USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘magic’
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.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

A Falsified Superstition

Item and Context:

“When I was a kid, I read ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ like nobody’s business. Like, I would just devour them. And so, when I discovered that there was one called ‘Tintin in Tibet’, of course I was delighted, being of half-Tibetan ancestry. While I was reading it, I found this superstition in there where one of the sherpas, the mountain guide dudes, tells Captain Haddock, who is notorious for flouting other people’s cultures and traditions, that he isn’t supposed to pass a chorten, a Buddhist monk’s memorial structure, on the right, because it will ‘unleash the demons’. Weirdly enough, when I went to Tibet a few years ago for a family trip, we went hiking up in the Himalayan foothills, where there happened to be a ton of chortens just dotting the hillsides. We were accompanied by a couple of local sherpas, who found it supremely bizarre that I was doing everything I could to veer left as I passed them by, so that I wouldn’t offend anyone. I saw them laughing at me, and so I asked them, simultaneously embarrassed and confused, what they found so funny. They asked me if I’d read any Tintin comics before, and so I told them yes. To my amazement, they started laughing even harder at this. I was growing increasingly upset, and so I asked them what the hell was going on. They told me, trying desperately to keep their faces straight, that they had seen several American and European tourists doing the same thing that I was doing because they had read the Tintin comic. With one final snort of laughter, they informed me that the superstition from the comic wasn’t a real Buddhist superstition, and that the guy who created them, Hergé, completely made it up!”

Analysis:

This is an example of “fakelore”, which later grew into something a lot of people believed in because it was propagated by such a popular franchise, much like the series of Paul Bunyan stories, which was actually created by the logging industry to encourage the locals to believe that logging was a great American tradition. A question is brought up here – if the practice is conducted by a lot of people today, is it still fakelore or is it now folklore? Maybe because the society in which this practice was supposedly traditional never did it in the first place, it’s fakelore, but because there are people who believe in it now because they grew up on the Tintin franchise, it has now transformed into folklore.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Kicking USC’s Flag Pole on Game Day for Good Luck

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.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic
Protection
Signs

Evil Eye

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.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Black Cats in Moldova

“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.

Game
general

“Levitating” at a Slumber Party

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.

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