USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Soul’
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The Whole Image (Soul Stealing and Microphones)

This friend of mine has always been one of the most superstitious people I know. Her childhood was split between two households, each with their own unique beliefs and superstitions. Having been quite close for the past few years, I’ve heard innumerable stories regarding strange folk-beliefs her parents taught her as a little girl. When I asked her about her superstitions and pulled out a microphone, she sealed her lips and wouldn’t explain until I’d turned it off. And first, I was a bit peeved, but by the end of her explanation, it made a lot more sense.

The following was recorded by hand during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“Okay so the reason I don’t speak into microphones, no actually don’t – no please don’t. I’ll hold it. I’ll explain it to you, it’s completely legitimate! Okay. So… I don’t believe in speaking into a microphone if there’s no image along with it because my personal spiritual beliefs have to do with the reflection and the way that a person is viewed by other people. Kind of like everyone has a projection, so if your projection doesn’t capture the whole picture it’s wrong. I’ll only be in a video if there’s sound and I’ll only speak directly if you can see me doing it. Think about the way people look at Instagram. If I show you Ben’s insta you only get 3% of his personality. As a means of calculating the projections I give off, I don’t get to know people that well, I’m really picky with people I get to know, and I’m picky with how I represent myself, so I’ve deleted my insta, and I don’t like posing for photos. I don’t like artificial projection, because it goes against my spiritual beliefs. Voice overs for movies are different. That’s acting out a character When representing yourself, I only like the whole image. I don’t take pictures.

 “Partly just growing up, a big part of misunderstanding and getting along with people is getting the whole picture. I grew up never getting the whole picture, I feel like it’s important to be as genuine as possible. If you’re allowing someone to see you and know you as a person, and you only give them a partial image, then, intrinsically, you’re setting yourself up to be stereotyped, and like, put into a box.

 “That’s why I hate telling people I’m vegan. It’s like, yeah, I’m fucking vegan, but I like chicken wings sometimes, you know? I hate being put into boxes because no one will ever kno- you don’t even know yourself. No one will ever know anyone. So why make it easier for people to assume that they can? I’m interested in things, but part of my spirituality is just lack of definition. I just think definition is so limiting… And I’ve also tripped on acid a lot, so I’ve felt more things than human existence. I also – I – Identity is complicated. I think people have crossover, but I don’t think – there’s absolutely no way that there’s a carbon copy of me somewhere else. There’s no way that anyone has a carbon copy. I don’t know. Now you get why I don’t like being recorded! I’ve had a lot of problems with this. In high school, I was – me and a couple of people were going to start a band, and then… we didn’t because I wouldn’t record. It was weird.

 “To go back to the question, I am like – I have depersonalization realization. It’s like a mental disorder. Everyone experiences it differently, but I have a separation between myself and what I make. My ankle for example – I just broke it, but I didn’t really process the pain immediately. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself, but I see a body that my soul is in. It’s kind of like Freaky Friday. I mean, nobody will ever know you. Your appearance has nothing to do with who you are. I don’t give a shit about my body. I don’t eat. I don’t feel hungry, or like feel anything. I only feel things in my brain. That’s why I live inside my brain. I mean I can feel you, but I’m not – it’s not like I don’t have nerves. I just live inside my brain.”

This superstition is fascinating to me, as it ties together a few more common superstitions and builds upon them while following a strange sort of dream-logic. Perhaps the most famous anecdote regarding soul theft and photography is famed Lakota tribal leader Crazy Horse never having his photograph taken. It’s quite common for many Native American and Australian Aborigines tribes to view photography as a fracturing and subsequent thievery of the soul, as the whole concept of photography is freezing a moment of time. However, my friend puts a whole new spin on this as she adds audio and video recordings to the mix. It’s fascinating to follow her complicated web of spirituality, and it really does make you think about how we define ourselves and those around us.

For more information on soul stealing and photography, check out: http://www.bigbanglife.org/?p=404

For a skeptical view of the same, check out: https://www.csicop.org/sb/show/soul_theft_through_photography

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Grandma Walking Stick

Item:

The informant’s great grandmother, a well-loved Argentinian woman, passed away when he was very young — at an age where he could only speak a little bit. He and his mother’s side of the family called her “Abuela Bastón”, or Grandma Walking Stick, for the distinct sound of her moving around with her trusty walking stick. After her death, there was a day where the family was sitting around, and the informant was nearly sleeping lying on his back. Suddenly, he sat up, pointed ahead, and exclaimed “Abuela Bastón! Abuela Bastón!”, claiming he heard the sound of the walking stick. It caused a bit of a reaction especially with his grandmother, who was very spiritual.

 

Context:

The grandmother (daughter of the deceased) was apparently very spiritual. She completely believed the informant was pointing at the spirit of Abuela Bastón only he could see. The rationale was that Abuela Bastón was there to check in on her great-grandson. While the informant doesn’t remember this incident, he does have vague memories of the sound of the walking stick during his youth. He doesn’t believe in ghosts or spirits but does respect the fact that it’s an important part of his family and culture, so he stays pretty objective about it so as not to offend.

 

Analysis:

It stands out the the informant, despite not really believing the spirituality of the situation, is motivated by cultural and familial respect to not refute that it was indeed a spirit. It’s also not quite a “ghost story” — more so a visitation from the spirit or soul of a recently dead family member. There wasn’t anything terribly haunting about it, and there wasn’t a visual component. Plus, it came from the mouth of a young child, although the clarity with which he suddenly woke up and spoke her name was uncharacteristic.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic
Protection

Sleeping on Stomach

Sleeping on stomach vs. on back

Superstition

 

My informant notified me that, according to his parents, sleeping face-down is bad.  His parents told him that sleeping face-up would prevent his soul from escaping his body while sleeping.

 

Both of my informant’s parents are Muslim, and he believes that is where the superstition comes from, but cannot recall where his parents learned it. He says they have told him that as a child, so he only sleeps on his back out of habit—not out of fear. He does not believe in the superstition at all, and only thinks of it when thinking of superstitions. When asked why the back is considered safer, he replied “I’m not sure. I think they believe souls escape out of the mouth, so I’m surprised sleeping face up would protect you.”

 

The orientation of the body may be related the position of Heaven in Islam: if the soul does manage to escape out of the mouth, it would go in the direction of heaven. Perhaps the fear is that the soul could be accessed from below, in which case devils would have a better chance of stealing the soul.

 

This superstition could also be founded in medical reasoning: sleeping face up protects the natural curvature of the spine. Also, this could assuage parent’s fears of accidental self-smothering, an attempt to prevent children from dying in their sleep.

Folk Beliefs

Thai folk belief: Butterflies carry souls

My informant had a personal experience with this folk belief while attending her grandmother’s funeral in Thailand. She and the other funeral-goers were kneeling in prayer in front of the Buddhist temple where the funeral was being held, when she noticed a black butterfly fly over her grandmother’s coffin as the monks chanted a sutra to help the soul pass on.

When my informant mentioned the butterfly to an aunt afterwards, the aunt told her that butterflies are containers for souls, and that they carry souls away. The timing of the butterfly’s flight, as well as the fact that she’d never seen a butterfly in Thailand before, convinced my informant of the validity of this folk belief.

My informant suggested that it may be comforting to someone mourning a death to equate their loved one, and maybe death itself, with a butterfly, which is almost universally considered to be beautiful and graceful.

The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism, which rejects the idea of an unchanging self or soul, and so the soul’s flight in the butterfly could be considered the luminal stage between death in one body and reincarnation in the next. Also, while human/alive, we can’t fly—it could be exciting to think that in death, we are able to rise beyond the limitations of our past human bodies.

Folk Beliefs
general

Chinese Religious Folk Practice – Calling the Soul

This folk practice was collected from my Father. My father was born as a farmer’s son into a veteran’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. His father and mother ran away from China to Taipei during the Chinese Civil War. Many of his cultural practices and beliefs are taken from mainland Chinese culture. Because of his background, he is considered a “mainlander” in Taiwan (Chinese in Taiwan are divided into Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese or indigenous). My father graduated from Iowa University with an MBA. His B.A was obtained in Taiwan.

When we were having our regular telephone session, he told me the following recollection on the phone in Chinese when we were talking about a few strange police cases in the past:

(This is not a direct transcription or translation. It’s based off what I remember him saying)

” When a man dies or goes missing in the mountains or river, and the police can’t find his corpse, they’ll always resort to calling his spirit as part of the investigation, like a sort of last resort. The police will take a taoist sorcerer and the missing man’s family, along with some of his possessions such as clothes, into the mountains or river; anywhere, closest to where the man went missing. The Taoist sorcerer will then perform a ritual and ask the family to call out the man’s name while holding out his clothes;  this practice is called the “calling of the soul”…. The family usually continues this “calling of the soul” until the body is found. And usually, right after this ritual is performed, the missing man’s corpse will actually appear or the police will find the corpse somewhere in the next few days. You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. Many cases have been solved in this fashion! You see it on the news all the time.”

When I asked my father the significance of this practice, he said:

“There is a traditional Chinese belief that a person’s soul stays on earth for a week before it leaves. The police ask the taoist sorcerer and the family members of the deceased to perform this ritual because the police have faith in this belief.”

I believe my father is quite right in the significance of this practice. The police and the people involved truly believe in this folk practice and they actually perform the “calling of the soul” as a last resort, after all the help that modern science and technology can give, to find the body of the deceased/missing family member. While I am not in any place to judge whether or not the folk practice of calling the soul or this folk belief is true or not, the fact stands that it has worked before, which furthers the belief in this tradition. Moreover, the idea of this practice appearing on the news as something legitimate the police do reveals the deep-set beliefs in the supernatural and the particular idea about the afterlife that Chinese culture have. This item also shows that despite the modernization of China and Taiwan, there still remains a heavy belief in the supernatural superstitions, practices and beliefs that were passed down generation to generation.

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