Tag Archives: folk object

Athena and a Bow and Arrow

Informant A is a 17-year-old Sophomore at USC studying Biomedical Engineering with an emphasis on Neuroscience. She is ¼ Greek Cypriote, ¼ German and ¼ Argentinian but she strongly identifies with the Greek side of her. She spent 9 years in Greek school and goes to Greece every summer. She speaks Greek with her grandparents.

A: Let me think of some good legends that I’ve grown up with…mostly the Greek myths. We would, um I knew them in English when I was younger because we got introduced to them in elementary school, and then I told my grandparents I was really interested in them and so they actually found me a Greek version so that I could read it in Greek and solidify my learning there. But we would talk about, um well mostly the PG ones, you know Greek mythology. And one of the ways children were often entertained in Greece was to tell them these myths and stories. These stories were used not only to pass time, but to also carry down values.

The one, I think the one that we would talk about the most is Athena. So Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, but also the Goddess of war, and her affinity is the olive branch, but also the bow and arrow. And my grandparents have always been like, ‘You’re a little Athena! You like to learn, but you’re also really feisty, so you got the war in you’ and to actually perpetrate that, my grandfather once actually went to our backyard and cut a little branch off of an olive tree and made a bow and arrow out of it for me. Kind of a fake one because you couldn’t actually shoot with it, but he like sharpened an arrow, like not sharp enough to kill an animal, but sharp enough to hit a target. And we had that fun together making that, because he’s an engineer so he like makes random stuff. He taught me a lot like how to measure batteries, and play with a solder machine, so I had a lot of fun sharing that with him and learning about what I could do. And actually too Athena is the goddess of weaving, which is why I knit with my grandmother, it’s a fun way to create with her and connect, which is how you leave a legacy, by creating something meaningful.

Me: So do you still have this bow and arrow?

A: Oh gosh I think I left it in Cypress. I’m sure it’s in a closet somewhere with my name on it. I must have been like nine or ten so it’s been a while.

Me: So you talk about how your family prized you for being like Athena, would you say that this is prized in the larger Greek community? Like you say Athena has the wisdom but also like the fire behind it.

A: Absolutely. I think that’s something that really encompasses all the women in my family. My family is mostly women. Although the ‘take charge’ role in mostly cultures is dealt with by men, in my family it is the women who are the strong ones. My family mostly grew up in the Cypress villages farming though which is why they value me going to school so much, and starting early, and are so amazed by how much I know and how I wanted to learn more, just like the values Athena prizes.



Here informant A talks about some of the values that her Greek culture prizes and how her family compares her to the Greek Goddess Athena. The Greek legends and myths are extremely important and popular to them, so much so that the Greek stories and their values will come up within conversations in her family. She also talks about the folk item, the bow and arrow, that came out of the conversations with her family and also emphasizes how important these values of strength and wisdom especially are to them, enough so that her grandfather would take the time to make a bow and arrow for her.  She also explains a bit about how unlike most cultures, the Greek myths, like Athena, have influenced her family to prize strong women rather than only strong men.  Her grandfather was proud to show her bits about engineering and then encourage her to be an engineer, instead of some culture where this might be frowned upon.  These stories also helped tie together the informants family and connect the generations.

Touch Stones


Touch Stones

Personal Background:

Alaina is a sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. She is originally from Washington, a small town about an hour away from Seattle. She has been a camp counselor for many years, and for many different age groups.

Camp Rituals:

Osprey Camp is a small independent camp in Washington. It is an educational camp that is meant for sixth graders, and it is a camp Alaina went to when she was in sixth grade. She has been a counselor for it for a few years noe. One thing she mentioned the campers did was have a friendship circle at the end of every week the students were there. A friendship circle is when the students sit in a circle and talk about the great things the other people did throughout the week. The last week of camp is special though because that was when they received their touch stones. Touch stones are something the couselors make for the campers when they come to the end of camp. It has been a tradition since Alaina has gone to camp there. Touch stones are basically little rocks made of clay that has the thumbprint in it. In the final friendship circle, the kids pass around their touch stones and the kids touch the part that has the print in it. It is a way to say goodbye and keep a memory of the camp.

Alaina was able to actually make the touch stones the second year she was a camp counselor. She remembered enjoying it when she was camp, but seeing the kids react to them was even better than she remembered. She loved seeing the different groups of kids interacting with kids they might not have if they were not at camp. She also enjoyed being able to touch some of the stones of the kids who had been her cabin. For her, it was a way to prove that the barriers could be broken of the kids at this awkward age where changes are occurring with new schools, as well as new friends. Since the campers and counselors were not able to keep in contact after the camp ended, the touch stone was a good reminder of all the people at camp.


This is a perfect example of a ritual and well as a folk object. It has the repition, as well as focuses on a certain culture, which is the campers culture. It is not something people would be doing all the time, and it has a special meaning for the people who have gone through it. It is almost as a right of passage, or a coming of age for the kids. It is a positive way to end a camp and start a lot of new friendships with people they might not have originally been friends with. It gives them that physical stone as well that have after camp ends.

To me, it was a great way to have the piece after the kids left the camp. Having that physical folk object once the ritual was complete is something that the can keep and have fond memories of for the rest of their lives.

Pledge Fraternity Paddle

The informant describes the importance of the paddle during pledge’s semester pledging and the time beyond that semester.  The informant explains he learned of this tradition immediately after getting accepted into the fraternity.  He has close ties with this tradition because he has many memories of getting signatures for his paddle and feels as though it was his way of being fully accepted into the fraternity.

At the beginning of the pledge semester, all of the pledges need to get a paddle and put their name on it.  The paddle is typically made out of wood and has the fraternity’s letters on it.  The paddle also has the pledge class year and semester and the pledge’s last name.  And over the course of the semester you’re supposed to earn paddle sigs or paddle signatures from all the actives in the house.  The signatures are put on in black sharpie on all different sides of the paddle.  Older members of the house are allowed to sign signatures on the front of the paddle, while younger members may not.  The paddle gives you an opportunity to get to know the active members of the house and the active members of the house to know you. A paddle signature is an active’s acknowledgement of wanting and accepting the pledge into the house.  This tradition has been a part of his chapter since the beginning.  Getting paddle signatures involves hanging out and getting to know the active better. The paddle signatures are your way of earning your spot in the house – it is a sign of approval. The point of the paddle is that by the end of the semester you have every actives signature and this indicates everyone saying they want you in the house and it allows everyone to get to know you better.

I find role of the paddle for the incoming pledge class to be a great example of a folk object that represents the liminal period the pledges of the fraternity find themselves in.  The pledges have received bids from the fraternity indicating that the active members have interest in them and want them to become full members. The paddle acts as a form of their growth and transition into a full member.  The paddle, as stated by the informant, serves the role to spur interactions between active and pledge members and acceptance from active to pledges.

Candy Wrapper Doll

Contextual Data: I had a bit of a cough over Spring Break and so I ended up working my way through a packet of cough drops. One day my mother saw me crumpling one and tossing it aside and she mentioned that when she I was little, she had taught me how to make a doll out of those wrappers. I didn’t remember it, so she explained it to me again. Her step-by-step explanation is paraphrased and illustrated with images below.

1. Fold the paper back and forth into thin strips (“like an accordion,” she explained.)

2. Flatten the resulting thin strip.

3. Tie a knot in the strip, not quite halfway through it, but offset (about two-thirds of the way down). The resulting shape should be a sort of triangle.


4. Fan out the smaller top section to create a head and the larger bottom section to create the doll’s skirt.

5. Twist the edges of the smaller portion to create two little ponytails.

After she finished making the doll, I asked my informant where she first learned about it and why she did it. The following is an exact transcript of her response.

“Uh…In school, when we used to get candy. Uh, we… Like how you guys get muffins when there’s somebody’s birthday—the person brings muffins for the whole class, we used to get hard candies wrapped in that foil. So after we’re done eating with the candy, we would play around with it and that’s what we would end up making… It was just something passed around, I guess. From friends.”

My informant attended school in India. When I asked  if the boys did anything like that with the wrappers, she mentioned that she attended an all-girls school. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any particular symbolism to the little craft — they never really grew attached to these dolls; they would throw them away after they were done with them and nobody ever collected them or anything like that (possibly because they were so common and easy to make, and therefore not anything rare or exciting). In general, this therefore just seems like a fun little way that friends played with one another, and it just kind of conjured up everyday memories from my informent’s childhood school days.

Tradition: Luminaras

Note: the informant was originally from New Mexico


Christmas Luminaras

This tradition is primarily a New Mexico. Before Christmas my informant’s family sets up luminaras around their house. Luminaras are made of paper bags,sand, and candles. Generally brown paper bags and wax candles are used although some people use electric lights in lieu of candles. They do not have to be decorated. To make them you just fill a bag with sand and place the candle inside. According to the informant this is a very collaborative process, the whole family (her nuclear family) gets involved, they take turns doing different steps and they all put the luminaras outside. They place several hundred outside the house. On Christmas Eve the informant and her family go out and look at the neighbor’s Christmas lights and luminaras. Then they drive to Old Town in Alberquere, a plaza where a lot of people gather to look at the luminaras. 

In this case the time the family spending time together is the most important part of this tradition than the object itself. The emphasis is about preparation because that’s a collaborative process. Its fairly similar to other Christmas traditions (well h=the ones I’ve experienced) where the traditions like putting up a tree and opening presents are more about spending time with the family.

Folk Object: Spirit Stick

Spirit Stick

My informant was a member of the Drill team in high school. In high school the drill team would go to drill camps with teams from other schools. There would be mini-competitions between the schools. Whichever school had the most school spirit was given the Spirit Stick. According to my informant the Spirit Stick was 1 and half to 2 foot long cylindrical stick with a 1 and a half to two inch diameter, just big enough to keep a grip on. She says it was decorated but she can’t remember exactly what it looked like. The Spirit Stick cannot touch the ground. Dropping the Spirit stick on the ground is bad luck. She wasn’t told what type of bad luck would occur but she says it was bad luck for the drill team not the football team. It would probably result in the drill team doing poorly at a competition.

This item shows how the drill team is a distinct community from the football team. The two groups may interact because its the drill teams jobs to perform at games. However, the drill team have separate camps and the meet with opposing teams in a different setting a, at a camp and on the field. Also any bad luck caused by dropping the spirit stick reflects negatively on the drill team not the football team.

Folk Object: An Heirloom 1880s Bread Maker

Ever since a young age, (it seems that most folklore is transferred at an early age) my informant has known about this piece of furniture that has been dear to her family for generations.  Her grandmother and mother told her about the significance of the old bread maker, called a “hoosier cabinet,” that her mother has moved from house to house, city to city.  She says that she learned more information from her mother though, since her grandmother “was kind of out of it” from old age.

“It was made at the turn of the century, during the Industrial Revolution.  It was the first production-made cooking appliance, called a “hoosier cabinet,” from Pennsylvania.  I have no idea why they’re called “hoosiers,” but they’ve been called that for a long time now… It required a lot of metal parts; it had a metal funnel to sift flour, hinges for cabinets, a metal countertop… Do you know those “roll top desks?”  Well, this cabinet had roll top windows to keep utensils, rolling pins and other cooking tools, but it was designed to bake bread…  And it was the first compact idea of that.

“So in the 1880s my mom’s side of the family got one of these and in every generation since then, it’s been given to the best cook.  Right now, I have it in my dining room at my parent’s house.  Traditionally, it was painted white, white-washed white… like Tom Sawyer white.  But I guess in the 50s, the cabinet was refinished, so now it shows the wood.  But anyways, it followed down my mom’s side of the family, and reached my grandmother because she was the best cook, and then to my mom because she was the best cook among her cousins and sisters in her generation.  I recently found out that now the cabinet is going to me!  I guess it’s designated in my parents’ will.”

My informant explained that this was the first item that really has sentimental value for her.  It had been passed down so many generations, she felt really honored to have it: “It really is a big deal for me… I love to cook, but never thought I was the best at it in my family… I have a lot of ladies in my generation, two sisters and a lot of cousins… It’s has been a symbol of motherhood, care-giving and… maturity for so long and I feel like I’ve earned it… It’s really special.”  She then told me that when her parents owned a house in Cedar Glen, Lake Arrowhead, every single childhood thing she had – photos, toys, old VHS home videos – were lost during a forest fire that devoured their house.  It has been the piece of furniture that she has grown up with and the fact that it has such a rich history means the world to her.  She says that she can’t wait to pass it on to one of her children.  Because the story and sentimental value of the “hoosier cabinet” has transcended multiple generations, it has continued to connect her to her family and her family history.  It truly is a folk object.

Toy Story Pencil — Japanese Entrance Exam Folklore

In Japan, unlike America, college admission is determined by one’s passing or failing of one entrance exam on one specific day. There are no chance for re-takes, and there is no alternate test. The rules are strict; if you happen to be sick on that one day, if you get into a car crash on the way there, you could either take the exam while sick or injured, or wait and study for another whole year to take the exam the year after. Furthermore, the rules dictate that you may only take one entrance exam per day. If two prospective schools are having their entrance exams on the same day, you are required to choose the one you prefer more. Students in Japan begin to study for their college entrance exams usually as early as their last year of middle school, studying for a total of four or more years (at school, at home, and in cram schools whose classes often go well past midnight) in preparation for one exam on one day. The rules are strict, admission to the four or five most prestigious programs that everyone tests for is notoriously difficult, and all the hard work may come down to being sick on the one day that determines the course of your life. The system, in a word, is merciless.

My informant lives in Nagoya, Japan, and had up until a month ago, been snared in this system. Having completed her college entrance exam and confirmed her entrance to Sophia University, she looked back on the past few years of her life and told me that it must have been the most stressful time of her life, but that she had her “Toy Story pencil” to help her out. Laughing, half-joking, she said that it actually must have been the pencil that had allowed her to pass the exam.

The “Toy Story pencil” had risen out of a legend circulated at her high school. A few years back, a male student from their high school had passed the entrance exam to Tokyo University, arguably the most prestigious school in Japan. This by itself would not have been legend-worthy, except that nobody had expected very much of him; he had begun to study for the entrance exam his final year of high school when everybody else had already been studying for years, and was ranked a little bit below average in his class. People knew of him, however, because of his obsession with Disney and especially with Toy Story. He watched all the movies, went full-out Woody on Halloween, had a Toy Story pencil case, and was apparently very skilled at drawing pictures of all the characters.

When word got around that he had been accepted to Tokyo University, the rumors and the legends began. He apparently had a pen that he had been using for years, a Toy Story pen that he had bought at some local stationery store. It was well known amongst his immediate classmates that he took pride in the fact that he had not lost that pen for his entire final year of high school, the year that he had finally begun to study for the exam. “He took that pencil everywhere,” My informant said. “I mean, it’s really hard not to lose pencils. I must go through at least like, ten or so a year. So it was pretty impressive, actually.” Thus, the younger students at the high school immediately latched onto the pen as a source of good luck magic in exam-taking, making it a sort of folk object–if you could use that pencil and only that pencil for your final year of high school, and you didn’t lose it and it didn’t break, you would be able to pass any entrance exam you took. My informant and her friends, who had not known the Toy Story boy but had long heard of the legend, had dutifully bought their one and only Toy Story pencil at the beginning of their final year. My informant used the Toy Story pen every day, careful not to break it, keeping track of it all times, and eventually passed the exam to her dream school, Sophia University. There were others though, of course, that used the pencil and failed their exams, but then again, said my informant, the pencil was more of a motivational tool than anything else–just having it made one feel more in control. Over her spring break when she visited me, she gave me a Toy Story pencil and told me that if I took care of it, I would probably see good results for the rest of the semester, and I am still using it now.

This intense fixation on an object for good luck, I believe, arises naturally from Japan’s merciless education system. In this system, the students themselves have little to no control. There is one exam per year; there is a pass or fail. “There are,” said my informant, “so many things that could go wrong. I could’ve gotten sick, and they would’ve just said, too bad, come back next year. I tried so hard for the week before the exam not to go out of the house and to eat healthy and sleep a lot, but still. Everyone gets so paranoid before the exams, and there’ve been stories of people sabotaging each other. There’s so much anxiety.” Anxiety, I thought, was the key word. The Toy Story pencil was a small but effective way to soothe anxiety that could give way to more anxiety. It gave people confidence, which perhaps made them study harder.

The Toy Story pencil reflects the intense collective fear and anxiety in the minds of Japanese students concerning the entrance exam procedure. Grabbing at straws, the students at my informant’s high school had clung to this legend, this folk object, to give themselves some semblance of control–and perhaps, strangely enough, it works.