USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Folk Belief’
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Vaporub Cures a Cough- A Folk Belief

Main Text:

RB: I was told by my mom that if you put Vaporub on your feet and then cover your feet with socks then your cough is supposed to go away.

Context:

RB is a first generation Mexican-American. He said that he remembers this folk belief because every time when he was little his mom would get the Vaporub and socks and rub the Vaporub on his feet to help him feel better. Miraculously he said it works so that is why he believes in it and says he would tell his kids if he had his own to do the same thing.

Analysis:

Although VapoRub is not proven to cure colds, especially but putting it on one’s feet. Its presence in hispanic folk-medicine that I have encountered is a large one. I hypothesize that this belief continues to be passed down because of the context that it is associated with and not necessarily the affect it has itself. For example, most of the time when you little and you get sick in hispanic culture the mother is the one who takes care of you. If your mother is the one who carries this folk belief and she rubs VapoRub on you, you associate the VapoRub with the caressing and soothing touches of your mother. When someone who has experienced this and then goes on to have children of their own, they may pass this knowledge down to their child and rub VapoRub onto them, not necessarily because they believe that it works but because they associate this process with the gentle care and affection that they had received from their own familial member or whomever performed this act for them.

Another way to analyze why this folk belief is still being passed along and striving is the culture that many hispanic people have built around it. I have grown up around many hispanic people, mostly of Mexican decent, all of my life and am currently in a long-term relationship with someone who is Mexican. Having this background I have realized that Vaporub is used for almost any ailment in a Mexican household, even if there is no proof that it works. This is not limited to y boyfriends household either. I have asked many hispanic people about Vaporub and they all know exactly what I am talking about and even more so they usually have a a jar of it sitting around somewhere in their houses. They have built a culture that they share amongst themeselves because they all share common memories of being smothered head to toe in that stuff since childhood. Most of those who I have talked to also continue to use it to this day because of this shared memory that this is what people of Mexican or other hispanic cultures do. The use of Vaporub in Mexican households is such a common occurrence that the online realm has take hold of this belief and practice and have adapted it into hashtags, published poems, telenovela appearances, memes, emojis and even comedy skits. You can also buy t-shirts, paintings, cards and candles that all contain an appearance of Vaporub. These adaptations into the online realm and buyable objects just work together in order to strengthen the culture that many hispanics share with each other surrounding their common memories and experiences with this “magical” topical ointment. This resulting strengthened culture allows for stories and folk beliefs (like Vaporub and socks during a cold) to continued to be shared from family to family and household to household.

Folk Beliefs

Bedroom Arrangement Superstitions

Main Text:

HS: “The foot of your bed can’t face the door because that brings bad luck.”

Context:

HS and I were in my apartment by ourselves rearranging by bedroom so that it allows for more space and when I tried to put the bed on the wall opposite the door she told me this belief that her grandma had always told her. I responded in a sense of disbelief because I thought she was joking because I have ever heard anything like that but she reassured me that she was being serious and that her grandma really used to tell her that. She believes it was just a weird preference that her grandma had and that there is not really anything else to it but she likes to pass it along just in case something were to happen to the person that she did not tell it to. After we finished rearranging the room ( I refrained from putting the foot of the bed facing the door just in case) I had to run and get a piece of paper so that I made sure to collect this belief exactly as I had heard it.

Analysis:

Although the informants grandma moved here from England in her mid-life years, many cultures actually share this same belief. The thing that make the most sense to analyze from this piece is the why the bed cannot be placed a certain way which begs the question that a different arrangement must be better. Because this folk belief focuses mainly on the arrangement of material object I feel that it is appropriate to start my analysis relating this piece to Feng shui. Feng Shui originated in China but many different people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs still believe in practicing Feng Shui. Feng shui claims to use energy forces in order to make people more in harmony with the surrounding object and surrounding environment and I think this folk belief has appeared because putting the foot of your bed facing the door is against the Feng Shui because that specific arrangement does not place your bed on a spot of good qi or energy. People and cultures who believe in Feng Shui I believe continue to pass along this folk belief as a way to get people in good energy with their surroundings and as a way to spread the belief of Feng Shui as well.

Another reason I believe that people have passed along the idea that putting the foot of the bed facing the door as being bad luck is a historical one. I have heard that when someone dies in a room, they are taken and passed room to room feet first. So in a way, by putting one’s bed oriented towards the way a corpses would be removed from a room instills bad luck upon that person and symbolized that they are going to die soon.

The last way to analyze this folk belief is that people who believe in spirits are those that pass along this belief. This is because it is also said that if you orient your feet towards the door while you are sleeping, then spirits will be able to drag you out of the room in this way. Although this is another folk belief explaining a folk belief, I think it is important to understand that this explanatory folk belief ties together a group of people who will be ready and willing to pass down the folk belief being studied. This group of individuals all share a common belief in ghosts and this common belief in ghosts and evil spirits is not what only ties them together as a specific group of people but also affects the lore that they tell to other people and their reasons for telling it. If they believe in bad spirits pulling people out of a room if given the right opportunity, then it is logical that they would tell others not to orient their bad in an opportunistic manner towards spirits as a way to protect them from the bad luck of being taken by one.

 

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Itchy Palms – Ukrainian Superstition

“My grandmother tells me that if you have itchy palms, that means that someone will be at the door soon and you will need to shake their hand.”

Context: The informant, TH, is a second-generation Ukrainian-American. She lives with her Ukrainian immigrant grandparents, and tell my friends and I various slightly absurd and random superstitions that her grandmother reminds her of. For TH, she does not actually believe in this superstition, but regardless she still brings it up if she sees me itching my palms.

Analysis: This superstition contains many of the qualities that folk belief and superstitions contain. While most superstitions are somewhat confusing and irrational to people outside that culture, it is rooted in certain traditions and beliefs of the culture. In Ukrainian culture, the doorway and the threshold holds a special power; thus there are various superstitions involving doors. For example, you are not allowed to sit on a doorstep because the ashes of the family’s ancestors would be buried under the doorstep. While the informant did not actually know this backstory, there is some importance that is held for doorways in Ukrainian culture which is evidenced by this superstition.

On a side note, it is also interesting to see another sign superstition that involves itchy palms–the one that is more widely known in the U.S. is that itchy palms means that you receive some money soon. This is an interesting dichotomy, and shows the difference between the two cultures. For Americans, we look favorably upon money and see it as something we all want, while in Ukraine, itchy palms is sometime equated with having to shake hands with someone. This could be indicative of the power that the threshold holds, and also the Ukrainian value of hospitality and generosity. Many Ukrainian festivals and traditions are open to people of all cultures and faiths, and always feed their guests well.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative

Why Pineapples have Eyes – Filipino Legend

“Once upon a time, there was a hardworking woman who lived with her daughter, Pina. They were quite poor, and lived in a hut in a village. The mother worked all day and night in order to make a living for her and her daughter, but Pina never helped her mother with anything. The daughter was extremely lazy and spoiled and only played in the backyard. And whenever her mother tried to get her to do some errands, Pina always made some excuse that she could not find the thing that she needed to do it. Because of this, her mother just ends up doing the work herself.

The mother fell ill one day, so she called out to her daughter to make her some food, porridge. The girl did not listen to her and continued to play. The mother yelled again, and finally the girl stood up and headed into the kitchen. She asked her mother how to make the porridge, and her mother said that all she had to do was to put water in a pot with rice, boil it, and stir with a wooden spoon. Pina goes into the kitchen, and the mother can hear a lot of clanging and drawers banging, followed by the sound of the back door opening and closing. The mother called out to her daughter, asking Pina if she made the porridge. The daughter replies, saying she did not because she could not find the wooden spoon. The mother flies into a rage and says ‘I wish you had a thousand eyes so that you can find what it is you are looking for.’

The mother finally gets up and makes herself porridge. She cannot hear Pina playing anymore, and assumes that her lazy child had gone to her friends house. After this, she goes to bed. Days pass by, and she does not hear from or see Pina at all. She beings to think that her daughter ran away after what she said. When the mother recovered, she looked everywhere for Pina, and failed to locate her. She begins to regret the things she said to her daughter and is afraid that she will see Pina again.

One day, many months later, she is sweeping the backyard. She stumbles across a strange plant growing where her daughter used to play. She pulls it out of the ground and finds a yellow fruit that is covered in a thousand eyes. She realizes what she said to her daughter, and realized that this fruit was actually her daughter. To honor her daughter, she names this new plant Pina. The fruit began to grow everywhere and became popular around the world.”

Context: The informant, SP, is a half-Filipina American living in Rhode Island. SP was discussing various Filipino legends that aim to explain certain phenomena that are large part of Filipino culture. SP heared this legend from her mom, who is a Filipina immigrant. Her mother told her this legend when they were cutting pineapples, and it stayed with her as because it was so interesting to her. SP’s mother also commented on the fact the laziness of the daughter and how she got turned into a fruit because of it.

Analysis: This legend follows a lot of the various components and styles of folk belief. One of the important aspects of folk belief and legends specifically, is that it is a way to explain everyday phenomena. In this case, the legend aims to explain why pineapples have their famous “eye” appearance. Pineapples and other tropical fruits grow naturally in the warm climate of the Philippines, so it is understandable that folk belief will arise that involves an important part of Filipino culture. For example, there is a Native American legend that aims to give reason as to why bears do not have tails. Certain bear species are endemic to the western United States, so many indigenous Americans see these bears as having important spiritual and cultural significance, and thus many legends and myths have arisen. Certain phenomena that seem to be dissonant to the rest of nature are what is being explained by many folk beliefs and legends; they aim to bring order and explanation to an imperfect and confusing world.

Along with this, this legend also reflects the parenting style that many Filipino parents practice. Children are supposed to be extremely obedient and help their parents in any way that they can help to “repay” their parents for all they have done for them. In this case, the disobedient and lazy child causes a great inconvenience to her mother,  so she ended up being turned into a pineapple. This has a lot of significance for what disrespect towards one parents entails in the Philippines.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Struwwelpeter – German Folktale to Frighten Children

“Struwwelpeter is the villain in the story, and is about a boy that does not want to cut his nails despite his parents advice, and he is warned of the villain/demon type figure–Struwwelpeter–who has curly blond hair, at least that is what he looked like in the book. He also had very, very long fingernails, and wore this sort of tunic outfit with pants.

So basically, if the young boy refused to cut his nails, his parents told him that Struwwelpeter would come. The boy refused to cut his nails, and Struwwelpeter came in the middle of the night. He cut off not only the boy’s nails but also the boy’s fingers, so he didn’t have any fingers.”

Context: The informant, ML, and myself were talking about the stories that we were told as children that would keep us in line. The informant, being of German descent told me this story that scared him as a child. Struwwelpeter is a German folktale. His mother was read this story as a child, and she used to be terrified by it. This story teaches a lesson in a very brutal, typically German way, according to ML. Most of the German children’s folktales are pretty gruesome, and follows the nature of German parental “advice-giving”. ML’s grandfather used to tell him that the way to get a child to not go near the stove was to hold one of their hands over the burners and possibly singe their hand a little bit, so that it would hurt and they would know that touching the stove in the future would hurt.

Analysis: I agree with ML’s insights as to the pattern this folktale follows. One of the most famous collections of German folklore was the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The stories, while still reminiscent of the tale circulating in German oral history, were “cleaned up”–removing violence and sex–to cater to a wider, and younger audience.For example, Rapunzel was supposed to be impregnated by the prince who visits her tower, but later editions of the Grimms removed this reference to sex, particularly the pre-marital kind. However, the tales from which the Grimm’s stories were derived from children’s folklore aimed to scare the youth into abiding by certain rules and obeying what their parents and society told them; in this case, you must cut your nails if you want do not want to be mangled by this terrifying demon figure.

Along with this, the context in which ML was taught this folk belief shows how folklore can change over time. The informant was told the story by his mother in a way that shows that she was told this story to scare her as a child, but she was not going to use the same story to scare her child. In this way, ML’s mother is no longer spreading this belief as something that the informant should be believing, but rather as a way to connect with her child. Folklore is shown as a way to connect various generations together through similar experiences; in this case, the reluctance for children to cut their nails is somewhat universal. For another version of this tale, see Spence, Robert, et al. Struwwelhitler A Nazi Story Book by Dr. Schrecklichkeit (Philip and Robert Spence). Autorenhaus-Verlag, 2014.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Myths
Narrative

Chinese God of War and Wealth

“Ok, there is this famous general during the 3 kingdom of Chinese History, his name is Guan Yu, but he is more commonly known as Guan Gong–it’s a more respectful way of referring to him–and he was a king’s sworn brother, and he was famous for his courage, character, and integrity, and loved by both his enemies and friends. He did not succeed in bringing back his king’s empire, but he was worshiped as this god of war and also the god of wealth.

Nowadays, whenever you go into an old-fashioned–especially Hong Kong–restaurant you will probably see him sitting there in this green robe, holding his knife. His knife has a name, it is called the knife with which he slayed the dragon under the moonlight, yeah that is his knife. And the restaurant’s owner will have apples and oranges and candles under his portrait or statue so that he could watch over the restaurant and guarantee their business to profitable and stuff like that. He is also the god of war and courage, and is worshiped by the police and gangs the same way. If you see a group of people worshiping a Guan Gong with his knife in his left hand, then it would probably a gang member, while people worshiping a Guan Gong in his right hand would be a police officer.”

Context: The informant is one of my roommates, and we were discussing strange and absurd traditions from our respective cultures. She told me this story about a god that restaurants have an “altar” for because of his unique powers. The story is significant, according to the informant, because it shows that the line between folklore and religion is quite blurry. There are many, many gods of wealth in China that are all quite distinct and discrete. However, there is one thing in common: they all were real people. These real people became part of the folklore as their stories were passed down; people thus begin to see these historical figures as gods. There are plenty of people that see them as just role models or icons, but many do begin to worship them as if they were deities. She says that in this way, many historical figures enter folklore, and then cross-over in to more of a religious realm.

Analysis:  I disagree with this, as it seems that Guan Gong moved from a historical and legendary icon to a mythological figure. Based on this story, Guan Gong entered into the legendary realm following the spreading of his story throughout the Chinese public. His actions have spawned various stories–that may or may not be true. However, with the worship of this figure, Guan Gong also became a mythological figure that people saw as a deity. In many cultures, many people will see national heroes or cultural icons as someone that they look up to and eventually this respect can turn into worship. For example, Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who did prolific charity work in India, was not only canonized as Saint of the Church, but is also seen as a goddess in certain regions of Kolkata, a region in India. This shift was due to the fact that Saint Teresa was one of the few people to deal directly with those with “untouchable diseases” like HIV/AIDS and leprosy, and proved to society the importance of showing compassion to all. While this is different from the story of Guan Gong as Saint Teresa was not a legendary figure, there is a common theme; the actions of Guan Gong and Saint Theresa have become the icons that they are because the things that they did in their lifetime.

This is similar to the story of Zhang Lang, who was cursed to be blind and resorted to beg following his adultering behavior. While begging, he stumbled across his former wife; after she restores his eyesight, Zhang Lang, overcome by guilt, self-immolated in the hearth. This story was told over many generations, eventually becoming one of the “kitchen gods” that protect the home and the hearth. For me, the significance of this story is that it shows how a person or story can move between disciplines in folklore, as both legends and myths are genres of narrative folklore.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

The Luck of Red – Chinese Superstition

“So there is a kind of tradition in China, that for example, I was born in the Year of Rabbit, so when it is the Year of Rabbit again, I need to wear red underwears again for the entire year to ensure luck and happiness.”

Context: The informant, YT, is a student at USC originally from Shanghai, China, and is one of my roommates. We were discussing weird superstitions involving luck that our families abide by, and she brought up these superstitions that involve the color red. According the the informant, red is very influential in Chinese culture, and is largely associated with China on a global scale. YT, though not very superstitious, is still impacted by the widespread folk belief, and ends up abiding by this superstitions partially.

Analysis: Color is an incredibly important component of many cultures around the world. Specific colors can be seen as lucky, unlucky, beautiful, or cursed; the way that a culture sees these colors greatly impacts the superstitions of that nation. For China, red holds several meanings. First off, red was seen as bringing good fortune and luck, which is showcased in the initial red underwear superstition. Another component of this superstition is its reliance on the importance of Chinese zodiac. Chinese zodiac is assigned to each person based on the year that the individual was born in, in a 12 year cycle. It is also believed that when the year of your Chinese zodiac returns, that year will be an unlucky one; therefore, this superstition is an attempt to counteract this unluckiness. Masking the unlucky year with an article of clothing is there was of restoring joy and luck into the world.

It is also important to comment on the importance and proliferation of superstitions even in the modern era. Most of the Chinese superstitions have persisted in the culture for many years, so it could be thought that the folk beliefs would slowly die off as time went on, but such is not the case. YT is not superstitious, however, she continue to follow the folk beliefs because of the influence of those superstitions. For many members of the younger generation, they follow the folk beliefs because they think “what is the worst that could happen?” and that any potential luck that they obtained would be beneficial. Due to this mindset, young members of the Chinese culture continue to abide by this folk belief.

Adulthood
Initiations
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Mazel Tov! You’re Married!

Piece:

Interviewer: “Did you incorporate any like folk traditions into your wedding?”

B.F.: “Yeah. We did the traditional breaking of the glass.”

Interviewer: “Can you expand, please?”

B.F.: “So, um, at the end of the ceremony the groom stomps on a glass and everyone shouts ‘Mazel Tov’ (which means congratulations in Hebrew). My parents did it at their wedding, you Uncle Dan did it at his wedding, it’s just, just something we do.”

Interviewer: “Did it hurt your foot?”

B.F.: “Ha. No. We used a cloth.”

Informant:

Informant B.F. is a middle-aged man who is of Ashkenazi Jew descent. He grew up in a low-income, divorced parent family and lived in many different locations growing up. He worked hard in school to become successful and does not have a deep cultural connection with his past, though is grateful for it because her believes it has shaped him into the man he is today. Although he had a Bar Mitzvah and his grandparents and other relatives are practitioners of Judaism, he personally does not practice the religion anymore.

Context:

I asked B.F. to briefly sit down for an interview for my folklore collection project. When asked about wedding traditions, B.F. recalled this from his own.

Interpretation:

While B.F. is not a practitioner of judaism and was not at the time of his wedding, he still found the tradition breaking of the glass to be something he needed to do at his wedding because it was a traditional thing the men of his family had done. He is actually not even sure what the breaking of the glass symbolizes. He is not a traditional man but finds that certain traditions make him feel closer to his family. B.F. is not sure where he learned about this tradition, but remembers it from jewish weddings growing up. I think this folklore piece is important because it shows that a person does not have to be a believer in the beliefs behind folklore to practice the folklore. Folklore traditions can be more than just the beliefs that started it, and can take on a new meaning of familial ties and heritage. While this is a popular wedding tradition, B.F.’s unique take on the meaning stood out and was significant to me as a collector.

Annotation:

Mazel Tov – End of Ceromony – Seth breaks glass. Produced by Karen Orly, 2010.
Youtube, Karen Orly, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sXl1Bbe4Yk.

Adulthood
Childhood
Customs
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jewish Baby Shower Custom

Text

The following piece is a Jewish custom collected from a twenty-two year old girl in a library with a group of other girls, all studying. The girls were discussing an upcoming family pregnancy. The “Informant” shared the following information with the table. I will be referred to as the “Collector”.

Informant: “Apparently, in Jewish culture, Jewish women aren’t allowed, or like supposed to have baby showers. Apparently it’s bad luck.”

Collector: “What does that mean?”

Informant: “Well, Jewish women are not supposed to prepare for the baby before it is born. It’s bad luck to receive presents for the baby before it’s born. So, like the mother or friends can accept the presents but she can’t give them to the mother. Also, you’re allowed to paint the baby’s room but you can’t bring in the crib. So when the mother finally goes into labor, whoever had the presents or other baby stuff goes to the house and sets up the crib and baby’s room with all the presents. So that it’s ready by the time the mom and baby come home.”

Context

            The Informant learned of this custom from her friend who is Jewish. When questioned, the Informant said that her friend’s mother was the one who told her and was very strict about the tradition. Her mother did it and all the women of the family still uphold the tradition. The Informant remembers learning of the tradition very clearly because she remembers her friends’ anger at the tradition overall.

Interpretation

I had previously never heard of this Jewish custom. I was surprised to hear that it was still very much a part of Jewish women’s practices and belief system. I understand how some of the preparation for a baby coming might lead to superstitious beliefs, or the thought of jinxing the pregnancy, but the idea that the baby shower in particular is bad luck was surprising to me. I’ve always thought that the purpose of a baby shower was to welcome bother the woman to motherhood and the baby to life. It has always seemed to me to be a celebration of life. It’s interesting to me to know to understand the other perspective that it might be an unlucky aspect of the pregnancy.

Adulthood
Customs
general
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Funeral Custom — Cannot Dance

Text

The following piece is a Polish funeral custom that I learned of through my family’s babysitter whose father had recently passed away. The woman is a forty-eight year old Polish native who lives in Chicago now. I had been dancing around and in my attempt to get the Informant to join me, she explained why she was unable to.

Informant: “No, no…Can’t dance, no.”

Collector: “Come on! Why not?”

Informant: “No, no…My father die. I no dance for six months.”

Collector: “You can’t dance for six months because your dad died?”

Informant: “No dance for six months for father and mother. Four months for brother, sister.”

Context

The Informant has understood this Polish funeral custom for as long as she can remember. She remembers not dancing for a while after her grandfather had passed away, and has always understood it to be something she must also partake in. When her father passed, her entire family made the unspoken vow not to dance as a sign of respect to the dead.

Interpretation

While surprised at first, after hearing the Informant’s absolute belief in this funeral custom, I was beginning to also see it as a reasonable practice of mourning. I believe that the reason the Informant and her family undergo such a long process of morning, with such a specific time period, is out of respect for the ones they loved who have passed away. By vowing to not dance for six months, the participants must make a conscious effort everyday to not partake in overly joyful actions, excluding dancing altogether. I believe that commitment to this vow displays a respectful process of mourning, a way of honoring the dead by not moving on quickly after they are gone.

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