Title: The End of the Evil
Interviewee: Taleen Mahseredjian
Situation (Location, ambience, gathering of people?):
In her room in her house in Los Angeles. She is a sophomore at USC, studying neuroscience. She gets some papers ready for her essay that she will write soon. She looks up and realized that she promised to tell the interviewer a folktale. She lets out a sign of exhaustion, then go and sits on a colorful couch. The interviewee and the interviewer are close friends, brought together through the USC organizations of Helens and Trojan Knights. She is finally ready to tell the folktale.
Piece of Folklore:
Taleen – “Once upon a time, this isn’t going to go well. Once upon a time there was hill. On the hill, there was a tree. In the tree, there was a hole in a tree. In the hole in the tree, there was a nest. In the nest there were three eggs. On the three eggs there was a Cuckoo. So one day a fox comes to the tree and says, ‘This hill is mine, this tree is mine, there is a hole in the tree.’ He calls up to the bird, ‘What do you have up there?’ The bird says, ‘It’s just me and my three baby birds, living peacefully.’ And the fox says, ‘Nope, that is too many birds. Throw one down or I am going to go get my axe and cut down the tree.’ And the bird says, ‘I found this hill, on this hill I found this tree, in this tree I made a nest, and laid three eggs. I’ll give you one if you let the rest of us be.’ So she threw down a baby bird and the fox left. A few seasons later, the fox returns. The fox comes to the tree and says, ‘This hill is mine, this tree is mine, there is a hole in the tree.’ He calls up to the bird, ‘What do you have up there?’ The bird says, ‘It’s just me and my two baby birds, living peacefully.’ And the fox says, ‘Nope, that is too many birds. Throw one down or I am going to go get my axe and cut down the tree.’ And the bird says, ‘I found this hill, on this hill I found this tree, in this tree I made a nest, and laid three eggs. I’ll give you one if you let the rest of us be.’ So she threw down a baby bird and the fox left. The mother bird starts crying and a crow hears and flies to the tree. The crow asks the mother bird why she is crying and she recounts the story. And the crow goes, ‘Don’t be naïve, this hill is everyone’s, it does not belong to a single person. Besides, where would a fox get an axe?’ The next time he comes back, don’t listen to him and he will go away. So the mother bird thanks the crow and the crow flies away. A few seasons later the fox returns. The fox comes to the tree and says, ‘This hill is mine, this tree is mine, there is a hole in the tree.’ He calls up to the bird, ‘Throw down a bird or I will cut the tree down.’ The mother bird sticks her head out and says, ‘No this is everybody’s hill, it does not belong to you. And you don’t even have an axe.’ And the fox goes, ‘Is that so? Who told you that?’ And the mother bird says, ‘The crow told me that. Go away you’re not getting anything.’ And the fox goes away and walks around for a bit thinking. He decides to get back at the crow for what he did, so he goes and he plays dead in a field. The crow flies overhead and sees the seemingly dead fox in the field. The crow swoops down to harvest his eyes. Right as the crow reaches the fox, the fox jumps up and bites the crow’s neck, trapping it. He asks, ‘Why did you tell the mother bird that I don’t have an axe, what’s it to you?’ And the crow says, ‘I’m sorry, but if you let me go I’ll make it up to you by giving you my hidden stash of treasure, if you want it it’s all yours. So the fox lets the crow go, and the crow goes to show the fox where the treasure is hidden. From above he notices that there is a farmer’s dog taking a nap under a bush. He tells the fox that my treasure is in the bush. The fox dives into the bush looking for treasure, and the dog wakes up delighted in the fact that he now has lunch. The fox then laments about his life and his past evils. The fox gets eaten by the dog. Everyone else lived happily ever after. The end.”
This tale is very unique. And yet, at the same time, there are many things that are recognizable and that carry past the Armenian culture itself and into more global and mixed cultures, such as that of the United States. For example, within the story, the mother Cuckoo has their chicks. That is no coincidence. Within folklore, some cultures tend to favor the number three, while other cultures favor the number four and so on. With western countries, it appears to be the number three. That is not the only time three appears in the folktale. Within the tale, the wolf comes to the tree three times, and as in modern western jokes, the change happens the third time around. That is when the mother Cuckoo tells the fox to go away, and finally stands up for herself. Also, this story has a huge overarching sense of freeing yourself from people telling you what to do, and from people claiming that things are theirs.
Tags: Armenian, Folktale, Evil
Main Piece: “So when you step on the back of someone’s foot accidentally, giving someone a ‘flat tire,’ it’s bad luck if you don’t immediately take your hand and squeeze the other person’s hand.”
Background: This has been a tradition in the informant’s family her whole life. The family is Afghan, but lives in the U.S., and values their culture very much. The informant’s mother told her that stepping on the back of someone’s foot is bad luck. Bad luck is significant for the informant’s family; she notes that Afghan people are extremely superstitious. Her family believes in “jinn,” that demons, ghosts, and evil spirits can inhabit one’s body and mind. The informant believes this superstition is connected to one’s past life, where people are shunned for their “bad luck.” According to the informant, bad luck can be a disease someone is born with, but is punished regarding decisions in the past life.
Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.
My Thoughts: Stepping on the back of someone’s foot seems to be an act of callousness, but squeezing the hand indicates care and respect. The generational superstition has continued through the informant’s mother to the informant; in fact, I have accidentally stepped on the back of the informant’s foot before and she asked me to squeeze her hand. Readings in ANTH 333 touch on the ways superstitions guide daily life and routine. The fear behind something that may compromise one’s luck is obviously a factor in being accepted by others as well as an indicator of future well-being.
For another version of this superstition, see: http://weirdrussia.com/2014/08/31/russian-traditions-and-superstitions/ for the Russian version.
The informant was a high school classmate that graduated the same year as me and also is studying at USC. We met up for a snack at one of the cafes on campus and, then sat outside to catch up and exchange news and stories.
If you see a Menehune or hear their drums, you’re supposed to take off all your clothes and lie on the ground without making eye contact, or else they will kill you. To show even more deference, you have to further humiliate yourself in front of them.
The informant learned of this superstitious ritual from K (informant’s friend). He had said that his Aunt and Uncle had gone camping once, and they realized they were actually on a Menehune trail when they saw eyes watching them while they were sitting around the campfire. They then had to get naked and pee on themselves and bow down on their stomachs, in order to show that they were lesser beings than the Menehune, and to show respect.
Background & Analysis
The informant was born and raised in Waimea town on the Big Island of Hawaii. K is a good friend who is native Hawaiian, and his family follows traditional Hawaiian customs and practices. Supposedly if you heed the superstition, you will be okay. K has told the informant many other scary stories about Hawaii as well, and also ones about good spirits.
This superstition was fascinating to me, because I know a different version. In all my life living in Hawaii, I have always perceived the Menehune as mischievous tricksters, yet relatively benign. Also, I have always heard they bring good luck if you come across one. In a way, they have always been the Hawaiian leprechauns to me. The ritual the informant described to me is very similar to the ritual you are supposed to perform if you come across Night Marchers on a Night Marcher trail. Night Marchers were the warriors of the ancient Hawaiian Kings, that continue protect the Kings in spirit form. If you come across them, you are supposed to bow on the ground and avoid eye contact, and hope that the warriors spare your life. It appears that as this ritual spread across Hawaii and over time, the exact spirit or mystical creature it centers around has become confused and interchangeable.
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.
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.
Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major. He is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. His family is from Mexico but he has lived in Southern California for nearly all of his life.
Context: I was talking to Fabian about Mexican stories and folklore. He shared with me the following superstition that is prominent in his family’s village where his grandmother still lives.
Item: “If someone is feeling bad, not always, but sometimes. What they do is they get this massage with an egg that has been dipped in holy water. They just kind of rub it on your back, arms and stuff. Then they make the sign of the cross on your back, chest and forearms. It’s supposed to be a blessing kind of thing. Once you’re done, you crack the egg in a cup of water. When you do it, the egg, which has been shaken from being rolled around your body, has a very opaque yolk which kind of represents the evil from your body. The yolk is then released from the egg, and, supposedly the evil, which is contained in that opaque yolk, is then released from the body and dispelled into the water. This is usually done by older women. There are some people that have a lot of knowledge/spiritual energy to them that perform a lot of these massages for people in the villages. A lot of the older women – the grandmothers – mostly know how to do it.”
Informant Analysis: Many superstitions in Mexico involve direct contact and touching using crosses, since Mexico is such a religious place.
Analysis: This superstition seems to involve the idea of contagious magic, the idea that things that have been in direct contact can have influence and interact with each other. The informant’s comment that many superstitions involve direct contact and touching seems to reinforce that Mexican beliefs heavily involve contagious magic. It makes sense that Crosses are used due to the deeply religious nature of the country.
The opaque egg yolk symbolizing the presence of evil brings about the idea of order being good and disorder being bad. Something being jumbled up represents disorder, something that civilization and society has tried to eliminate.
The fact that older women usually perform this ritual exhibits the very powerful position that they have in Mexican familial hierarchy, as they are revered as being knowledgeable and beyond reproach by anyone else in the family. The informant recounted a time when he yelled at his grandmother and was ostracized from his extended family for months after. It is possible to disobey/yell at other family members, but the grandmother is off limits, showing the position they hold in Mexican familial structures.
Informant Background: The informant is a student in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Indonesia. His parents moved to the United States and they now live in New Orleans. He speaks only English but he said his family still practice many Indonesian traditions especially folk-beliefs. He travels back once in a while to Indonesia to visit his relatives.
A serial killer who has killed hundreds of people realized at the end of his life how much evil he committed. He thought to himself something like: what am I going to do? Then he had a revelation toward the end of his life. He then heard of this city which consists of good people…you know where those people can teach him how to become a good person if he can reach the city…The people of that city can also teach him how to repay his since so he can reach salvation.
So this guy, the serial killer, starts walking to the good city. But he was really old, you see, so the serial killer dies on the way to the good city. The angels then wonder if he should go to heaven since he did have the intention to become good, or hell since he never made it to his destination. They decided to take the distance between his starting point and the city of good. If the man passes the half way point then he would go to heaven. But he didn’t pass the test, so an angel carried him pass the half-way point and brings him to heaven. So basically this story is pretty much saying that the intention to become a good person outweighs the evil in the past.
A story of repentance form Indonesia. The informant was told this story by his grandparents from Indonesian. The goal was to teach children to be good, want to be good, and continue to do good things despite past mistakes. The intention of the story was to teach that wanting to become good outweighs the bad things in the past.
I think this story reflects similar principles as karma. The serial’s killer intention to become good is so that he can go to heaven. He knows that his evil past will result in evil ends for him. He is doing good to expect good things in return. It is also evident that the intention to become good is so that he can eliminate or counter balance the evil he committed in the past. I think this story indirectly teaches children about karma and the consequences of good and bad actions.
This also reflects the idea of the ideal binary opposition in morality: the good and the bad. The character and the city are set as complete opposite of each other. The two are separated into pure ideal of how to judge morality. The killer is characterized as the definition of extreme “bad” while the city is defined as extreme “good” and filled with good people. The criteria of judging the good intention of the killer is a binary where the boundary is the halfway point of his journey.
This binary opposition of good and bad is blurred when the angel carried him pass the half way point so he can go to heaven due to his good intentions. The fact that only the intention to become good saves the killer from going to hell, in my opinion, makes the story effective. Since the goal of this story is to encourage people to have intention to do good things regardless of their past, the fact that the killer went to heaven shows how easy it could be to correct the evil past through simple change in attitude.
Form of Folklore: Folk Belief (Protection)
Informant Bio: The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, where she attended a Russian school. At the age of fourteen she and her family moved to America, where she was formally introduce to the English language and had to continue going to a school where the primary language was English. She has had exposure to both Armenian (from her youth and family) and American folklore (by living and studying in America).
Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of informant’s house.
Item: Armenian Transliteration – “Yerp vor vat bani masin es khosum yerekhayi mot, yerekhu akanju petka kashel”
English Translation – “When you speak about bad things in front of a child, you need to pull the child’s ear”
Informant Comments: The informant does not really believe that pulling a child’s ear when speaking of bad things will prevent the bad things from happening; not does she believe that not pulling a child’s ear will guarantee that the bad things they are talking about will happen. She does not actually use this folk protection in her life. She thinks it is simply something older women (i.e. grandmothers) do so they do not feel bad about saying bad things in front of children.
Analysis: This folk belief (protection) seems to be based on the idea that twisting a child’s ear is equivalent to taking away what they heard or preventing them from hearing all the bad things that will be said. It does seem as though this protection is more for the people saying bad things than for the children who may hear the bad things. It somehow offers a loophole for them to say all of the bad things they want without being condemned for saying them in front of children (offering protection to the speakers instead of the children). Regardless of why they have this folk belief or who it is intended to protect, people can choose to believe it and do it if they please (under the assumption that the pulling of the ear is not painful).
Form of Folklore: Folk Belief (Protection)
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: Since I was young, my mom told me that if I ever had a nightmare at night, to wake up the following morning and go to the bathroom, turn on the sink, let the water run, and tell my bad dreams to the water… as a way of letting them be washed away and not come true. And I did this for a very long time and often, if my dreams are bad enough, I still follow through with it just to give myself the reassurance.
Informant Comments: The informant does not truly believe that telling her nightmares to the running water in the sink really protects her from having her dream come true. Doing it does, however, offer her some comfort when she has had a horrible dream. Since there is no harm in telling the water about what she had seen in her dreams, the informant continues to do so just as a part of her morning routine after a bad dream.
Analysis: In this and many other folk beliefs for protection, water seems to be used as a method of purification or cleansing. Somehow having the water running as the bad dream is being told, removes the danger of having the evils in the nightmare come true. Since water is physically used to clean, it makes sense that it is also used as a metaphorical cleaning agent for bad dreams. Like the informant, I do not see any harm in using this folk protection but would not consider it to be a necessary action; if one forgets to tell their nightmare to the running water in the sink, they should not panic (if they do, they could always find another source of running water).
There was once an evil king that did not care about his people and did not listen to anyone. A kind governor tried to help the king, but the king would not listen. The governor was so distraught that he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, into the sea. The people under the governor’s rule loved him immensely and they did not want the governor to be eaten by the fish in the sea, so they covered sweet rice with bamboo leaves in order to satisfy the appetite of the fish, so that their governor’s flesh would not be eaten.
My informant first heard this story from his parents on May 1st as a child, as it is tradition to eat bamboo leaves and rice on that day in honor of this event. The fact that the governor committed suicide out of shame due to failure and an unwillingness to continue to work for an evil king is an interesting moral lesson to teach to children through this legend. Respect for the elders and the dead is also features prominently in this story as it does in traditional Chinese culture and explains why the tradition is still practiced today.