USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Narrative’
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Back When Tigers Used to Smoke: The Origin of Korea

Context:

The subject is a college freshman, born in South Korea before moving to the United States when they were 12 years old. I wanted to get to know more about any folklore they might have experienced growing up, so I conducted an interview with them to find out.

 

Piece:

Subject: You know how most fairy tales start with, like, “once upon a time”?

Interviewer: Mhm.

Subject: The, uh, Korean version is, “back when tigers used to smoke.” Like cigarettes. Back when tigers would smoke tobacco basically. I don’t know the exact origin, but there are old Korean paintings depicting a tiger with like a little ancient Asian-Korean pipe. Koreans love inserting that sh*t, like so, I guess no one knows where it actually came from, but a lot of stories begin, “Back when tigers used to smoke tobacco.” Assuming they don’t anymore.

Interviewer: That’s so interesting, that’s the literal translation?

Subject: Yup.

Interviewer: Is it something to do with like, the legend of how Korea started with a tiger and a, uh lion?

Subject: A bear.

Interviewer: A bear, yeah, is it something to do with that?

Subject: Tiger is like, America has an eagle, Korea has a tiger.

Interviewer: Makes sense.

Subject: Like Korean wild tigers have gone extinct after Japanese occupation, cuz they would hunt tigers as like sport. So I don’t think there’s any tigers left in wildlife Korea. But Koreans pride themselves, um North Korea claims they have tigers, I don’t know they totally could. But like, yeah tigers, the quintessential Korean animal. Do you know the fable of how Korea started?

Interviewer: Not really.

Subject: It’s super simple, God basically came down and found a tiger and a bear who both wanted to be humans. So God told them to like, “okay if you go live in a cave, only live off garlic and warm wood for 60 days or 100 days or something, then you will be a human.” The tiger left because it was impatient, but the bear survived, the bear became a woman and had the child of the God. So the human woman, who used to be a bear, got pregnant from God, and gave birth to an egg. Out of that egg was Korea’s first king, supposedly, like King Arthur type thing. That was like 50,000 years ago I guess.

 

Analysis:

As you can see, our conversation led to much of what this analysis section would talk about. The tiger is a very prevalent and defining symbol for Korea, and as they were once given human characteristics in old fables to explain the origins of their country, it makes sense why fairy tales would begin with a description of a time when tigers would be human-like. Maybe setting the story before the God came down, or during the first settling of humans in the country.

Specifically, the tigers in Korea are Siberian tigers. It brings luck, and embodies courage and absolute power.

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative
Signs

The Nightmarchers

Context:

The subject is a 19 year old student at USC, her ancestors are Hawaiian and has grown up hearing and experiencing different stories about Hawaiian culture and old folktales. I asked her to coffee to discuss such things.

Piece:

Subject: “The Nightmarchers, are like ancient Hawaiian warriors who basically walk during certain parts of — in certain parts of like Hawaii, and, like, um, if you see them, they appear as just a bunch torches – glowing torches. And as they come towards you, you’re slowly going to see a strange procession, it’s like a parade, but sad. Procession, get it, like Pet Semetary?”

Interviewer: “Yeah, I do.”

Subject: “And they’re ancient Hawaiian warriors, and if you look at them it’s said that you’re going to die, or someone you love is going to die soon. So you’re not supposed to look at them.”

Analysis:

Upon further research, I’ve found that these Nightmarchers are deadly ghosts of previous Hawaiian warriors. On the nights honoring the Hawaiian gods Kane, Ku, Lono, or on the nights of Kanaloa they are said to come forth from their burial sites, or to rise up from the ocean, and to march in a large group to ancient Hawaiian battles sites or to other sacred places.

If a mortal looks at these warriors without fear or defiance, they will be killed violently, unless a relative is within the Nightmarchers. Legend also states that planting living ti shrubs around one’s home will keep away evil spirits, and will cause the huaka’i pō to avoid the area.

Legends
Narrative

Bathroom at Private, Jewish High School home to Naughty Folklore

Folk Story:

“I’m pretty sure it’s a legend, but also it might be true…It was before my time. But, I went to a private Jewish high school in LA and there’s a bathroom on campus next to our gym that is fabled to – the girls bathroom specifically – apparently was home to a sex video with the canter’s daughter and two boys. Pretty sure it happened. I’ve not seen the tape, no no no, but a girl got expelled and two boys got expelled and that’s the tea of what happened, but the school would never confirm or deny, but we know.”

Context:

A bathroom at a private, Jewish high school in LA has this folk story attached to it.

Background:

The informant is 19, from LA, and attended this high school. She learned the story from upper class students who learned it from students that were upper classmen when they were lower classmen.

My Analysis:

In high school, there is a large mystery around sex – what it is, who is having it, how to do it. In religious high schools, where most likely abstinence-only education is the norm, there is a heightened sense of mystery around sex, and very likely supernatural-wrath-inducing consequences for having it. Therefore, it follows that their lore would center around such an awe-inducing concept as sex. The link of discussion between pre-marital sex and God in religious schools explains the necessity of the girl involved to be the canter’s daughter. It nods at the students’ linkage between the two and increases the level of wrongdoing by making listeners acutely aware of their religious beliefs. In addition, girls in high school experience menstruation, which many children’s folktales nod at whether through color palettes or symbolism, as being frightening. The mystery of the menstruation process is recognized in this tale through the placing of the narrative in the girls’ bathroom.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative

The Graffiti House on Sullivan’s Island

Context:

The subject is a student at USC who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. I wanted to know if there were any local tales or folklore she knew of while growing up, so one night in my dorm I interviewed her for the project.

 

Piece:

Subject: “Okay, the graffiti house, right, is this house, this little structure, near the sewage behind a giant hill in a children’s park. Do you remember this, when we went to the park?”

Interviewer: “Yeah, I remember the park, but you didn’t show us a house.”

Subject: “Yeah I should’ve shown you guys the house, cause it’s super creepy. And you like walk down these stairs through this little bamboo forest and then you come to this house with a shit ton — sorry, a lot of graffiti. And, um, stories say that at midnight, the graffiti, they come off the walls.

Interviewer: “What?!”

Subject: “Yup.”

Interviewer: “How does that work, what does it look like?”

Subject: “I’m not sure I’ve never seen it for myself, but I hear the shapes and art and words they all just come off the walls. And turn the people that come in there into graffiti.”

Interviewer: “That’s terrifying.”

Subject: “Especially when you’re a kid, cuz like everyone talked about this place and everyone was so afraid of going in cuz they thought they’d become, you know, graffiti.”

Interviewer: “And who’d wanna become graffiti?”

Subject: “Exactly.”

 

Analysis:

While this may seem like a small childhood fable, the location has a long history. According to Charleston’s local paper, The Post and Courier, The mound was Battery Capron, an American army ammunition store and mortar battery constructed in 1898 for $175,000. The earth and reinforced concrete structure was part of the Endicott System of seacoast defense. It was active from the outset of the Spanish-American War through much of World War II, according to news reports. In 1947, Battery Capron became the property of the state before officially being handed over to the island in 1975.”

The area clearly holds a lot of history dating back hundreds of years ago, so it comes as no surprise that the children in the surrounding area would create horror stories for their own amusement. The city is looking into refurbishing the area and turning it into a recreation zone.

 

Customs
Narrative

Family Poetry Tradition

Subject:  Family tradition of Narrative Verse.

Collection:

“Are you ready?

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

 

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.

He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

 

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

 

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,

And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,

He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;

And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

 

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of groan:

“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.

Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;

So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

 

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, and I swore I would not fail;

And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.

[at a bird] Oh yeah, there he goes!

He crouched…ah, let’s see…

He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;

And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

 

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,

With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;

It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,

But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate these last remains.”

 

Ah… I’ll just skip a little…

The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;

And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

 

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;

It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a thrice it was called the “Alice May.”

And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;

And “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

 

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;

Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;

The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;

And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

 

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;

And the huskies howled, and the heavens scowled, and the wind began to blow.

It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;

And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

 

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;

But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;

I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.

I guess he’s cooked, it’s time I looked”; … and the door I opened wide.

 

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;

And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close the door.

It’s warm in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—

Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

 

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.”

Background Info: B. Taylor is a long-time resident of San Clemente, CA where he raised his two sons and now resides with his wife. He holds undergraduate and pharmacy degrees from the University of Southern California.

Context: This video was taken of my grandfather reciting the poem on the banks of an Alaskan river. He frequently recites it at family gatherings and around the campfire on trips to Mexico, so I have personally heard a live telling of the poem multiple times. He learned the poem from his father who learned it from his father, and my father’s elder brother is the last person to have learned the poem purely through hearing it recited. Before my father’s family had tv or radio, their primary activity in the evenings was sharing narratives and poems. This is my grandfather’s favorite.

Analysis: The integration of the poem into our family’s traditions shows the interaction between the ways a piece of copyright material can be adopted and then modified. While members of the family subconsciously recognize the poem is from a book, it is thought of as now belonging to our family’s history. Furthermore, the slight changes in language and the omissions that have occurred over the years, make it distinct to our family’s oral traditions. In this way, the poem carries the weight, intellect, and history of those who came before me. In our family’s history, the Service poems were learned by the males in my family while women learned the biblical and romantic poetries. In this way, the memorization of the correct genre of verse is a rite of passage (since, once you learn the poem and can bear it, you now have authority in these family gatherings) and an assertion of one’s role within the family structure.

Furthermore, sharing the poem around a campfire is one of the key ways that the family bond is establish and then reinforced. One of the ironies of the poem is the setting in which my family shares it, compared to the content of the poem: a quest to find warmth, ending in a cremation. The poem beautifully captures the struggle of survival and human agency against uncontrollable natural elements (with the added element of the macabre). My family’s retention of the poem is contrary to the rapid spread of technology that has occurred since the book was published, it is a reminder of a time without television or cell phones where people connected to each other and the world around them. Especially today, our performance of the poem acts as resistance to the dominant cultural forces that threaten to eliminate the ways of life that the older members of my family hold dear.

Every telling is different, this wiggle room in the structure of the verse allows for the narrator to alter the poem to suit their dramatic vision. Depending on the teller, different characters have different voices, and certain moments become more poignant. It is through these retellings that the poem comes to life, and my family reconnects through actively displaying our ties to one another.

For Further Reading: The complete text of Robert W. Service’s poem can be found online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45081/the-cremation-of-sam-mcgee. My grandfather owns an original copy of Service’s book The Spell of the Yukon published in 1907 from which the family first learned the poem.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Narrative

Chimney Sweeps are Good Luck

My informant, an Irish-American male, grew up immersed in Irish culture. He was excited to share his stories with me — especially because sharing stories and poems is an important part of Irish social culture. I collected this story from him while we sat on his couch:

 

“So one Christmas, we had a chimney sweep come over. We called him and asked him to come over to clean out our fireplace. And he comes over — and our door bell has not worked in and years. Like since I’ve been at my house, the door never once worked once. Like the wires are cut, you know, like it was significantly broken. So, the chimney sweep presses the doorbell and it rings. It fully rings! And we were all very confused so we just kind of sat there for a hot second. And then we heard it again– and it rang again! And we were like what is going on? And my mom was like, “Oh my God! It’s a chimney sweep!” And she asked him how he rang the doorbell, and he responded– he was just like, “I just pressed it and it rang.” And then my mom pressed it– and it worked one more time and then after that it stopped working again. And it hasn’t worked since– but it worked when the chimney sweep came over. So that’s really weird.”

 

Because this story is from his personal experience, I asked him to explain how he knew about the folk belief that chimney sweeps bring good luck:

 

Killian: “It came up a lot. It’s pretty much common knowledge in Ireland. I don’t remember a specific person it came from.”

 

I then asked my informant if he knew where the folk belief came from or when it developed:

 

Killian: “I mean, there’s not much rhyme or reason to Irish superstition. I dunno, maybe it’s good luck because they clean out your fireplace so your house doesn’t burn down?”

 

Analysis:

I have never heard of this folk belief, but I think it fits with my other knowledge of Irish folklore. This collection is also fascinating because it comes with a story of personal experience that fits within the folk belief. To me, it’s similar to a ghost story but it fits with Irish legends rather than local legends.

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

Joshua the Apocalyptic Prophet

Context: When I told my roommate about how I was collecting folklore, he offered to talk about some of the stories he’d heard over the course of his life.

Background: This is something my roommate heard in his religious studies class this semester.

Dialogue: (Note: C denotes myself, B denotes my roommate)

B: …And I think especially the Jesus story is folklore.

C: Based on what your professor told you.

B: Yeah, um… He told me — not me personally but he told my class, uh, because we were studying the origins of Christianity at the time — that there was a man living somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, I think, name Joshua bar Joseph, and he [the professor] was like, “Joshua bar Joseph was an apocalyptic prophet,” meaning, he went around saying that the end was near, and that if people didn’t follow him, that they will die, and they would be s— very sad, and their life would be over. BUT— Wait did I say “if?” Sorry. If they didn’t follow him, they would die die, damnation, whatever. But if they DID follow him, uh, they would go to Paradise when they died, y’know. “The Apocalypse is coming, but, if you follow me, you’re gonna go to heaven.” Um, and then he’s [the professor] like, “Does this sound familiar?” and we’re like, “YEAH IT’S JESUS” and he’s like, “EXACTLY, Jesus was just an apocalyptic cult leader!” Um, and I’m like, “Well THAT makes sense.” So, yeah, that’s what my professor told me. But, I guess that means the Bible’s folklore.

Analysis: This is a really good example at how religion is deeply tied with folklore. From my roommate’s perspective and the perspective of the professor who gave him this narrative, the Bible is considered the alternative way of telling their story, where it would be commonly thought of as the “correct” way of telling the stories contained within. The fact that the story of Jesus allows for such variations—I’ve personally also heard the names “Joshua ben Joseph” and “Jeshua ben Joseph” ascribed to Jesus outside of Biblical context—attests to the fact that the Bible can be seen as merely another, more popular form of  a certain folk belief.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

Going to Hell in High School

Context: I collected this from a high school friend when we were on a camping trip together over Spring Break.

Background: My friend and I were part of our high school’s marching band.

Dialogue: (Note: C denotes myself, J denotes my friend)

J: When I first went to CV [high school] they— We did the tour thing with the band, and they were like “This is the stairs to Hell! There’s a bomb shelter down there.” Which… fuck knows.

C: There’s a bomb shelter?

J: Yeah, apparently there’s a bomb shelter in CV. It was built in the 60s, it makes sense, y’know. I’ve never looked at the blueprints.

C: I was never told there was a bomb shelter.

J: Um, but I don’t know where that is. I’ve always assumed it was down in Hell, um, but… A couple years after that, uh, I was told by… someone, that a hobo used to live down in Hell and just kind of… slept there, cuz y’know, shelter I guess, and that one day administration found that hobo dead in Hell. So that sucks— Well it’s not really in Hell, cuz Hell you get to from the inside of the auditorium, you gotta go down the stairs from the Jazz Cave, but this was like— you know the stairs behind the auditorium, that go down and are like, sketchy and dark?

C: The spiral ones?

J: N0, the spirals are in the Jazz Cave. The ones that are, like, if you’re going from the Band Room up to the quad, and instead of going up the stairs you go around the stairs, and then there’s stairs down. If you go down those stairs.

C: Okay.

J: That’s where I was told that the hobo died.

C: Oh! Yeah, yeah.

J: And it’s like dark there and shit, so… it would make sense that no one found him there for a while.

Analysis: This is almost my own piece of folklore too, since I went to high school in the same place and knew about the same locations. In this instance, however, comparing my own knowledge about “Hell” (a basement area underneath our school’s auditorium) to what my friend knew showed some variation: I had never heard of the bomb shelter existing before, nor did I know that the specific staircase my friend had spoken about was supposed to be an “entrance to Hell,” as we would have put it back in the day.

Folk Beliefs
general
Myths
Narrative

Japanese Creation Myth (As Told by a Scot)

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate had heard this story from somewhere he couldn’t remember, and thought it would be interesting to see how it reflects the “real” Japanese myth.

Dialogue: I would  love to refresh myself on, like, exactly the history and, like, what the names are and stuff, too, but… I think basically, the gist of it was, there are these gods, or like deities at least, in heaven, in like the spiritual realm, um, and two of them one day, I think by order of, like, the elder gods or whatever, um…. There were two of them who were ordered to go down, or maybe just decided, to go down to Earth, the kingdom of Earth, and basically, like, start humanity, like they would do a little pole dance and then everything was born. More on that in a second! So they go, they go down to Earth…. um, it’s like a male god and a female god… They go down to Earth, they’re like descending this crazy cool pole or whatever, and they like do this dance around the pole, um, and like all of life was born, and then they realized, “Wait a minute… Everything’s shitty! None of this… is good.” And, uh… Wait a minute, I’m trying to remember… The order of the speaking is important here, but I don’t remember the order of the story structure, so… Yeah. I’m about to get it though, I’m about to get it. Anyway, point is, they finish their dance, they gave life to everything, and the girl was like… “Great! We’re done!” And the guy was like, “WOAH, that’s weird, that you talked first, hold on! Let’s start EVERYTHING over.” So they go back up to heaven, and they do the dance again, and the guy says, “Hey, that’s great, we made life!” and then the woman was like, “Yeah, right!” and he’s like, “Okay, awesome, everything’s good.” So that’s Japan’s explanation eternally for, uh— Not explanation for misogyny but just a justification, I guess.

Analysis: Two parts of this stood out to me. The first was what my roommate mentioned, the fact that his version of this myth would most certainly be different from the “real” or “official” one, and how interesting it would be to compare the two versions. There were a good amount of pieces of the myth that my roommate left out, including the name of the deities (Izanami and Izanagi) and how the land of Japan came to be specifically, rather than simply “they gave life to everything.” He also added the element of a “pole dance” to the myth, which isn’t present in any other version I’ve looked through.

The other part of this narrative that stuck out to me was the fact that my roommate saw the myth as a justification of misogyny, rather than simply as a pre-science explanation for how Japan and the world came to be. This is what stood out to me as the main difference between hearing the myth told by someone of Japanese cultural heritage and someone (like my roommate) who is not.

Annotation: I looked up more “official” versions of the creation myth, and found that there was a progression from one version to another to the one that my roommate eventually recounted to me. The most similar version to the one above can be found here. The version being credited as taken directly from “Kojiki, the Japanese ‘Record of Ancient Things'” can be found here.

Customs
general
Humor
Legends
Narrative

The Family Car Story

Context: I collected this from a friend on a trip over Spring Break, after he’d heard me talking about folklore with another friend I was collecting from.

Background: This is a story my friend’s father like to recount at family gatherings or parties they host.

Dialogue: A large part of my family comes from this one place in Wisconsin called Steven’s Point, um, and, for a while they were… uh, I think, one side of my family was a— uh, was pretty wealthy and lived there for a while, and so, I think, when cars started rolling in across the country, um… So in the 1930s, I think, or, uh, the 1940s, my… great-grandmother, uh, she, moved to Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, uh, and, I think she was, she was starting to get kind of old, and she had to go renew her driver’s license. Now… there were only two cars in Steven’s Point at that time: the one she was driving, and the one she crashed into.

Analysis: The fact that my friend’s father likes to regularly tell this story at gatherings/parties convinced me to mark this in the Customs category, since it’s a familial custom for him to tell it. And while it’s not the most universal story in the world to tell, it feels very important in the legacy of this particular family. So it works as a more personal piece of folklore that way.

[geolocation]