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

Paying for Pearls Superstition

Informant: The informant is Janet, a fifty-six-year-old woman from Yonkers, New York. She has lived in the Bronx and Westchester County, New York throughout her entire life. She is of Italian descent, is married, and has two children.

Context of the Performance: We sat next to each other on a couch in the living room of her house in Yonkers, New York over my spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: I learned that you cannot give pearls as a gift, not even anything that contains a pearl. Pearls represent tears, meaning sadness, so if you give someone something with pearls, they must give you money in compensation, even if it as little as a penny. Then, it’s like they purchased the pearls from you and did not receive them as a gift. My mother taught me this at home when I was a teenager when she gave me a piece of jewelry with pearls. She asked me for a penny.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: This piece of folklore is important to me because I don’t want tears brought into my life because I associate crying with something bad happening in my life. I also don’t want this to happen to others. I am very superstitious, so I feel better and safer following this tradition, even though none of my friends had heard of this.


Personal Thoughts: I think that this piece is interesting because I had never heard of something like this. Providing compensation for a gift is unusual, and I have never participated in anything like that. I also like this tradition because while it requires the receiver to provide money, it promotes the selflessness of the giver. The receiver must only provide a single penny, and the giver is not only giving a gift but also looking out for the the luck of the receiver.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Folk Beliefs
general
Signs

Three Times Japanese Superstition

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

If it happens twice, it happens three times. So for instance, if you drop something twice that day, the third time you drop an object it’ll be a much more valuable object such as glass or your phone.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first heard of this superstition from her mother one day when she was in elementary school. She had dropped her phone twice that day before her mother warned her what would happen for the third time. She was so scared of what would happen in the future that she handled her phone like a precious diamond.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

Although the Japanese believe the numbers, four and nine, are unlucky, they have superstitions where the penalty for committing a taboo action is three years of bad luck. There is also the superstition that sneezing three times means someone is talking unfavorably about you. This superstition told by the informant also calls upon the number three as a connotation for bad luck.

My Thoughts about the Performance

When I heard about this superstition, I thought the informant’s mother told her daughter about the superstition to scare her into treating her phone with care. In a broader context, this Japanese folk belief may have been created to encourage people to be more cautious about their possessions. It seems that one of the functions of folklore in most, if not all, cultures is to scare people into performing an action.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Black Crow Superstition

LP’s (the informant) family is originally from Mexico. Apparently her entire family believes in the following idea about black crows being a bad omen, but her mother is especially superstitious about it. She’s the only one who actually goes outside to scare them away whenever she sees them. This is a superstition regarding bad luck that can come from crows around your house specifically.

“Whenever you see a black crow coming towards your house it will bring you bad luck. So my mom goes outside and will yell at the crows in Spanish and get them to go away. She scares them off because they will bring bad luck if they stay. If they actually get in your house…well…you’re done for. But if they’re in the street, you have to be respectful because it’s not your property, so you don’t scare them off. According to my mom, she was seeing a lot of crows around my house before the fire (a portion of her house caught fire about two months ago) but she was too lazy to scare all them off. So she was convinced that since she didn’t make them go away, my house was cursed and that’s why it caught fire that one day.”

I have heard about similar superstitions with crows, but more so black cats. I know birds can always represent different types of omens, and ravens are especially symbolic of death and other negative connotations. I think it’s interesting how her mom truly believed that the fire in their house, which was actually due to a power surge, was a result of not scaring away these crows.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

The Witches

Background:

My informant is 52 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for her entire life. Beverly is next to Salem and was part of the original settlement until 1668. She has remained close friends with many of the people she grew up with in town. Many of the children she grew up with still live in town as adults an have also chosen to raise their children there.

Performance:

“We didn’t really tell this story a lot because…well, it’s sad, I guess…but also because I knew Cory back then and I didn’t want to…I don’t know. You knew Mrs. Smith* (gestures to me), she was like the mother of the whole town, really. She did girl scouts, all of that. We’d always play in their stream. The Smiths were descended from Rebecca Nurse, who was one of the witches who was hanged during the trials and stuff. Anyway, you remember, Mrs. Smith had two different colored eyes: one blue, one brown…it might have been kind of scary if she weren’t so nice, but everyone always said that that was one of the signs that she was a witch…or maybe it wasn’t that she was a witch, but that she was descended from one…I’m not sure, but I can’t really imagine anyone thinking she was an actual witch…anyway she had six children, and her youngest was a daughter named Lucy* who was maybe three or four when all of this happened. Lucy had her mom’s eyes: one blue, one brown. I was in high school, so maybe fifteen? It was the winter, and Mrs. Smith was inside cooking while Lucy was watching TV in the other room. She heard a loud bang and when she ran in and saw that Lucy had pulled the TV onto herself and unfortunately she passed away. The very next day the blizzard of ’78 rolled in…it was…just brutal. The worst storm I’ve ever seen. Rumor was, it happened because Lucy died. Funny thing is, when Mrs. Smith died almost forty years later, a red tide rolled in the next day…couldn’t go in the water for almost two weeks. No fishing, nothing. People…well, I don’t think anyone had too many questions after that. Tell that story to anyone who didn’t grow up in Essex County and they’ll just laugh at you but to people here…I mean, how can you not believe it even just a little?”

*To protect the privacy of the family in the story, my informant chose to change the names during her performance. I respected her choice in this transcription.

Thoughts:

This story is interesting because it uses local history and folklore as a scapegoat for natural phenomena. The Smith’s were a direct link to the town’s heritage and their lives became a part of a greater mythology. From the tone of her story, I didn’t get the impression that the Smith’s were personally blamed for either the blizzard or the red tide; rather, the magic itself was to blame. It’s a much more holistic, “natural” magic than the powerful dark magic at the center of Salem Witch legends.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestures
Signs

Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Wear Red on Happy Occasions

S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.

S: So for like the Chinese culture there is so many, like it’s so crazy, but I guess, like the most popular ones, like would wearing red for like a birthday count as folklore?

Me: Yeah. But why wold you wear red for a birthday?

S: So like, so it’s the belief of the Chinese that red is like the ultimate like color for luckiness, and just like power and everything, so for your birthday you want everyone to be wearing red. And if anyone comes in wearing black, like that’s a big no no, ’cause black would mean like death or just like negative things, and like wearing black to a birthday or like any happy celebration would be like, it’s a sign of like disrespect and like wish that person like that bad luck. so never do that.

Me: Is it something that you do even now that you’re here? Like now that you live in the U.S.?

S: Um, no, not here, but if I’m with like family, or if I know that it’s a Chinese family, it’s like a more common known thing. So like even all around the world, you know. Yeah, so, but like you can wear other colors actually, as long as it’s not black though.

S talks about the Chinese culture in which it is customary to wear red on birthdays because the color red symbolizes luckiness, power, and in general just has good connotations. She says that it is okay to wear other colors as well, though it isn’t the same thing as wearing red, as long as you don’t wear black. Black symbolizes death and has other bad connotations so black is not to be worn on happy occasions, and it is considered disrespectful if people do wear black on happy occasions. Though she does not follow the practice so much now that she lives in Los Angeles, she still does when she is with family or other Chinese people.

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.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Jaguar: bad luck in Venezuela

Okay, so in the Oronoco Delta, which is in the Eastern part of Venezuela that borders Guyana, there’s um, it’s hard to pronounce but it’s the Juaguaro Indians, and they’re this indigenous people that live in basically like stilted houses above the river, and navigate around the channels in canoes, they’re very untouched by what’s going on in the rest of Venezuela and western culture. There’s huge amounts of jungle there. And one of their superstitions is that it’s bad luck to see or to have a jaguar living near them. And they call them tigers, well, “tigres,” but they’re actually jaguars. So as it goes, whenever they see a jaguar they have to kill it, otherwise they’ll have bad luck and bad karma, or there will be sickness and death. So whenever they see a jaguar it’s like part of their culture to kill it. And the way that I heard about this was, there was this Sirian guy that was raised in America after the age of 9, so I guess I’ll just call him American…he moved down there and he had a camp type thing where tourists would come and stay and camp in the jungle. And there weren’t really any other foreigners living there at the time, so people would bring him animals from the jungle, to raise them, if they got separated from their mother or were sick or something. He had all kinds of bizarre animals over the years, like monkeys, and otters, and caiman or crocodile, and when I saw him he had a mountain lion, but before that he had a jaguar. And he got it as a tiny baby kitten, and raised it himself, and his children grew up with it, and it was really tame because it was used to being around people. And he said one day, some indigenous guys came over, and took his jaguar cause they said it was bringing them bad luck. So they killed it, and one guy wore the skin, the bloody skin around for 3 days to clear the area of bad luck. And he went to the officials but it’s this thing that’s so rooted in their culture that even the Venezuelan officials can’t really do anything about it.

 

How long ago was this? When the incident happened?

 

Probably about, I’d say 10 years ago. So it’s still going on.

 

ANALYSIS:

This is a folk belief / superstition / custom that has clearly very established and embedded in this society’s culture, that even the government is aware that it is still practiced but can’t or wont do anything about it. This shows that it is a very strong and seriously considered belief. It seems as though this society is largely isolated from other societies, but clearly clashes with other Venezuelan’s beliefs, especially the subject of the informant’s story. The act of donning the skin of the “enemy” or the threat to their society is a kind of empowerment, or domination, and shows the rest of that community that they can rest assured they are safe from bad luck and that they have triumphed over the enemy. Taking away the enemy’s skin is like taking their identity away, disembodying them from their power.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Signs

Devil in Disguise

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.


Dad: “When we were little, my mom and my dad were very busy, so they left the Nana with us. The empleada.

Me: “Yeah.”

Dad: “And she used to sit with us and tell us all these scary happenings, like, she used to say there were sometimes babies abandoned in the middle of the road at night, and you walk and you hear this noise, a crying baby, and if you hold the baby, the baby is so sweet, and you get, ‘Oh! Poor little baby!’ But in reality, it was the Diablo (devil). The Diablo, who became a baby, to catch your attention and get out goodness out of you, and you feel compassion and then, a lot of bad things start happen to you if you hold that baby. Then the baby disappear and you cannot explain what happened, and then in one way, the baby choose, make you fall down in that trap, and because you became good with the baby, but the baby was bad. Then a lot of bad things start happen to you like, you can lose your job, your income, some relative dies, you know, all of this stuffs.”

Me: “It’s a bad omen. Can you reverse the omen?”

Dad: “The omen?”

Me: “Can you reverse the bad luck?”

Dad: “Ah, I guess, you know, the religious mentality show you that if you carry a cross with you, you are free of this devil, bad things that can happen to you.”

Me: “Oh, so the point is to try to get everyone to wear crosses.” (laugh)

Dad: “Exactly, well that is the idea.” (laugh) “Kind of. So in reality, a lot of Chileans without education, well even with education, you believe that a cross, that mean Jesus Christ, keep all this bad energy far away from you.”

Me: “So it’s to keep people in the religion?”

Dad: “Yeah, well, it’s probably an idea to keep everyone scared, and then if it doesn’t happen…”

Background and Analysis

My dad was raised in Rancagua, Chile, which is a city outside of Santiago in the 1950s and early 1960s. Back then and still today, religion has a very strong presence in Chile. When he was a young boy, my dad’s Nana would tell him and his brothers these stories, and at that age they believed it all, of course.

Going off of the legend, my dad also describes how, as a child, he was always told that when anything bad happened, if you just wore a cross or made a cross, everything would be okay. But to him, it’s all mostly psychological. This is very true, in that if you believe in something, it probably will happen. If you envision bad things happening, they will happen to you. If you envision good things happening, they can occur as well. What the legend is pushing is that religion can save you, even from the devil, but the mind is just as powerful a weapon.

[geolocation]