USC Digital Folklore Archives / April, 2013
Rituals, festivals, holidays

El Camino de Santiago

RouteFilm The Way the features El Camino de Santiago

When I was a kid we would do this thing called “El Camino de Santiago” which is a walk that actually goes from France all the way to Galicia in Spain—Santiago de Compostela—but instead of doing it like that, we would make a route around my city, around Toledo, starting at one of one of the outside little towns and finishing at the top of the city.


El Camino de Santiago appears to be a rite of passage that connects young Spaniards with the countries historical past and inaugurates them into Spanish society. Everyone in Sergio’s city—Toledo—participates in this event, as do many others throughout Spain. Whereas few people male the full trek from France to Santiago de Compostela, the majority complete shorter walks that are meant to represent the long journey between the two countries.


Santiago de Compostela is a city in northwestern Spain that is known to be the resting place of Saint James. In the past, El Camino de Compostela was an important Christian pilgrimage akin to the pilgrimage made to Jerusalem by Jews.


As the majority of Spaniards complete a shorter version of the walk it can be related to a shorter canonized version of a longer folktale in which the essence of the tale remains but details are altered here and there.


Sergio has completed this shortened walk many times but has no intention to make the full journey from France. It is a tradition that his family has upheld for decades. Since they moved from Spain to Miami they no longer continue to make this short trek around their city.


I am not aware of any walk in the United States in which the walking represents walking done in the past. There are many charities that use the act of walking to raise awareness and money, but there exists no walk, for example, that represents slaves walking from the deep south to the north with the hope of achieving freedom or of Lewis & Clark walking to the pacific ocean and back.



El Camino de Santiago appeared in the 2010 film The Way (directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen), which tells the story of  father who heads to Europe to collect the body of his son who died while making the trek from France to Galicia. Once he arrives he himself decides that he wants to make the trek himself to both avenge his son and test his limits. For the father this walk journey is not so much a rite of passage as much as a challenge he presents to himself.

Folk Beliefs

Shark Oil Hurricanes

Jar of cloudy shark oil in Bermuda

We have this jar—like this little flash of shark oil at home—and what we think is that when it goes cloudy it means a hurricane is on its way. And for the most part, yeah, hurricanes always come when that jar gets cloudy.


Rebecca comes from Bermuda, a British overseas territory located in the North Atlantic Ocean. Hurricanes pose a large threat to the inhabitants of the island, thus it is important to be able to predict their arrival in order to prepare. Rebecca’s family is not the only one to use shark oil to predict the weather. “Many families have a jar in their cabinet somewhere. It’s not just me.”


As to why shark oil in particular is necessary in the prediction of hurricanes, Rebecca is unsure. According to her it is a common belief that has been around for a long time. More important, its success rate is extremely high. Rebecca can cite countless times when the cloudy shark oil was followed by a storm. It is a belief that she grew up with. The shark oil has been in her kitchen since she was a little girl and she always associated it with hurricanes.


There are a number of reasons why I think the shark oil could be an integral part of the prediction process. Sharks are very high on the food chain, and, therefore, capturing one, especially in a time before large fishing boats, would be a tremendous feat. It would be equivalent to capturing and killing a full-grown lion with your bare hands. As a “king” of the ocean, the shark’s oil could act almost as a divine serum that potentially could harness a supernatural power (in the eyes of an indigenous population).  It certainly is a very different way of predicting the weather, but many maritime cultures have sea-based beliefs as to what will signal the coming of inclement weather.


I have heard of animals being able to predict the coming of storms—dogs often grow restless under the approaching shadow of a storm—but never have I encountered the use of parts of a dead animal to predict the weather.

Folk Beliefs

Unfaithful Women in Cameroon

Many women and children wear wraps around their waist—kind of like when people tie towels around their waste, but we call it a “wrappa”—and if a woman’s wrappa falls off in public she has believed to have committed adultery. I’m not sure where the origin of this was, but I guess they thought that if your rappa was loose enough to fall off, then you’re a whore or a prostitute because you need to get it on and off easily. In the times that this belief was serious, the woman as usually stoned in the middle of the village—stoned to death—or was just shamed into leaving the actual village, so this offense is very serious because I come from a polygamous area, and adultery is seen as the most humiliating thing you can do to your husband and his other wives and their whole family.



Polygamy is not something that American’s understand very well. We are a monogamous culture. However, like in this village in Cameroon, adultery is taken very seriously here. Not only does it violate religious code but it violates moral code as well. As opposed to in Cameroon, women in the United States are not physically abused for their transgressions. However, it does seem more socially acceptable for an American man to be unfaithful to his wife. While women have gained much more equality over the years, there still remains this male-dominant atmosphere that stigmatizes women being unfaithful—men can do it, but a woman is called a whore if she is unfaithful.


I find this belief to be quite ridiculous. Just because a piece of clothing fits loosely on a women does not mean that she is more sexually “devious” than the women who wraps herself up tightly in her clothing. Say the weather is unbearably hot: why would anyone want to wear anything that fits tightly around his or her body? I find it incredibly stupid that this is this becomes something by which people can judge women and accuse them of being unscrupulous or immoral.



My informant moved around quite a bit when he was younger; he spent a couple years in Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi. In his adolescence, his family moved to Louisiana. Because that is where he went to high school and is therefore the last place he lived before coming to college, it is the place he considers his home. He is proud of being “from” the area near New Orleans. Here is his description of a legend he picked up while living in Louisiana:

“The Rougarou is a legendary creature in Cajun folklore similar to a werewolf. It is said to have the head of a wolf with the body of a human. Supposedly it spends its time prowling the swamps of Acadiana and the greater New Orleans area. The legend of the Rougarou has often been used a scare tactic to inspire obedience amongst Cajun children. It’s a pretty scary monster. Variations of the legend hold that the Rougarou will hunt down and kill Catholics who do not follow the rules of Lent. As a child, my parents told me the about the Rougarou to keep me from wandering far into swampy areas, which can be very dangerous.”

My informant’s retelling of the basics of the Rougarou legend is an explanation of one way his parents tried to scare him into being safe. This kind of strategy must be quite common in parenting, for I know my parents told me stories to prevent me from doing risky things. I remember other friends of mine saying similar things. One widespread example is when fathers or mothers tell their children that if they make a silly face for too long, their face might get stuck like that forever. The difference is that the Rougarou is more deeply rooted in Louisianan traditions. My informant says that anyone who has lived in the greater New Orleans area for enough time should be familiar with this legend. Another difference is the religious aspect; my informant says that sometimes the story is told to warn people about breaking the rules of Lent. It is interesting how one story can take on different meanings with only slight variations in content and context; this story went from a Catholic cautionary tale to a disciplinary method meant for keeping kids away from the deep swamp.

Folk Beliefs

Smurfs Peed in My Toilet


 Ok…so when I was little I was in my “why phase”—I’m not really sure when that was exactly, I think I was maybe like four or five—you know that point in your life when you just ask why to everything? Ok, so every like, once every like, once every two weeks I would come home and see the bathroom and the toilet was, like, blue! And I would always go to my dad and ask why the water was blue, and he’d always say, “well, because a smurf came and peed in our toilet!” I didn’t question it—I mean… I was four or five so… smurfs exist right!? Um… but yeah, I just never questioned it until I started helping clean the bathroom when I was, like, 8? Until then I believed that smurfs came and peed in our toilet and made the water blue. He thought it was funny. I think its funny too…now that I know, like…I just think it’s a really funny story.


Haley’s story touches upon an interesting paradox of childhood: constantly questioning everything about the world but also believing whatever your parents tell you. Haley come from a very intelligent family that is scientifically and mathematically inclined—her mother is a doctor and her father a computer engineer. Being of a rather analytic nature, it is surprising that her parents simply didn’t explain to her that the chemicals in the toilet bowl cleaner made the water turn blue. Haley says that if she ever had a question about anything, her parents would take the time to sit down and thoroughly explain to her the details of what she was inquiring about.


I find that, being of such a scientific nature, her parents wanted to experience the magic of childhood in which the fantastical, the supernatural, and the improbable is generally preferred over the banality of reality. For Haley, the blue smurfs’ pee was an escape to a fantasy realm. Yes, she eventually learned the truth about the toilet bowl cleaner, but her mental dislocation from the real world afforded her a wonderful childhood.

Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Swedish Spring Celebration

Swedish Maypole

So every year we have what’s called “midsummer”—its in June every year. And we have a maypole, which we dress with flowers and all this, like, nice stuff. A maypole is supposed to be a sign for a woman and man. It’s like a big pole… it’s like a cross almost. And there’s this special song that we sing every year, and everyone has em…those things on their heads. What do you call them? Flower wreaths? Yes, flower wreaths. Everyone has flower wreaths on their heads. The song is called “little frogs”. So we have the maypole and there is singing and jumping, and the sounds we make sound like frogs.


This Swedish ritual is a celebration of the arrival of spring. The maypole—a pole that bears symbols for both masculinity and femininity—represents the fertility and life that is associated with spring. When I asked why the frog played such an important role in the celebration, Stina replied that the frog jumps, and the jumping is supposed to represent the leap (or the “spring”) from winter to a time of blossom and growth.


If speaking in Freudian terms, the pole itself could very well symbolize the phallus and its ability to disseminate its seed and be a catalyst of birth and growth. The flowers could represent the innocence that will soon be taken away once male and female unite.


In the United States I have never heard of any celebrations of spring or any particular season in and of itself. Toward the end of the winter we usually keep an eye out for the ground hog that “springs” out of his whole to tell us how much longer winter will drag on. However, there exists no celebration of the spring’s arrival.



Folk speech

You’ve Sold the Butter but Lost the Money

It looks like you sold the butter but lost the money. This one is when you’re, like, when you look sad…people can say that cuz they’re like…you’ve done something good and you’ve lost it. You have your butter and you sell it and then you lose the money you make. So you do something well but you don’t keep it.


This is a rather tricky saying to unpack. In essence, I believe it attempts to say that one cannot sustain the success one has achieved—it is an ephemeral success. This saying seems akin to the American saying, “you’ve dropped the ball”. This saying implies that you’ve done something great (or have been given the opportunity to do something great) but failed to sustain that greatness—you messed up.


I believe that my experience in diving perfectly embodies this saying. I am a springboard and platform diver, and in diving consistency is what makes you successful—consistency in practice and consistency in meets. When my coach gives me corrections he always stresses that we take a few moments to reflect on what we’ve just done after we successfully make the correction he asks of us. It doesn’t matter if I am able to make the correction once; what matters is that I am able to sustain the correction, hold on to the change, otherwise I’ve done something great and then lost it—just like this Swedish saying describes.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

The apple doesn’t fall far away from the tree. This one I remember my dad always saying this to me when I did stupid stuff. It means that if you do something…how should I explain this… it’s like you do something but…I would say, like, if your parents maybe do something and you did the same thing it’s like you’re very similar because, like, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because the apple belongs to the tree.


This folk metaphor seems to be universal. Stina heard this from her parents growing up just as I heard it from my parents growing up [her in the United States]. The saying suggests that children tend to do the same things, or, in Stina’s case, make the same mistakes as their parents.


A common example of this that I have often heard (interestingly enough) has to do with women who cheat on their husbands or partners. I have frequently heard of a mother who was known for being unfaithful in a relationship, and then her daughter who follows in her footsteps and is unfaithful herself. The saying, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, always followed this scenario.


The above example assumes that the saying carries negative connotations, which is not entirely true. When I was younger and would get good grades in school, my dad would often say that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” in trying to say that he used to get good grades too and that my intelligence comes from him since he is the tree from which I, the apple, fell.

Folk Beliefs

Killing Spiders Brings the Rain

So, if you kill a spider, it will rain the next day. But I don’t think it really works because I’ve killed a lot of spiders, and it haven’t really been raining the next day. I learned it when I was little from my… I think it was my parents, but I’ve known it for…well it feels like forever.


Stina is from Sweden and she says that this is a common belief in Swedish culture. She does not, however, find it to be true. She said that she’s killed many spiders and it has never really rained the next day. She said that the one time that it did rain, rain was already in the forecast for the next day and that she just happened to kill a spider the day before.


This belief about killing spiders differs from my own. I have always been conscious about not killing spiders for a number of reasons: spiders trap flies I their web and so they are valuable to have around; I also have had a number of experiences where I killed a spider and, that night, I had horrible dreams that I was being attacked by giant spiders. Since those dreams [some years ago] I’ve only killed one spider. I am not particularly arachnophobia, so I have no real issues with spiders. I would never kill a spider unless it was physically harming me.


Based on my experience, my version of Stina’s story would read, “If you kill a spider you will have nightmares that night”. 

Folk speech

If at first you don’t succeed…

If At first you don’t succeed…


The common proverb reads, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”. This proverb suggests that failing should not mean defeat—if you do not succeed the first time, a second [and maybe even third and fourth] attempt should be made. It speaks to perseverance and determination. Failure is just a lesson. One can learn from the lesson and turn failure into success. Never accept defeat after only one attempt. If the Wright brothers had given up after their first attempt, we may have never learned to fly.


Haley, my informant, is an olympic diver whose success really embodies this proverb. Diving is a sport that is all about making mistake, learning from your mistakes, and, most importantly, never being afraid to do a dive again after it has gone awry. Haley dives from the 10 meter platform–an event that includes a great deal of risk. Is she does a dive incorrectly she could face hospitalization. However, even when she has landed flat on her stomach or on her back from 33 feet in the air, she never gave up. She never accepted defeat even when she felt that the water was beating her and she wasn’t quite grasping the correct technique.



Although the traditional proverb reads, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”, I am citing the first episode—“Lessons”—of the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which she twists the proverb to fit her current situation. While fighting phantom-like projections of dead people from her past, Buffy realizes that she must get to a door that the three phantoms are conveniently blocking. When she tries to fight her way through them the first time she fails and is beaten back. The second time, she leaps over them as they charge at her and she makes it to the door. As she does this she utters, “if at first you don’t succeed, cheat!”


Even though she failed the first time to make it past the phantoms she did not give up. She tried a second time and was successful. Her success embodies what the original proverb promotes: don’t give up. However, rather than taking the more difficult route—fighting her way through again—she decides to avert this struggle once more by “cheating” and jumping over them.