USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘direction’
Folk speech
Riddle

Where’s that Polar Bear Going?

Folk Piece

Question: You’re standing in a room which is centered perfectly on the south pole. You see a polar bear walk by the window. In what cardinal direction is the polar bear?

Answer: North. It can be northeast or northwest.

 

Background information

“I don’t even know where I heard this. Probably when I was in middle school? I don’t know, I definitely remember telling it to people in high school – it’s one of my favorite riddles. It’s just like, simple, but sort of like fucks with your mind a bit? You can almost, like, feel your head spinning as you think about it”

 

Context

“I usually tell this story only when other people bring riddles up. I don’t, like, just casually whip out some riddles because I want to. But they are fun and entertaining, I guess.”

 

Analysis

This, along with “A Dog Walks into a Forest” and “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…” were part of an exchange between two informants that went back and forth with riddles they knew. While the first informant had familial connections to the riddles he was telling, this informant seemed to have less attachment to his riddles. Still, however, it was a point of pride for him when no one could answer. For more analysis on what this competitive aspect of riddling might mean, reference my post “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…”

As for the piece itself, I think it’s interesting that this riddle would probably have been easier in years past. As we become more removed from our transportation and travel around our world, so too does our sense of direction become lost. I know many people who do not know the difference between East and West. While that is certainly not standard, and not a good thing in any way, it was still interesting for me to have to mentally orient myself on a map on the South Pole, spinning my head around trying to make sense of it all.

 

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Korean Directional Superstition

"North is the direction of Death"

My informant first heard this superstition from his mother when he was fourteen years old.  His father had passed away when he was thirteen, so in Korean tradition, the sons must prepare a shrine for the deceased father on the day the father died to commemorate his death.  It is a time of reflection and a time to remember the loved one who has passed away.  When he was preparing the meticulous shrine for his father with the help of his sisters and mother, his mother explained to him that the shrine must be set up towards the north side.  When he asked why, she answered that north is always the way of death.  She also added not to sleep facing the direction of north because that is like facing death.

There is some logic to people believing that north would be the direction of death.  Since it is a general belief that there is some kind of an after-life in most religions, people believe in spirits.  Usually after death, the spirits leave the heavy bodies and elevate to a higher plane.  That is why I believe people perceive north as the direction of death.

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