USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Religion’
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Myths
Narrative

Buddha Crossing the River

Context:

The informant is a student at USC studying Bio-Chem. In this account, he recalls religious stories that he heard.

In the transcript of our conversation, he is identified as S (storyteller) and I am identified as C (collector).

 

C: Do you have any stories like from your childhood or from growing up? Anything you might want to share?

S: Yea… I’m Buddhist. Kinda forced into it I guess. Both of my parents are from Burma, I guess.

So when I was in elementary, my parents wanted me to hang out with my Burmese friends but I didn’t speak Burmese. There was a session with the monk but during break or down times, they would tell us stories and stuff.

It was told by a monk. So… I don’t remember the lesson but, most of the stories are about Buddha.

So there’s this one story I remember:

So one day, Buddha was hanging out with his apostles when this one guy said he knows a monk that surpassed him or something.

He was like, “Where? Bring me to him.”

When we went to the monk, we has all frail and sickly.

The monk told Buddha, “I can walk on water. This was done by strict meditation and following the teachings while starving.” This was obviously a lie.

The monk continued, “You’ve only started your path. I’ve gotten this far already.” He was basically challenging the Buddha.

The monk said, “I bet I can get across this river.”

Buddha: “Why would you do that?”

Monk: “It just proves I’m much stronger. Can you do the same thing?”

So Buddha accepted this bet and the monk proceeded to give a ferryman one penny and crossed the river with on a ferry.

 

S: This story isn’t verbatim, but I guess the lesson that I learned was this: Buddhism isn’t a superstitious religion. It’s very grounded. Each city it went and added their own superstitions to make it different and “holy.”

Buddhism is about self-actualization and helping others but it gets muddled in all the lighting candles, and like all the rituals and stuff.

 

Analysis:

It’s interesting to hear religious stories, mostly because of the lessons or explanations that they teach. In this case, the story explores the idea of what Buddhism is or isn’t. It also teaches a fundamental idea in folklore in that, each group makes variations or changes to something that they learn in order to adapt it as their own. This is the same case in religion as each group adds on their own superficial things which may distract or draw away from the core beliefs.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Narrative

How Purim, A Jewish Holiday, Came to Be: The Story of Esther

The following is a conversation with AJ that describes her interpretation and knowledge of the Story of Esther; the story behind the Jewish holiday of Purim.

 

AJ: So basically, the second in command to the King, named Haman, made a decree that everyone needed to bow down to him, but this one guy named Mordecai didn’t want to bow down to him because you’re really not allowed to bow down to anyone that’s not God. So, Haman then hated all the Jews. So, he made a decree for a lottery, which picked a day that would essentially be “the purge” for killing Jews; you’d have the whole day to kill Jews and you wouldn’t get in trouble. So, the day he chose “the purge” for was on the 13th of Adar, which falls tomorrow (March 20th), I think, and it was called Purim.

So, while this is happening, the King was having a three-day festival party, and he told his wife to come so he could show her off or whatever. But she didn’t come and just had her own party with the girls, and it was so disrespectful to the King that he got rid of her. So, then he held a beauty pageant for a new wife, and he recruited every girl from the city. So basically, Mordecai, from earlier, had a niece named Esther, and they were trying to hide her, but the King’s men found her. When she went to the beauty pageant, the King liked her the most and she was the most beautiful, so she became Queen. Mordecai then told Esther that this [happening] was a sign that she needed to use her position as Queen to try and convince the King that he shouldn’t kill the Jews with the purge system that Haman created. And then basically Esther was really scared because you can’t approach the King, even if you’re the Queen, without him calling [upon] you or using his power on you. So that’s why the Jews fasted for three days, to make sure nothing would happen to her when she went to the King. They fasted because it was custom that you were supposed to fast if you really wanted something to happen […]; fasting helps give you luck. So, she went to the King and asked for a tea party to talk about Haman. So, Esther had the party twice, but couldn’t find her words until the third time when she told the King that Haman was trying to kill her people, the Jews. The King then was like, “What, oh my gosh!” […] there are more details, but anyway, the King sentences Haman and all his sons and they were hung, but only after Haman carried Mordecai on a horse to get his full embarrassment before his death. The lottery decree was able to be reversed because of the King’s power and then the Jew’s were saved because of Esther.

 

EK:  So, then what do you, and other Jews, do to celebrate for Purim?

 

AJ: Um, okay, so we fast for a day, which is tomorrow (March 20th), the same as the 13th of Adar, and then we read this story at night before we have a big feast. Also, it’s a custom to give each other food baskets to friends and family during this time.

 

EK: Interesting, so what does this story mean to you, as someone who is Jewish?

 

AJ: Basically, I know it because through being Jewish and it’s just a story that’s identifiable to all Jewish people because everyone in the religion celebrates the holiday, so it just brings us all together and we get food baskets in the process, haha.

 

My Interpretation:

It is very clear that the Jewish religion places a lot of emphasis on the stories of their religion and the sacredness of their celebrations. These origins seem to date back thousands of years, as well as the worship during the sacred holiday. During Purim, I watched AJ strictly abide by the rules of fasting throughout the day; obviously this is a holiday that Jews take very seriously. As this story is a part of their culture and religion, it seems that many Jews know it by heart. When AJ was sharing the story, she did not have to think twice about many of the details, like it was common practice for her to recite.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Muslim Traveling Superstition

Main Piece (direct transcription):

Mom: Before dad and I went on our honeymoon to Madrid, dad’s mom held up the Quran, and so did his grandmother, and we actually had to walk underneath the Quran to prevent anything evil from happening to us in our travels.

Me: It wasn’t just for the plane; it was for all of your travels?

Mom: Well, they didn’t state it, but I felt it was like their way of confirming that our trip would be as safe as possible.

 

Context: The informant, my mother, is a pharmacy administrator living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  She was originally born in New York but moved to New Mexico with her family at a young age.  Her father, a playwright and artist, was invested in his Native American heritage.  From her travels around New Mexico, moving from place to place when she was young, and also hearing stories from her father and my father, who is from Iran, she has gathered a variety of folktales.  My dad is originally from Iran, and all his family members are also from Iran, so my mom and I were talking about Iranian superstition and folklore that my mom has experienced while being married to him.  Since my grandmother is heavily Muslim, and is a very superstitious woman, my mom has learned about most Iranian superstitions through her.

 

 

My Thoughts: This is interesting because it is my mom’s, who is American, viewpoint on Iranian superstition.  Even though my grandma and my great-grandma did not explain to my mom why they wanted them to walk under the Quran before their travels, my mom was able to guess the purpose of it.  Although different cultures have their own superstitions, I feel like many feelings of superstition and fear are universal.  This superstition made me think about how different individuals express different feelings of things such as fear, excitement, and happiness.  People in America might say, “Have a safe flight!” or “Safe travels!” before a major trip such as a honeymoon; however my Iranian family wanted my parents to walk underneath a Quran to express this sentiment.

general
Legends
Narrative

Demon Baby of Hull House

Storyteller:

“Do you know about the demon baby of Hull House? Hull House was a settlement home developed by Jane Adams, the godmother of social work. And in 1902 a baby was born outside of Chicago, outside of wedlock, where it was born with horns and a tail, and cloven feet. Unable to keep the baby, they brought it to Hull House where it could be cared for and most importantly prayed for…but nothing could fix it. They kept it away as it started to become a draw. And so they kept that baby up in the attic where it wouldn’t bother anyone or be bothered by them. And it’s said that still today, you can see that baby up in the window…”

Background Info: The storyteller lives in Chicago and it is a story that buddies of the storyteller had been telling while living in the city.

Context: I was with my family and I was telling them that I had this project coming up and told them some of the stories people had told me for it. That spurred a conversation where everyone started sharing their pieces of folklore and this was one of them.

Thoughts: I was immediately captured by the title of this story. When the storyteller asked me if I had heard of a demon baby I was intrigued. The storyteller’s performance was captivating because the storyteller used a tone of voice that many use when telling creepy stories. I read up on the story after it was told and I discovered that some people refer to the baby as a “devil baby” and there are many different versions including an Italian version and a Jewish version which can be found here:

Addams, Jane. “The Devil-Baby at Hull House.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Oct. 1916, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1916/10/the-devil-baby-at-hull-house/305428/.

 

Adulthood
Childhood
Customs
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jewish Baby Shower Custom

Text

The following piece is a Jewish custom collected from a twenty-two year old girl in a library with a group of other girls, all studying. The girls were discussing an upcoming family pregnancy. The “Informant” shared the following information with the table. I will be referred to as the “Collector”.

Informant: “Apparently, in Jewish culture, Jewish women aren’t allowed, or like supposed to have baby showers. Apparently it’s bad luck.”

Collector: “What does that mean?”

Informant: “Well, Jewish women are not supposed to prepare for the baby before it is born. It’s bad luck to receive presents for the baby before it’s born. So, like the mother or friends can accept the presents but she can’t give them to the mother. Also, you’re allowed to paint the baby’s room but you can’t bring in the crib. So when the mother finally goes into labor, whoever had the presents or other baby stuff goes to the house and sets up the crib and baby’s room with all the presents. So that it’s ready by the time the mom and baby come home.”

Context

            The Informant learned of this custom from her friend who is Jewish. When questioned, the Informant said that her friend’s mother was the one who told her and was very strict about the tradition. Her mother did it and all the women of the family still uphold the tradition. The Informant remembers learning of the tradition very clearly because she remembers her friends’ anger at the tradition overall.

Interpretation

I had previously never heard of this Jewish custom. I was surprised to hear that it was still very much a part of Jewish women’s practices and belief system. I understand how some of the preparation for a baby coming might lead to superstitious beliefs, or the thought of jinxing the pregnancy, but the idea that the baby shower in particular is bad luck was surprising to me. I’ve always thought that the purpose of a baby shower was to welcome bother the woman to motherhood and the baby to life. It has always seemed to me to be a celebration of life. It’s interesting to me to know to understand the other perspective that it might be an unlucky aspect of the pregnancy.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — Prayer for Good Luck

Text

The following piece was collected from a seventy-three year-old woman from Vail, Colorado. She is Irish Catholic. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “Oh, whenever my family needs a bit of luck, or we think someone else could use it, all you have to say is ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.’”

Collector: “Then what’s supposed to happen?”

Informant: “Nothing is supposed to happen. It’s just a way of trying to get some extra help from above.”

Collector: “When do you say it?”

Informant: “Well, we’ve always said it whenever we see an ambulance. If one drives by with the sirens, you say a quick JMJ and that helps. Or…haha… if you need some help on a test you think you did poorly on, I would always write JMJ very small in the corner of the paper right before I turned it in. Couldn’t hurt.”

Context

The Informant learned this practice from her father, who would always stop the car and make the kids said JMJ if they saw an accident or an ambulance. It later leaked into other aspects of their lives, more lighthearted in nature. The Informant always felt more confident, or at least hopeful, about a test that she had written JMJ on. She believed that with God on her side, there was such a better chance of things turning out well in the end.

Interpretation

            I believe this piece to be interesting in the ways it can be applied and at the same time very familiar to me. Growing up, my family’s mantra for a quick bit of help or luck came as a result of very quickly saying “Come, Holy Spirit”. Hearing another family that has a similar practice, but different words is heartwarming to me, because I enjoy hearing that people have faith in small phrases, that saying them can bring good luck and fortune.

Customs
Festival
Foodways
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Greek Easter Bread

The informant was sharing an important Greek Easter tradition within her family:

*Names are reduced to initials

Me: Can you tell me about the Easter bread you make?

Informant: Tsoureki is a traditional Greek Easter bread that’s prepared during Greek Easter week. It’s usually braided and the red eggs go into it. It’s all we served on Easter Sunday. And um…it’s a sweet bread and again, the egg symbolizes resurrection.

Me: Yum!

Informant: Sometime’s It’s braided and sometimes it’s braided in a round loaf with a cross on the top,

Support: which is our family tradition

Informant: Lots of Greeks do it though. The cross is a byzantine cross so it’s this shape

*She shows me her necklace*

Support: The curled edge is how I make it. Our family recipe came from my great-aunt that’s Aunt G. That’s where we get the recipe from.

Context: 

The Informant is a Greek woman who was born in the United States. She currently lives in Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA. Though she was not born in Greece, her parents immigrated to the US and she was born into a very Greek community in Phoenix, AZ. The performance was held during an Easter party, in front of her younger sister.While the informant does not usually make the bread, her younger sister always does and she provided supporting information.

Analysis:
It’s very interesting how humans can adapt easily but also stick to tradition as we see with the bread. The recipe has been passed down through generations and while there are so many different recipes this one stuck and has meaning. The way the bread is formed has also stuck as the sister describe, as she always makes it in a curled manner. Finally, the younger sister is always the one who makes the bread for the family, which shows her role in maintaining the family tradition. It is very interesting that people are so adaptable, but also find ways to maintain systems that work.

Folk Beliefs
Proverbs

Marine Proverbial Saying

“There are no atheists in a foxhole.”

Context: This proverb was first collected in a philosophy of religion class when the class was going over religious belief. The student stated this proverb during class to which I questioned about after class was finished. The student is a 25 year-old male who has been in the United States Marines and has grown up in Los Angeles.

Informant Analysis: “So, when you are in the Marines this is something that you hear pretty commonly. I take it to mean that when you are in a really tough situation and think you might die, you are gonna start to believe in God. There’s like a fear about death, you know, like what happens after you die. It’s a little bit easier to put yourself in situations like that if you think there is a heaven, you know?”

Collector Analysis: Although this proverb may be said among marines and varied in different situations, the most iconic use of this idea came from Dwight D. Eisenhower, although this is not the first time this idea has appeared. The idea is a quick and more figurative way to state that in times of extreme stress or danger, even people who once considered themselves atheists convert to believe in God. This quick conversion to religion is often called a foxhole conversion. It is possible that the use of foxhole within this proverb came from World War I in which there was use of foxholes that have been recorded as being some of the worst conditions for soldiers in war to date. We can also look at how religion plays a role in the United States and in particular, how it is indoctrinated into the soldiers who serve. Around the time when Dwight D. Eisenhower brought the idea of this proverb to the American populace not involved in the military, there was a fear, philosophically speaking, about atheists. It was difficult for people to actively state they were atheists because there was much stigma around people who did not believe in God. The use of this statement of there being “no atheists in foxholes” can almost function as an argument against atheists, the argument being that no person is ever truly an atheist.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Catholic Proverb

Main Piece:

“Leave it all in God’s hands.”

 

Context: The informant learned this proverb from her mother. They are of Catholic background. The informant described the proverb as meaning, “No matter what decisions or situations we are in, leave it all in God’s hands because he wants what is best for us, so he will lead us in the direction we need to go in.”

 

Analysis:

It seems that when people feel that they have no control on some aspect of their life, they find comfort in saying this proverb because it reassures them that someone is watching over them and will help them anyway possible. Saying this proverb is a form of comfort for many individuals.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Setting an extra plate during Christmas

Content and Context:
Informant -“I remember my mother did this several times. At the Christmas meal, my mother would set an extra seat and an extra place setting. Now the tradition is in case someone shows up, but I always associated it with the people who weren’t with us. That’s how I like to think of it.”

JK – “The people who aren’t with us. Does that mean people who have died or people who just aren’t there?”

Informant – “Either way. When I say prayers at home now, I always add that I ask god to take care of those who aren’t with us. That means your dead grandparents and those who are away.”

JK – “Did the Christmas tradition lead to this added prayer?”

Informant – “Maybe the thought did. Not consciously. It just seemed to me that our meals couldn’t possible be complete without recognizing the absence of those who couldn’t possibly be there.”

Analysis:
It’s interesting that the informant did not carry the tradition forward, but rather his interpretation of the ritual. While his mother wanted to be prepared for unexpected guests, the informant wanted a reminder of guests that weren’t coming.

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