USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘nature’
Myths
Narrative

The Indian Paintbrush

Text: So there was this little Native American boy who was born. He was not as strong as the other boys though, so when everybody else got named cool names such a “strong arms” or “fast legs,” I don’t quite remember what he was named, but it was kind of lame. He was not cool. So he’s growing up and he’s not strong so he goes to visit the shaman chief person and the guy’s like, “Just because you’re not strong doesn’t mean you don’t have other talents. Like, you might have something else. I know you’re going to be great!” So this kid is like obsessed with art and painting and stuff, and he’s always been painting as he’s been growing up. So he goes up to the top of this hill one day and he sees this gorgeous sunset and he’s like, “I want to paint that sunset.” Then this vision comes to him of this woman who is like, “Go find a buckskin as white as this,” and she holds up a white buckskin sheet (because they used to paint on leather), “and when you do, paint the sunset on it.” So he’s looking around trying to find this buckskin sheet. He’s painting and he can’t quite find the colors that match the sunset anywhere, and he’s trying to put it all together but he’s having some trouble.  So finally he gets the buckskin, but he still can’t get the colors. So he goes to the hill and he’s like, “Help me I need assistance.” So the vision lady says, “Come back tomorrow.” So he does, and when he gets back to the hill he has the exact paint that he needs on the ends of all of these paint brushes that we’re left for him, sticking out of the ground. And he paints the sunset on the sheet and he leaves the paintbrushes up there and he goes down the hill, and he shows his people his painting. And they’re like, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And they go back up in the morning and there’s these new beautiful red flowers that are blooming all over the countryside. And the real flowers are called the Indian paintbrushes and that’s what the Native Americans in that area use for red pigment.

Context: SH is a born and raised Texan studying psychology at USC. Her time in the south led her to be exposed to many different stories with western flairs while she was growing up.  The myth above is a story that she remembers learning at a very young age, and can be assumed to be very specific to Texas, for SH was very clear that most Texas children know this tale. I was told this piece of folklore over lunch one afternoon.

Interpretation: Myths are weird, sacred stories about creations and how the world came to be. In this case, this is the myth of how the Indian Paintbrush flowers came into existence. They don’t have any real world value because they do not interact with our world. If they do, it is considered a miracle. They are held as sacred truths and blueprints as to how we should go about living our lives. Sometimes myths are not easily translated from one language/culture to another. The Indian Paintbrush, however, contains pretty reasonable circumstance that explain how the red wildflowers came to exist when considered alongside other creation myths that would be considerably more outlandish when viewed from a western perspective.

general
Myths
Narrative

The Stone Ñusta (Princess) of Pisac

Original
“Okay, esta es la historia de una princesa, una Anusta Inca, y esta es la historia de donde es la abuelita, toda la familia de tu abuelita Elva, de Pisac.

Hay un cerro a que le dicen Apu, que decian que era el protector del pueblo, Pisac. La princesa, hija del ese entoces, el principe, el rey de esa zona, Inca, era unica hija. Y le dijeron que el unico que se podia casar con ella era el que construiera un puente de piedra en una sola noche, en el Rio Vivilcanota que esta a la orilla del cerro del Apu. La condicion era de que ella tenia que subir el cerro toda la noche mientras el novio construia el puente de piedra en el rio.

Mientras ella subiera, no podia mirar para atras. El el momento que ella mirara para atras, todo se convertia en piedra. El tenia que construir el puente, y ella tenia que subir el cerro. Esa era la condicion para que se pudieran casar.

Entonces, el principe que era del otro pueblo, y que el matrimonio de ellos iba a constituir la allianza de los dos pueblos, estaba muy enamorado de ella y dijo que el iba a intentar de hacer el puente en una noche. Entonces en la noche que el estaba haciendo el puente, el estaba casi casi terminando, y dice la leyenda que todo el mundo le silvaba, que ella escuchaba como que la gente la llamaba por su nombre y que le silvaba y ella no podia voltear. Pero cuando ya se estaba amaneciendo, ella sintio que alguien la llamaba mucho mucho mucho, penso que ya podia voltear porque ya estaba amaneciendo, y el todavia no habia terminado el puente. Y entonces cuando volteo, todo se volvio de piedra.

Entonces cuando tu te vas al pueblo de tu abuelita, tu ves a una princesa, que es como una formacion de roca y de piedra, y tu ves unas rocas en el rio, como si se hubiera hecho un puente que no se ha terminado, ya l final, una roca grande que dicen que es la estatua del principe.”

Translation
“Okay, this is the story of a princess, an Anusta Inca, and this is the story from where your grandmother is from, and your whole grandmother’s family, in Pisac.

There is a hill that they called Apu, and they say that it was the protector of the village Pisac. The princess, the daughter of this, at the time, prince or king of the Inca village, was an only child. And they told her that the only man that she could marry was a man who could build a bridge made of stone in just one night, in the river Vivilcanota at the shore of the Apu hill. The only condition was that she also had to climb the mountain all night, while the fiancé built the stone bridge at the river.

While she climbed she could not look behind her. The moment she looked behind her, everything would turn into stone. He had to build the bridge and she had to climb the range, that was the condition so that they could marry.

So, the prince who was from a neighboring village, and the matrimony of these two would constitute the alliance of the two villages, was very enamored by her and said that he would try to make the bridge in one night. So at night when he was making the bridge, he was almost almost done, and the legend says that everyone was calling her and whistling at her. And that, she would hear people calling her name and whistling and she could not turn around. But when the sun was rising, she heard someone calling her a lot a lot a lot, and she thought that she could turn around now because it was already a new day… but he had not finished building the bridge yet. And so when she turned around, everything turned into stone.

So when you go to your grandmothers village you see a princess, who is like a rock formation made of stone, And you see some rocks at the river, as if someone had made a bridge and had not finished it, and at the end of that, you see a big rock that they say is the statue of the prince.”

Context: The informant is my mother, a Peruvian woman whose parents both come from villages near Cuzco, Peru. She grew up in Lima, the capital and the most metropolitan city in Peru. Peruvian culture, however, is deeply rooted in pride about their myths and legends, and these forms of folklore are widely known. I actually inquired about Inca creation myths on my own, but realized that this is a prime example of folklore.

Analysis: I spotted some of Propp’s functions in this myth, as well as some of the classic elements of myths, as this is a fairly traditional structure for a myth just with a bit more detail.

Folk Dance

Turkish Cricket Dance

P.N. – “Right now, I just realized how much of a theme Nature is in all of our dances.  Nature plays a huge part in our own understanding of the world.  It’s why we have these two characters, Karagoz and Hacivat, who represent the dichotomy of the city and the country, fighting.  There’s a reason why we have this constant back-and-forth of going from the city to the farmland.  I think the reason for this is that there are only a few really big cities in Turkey, and people who live there are very, very different from the people who live in the villages, and we have so many villages . . . Everybody comes from a village, and they move to the city.  Only the newer generations are from the cities.  On that subject, folk dancing has given me a deeper connection with nature. A more sub-conscious thing.  I didn’t see how it impacted me before.  I think Turkish culture teaches you to respect nature.  SO . . .”

-“There’s this dance where, again, we’re crickets; and we have these spoons that we click to sound like the chirping noises.  We dance in a circle together, kinda going around, to the music, and as it slows down the music breaks and somebody sings in the tone of a prayer.  Here, we bend down and click our spoons.”

And that connects you to nature how?

“I guess because we’re portraying nature.  It adds a much more mystical aspect to it, because, like, we have such a disconnect – especially now – with nature as an entity, because we use it more as a backdrop.  These dances help me keep nature here at the forefront.  Because; think about it, we exist because of nature, and I don’t think we focus on that enough.”

 

For me, this dance brings to light a very different topic.  While this person’s other dance reminds her of hardship and oppression, this one brings up thoughts of responsibility.  The environmentalist thought that everything we do counts, and that it is our duty as inhabitants of this planet to be mindful, is mightily prevalent here.  It makes me wonder how the idea of environmentalism, modesty, and perspective play roles in our everyday lives, as well as in our cultures. 

Kinesthetic
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Rain Song from Living Earth Camp

Abstract:

This piece is about a rain song that is sung at Living Earth Camp when it hasn’t rain in awhile. It stems from “native” songs, but there is no evidence.

Main Piece:

“L: I went to like a nature camp in the years I was in middle school over the summer. So it was like a sleepaway camp, but it only lasted a week. And it was weird because it was mostly white people, but they’d be like “oh this is the ancient song, this ancient rain song.” I don’t think they realized how problematic it was. We had this one time when it hadn’t been raining lately, like we we in a drought or something, so they took us down to the river and said “so we’re going to sing this rain song.” So you sing this when you are splashing the water around and it goes like “wishita-do-yah-do-yah-do-yah, wishita-do-yah-do-yah-do-yah. Washa-ta-day-ah-day-ah-day-ah.” And you do that over and over again. And it actually ended up raining the next day.

C: Wow, so it worked?

L: Yeah, so now I have all this white guilt singing it.

C: What is the camp’s name?

L: Living Earth Camp. And it was or felt very spiritual and connected to nature. But it was still like a $500 camp for a bunch of kids to cover themselves in mud.

C: Where was it?

L: Like an hour away from where I lived, so still in Virginia.”

Context:

The informant is a 19 year old girl from Charlottesville, VA. She attended this camp for 3 years in middle school and learned this song the first year she was at the camp when she was in 6th grade.

Analysis:

Rain songs that are based on “native” traditions never seem quite genuine, but the intention behind them is interesting. I thought it was curious that a rain song has to have roots in “native” folklore, and not from somewhere else. This reminds me of learning of tourist items that were labeled as “authentic” or “native.” I think a lot of people try to go back to the roots of Native culture because of it’s connection to the Earth and spirituality. Though there is more to Native culture than that, in today’s popular culture that is what is most projected. Since children are little, we learn that there are certain things to sing to cause things to happen. When we want the rain to come, we sing things like this – the rain song, to bring rain. When we want rain to go away, we sing “Rain, Rain, Go Away.” It is important to recognize when songs are a bit problematic like the informant did as well.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Nature Organizes Best”

Context & Analysis

The subject is a good friend of mine who has been going through some difficult times recently; I believe this is a very grounding (and likely comforting phrase) for her to remember. It has a similar tone to ‘Whatever’s meant to be will be’. I also think it is interesting that the phrase is not necessarily religious—and the subject is not religious herself—yet she still mentions spiritual ideas like God in her description of the proverb.

Main Piece

“My parents say this thing in which, it’s like,  “Nature organizes best”, which just means that a god—not necessarily god, I don’t know, in which, like, the way of the universe is working out that everything is supposed to be the way it’s meant to be—kind of like karma almost, but a little more to it than that. Like whatever’s happening in your life in the moment is supposed to happen because nature is organizing for you to learn and to grow and to become the best version of yourself which is something that my parents have always said to me when bad things are happening or when good things are happening. That things aren’t necessarily in your control and that, like, there’s something else out there and it’s not just you and that the world is working in your favor.”

Folk speech
Humor

Floating a Log- Euphemism

Subject: Folk speech. The taboo.

Collection:

“Interviewer: When we were on our trip, we- our trip around Arizona and Utah, we went to… a lake, Lake Powell.

Interviewee: I checked the prop there many times.

Interviewer: So, can you tell me a little bit about what it meant to you as a kid to float a log?

[intense laughter]

Interviewee: Uh… uh.. yeah. We- it saved time going to the outhouse or into the motor home.

So, who- so, who was on these trips and who was partaking? Can you describe this environment a little?

That would be my good buddy Kelly… the race car driver.

Kelly Slater, the race car driver?

That would-be Kelly Slater the surfer.

Whatever.

Although, I’d betchya Kelly Slater has floated a log or two.”

Background Info: S. Taylor grew up in Southern California he grew up snow skiing, water skiing, motorcycle driving, jet skiing, playing volleyball, and racing cars. He first heard and began using the expression as a kid on trips to Lake Powell with his family friends. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, C. Taylor.

Context: I first heard this phrase from my father when he was recounting stories of his childhood trips to Lake Powell on our trip there together. This account was shared over dinner to one-up his wife’s contribution of a phrase used as a substitute for urination that she learned from her mother. After this, the subject of conversation was abruptly changed.

Analysis: This phrase intentionally subverts societal taboos by openly addressing and making public those bodily functions that are actively suppressed. When on camping trips or other nature explorations, the rules surrounding bathroom etiquette are looser, especially for men. Often, these trips are a way of escaping urban society and allowing oneself to live freely in commune with the natural world.

The phrase “to float a log” naturalizes the bodily function in two ways. First, it calls the action of defecation to the forefront, making it public. This action combined with the humorous phrase allow for the speakers and bystanders to let out tensions that usually surround bathroom activities. This addresses the fact that defecation is a normal bodily function done by everyone, and calls into question the ways that society currently punishes talk or open expression of “toilet talk”. Second, the phrase uses metaphor that links feces to the natural world, or something that is thought to exist in nature, as opposed to something disgusting. This further naturalizes the action both in that moment and for when the performers of this folklore return home.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Nature and Garden Spirits

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as AD.

BD: So tell me about the spirits that live in nature.

AD: So, my mother, in her house’s yard, there’s a swing outside and some grass. They say that there’s something that lives underneath the ground. Every time you have to be careful and not step on the roots, or you have to say “excuse me,” which in Tagalog is “tabi tabi po.”
Anyway, spirits that live there, outside and underground, and if you accidentally step on them and you don’t say excuse me, bad things happen.

BD: Like what?

AD: People get sick. And doctors don’t know why. Bad things like that. But when this happens, and it’s unexplainable by regular medicine, they call a man from the community and he does “tawas.” I don’t know what the term is in English. But only certain people can do it. This person who knows how to get the sickness out of your system. They use a bowl with water, and they use a candle. What they do is put the bowl in front of them and the person who is sick, the bowl between the two people. They light the candle, and pour the wax into the bowl of water. And it forms a shape. Whatever shape it forms—sometimes it’s in the shape of an animal—that’s the spirit that is harming the person.


 

Analysis: Growing up, I heard this belief often, because I am Filipino, and my grandmother’s yard was rumored to have some of the spirits in it—all nature does. Even now, when I step on tree roots, I whisper under my breath “tabi tabi po,” in hopes I will not be cursed. A more personal, in-depth look at the process of tawas can be found at: www.lifestyle.inquirer.net/177916/diagnostic-rituals/. The informant personally knows four people capable of tawas, proving it is not an uncommon practice, and many Filipinos still believe in both ideas—the initial superstition and the folk medicine that can cure transgressions by the superstition.

Folk Beliefs

Hawaiian Superstition

Main Piece: Hawaiian Superstition

 

This was told to me by my Hawaiian teammate Danny:

 

“You are not supposed to take sand or rocks from the beaches in Hawaii, as it will upset Pele and she will curse you.”

 

Background:

 

This is more so a superstition that is used for tourists to the islands, as an incentive to not take sand or rocks from the beaches. The goddess Pele, who is believed to curse you for taking them, is known as the goddess of fire, volcanoes, lightning, and is known as the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. It is told that when rocks or sand are taken from the beaches, you are taking away Pele’s home and this is why she curses you. The only way to please Pele is to return whatever was taken, and not take anything else away.

This is another generally known superstition in the Hawaiian Islands, and Danny tells me it is something told to help preserve the environment in Hawaii, and keep nature the way it is and just appreciate it in the moment and not take a souvenir that is a natural part of the earth.

 

Context:

 

This is a superstition told to tourists to prevent them from taking sand and rocks from the beaches to hopefully preserve the ecosystem and not disrupt nature and the islands natural beauty. If every tourist who went to Hawaii took one rock or one bottle of sand, the make-up of the many popular tourist destinations would not be the same, and it could harm the ecosystem of the plants and animals that inhabit them.

There is no other context that this could be told in, other than a parent telling their kid to just leave nature as it is, because if it was made that way, that’s the way it was supposed to stay. Danny was told this by his mother who was a big advocate for respecting nature and keeping everything the way it naturally came to be. It is also a pride thing for Hawaiians, because they want to preserve the beautiful place they live in and keep it from changing unnaturally.

 

My thoughts:

 

I had actually heard this superstition before once when I went to Hawaii. My brother and I had made what we called “beaches in a bottle” one day where we would fill an empty plastic bottle with half sand and half ocean water and a piece of rock or coral, and when we were coming back to the hotel from the beach one of the workers told us that if we took the sand, it would upset the beach gods and we would have bad luck until we returned it back to its rightful place. We immediately returned everything to the ocean and didn’t think to take anything again. This gave me a better appreciation for experiences, and not necessarily needing a souvenir or any sort of memorabilia to remember a place.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Red Sky At Morning

Background:

My informant is a twenty-two year old deckhand on a lobster vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. He began working part-time on the boat as a senior in high school and began lobstering full-time just out of high school. He has also worked fishing cod, crabs, and halibut. He spends a great deal of time on the water in his free time as well.

Performance:

“I think everyone has heard this one. ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning?’ Basically it just means that if you’re going out and you see a wicked red sunrise…that’s probably not gonna be good. At night it’s supposed to be red, so that’s okay. We say it on boats and stuff but I think I heard it when I was little somewhere. Everyone says it I guess. Honestly it’s pretty fucking accurate…like, every time I see a red sky when we’re going out in the morning we’re all like ‘shit, this day is gonna suck.’ It’s not like a huge storm or anything, usually, but it really sucks when it’s wicked choppy and rainy or windy or something. I don’t know if there’s science or something about it but I think it’s legit.”

Thoughts:

This saying gives some predictability to an otherwise very unpredictable job. Often both the weather and the success of the trip are equally uncertain. Mike was incredibly adamant that the superstition is true based on anecdotal evidence. Despite the superstition, it does not seem that a red sky in the morning would seriously deter a boat from going out; rather, it portends the quality of the day.

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