USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘magic’
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

Witch Woods

Background:

My informant is 87 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for his entire life. He attended a nearby boarding school and Harvard University, where he studied history under famed professor Samuel Eliot Morrison. He has taken a lifelong interest in local history, artwork, and lore. 

For context, Beverly Farms is a small village within the larger city of Beverly. Beverly is adjacent to Salem, and was a part of the original settlement until 1668. Beverly Farms is much more rural than Beverly proper, and is closer to the neighboring town of Manchester-by-the-Sea than it is Salem. With the exception of the Witch Woods story, Beverly Farms has very little folklore or history that relates to the Salem Witch Trials.

Performance:

“My parents weren’t from here so I heard this from the other kids at school. Some of their families have been in town for, oh, I don’t…hundreds of years, I suppose….you know, the Hale’s, the Conant’s, the Cabot’s…Mostly I just heard that the witches were coming to take us from our beds but as we got older the story got more complex…So as you know, back in the 1600’s, Beverly was still a part of Salem. But since it didn’t have a church, it wasn’t quite as inhabited as it was over in Salem…well, everyone knows this part, but people over in Salem got it in their heads that there were witches in town and started hunting them down and killing them. Stoning, hanging, all of that. Soon as the witches realized they were being hunted, most of them…well, most of them were smart enough to get out of there…so they took off in the middle of the night, all of them, and crossed the river to come over here. They ran until they hit the woods and then kept going…all of the way up here, right down on Common Lane. It’s why you get the shivers when you drive down there at night…you know, roll your windows up and such. They’re all still there, you know. All the witches.”

Thoughts:

Growing up in the area, this was a common ghost story in my household. I remember asking if the witches were real and my grandfather telling me that, yes of course they were, and if I knew what was good for me I’d lock my windows at night. Unlike many scary stories told to children, I don’t recall their being any lesson or imperative behind it. This story seemed to be more about local pride than reinforcing or discouraging certain behaviors.

Magic
Tales /märchen

Prince Lutin

17) Prince Lutin

Once there was a prince named Leandre, and he lived in this big palace. Another prince also lived with him, and his name was Furibon. Furibon was born deformed, but even more so, he is mean and nasty, and he has an insane mother.

As time went by, everyone loved Leandre, but hated Furibon. Furibon, out of hatred and jealousy, eventually tried to harm Leandre, and thus Leandre sent him away to live in the countryside to be safely away from Furibon.

While living in the countryside, Leandre was happy and free, but he was lonely. Once when he was out hunting, he was almost attacked by this grass snake; after defeating the snake, he decided to save it instead of killing it. So Leandre kept it in his house and raised it. After a few years, Furibon decided to attack Leandre again, and having found out about this, Leandre decided that he need to travel and get away. It is just then he found out that the grass snake is no longer a snake, but has turned into a fairy named Gentille. To thank Leandre for saving her life, Gentille promised Leandre one wish. She turned Leandre into a Lutin (imp) and gave him a red feather hat. When Leandre put this hat on, he can choose to have the power of the Lutin where he can choose to hide or reveal himself whenever, and he can choose to cross and borders, and he can choose to return to his original self whenever.

Having this power, Leandre first went to the palace and took revenge on Furibon and his mother. Then he went on several adventures where he experienced treasures and unrequited love, till he eventually ended up saving these 3 maidens. He found out from one of them that they are fairies from the Island of Quiet pleasure. This island was made by an old fairy who, after being hurt in love, created this island of only women where she replaced the guards with amazonian women. Leandre used his power to go check out this island out, and he eventually fell in love with the fairy princess. He devised himself as the voice of the parrot and from time to time tried to convince her that it is okay to trust men sometimes. Furibon at the same time, sought to invade this island for its riches and for the beautiful princess. Leandre devised a plan and in the end he killed Furibon successfully, protected the island, gained power and riches, and ended up winning the heart of the princess he loves.

Once again, Cami told me this story. This story seems a lot more like a Rumpelstiltskin style tale. According to Cami, every kid in France knew of this story. When she performed it it was a lot more lively and fun.

This story reminds me a lot of stories like the Iliad or Sinbad’s adventures.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

How Cubans Find Lost Objects

Original Text: “Si pierdes algo, amarra un trapo negro a la pata de una silla para que San Dima te ayude a encontrarlo.”

Transliteration: “If you lose something, tie a cloth black to the foot of a chair so that San Dima can help you to find it.”

Translation: “If you lose something, tie a black cloth to the leg of a chair so that San Dima can help you find it.”

 

The source says that Cubans have many different superstitions for finding lost items, but this is the one she’s heard of the most.  She said San Dima is the patron saint of finding lost things. When I tried searching more about Saint Dima, though, I was unable to find anyone by that name. I also asked what the significance of the black cloth and the chair were. Apparently, it’s a black cloth because the item is lost somewhere it can’t be found, somewhere “dark” to the finder. She didn’t know exactly why it’s tied to the leg of a chair, but she speculated it had something to do with being close to the floor and how lost things are usually on the floor.

This belief sounds like it stems from Santeria, a Latin American religion that combines witchcraft with Christian beliefs.  The original practitioners of Santeria were African slaves that had been taken to islands like Cuba and whatnot by the Spanish. In order to protect themselves from being punished for practicing their native rituals, the slaves exchanged the names of African deities for Christian saints. As such, many of the deities’ abilities were carried over to the saints. It’s possible that San Dima received their power for finding things from whatever African deity their name was used to replace. While Santeros aren’t the only ones who practice this belief, it seems very likely that that’s where it stemmed from.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends

Succineers

These creatures are typically females who have sold their souls to the devil in exchange for power and earthly rewards. They shed their human skins at night and fly around as balls of fire. Often, they practice various forms of black magic and are generally evil beings. However, they are not immortal, and during the day cannot be distinguished between you and me. A way to kill them would be to find their human skins late at night, and put copious amounts of salt in them. The logic in this is that the salt would burn their flesh, and since they cannot exist as balls of fire in the day, the act of putting their skins back on would cause so much pain that they’d die as a result.

My informant heard this from her grandmother and her mother, who were both first generation immigrants from Trinidad. According to her grandmother, their neighbor in Trinidad was one of these creatures. One time, she told my informant’s grandmother that she had red roses from the Queen of England’s garden and then proceeded to produce to two red roses. While this might not be strange by itself, roses were not native to Trinidad and could not be found anywhere during that period of time. Additionally, when my informant’s grandmother was pregnant, she saw one in her room, trying to suck on her blood. However, they could not stand people who were associated with God and spat the blood out and left.

There are many things that skirt the edge of belief and this is one of them. This is an example of binary opposition in more agricultural/hunting cultures that exists in those islands. Note the Christian influences in this story. As learned in class, the idea of God and the Devil spawned from the missionaries that came to the various places that they spread the word of God. The missionaries tended to place a God vs. Satan spin on most of the folklore and culture that they touched and is evident here.

Contagious
Digital
Game
Humor
Magic

Love By Chainmail

Chainmail is a fairly well-known form of folklore, and has been around for a long time. Chain mail letters can be anything from handwritten letters to emails to texts and are typically sent to a group with some sort of either beneficial or warning message attached, as incentive for the person on the receiving end to pass the message along to more people.

An example of such a message is one my roommate shared with me that had passed around our sorority. The message read:

“You have been visited by the ghost of Helen M. Dodge! Pass this on to ten sisters in the next five minutes and she will give you good luck for the rest of the week!”

 

Thoughts:

Chain mails seem to fit into the category of contagious magic and involve belief a great deal. They are contagious in that in order for the receiver to either alleviate any harm that may come, or to ensure any benefit, from having read the letter, he or she must pass it along to X amount of people. The magic of the letter passes along with it and integrates into the daily lives of those who receive it, or it at least claims to do so.

 

Chain mail letters are really interesting in their relation to belief because I would bet that if you asked a large group of people if they believe in the power of chain mail letters to affect their lives in either positive or negative ways, the majority would say no. However, these letters are constantly passed around. They can be fit into the category of superstitious as well as contagious magic—perhaps it is the fear that chain mail letters may in fact have some power, some magic, that drives people to continue passing them along.

This particular chain mail letter doesn’t run the risk of being harmful to the person receiving it in any way, but perhaps the receiving individual may feel that they are to be at a loss if they don’t pass it along.

Or, perhaps chain mail letters get passed around as a way of continuing community. They are a means of reaching out to 5, 10, 15 friends who you haven’t talked to in a while. Or the particular chain mail letter you have received is funny so you want to share it with three of your friends you think would find it hilarious. Chain mail gets a pretty bad rap, yet its continued existence makes me think there is some part of its communicative, outreaching nature that people like.

For another example of chain mail letters, see Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

“Pull up your ears”

“So, when I was younger, um, my grandparents, like my grandparents . . . my parents are older so by nature my grandparents were older and my grandfather died in 1995. And I remember he didn’t—I remember my mom telling me he passed away and . . . whatever I just remember sitting, we had like this, it’s called an LDK in Japanese, it’s like just a huge room where we all like . . . there’s a kitchen, living room and I remember sitting there and I remember I sneezed and I was watching TV and my mom was like, ‘Pull up your ears.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ But it’s a thing! After someone dies and the other person sneezes you pull up your ears because if you don’t pull up your ears it’s like then that’s bad juju . . . So you have to pull up your ears!”

 

I asked the informant what it means to “pull up your ears” and she demonstrated by taking the top of her ears between her thumbs and forefingers and lightly tugging upwards.

 

“And I do it all the time now because when I sneeze I instantly think of death and then I’m like, ‘Well, just to be safe . . .’ And I’ll do it if I’m in class too . . . And when my grandmother died two years ago, we were constantly pulling up our ears. Still! My mom still does it.”

 

The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” She said she learned this practice from her mother, but also said she thinks most of the superstitions her family practices come from Romania because her great great great grandmother was “the Romanian town palm reader and she read tea leaves and, like, they were a very mystical family.” When I asked her further about why she thinks this was, she said, “Because they were poor, that’s probably why. Because they had nothing. And the pogroms were going on that were attacking the Jews, so stuff like that . . .”

 

This superstition was fascinating to me because it seems similar to the practice of saying “Bless you!” after someone sneezes, i.e. it is a fairly innocuous action that people do as a way of warding off something much darker. I also think the fact that there are multiple superstitions surrounding the normal bodily function of sneezing is interesting, as it reveals something about the way humans respond to slightly odd and surprising occurrences. I agree with the informant that performing actions like this in order to ward off “bad juju” probably has something to do with the performer feeling a lack of control over forces bigger than humanity, such as death. This would make sense in the face of large-scale discrimination and genocide, as occurred in the pogroms. When you are reminded that death could come for you at any moment, it is comforting to think the performance of small actions such as this could help keep you safe.

Folk Beliefs

Tarot Card Superstitions

Informant S is 21 years old from Boise Idaho. He is a Philosophy major who also plans on attending Medical School. He is half Columbian and half American. His grandmother is an older Colombian woman lives in Bogotá. She has a strong religious background as a Jehovah Witness.

 

S: My mom had certain superstitions like if you clear your mind the Devil will get into your head and um when I was really young my mom wouldn’t let me collect anything “demonic” or um anything with horns like Pokémon cards, Digimon. Anything that indicated a tie to Satan. Her mother, or you know my grandma, was a hard-core Jehovah Witness so she sorta reinforced that in my mom. I found it incredibly annoying but it sorta scared me when I was a kid too.

Me: Do you have an example of something you tried to collect but your mom said no?

S: No but my sister did. My sister got this dollar store um crystal ball and it came with a set of really shitty cheap um foreign made tarot cards, yeah they’re like these um cards tied to paganism, they represent like if I remember correctly sort of essentialistic aspects of human culture, no its not Paganism its Hermeticism. Honestly I’m not 100% sure. But they’re the pack of cards you see in like movies where a fortuneteller flips them around and they say things like death, Prince, God, and the fortuneteller ties them together and tells you your fortune. Jehovah Witnesses are hard-core into researching Christianity’s origins and when the Roman Empire split there was supposed to be a fusion between a lot of Christian and Pagan themes in the eastern Roman Empire. So they tried to avoid those sorts of things in their religious practice, the Pagan ones. So when my grandmother saw that she bought that set she freaked out and gave my sister like a 30-minute tongue lashing about how she brought the Devil into our home. It was kind of terrifying to see how livid it made her.

 

Analysis: Here S talks about how his religious grandmother has superstitions especially about the Devil and how that came into conflict with something his younger sister had bought. For his grandmother these beliefs are very important, but they are less important for S and his sister. For him, the most terrifying was his grandmothers reaction to the cards rather than the superstitions themselves, mostly because S is not religious with a strong belief in the Devil, but it shows how important it is to keep the Devil and anything associated with him out of the home for his grandmother.  He says although he finds this grandmothers religion annoying, it also made an impression on him and scared him too.

Customs
Festival
Kinesthetic
Legends
Life cycle
Magic
Musical
Narrative

The Turtle and the Shark

The informant’s family originated in Samoa, his parents were born and raised there before traveling and moving into the United States. He takes many visits to Samoa and is very in touch with his Samoan heritage and culture. He shared some common folklore with me that he could think of off of the top of his head. 

Informant…

“During a time of a huge famine and starvation spread across Samoa a blind grandma and granddaughter were put out of there family because they were seen as kind of a burden. They decided to jump into the ocean to cast their fates upon sea because it was giving and caring. Magic turned them into a turtle and a shark. The grandma and granddaughter wanted to find a new home. They traveled for a long time and were constantly turned away from potential homes until they found the shores of Vaitogi. Vertigo had high cliffs and a rough coastline, the shores were occupied by a compassionate and generous group of people. The old woman and her granddaughter turned back into their human form. They were welcomed by the people of Vaitogi. They fed them and offered that they make this village their new home. The old woman decided to make it her home, but she felt a connection to the sea as if it were her home too. She couldn’t stay on land, so she told the villagers that she and her granddaughter had to go back to the sea. She said that they would make village waters their permanent home. She gave the villagers a song to sing from the rocks and a promise that when they sang the song she and her granddaughter would come to visit. They returned to the sea and turned into their turtle and shark forms. To this day, the people of Vaitogi still sing the song and many villagers will tell you that they have personally seen the Turtle and Shark. To each of them the legend is as alive today as it has been.”

The informant also told me that there is a song that goes along with the legend, he said that he doesn’t know it and only certain people in the village of Vaitogi are able to know the song.

Analysis…

This legend of Samoa is different because it goes against the Samoan value of family by throwing the grandma and her granddaughter out of the house. However, this legend depicts that it is hard to be accepted into the different samoan communities but when you are accepted they treat you as family and give you the upmost respect. This legend helps to show the culture of the people of Samoa and how they do things. The grandmother wanted to be a part of the ocean so she left the village that accepted her but lived in the nearby shores and visited only when a song was sang. Also, this legend shows the importance of animals in this society. The grandmother and granddaughter were both transformed into two common sea creatures, and shark and a turtle. The informant wasn’t sure why but it is important to the story. The informant said that this story originated in Vaitogi by its natives, but he heard it from his grandma.

Folk Beliefs
Magic

Eye on the back of the head

Information about the Informant

My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is half-Columbian and was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination. This one of three stories that his mother told him when he was a child.

Transcript

“And I guess another one was, um, a kind of derived eye-in-the-back-of-your-head type thing. Where she’d [informant's mother] say that, you know, ‘If you do something behind my back you’re not supposed to, I can see it.’ And, um, I’d be like, you know, whatever. You don’t have eyes in the back of your head. But occasionally, she’d turn her head. And she was doing something. And she would turn her head back, and she says, ‘I see you,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. How do you…How do you know that?’ And, um, she’d say, ‘I have an eye back here that’s magic, so you can’t see it.” You know. Typical…you know, that’s what little kids say, like, ‘Oh, it’s magic, so you can’t see it.’ But I–we bought it. So, um, any time she was in the room, or even might have been in the area, we behaved because she had an eye on the back of her–a magic eye on the back of her head, so.”

Analysis

Most of the stories that this informant told me were ones that his mother used to keep him well-behaved as a child. This one she seems to have used to keep her children from misbehaving when they thought her back was turned and she couldn’t see them. Although I doubt that this was hardly the intention of my informant’s mother or of the people who first came up with this story however many decades or centuries ago, the theory behind how this story would work as a way to keep children from misbehaving is one that has been discussed amongst Western philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the Panopticon, which operates by allowing the guards of a prison to have full view of all the prisoners, but the prisoners are unable at any time to see the guards, or even know if there are guards currently at their posts. The theory is that the prisoners, unable to tell when they are being watched, would always behave as if their actions were being monitored and self-govern in this way. This is the essential theory behind the story that my informant told me. The mother having a magical eye on the back of her head that, by virtue of being magic, my informant could not see and so would never know where it was looking or when it was open and watching, forced my informant to govern himself whenever his mother was in the room as he would never know when she could see something bad that he had done. My analysis may sound critical of the mother for using this tactic, but it is a very useful one and one that I would not be surprised to hear is employed in many households of various cultural backgrounds. A parent cannot be constantly watching her child at all times, and this allows her to have the relief of being able to be in the same room, thus available if something important does crop up, but also be able to perform other tasks rather than be required to watch her children at all times to make sure that they do not misbehave.

Folk medicine
Magic

Walczak Family Remedies

Context:

I was discussing with my mother via skype about home remedies that she knew of, or that her mother used to do for her and her siblings when they were sick.

 

Interview:

Me: I remember you once saying that your mother had a couple of home remedies that she would use with you when you would get sick, yeah?

Informant: There were certain things –

Me: Yes?

Informant: M’kay. There were certain things that mom did when we were sick, especially when we were sick to our stomach. First of all, she would give us 7-Up.

Me: Okay.

Informant: Cause 7-Up she believed would settle our stomachs. To this day I despise 7-Up.

[Laughter]

Me: And, why 7-Up?

Informant: And another thing she did, was to put us to bed with a bath towel.

Me: Okay…

Informant: And the whole idea of that, well the idea behind that was actually quite practical because my bedroom was pretty far from the bathroom, and if I had to throw up and I couldn’t make it to the bathroom, mom wanted my to be throwing up into the towel. But, for me, that towel ended up being very very comforting; and I used to kind of snuggle that at night when I wasn’t feeling good and it made me feel better just having it.

Me: Is that where I got Magic Towel from?

Informant: That’s why you got Magic Towel.

Me: Huh.

Informant: From my memory.

[Laughter]

Informant: Because when you were little, you had an upset stomach one night and I didn’t have any medicine that either you would take or I could give to you. And so I gave you that towel and I told you that it was a magic towel and that if you hugged it real, real tight all night then you would feel better in the morning.

Me: Hm.

Informant: And the next morning, you felt better and you looked at me and said, “I have a new B.” ‘Cause that’s what you used to call all your blankets. And you put it at the bottom of your bed and Magic Towel stayed with you longer than any other B.

Me: Despite having lost it multiple times and having to replace it.

Informant: Well you’ve only lost it once I think

Me: No, it was more than that. I think it was at least twice.

Informant: Could be. I remember that it got left in the Dallas airport once.

Me: Yeah, I remember that one.

Informant: Not on my watch.

Me: Not on mine.

Informant: It was daddy. Daddy help – let you forget it. So does this help?

Me: Yeah, mama. Thanks.

 

Analysis

When hearing this story, and especially about the taking the bath towel to bed, I realized that there is a reason why these folk remedies are passed down. It is because they work. Whether they are born from practicality or herbal medicine, if they work, then they are remembered and passed down to the next generation. Now, 7-Up, like many other sodas (including Coca-Cola), was originally created as a medicine, and it is highly likely that my grandparent’s generation believed such sodas to actually do what they were advertised to do. With the bath towel, though born of practicality, it was the belief that my mother had that it would work to cure an upset stomach that made it work. It is an example of the placebo effect. Also, the fact that my mother used this remedy for me, and that it worked, shows that such remedies, over time, can become family traditions, or traditional remedies within a family. I still sleep with magic towel, and I have never gotten sick in bed since my mother first handed me a towel. We may have had to replace the actual towel a couple of times, but it wasn’t the towel that was important, it was the concept of the magic towel and the belief that it worked that mattered.

[geolocation]