USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘signs’
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

Colorful Birds

While my informant grew up in Los Angeles, my informant’s family is from Yucatan, Mexico and he frequently goes down to visit his grandparents who live on a ranch.  He heard this information when he was a child visiting his grandparents. His grandfather taught him this:

“If a Colorful birds like parrots, appear in your yard, it means there is good news coming”

 

My informant says that he learned this after he saw a parrot in his grandparent’s backyard when he was a child.  His grandfather then told him this sign.  According to my informant, parrots are rare in the area of Yucatan where his family originates.

This is similar to another Yucatan saying where black birds are premonitions of misfortune.  It also reflects the other saying in that while black birds are common, colorful birds are very rare.  This might mean to the people who live there that trouble and misfortune are very common and good luck is rare.  This is in accordance with many areas in Mexico having high mortality and poverty rates and thus more likely to experience hardship.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

German Tradition: Saint Nikolaus Day

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries.  I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January.  I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January.  Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event.  So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”

Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”

Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff.  And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving.  And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children.  Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges.  And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”

Interviewer: “Why red?”

Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”

Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”

Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”

Analysis:

Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus.  Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children.  In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition.  Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.

In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research.  Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite.  The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right.  This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’.  During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner.  She said she had never heard of the Krampus before.  I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right.  The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.

In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season.  In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts.  I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th.  However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic
Signs

Theatre Occupational Superstition: Peacock Feathers on Stage

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There are more explanations to this superstition than the one I know, but the one I am aware of is that peacock feathers have all these eyes.  And that you either don’t want all those eyes staring at you, or you don’t want all those extra eyes taking away your eyes as an actor.  But I think there are more versions of that story.  There is something that is connected to the past on that one.  And that is one that, more than the others that I know of, some of the old actors take that one really seriously.  And I’ve always felt that if someone involved in the production does believe in that superstition, honor the superstition and don’t use the peacock feathers in the production.  But that is one that they have the right to have that superstition, because you don’t want that competition with all those eyes.”

Analysis:

In my research I was not able to determine the historical reasoning behind why peacock feathers are unlucky in theater.  However, the idea that peacock feathers are unlucky is not unique to theater and can be found in British superstition and Greek superstition, which features the idea that the peacock feathers contain the Evil Eye.  Perhaps because the theater has such a strong heritage from England and Greece, these superstitions have become integrated into theater superstitions.

My informant draws particular attention to the idea that having extra eyes on the actor is bad luck.  In this logic, I don’t understand why having extra eyes on the actor would be a bad thing because you want the attention to be on the actor.  But if the extra eyes are symbolic of the Evil Eye, and we are looking at the superstition in that context than the lore makes more sense to me.  Having all those Evil Eyes on you is seen as bad luck in English and Greek cultures because they are thought to bring personal injury and misfortune to the person the Eye is on.  When an actor is trying to perform, all their focus should be on the performance at hand.  They can’t focus properly if they are worried about the ill fortune that the Evil Eye will bring to them.

The final idea is that you don’t want all those eyes to take away the audience’s attention or ‘eyes’ is also a possible theory.  In theater the attention should be on the performer, and it is considered bad taste to upstage the actor through the use of a flashy set or costume.  This is because it is the costume, lighting, and set designer’s job to make the actor look good, the focus should be on them.  As another one of my professors at USC wisely puts it, “if the audience is looking at that little detail on the set, than there isn’t something wrong with the set, there is something wrong with the actor.” Therefore, the use of peacock feathers taking away from the attention of the actor possibly comes from the idea that they are very beautiful objects and thus distracting.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version I)

Interview Extraction

Informant:”Now the interesting thing about a lot of old stories is- and this is actually something we mentioned in class, how there are often two or three explanations that might not even relate to one another for many of the old stories or traditions.  The Macbeth legend that I know, there are two- no, three variations of the Macbeth legend.  One is the story that the incantations used are actual witch’s incantations so therefore if you believe in witchcraft you do not want to evoke them.  The second one on Macbeth is that, Macbeth being an old ‘war horse’ and an audience favorite, was frequently the play that would replace a show that wasn’t doing well.  So if you heard someone talking about Macbeth, you didn’t like it because it meant that the play you are doing might be closing early, and be replaced by a revival of Macbeth.  I kind of like that legend the best.”

Analysis:

The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the stories my informant mentions are only some possibilities.

I am familiar with the legend that Shakespeare might have used real witch’s incantations in his play, but I am not sure if this is true.  It depends on your beliefs about witchcraft.  I think the reason why this particular legend is so popular is because witchcraft and magic hold such a high place of fascination in our imaginations, and believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about the magic of storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of belief systems, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.  Theater is like magic in the fantastical sense, we rely on illusions to invoke a spectacular idea in the imaginations of the audience.

I was not familiar with the idea that perhaps Macbeth has transformed into a superstition based on the idea that it is a show that frequently replaces unsuccessful productions.  It is very possible that this legend is the true reason behind why the play has become part of theater lore.  This is because Macbeth is a very popular production and you can always find it being performed during a production season, so I can easily see it replacing a show that didn’t prove to be popular.  If this is true, then Macbeth probably evolved into a superstition of bad luck because it has it’s origins in bad luck.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Signs

Signs from the Dead

My informant for this piece of folklore was recalling a time shortly after her father had died over two years ago. My informant, now 54, discussed with me a charm that she spotted that brought a sort of closure to his death. She told me that outside of her home window, just a week after her father’s death, she saw a Western Meadowlark, Oregon’s state bird, flying in her backyard.

My informant says that this specific bird seen incredibly rarely, and that she had never seen one before in her life, despite living in Oregon for over 40 years. Many cultures, my informant says, “believe that the dead send messages to their loved ones in a form that they are likely to recognize as a sign that they are on their journey and that all is well”. She says that her father loved birds, and throughout his life always had a birdfeeder in his backyard. She says that she and her only sister had grown up with a love of birds because of this, and shared a deep connection with their father on this topic.

“It must have been more than just a coincidence to have one of these rare birds even be spotted outside our home, let alone hang around for almost an hour flying in our yard for my family and I to see”, she said. Even more amazingly, her sister, who lives about an hour away, and is an “amateur birder”, had the same experience just a day later! My informant remembers being in awe when she spoke to her sister and they realized that they had both had the same experience with these birds. “What are the random chances of that?” asked my informant. “It must have been dad”.

She said that both her sister and her found that a sign from their father in the form of a meadowlark was “so appropriate” and that they believe that this was a sign sent down from him as a form of parting words or symbols.

My informant’s take on this occurrence was also grounded in reality, as well. “An openness to messages and miracles from beyond reveals some pretty comforting, awe inspiring experiences”, she said. It’s a way of comfort and of closure.

I agree with my informant in this case- the rarity of such an event, especially happening to both her and her sister, points to something supernatural occurring here. I believe that this folklore, of signs sent back from the deceased, likely dates back very far, possibly to the Native Americans and beyond, like my informant said. It is a way for those still living to find comfort in knowing that their loved one is safe in whatever new life they are leading now, depending on the beliefs of those who still live. I thought that this is a pretty phenomenal piece of folklore and example of it in action, and that it is important to share and archive for the future.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Russian Superstitions: Black Cats and Broken Mirrors

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “Ah well, one of I think, you know international superstitious things is defiantly with the cats. But if it is here it is just bad luck. But in Russia it actually means bad luck or even maybe very horrible disease.  If the black cat crosses the street you must spit over your right shoulder three times, and then the left. So it kind of cuts the curse. Also, I know that it means a disease or death in like, your closest circle of relatives or friends if you look at the broken mirror.  So actually, even if the mirror just cracked it means that you have to pick it up and through it outside of your house without looking at that.  Because for example, in Germany broken mirror means seven years of bad luck, but in Russia it means that everything is going to extreme. It’s like disease? No! Dead people.”

Interviewer: “Why do you think people in Russia are so superstitious?”

Informant: “Well of course, all those superstitious ideas come from pagan times, you know? And Russia was influenced by so many countries because at one point we had Vikings, we had Mongols ruling the country for almost… 12 and 13th century for more than 100 years. So all those influences I would say, they created… I don’t know. Maybe people were scared? And of course in Russia the weather conditions are pretty tough too. You know, living situations was always tough. So maybe people wanted to feel more protected or find reason of like why something bad happen to them.”

Analysis:

I agree with my informant’s analysis of Russian culture and superstition.  Life in Russia has historically been very difficult, due to both political and environmental reasons.  I believe that it is a basic human desire to try to make sense of your world, especially when things seem to beyond your control.  As my informant mentioned during the interview, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen.  Therefore people turn to superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.  I do not know why the superstition of black cats and broken mirrors appear in other cultures besides Russia.  The notion that a broken mirror is unlucky sounds logical, because broken objects have lost their use.  There is another related superstition in Russian culture that says giving someone a gift that is broken is unlucky as well.  Superstitions are a major aspect to Russian culture, and these beliefs are still present in the way people live today.

My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia).  On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach.  She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts.  She became a US citizen in 2012.

Annotation: The black cat superstition is also mentioned at this website, which also lists other Russian superstitions.
http://www.aerotranslate.com/russian-culture/russian-superstitions-in-everyday-life.html

 

 

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