USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘animals’
Life cycle
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Peach Boy in Hawaii

Main Piece

Informant: “A story that I heard a lot growing up was about this boy who was born from a peach. They called him Momotarō. He was considered a blessing to this older couple, who had not been able to have kids, but had always acted humble and hardworking. They got the child as if they were being rewarded, and it’s explained that the Gods sent him to be their son.”

Collector: “That reminds me of a lot of stories, especially religious ones, too.”

Informant: “Yeah, that premise isn’t the most unique, but the peach makes it memorable. He grows up and then decides to leave and go fight some Oni, which are a type of demon. He has some animals that help him on the way, and I think one of them is a duck….Yeah. There are a dog, a monkey, and a duck. They stop the demons and then get to take their treasure.”

Collector: “Who told you this story?”

Informant: “My mom would tell me it, but I think most people in Hawaii know it. It’s Japanese, but there are books and a lot of stuff for kids based on it.”

Analysis

The story of Momotarō seems very easy to compare to a lot of other stories in Western culture, be it Superman or Moses. The popularity of it seems easy to comprehend, given the good values and morals that it is supposed to set forward for young children. The fact that the informant learned this story growing up in Hawaii exhibits how strongly connected those two geographical places are, and how the culture of Japan affects the state to this very day. It fascinated me that the  work generally is told the same in Hawaii, and that not many oicotypes were known to the informant. It can be assumed that the printed version of this book that popularized in the 1970s for the Bank of Hawaii’s 75th anniversary played a large part in the spread of this story in the same variation. The authored Momotaro: Peach Boy declares itself  an “Island Heritage book” that promotes its impact on Hawaiian culture.

Childhood
general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Three Little Piggies- Bedtime Story

Main piece:

“There is the story about the three little pigs. They are brothers and there is a lazy lazy one, a lazy one, and a hard-working one. They build three houses. Each one builds one house, all out of different materials. One of them built it really quick and was like ‘yeah whatever’, the other one worked a bit harder, but not super hard, and the last one worked really really hard on it and made it out of bricks. When the big bad wolf came the house of the super lazy pig that made it out of straws and sticks blew off, and the other sorta lazy pig’s house also blew off, the only house that protected them was the house made out of bricks.”

 

Context and Analysis:

I asked my informant a 21-year-old female if she recalled any folk stories. The informant narrated to me the story of the “Three Little Pigs.” She claims this was a bedtime story told to her when she was a child. She believes the story speaks to the rewards of doing hard work and applying dedication. The informant identifies a lot with the story for her dad was a very charismatic storyteller, so as a child she was very invested in the lives of the little piggies and this story really stuck with her. She remembers her feeling of terror vividly knowing the wolf was approaching the houses of the first two piggies and they were going to blow away. The informant explains how having this story be such a large part of her childhood has taught her hard work and dedication. She will forever remember the hard work the third pig put into his house and the rewards that came from it.

I too remember hearing a version of this story as a child and agree with my informant on the interpretation. There are many versions of the story, but the meaning ultimately remains the same. The story emphasizes the rewards of hard work. The first two pigs did not do a good job of building their houses, and because of this when the wolf came to test their houses they fell apart. The last pig worked really hard and put a lot of effort into building his house making it the only house left standing between the three pigs.  I believe this story is a great tale to teach children about the value of hard work. 

By having the middle pig who did not do a bad job, but didn’t do a good job I think the story also addresses mediocrity. If the middle pig had put in a bit more work into building his house, it would have probably been successful in protecting him from the wolf. This highlights the importance of following through and putting in the full effort as opposed to just “good enough.”  

The use of animals makes the story more entertaining for children because it adds a sense of fantasy and simplicity by using non-human characters. Non-human characters are more relatable and flexible as a tool for storytelling because the author can make them do whatever he pleases. Having pigs be the main characters also makes the kids more invested in the story since talking pigs with houses are unusual and new to them. I think the use of three is also important to note as it is a prominent number in storytelling. Having a trio creates a pattern making the story more memorable and emphasizes an idea. 

 

 

Folk Beliefs
general

you can see ghosts through dogs’ ears

The informant, a middle-aged family friend from New Jersey, heard this folk belief from a friend at a sleepover party when they were young.

——————–

“Alright. So there’s this old, sort of like, folklore thing. I remember learning this when I was a little kid. Well, not learning, because I don’t think it’s true, but that one way that you’re able to see ghosts is that if you kind of stand behind a dog and look, like, above its head, right between the dog’s ears, right where the dog is looking, and if there’s a ghost there, it will appear.”

——————–

I thought this was an interesting extension of a generally held thought that animals are more in tune with the spiritual world in a way that humans are not, possibly because they have more developed senses (hearing, sight, smell) than humans do. Specifically, dogs are thought to be very intuitive, and are sometimes regarded as “guardian spirits” who help guide humans through their lives. People often reference dogs’ “sixth sense” and their ability to recognize evil or nefarious presences in their owners’ lives. Because unlike humans, animals do not distinguish between things that are considered “real” and “imaginary,” it is possible that they can see things that we can’t because we filter out things we don’t understand, while they accept everything they see without judgement.

Customs
Humor
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Animal Senior Pranks

Piece:

Informant: “When I was in high school, ah…. friends of mine, a year ahead of me, they were getting ready to graduate and there was kind of a tradition of doing some sort of prank, senior pranks. Well that group of guys went out and stole a bunch of turkeys off a turkey farm (laughs) and broke into the high school and put the turkeys in there on like Friday night. So the turkeys are in there wild, poopin’… and turkeys are crazy, they’re out of their surroundings, they just go nuts (laughs). So they are running all over. Of course they got caught and expelled. They finally let them get their degree but they couldn’t attend graduation or something like that. So, you know, they were kind of bragging about their stunt. And I said, ‘you know I hate to tell you but this has been going on for a while.’ When my dad graduated he and his buddies put a cow in the high school (laughs). And it was a four story building and they took the cow up to the top floor because cows will go up stairs but they won’t go down. So the same thing: they left the cow in the school for the whole weekend, cow poop all over… and the top floor was where the offices were, the principal’s office and all that stuff. So cow poop all over the fourth floor they had to get a crane to get it out cause it wouldn’t go down the stairs! (laughs)”

Background:

The informant witnessed the first practical joke mentioned in person, and was told the story of the cow variant by his father. Although he did not engage in the same pranks himself, it was clear from body language and speech that the informant found this highly humorous.

Context:

This excerpt was recorded during a scheduled meeting at my home in San Diego, CA.

Thoughts:

Although I have heard of and witnessed many senior pranks, few of them compare to this one. Pranks at my school were much more tame, such as flipping every piece of artwork on display upside down, whereas these required significant cleanup and even a crane in one case. It was very interesting that both of the pranks were very similar in that they involved animals at school, although it was implied in the story that the kid’s who used the chickens were unaware of the informant’s father’s previous exploits. If I had to guess, either the usage of animals in senior pranks was commonplace in rural schools during that time period, or the kids caught wind of the informant’s dad’s idea and acted as if it were original.

Customs
general
Initiations
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Figure Skating and Stuffed Animals

Main piece:

Interviewer: Can you think of any superstitions or rituals you had when you were figure skating?

Informant: Me? No I wasn’t superstitious at all. I remember other girls that would do stuff. Stuffed animals are a big part of skating culture. Some skaters have one singular stuffed animal that they carry everywhere, throughout their entire career. Sometimes when a skater performs really well at some event, fans will throw their animal onto the ice.

Background: The informant is my mother. She started skating at a very young age when she was growing up in Maine. For her, figure skating was an outlet from a rough home life. She learned of the significance of stuffed animals to figure skating through first-hand experience at her local ice rink. This interview was recorded in person when she came to visit me here at school.

Context: The informant remembers the symbolism of the stuffed animal through continued exposure to high-level figure skating, where it is common-place for fans to throw stuffed animals onto the ice after a successful routine is completed. However, the informant stated that the act of continually carrying around the same stuffed animal is hardly mentioned on TV broadcasts. I did some extra research into this and could not find any info regarding the continued possession of a singular stuffed animal. However, the practice of tossing a stuffed animal onto the ice is widely known, even among those not familiar with the sport of figure skating.

Analysis: I assume there is probably good reason for the relatively low notoriety of this piece of figure skating lore. For one, it is exclusive to high-level figure skaters who are performing in a competitive environment. As such, this tradition hasn’t permeated into the mainstream due to the difficult barriers-to-entry within the figure skating community. The informant stated that fellow skaters would treat their own stuffed animals “like they we’re diamond encrusted”. Off of that, I assume that high-level figure skaters are naturally protective of their totems. If the most prominent members of this community are reluctant to speak on this significance of the stuffed animal to the figure skater, it is difficult anyone to learn of this tradition. I was also curious to see if the informant could remember why one skater would pick a certain animal over another. The informant couldn’t remember exactly but thought the decision was based on personality. If you consider Figure Skating to be a form of artistic communication, which is the consensus, than the significance of the animal combined with the act of throwing stuffed animals on the ice in praise takes on a different meaning. The figure skater chooses a specific stuffed animal that aligns with her identity. When they are performing they are conveying their own identity through their art form, which is figure skating. If done successfully, the audience will then affirm the figure skater’s performance and identity by throwing the same stuffed animal onto the ice in an act of approval.

Folk speech
Game
Humor
Riddle
Tales /märchen

4 Questions, 4 Tests

This conversation is between the collector (C) and the informant (I).

I: I’m going to ask you four questions, and this isn’t just for fun. It’s going to test you on your greatest strengths and weaknesses. Are you ready?

C: I’m ready.

I: The first question is, “How do you put a giraffe in a refrigerator?”

C: (After a long pause) I don’t know.

I: You open the refrigerator, put the giraffe inside, and close it. That was to test if you overthink simple questions. The second question is, “How do you put an elephant in a refrigerator?”

C: You open the refrigerator, but the elephant inside, and close it.

I: Wrong. First, you have to take out the giraffe. That was to test whether you understand the consequences of your actions. The third question is, “The whole jungle has an animal meeting, and all but one animal show up.Who isn’t there?”

C: (After a long pause) I give up.

I: The elephant! He’s still in the refrigerator. That was to test your memory. You have one last question, and it’s the most important one: “You need to cross a river. It is filled with crocodiles, and you have no boat. How do you get across?”

C: You distract the crocodiles?

I: You don’t need to. They’re still at the animal meeting. That was to test whether you learn from your mistakes.

Context: The informant is significantly older than the collector, which might add to the educational aspect of the joke.

Interpretation: Obviously, this is first and foremost for entertainment. But it does teach the audience to think through their answers carefully, understand that actions have consequences, and learn from past experiences. It is a silly series of questions with a surprising amount of moral value. It is distinctly structured for educational purposes, and therefore places the joke-teller in a position of authority and wisdom over the audience.

 

Customs
Folk speech

Naming Pets in Rural Mexico

“Actually, when we had little chicks, too, we didn’t like, like, you name your pets here, like ‘little Peter,’ or ‘Johnny,’ or ‘puppy,’ whatever you want to call them. There, we didn’t name our pets, you know. We just name them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. [laughs]

 

Not to feel bad when it was like time to slaughter them… ‘cause we grew pets for eating, you know? It was, it wasn’t like we were just playing with them, it was actual food on the line! [laughs]

 

Was that a common practice, did everyone name their pets something like that?

 

More or less, something like that. Very, very like, crazy names, like you know, like May, July, June, those. [laughs] Because they were going to slaughter them that month. [laughs]

 

There was a little rooster named father’s day [laughs] because they knew they were going to do that, ‘where’s father’s day, where’s father’s day,’ ‘donde esta dia del papa,’ you know, in Español, ‘oh you know he’s there, he’s there, and this and that,’ and sure enough, you know, time came and… cut some necks there. That was crazy.”

 

Analysis: This is a fairly straightforward but interesting and widespread folk practice in rural Mexico. Whereas pets are normally seen as members of a family in the United States, pets were instead viewed primarily as food sources in rural Mexico. As such, the cultural norms surrounding the animals are substantially different from what an American may expect. Naming animals after the date that they will presumably be slaughtered is a very efficient way of keeping the age of a pet on hand. It is worth nothing that the informant’s repeated use of the term “crazy” may be revelatory of a culture shift upon moving to the United States and owning two pets.

general

Through the Eyes of a Dog

The informant is a 45 year old Panamanian woman, LF. She has a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies and she is particularly interested in the way that animals play into folklore and literature throughout history. LF recounts a folk belief she learned as a child regarding the magical properties of dogs:

“It is believed that during the night, when dogs perceive something that humans cannot hear or see- you can see the dog’s reaction. They perk up, and they move their ears, and sometimes they bark or they howl. It is believed that when this happens at nighttime, it is because they can see supernatural stuff that humans cannot. It could really be, like, a mouse or a cat moving somewhere and they are reacting to that, and we don’t see it because we can’t see as well in the dark as they can. But some people believe that this means that they can see spirits, or devils, or that kind of entity that lurks in the night unseen.

It is said that if it’s nighttime and the dogs are howling, and you go up to the dog and you take the secretions of the dog’s eye- the ones that form in the corner of the eyes, just like humans- if you take these secretions and rub them in your own eyes, and you look in the direction the dog is howling at, you can see the spirits too. And you can see whether it is a devil or a spirit- you can see it because the secretions briefly give you the powers of the dog.”

You have to be in the right place at the right time. Then you have to go through this nasty ritual (laughs). And then you get to see.”

Why do you know, or like this piece?

“I really like this one because it’s like a superpower- you get to do something that only animals can do with their senses that are better than human senses. So you get to see something that humans can’t normally see.”

Who did you learn it from? And have you ever known anyone who has done this?

“I think I learned it from my cousins. We were teenagers. They were trying to gross me out, because it’s kind of a gross process!

I have never known anyone who has done it or seen anything. My cousins hadn’t tried it. I personally wouldn’t do it because I don’t want to get an eye infection! But it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s someone out there who had the courage to do it and deal with the consequences of seeing a demon- and getting pink eye, probably.”

So I know that one academic area of interest for you is the role of animals and the way they fit into medieval society, culture, and literature. Have you ever heard of anything like this at all in any other society?

“Animals in medieval folklore are usually used in fable-like discourse. Like if you were talking about a king who was too ambitious, in the tale you would reppresent him with a lion who was too ambitious who was deceived by other animals. They usually appear in fables- less so in rituals or magical beliefs.

In late medieval folklore though, there are stories of dogs who have magical properties. There was a trick witches might use to deceive people. They would have a dog who was crying or fussing, and the witches would say she was a maiden who did something wrong, so they turned her into a dog- when really it would just be a dog who was fed a pepper or something like that in order to trick people. And the witch would then try and sell the person who asked about the dog a potion so that they would be protected from being turned into dogs themselves. Essentially, people tell themselves all kinds of stories to explain animal behavior that we humans can’t understand.”

 

My thoughts: I agree with informant when she says that folk beliefs like these arise from the desire to explain animal behavior that may seem unusual ot incomprehensible to us. Because dogs have such fine-tuned senses, they may seem to react to things that “aren’t there”. I enjoyed the connection with medieval folklore that the informant brought up because it shows that humans from many different times and cultures have wondered about this themselves and come up with explanations for it through folk belief.

Folk Beliefs
Magic

The Snake’s Curse

The informant, LF, is a medievalist from Panama. She comes from an agricultural family that largely lived in the countryside. LF recounts a family story involving a curse transmitted by a snakebite:

 

“So in my family- in the part of my family that lived in the countryside- my relatives earned their livelihood through the raising of animals and crops. Everyone participated. Even in our home closer to the city we had a chicken coop and a little bit of corns and tomatoes. We have a deeply-rooted agricultural tradition in our family.

So my great-great aunt had her own farm in the country. She was working on the farm and there was this snake. She didn’t see the snake and it bit her on the hand, and she had to be taken to the doctor- she was very close to dying but miraculously she recovered. When she went back to her farm, it was after the harvest and it was time to plant again. But when she planted the seeds, the plants never came up. So she went to tend to the trees that had been growing on the farm for generations, but according to the family story, the trees withered and died after she tried to prune them.

No one in the family knew how to explain it. The only thing they could come up with was that after the snakebite, she couldn’t touch plants because she had been damned. It was like something from the garden of Eden- if you get bitten by a snake, you cannot have a beautiful garden. You cannot touch a plant, because you will kill it. Upon contact, you kill the plants because you have been cursed by the snake’s poison.”

Was this a common belief, or was it exclusively told within your family?

“No, I think it was something my family came up with because they couldn’t explain what had happened to their relative. It was like a family superstition.”

Who did you learn this story from?

“I think I learned it from my mother. It supposedly happened to her great aunt. I never met this person and I don’t even know if it’s true. I heard it when I was a little kid. It came up actually when we were all watching a documentary about snakes, my mom suddenly goes- “Do you know what happened to your  great aunt?”- It was just a casual thing.

It means that people come up with explanations for things that are unexplainable. It could have been that it didn’t rain that year, or that it rained too much, and the plants died naturally. But it was such a drastic change- this farm had been in the family for generations and it had always been successful until that year.”

 

My thoughts: I agree with the informant when she says that folk beliefs often arise when people want to explain strange events. It’s a way of rationalizing things we can’t explain otherwise, like a sudden lack of crops. I think it’s interesting that the informant makes a connection with Christian religion when she mentions the Garden of Eden- perhaps folk beliefs sometimes subconsciously reflect aspects of organized religion.

Folk speech
Humor

Animal Nicknaming and Jokes

I collected this piece of folklore from my dad while he was visiting. We ended up just sitting in the car in a parking lot while he shared some more Chilean folklore with me.


In Chile, people often give each other animal names as nicknames. The animal is supposed to somehow resemble or represent the person, so that they can be identifiable by that name. For example, the tallest kid in the class may be called the giraffe, and the annoying one could be call the mosquito. My dad’s nickname back in grade school was “el mono” or “the monkey,” because he was always seen climbing a tree of some sort.

Jokes can also be made using these animal nicknames and creating a pun with the sound that the animal makes.

Ex) -¿Por qué se llamas el gato? (Why do they call you the cat?)

-Mee-oowbuela me dice [Mi abuela me dice.] (My grandma calls me that.)

Many years ago in Chile, people used to live in the country side more than in the city, so there are many jokes about roosters, and chickens, and ducks, etc.

To foreigners or outsiders, this type of joking might not always make sense, especially if the definition of joking might be completely different. What was particularly difficult for me to get, was the pun-making using animal sounds. Not only do the puns have to match words in spanish, but the onomatopoeia sounds that animals make vary from country to country.

[geolocation]