Informant AV is my grandmother, who was born and raised in Florence, Italy. She moved to Croatia as a young adult and speaks Croatian and Italian fluently. “Živa istina” is a phrase used in the Croatian culture when someone sneezes while speaking the truth. It solidifes that the truth is being spoken as the person sneezes:
“The truth is alive!” or “The Living Truth!”
What kind of context is this phrase used in?
AV: “This phrase is used in the context of a spirited conversation where a person is trying to speak their truth about a very significant point. If a sneeze occurs while the person is making his or her point, then it is used as a substantiation of the truth.”
How did you learn about this phrase?
AV: “It’s a common phrased that has been used in my family for many many years.”
Does this phrase have any meaning to you?
AV: “Yes it does in that I say it ever time I or someone is trying to make a point in a conversation after they sneeze.”
This is a unique Croatian phrase that is used in cases where people are interacting with each other through discussion. It is believed that a sneeze during a conversation proved the truth of the statement.
The informant, LF, is a 45 year old woman who grew up in Panama. In Panama, there are a wide range of cultural influences, including American Indian, Spanish, Catholic, and Carribean traditions, each with their own superstitions. Here the informant tells a story about a superstition and a folk medicine tradition that affected her own family:
“So there is the belief that some people have what is called in Spanish, “Mal de Ojo”, and it means that you have so much intense energy in you that if you look at something that is weak, like, “Oh, what a beautiful flower!” that it will die. So “Mal de Ojo”, when it comes to babies, it is believed by some people in my country that is very dangerous because babies are vulnerable and defenseless. If you have that power in you and you look at a baby, even though you can be admiring the baby and thinking about how cute it is- if you have Mal de Ojo in you, you can kill this baby. Just by looking at the baby, the baby will get very sick, and they may even die.
So, I’m telling this story because it is so widely believed. And my parents say that it happened in my family- that it happened to my brother. I was really young when this happened so I don’t really remember. The only thing I remember is my brother getting a very bad fever and being taken to the hospital many times. He was really sick. They took him to several doctors and nothing worked. Finally, they took him to a witch.”
Your parents took your brother to a witch?
“Yeah, they were desperate! We are talking about people who believe in science! But they took him to a witch- the witch was a man- he said, “Lay him down on the bed.” And they did. The witch said “Do you see what I see?” My parents didn’t know what he was talking about. The witch said my brother was showing the telltale signs that he had been “hit” with Mal de Ojo- “one of his legs is longer than the other!” And when my parents looked at my brother, they swear- they swear to this day- that one of his legs was longer than the other.
At this point my brother was burning with fever. This man said that the only cure for Mal de Ojo was to go to the person with Mal de Ojo who had looked at the baby, and ask for a garment, like a shirt, and ask the person to urinate on the shirt. And while the urine was still hot, to wrap the baby in the shirt. He said that as the urine evaporated, the fever would break and the baby would get better. But my parents didn’t know who it was who had looked at him. My mom says that the day before my brother got sick, they had been at a public bus station with a lot of people and many people had been playing with him and looking at him.
I don’t remember the rest of the cure exactly. I know it involved a lot of praying and asking for Jesus to help the baby. They also had to get Holy Water from the priest and spray it on the baby. It involved all many elements from both official religion as well as from witchcraft. Eventually my brother got better, but what the medical doctor said was “Listen, there are so many viruses out there that kids get like stomach viruses or upper respiratory infections, and they get a bad fever for days. Since you can’t really treat a virus with antibiotics, you have to wait until the virus is over.” So I guess my brother had a virus like that and it was a coincidence that he got better right after they took him to the witch.”
So you heard this from your parents?
Yes, from my mom.
Was it something a lot of people did?
I do not know if a lot of people do it, but since there are witches who make a living out of this, I suspect it’s really generalized- the belief that you can go to one of these guys and tell them “my boy is sick and I need a cure” or “I’m in love with someone and I need a love potion”. So I suspect that many people believe in that kind of stuff, Personally, I don’t.
So what does this story mean to you?
It means that when people are desperate, they are willing to do anything and believe anything in order to get an answer, or get better, or to stop being scared.
Was this a story your parents shared with other people or was it kept in the family?
I think it was in the family. I think it was a bit of a secret. It wasn’t exactly a happy story that they wanted to share with everyone- it was very scary for them.
My thoughts: Before the Spanish came to America, many American Indian cultures had rich traditions of shamanism and folk medicine. Clearly, some supernatural beliefs and folk medicines still live on in Panamanian culture that have origins in the country’s native populations. While something like “Mal de Ojo” may not fit into Western medicine, I thought the commentary about the places where you might catch the illness- public, crowded spaces like bus stops- may have some truth to it. It is easy for an infant with a weak immune system to catch a contagious disease in a public place were many strangers are playing with them. So whether the explanation is founded in the supernatural or the scientific, there is definitely wisdom in this folk belief.
JN is a freshman at USC studying neuroscience. She grew up in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago. Here is a superstition from her childhood that she still remembers vividly:
“When I was little, some kids on the playground used to say “step on a crack, you break your mother’s back.” This would mean that, like, when you were walking on the sidewalk, by stepping on any of the cracks or divisions between the sidewalk pieces, you could potentially break your mother’s back. I was super worried about this, so I always made sure to tip-toe over the cracks! Now, I don’t really care anymore because I know it’s just a saying, but on occasion I still make sure not to step on any sidewalk cracks!””
Did you learn it from your other friends? What gender were they? At what age did you learn it?
“I definitely learned it from other friends, probably girls! And I learned it in early elementary school.”
How seriously did you take this superstition? I remember I had friends who followed it religiously!
” I took it VERY seriously, but sometimes I would forget so I would definitely step on some cracks here and there!”
My thoughts: This is an interesting piece of folklore since so many people who went to elementary school in the U.S. have heard of it, no matter what part of the country their from. I actually grew up with this folk belief as well and I have an experience with it similar to the informant’s- I learned it from fellow girls on the playground at an elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago! One thing that stands out is how morbid the belief is- children’s folklore often engages with taboo subjects such as violence, as discussed in Oring Chapter 5.
Informant: I also refuse to step on the thresholds of houses, which is an Asian culture thing,, which is weird.
Person: Because it will break your mom’s back.
MG: No, that’s exactly what I was told. It’s a really weird thing because I am not Asian, but I was told that by one of my Asian friends when I was a kid. She was like “oh we can’t step on the threshold” and I was like okay. And then her grandmother, I asked her I was lke “why can’t we step on the threshold, like, grandma lady?” And she was like, “oh because it’s gonna break, like, Mrs. Woo’s back.” And I was like, “Sweet.” And to this day I still don’t do it, and my parents really don’t like it.
DH: They don’t like that you don’t do it?
MG: Well, they just, like, they just, they like—I avoid it to, like, a point where they’re like this is annoying. Like, we’ll all be walking into the house at the same time, and I like have to step over it, and sometimes it takes me longer, I like cause a bit of a jam, and they’re like, why.
Collector: Wait, how do you mean the threshold?
MG: You know when you like open a door, and there’s like, that, slightly higher piece of wood that keeps the door from like just like sliding in and out? That’s a threshold. So you can’t step on it because it’s like “don’t step on the crack, you’ll break your mom’s back.” The same type of thing, but with the threshold of your door.
Informant is a junior at the University of Southern California. She is studying communications here. She is from Boston, Massachusetts. She spent a while in the southern part of Spain, and speaks fluent Spanish. I spoke to her while we were eating lunch at my sorority house one day. We were sitting together with some of my other informants. Much of what she told me was learned from her own experiences.
This is interesting because it combines a proverb type of saying with a practice this informant learned from a Chinese friend of hers. It’s interesting to see how older traditions and superstitions travel around through ages and places to become a common saying that kids use. When I was a child, I knew the saying about breaking your mother’s back, but I was not aware that this applied to any type of threshold. This also almost has a connection to vampire myths and how they need to be invited in before crossing the threshold of a home. She takes longer to get into houses because of this limitation.
For an example of this, https://books.google.com/books?id=5mU5dN3mDeIC&pg=PA65&lpg=PA65&dq=chinese+stepping+over+threshold+to+a+house&source=bl&ots=YaQVvHlkSb&sig=nTaz_Omz-JYjPrbqe4KgxA4LGrA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjYm6iP27DMAhUilYMKHR7LAyAQ6AEIOTAG#v=onepage&q=chinese%20stepping%20over%20threshold%20to%20a%20house&f=false
This book has a section on etiquette and it says to never sit in the threshold, similar to the informant not stepping onto it.
“The superstition is that in a building if it has a 13th floor, it is bad luck to live on the 13th floor. Also I’ve heard that elevators will drop once it hits the 13th floor. That is why there is the Tower of Terror at California Adventures in Anaheim.”
When did you first hear about this?
“I first heard the superstition from my grandmother who is superstitious in very odd ways. Half of the superstitions she believes are bad luck and some of the bad luck superstitions are actually good luck. For this superstition, she owes a property and believes that the 13th floor is good luck. But when I investigated, most people think it is bad luck. I think it started when she was little and she had a black cat as a pet. There is a superstition that if a black cat crosses your path it is bad luck. But she had a blessed life and lived through WWII. And so she started believing that all bad luck superstitions may be good luck for her.”
Do you believe these superstitions?
“I don’t necessarily believe the black cat superstition or the 13th floor superstition as bad luck. If anything I believe my grandma that it may be good luck.”
What do you think this story means?
“I have a theory that the 13th floor superstition was created when skyscrapers were not popular and first being made and that if the building got too high it might fall over. Or it is not structurally stable enough.”
It seems as though luck plays a large role in Chinese culture and tradition. While this superstition is not originally Chinese, the informant’s grandmother played a large role in her interpretation of the story. The 13th floor and black cats are usually seen, especially in America, as omens of back luck and misfortune. However, the informant and her grandmother’s Chinese background influenced the way that they view these stories.
For more stories, information, and details about the 13th floor superstition and other number related stories, please visit:
Li, SHIRLEY. “Skipping the 13th Floor.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
“Never sleep with my hands crossed over my chest. She [informant's mom] would think Death would think I was dead by accident and take you away. And I would die. My mom was an intense old lady.”
In what situation would you hear this story?
“Right before bed because it was the most comfortable way I would fall asleep.”
Was there a way to counteract having your hands crossed?
“My mom would just move my hands apart [when he was asleep]. Maybe her mom told me. My mom was pretty superstitious. She was really religious. She believed in an afterlife and karma and was afraid we would be mistaken for some reason or another. That’s about it. She was the only one to believe.”
I think this superstition represents the informant’s, and his family’s, beliefs in death. According to the informant, death has the ability to take life whenever it believes someone has passed, and potentially when the person is not actually dead. This story also represents the fear in mistakes.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has kept an Evil Eye talisman hanging from the rear-view mirror of her car. During a celebration for my mother’s birthday, I pulled my grandmother aside and asked her the Evil Eye’s significance, following which she explained:
“Many years ago, two of my friends spent some time in Turkey. When they came home, they brought me an Evil Eye as a gift. All over Turkey, they put them outside of their door or inside of the car, and it is meant to ward off spirits by scaring them away. The superstition is that you cannot throw it away after someone gives it to you, that would be like inviting the evil spirits in. I have been in my car before and had people stop me and give me praise for keeping the Evil Eye visible, then show me where they keep theirs.”
I was somewhat familiar with the superstition surrounding the Evil Eye before talking with my grandmother, and knew that belief in the protection offered by one was prevalent in Greece. Hearing that her Evil Eye is from Turkey and that many other Americans have commented on the object (the informant, my grandmother, is from northern California), leads me to believe that this superstition is present in a great deal of cultures. Offering the object to someone as a gift encourages them to engage in the superstition surrounding it, because the object will remind the receiver of the giver while also supposedly serving as protection. Even if the owner of the Evil Eye does not necessarily have a deep-rooted belief in spirits, the object is significant in that it can offer a sense of comfort for the owner to suppress any worries that the spirits do exist, without the owner having to do anything more than keep the talisman somewhere close by. I myself am considering asking my grandmother for one to keep in my car, just in case.
The informant, a 66-year-old American woman, has practiced law for over thirty years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I asked the informant if she would be able to hold a video call with me over FaceTime, and during our conversation I asked if she or her partners had any superstitions or rituals that they would engage in before entering court. She responded that while she herself did not have any particular good luck charms or pre-trial rituals,
“both of my partners insist on wearing the same tie on the first day of court. Not for the actual trial, but for jury selection, because that’s most important. I’ve seen other firms with similar traditions on the first day of trial, and while I don’t take part, Peter and Charles swear by it.”
Folklore in the workplace is always extremely interesting to hear about, especially when individuals who have been working together for a long period of time have engaged in the same traditions throughout their careers. Wearing the same tie on the day of jury selection seems to signify that the two partners are both on the same entering the trial for a particular case. This silent agreement between the two could very well help them to perform better during jury selection, by providing a bit of necessary reassurance from a close coworker. It is interesting that while other firms engage in the same superstition, that they do not always do so at the same point in the trial. This speaks to the difference in value that any particular firm places on a specific point in the trial. While some, like the informant’s partners, may view jury selection as most important, others see the first day in trial as the point at which good luck is most necessary. I asked the informant why her partners chose a tie and not any other sort of matching accessory, and she replied, “Matching ties are the least obtrusive. If a group of attorneys were to walk into court all wearing bright blue suits and dresses, nobody would take them seriously.” The professional atmosphere required by the courtroom, then, plays a role in the manifestation of this superstition. Perhaps for a group of soccer players, a similar superstition would result in a team wearing identical cleats instead of ties.
Main Piece: “So I did ballet for many years and usually when someone has a performance, at least where I grew up, you would say ‘break a leg!’ to wish them luck. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know where it came from. But…um… in dance we were never allowed to say ‘break a leg’ because that was an actual concern when dancing. So instead we said ‘merde’ which literally means ‘shit’ in French. So…um…before every show we would always whisper ‘merde’ to each other to wish everyone luck”
Background: The informant did ballet for many years in her hometown, Chicago. Whether the expression is specific to Chicago or to the lore of ballet is unclear. The informant is fluent in French but most of her friends in ballet did not speak any French. However, the majority of ballet terminology (i.e. different positions and movements) is French.
Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table.
My Thoughts: I understand the expression as occupational folklore. Knowing and using ‘merde’ is a rite of passage within the context of ballet and performance. Perhaps “merde” is ballet’s adaptation of “break a leg” used in theatre. I also grew up taking lessons in ballet and performing, but have not heard this term, which leads me to believe it is a term specific to the informant’s studio. Because most of the language in ballet is French, it is fitting that the dancer’s lore would be French as well. Even though “merde” has little relevance to ballet, it is consistent with the linguistics of the ballet studio. According to the informant, “merde” was whispered before each performance, so not only is this folklore occupational, it is ritualistic as well.
“One day, my friend was very pale and talking in strange voices/tones. She was claiming that she was not herself and not in control of her body. And so, her friends took her to the hospital and they couldn’t find anything wrong. Then, one of the girls thought that getting a curandero was going to help her. He waived some plants over her and said some prayers. The demons quickly left, and she was fine after that. She doesn’t remember anything from when she was being possessed.”
In Panama, exorcisms are still quite common, as many still believe that they may be possessed by demons or The Devil himself. When someone appears to be possessed, a curandero (translates to healer) is hired to force the invaders out of the victim’s body. Usually, they tend to wave various plants and spices over the possessed in order to free them.
The informant, Jonathan Castro, is a 21-year-old student from Panama. Because until recently, he had spent his entrie life in Panama, he believes that he is well informed in Panamanian folklore. His friend was the one who introduced him to the practice of exorcisms after revealing her personal story to him. Jonathan does not believe that what she claimed is true, but he does know that she becomes genuinely uncomfortable when talking about the subject, as it brings back traumatic memories for her. To him, the whole event is just a remnant of the older and more religious Panamanian beliefs.
The story told by Jonathan is as great look into the folklore that has survived from Panama’s past. While Jonathan and the doctors at the hospital had a hard time believeing her story, Jonathan’s friend was convinced that an evil entity had entered her body and was eventually forced to leave. Evidently, even though certain beliefs may seem outdated, their lack of prevalence does not mean that they are completely gone.