USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘folk beliefs’
Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Albanian Broom Superstition

Informant: The informant is Mrika. She has lived in the Bronx, New York for her whole life. She is eighteen years old and is a freshman at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. She is of Albanian descent.

Context:We sat across from each other at a table at a diner in Yonkers, New York during our spring breaks from college.

Original Script:

Informant: So, if someone accidentally hit you with a broom while they were sweeping, it would be bad luck. If they hit your feet, people would say that you wouldn’t get married. It seemed like an allusion to slavery. Brooms deal with the ground and the dirt. You had to get rid of the bad luck. To do that, you have to spit on the broom.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: I learned about this while I was on vacation in Albania, so it reminds me of that culture. I must have been eight years old. This is the one superstition that makes me remember the month I spent in Albania when I was growing up.

Personal Thoughts: I find it interesting that not only did Mrika explain the piece of folklore, but she also had developed a sense of the potential meaning behind its reason. Usually, people do not really know where the folklore they follow comes from or its meaning, yet Mrika, as she got older, was able to infer why getting hit with a broom is considered bad luck.

Folk Beliefs
Myths
Narrative

The Baobab Tree

Item:

“The Baobab tree, also known as the upside-down tree, is a strange looking tree that grows in low-lying areas in Africa and Australia. The Baobab is also called the upside-down tree because when bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the Baobab look like roots sticking up into the air, as if it had been planted upside-down. Legend holds that god Thora took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it out over the wall of Paradise on to Earth below, and although the tree landed upside-down it continued to grow. Another story goes that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving. Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. When water is drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, this serves as protection from crocodiles and the drinker will be mighty.”

Context:

The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), heard all of these stories about the Baobab trees from the trackers who would lead the safaris she went on in South Africa. The trees did not grow where she grew up near Johannesburg.

Analysis:

In the first two stories about the tree, I see an expression of the traditional subject of minor myths; explaining why things are the way they are. In the folk beliefs of the bushmen, however, I see an intense tie to their surroundings. The tree, for them, is an extremely important part of their relationship with nature. In addition to these stories, the informant sent me some factual information about the tree: “The Baobab has a special role in Africa. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects; bush babies also spread the pollen; the pollen can be used as glue; the seeds are rich in protein, calcium, oil and phosphates – they can also be roasted and ground like coffee beans; young leaves have a high calcium content and can be used as spinach; the trunk is fibrous and can be woven into rope mats and paper; beer and tea can be made from the bark, but you need a strong constitution to drink either.” These facts demonstrate the many ways in which the tree is used, by humans and animals alike. That said, all of these things the tree does augments the tie between it and the bushmen that is expressed in the stories.

Folk Beliefs

Do not put money on the table when you eat

After a day of shopping with my informant and friend, we went to a restaurant for dinner. Once I was done eating and she was finishing up her last bites I pulled out my wallet and placed it on the table.  She startled me by abruptly saying, “Don’t do that!” Confused, I picked up my wallet checking to see if I killed a bug or something. She then explained that it was a superstition in her country. Now a year later I reminded my informant (a twenty-two year old female from the Gabonese Republic, a state located on the west coast of Central Africa) of that specific event and she revealed that “In my country…you’re not supposed to pull out money or put it on the table until everyone is done eating…It’s okay to keep it down near the chair but not on the table.” When I asked why, my informant stated, “Because you will be broke [laughter].” When asked where she learned this from the informant claimed “everyone does it” meaning it is the custom among locals. She admitted not paying much attention to this belief as a child, however, once old enough to pay for her own meals she often forgot to not put money on the table. Days later, “I would be broke.”

As revealed by my informant wealth is a concern among the locals. “A lot of the beliefs in my country have to do with losing money. I think this superstition hints at a negative attitude towards poverty. I think by placing money on the table while people are consuming food it symbolizes consuming wealth.  Another thought is that exposing ones wallet leaves opportunity for others to think against someone’s wealth. Similar to the evil eye a negative thought may be a form of contagious magic.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs

Smurfs Peed in My Toilet

Smurf

 Ok…so when I was little I was in my “why phase”—I’m not really sure when that was exactly, I think I was maybe like four or five—you know that point in your life when you just ask why to everything? Ok, so every like, once every like, once every two weeks I would come home and see the bathroom and the toilet was, like, blue! And I would always go to my dad and ask why the water was blue, and he’d always say, “well, because a smurf came and peed in our toilet!” I didn’t question it—I mean… I was four or five so… smurfs exist right!? Um… but yeah, I just never questioned it until I started helping clean the bathroom when I was, like, 8? Until then I believed that smurfs came and peed in our toilet and made the water blue. He thought it was funny. I think its funny too…now that I know, like…I just think it’s a really funny story.

 

Haley’s story touches upon an interesting paradox of childhood: constantly questioning everything about the world but also believing whatever your parents tell you. Haley come from a very intelligent family that is scientifically and mathematically inclined—her mother is a doctor and her father a computer engineer. Being of a rather analytic nature, it is surprising that her parents simply didn’t explain to her that the chemicals in the toilet bowl cleaner made the water turn blue. Haley says that if she ever had a question about anything, her parents would take the time to sit down and thoroughly explain to her the details of what she was inquiring about.

 

I find that, being of such a scientific nature, her parents wanted to experience the magic of childhood in which the fantastical, the supernatural, and the improbable is generally preferred over the banality of reality. For Haley, the blue smurfs’ pee was an escape to a fantasy realm. Yes, she eventually learned the truth about the toilet bowl cleaner, but her mental dislocation from the real world afforded her a wonderful childhood.

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

German Tradition: Sylvester/ New Year Celebrations

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So for Sylvester, in every major city, and pretty much all of Germany, you are allowed to shoot fireworks at the turn of midnight.  And this day is a holiday, but some shops are open like, until 6:00pm.  And then people will go to their houses, or friend’s houses, or even parties. But usually first, the evening starts with a dinner. Like, not just with your close family, but it is with your friends too.”

Interviewer: “And why do they call New Years ‘Sylvester’?”

Informant: “I have no idea, I mean I never thought of it as ‘New Years’. It is just the name we gave it.  I think it is some religious guy… Oh! And on Sylvester everyone always watches Dinner for One.  It is one of these things where you have a certain tradition, and you don’t really know where it comes from but you grow up with.  And Dinner for One is a common thing for Sylvester because the butler in the show keeps saying ‘same procedure as every year?’ So he is referring to the routine, and that some things don’t change even though the year changes.  I don’t know, it’s just one of these traditions that you don’t know where they come from, but you grew up with them so you don’t really question them.  So yeah.”

Analysis:

Much like in America, Germany celebrates New Years by partaking in special events such as the shooting of fireworks at midnight and spending time with friends and family.  On New Years it is important to spend time with friends and family because it is a way of expressing to them that you appreciate and love them, and you want them to be in your life at the start of the new year.  This indicates that you are wishing your relationship with them to extend into the new year, and many years afterwards.  The shooting off of fireworks is a sign of celebration, much like it is in America.  However a difference I noticed when I celebrated New Years with my informant was that in Germany people are allowed to fire the big fireworks, but where I am from in America only city workers are allowed to shoot off the big fireworks because it is considered too dangerous for other people to do.  Even though firework regulations change based on where you are in America, the fact that there are not as many regulations on fireworks in Germany indicates that the German government probably trusts it’s people with the explosives more than the American government does with their people.

In Germany, ‘New Years’ is referred to as Sylvester.  My informant was not sure as to why this is, which indicates that the tradition of calling ‘New Years’ ‘Sylvester’ comes from old, long forgotten beliefs. In my research I discovered that the term ‘Sylvester’ is of Isreali origin because that is what the Isreali people call the New Years celebration.  Sylvester was the name of the ‘saint’ and Roman Pope who was in charge of the Catholic church during the 4th century.  Pope Sylvester is best known for convincing Constantine to forbid Jews from living in Jerusalem.   All Catholic ‘Saints’ are awarded the day Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory, and December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day.  Due to the anti-Semitic tone of this legend, perhaps one of the reasons why my informant was not aware of the true origin of Saint Sylvester Day was because Germany has been very careful to distance themselves from their negative history in WWII and the Holocaust.

The final Sylvester tradition my informant mentioned was watching Dinner for One every year.  This english film is played every hour on television during Sylvester and it is very popular in Germany because as my informant pointed out, it reflects on the idea that even though things are changing there are some things in life that will always remain.  Some people feel anxiety towards change, therefore I can understand how in this idea that there is “the same procedure every year” is reassuring to those fearful of change.  The film is especially popular among the wealthier German class because there are jokes in the film that only the wealthy would understand, such as the knowledge of serving the right kind of alcoholic drink with the food.  This comes from upper class dining beliefs that for example, port is an after dinner drink therefore it should be served with the final dish, fruit.  The film is also in English, which is a language that only educated German people would understand.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

Watch Dinner for One:

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

German Tradition: Saint Nikolaus Day

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries.  I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January.  I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January.  Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event.  So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”

Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”

Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff.  And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving.  And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children.  Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges.  And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”

Interviewer: “Why red?”

Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”

Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”

Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”

Analysis:

Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus.  Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children.  In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition.  Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.

In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research.  Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite.  The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right.  This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’.  During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner.  She said she had never heard of the Krampus before.  I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right.  The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.

In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season.  In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts.  I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th.  However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Russian Folk Beliefs: Baptism Rituals

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “At least in the old times, you are having a baby- I mean you had a baby, right? And before the baby is baptized in that period like, nobody is supposed to see that baby because you know like, evil people or evil spirits can kind of be attached and stay with the kid forever. So, like usually if you have the baby on the stroller it would be covered with something. Or just only parents and relatives would be able to look at the baby or play with the baby. But after the baby is baptized it means that the baby is protected.”

Analysis:

I have heard of this superstition before in a pervious class where I researched Russian folklore, though I thought it was interesting that my informant explained that  the tradition of covering the baby before it’s baptism is no longer done.  The reason why this tradition is no longer done in Russia, except in highly religious families, probably has something to do with the fact that the Soviet Union discouraged the practice of all religions, not just Christianity.  The Soviet Union policy on religion comes from Marxism-Leninism ideology which pushes the idea that religion is idealist and bourgeois, which lead the Soviet Union to adopt atheism as the national doctrine of the USSR.

The ritual of not showing the newborn baby to anyone before the baptism to protect the child from evil spirits is also an interesting idea.  This is because this shows a blending of Christian and pagan beliefs, which is also known as ‘double belief’.  The Christianization of Russia occurred during the mid 10th century, and instead of replacing the Slavic pagan beliefs, the Russian peasants saw this new religion as something to add on to their old religion.  Russian superstitions today still feature customs and beliefs that are a mix of the Christian and Slavic pagan beliefs, which can be seen the the Russian baptism ritual.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Magic

Theatre Occupational Superstition: “Break a Leg!”

Interview Extraction

Informant: “The ‘break a leg’ legend. Do you know that story?  It has nothing to do with fracturing any of the major leg bones.  That in a different usage of the language ‘to break a leg’ is ‘to bend a leg’.  So that gives us two possible origins of why when you want ‘to break a leg’ that the old way of bowing, is that you bend the back leg and then take the bow.  So that ‘to break a leg” means to get a big bow at the end of the show.  And other one is a similar thing on bending, that if coins were tossed on the stage at the end of the show, you would have to then bend down, thus breaking the straight line of the leg in order to pick up the coins that were being tossed on stage.”

Analysis:

The superstition of why you say “break a leg” to an actor is because saying “good luck” brings you bad luck.  There are many different origins of why you would say “break a leg” to an actor, and the phrase also changes based on what country you are in.  For example, in France you would say “Merde” which is French for ‘shit’.  The idea of this is that in wishing for something bad to happen such as the actor breaking their leg, the opposite will take place.

There are may theories behind where this idiom came from, such as the idea that my informant mentioned which suggests that to “break a leg” is a different usage of language that also means ‘to bend a leg’.  I like this theory more than the other origin theories that I have seen in my research, such as the idea that to “break a leg” comes from the production of Shakespheare’s Richard III where actor David Garrick became so consumed with his role as Richard III that he did not realize his leg was broken during the performance.  This legend is popular because it promotes the idea of being so into your performance as an actor that everything else is forgotten, and all that exists is the part you are playing in the world of the play.  This is the kind of mind set that all actors should aspire to accomplish, so it is no wonder that this story has achieved such a high level of fascination in the imagination of people who work in theater, especially actors.

The reason why I like this theory more than the other theories I have seen in my research is that it is very logical.  I have always thought that it is interesting that we say “break a leg” to an actor before they perform, but we do not say this to a designer or crew member before they do their job.  If this legend is the real reason behind why we say “break a leg”, than the reasoning behind not wishing a crew member to “break a leg” makes sense because only actors have historically been the ones that bend their legs to either bow or pick up the coins that had been thrown on stage for a job well done.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic
Signs

Theatre Occupational Superstition: Peacock Feathers on Stage

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There are more explanations to this superstition than the one I know, but the one I am aware of is that peacock feathers have all these eyes.  And that you either don’t want all those eyes staring at you, or you don’t want all those extra eyes taking away your eyes as an actor.  But I think there are more versions of that story.  There is something that is connected to the past on that one.  And that is one that, more than the others that I know of, some of the old actors take that one really seriously.  And I’ve always felt that if someone involved in the production does believe in that superstition, honor the superstition and don’t use the peacock feathers in the production.  But that is one that they have the right to have that superstition, because you don’t want that competition with all those eyes.”

Analysis:

In my research I was not able to determine the historical reasoning behind why peacock feathers are unlucky in theater.  However, the idea that peacock feathers are unlucky is not unique to theater and can be found in British superstition and Greek superstition, which features the idea that the peacock feathers contain the Evil Eye.  Perhaps because the theater has such a strong heritage from England and Greece, these superstitions have become integrated into theater superstitions.

My informant draws particular attention to the idea that having extra eyes on the actor is bad luck.  In this logic, I don’t understand why having extra eyes on the actor would be a bad thing because you want the attention to be on the actor.  But if the extra eyes are symbolic of the Evil Eye, and we are looking at the superstition in that context than the lore makes more sense to me.  Having all those Evil Eyes on you is seen as bad luck in English and Greek cultures because they are thought to bring personal injury and misfortune to the person the Eye is on.  When an actor is trying to perform, all their focus should be on the performance at hand.  They can’t focus properly if they are worried about the ill fortune that the Evil Eye will bring to them.

The final idea is that you don’t want all those eyes to take away the audience’s attention or ‘eyes’ is also a possible theory.  In theater the attention should be on the performer, and it is considered bad taste to upstage the actor through the use of a flashy set or costume.  This is because it is the costume, lighting, and set designer’s job to make the actor look good, the focus should be on them.  As another one of my professors at USC wisely puts it, “if the audience is looking at that little detail on the set, than there isn’t something wrong with the set, there is something wrong with the actor.” Therefore, the use of peacock feathers taking away from the attention of the actor possibly comes from the idea that they are very beautiful objects and thus distracting.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Russian Superstitions: Black Cats and Broken Mirrors

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ah well, one of I think, you know international superstitious things is defiantly with the cats. But if it is here it is just bad luck. But in Russia it actually means bad luck or even maybe very horrible disease.  If the black cat crosses the street you must spit over your right shoulder three times, and then the left. So it kind of cuts the curse. Also, I know that it means a disease or death in like, your closest circle of relatives or friends if you look at the broken mirror.  So actually, even if the mirror just cracked it means that you have to pick it up and through it outside of your house without looking at that.  Because for example, in Germany broken mirror means seven years of bad luck, but in Russia it means that everything is going to extreme. It’s like disease? No! Dead people.”

Interviewer: “Why do you think people in Russia are so superstitious?”

Informant: “Well of course, all those superstitious ideas come from pagan times, you know? And Russia was influenced by so many countries because at one point we had Vikings, we had Mongols ruling the country for almost… 12 and 13th century for more than 100 years. So all those influences I would say, they created… I don’t know. Maybe people were scared? And of course in Russia the weather conditions are pretty tough too. You know, living situations was always tough. So maybe people wanted to feel more protected or find reason of like why something bad happen to them.”

Analysis:

I agree with my informant’s analysis of Russian culture and superstition.  Life in Russia has historically been very difficult, due to both political and environmental reasons.  I believe that it is a basic human desire to try to make sense of your world, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned during the interview, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people turn to superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.  I do not know why the superstition of black cats and broken mirrors appear in other cultures besides Russia.  The notion that a broken mirror is unlucky sounds logical, because broken objects have lost their use.  There is another related superstition in Russian culture that says giving someone a gift that is broken is unlucky as well.  Superstitions are a major aspect to Russian culture, and these beliefs are still present in the way people live today.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Annotation: The black cat superstition is also mentioned at this website, which also lists other Russian superstitions.
http://www.aerotranslate.com/russian-culture/russian-superstitions-in-everyday-life.html

 

 

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