USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘legendary figure’
Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

Legendary Figure: Davy Crockett Fountain

Context: The informant is among two peers of mine who grew up in Texas. My peers began sharing and comparing amusing and humorous pieces of folklore from their hometowns, as well as discussing how the folklore has worked to shape their families’ beliefs and southern values.

Text:

Informant: Okay, so one of my branches of family is from a place called Crockett, Texas, which is a small town near Jasper, Texas, which is a small town near Tyler, Texas, which is a small town near nothing. And, in Crockett, Texas, the claim to fame is that there is this water fountain that David Crockett… and if you know anything about Texas, you know that David Crockett is a Texas history folk legend… took a drink out of one time. And that’s why the whole town is named after it! So, the first time I ever visited that part of my family, I was like six. Everyone was making this big deal about it. They were like, “Oh, we have to go see the Crockett Fountain.” So, I thought it was going to be this gorgeous fountain. No. It was like this… this tree? I just distinctly remember there being a family of bugs living in the water, and my family being like, “Drink from it! Everyone drinks from the Crockett Fountain!” And I was like, “No.” I think you’re supposed to get like good luck or something from it because you’re drinking from the same place as the folklore guy. Everyone is like, “David Crockett took a drink here, so you should, too!”

Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant found this piece of folklore regarding Davy Crockett and his legendary fountain to be very amusing. He expressed disbelief that people would believe in its magical properties, or that he could somehow earn good luck from drinking the same water as Davy Crockett. He did not seem to understand why someone would be willing to brave the sanitation risks in order to take part in an old and seemingly unfounded superstition. The Crockett Fountain clearly holds a lot of significance for the informant’s extended family, as they found it important to organize a family outing to the legendary site. While the informant did not personally share their beliefs, he was able to recognize the site’s importance to his family members. Additionally, the fountain’s association with Davy Crockett, a legendary frontiersman, solider, and American politician, is clearly significant to Texas citizens.

Interpretation: The Crockett Fountain in Crockett, Texas serves as a prime example of folklorist Jame George Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic, particularly contact or contagious magic. His theory describes the belief among folk groups that certain objects contain magic or good luck that can be spread through touch. Another example of this concept would be when people wear or use lucky items during tests, sporting events, or theatrical productions because they believe the items contain magical properties that will improve their performances. The famous site also reveals how some superstitions have legends associated with them. The spring’s association with David Crockett, the American frontiersman and politician who has become a legendary figure in many southern states, reveals the root of its significance to the people of Texas. His military service in the Texas Revolution and his death in the Battle of the Alamo has framed his existence as being synonymous with Texas folklore.

Works Cited:

To read more about James George Frazer’s theory of Sympathetic Magic, refer to:

Dundes, Alan. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, pp. 109-118.

Legends
Narrative

Qu Yuan

Sophie is an international student from Taiwan. She is pursuing a B.S. in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. She hopes to find a career in computer security and plans to stay in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, to work. She enjoys watching anime and learning; from USC-sponsored workshops, she has learned how to code and create chat bots.

Original Script

So, in ancient Chinese times, there’s this poet whose name is Qū Yuán. And he wrote these really great poems and he’s also this really successful government official but then the emperor died. The new emperor doesn’t like him, so the emperor banished Qū Yuán. And then he got to this river and he was really sad and he just wrote his last poem and then jumped into the river and died. But the people around that area were really sad because he was this really good government official and then they just threw all this zòngzi, which means “rice dumplings,” and threw them into the river so that the fish would just eat the rice dumplings and not Qū Yuán’s body so he doesn’t get eaten. So yeah, and uh, Duān Wǔ Jié, which is Mid-Summer Festival, we eat rice dumplings to remember this great poet.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant hears this story every time she attends the Dragon Boat Festival near the summer solstice. At the festival, people re-enact the tragic life of the poet and minister, Qū Yuán, up to his death. It is a folk legend that the informant grew up hearing as a child, and it holds heavy historical importance to her.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in a study room at Parkside IRC.

Qū Yuán is a famed and respected Chinese poet and minister from the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. Known for his contributions to classical poetry and verses, he served as a role model for scholars and officials during the Han Dynasty; the public admired him for staying true to his principles unto death. In certain regions of China and Taiwan, people commemorate the death of Qū Yuán in the Dragon Boat Festival. They believed that the locals rowed through the Miluo River on dragon boats to retrieve Qū Yuán and tossed zòngzi, or balls of sticky rice, into the river to save the poet’s body from being consumed by the fish.

My Thoughts about the Performance

While I have read about Qū Yuán in history books, I did not realize his legend was also considered the origins of dragon boat races and zòngzi. It was fascinating to hear about this famed historical figure, who is still celebrated today, and the legacy he left behind. I also find it interesting that he is commemorated only in certain parts of China during the Dragon Boat Festival. In other parts of China, such as southeast Jiangsu, people celebrate Wǔ Zǐxū at the festival; in northeastern Zhejiang, they celebrate Cao E.

Legends
Narrative

Zhong Kui

Sophie is an international student from Taiwan. She is pursuing a B.S. in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. She hopes to find a career in computer security and plans to stay in the United States, specifically Los Angeles, to work. She enjoys watching anime and learning; from USC-sponsored workshops, she has learned how to code and create chatbots.

Original Script

There’s this guy in ancient China in Tang Dynasty. Actually, um, he’s a really smart guy and he went through this test to be a government official, and at that time, the test was taken in pen. So, um, they don’t know how the guy look like when he takes the test, and then the person grading test assigned the guy to be in first place. And then he went to the emperor and the emperor saw him and the emperor thought the guy was so ugly. He couldn’t be a government official because he was so ugly. And then the guy was really sad because he was so smart, but because he’s too ugly, he got rejected to be a government official so he killed himself in front of the emperor. And then the emperor felt sad too because he killed a guy by calling him ugly. So, the emperor put the guy’s face and everything on chūnlián, which is the red paper we put in front of temples and houses in New Year’s, so the guy could scare off bad spirits with his ugly face.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant read about this legend from a book when she was small. She remembered the story of Zhōng Kuí because she found it very amusing. Both the emperor’s reaction to Zhōng Kuí’s suicide and the fact that the man’s hideous appearance was the cause for the tragic end to his life were so ridiculous to her that it was funny.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in a study room at Parkside IRC.

Zhōng Kuí is a legendary figure in Chinese mythology. He is widely regarded as a vanquisher of evil who commands a force of 80,000 demons. His image is often publicly displayed on household entrances for protection, due to his disfigured appearance and fearsome reputation.

My Thoughts about the Performance

Although I knew about the legend of Zhōng Kuí, I was surprised to hear from the informant that many Taiwanese people place Zhōng Kuí’s face on red paper to repel evil spirits on Chinese New Year’s. In contrast, most Chinese attach ménshén, or door gods, to entrances to protect themselves from evil. However, both countries plaster chūnlián on walls for luck and protection on New Year’s. Even though China and Taiwan share some similarities, I find the many cultural disparities or variations between the two very interesting.

Legends
Narrative

Run, it’s Mr. Tolstoy!

The informant grew up in Alta Loma, California before moving to Boring, Oregon to live with her father during her high school years. While in Alta Loma, her family owned horse property and owned horses throughout her life that she would often ride for fun as she grew up. She was allowed to ride around her neighborhood and the surrounding area without adult supervision. Because the area was not as developed as it is today, there were many more trails that horses were allowed on than there are today.

When asked if she had any contemporary legend to share, she immediately launched into a description of one of these horse paths. There was a one-way street in front of house that someone named Mr. Tolstoy lived in. She would ride by this part of the neighborhood frequently as she lived nearby. Her friends and her had heard that Mr. Tolstoy would shoot at kids as they rode by on their horses. While she does not remember exactly when she heard this, but she was in elementary school in the 1970’s while she had these horses. There was never an event where she actually saw or heard Mr. Tolstoy shooting at someone, but she would canter more quickly by his house every time she went by. Additionally, she never heard of an actual case of this occurring even after she was adult either. Though her friends and her all believed in the danger presented by Mr. Tolstoy, she has seen other people mention this in a Facebook group that is centered around living in Rancho Cucamonga, which includes Alta Loma. While she does not necessarily believe the legend regarding Mr. Tolstoy, she does reference it every once and a while to her children and sister.

This local urban legend capitalizes on the fear of strangers that is often instilled in children, whether it was created by the adults or the children. In addition, the continuance of this theme hints at the annoyance of older people with the younger generation. The reason this legend was scary to my informant when she was a child was because it was possible that an adult disliked children so much that he would risk being arrested to scare them off of a public street in front of his property.

Humor
Legends
Narrative

Akbar and Birbal: The Ten Fools

Item:

“Emperors seem to be really whimsical people, who also have a lot of time on their hands. Actually, I don’t know if it’s all emperors or just Akbar. Anyway, one day, on a whim, Akbar decided that he wanted to find the ten biggest fools in his kingdom, because he’d had enough of being surrounded by clever and scholarly men. What a novel idea, don’t you think? So he sends his incredibly smart and witty minister Birbal, solver of every problem in his kingdom, out to retrieve these ten foolish men. He eventually returned with eight men, among whom some were supremely idiotic. Let me enlighten you. One of these guys was carrying a bale of hay while riding a horse. So Birbal goes up to this dude and asks him why he’s carrying the hay when he’s riding a horse, and so the guy replies that it’s because his horse is really, really old and weak and that he doesn’t want to burden him any further. I know, right? Now listen to this. Another guy was running down the road really fast and he collided with Birbal. The minister asks the guy where he’s off to in such a hurry and you won’t believe what the guy says. He says that he was saying his prayers in the mosque that morning and wanted to see how far his voice reached. So, duh, the first thought that came to his mind was chasing his voice. And okay, okay, last one. This third genius is looking for something in the street at night, and he can’t seem to find it. He’s looking under a streetlamp.  Birbal stumbles across him, quite literally, and asks him what he’s looking for so frantically. He explains that he lost his wedding ring in a dark galli (alley) a short ways away. So obviously, Birbal is confused and asks him why he isn’t looking in the alley, and in the street instead. Get this. This brilliant guy says that he’s looking in the main road because there’s more light there. Isn’t that hilarious? And so he takes these supremely stupid eight guys back to Akbar, who is upset that there’s only eight of them. So Birbal says, quite frankly, that Akbar is the ninth fool for thinking of such a pointless task. Offended, the Emperor demands who the tenth one is, to which Birbal just deadpans: ‘Me, of course, for agreeing to carry out such a pointless task.’ Ha ha ha!”

Context:

I was told the background of this story in due time: “There are several versions of this story, but the one with Birbal and the Ten Fools is the most popular. There’s a few other ones, though, like The Four Fools and Birbal, and also one that’s more or less the same as the one I just told you, except that the Rajput Birbal is replaced with a South Indian clever minister figure called Tenali Rama and the Emperor Akbar is replaced by the corresponding king – Raja Krishnadevaraya. I just chose this one because I like Birbal more than Tenali Rama and it’s funnier, because there are more idiots. I think the point that’s proven here is that a person who chooses to record the number of idiots in his vicinity is a bigger idiot than all of them combined, because there is no end to the idiots in any given part of the world.”

Analysis:

The notable point here is that the active participant, who is relating the legend, acknowledges that there are several versions and variants of this story, making the main frame of the story a taletype, and the multiple specimens of this story, told all over India, oikotypes. He also relates the story in a very humorous manner and involves the audience directly by laughing with them and asking them rhetorical, “Am I right?”-type questions to keep them engaged. In addition to this, he mentions two different (in region) but very similar (in character) elements to the story – the half-historical and half-legendary characters of Birbal and Tenali Rama, who are well-known all over the Indian subcontinent and are vehicles for many similar stories. Another point to be noted is the presence of a wedding ring in the story. The wedding ring is a traditionally Western and Christian concept that is a modern introduction into Indian culture, where a mangalsutra (wedding necklace) is more prevalent. It’s interesting because this variation in the story must have been quite recent, and also must have been engineered for the story to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, this story is, essentially, a joke, but also a legend, because it takes place in the real world and may well have happened. Its humor mainly relies in the supreme stupidity of the people Birbal encounters, and the punchline, in which both the minister and the emperor realize that they were pretty idiotic themselves by wasting a week on such a nonsensical quest. The narrative poses the idea that one may have one’s moments of sheer brilliance, but no matter a person’s stature, an emperor, a clever minister, or a mere pauper, everyone has their own unique quirks, whims, and the capacity to be almost mind-numbingly idiotic when given the opportunity.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

Sitareh

Item:

“Instead of growing up on Cinderella, my sisters and I grew up hearing the tale of Sitareh. The story is very similar, but for some reason, I just didn’t enjoy Cinderella as much as I did Sitareh. So here goes. Once upon a time, Sitareh, the young daughter of a courtier in the Shah’s palace, lost her own mother at a very young age. Her father, the courtier, deciding that she needed a new mother, went ahead and married another woman, who had two daughters of her own. Excited to not be alone, Sitareh was eager to meet and live with these three women. Unfortunately, while they were very sweet to her in her father’s presence, the moment her father left on a trip to a neighboring kingdom, they began to show their true colors. In a quick succession of events, Sitareh becomes essentially their maid. They take advantage of her kind nature because her father isn’t around to do anything about it, and she submits to it quietly, waiting for her father to return. So, obviously, as is normal in these kinds of stories – the Shah has a young son, the Shahzad (prince), who is around the same age, maybe a bit older, than the three girls. One day, the Shah decides that his son is old enough to get married, because people got married really young in those days. Like at sixteen. So the Shah arranges an event, not a ball, exactly, but more like a talent show of all the eligible bachelorettes in town. Of course, this includes Sitareh and her stepsisters, who decide that the poor girl isn’t to attend this event. The stepmother, evil as she is, supports this decision. Because she sucks, and she knows that Sitareh is more beautiful and talented than her daughters, and would snap up the Shahzad in an instant if she were to attend. Sitareh, however, really wants to go – if not to marry the Shahzad, then maybe to just get out of the house and stop doing so many chores. So she begs and begs until her stepmother gives her a chance to go, with one caveat. She has to complete this impossibly long list of chores, just like in Cinderella, and find suitable clothes to wear. The stepmother obviously doesn’t think that the girl can do it all in time and find herself an outfit among the rags she has to wear, because her horrible stepsisters have stolen all her pretty clothes and jewelry. Against all odds, though, Sitareh does finish these tasks – I don’t remember exactly what they are – and manages to, in the time she has left, put together an attractive bedlah outfit, with a pretty veil of many colors, which she constructed out of her variety of rags. However, in a jealous rage at how beautiful she looks, the stepsisters lock her into the house and go to the event themselves. Sitareh, upset, turns to her sitar (a string instrument) and begins to sing on the terrace of her house to express her feelings. The Shahzad, who is bored with the party and quite frankly appalled at the girls who have come, happens to have escaped the party and is passing by her house when he hears her voice. Completely entranced, he is pretty disappointed that he can’t see the singer’s face. He calls out to her, and in her embarrassment, Sitareh runs from the terrace and retreats back into the house. As she does, the wind snatches up her multicolored veil and sends it fluttering straight into the Shahzad’s hands. By the next day, he hasn’t decided on any of the girls who attended the event, and instead has his heart set upon the mystery girl with the beautiful voice. He tells his father, who agrees reluctantly, and goes to return the veil to the girl. The stepmother and stepsisters, getting wind of his plan, shut Sitareh away in her room and decide to claim the prince as one of their own. The prince arrives at the house, eager to find the girl, but is disappointed that she isn’t there. However, Sitareh, clever as she is, starts to sing her song from the previous night, upstairs in her room. Hearing the strains of her voice, the Shahzad quits the living room and runs up the stairs, bursting into the room to find the beautiful Sitareh clad in her rags. He gives her back her veil and asks for her hand in marriage. She, obviously, agrees, and they get married. Out of the kindness of her heart, she forgives her stepsisters, who in turn get married to the sons of two ministers. And everyone lives happily ever after!”

Context:

The informant revealed the reasons for her affection with this particular story – “I like this story more than Cinderella for two big reasons. The first is that it reminds me of my Arab heritage and my roots because of the setting and the various elements. Also, more importantly, the version my grandmother told me was very empowering, in that Sitareh accomplishes everything independently in the story, without taking the help of a fairy godmother, or any magical elements. I think she told it to us in this way because she wanted us girls to feel like we could have everything we want in life simply with our own efforts. That’s what I really like about this story. An interesting note is that this story is one of the many tales told in versions A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which in the legend are told by the queen Scheherazade, who, like Sitareh, created her own opportunities and came out on top.”

Analysis:

This story is, very obviously, a version of the “Persecuted Heroine” taletype, of which the Cinderella story is the most popular and famous example. One can see a lot of Vladimir Propp’s 31 story functions appear in this story, including the smooth opening, the absentee parents, the problem for the heroine, her confinement, her subsequent escape, and the eventual resolution of the problem. However, this version retains a lot of elements of the culture from which it sprung, including such components as Sitareh’s veil (standing in for the ubiquitous glass slipper of Cinderella) and the sitar which she plays. What is interesting, as the informant mentioned, is that Sitareh doesn’t seem to receive help from any external magical entities (one of the more prominent Propp’s functions), instead accomplishing everything due to her own efforts and her singing voice, which engineers this story not only into a märchen, but also a moral story with a powerful message to young women, regardless of whether or not this was just a characteristic the version the informant’s grandmother told her and her sisters to encourage them to achieve whatever they want to by themselves and for themselves. An intriguing parallel is drawn by the informant between the heroine of the tale, Sitareh, and the heroine of the larger legendary narrative, Scheherazade. Both of them are clever and strong young women who take a unique talent, for Scheherazade, her story-telling abilities, and in the case of Sitareh, her beautiful singing voice, and use it to get exactly what they want, all through their own efforts. The themes explored by this story, therefore, are pretty empowering and progressive, especially in the time at which they were supposedly told. Of course, if Scheherazade was the one who told the tale, one would expect the tale to have a strong female heroine much like herself.

Legends
Narrative
Riddle

Vikram And Vetal: The Bride’s Dilemma

Item: 

“Vikram and Vetal stories are popular all over India. Originally, there are only twenty five, but they became so popular that people began to come up with their own. The first story starts off like this – the brave and clever king Vikramaditya, identified later on simply as Vikram, is summoned by a tantrik (sorcerer) in order to bring back a corpse which has been possessed by a vetala (malevolent spirit, sometimes translated as ‘vampire’), in order for the sorcerer to exorcise the spirit and perform the last rites of the corpse. So Vikram, courageous as he is, ventures into the haunted, creepy forest and finally finds the tree from which the animated corpse is hanging. Vetal, as the spirit calls himself, is an incredibly sharp-witted individual, and offers King Vikram a trade – he will tell Vikram a long story and end it with a question. If Vikram answers the question correctly, then Vetal will return to the tree. If he stays silent, his head will explode into a thousand pieces. So, Vetal starts to tell a story – ‘Two young men named Suryamal and Chandrasen travel to a town one day to visit a temple nearby. When they arrive there, Suryamal sees a beautiful young woman praying to the Devi (goddess). He falls in love with her straightaway, predictably. And so, excited by this, he goes to tell his friend Chandrasen. The latter young man advises Suryamal to speak to her parents if he’s serious. So he does, and they say that the only condition of the marriage would be that the young woman has to return to her town every so often to pray to the Devi, of whom she is an ardent devotee. Suryamal agrees readily, and gets married to the young woman. Her parents ask him to stay longer,but he and his friend are required to return to their hometown because of some urgent matter. On their way back through the forest, however, they are attacked by a gang of bandits, who behead them and leave them there. The bride, on her way to perform her prayers to the Devi, stumbles across her dead husband and his friend. Devastated, she prays to the Devi, who answers her prayers and tells her to fix the heads back onto the bodies of the two men and sprinkle some amrita (nectar) over the corpses to reanimate them. She obeys, but in the process accidentally puts the heads on the wrong bodies – Suryamal’s head ends up on Chandrasen’s body and vice versa. Which one should she marry? Remember, if you do not answer my question, your head will burst into a thousand pieces!’ Vikram takes a moment to think about it before speaking but finally responds – ‘Since the brain is the most important organ of the body and makes all the decisions, stores all the memories, then she should marry the man who has Suryamal’s head, of course!’ Vetal is satisfied with this answer, but alas! Vikram spoke, so Vetal flew away.”

Context:

The interviewee explained her memories of these stories – “Every month, we would get a children’s magazine known as Chandamama (Uncle Moon). In these magazines, the most popular read was the Vikram and Vetal story. I used to devour these stories and fight over them with my older sister. This one stuck in my head because it was the first one that I had ever read, and because the problem posed in the riddle was pretty intriguing to me. If I was in the bride’s shoes, I wouldn’t know which one to marry!”

Analysis:

The Vikram and Vetal series of stories is extremely interesting because not only does it contain an embedded narrative, but the inner narrative takes the form of a sort of neck riddle. Now, in the original series, King Vikram has to try twenty five times before Vetal comes up with a complicated enough question to stump him. Upon the king’s confusion, Vetal at last decides to accompany him back to the tantrik. Within these twenty five tries, the story opens in much the same way every time – ‘Once again, the undaunted King Vikram arrived at the tree and carried Vetal away with him, and once again Vetal began a story.’ and also ends the same way every time – ‘Vetal was satisfied with his answer, but alas! Vikram spoke, and so Vetal flew away.’ This almost unchanging structure is demonstrative of the Parry-Lord Oral Formulaic Theory. What is interesting, however, is that much like the format of the many versions of the Arabian Nights, the neck riddle stories embedded in the narrative are not restricted only to the original twenty five. In fact, as with the magazine, youngsters all over India and within the Indian diaspora who are familiar with the stories come with their own neck riddles all the time, creating an infinite wealth of Vikram and Vetal folklore. The riddle in itself takes the form of an anecdote ended with a question, which is never straightforward. This story in particular stresses the importance of the mind over the body, which corresponds with the traditional Hindu view that the body is nothing but a vessel for the soul and the mind. Therefore, as Vikram concludes, the bride would be better served to marry the man with Suryamal’s head/brain rather than the one with his body.

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