USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘fire’
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.

Customs

Burning the Past Year

“So, in Ecuador, around New Year’s Eve, around the holidays really, we have this tradition of burning el año viejo. And what that is is that artists from around the country will each work on, uhhh, these piñata-type things, uhh, and they’ll be different characters, and the characters will range from Kung Fu Panda, Bugs Bunny to Donald Trump, Obama, uhh, like political figures to cartoon characters like they cover the whole spectrum,and their life-size and little and and they cost, they cost money to get these. And inside they have explosives. Umm… *laughs* And on New Year’s Eve, ummm, what everyone will do was, is that you’ll gather around el año viejo, umm, and at midnight you burn it, uhh, so you light a match and the thing will go off. Umm, and it’s supposed to be like quemando like burning all of your grievances from the past year and like starting anew from like the ashes. So that’s what we do. It’s fun.”

Burning el año viejo or burning the old year is a tradition that I’ve heard of in another societies, as well. In Cuba, for example, people will make effigies out of straw that represent the past year, and they will burn them on New Year’s Eve. Ecuador seems to take it a step further, though, by bringing in artists to make special effigies. It seems the burning has become less rigid in their culture, since they’re burning even cartoon characters or whatnot. The symbolism has been lost. It sounds more like a celebration, something to do out of habit, than something that’s supposed to be symbolic. In fact, it almost seems like a joke, especially if they’re burning effigies in the shape of political figures such as Trump or Obama.

Yet nonetheless, the source acknowledges the sense of burning away “grievances” and whatnot. So while the tradition may not look the same as it maybe did in the past, it still holds the same meaning. It reminds me of the phoenix when it bursts into flames and is born again from the ashes. Perhaps it has some kind of connection to there.

general

Gore Orphanage

“The Gore Orphanage is a building that was initially constructed as a Mansion around the turn of the 20th century just a few miles the from our house [in Amherst, Ohio], and it’s name just comes from the fact that it’s on Gore Road. Sometime around 1905, the owners of the mansion sold the house away, and an orphanage was opened shortly after. The Orphanage then allegedly caught fire in the year 1910, and the whole building burned down with everyone inside. Today, it’s said that if you go to the location where the orphanage used to stand, you can still hear the cries of the children at night, just very faint screams somehow captured from the moment they died.”

This story comes from my dad, who’s lived all of his life in Northern Ohio. This legend is pretty popular around the area where I grew up, and I actually learned of it from my dad, who in turn learned it from his father. I’ve actually looked into the Gore Orphanage before out of curiosity, but no historical documents show that there any casualties from the fire in 1910, and they actually show that the building did burn down in 1923 with no deaths. Additionally, the sounds heard at night a likely due to the sound of traffic on the nearby I-80 turnpike. Despite this, my family and I still like the idea of the story because it’s something interesting in an area noted for not being too interesting.

Customs
Earth cycle
Festival
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Persian New Year

Okay, so Persian New Year, it lasts seven days…So, basically the Tuesday before or during, everyone goes to a special place or they do it at each other’s houses and they make fires, like small fire pits.

 

Inside or outside?

 

Outside, it’s always outdoors. Like in an alleyway, or if you have a big backyard, or they do it at the beach. And then people jump over it and they say a saying that’s kind of like, I don’t know how it’s translated but it symbolizes throwing your bad energy or anything bad from the past year into the fire, or like from other people, into the fire. That’s basically it.

 

Do you know the phrase in Farsi?

 

Yeah, but you’re not gonna get it. It’s like, “sorheitaz…?” I don’t even know how to say it, you’re kind of just saying whatever is bad is going into the fire. And you kind of say it with a friend, like whatever’s bad from each other, your relationship goes in too.

 

When is Persian New Year?

 

Our calendar is different, the Persian calendar is a little different. It’s first day of Spring, so it starts on March 21st, and then it lasts seven days. And we always set a table, it’s called the Hafseen, and Haf means seven, so like everything starts with an “S” you can look this up, I don’t know what each thing symbolizes.

 

So there’s a lot of symbolism involved?

 

Yeah, there’s seven things, there’s like a fish, and then there’s a specific thing you grow, it’s like a grass, and then there’s flowers… It’s really specific but it’s all with Spring and has to do with new beginnings and stuff like that. So it lasts a week, and then after that you get rid of the table and everything, and they throw out the grass thing, they’ll go to the river and get rid of it, there’s like special ways. And they celebrate after too.

 

ANALYSIS:

The informant is clearly engaged in her family’s and culture’s traditions and customs surrounding New Year, although it is clear there is a generational gap – she speaks Farsi, but doesn’t know exactly what she’s saying or what it means when they jump over the fire. She also participates in the traditions and knows the general gist of how things are set up, but doesn’t know specifics about the symbolic elements of the festival. However, she is aware of how the ritual is done, participates in it, and has a general idea of why these things are done and what they mean. The new year festival is about being away with or burning away all the old, stale, bad things from the past year, and bringing in the new year. There are very specific things that must be present and actions that must be done to ensure good luck, success, happiness, good relationships, etc. in the new year. This also corresponds with the earth cycle, and not with the biblical calendar.

Myths
Narrative

REBUILDING THE HARDWARE STORE

ABOUT THE INFORMANT:

My informant is a mother of three who lives just outside of Boston with her husband of over 30 years. She is originally from Cape Cod, the part of Massachusetts that is full of beaches and is a world known tourist destination. She is a lover of all thing water; she has worked extensively in water policy and water pollution as an environmentalist.

EXAMPLE:

“So basically the summer I was 16…well, my dad had a country hardware store on the Cape {Cod} that burnt down when I was 14. And there was no insurance on the building. My parents had a piece of land in Orleans that was once where the building stood.

It was this terrible fire. I remember in eighth grade cooking dinner for my siblings while my parents were down there. My parents were watching the fire, watching their store come down.

In fact, for the four days of Thanksgiving break we had a fire sale. We pulled out of the store what we could after the fire. All the smoky, gross items. And we set up on the driveway next to the burnt down business. It was like a flea market. All of us were working. Just to get any money to pay off the items in the store because we still owed money on them, you know? We hadn’t paid back the people we bought them from.

So we had no money. But we did have this piece of land. So my dad started stockpiling lumber. It was actually bargain lumber, like cheap lumber he could find, all in our yard. So after a year, no after a couple of years, he got all of the lumber he needed. So he built a new store. All by himself. One summer, everyday he would work on it. I would ride by on my bike everyday and see him, building it. “Hi, Dad.” I worked as a chambermaid at a motel nearby. Then I would ride back every night and see him, still working.

He built it all by himself. One day he hired one guy so that they could raise the steel beam in the middle, for structural support, but that’s it. He was out there everyday, by himself that whole summer. And I would pass by him everyday.”

COMMENTS:

“That’s something we often talk about. We remember how even when we had nothing, we literally rose from the ashes. He rose us from the ashes. We tell that story a lot in my family. He went on to own five successful hardware stores. That was the turning point. We all learned about struggling and not giving up from him there.”

ANALYSIS:

This story hits on a couple of different elements. Even though it itself is true, or at least as true as a story can be when someone tells it, with no real fantastical or folkish elements to it, it contributes heavily to this family’s folklore.

This family cites this as a moment when their fortunes and fate began to change. This is kind of a liminal moment in a way, in that it is the part in between utter devastation and financial success. When they talk about her dad, and the stores for that matter, they talk about this moment. The moment of rebirth, and “the turning point.”

It also adds to the lore of her father, a very highly regarded figure in her family. She is filled with pride when looking back at him, single handedly rebuilding this family’s hope. While the story may be grounded in reality, it adds to his legend. He would go on to be talked about and looked upon as this amazing figure in her and her family’s world. This is one of those moments that would be talked about repeatedly in this family, as his lore grew with it.

Lastly, I feel as though this informant attributes this as a lesson or a trait she inherited from her father. Seeing him at work everyday, after such a terrible thing happened, not giving up, had a lasting impression on her. I feel as though she uses it to learn the importance of hard work and resilience; that it helps keep her fire going.

general
Legends
Musical
Narrative

Song/Contemporary Legend – Cleveland, Ohio

My mother was born and raised in Cleveland Ohio.  She remembers very well when the Cuyahogo River “caught on fire”.  It was the day of June 23, 1969.  The river was very dirty, and contaminated.  There had been a lot of waste dumped into the river form the surrounding industrial companies.  However, the day that the river was on fire, the fire is said to have been up to five stories high.

However, according to my mother this event was blown completely out of proportion. Songs, tails and even pictures developed from this event.  This song about the river began to be sung all around the town.

There’s an oil barge winding

Down the Cuyahogo River

Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

Cleveland city of light city of magic

Cleveland city of light you’re calling me

Cleveland, even now I can remember

‘Cause the Cuyahoga River

Goes smokin’ through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on

Burn on, big river, burn on

Now the Lord can make you tumble

And the Lord can make you turn

And the Lord can make you overflow

But the Lord can’t make you burn

Everyone knew the song, both the children and the adults.  The song did two things.  First, it scared people away from Cleveland.  My mom remembers kids from her school moving to different cities and outsiders no longer wanted to come to Cleveland.  Second, the song brought forth the real reason why the fire started; people were dumping trash into the river.  This is evident in the lines about the Lord.  The Lord can make the river, tumble, turn and overflow but the Lord can’t make it burn.  Only the people can make the river burn, by dumping their trash into it.

This event, over the years developed into a “haunted story” Cleveland became the town that nobody wanted to live in; it was dirty and contaminated.  Pictures were even found of enormous flames that claimed to be of the Cuyahoga River but in fact were developed to scare the people.

http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1642

March 2007

Customs
general
Initiations

Tradition – India

My informant witnessed this marriage ceremony during his last trip to India. He specifically returned to India to be present for the marriage of his cousin and her husband. He told me the tradition of “saptapadi.” He told me that in India, fire is considered to be very powerful and important. Thus, during weddings, the bride and the groom will often walk around a large fire seven times. In the Hindu culture, this makes the marriage official and complete.

Each time that the bride and the groom walk around the fire, they say a phrase that represents another step towards marriage. The first phrase involves a plea to the gods to bless them with a respectable life filled with enough food for an entire family. In the second walk around the fire, the couple prays and asks for health and strength so that they can have a long life together. The third time they walk around the fire, the gods give them strength through spiritual means. The fourth walk around the fire represents their love for one another. During this walk, they ask that they be happy together forever and always love and respect one another. In the fifth walk around the fire, the couple asks to be blessed with many loving children. In the sixth walk around the fire, the couple asks to go through life together, even if they may go through tragedy and sorrow. In the final walk around the fire, the couple prays for everyone in the world. They pray that everyone lives a life of peace, and that everyone is loyal together and finds pure companionship. After the bride and the groom fulfill this tradition, they say some words together that are like the vows said during Western weddings.

My informant said that it was very interesting to attend a Hindu ceremony. It is the first one that he has been to, and he says that it makes him feel much closer to his culture. It also makes him realize how important marriage and companionship in India is. He said that very few couples get divorced, even if things are very bad. The couple will still live together and try to work things out. I think that marriage is very sacred in India. In Western culture, more and more people get divorced. Oftentimes, one will hear about a couple that divorces after just two months of living together. I believe that going through this tradition of saptapadi makes a couple feel closer and more connected, not just between the couple but also with the families who attend the wedding, because they have all undergone this tradition as well.

[geolocation]