USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘bad luck’
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Homeopathic
Protection

Salt Balls From the Dead Sea

Context: A friend of mine had missed about a week of school, so when she finally returned, I visited her at her apartment in Downtown to catch up and hear about what had been happening.

 

Background: My informant explained that she had been falling victim to a string of bad luck for about one month. She was very sick and decided to spend a week at her parent’s home in Beverly Hills to recover. While at home, her mother instructed her to take a bath with salt balls that she brought back from the Dead Sea in Israel. Salt from the Dead Sea is known to have different forms of healing power, both internally and externally. She believes that this ritual has the power to heal, as well as dissolve negative energy. 

 

Main Piece: “For the last month it was just thing after thing coming my way. I was feeling pretty down overall. I kept getting sick over and over again. I had a couple of ruptured ovarian cysts. My family was fighting a lot and it was getting really heated and out of control. I kept losing things, I was doing poorly in school. It was just so much negativity surrounding me and I was losing my mind. So I go home and I was just miserable so my mom gave me these salt balls she brought back with her from Israel. The gist of it is like you can either use them in the bath as a bath bomb or something, or you can use it as a scrub in the shower and just scrub it all over your body until it dissolves into your skin. The salt in general is a healer, it heals physical cuts and wounds and it’s supposed to help your skin. But a lot of people think it heals internally too. It’s really renewing and cleansing both inside and out. My mom always tells me that it dissolves the negative energy, the illness, just the bad all around. She says it’s purifying and yeah it cleanses the toxins out of your body, but it’s supposed to really boost your energy and stamina too. I sat in the bath with it for like an hour a couple of times and I honestly felt so much better. There’s definitely things I’m still dealing with, but I swear afterwards I just felt completely cleansed. I felt at peace with a lot of things, I just felt the negativity clear from my mind. It could have been some placebo effect type of thing, but it helped regardless.”

 

Analysis: People from all over the world visit the Dead Sea, and revel in the salty pool of water. It attracts tourists for its’ power to make the body completely float, and for the physical healing power of the salt. What I found interesting was this interpretation of its’ power to heal internally – to heal energy, to erase negativity, and to cleanse the body and the aura.

 

Folk Beliefs
Myths
Protection

The Red String

Context: I noticed a friend had tied a red string tied around their wrist. As a Jew, I knew that many people who visit Israel usually come back with red strings from Jerusalem. However, my informant does not identify with any religion, so I was curious to ask how he came across one. In the piece, my informant is identified as K.G. and I am identified as D.S.

 

Background: The red string is a part of Jewish and Kabbalah folk traditions surrounding the idea of Ayin Hara, or the evil eye. It’s historically believed that tying the red string on your wrist will ward off bad luck or negative fate. The string is worn to protect many different things. In some instances, it’s used to protect the fertility of a woman, protection in times of war, and others use it to make a wish. Despite the circumstance, it is to be worn until it falls off naturally.

 

Main Piece:

DS: “How did you get the red string? I always get those when I’m in Israel”

KG: “Honestly I ordered a bunch of these online, there’s a Rabbi from Jerusalem that sells them in L.A.”

DS: “But you’re not Jewish, what inspired you to get one of these?”

KG: “Yeah, I know, but you know it’s never about religion for me. I got it for all the evil eye stuff and all that but it has a different meaning for me. There’s a lot of bad habits I have. I feel like I talk badly about people a lot and gossip, among other things. When I look at it or feel it on my wrist it’s a little reminder for me to do better. To stop engaging in these tendencies I have that I absolutely hate and want to change. I definitely wanted it as protection especially now that I’m doing really well at work, but it’s also for myself and to remind me to be better and do better, so that I can be the best version of myself and put my bad habits behind me”

 

Analysis: While the red string has an ancient and historic ritualistic tradition behind Jewish folklore, I found it very interesting that someone who has no tie to any religion was using it for his own purpose. I found it refreshing for someone to take a piece of another culture’s folklore and adapting it to make it their own, especially as an aspect for self reflection and improvement.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Warding off the Evil Eye

Context: One night at home I decided to ask my dad for an explanation behind a cultural ritual he had performed almost every single week for as long as I can remember, and was preparing to perform that night. It’s a process using a spice called Esfand.

 

Background: In Iran, Esfand is used to ward off the evil eye. This is a generations-old ritual that has been passed down for hundreds of years. The idea is to burn the spice, and the smoke and popping sounds from the burning are said to burn away the evil eye.

 

Main Piece: “Persians are very superstitious people. Iranians have always been very successful for the most part and it’s a little natural for us to think someone would want to curse us if we are doing well or better than them. Most of your friends from growing up are Persian too so I’m sure they know all about it too. Persian people are a lot of the time looked at as being very flaunty or extravagant, and they are sometimes, but as a culture most people are very conservative about sharing achievements or very exciting news. It’s looked down upon to brag about good fortunes that you are having. I don’t think you even notice but sometimes when our family is out or at parties and someone was giving you or [your siblings] a certain look or a compliment me or mom would say a little prayer until we could get home and do Esfand. I think it could be a myth that there are people that really have an evil eye. But I think there are definitely people who act a certain way but inside don’t mean well for you, or give off a very negative energy that you shouldn’t have around you. So you burn it away. I put the esfand in my hand and I start with a prayer. I circle it around my head, mom’s head, and all of your heads a few times, chanting the same prayers asking for protection. I wave it all around the house. Then I take the foil and put it over the stove, and I put the esfand from my hand on it, and I let it burn until it’s done. It burns the negative eyes and thoughts from others.”

 

Analysis: The concept of the evil eye is definitely not tied specifically to the Persian culture. It’s interesting to look at how each culture or religion carries out their ritual against this superstition. Some knock on wood, some throw salt, some wear evil eye jewelry, but Persians choose to physically burn it away.

 

Annotation: For more on the notion of the evil eye in Persian and Middle Eastern culture, reference to:

Spooner, B. (2004). 15. The Evil Eye in the Middle East. In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (pp. 311-320). New York, NY: Routledge.

Folk Beliefs

Whistling and Snakes

Context:

The informant is a student currently attending Pierce Community College. He recounts a Korean story told to him by his parents when he was younger and giving his parents a tough time.

In the transcript of our conversation, he is identified as S (storyteller) and I am identified as C (collector).

continuing from another conversation about superstitions

S: Also, there’s another one that goes: If you whistle at night, snakes will appear.

 

C: That’s interesting. Can you give some reasons why people might believe that?

 

S: The whistling is more about not to disturbing others and to keep to yourself during the night.

 

Analysis:

Superstitions have a long-standing place in folklore around the world. Each culture imparts their own belief about what they deem important. This superstition about whistling at night draws on the idea that doing so will summon snakes – a symbol often associated with evil or bad. It is interesting to see how many areas share a commonality in symbols.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Protection

Spitting in China

Main Piece

WY: “Let me think…so it’s like superstition. Whenever my mom hears something terrible or scary she will always spit on the ground. Kind of like a ways to spit out the horrible things so she won’t be hurt by those things.”

Collector: “Where I am from (San Francisco), I know a lot of Chinese people who spit deliberately like that, too, but none of them have ever mentioned that to me. Guess I know now!”

WY: “Yeah. A lot of places in China they probably have the same tradition. Chinese people also do it for general health. They call mucus and other stuff in the system ‘toxins.’ I think the air quality has a lot to do with it, so they just try to make their lungs feel as empty and breathable as possible.”

Collector: “Do you do it?”

WY: “Generally not, but every once in a while when I hear something really terrible, I end up doing it.”

Analysis

I found the informant’s insight on this tradition enlightening because she grew up in an environment where she understood the meaning of it and had had time to process it. She did not hold a strong belief in it, but in desperate times fell back on the practice that she had learned from her mother. It was also interesting to hear how a scientific idea was also put forward in order to justify it for those who would question it. The two beliefs could work hand-in-hand, and do not contradict each other.

Folk Beliefs

Pregnancy Craving Beliefs

Main Text:

DC: “When you are pregnant and you begin to crave a specific type of food, you must eat the type of food you are craving or else the baby will be born with the face of that food”

Collector: ” When you were pregnant with your son, did you ever ignore a food craving?”

DC: “Yeah, but nothing really happened” *laughter*

Context:

DC is a Mexican woman who immigrated to the United States and has one five year old son. DC mentioned before she told me this belief that when she was pregnant, her mother always told her not to ignore her cravings and she remembers it because of how bizarre it actually is. Despite this being just another folk belief in her eyes, today she continues this belief and mentions it to her friends or family whenever they mention that they are craving a specific food while pregnant. When asked why she continues to pass this belief along, DC responded that it encourages people to eat more when they are pregnant and not feel bad about the “weirdness” and the “changes” that their body is experiencing. She said that she likes to make people feel comfortable while they are pregnant and that sometimes this belief can just be for good humor if someone needs to hear it.

Analysis:

The idea behind cravings in general is a way for your body to tell you what food it needs or what nutrients it is lacking. To couple this with pregnancy, I believe that this folk belief was a way to address the needs of the baby and to make sure that it is also getting all the nutrients it needs from the mother. Another way to analyze this belief relates to the culture of the informant. Growing up in a hispanic family, one is usually encouraged to indulge at family dinners and to specifically not waste food. This in part can be explained by the limited resources of a developing country where water, food and money are very important life aspects.Either way, this belief is passed along by hispanic families who encourage others to indulge in their meals as well as not to waste anything, and both of these aspects would be fulfilled by a pregnant woman satisfying her cravings. Hispanic culture is also one that values new children to a high regard so in a sense I think that this folk belief is representative of the value placed on the birth of new children in that it encourages protecting and fulfilling all of the needs of an unborn child.

Folk Beliefs

“Three On a Match” Superstition

Main Text:

Lighting three cigarettes with the same match is bad luck.

Context:

DS said she heard this over the years of smoking and people had mentioned it to her if she was using matches. She said that she remembers it because she used to be a heavy smoker and it came up fairly often so she would avoid using the same match to light multiple cigarettes just in case in order to avoid any chance of bad luck falling upon her and her family. When I asked her if she would pass this belief along to anyone she said she probably would not because it never really made much sense to her and she does not see many people smoking with matches anymore.

Analysis:

To understand why this piece is passed down it is important to go back to the origins and see where it may have originated from and the theories for why the folk group smokers think “three on a match” is bad luck.

One of the origins of this phrase comes all the way form World War I. If three soldiers were smoking cigarettes during the dark hours of the night then superstition held that one of them was going to die. This is because they believed that striking the match on the box would alert the enemy to the presences of the soldiers and as the matched burned to light the second cigarette the enemy would have time to aim his gun in the direction of where he now knows that the soldiers are. Finally as the third cigarette was being lit up the enemy shooter would be able to see and shoot the third soldier. I think this theory is important because it begins to explain why many smokers in America know and hold this belief because they were taught and/or experienced it way back in the early 1900s. When the war ended in 1918, many of the men who fought in the war came back to the America and shared this superstition they had when out in the battlefield to their families and friends who were also smokers and I believe that this is one of the reasons it caught on initially and still carries on today, even if people do not know why they say it.

Another theory that can be used to analyze how this superstition originated and why it still gets passed along is the theory of the Holy Trinity. Many very religious people that I have known and spoken to in my lifetime believe that using the Holy Trinity symbol (or performing things in threes) as a casual act is very disrespectful to the Holy Law. People who do this they say are helpless in the face of evil (even to the devil himself). To apply this to smoking, this notion has spread and said that those smokers who do light three cigarettes from one match disrespect the Holy Trinity, cause evilness (or bad luck) to come upon them and “light the fires of hell” themselves with that one match that they used. People who happened to be religious who also smoked more likely than not shared this belief with the people that they smoked with and this is how it spread around the smoking community.

The final theory took some research but it explains this folk belief in a more reasonable ( to corporate America at least) way. This theory is about Ivar Kreugar who was a deceitful businessman who bought many matchmaking factories in the 1920’s and monopolized them. This made him rich and powerful to the point where he could spread an entire superstition without question from those he told it to, probably the matchmakers and smokers themselves. The theory goes that Kruegar made up this superstition and then got it to spread among the smoking community as a way for people to use more matches which allows him to sell more matches and make more money.

To summarize, there are three theories that I believe help to explain why this superstition was formed and how it spread to smokers in the United States. The first theory is that during Wold War I this superstition was shared among smokers on the battlefield as a way to make sure that they keep their matches and noises associated with using them hidden from the enemy to not disclose their location and get killed. The second theory is that doing something casual such as lighting a match in threes disrespects Holy Law because of the Holy Trinity and causes evil to come upon you. The third and final theory was that a businessman by the name of Ivar Kreugar monopolized many matchmaking factories in the United States and created this superstition as a way to have people buy more matches so that he could make more money.

Folk Beliefs

Bedroom Arrangement Superstitions

Main Text:

HS: “The foot of your bed can’t face the door because that brings bad luck.”

Context:

HS and I were in my apartment by ourselves rearranging by bedroom so that it allows for more space and when I tried to put the bed on the wall opposite the door she told me this belief that her grandma had always told her. I responded in a sense of disbelief because I thought she was joking because I have ever heard anything like that but she reassured me that she was being serious and that her grandma really used to tell her that. She believes it was just a weird preference that her grandma had and that there is not really anything else to it but she likes to pass it along just in case something were to happen to the person that she did not tell it to. After we finished rearranging the room ( I refrained from putting the foot of the bed facing the door just in case) I had to run and get a piece of paper so that I made sure to collect this belief exactly as I had heard it.

Analysis:

Although the informants grandma moved here from England in her mid-life years, many cultures actually share this same belief. The thing that make the most sense to analyze from this piece is the why the bed cannot be placed a certain way which begs the question that a different arrangement must be better. Because this folk belief focuses mainly on the arrangement of material object I feel that it is appropriate to start my analysis relating this piece to Feng shui. Feng Shui originated in China but many different people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs still believe in practicing Feng Shui. Feng shui claims to use energy forces in order to make people more in harmony with the surrounding object and surrounding environment and I think this folk belief has appeared because putting the foot of your bed facing the door is against the Feng Shui because that specific arrangement does not place your bed on a spot of good qi or energy. People and cultures who believe in Feng Shui I believe continue to pass along this folk belief as a way to get people in good energy with their surroundings and as a way to spread the belief of Feng Shui as well.

Another reason I believe that people have passed along the idea that putting the foot of the bed facing the door as being bad luck is a historical one. I have heard that when someone dies in a room, they are taken and passed room to room feet first. So in a way, by putting one’s bed oriented towards the way a corpses would be removed from a room instills bad luck upon that person and symbolized that they are going to die soon.

The last way to analyze this folk belief is that people who believe in spirits are those that pass along this belief. This is because it is also said that if you orient your feet towards the door while you are sleeping, then spirits will be able to drag you out of the room in this way. Although this is another folk belief explaining a folk belief, I think it is important to understand that this explanatory folk belief ties together a group of people who will be ready and willing to pass down the folk belief being studied. This group of individuals all share a common belief in ghosts and this common belief in ghosts and evil spirits is not what only ties them together as a specific group of people but also affects the lore that they tell to other people and their reasons for telling it. If they believe in bad spirits pulling people out of a room if given the right opportunity, then it is logical that they would tell others not to orient their bad in an opportunistic manner towards spirits as a way to protect them from the bad luck of being taken by one.

 

 

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks Straight Into Your Rice

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never stick their chopsticks straight up and down in their bowl of food. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone, and I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad. The informant told me the she learned this from her parents, and that this taboo is highly integrated into Chinese culture—“no Chinese person would ever be found doing this…” Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 Text:

“Especially in the countryside, when they bury a person, they stick a stick on top of the section of land that they use to bury a person. On the stick, they tie little white strip of cloth to the stick, and this serves as the gravestone.

Because chopsticks are quite literally sticks, we can’t stick them straight up and down into our food because it too closely resembles the gravestone. Doing this is essentially a call to bad luck, because if you do it, you’ll bring death to both you and your family.

I honestly don’t know if I fully believe in this custom, but because it’s been so ingrained in my culture, seeing people do it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it just seems safer to not do it and to teach my own friends, family, and kids to not do it.”

 

Thoughts:

This is a taboo that I grew up knowing, but never understood why it wasn’t allowed. I remember my grandmother scolding me when I was around seven years old for sticking my chopsticks straight up and down in my bowl of rice, but when I asked her I couldn’t do it, she told me that it would give me indigestion. It actually wasn’t until this year, in college, when one of my friends that I made here (who also happens to be Chinese) and I were talking about the weird taboos we had grown up, and she mentioned that the chopstick one seemed to be a stretch because it was supposed to resemble a gravestone. Surprised, I decided to ask my informant about this taboo to clarify the reason for its existence.

I did some further research after my conversation with the informant, and I found out that there is more than one way that sticking your chopsticks straight into your food brings death: apparently, Chinese people stick burning incense into rice to honor the dead. Breaking this taboo can bring bad luck to you because no one is dead, so it’s as if you’re summoning death by honoring yourself. This is an example of sympathetic magic: the Chinese believe that if you make a gesture that resembles something bad in the world, you’re making a calling to it. I also noticed that this is not limited to only Chinese culture—in Japan, sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl is also considered taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of the person who has just died either at their deathbed or in front of the photograph.

 

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection
Signs

Why You Can’t Write Your Name in Red

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 

Text: 

“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.

In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written.  Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).

So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.

Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.

This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.  

 

To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:

Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2

June 2016,

www.visiontimes.com/2016/06/02/a-chinese-taboo-never-write-other-peoples-names-using-red-ink.html.

 

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