USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘fire’
Earth cycle
Festival
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Praying for a Good Harvest: Indian Festival of Lohri

Text:

S: “Lohri is basically celebrated in Punjab and Haryana [states of India] and also in other parts of the country but has different significance you know across the country… So basically it’s the time when you uh sow the fresh crop…But so what we do for Lohri is we burn a bonfire kind of a thing and uh the auspicious thing to eat and to throw into the fire is uh groundnuts, revdri [specific food item], and uh popcorn – so these are supposed to be auspicious and then you pray to this pious fire, the bonfire, and pray that this harvest is good. And so the crops are supposed to be harvested in April and this festival is in January so you basically want the next harvest to be good because you’re now sowing for that round of harvesting essentially. And also it marks the going away of peak winters, and the coming in of spring, and like just like the going away of cold weather.”

S: “It is also like celebrated with the neighbors, like it’s a community thing. And the first Lohri of a child or of a newly married couple is very important – the family hosts that Lohri and calls all their relatives and friends over and then you know serve them dinner after they all sit around the bonfire and offer their prayers and everything. And everyone has dinner around the bonfire and eats together and it kind of brings in a lot of social interaction also.”

S: “And if it’s not like your first Lohri, then people just get together and they do like potluck, and they bring like one-one dish – you still have to organize it – but people just get one dish and do it together.”

S: “You also have these specific songs associated with Lohri, I don’t remember them but um, the kids are supposed to be going to everybody’s house and singing those songs and asking for Lohri – like you do in Halloween – and people give them money. I mean we used to do that when we were kids but I don’t think people do it anymore.”

S: “So this day is very auspicious, 13thJanuary, or 12th, it’s very auspicious, and with the Hindu calendar, it’s the beginning of the month of, I think it’s the month called Makar, I’m not too sure about that. But the thing is like, so the Hindus everywhere celebrate it but in their own way so I think it’s called Pongal in the South [South India] and Bihu in Assam [another Indian state] and it’s called Makar Sakranti in UP [another Indian state]. And then they have their own ways of celebrating it, like the Haryanvis [residents of the state of Haryana] celebrate it by eating kichdi and ghee [specific dish] and UP people celebrate it by having til ke ladoo [another specific dish]and I don’t know about Bihu, how they celebrate it but, so basically that day is auspicious in the Hindu calendar so it is celebrated in various ways in different parts of the country.”

 

Context:

The informant is a middle-aged doctor from India. This conversation took over the phone around the time of the festival mentioned. The informant mentioned to me her plans for the weekend involved celebrations related to this festival, and I was curious and asked her to elaborate more on what the festival was. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses. Certain key terms that were originally in Hindi have been Romanized and their translations or explanations are given in brackets.

 

Interpretation:

Sowing and harvest festivals are pretty common globally and are especially prominent in an agrarian society like India. The unpredictability of the many factors that are needed for a good harvest leads to folk traditions like this one. However, their influence expands even to those who are not part of the community of farmers and in this context the meaning and function of the festival changes to be about regional cultural heritage. The informant mentions how the same festival is celebrated across India under different names, and with different specific practices even though all its variations are about praying for a good harvest. In this light, the details of how you celebrate the festival tie you into a particular community – for the informant, it is the community of people from Punjab/Haryana. The informant also mentions this emphasis on community, and how the festival is especially important to establish entry into the community by new members – whether by birth or by marriage. Further, the ties of the earth cycle (which is at a period just before spring) to the life cycle are also seen through the focus on children and the Halloween-like tradition of going door to door and asking for money. It is also interesting how the symbolic foods to throw in the fire have evolved to include foods that only exist in the modern world – namely, popcorn – and the informant spoke of them with the same reverence as the more typical foods that are groundnuts and revri.

 

Annotations:

For a more detailed description of Lohri, including an example of the songs the informant mentioned, refer to p. 26 of the book Let’s Know Festivals of India by Kartar Singh Bhalla (2005, Star Publications).

general
Legends
Narrative
Protection

The Witch of Yazoo

(Setup)

Storyteller:

“On my dad’s side of the family…he grew up in a town called Yazoo City, Mississippi. And did you ever see a movie called My Dog Skip?

Me: “No”

Storyteller: “Okay, so it’s a movie..based on a book about an author who grew up in the same town as my dad did. A white author who grew up there. And in the movie, they portray this legend which is the Witch of Yazoo. And supposedly, people are like ‘well he invented that for the book.’ On the black side of town…because it is Mississippi so there is still a very distinct black side of town. On the black side of town, the Witch of Yazoo was a preexisting legend. And again, whether it was a story he coopted or whatever, I don’t know. But I know that I heard about this form my aunt and uncle before I ever heard of this author or My Dog Skip or anything.”

(Here is the chunk of the story)

Storyteller: “And so, basically the story is that there was this woman and she was…and I’m going to try to remember it as accurately  as I can. I believe she was having… an affair with a man in town and it was either an affair…or some sort of family drama. I don’t remember specifically that part of it. But she ends up being murdered essentially by the man in her life in a fire. And then they bury her and everyone forgets about it. And then at a certain point fairly soon after…or it may have bene close to the anniversary of the death, half the town burnt down. And everyone was like wtf, like what happened. And her grave had been dug up.”

Me: “Oh My God!”

Storyteller: “And so people were like…’It was her! She came back and she did it’. And of course people were like ‘that’s crazy.’ But also people were like ‘um maybe?’ So they built a chain that goes around her grave that is supposed to keep her inside.”

Me: “Oh My God, that’s terrifying”

Storyteller: “And in the movie, if you see the movie My Dog Skip, it’s like a crypt that’s there…but in the black cemetery there was a grave because we went to see my grandmothers grave and I asked about it and my aunt was like ‘oh girl lemme tell you this story.’ So either there is one for the black side of town…because you know it used to be very segregated. Or it was a thing that happened on the black side of town originally and it just got coopted on the other side of town…I have NO idea. But it is this hilarious thing because it was this chain with GIANT weights and I was like ‘what the hell is that?!’ And yeah, so the inspect the chain…or at least they used to supposedly…they inspect it so she couldn’t come back.”

Me: “So this was true and it became a movie? Or what?”

Storyteller: “The thing is I have no idea…my aunt tells that story as if it is gospel truth right? But then when the movie came out and I looked it up, all this stuff online said it came from the book. But my aunt told me that story without ever having read that book. Because I asked her and she was like ‘what are you talking about?’ And she knew the guy (the author) but she had never read the book. So I don’t…I have no idea if it’s just one of those local stories that people know so he used it in the book or what…But it’s the south and it’s full of ridiculous scary stories. Really I think all these stories are made to just keep us from doing bad stuff or whatever.”

 

Background: The storyteller is form the south and her dad’s side of the family is from the city where this legend takes place. After listening to her other story that she shared with me, it is clear that her family has passed down many stories that are unique to the south. The storyteller is a professional writer and has used some of these stories and filled in the gaps to write short stories upon the narrative.

Context: I asked her if I could interview her for this project. I knew that she was from the south and after collecting a couple stories from people who grew up in the south, I was fascinated with them and wanted to hear more. She gave me three stories…a couple were stories from New Orleans and the other was this one. Both occurring in the south. I drove back home to meet her for some coffee before diving into the interview (along with another storyteller who is in a different post)

Thoughts:  I think that the stories that come from the south are fascinating. I don’t know what it is that draws me and so many other people to them. Perhaps it’s because the stories are incredibly rich or perhaps it’s the stories’ attention to details that make the stories so real. There are a lot of stories about revenge in the south and once again, I believe that this is the case because there is a lot of unsettled business. There have been a lot of wrong done in the south and the only way for people to cope with what happened may be to create stories that serve a small percentage of justice to those that were killed or unfairly harmed.

 

 

Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Touching the Fire

Main Piece
I don’t know how it started, but every year during homecoming, the freshman are in charge of building a big bonfire in the center of the green at Dartmouth, and you run around it for as many years of your graduation year, plus 100 now because it started in the 1900’s, so for example for my 2018, we were supposed to run around 118 times, but usually we just ran around 18 times. The upperclassmen would stand on the outside and like, jeer and stuff. So every year, something they want the freshman to do is to touch the fire, it is like a sign of being cool, like if you touch the fire, because its dangerous or whatever, and even now the police surround it, because they really don’t want people to do it, so it is really hard to do. So like, every year, all the upperclassmen scream “touch the fire! Touch the fire!”, and at least one person will do it every year. So this year, they even put a chainlink fence around the fire, but people still hopped it and touched it. And you are known for the rest of your Dartmouth experience for it.

Background
The informant attended Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she learned this story. She learned of this through experience and action, although she never personally touched the fire. She heard of the change this year through her college friends.

Context
The informant is a 23-year-old women, born and raised in Southern California. She attended Dartmouth up until last year, having graduated in 2018. She provided this information while sitting outside her family home in Palm Springs, California on April 20th, 2019.

Analysis
I love this tradition, but really am saddened to see institutions destroying traditions in the name of social progress or “safety”. I mean, it makes sense that the university wouldn’t want students touching a bonfire, for their own safety, but also that the university doesn’t wanted to leave itself open to a lawsuit. I just think they should not endorse the tradition, but not forcefully try to stop it! I love how enduring traditions are when they are held by a large group of people – even though the school is trying to stop the students, they have not been able to. With a university as old as Dartmouth, it makes complete sense that they have a lot of long-term, enduring traditions. I also love how legendary you become after taking part of the tradition – if I attended Dartmouth University, I would be sure to try my best to touch it! The continuation of this tradition in verbal form allows the informant to interact back with her own experience in the tradition, keeping it alive in her mind, but also in the world by passing it on.

Folk Beliefs
general
Holidays
Kinesthetic
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jumping Fire: Persian New Year

The Folklore:

K: Would you like me to tell you about a Persian New Year tradition?

E: Yes, please do.

K: Every Persian New Year everyone  jumps over a burning fire. A contained fire of course.

E: Does everyone participate?

K: Older people and young children don’t. But those who aren’t sick and are able bodied all do it.

E: That is so interesting. Do you know where this tradition originated?

K: Early Persians practiced Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest belief systems, and they viewed fire as extremely holy. They began to hop the fire as a cleanse. The fire would wash away all bad luck, evil eyes, and sicknesses by leaving them in the year that was ending.

E: When did you first hear about this tradition?

K: My fathers first told me about this tradition during Persian new year when I was very young. Ever since then I’ve participated every year.

E: What does it mean to you? What sort of value does it hold with you?

A: It means a lot because it’s the main event during Persian New Year’s. This is one of the largest family celebrations of year where extended family and nuclear family are all together. Everyone experiences this together by leaving our non-positive energy in the past.

Context:

My informant is a long time friend of mine who is from Dominican and Iranian descent. Every year I’ve known him I’ve seen the annual videos of him and his family members jumping over the fire without having inquired. I reached out to him over the phone and this was what he told me.

Analysis:

Although strange I see this practice as deeply as symbolic. Zoroastrianism was one of the first belief systems and the fact that God has for us conceived so long ago are still prevalent today reflects how truly special it is as both for the Apple ones on sale to leave behind’s transgressions from the past year as well as enter the new year with family.

 

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Saint John’s Tide

Content:
Informant – “Saint John’s Tide is on Midsummer, the eve of June 21st. There’s a big fire. Everyone gathers around the fire and one at a time they throw their intentions for the new year into the bonfire. Where you want to be in the coming year, what you want to do, whatever. Then you leap over the fire.”

Context:
Informant – “It has very pagan roots. It’s the longest day of the year. After this, the days get shorter. As winter approaches, our thoughts move away from the external. We begin to self contemplate more. It’s a good time to think about your plans for the coming year.”
The informant learned about this ritual in the 70s, but she doesn’t remember exactly where. She thinks she was invited to one.

Analysis:
Throwing your intentions into the fire is very reminiscent of Greek prayer burning. Jumping over the fire sounds like a trial, a way to prove yourself worthy of your desires. It sounds like a test, a purging of old weaknesses and fears before the dark, scary winter comes.

Legends
Narrative

High School Pizza Rolls Fire: Folk Legend

Folk Story:

“My school had a little store, it was called the ‘milk n mart’. It was a snack stand, you could order real food there, but they also had snack foods and frozen foods. So one time apparently, before I attended the school, a boy purchased pizza rolls and warmed them up in the microwave but instead of reading the instructions, he just put them in the microwave for 10 minutes which started a fire and everyone had to evacuate. I’d say it’s folklore cause nobody I knew actually saw this, everyone just knew about it.”

Context:

This happened at a private, Jewish high school in LA.

Background:

The informant is 20 and went to this private Jewish high school in LA.

My Analysis:

I think high school is a notorious time and place for people to learn hard lessons in stupid ways. This story epitomizes the high school experience because this legendary student made one stupid mistake that could have been fatal for the entire school. In high school, most of your decisions feel that momentous – who you take to prom, whether or not your parents let you go to that party, etc. The fact that the student in the story was microwaving pizza rolls really hammers down that point because pizza rolls are maybe the saddest lunch to microwave. They are bad, but also quintessentially high school. For example, the totino’s pizza rolls commercials are marketed explicitly to teenage boys.

For example, “Totino’s Pepperoni Pizza Rolls TV Commercial, ‘Awesome Mustache’.” ISpot.tv, 17 Oct. 2014, www.ispot.tv/ad/7yVz/totinos-pepperoni-pizza-rolls-awesome-mustache.,  depicts a late middle school/early high school aged boy lusting after an adult man’s mustache. The commercial promises the boy a mustache, the symbol of manhood in the commercial, if he purchases totino’s pizza rolls. In the folk story my informant shared, the boy’s inability to microwave his pizza rolls could be extrapolated to mean he is unable to be a real man or real adult. He does not belong in the school because he is still a child. While I doubt the children that shared this story were cognizant of this subtext, everyone of this age group grew up with these commercials, so I believe it resided in their subconscious.

Myths
Narrative

American Alabama Tribe Myth: Fire

Informant: I have a myth I heard from an Alabama tribeswoman I used to work with. Want to hear that one?

Interviewer: Sure.

Informant: At the start of the world, Bear owned Fire. It kept him and his people warm and let them see even when it was dark. One day, Bear came to a forest. On the forest floor, he found tons of acorns. He set Fire at the edge of the forest, and began to gorge himself on the delicious acorns. As the acorns around him began to run out, the wandered deeper into the forest.

While Bear was eating, Fire was burning at the edge of the forest. Soon, though, Fire had burned up nearly all of its wood. It began to shout “Feed me! Feed me!” to Bear, but Bear was too far away.

Man, however, was not far away, so he, hearing Fire’s cries, wandered over. Man hadn’t seen Fire before, so he asked it what he could feed it to help out. Fire explained that it ate wood, so Man picked up a stick and fed fire. Then he grabbed another, and another, until Fire’s hunger had been quenched. Man, meanwhile, warmed himself by the Fire. He sat nearby, feeding it wood and enjoying its warmth and colors.

After a while, Bear returned to Fire, but Fire was angry at Bear for abandoning him. Fire blazed brighter and brighter until it was blinding to Bear, and told Bear to leave it alone. Fire’s heat scared Bear away, and Bear could not get close enough to carry Fire back with him. Man and Fire were left alone, and that is how Fire came into the possession of Man.

Context: My informant is an eighty year old woman from a very scientifically/factually inclined Midwestern family. This performance was done over Facetime with my informant, since she lives in Seattle. Otherwise, however, it resembled a classic storytelling situation.

Background: My informant heard this story from one of her coworkers while working at a company in Alabama. It stayed with her because she enjoyed how well the story personified the wildness of Fire, but also thought its dependence on other beings for “food” made a lot of sense. Furthermore, the fact that Fire had not been found by Man, but rather had been inherited by a member of the natural world also stuck with her.

Analysis: Personally, I thought the story was great. It shares many similarities with myths I’ve heard from my own home region in the Pacific Northwest, primarily through its use of animals as characters and its personification of elements such as fire. It also demonstrates a really interesting progression where an important facet of our own life – in this case Fire – is not discovered by the ingenuity of mankind alone. Rather, mankind receives Fire from nature, as if we were successors of animals and part of the natural world, rather than detached from it.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Going to the wagons

A family friend, Ruth, grew up in a small town outside of Boston that had an unusual 4th of July tradition called “going to the wagons.” The following is a conversation between us about the tradition. “R” is Ruth and “L” is myself.

L: So what is the name of the town you’re from?
R: Dedham, Mass. And this would happen in Oakdale Square.
L: Okay.
R: And so the night before the 4th [of July], late at night, um like, we were young kids so we would go to bed first and our parents would wake us up and we would walk down to Oakdale Square, to take us to the wagons. And we would get there and y’know there’d be a crowd of people and like kids–it was kids I guess–who would roll these burning wooden wagons into the square. [It was called] “going to the wagons.”
L: So they were on- like what do you mean they were on fire?
R: They were burning!
L: Like they had, they were just set ablaze? Like the whole wagon?
R: Yeah!…I think what prompted them to stop this custom was, um, the drugstore windows broke from the heat of the flame, and so they stopped doing it. This was in the ‘50s.

The 4th of July is usually celebrated with fireworks, so in a sense this tradition seems an extension of the pyrotechnic theme present in the holiday. It makes sense that peculiar local traditions surrounding independence day would be most common in the Northeastern United States, particularly around Boston and Philadelphia, as that region was the site of much of the early political history of the U.S. as a nation-state.

Legends
Narrative

The Cat’s Manor at USC

Folk Piece

Informant: So I live in a house on [REDACTED] street at the North University Park District of Los Angeles, California. Actually, the Governor of California used to live there in the early 1900s. But whoever lived there in the 1940s or ‘50s, um, they, there was a whole third story. Like picture the old victorian houses with the spirals and stuff. But there was this third story and it burned down, like, in this crazy fire. And the like room that burned like more than any others was the room where this crazy woman that lived there had all of her cats. And like all of the cats died, so now like in the middle of the night, if you go up, there’s like this stair case that leads to the roof of the house but as you’re going up this staircase you can see the remnants of this old third floor. Um, cause they like didn’t do a really good job of getting rid of that, and when you’re going up that staircase to the roof, you can hear meows in the middle of the night. I have not personally heard them, but I’ve only gone up there once.”

 

Background information

Informant: “I learned this story when I was a freshman when I joined a group that has lived there the past decade or so. I heard it from a senior who was also a very superstitious guy who said ‘Oh, I like, hear it every night.’  The people who believe it take it very, very seriously. But the people who never experienced it all kind of think of it as a joke.”

 

Context

Informant: “We tell the story when we let in new members. I don’t know, it’s just a fun thing to add to the aura of it all – they’re like, typically freshman, you know? It’s just fun to make them feel like a part of the group with a little story.”

 

Analysis

Ghost animals are not nearly as common as ghost people in folklore, as we’ve talked about in our class with Professor Tok Thompson. Yet, in this story, they are just as eerily scary. That this ghost story includes artifacts that tie the legend into real observable truth, in that the remnants of the burnt third floor are easily accessible, is truly haunting. In the participant telling the story, I could envision walking up the stairs and seeing the charred, blackened floor.

It also seems like there is somewhat of a ritualistic retelling each year for new members of this group. The story helps identify their group because they collectively lease the house year by year, and so in retelling this story and having it be retold primarily by their group, they are owning the house in more than one way. The formal telling of this story to another member is one way to extend that ownership.

Equally as interesting is that this group is a singing group and that the hauntings come in audio form. Oftentimes, ghost stories, legends, and other forms of folklore are described in terms that are familiar to that particular ‘in’ group. In no way am I comparing their singing to the meowing of 40 cats burned alive, but it is interesting that they are auditorily stimulated, rather than visually.

Customs
Initiations

Dartmouth Night

The informant is a 20 year old student who is currently studying at Dartmouth. He recounts his experience with this initiation tradition and how it made him already feel a part of something.

  • So during homecoming weekend at Dartmouth, there is a Dartmouth tradition that tons of alumni come back to campus and are welcomed back into the frats- and each class builds its own bonfire structure, so my class, being a freshman would be 19, and the number of the year you graduate is placed on the top of the structure ( the structure is made out of wood and it is 50 feet high) I didn’t personally participate in making it but my class did. Then on the night of the bonfire, the entire freshman class starts at one dorm and moves through the campus picking up other freshman from each dorm building and eventually making their way to the green, which is where the bonfire getting ready to be lit. Then the freshman are welcomed into an inner circle around which all the other classes and alumni are standing and chanting. The bonfire is lit by select freshman, those who built it, and the freshman class begins to run around the bonfire the number of laps of their graduating year- meanwhile, all the surrounding upper-classmen heckle the freshman to run across the inner circle and touch the fire (which is completely guarded by Hanover police and security because its technically considered trespassing). Eventually, someone finally breaks free of the lap running and tries to touch the fire instigating others to do the same. Literally the police tackle people. This has been a tradition for a really long time, President William Jewett Tucker introduced the ceremony of Dartmouth Night in 1895
  • me: so what is the significance of touching the fire?
  • If you are caught then you are brought to the police station and the understanding is that an alumni will bail you out of jail, but if you’re not caught, you are seen as a legend from your fellow classmates and the older kids.
  • I first heard about this tradition from a sophomore, who touched the fire himself, and was clearly still prideful of that, it was within the first couple of weeks of school.
  • I actually did an interview about this in the school paper, but touching the fire for me provided the best welcome possible into dartmouth and solidified the fact that this is a good place for me.

ANALYSIS:

I think that initiations can be really important for anyone in-group. In my opinion they immediately create a sense of community and a feeling of belonging which is so important for a group to stay strong and connected.

[geolocation]