The informant, a 22-year-old college student, is a member of a PanHellenic sorority. The informant is my sister, and while chatting at home over spring break I asked her if she would be willing to tell me any of the rituals that were performed at her sorority events. She refused to tell on the grounds that they are all highly confidential and she has been sworn to secrecy. After a moment of silence, she said that she would be willing to describe a secret tradition of her ex-boyfriend’s fraternity, because she felt no obligation to keep it secret for him any longer.
“He’s in SAE, and they have this saying that all of the brothers constantly use in secret. It’s ‘Phi Alpha,’ and it means ‘Brighter from Obscurity.’ Usually they just say it means ‘Under the Sun’ because that’s easier to understand. It has something to do with being close to God. Members of the fraternity say it to one another under their breath as a greeting or when saying goodbye. Sometimes they also say it in place of ‘I’m serious’ or ‘this is actually true.’ Like, if one guy is telling a story and his brothers don’t believe him, he’ll say ‘Phi alpha’ so that they do. Only brothers are supposed to know what it is, I was just around so much that they accidentally said it in front of me and [my ex-boyfriend] told me what it means.”
This Greek phrase intended to be shared among fraternity members in secret serves to place emphasis on the deep-rooted connection that is meant to be formed between two men as a result of their shared Greek affiliation. I asked the informant whether pledges—new members of the fraternity who had not yet been initiated—knew of the phrase and she said that they don’t. Therefore, acquiring knowledge of what the phrase is, when to use it, and what it means is a part of one’s initiation into the fraternity. It is a special privilege granted only to those who have endured several months of probationary membership, and serves as a way of asserting one’s status within the fraternity. I asked the informant what the significance of being close to God is for the members, and she replied that there really was none. The fraternity has no religious affiliation, but rather the idea of being close to God serves more as a way of encouraging members of the fraternity to take responsibility for their actions, by implying that some greater power is watching over them and ensuring that they represent the fraternity appropriately. I have always heard that a plethora of secret handshakes, rituals, and traditions exist within Greek organizations, and the depth of meaning associated with the simple saying “Phi Alpha” makes me wonder just how intricate many of these other forms of folklore are that I am unaware of.
The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she shared with me about the Soviet way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Informant: “The Soviets made New Years the new holiday. They weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore, so they went around the rules and celebrated the secular holiday instead. They had a pine tree and Father snow (he was instead of Santa Claus). My family celebrates Soviet New Years still. A lot of us immigrated here—my mom and dad and both of their siblings and all of their kids. And my grandparents. So every New Year’s when I was growing up we would have a big family gathering with a tree—even though we are Jewish, I know it’s weird, but it’s not religious at all. It’s really just like a holdover from the Soviet Union. I got presents and my dad and grandpa always sang these long, hard-to-understand Russian songs.”
This reminds me of Santeria, a syncretic religion in the Americas, centered around Yoruba-mythology and belief. When those who believed in Yoruba mythology were forced to convert to Catholocism, they began worshipping the Catholic Saints instead of the Yoruba Gods, at least in appearance. Rather, it seemed as though they were following along with the new rules imposed on them, but instead they were practicing their religion in disguise. The syncrasy of the religion came about, but the religion seems far more blended to outsiders than it is in practice.
People in the Soviet Union being prohibited from celebrating Christmas of other Christian holidays was a part of the Soviet anti religious campaign for state atheism. Given how much weight belief holds for many people and how so many customs, practices, and rituals are grounded in belief, it is unrealistic to extricate it from people.
“The lengths people were going to to try to find this thing were so extensive, I didn’t even bother trying to look since I felt like there wouldn’t be a chance I’d find it.”
In Dice Entertainment’s recently released video game, Battlefield 4, there was rumor of a secret hidden somewhere in it that users spent months trying to find. It was a massive shark, a megalodon, that would apparently appear if you do the right sequence of actions and show up at the right place at the right time. Apparently, it was something someone on the development team added for fun, but wouldn’t tell if it indeed was true.
The informant plays a lot of games and loves easter eggs in games — hidden secrets placed by the developer. He says they range from small scale, like the signature of a designer tucked away in a corner, to large scale, like a massive extinct shark that flies out of the ocean and destroys everything in its path. He says he thinks people eventually found it, but wasn’t sure if they cheated to do that or someone faked it. Apparently, people in these communities band together and put in several hours of work to find these secrets beyond what normal players see.
In researching further, it turns out the megalodon is real! Players, after months of searching, found the shark, the last known unfound easter egg in the game. It’s unclear when exactly it was added into the game — either it’s been there since it was released, or the company added it at a later date to surprise fans who had been spreading rumors about its existence. The latter is a really interesting scenario — it’s almost like claiming to have found big foot, but you’re literally in control of whether or not big foot exists. To a certain extent it nullifies the possibility of legends or at least an unknown since the control of existence is in someone’s hands, at least if we allow modification of the original games.
My informant lives in Irvine, California, where she participates in the marching band at her high school. The marching band is very closely-knit, made of about a hundred and twenty people, where, she said, “everyone knows everyone and anything that happens is general knowledge in like, two seconds.” Calling themselves bandos, they form somewhat of a sub-culture in their high school, always hanging around the music building and forming their friendships and relationships oftentimes solely within the confines of the marching band.
In this closely-knit community, they have an unofficial gossip publication called “The Lyre,” which is passed out to the members on the bus on their way to performances at football games and competitions. The secret of the writers of “The Lyre” is very heavily guarded, although most people know that they consist of a group of seniors hand-picked by the seniors from the previous year. “The Lyre” is written secretly, printed secretly, and circulated amongst the band at least once every other week, containing generally about fifty pieces of gossip about goings-on within the band, whether made-up or real. The title of “The Lyre,” in fact, is a pun on the word “liar,” and so about half of the gossip is usually fake, made with the intention of being humorous. The other half though, of course, is real, and though monitored by the band director to make sure that nothing potentially offensive makes it through, it caused, my informant says, some pretty awkward situations:
“I think I’ve been in it like ten times, which is an okay number, and none of them have been too bad, except for this one time when they uh, paired me up as a joke with this junior guy who I actually really liked, and I think the guy knew I liked him too. I was a freshman and he was a junior so obviously, you know, it was pretty hopeless and sad. Anyway, everyone always pokes fun at the people who are on The Lyre so they teased us about it for the rest of the football game, like making us stand next to each other in the performance arc and stuff, and since Winter Formal was coming up, they kept teasing me to ask him to formal, which I actually really wanted to do, but then now that they’d said it I didn’t want to do it anymore obviously, because they’d think it was a joke or something. And the writers of the Lyre would feel so freakin’ important. So yeah. They had a whole shitload of control.
A piece of gossip would be presented with the initials of those involved (which were usually very easily recognizable, especially if you were the only one in the band with those initials), like this:
KL and DJ have been seen spotted frolicking off-campus for lunch. Sure didn’t look like they were “just friends” when they were sharing ice cream in the Crossroads the other day.
The fake ones were generally very obviously fake:
SM has had flowers growing on her head for the past week! Who planted it, and who’s watering it? It continues to be a mystery.
Nobody took “The Lyre” very seriously, however, and it was always somewhat of a joke, something light and funny to read on the long bus rides to football games and competitions. “It probably came from how close we all were,” She said. “I think if any other club or group did this, it probably would never have worked out. People would’ve gotten offended or something, and there would’ve been drama. But we all knew each other so well, and so these little things never mattered to us, it was all just funny. And it was also a way to get closer too, through like, shared pain and embarrassment, or something. It’s like, a place to cultivate our inside jokes and isolate ourselves even more from the rest of school. [Laughing] It’s such a cultish thing to do, but it was so fun.”