitions – luck

Morgan’s family is very superstitious and she shared with me some of the superstitions she grew up with (more here).

In her family, black cats are considered good luck. She said, “We always keep a black cat in our house. Whenever we don’t have one, (for whatever reason), Dad’s job or something will tank. Usually it’s financial luck.”

This would seem contrary to the tradition in American (and must of Western) society that sees black cats as bad omens. Historically, they were associated with witchcraft and black magic, and although contemporary American society does not see this kind of paranoia (and there is less of a stigma associated with witchcraft in general thanks to a renewed interest in practices like Wicca and homeopathic medicine), the negative connotations about black cats persist. Animal shelters report lower adoption rates for black cats and some will even cease adoptions of them around Halloween for fear that the cats might be abused.

For as much negativity as there seems to be surrounding black cats in Wester folklore, there seems to be an equal amount of positive folklore that supports Morgan’s family’s tradition. In several European cultures, black cats are considered very good luck, and even- as Morgan said- symbols of prosperity. In England and Scotland, the superstition is that a black can can bring good fortune and that a woman living with a black cat will have many suitors, and sailors believed it was lucky to keep a cat on board (if nothing else, having the cat around to catch mice certainly improved their fortune). Additionally, the ancient Egyptian revered black cats, whom they believed to have a connection to the goddess Bastet. It was recognized that cats helped protect the food stores from rats and to kill or injure a cat was considered criminal.

There is even a historical anecdote that says King Charles I of England owned a black cat that he believed brought him good fortune. When the cat died, he mourned the loss of his good luck and was soon after arrested for treason and eventually executed.

The King Charles story and other feline folklore can be found here:

Morgan also said that peacock feathers are considered very bad luck. “My father’s ex-wife once brought home a vase full of peacock feathers, and the pipes burst throughout the entire apartment.”

This is a fairly common Western belief, although its origin is indeterminate. There is speculation that the distinctive markings on the peacock’s feathers represent a kind of “evil eye.” In my research, I also found it suggested that this superstition was created to discourage the hunting and eating of peacocks. I think the answer lies somewhere in between, and while the peacock feathers are not an “evil-eye” per se, the killing of a peacock might bring bad fortune on those associated with it, even someone who just purchased its feathers. This is just my own interpretation, borrowing a little of the spirit of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Information and a little history of peacock myths can be found here:

Family Legend

“One of my ancestors through my mom’s side was a gunslinger with Jesse James.  At one point, he found Jesus either through a sidewalk preacher or the local minister’s beautiful daughter, depending on who’s doing the telling.  After that, he left the gang, changed his name, and became a preacher, and got married.  The only record we have of him is a black-and-white picture, two holsters holding six-shooters on his hips and a Bible in his hand.  Nobody knows what his name was before, because if he told anyone before he died, the law would come after him, or so the story goes.

He kept up practice with his guns, though, and once saved someone one of his old gang buddies kidnapped. I’ve never heard it told the same way twice; it might have been his wife, the schoolteacher, the mayor’s young son, the mayor, someone else entirely, or it might have never happened.  You know how family stories grow with the telling.”

This story has been passed down through Mary’s family since the late 19th century. She explained that although it is uncertain exactly where her ancestor settled either before or after his name change, it was probably somewhere in Texas or New Mexico (Jesse James and his gang were based largely out of Missouri, but they were active across much of the south and midwest, so this is entirely possible) and that she believes her family has roots several generations back in Texas and Oklahoma. Her grandfather on her mother’s side grew up in South Carolina, but moved around a lot when he was in the Marines. He met her grandmother for the first time while stationed in California and married her several years later when they were both doing religious work in Japan. Mary’s mother (their second child of four) settled in San Diego County where she grew up, and eventually her grandparents joined them.

This legend is really interesting to me for several reasons. First, it has probably survived and been passed down because it contains story elements that would be pleasing to almost any American audience, even if that audience was not connected with the story. The story of Jesse James has long been glamorized in Hollywood as something dramatic and exhilarating and it’s no secret that violent and transgressive behavior provides audiences with a naughty thrill. To have a connection to that story would be exciting. However, the story is also one of redemption, which is another story element that appeals to American audiences. People love a comeback story and a gunslinger who finds God and even saves a person who had been kidnapped by his old gang buddies fits the bill perfectly.

It is also interesting that she notes in her telling that there are certain elements that she has never heard the same way twice. This is often true of oral tradition- stories tend to grow and change as they are passed along and the particular elements they contain at the time of the telling are often more indicative of an element about the teller or the environment than they are of the story itself.

Most interesting, however, are the minute similarities between the story of her ancestor and the story of her grandfather. She explained that when he was in the military and stationed in Japan, he had a “literal come-to-Jesus moment” with the Chaplain, went to Bible school, and devoted much of his life to religious work- building churches and community centers with Mary’s grandmother. It is possible that he simply followed in his ancestor’s footsteps, whether that occurred to him at the time or not, and it is also possible that, as oral tradition is wont to do, over time the story of his ancestor acquired elements of his own story, so that the man became less an outlaw and more a little like his descendant, a good man with an exciting life.

Marching Song

“I left my wife in 1712

On the verge of starvation

Without a piece of gingerbread,

Did I do right? Right?

Right for my country,

Right for myself?

I managed a store,

Bought a new home,

By Jove, but I left, left…”

?Marching Song

Morgan’s mother learned this marching song from friends at a Girl Scout Camp in Northern Virginia around the year 1965 and it has been in her family ever since. When I first heard it, I was a little surprised at the content of a Girl Scout marching song. After some consideration though, I realized that it makes sense. This would not be the first time a military-style marching song has been adopted into a children’s song- for example, the “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” rhyme featured on page 91 of Elliott Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. A brief web search revealed that this particular song exists in many forms, both as a military chant and a children’s marching song, with the unifying characteristics being that in each version, the soldier has left (“left…left…”) his wife and a number of children behind with little to no food.

This song seems to have existed at least since World War I, and earlier versions of it do not include the second half. Instead, they all say something along the lines of “Left, Left/I left my wife and [x] children/ to go and fight a war/ I left,” which makes sense given the propensity of Americans at the time to consider patriotism and the duty to one’s country a higher calling than the duty to oneself (or family). In the 1965 version, however, something is different and that is what I find so interesting. The speaker did not go off to fight a war. He went to start a new life without his wife and children and he continually questions (in marching rhythm) “Did I do right?”

In 1965, The United States was 10 years into the Vietnam War, with 10 years still to go. It appears that, given the atmosphere of fatigue and uncertainty at the time, a traditional military marching song turned children’s song was modified to convey the perspective of a draft dodger who started a new life away from his family. But why choose the year 1712? Obviously, there is no one answer. It could be a reference to the New York Slave Uprising, which happened on April 6, 1712 or the War of Spanish Succession, which Great Britain was involved in until 1714. It is also possible that the year was chosen arbitrarily. What is significant is the way the sentiment of the American people during the years of the Vietnam war was able to reach a Girl Scout camp in Northern Virginia and create a lasting piece of folklore.

Folk Belief – Ireland

Eimear learned this tradition from her mother (who learned it from Eimear’s grandmother) and has since gotten into the habit of doing it herself.
“I’m Irish, and there’s an old “piseog” [superstition] that if you take a piece of straw from the church manger scene at Christmas and put it in your purse, you won’t have money problems for that year. You’re also not supposed to spend any money on New Year’s Day, because it means you’ll be paying for things the whole year…I’ve asked my mother and she says she’s not sure where the straw tradition came from (although I see plenty of old ladies in Dublin doing it every year, so it’s not just a family superstition), but her mother told her not to spend money on New Year’s Day. My grandmother was born in Belfast and moved to Dublin when she was a child. My grandfather was born in Clare and moved to Dublin as an adult. I get the impression that my grandmother was very close to his family, so it’s as likely she picked it up from them as from her own.”

This superstition is interesting because it reflects the widely held idea that a new year represents a new beginning financially, personally, etc. Americans make resolutions for the New Year, often related to prosperity and during the Chinese New Year, red envelopes containing money are given to children and unmarried/unemployed adults [].
The tradition of taking the straw from the church manger also reflects the strong presence of Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant, as both often feature nativity scenes of pageants in the church at Christmastime) that still holds in Irish culture. It even permeates a holiday that is not traditionally religious, New Year’s Day, and is incorporated into New Year traditions because it is so ingrained as a part of daily life.

Folk Belief – Ireland

“In Ireland, when you sneeze, someone’s supposed to say “Dia linn” – literally “God be with us”, fairly standard stuff. But if you sneeze more than once, you have to follow up with a whole load of saints. Usually it goes “Dia lin – Dia ‘s Muire linn – ‘s Padraig, ‘s Seamus, ‘s Brid… (Mary, Patrick, James, Bridget)” and then you need to start getting creative. I am prone to sneezing fits, and have occasionally caused my mother to run out of saints.”

This tradition not only reflects the strong Christian tradition present in Ireland, but shares similarities with the English “God bless you!” and the German “Gesundheit!” (literally “healthy-hood” [] or, less literally “To your health!”
All three reflect general well-wishes toward the individual as he or she experience the minor trauma that is a sneeze, as well as the hope that nothing more serious than a sneeze is approaching.

Fountain Run

“A tradition for graduating seniors at USC is to run through all 29 fountains on campus. And although I don’t think too many people actually do this, you’re supposed to have a shot in each fountain. People can either buy shirts from the Facebook group or make their own. Some people wear goggles, or floaties. A few like to climb all over the fountains and stuff. Uh, yeah, so basically I think this means that you’re graduating and saying goodbye to campus, so you’re seeing the landmarks one last time with your classmates before you disperse into the world.”

I completely agree with the analysis and would just add that it is a liminal stage of transition to being an active, educated member of society. People employ such a tactic in order to also act against authority one “last” time by participating in a festivity that would ordinarily have a certain degree of ramifications. It is altogether a way of ending an era, remembering it, and preparing for the life ahead.

Tattoo- Ojibwa Proverb

“No tree has branches so foolish as to fight amongst themselves.”

The informant had this Ojibwa Proverb tattoo onto her ribs.  She decided that she wanted this tattoo because she believes in the message.  She says that the message share such truth.  She believes that we should live in peace rather than in a constant state of war.  The informant believes in this proverb is so powerful that she had it tattooed onto her body.  She says the saying stood out to her amongst the other sayings.  The informant had the tattoo done while she was studying abroad in Greece.  She choose to include the olive branch to symbolize both Greece and peace.

I agree with the informant on the value of this proverb.  This proverb is taken from the Ojibwa tribe and promotes the ideals of peace and harmony.  The informant’s idea of utilizing a olive branch to compliment the quote is fitting as the olive branch is the folkloric, cultural, and biblical symbol for peace.  In the Bible, Noah is given an olive branch from God after the flood symbolizing the end of the flood, which represents turmoil.

This proverb is quoted in several blogs and articles.  However, I found that it also is published in a song called “Luminous” by Stratovarius.  The verse with the proverb is as follows:

No tree has branches so foolish
As to fight among themselves
We share the same biology
We are one
We are luminous

This song maintains the message of the proverb and promotes the idea of peace.  We are a part of mankind, like branches are a part of a tree.  And the branches do not fight, so we must not fight as well.

Tolkki, Timo, Timo Kotipelto, Jari Kainulainen, Jens Johansson, Jörg Michael, and Riku Niemi. “Luminous.” Stratovarius. Sanctuary, 2005. MP3.

The Selkie

This is a version of the Scottish selkie legend that Christabel remembers her father telling her when she was small.

” The story is that the selkie is a kind of creature that lives in the sea and looks like a seal, and at the full moon it can shed its seal-skin and turn into a human. This one selkie-girl came up onto the shore one full moon and turned into a human, and a fisherman sitting on the shore saw her and fell in love with her. They talked, and the selkie loved him too, but she put her skin back on and went back to the sea. She came back at the next full moon, and the one after that, and they both fell completely in love, but she always put her skin back on at the end of the night and went back to the sea. Then one night, the fisherman distracted her and stole the seal-skin away so she couldn’t go back to the sea and had to stay with him, and hid it in his chimney. The selkie stayed with him, and had two children, and almost forgot the sea, but every full moon she would go back down to the shore and look out to sea. Then, after a very long time, she found the seal-skin hidden in the chimney, and she was so angry with the fisherman that she cut two pieces out of the skin and wrapped her children up in them, and put her skin back on and took them back to the sea, where they lived as selkies for the rest of their days. ”

There are several theories as to the origin of the selkie story- mostly notably the idea the ancient Scots encountered nomads who were clad in seal skins and began to formulate legends about seal-people (similar to the way that centaur legends formed when Native-American cultures like the Aztecs encountered conquistadors on horseback). The Selkie is a kind of liminal being, existing in-between the sea and the land.

What is fascinating about this particular incarnation of the legend for me is that it features a woman forced to choose between her nature and her love and when the choice is taken away, she reverts to her nature and brings her children with her. It seems a little like Medea with a happier ending.

Annotation: The film The Secret of Roan Inish directed by John Sayles features a selkie story very similar to the one above.

Chinese Belief- Hell

The informant is an eighteen-year old student from Los Angeles. He was born in Taipei and received schooling in America. He had been studying in Taipei before moving back to the United States for university. He speaks Chinese and English and will be referred to in this transcript as “GS.” This paraphrased account details the Chinese belief of Heaven and Hell.

GS: In Hell, there’s a district attorney who will judge you in court when you’re sent to Hell, and based on what you say, he’ll decide which level of hell you go to. There are eighteen levels of Hell, the eighteenth’s the worst level of Hell. Sometimes parents will scare their children that if they keep doing bad things, they’ll go to the 18th layer of Hell. One of the interesting punishments is called Knife Mountain and the oil pot. If you do bad things and go to Hell, little ghosts or demon things will make you walk on Knife (or Blade) Mountain and then after you go up and down Blade Mountain, you’ll get thrown into a boiling pot of oil.

GS goes on to explain that this process is repeated through all eternity. As he says, repetition is a key part of the punishment, as the person will have to suffer through the same punishment without end.

Though he glossed over the use of the story as a morality warning, I feel this is the most important part of the story. GS does not literally believe in this vision of Hell. However, he states that it is used to keep children from behaving badly. Indeed, this portrayal of Hell involves very physical forms of punishment: In fact, they relate to cooking and the kitchen (Knife Mountain and boiling oil). As a child, the kitchen may be the most dangerous place they will encounter on a daily basis, particularly around cooking time. Thus, the threats presented in this version of Hell are made to be very relatable to the dangers of a kitchen for a small child. This makes the threat a tangible one, and thus far more scary than any abstract concept of suffering. As an exaggerated form of pain possible in the mortal realm, it effectively can be used to scare children into good behavior.

Sea Shanty

This is a folk song that Gabi, who grew up in Rhode Island learned from the “Provincetown Portuguese” side of her family.
“Cape Cod girls they got no hair.
Look away! Look away!
They make their hair with codfish fins,
We are bound for Australia.

Hey-ho, my Billy-billy boys,
We are bound for Australia,
Hey-ho my Billy-billy boys,
We are bound for Australia.

Cape Cod girls they got no combs.
Look away! Look away!
They make their combs with codfish bones,
We are bound for Australia.
(And so on it goes, replacing more and more obscene parts of Cape Cod girls with bits of codfish)”

Research reveals that sea shanties were developed as a way of occupying sailors as they toiled long hours on the seas. One aspect of them that this particular song reflects aptly is the fact that, because up until the early 20th century the American Navy did not allow female sailors, it was easy for the men to sing bawdy songs about females, reflecting a gender divide that existed for a long time in much of military culture (and can still be found in some long-standing traditions like the bawdy song).
The song could also be reflective of a rite of passage, with the sailors leaving home behind for the wilds (and wilder women) of Australia.