USC Digital Folklore Archives / April, 2013
Customs

Female Circumcision in Cameroon

Male circumcision is obviously practiced all over the world and is legal. Female circumcision is a little more controversial, and in the village that I am from, females were previously circumcised—but this circumcision is not as bad as the ones that are usually heard about. This one is just cutting of a small tip of the clitoris, similar to the foreskin in a male, and this happens after the birth of your first child—no matter the sex—and why this was made was because proper women are not supposed to make sounds when they pee. It is seen as a very unfitting thing to do, and women feel empowerment because they are circumcised and they are part of a childbearing society, so women who go through the majority of their lives without ever having a child actually get circumcised so they are not looked down upon because it is like a rite of passage—once you have your first child you have really become a woman, meaning you have been circumcised so it is a really big deal. But this practice doesn’t happen anymore.

 

It is interesting to me that she cites this tradition as not very controversial. When I think of female circumcision I think of mutilation. There is no reason why a female needs to go through the process of circumcision. It does not improve hygiene in any way; it only robs them of a source of sexual pleasure. Humans are special creatures in that sex is not just a means of reproduction but also a source of great pleasure that is a large and important part of life. To strip someone of this ability is to reduce them to an animalistic state in which bearing children is their only sexual purpose.

 

This tradition also speaks to the idea of womanhood and the process by which one achieves it. In this village, it seems that having children gives one that stamp of approval. Coco did say that the practice of female circumcision in her village no longer exists, but the emphasis on motherhood still remains—an emphasis that seems very outdated (at least in American society). Gone are the days in in which women are confined to a domestic prison—their only duty to rear children, tend to the hearth and home, and pamper the husband. Women are no longer getting married and having children at 18. They have been emancipated in a sense. However, the women in this African village seem to be stuck in that domesticity.

Folk Beliefs

Her aching knees will bring the rain

Whenever one of my grandmother’s or one of my grandmother’s sisters’ knees would hurt, we would always say that it was gonna rain the next day.

 

The interesting thing about this story is that every time her knees did hurt it actually did rain the next day. Sergio says that he can’t remember a time when her knees would hurt and the weather would be clear the next day.

 

Another friend of mine, Katya, who is a swimmer and had surgery on her left knee, once told me that when it is about to rain her knees also begin to hurt. She says that during her surgery they had to put a screw in and that the metal may have something do with her ability to also predict the rain. Perhaps the change in magnetism affects the metal in her knee somehow. I asked Sergio whether or not his grandmother’s sister ever had surgery on her knees, and he told me that she never has had surgery but that she does suffer from moderate arthritis.

 

Sergio also says that his father doesn’t trust his mother’s sisters’ knees because they haven’t always predicted the weather as accurately as Sergio remembers. Before Sergio was born, his father said that on various occasions her knees would hurt but nothing would happen after. Thus, he came to distrust her “powers” of foresight.

 

 

general

Caution: Fencing Ahead

J: So what kind of traditions do you do as a member of the fencing team?

W: When we’re facing our rivals, we basically always dress up in a specific way, but the coaches, about 10 years ago, I think, started this thing where when we’re away – or even when people come to our tournaments at home. Basically, we dress completely in black for that day and put caution tape on us. And, then, we, well, if we don’t have caution tape, we still wear all back, but it’s supposed to show, you know, “Warning, we’re dangerous, we’re gonna take you out.” That type of thing.

J: How’d it get started?

W: Um, it kinda got started, when the people who were in charge were like, “Hey, we should dress up and show the other team how intimidating we are!” So it’s not like, the coach per se, but more so the people who are in charge – the heads, or the captains. And they’re like, “Hey people, this is what we’re doing!” And it’s carried on through the years, even though, some of the captains have left.

 

To mix things up, I wanted to include some occupational folklore into the collection so I decided to ask my suite mate, who is from New Jersey, about one of the traditions of his fencing team back home. It’s very interesting that fencing would be found there, but I suppose the sport is becoming ubiquitous at this point. Also, it is fascinating to note that instead of the traditional garb, caution tape and black outfits are used as a ritual to form team unity and also intimidate the opposing team. I see this amalgamation of a traditional sport, mixed with ingenuity, that is also carried out year to year as an evolution of folklore that the world is going to see more of. People tend to think of folklore as traditions that were started years in the past, but as proven by this collection piece, new traditions can start everyday!

folk metaphor

Pico y Pala

Ok, so we have another saying in Spanish that is, when you’re trying to, like, go out with a girl—or a guy, it doesn’t matter—and that girl doesn’t wanna go out with you, the thing that we do is called “pico y pala” which refers to pickaxe and shovel, and it just means that you have to, like, break down the rock before you move it. That’s basically what the saying says.

 

 

This saying basically says that dating someone you like may not always come so easily—you may have to “break down the rock” or work hard to crack the proverbial shell to win the heart of a particular woman or man of interest (especially if she/he plays hard to get, you will have to toil to get what you want). Sergio had to break down the rock a lot when he was younger, as many girls were either very shy or pretended like they didn’t like him.

 

Sergio says he learned this phrase at a very young age from his father—perhaps around eleven or twelve years old—which shows a big difference between American and European culture when it comes to dating and sex. Most American parents shelter their children from sexual/dating related content as it is considered more adult.

 

I have never heard of an American equivalent to “pico y pala” but I have heard about women playing hard to get and having to work to win her heart. My parents never spoke to me about such things when I was eleven or twelve. I learned most things about dating and sex on my own or from friends.

Folk speech
Foodways
Proverbs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Skimming the Scum

This saying also comes from the dining hall of West Point Military Academy. Every meal, there was one plebe in charge of many of the menial tasks such as distributing food and filling empty glasses. One such task was that before he passed the gravy to the rest of the cadets, the individual had to say memorized verse. The verse,m according to the informant, is as follows:

“Sir, the scum-skimmer reports that the scum has been swiftly and successfully skimmed.  Scum-skimmed gravy to the head of the table for inspection, please, sir”

If this was not said perfectly, the officer in charge would not accept it for inspection. The informant recalls cadets with heavy accents stumbling over the words multiple times, delaying the dining process severely. In the military, there are many situations in which you will need to perform under pressure. Most of the exercises in training are designed to prepare for this. Having to say a memorized line perfectly under the scrutiny of  superior helps cadets to get over their fears of being put under pressure. The informant told this story to his friends family after leaving the academy and it has become a joke to recite the saying whenever gravy is being passed at dinner.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red Underwear for Good Luck

Ok, so during New Years Eve we do this thing, before coming into the New Year, that everyone has to wear red underwear. And the reason why we do that is because it’s supposed to bring you good luck coming into the New Year for some reason, I don’t know. I learn about this tradition when I was about four or five? Well, mainly because my whole family does it, and, to this day, every time I, like, celebrate new years in Spain every single one in my family is still wearing red underwear during new years eve.

 

There are many different new year rituals that people around the world perform: some people drink champagne because it symbolizes wealth and the possibility of attaining it that year; some people carry a suitcase around with the hope that they will travel extensively the next year; some people run a mile just before the clock strikes twelve to ensure good health in the new year.

 

Sergio’s family tradition in Spain is rather interesting. After hearing him recount this tradition, I wondered about two things in particular: why underwear, and why the color red?

 

The color red normally symbolizes passion, love, lust. The fact that he and his family ascribe the color red to general luck is very interesting. I asked him if he meant “luck in love”, but he said no, “just overall luck”. I have always known luck to be associated with the color green.

 

When I asked Sergio why the underwear was important, he didn’t know. “I just learned it from my family, and we’ve been doing it forever.” We discussed it and came to the following conclusion: because underwear is the innermost layer of clothing and, thus, is closest to your body, it would have the greatest effect. This, of course, is pure speculation but does offer a decent hypothesis.

 

I find this tradition interesting but a bit strange. The color red throws me off. If I were to desire luck in love in the New Year then perhaps I would wear red underwear (especially since underwear covers the genitals—key players in sex). My family has the tradition of throwing money out of the house to bring wealth in the New Year. Unlike Sergio, I do not continue this practice. When I lived with my parents I occasionally partook in the tradition. Now that I am at college I no longer choose to continue the practice as I don’t find that it really works.

Gestures

Bottom of a Foot

 

Form of Folklore:  Gesture

Informant Bio:  The informant was born and raised in Glendale, California.  Most of the folklore he has been exposed to comes primarily from his father, who is of Arabic decent.  Other folklore has been attained either through media sources (i.e. Reddit) or through personal life experiences in America.

Context:  The interview was conducted in the living room of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item:    In Arabic culture it is rude to show others the bottom of your foot.  So when you sit cross-legged, the bottom of your foot should not be pointing towards them; it should be pointing towards the ground.

Informant Comments:  The informant grew up with this idea that showing the bottom of his foot to someone, particularly an elder, is very disrespectful.  He developed this etiquette of not showing the bottom of his foot because he was raised in an Arabic cultural surrounding where this disrespectful gesture is considered very rude.  The informant does not know exactly why this gesture is considered to be so rude, but has decided to simply stray from doing it so that he never accidental offends anyone.

Analysis:  This gesture is considered rude in many Middle Eastern cultures.  It seems that the idea behind this gesture is that the bottom of your foot belongs on the floor and showing someone something that belongs on the floor seems to indicate that that person is like the floor.  Essentially, this gesture implies that the person doing it is in some way superior to (on top of) the person that it is being done to.  While in America, no one would be offended by this gesture, many Middle Easterners would.  Thus, this gesture is not universally rude, but one can see how it may be considered rude by those who grow up in an environment where it is disrespectful (i.e. in Arabic culture).

Legends
Narrative

Cuchulain

Form of Folklore: Folk Narrative (Legend)

Informant Bio: The informant was born and raised primarily in Glendale, California; he only left the United States for a two year period (from age fourteen to fifteen) to live in London, England. Most of his knowledge of folklore is from his mother (of Irish decent), his father (of Persian-Armenian decent), and media such as the internet and television. Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item: Well um… this is one of the Irish legends my mom used to tell me about. About a young warrior named Setanta, who’s kind of an Irish hero. And he was raised by his father to be the greatest hunter, the greatest fisher, that there ever was, you he was kinda one with the wilderness… great in all these areas. And he had this ambition of joining the Red Branch Knights… a kind of mythical Irish heroes, that weren’t kinda named individuals, just like an order of great knights of the land heroes. And when he becomes old enough, his father gives him… um… I think a sling and a magic ball that he’s got to go into the wilderness and kind of prove himself before he becomes a member of the Red Branch Knights. And while he’s going, he happens across a dog. And the dog is really aggressive and territorial and he fights the dog and kills it with the sling and the ball. And it turns out that this is a famous dog, this famous guard dog of the area of Cullan, this is the official… the hound of Cullan. He’s just killed this famous dog in combat. And the owner of the dog, the lord of the castle, comes out, he’s like “what’s going on, you just killed my dog”. And because he’s such an honorable soldier, been trained so well by his father, he offers to take the guard dogs place. Setanta, he assumes the name of Cuchulain, he becomes the hound of Cullan, guarding the place. And this kinda cements his legend and lets him join the Red Branch Knights later on. It’s a nice Irish hero story.

Informant Comments: The informant’s mother told him about this legend. He believes that there is some partial truth to the tale. Most likely, he thinks, the Red Branch Knights probably existed but were glorified in the legend out of proportion; their doings and achievements seeming more than in reality. He believes it is possible for Setanta to have existed and to have become the hound of Cullan, but does not have any reason to say that his legend is completely true or completely untrue.

Analysis: This legend is famously told in Ireland and amongst Irish communities. Honor, respect, and strength are key elements in the legend of Cuchulain. According to the legend Setanta was raised to be strong and to become a member of the Red Branch Knights (an honorable position). This is physical strength, which is also apparent when he is able to kill the large hound. Beyond physical strength, inner strength, respect and honor are demonstrated by Setanta when he offers to take the hound’s place. Whether the legend of Cuchulain is true or not, it is clear that the legend is intended to uphold virtues of having inner and physical strength, honor, and respect.

Annotation:  The legends of Cuchulain can be found in “Mythastrology:  Exploring Planets and Pantheons” by Raven Kaldera (page 203).

Game
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Egg War

Form of Folklore: Holiday Ritual

Informant Bio: The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, moved to Moscow, Russia at six months, then to Detroit Michigan at age three. Since she was five years old, she was raised in Glendale, California. Most of the folklore she knows is from her mother (passing down traditions she learned) and from peers at school. Her mother remains as her main source of cultural folklore (Armenian) whereas her friends in school exposed her to the folklore of American culture.

Context: The interview was conducted on the porch of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item: On Easter morning, after the eggs are painted and put out on the table (it’s part of breakfast). So we basically eat the eggs for breakfast. And before we eat them, the way we open them is like… um… taping the top of one egg against the bottom of the other, so the pointier side is hitting the flatter side. And if it cracks that egg, that means you like won the egg fight. And if there’s a few people playing, you move on to try and crack theirs. And then if you win all of it, you’re egg is like the sacred egg and you don’t eat it; you put it aside and you eat one of the ones that was weaker.

Informant Comments: The informant believes that this Easter ritual is a pleasant way of getting the family together to play an innocent game. She enjoys playing the game and believes the best part is being able to eat all of the loosing eggs and saving the winning egg for another day (another war). Everyone wonders if the egg will be able to beat the rest of the eggs the next day also.

Analysis: This Easter ritual seems like a harmless game that can bring some excitement to a regular morning breakfast. This egg war is very common in Armenia (where the informant is from). This ritual, unlike others, brings out some good natured competitiveness in the family member. Luckily, it almost never leads to an argument since the strength of the eggs the members of the family have chosen have nothing to do with the people who chose them; thus, no egos are wounded. Essentially, only good can come from adapting this Easter ritual because it starts the day off with a certain level of excitement and offers an initial topic of discussion for the rest of the meal.

Game

Lemon

Form of Folklore: Game

Informant Bio: The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, moved to Moscow, Russia at six months, then to Detroit Michigan at age three. Since she was five years old, she was raised in Glendale, California. Most of the folklore she knows is from her mother (passing down traditions she learned) and from peers at school. Her mother remains as her main source of cultural folklore (Armenian) whereas her friends in school exposed her to the folklore of American culture.

Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of the informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item: This is a game called Lemon. Ok so basically ahh the first part is just picking four girls names. It works out better if you do four girls you know; it just comes out funnier. So four girls you know, things you do to a lemon (things like lick or zest or cut or squeeze, things like that) so four of those. Four boys names, again four boys preferably that you know or who also know the girls you listed. And then four body parts (elbow, finger, arm… doesn’t matter). And that’s about it. The numbers are jumbled in each category, so then you just match up number to number… to number… and it comes out like … a girl’s name does this thing to this boy’s body part. It’s not something really done for a person, this is more mutually played between whoever’s there; it can be four people, five people together just making it for fun… just to see the results.

Informant Comments: The informant learned this game in high school. She believes it was a fun way for teenagers to see what weird and sometimes perverted results came from the game. Usually, the game would lead to some sort of sexual act or an action that seems nearly impossible. The game was not played often, but when it was, all of the participating players would take advantage of the rare opportunity to make certain girls match with certain boys.

Analysis: This game seems to bring out the curiosities of teenagers who are going through all sorts of new experiences (in high school). Having their hormones increase and decrease on different levels, teenagers pass down this game from person to person, as a way to vent out their sexual thoughts. At a younger age, this game would not be as popular since most pre-teens are not as obsessed with sex and physicality as teenagers are. Similarly, adults (over eighteen years old) are more experienced and knowledgeable than teenagers, so Lemon does not have as much entertainment value. This is a teenage game that will most likely continue to exist (or at least some version of it) as long as teenagers are sexually curious.

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