Here my informant recounts her first experience with a USC tradition, which, although it began decades ago, still continues today:
So, every time there’s a football game here at USC, all the students have to kick one of our flagpoles on the way to the stadium for good luck, and basically, you can hear that clinging noise coming from the pole for, like, miles away I wanna say, even though that’s probably inaccurate… whatever! It’s just you can feel the pride of the Trojan family every time someone kicks that flagpole.
I experienced this tradition my first game day ever here at USC, which actually wasn’t even when I was a student, it was when I was in eight grade visiting the campus, and that’s how I knew I wanted to go to this school.
The fact that the informant recounted this tradition with such pride, remembering details from when she was in the eigth grade, shows its significance to her. Indeed, even if she did not really know when that young that she wanted to attend USC, this experience has come to represent that for her, and she obviously takes great pride in this long-held tradition.
Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major. He is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. His family is from Sudan and they are Muslim. Both he and his twin brother were educated in international schools. He speaks Arabic and English.
Context: I was talking with the informant about traditions and rituals his family has.
Item: “There’s definitely a good amount of people in Sudan who believe in black magic. I don’t know what the population is but generally, it’s sort of accepted that black magic is real. It’s an Islamically sanctioned concept; the Qa’ran mentions black magic. So they believe that there are people who have like, certain powers and they can wish evil upon you.
Now it’s not just black magic or evil. I know my aunt always wanted a son so she went to this man who believed he had magic and he was like ,’ok I’ll make sure you get a son in your next birth’, and she did. She kept going time after time and she ended up having 5 sons. So Sudanese people do believe that some people possess a positive type of magic. Typically, it’s like weird old men who have these powers who live in a secluded part of the city. People take that really seriously.
Now, the people there also believe in the evil eye. If someone is jealous of you, then that jealousy will cause you to face some sort of unfortunate event. So if you are successful and people are jealous of you, you might get cancer, get in a car accident or in general face some unfortunate event. My mom always says there is this word that you can say when someone gives you a compliment that will protect you from the evil eye. I can’t remember exactly what this saying is, uh, but my mom swears by it”.
Analysis: It’s interesting to note that one of the first things the informant says is that magic is an Islamically sanctioned concept. This acknowledgment shows the importance of their religion and how Islam and the Qa’ran define both spiritual and also secular values. The belief in the evil eye seems to be an interesting concept. The phrases one should say for protection from the evil eye upon receiving a compliment may be seen as trying to encourage humbleness and level-headedness. Those who try to set themselves apart and rub in their wealth or success will be punished by the jealous, so overt and egregious displays of success are most likely frowned upon. Also, it seems that women have a more prominent role in promoting these folk beliefs and superstitions, which could be due to societal convention or the informant’s personal family.
“So, when I was in Greece, one of the people that I stayed with that worked at the hostel was from Moldova, which is apparently the coolest place in the world because it has the highest partying—alcohol consumption rate, per person, or something. So anyway, that’s beside the point. So anyways, we were walking around Athens, at, like six in the morning and he saw, like, a black cat cross his path, and he literally hissed at the black cat, spit over his left shoulder, and yelled out a sort of curse thing. And I asked ‘Why… why did you do that? It’s just a black cat.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s incredibly bad luck that it crossed our path,’ you know, ‘we’re going to have so much bad luck, but it’s okay. I took care of it. I did the curse.’ And I didn’t know what he said because it was in Moldovan.”
The informant learned of this version of the black cat superstition in 2012. The informant does not know why the specific elements of the hiss, spitting (over the left shoulder specifically), and the curse come into play, but she said that she learned it was all part of breaking the demonic curse put on you by the black cat running in front of you. The informant emphasized that she learned the order of the ritual is very important or “bad luck descend upon you.” She also found it interesting that people were still so into the ritual even in 2012, because she is skeptical of this type of belief.
The counter-curse to the demonic curse is surprisingly similar to a reaction that the cat supposedly doing the cursing may have. The hiss and curse mimic a cat’s hissing and meowing—they both come off as aggressive, animalistic behaviors. I’ve encountered spitting superstitions, but I have never encountered a reason for it (it might refer again to the cat’s hissing/spitting). It seems like in this case of contagious magic, you can reverse the process by repeating the curse (made by the cat) yourself.
The informant discusses a game she would play with her friends at slumber parties when she was a child, which involves levitating someone. She holds this game as a fond memory from her childhood growing up in Fullerton, CA. The informant is now 57 so the game was played in the mid to late 1960s.
The informant explains that late at night all the girls at the slumber party would choose one girl who they would try to levitate that night. The chosen girl would lie down flat on her back and every other girl would gather around her sitting down with legs folded underneath you. Each girl would put both hands with their first two fingers under the chosen girl and the girl would go into a trance-like state. From person-to-person around the circle they would say, “Your bones are turning, your bones are turning.” After that is repeated enough all of the girls would rotate saying, “you’re dead, you’re dead.” Then at some moment when people felt that the chosen girl was light or in a trance they would try to lift person with two fingers. The informant notes that all the girls thought that the person did indeed feel as light as a feather. There was a belief that they had somehow lightened the girl.
This folklore shows young girls interests in magic and the supernatural. The act of trying to levitate a girl indicates each girl’s curiosity with magical powers as well as themes of death and altered states as seen with the lines “you’re dead” and “your bones are turning.” The game demonstrates young girls exploring with ideas of mortality and life after death for the first times. Understanding more complex ideas such as death is important in this time of life.
An international student at USC, the informant grew up in Ningbo, China, one of the country’s oldest cities and now a seaport city in the northeast of the Zhejiang province. “Madame White Snake,” or “Legend of the White Snake,” (as it is sometimes called) takes place in her hometown region, and thus she grew up with the romantic legend as part of family and regional culture. The informant appreciates the legend for its incorporation of romance and beauty as well as sadness into an altogether inspiring story. She is particularly drawn to Madame White Snake as an example of a strong Chinese female character “who boldly strives for her true love against all oppositions.”
Additionally, the informant noted that Madame White Snake’s son, who eventually finds success and saves his mother, provides a motivational anecdote for her to perform well in school; she feels that perhaps through being a good student she, too, can one day become an important figure and protect her family.
First off I must say that I heard a couple of different versions of Madame White Snake that now they get jumbled (is that how you say in English? Jumbled?) in my head! (laughs). But, this story begins with Lü Dongbin, one of China’s sacred wise men, who sells a kind of live-forever potion to a young Chinese boy, Xu Xian. Xu Xian does not feel so good after a couple days, and he throw up the potion into the Hangzhou West Lake.
Now, Madame White Snake―actually right now she is still just, uh, snake, like, spirit―drinks the potion that will make her live forever, and she is so, so happy about this because this is her wish! (Informant claps her hands together) Now the white snake remembers Xu Xian and hopes to repay him someday. But, at the same time, an evil spirit in the lake is jealous of white snake, who now has all this, uh, magic power and life. One day, the white snake transforms into a woman to save a green snake from a beggar by the lake who has trapped it, and they become very close like best friends or sisters.
Many, many years pass (I think it is something like eighteen or twenty) the two snakes transform into women to travel to Hangzhou. The white snake is Bai Sue Zhuan and the green snake is Xiaoqing. They meet Xu Xian, but now he is all grown-up and handsome! And you know what? They meet at the same spot on the bridge where he threw up all the potion! Xu Xian gives the women his umbrella because it is raining, and that is how he and Madame White Snake, or sorry, Bai Sue Zhuan cross paths again. They fall in love, get married, and move to Zhejiang province (where I live!). They open up a medicine shop there.
The evil spirit is still jealous about the white snake’s (who is now Bai Sue Zhuan, remember) long life, and he uses strong magical powers to transform into a Buddhist monk. In this, uh, new form of body, gives Xu Xian some wine during the Dragon Boat festival and tells him to give it to his wife. But, the wine is really actually turns Bai Sue Zhuan back into the white snake, and this scares Xu Xian so much that he collapses and dies. Bai Sue Zhuan is very sad, but also determined to bring him back! The two women climb up a very big, cold mountain to pick a herb medicine that will bring her husband back to life.
Now, the story seems like happy ending because Xu Xian wakes up and still loves Madame White Snake, even though he knows about her animal body. (The informant changes expression to a cunning smile) But. . .evil spirit tries again! He kidnaps Xu Xian and bring him to uh, uh, temple. Madame White Snake and Xiaoqing fight back, and Madame White Snake uses powers to bring a tidal wave and flood to the temple. She and her husband reunite, but she is so weak because she is also pregnant with a son and the fight with the evil spirit took too much energy. She gives birth to the boy, but the evil spirit comes back and she cannot win. So, he takes her to Leifeng Pagoda, do you know it?
For many, many years, Madame White Snake’s son grows up and becomes very smart and a very good student. Actually, he earns first place in the Imperial examination and is best in his classes. He was away for a long time, but misses home now and wants to come back to his parents. The evil spirit is still alive, but Xiaoqing tracks him down and kills him! The son helps, too, because he offers to sacrifice himself to save his mother. God is so moved that he breaks down Leifeng and so this time, finally, Madame White Snake is freed from Leifeng to join her son. The sad part is that her husband Xu Xian has already died, so the family cannot be reunited, but instead she lives with her son and loyal friend Xiaoqing.
The informant’s enthusiasm for the story was evident; her facial expression mirrored the drama in the plot and she would pause right before each plot twist. Additionally, the informant admires Madame White Snake for her perseverance in the face of adversity, and in fact each of the characters overcome some kind of challenge or another. Xu Xian struggles with the discovery of his wife’s true identity, and Xiaoqing and the son must work together to defeat the evil spirit and destroy the Leifeng Pagoda. The legend revolves around the ideas of perseverance and determination, as well as selflessness―chiefly, the son’s sacrifice, but also we see the two women brave a long and arduous journey to revive Xu Xian. Loyalty is another value emphasized in this legend, as not only does Madame White Snake remember her debt to Xu Xian from their first encounter at the West Lake, but also Xiaoqing remains staunchly loyal to Madame White Snake through thick and thin.
Also notable is that the division between good and evil is markedly apparent, as it can be in many folktales and legends. Even when Madame White Snake makes the one “mistake” of not revealing her identity to Xu Xian immediately, good coalesces with good and Xu Xian finds it in his heart to forgive and love her. Even with no contact with his mother throughout his childhood and adolescence, the under-developed character of the son displays zero hesitation in his self-sacrifice; in short, the story’s characters appear inherently instilled with good or evil before the story even begins.
Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”
This is something you do if you have someone you really really hate. You can draw a picture of that person, then write his/her name on the paper…The paper is the special kind that people use to burn during funerals…Then you can take that piece of paper to a tree and put it down above the root. Then take of your shoes and hit the paper on the drawing as hard as you can. Just hold the shoe in your hand and go ta-ta-ta-ta…Oh, and it has to be your shoes. Then you shout stuff you want to say to that person like: “go die,” “die,” “I hate you,” etc. Then hopefully the stuff you said would happen to the person you drew on the paper.
The informant said she learned about this while she was growing up in Hong Kong. She heard it from her classmates. It is something children would do when they dislike their classmates or friends.
I think this shows how while both Eastern and Western culture perceive children as a separate group from society where they are always represented as innocence beings. In contrary to many beliefs children has anger and hatred that adult does. Though many society tries to have a separate category for children where they are thought of as innocence creatures, children do understand the concept of hatred and violence. This ritual shows anger and repression of anger among children. This ritual shows that children can be violent and ill-meaning, the opposite of the ideal angelic image of children.
This ritual is an example of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like;” idea that the drawing of the person on the paper. It also has element of contagious magic through the use of one’s own shoes. It appears that this ritual is a metaphor how you will stomp the person you dislike into the ground with your own feet. Similar to sticking pins into voodoo dolls.
The use of funeral paper reflects how you wish bad thing for the person because funeral rituals and objects are reserved for that event, and not everyday life. Using funeral paper is to foreshadow the misfortune that individual. The chanting of bad omens while stomping the paper with your own shoes reflects the idea of homeopathic magic how you wish the words you said will translate into that person’s life. This is similar to the idea of the voodoo doll how the image of the target is created on an object and the rituals performed will reflect on the target.
This ritual not only shows anger as emotions but also as action. It is both violent in force and words through both the hitting of the paper and the shouting of ill-intention phrases.
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“So I used to play basketball and when I played well I’d mark my socks, so if I played well I’d always wear the right sock on the right foot until I played bad and then I’d switch them up.”
I think this is a good example of contagious magic. According to my informant, the thinking behind this is that if he plays well with a certain sock configuration, the socks must either be causing the good performance or they must soak up some of the “mojo” of the good game and will lead to good games in the future. However, once he starts playing poorly, it’s obvious that the sock configuration has lost its magic and needs to be reconfigured. This is a way for him to relieve pressure from himself and stay calm in stressful games. If he does well, he will continue to do well thanks to his lucky socks. If he does poorly, it is not because his game is bad, but because his socks are no longer good luck socks and simply need to be changed. By rationalizing his basketball performance like this, my informant is able to stay cool and confident under pressure. Furthermore, the belief is that luck can be recycled, as long as he finds the proper order for his socks.
Euclid Avenue Elementary School has one of the oldest buildings in the LAUSD. In the basement of the C building was the bathroom, restricted to all students. The ultimate dare in the 3rd grade. Who has the guts to stay in a dark restricted bathroom? To resurrect the ghost of a little dead girl? The rules: make sure the lights are all off and splash water in the mirror, then say the words 5 times: Blood Mary. If done right, she would appear in to the mirror and take judgment on you. If you sinned, she takes your soul, if you’re pure, she would leave you be.
The tale first brewed and echoed the hallways in the 2nd grade. The 6th graders dare the 5th, the 5th to the 4th, and the 4th to the 3rd graders. It was a right of passenge here at Euclid elementary, the day came when it was our turn to conjure up spirits and play necromancer.
As the performer of this piece of folklore said, this is a right of passage. The story of the ghost of Bloody Mary is a way to test and prove one’s courage to one’s older peers. This is an interesting variation of the challenge, as one repeats the name 5 times, rather than the more popular rule of 3 in most American folklore. Furthermore, water is splashed on the mirror, and the ghost seems to be tied to this particular bathroom. These variations seem to have made the rite of passage more accessible to male children, as Javier was aware of, and observed the practice of this elementary school tradition.
My informant is a Magic the Gathering player, and he tells me that when he really needs a good card, he’ll tap his teck, and talk to his deck and say stuff like “Come on, deck!” And then my informant says that he will pick the card up really slowly, and put it at the back of his hand and not look at it right away. He takes his time before he fully looks at the card. He believes that if he doesn’t look at it right away there is a better chance of being the card he needs.
When this person opens up new packs of Magic cards, he also does something similar. The rare card in the pack is always at the back, and most players will just go right to that, but he prefers to look at every card before it, hoping that if he takes longer to get to the rare then it will be a better rare.
When I play Magic, often times I will be in situations like these, where I desperately need a good card or else I lose. And I will say stuff like “Heart of the Cards” as I pull the card from the deck into my hand. Other times I will pick the card up from the deck and, without looking at it, place it on the table in front of me. After waiting a few seconds, I will pick it up slowly and look at it. I have seen a lot of players who will says “give me something good” or “Give me a good one” before drawing, and then in response to the card they will say stuff like “not a good one” or “close enough” or “I can work with this” as though they are speaking to the deck. While this is definitely featured in the TV show Yugioh, the tradition can been seen elsewhere. When playing poker or blackjack, players will often ask for good cards. While they may be talking to the dealer, said dealer IS the deck in a sense. The practice of asking the deck for a card can also be observed in magic routines (magician magic, not Magic the Gathering) where a participant picks a card and then the magician must either find the card or summon it to the top. In the latter case, the magician often asks the card to come to him or her.
I asked my informant if he had any rituals or practices for when he is playing Magic the Gathering, and he really needs to draw a certain card or cards. He says that he does not have any such practices, but that his friend does. His friend comes from Taiwan, and he says that in Taiwan, all the Magic players will knock on their deck when they are desperate for a card, like when the right draw is the difference between staying in the game or losing. Also if his girlfriend is around or any of his buddies are around, the player will get all these people to also knock on the deck. My informant says that if you believe in it, it increases your luck of drawing what you need. It’s similar to “believing in the heart of the cards” like in the show Yugioh. And when you do draw that card, you make a big, dramatic effort of unveiling the card.
I find it very intriguing that this informant says that the “knock on the deck” tradition is practiced by his Taiwanese friends, but my other informant on Top Decking rituals, who is American, also does this “knock on the deck” thing even though he has probably never heard of the Taiwanese folk belief.