USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Superstition’
Legends

The Albino Squirrel

Text: RB: So, squirrels are kind of famous on the UT campus because they try to get as close to you as possible, they will eat out of your hands, and stop in front of cars and dare people to run them over. Basically they are so used to people that they’ve gone crazy. But there is one albino squirrel, the only one in all of UT. And if you see the albino squirrel right before you take a test, you’re gonna get 100% on that test. Or if you see it right before finals week, you’ll pass all your finals.

AT: Have you ever seen this squirrel?

RB: I’ve never seen the squirrel. It’s really sad.

Context: RB is a freshman at the University of Texas studying aerospace engineering. During orientation, she heard a lot of folklore about the campus, including the piece above. The stories told to her at orientation continue to be confirmed and retold during interactions with current students. The interaction above took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break from our respective universities, swapping campus legends.

Interpretation: This legend is interesting because is encompasses a lot of possible distinctions that exist when examining legends. For one, the albino squirrel itself is a legendary creature that serves as an omen of good fortune and engages with themes of luck. Also, the legend described above can be categorized as a local legend, for it is situated in one spot; the University of Texas at Austin’s campus. Additionally, though the legend is still a legend in that its truth value remains questionable, (the effectiveness of said squirrel sighting can not be confirmed by the informant) the existence of an albino squirrel in a place famous for the propagation of squirrels does not seem too far-fetched.

I also find it interesting that the folk beliefs associated with this legend/legendary creature correlate so strongly with things related to specifically college campuses such as good grades and squirrels. UT serves as the perfect breeding ground for this legend, regardless of whether or not if it is backed up by actual sightings. It would be very easy to believe. Lastly, the use of magic is often employed in situations where people feel a lack of control. The fact that merely laying eyes of this squirrel will magically gift you with an A+ seems fitting in situations that involve test taking, where students often experience the sensation of a lack of control over their future.

Customs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Driving on Eggshells

Context: Following a conversation I was having with my father about warding off the evil eye, I asked him about another ritual we often performed – specifically, whenever one of our family members got a new car. 

 

Background: Persian culture often uses different foods, herbs, or spices as symbols. The egg often represents fertility, rebirth, or something new. In this case, the egg is used to celebrate the new while simultaneously keeping away the evil eye for that new endeavor. This ritual is a different way of warding off the evil eye, practiced in instances of large purchases.

 

Main Piece: “Persians are very superstitious and sensitive when they talk about anything very good happening or having something expensive. They are nervous about other people judging them or cursing them. So any time one of you gets a new car, I take out the eggs and I start drawing the circles. The circles are supposed to represent an eye, or the evil eye I guess. I think in my head to myself of anybody I can think of off the top of my head that would look at us with a negative energy because of our purchase. I draw as many as I can in place of those people, and say their names while I draw the circles and say a prayer that the new car won’t bring a bad fortune. After I finish drawings, I put the eggs in a paper bag and I usually have you drive to a different street from our house, put the eggs in front of the wheels of the car, and tell you guys to drive over it. It sounds a little silly. But the idea is that you shatter any possible evil eyes that would come your way for getting this car. It’s for precaution, just to ensure protection and good luck.”

 

Analysis: The notion of the evil eye is particularly sensitive for the Persian community. Persians have a number of different rituals that they perform to ward it off depending on the circumstance and situation. This one in particular ties to significant purchases. Some others are burning sage, hanging an evil eye charm in the vehicle, or keeping prayer books within the car.

 

Folk Beliefs
Myths
Protection

The Red String

Context: I noticed a friend had tied a red string tied around their wrist. As a Jew, I knew that many people who visit Israel usually come back with red strings from Jerusalem. However, my informant does not identify with any religion, so I was curious to ask how he came across one. In the piece, my informant is identified as K.G. and I am identified as D.S.

 

Background: The red string is a part of Jewish and Kabbalah folk traditions surrounding the idea of Ayin Hara, or the evil eye. It’s historically believed that tying the red string on your wrist will ward off bad luck or negative fate. The string is worn to protect many different things. In some instances, it’s used to protect the fertility of a woman, protection in times of war, and others use it to make a wish. Despite the circumstance, it is to be worn until it falls off naturally.

 

Main Piece:

DS: “How did you get the red string? I always get those when I’m in Israel”

KG: “Honestly I ordered a bunch of these online, there’s a Rabbi from Jerusalem that sells them in L.A.”

DS: “But you’re not Jewish, what inspired you to get one of these?”

KG: “Yeah, I know, but you know it’s never about religion for me. I got it for all the evil eye stuff and all that but it has a different meaning for me. There’s a lot of bad habits I have. I feel like I talk badly about people a lot and gossip, among other things. When I look at it or feel it on my wrist it’s a little reminder for me to do better. To stop engaging in these tendencies I have that I absolutely hate and want to change. I definitely wanted it as protection especially now that I’m doing really well at work, but it’s also for myself and to remind me to be better and do better, so that I can be the best version of myself and put my bad habits behind me”

 

Analysis: While the red string has an ancient and historic ritualistic tradition behind Jewish folklore, I found it very interesting that someone who has no tie to any religion was using it for his own purpose. I found it refreshing for someone to take a piece of another culture’s folklore and adapting it to make it their own, especially as an aspect for self reflection and improvement.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Warding off the Evil Eye

Context: One night at home I decided to ask my dad for an explanation behind a cultural ritual he had performed almost every single week for as long as I can remember, and was preparing to perform that night. It’s a process using a spice called Esfand.

 

Background: In Iran, Esfand is used to ward off the evil eye. This is a generations-old ritual that has been passed down for hundreds of years. The idea is to burn the spice, and the smoke and popping sounds from the burning are said to burn away the evil eye.

 

Main Piece: “Persians are very superstitious people. Iranians have always been very successful for the most part and it’s a little natural for us to think someone would want to curse us if we are doing well or better than them. Most of your friends from growing up are Persian too so I’m sure they know all about it too. Persian people are a lot of the time looked at as being very flaunty or extravagant, and they are sometimes, but as a culture most people are very conservative about sharing achievements or very exciting news. It’s looked down upon to brag about good fortunes that you are having. I don’t think you even notice but sometimes when our family is out or at parties and someone was giving you or [your siblings] a certain look or a compliment me or mom would say a little prayer until we could get home and do Esfand. I think it could be a myth that there are people that really have an evil eye. But I think there are definitely people who act a certain way but inside don’t mean well for you, or give off a very negative energy that you shouldn’t have around you. So you burn it away. I put the esfand in my hand and I start with a prayer. I circle it around my head, mom’s head, and all of your heads a few times, chanting the same prayers asking for protection. I wave it all around the house. Then I take the foil and put it over the stove, and I put the esfand from my hand on it, and I let it burn until it’s done. It burns the negative eyes and thoughts from others.”

 

Analysis: The concept of the evil eye is definitely not tied specifically to the Persian culture. It’s interesting to look at how each culture or religion carries out their ritual against this superstition. Some knock on wood, some throw salt, some wear evil eye jewelry, but Persians choose to physically burn it away.

 

Annotation: For more on the notion of the evil eye in Persian and Middle Eastern culture, reference to:

Spooner, B. (2004). 15. The Evil Eye in the Middle East. In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (pp. 311-320). New York, NY: Routledge.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Protection

Wet Hair and Headaches

Context:

While out during the weekend, the I was discussing beliefs and where they might have come from with a group of friends. While talking and after hearing some examples of superstitions, the informant brought up several superstitions he heard as a kid.

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

 

S: Apparently, according to my mom, sleeping with wet hair will give you a headache the next morning. Not sure what it is… it’s just something that I was taught.

 

Analysis:

This belief is one that deals with things not to do. I have also heard of variations of this idea. One that I have heard is that sleeping with wet hair will make you sick. Different cultures find the idea of sleeping with wet hair to be something to be avoided but provided different, plausible reasons for doing so.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs

Hold Your Breath Around Strangers

Context:

We began talking while walking from class to lunch when he told me something his mother told him about strangers.

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

 

S: I’m not sure if this counts as a belief but when I was young, I was told that strangers have this scent that would mind control me, so whenever I walked past a sketchy looking stranger I’d hold my breath.

 

C: *laughing That’s awesome. Where’d you hear that?

 

S: My mom *chuckling

 

C: What do you think it means?

 

S: Like why did my mom tell me that?

 

C: Yea

 

S: Like.. to be careful around strangers.

 

Analysis:

As children, we are often told to be wary of strangers and to never follow people that we don’t know because it can be very dangerous. Though I heard a lot of things like “stranger danger,” this is the first time I have heard this particular lesson being taught this way. The idea of holding your breath is not new to me, however, because I hold my breath while in a tunnel after seeing my friend do it. He told me to do it because the air in tunnels is bad for one’s health. It’s interesting that these two seemingly different beliefs use the same idea of holding one’s breath to stop something bad from happening to them.

Folk Beliefs

Whistling and Snakes

Context:

The informant is a student currently attending Pierce Community College. He recounts a Korean story told to him by his parents when he was younger and giving his parents a tough time.

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

continuing from another conversation about superstitions

S: Also, there’s another one that goes: If you whistle at night, snakes will appear.

 

C: That’s interesting. Can you give some reasons why people might believe that?

 

S: The whistling is more about not to disturbing others and to keep to yourself during the night.

 

Analysis:

Superstitions have a long-standing place in folklore around the world. Each culture imparts their own belief about what they deem important. This superstition about whistling at night draws on the idea that doing so will summon snakes – a symbol often associated with evil or bad. It is interesting to see how many areas share a commonality in symbols.

Folk Beliefs

No Mirror Facing You When You Sleep

Context: The collector interviewed the informant (as XZ) for superstitions. The informant is a USC student from Los Angeles. Her parents are from China. The conversation was in the collector’s dorm room When the informant saw a mirror on the collector’s bookshelf, she came up with the following folk belief.

 

 

Main Piece:

Never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep.

 

XZ: My parents told me never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep. Because when you are sleeping, your soul, this is so funny, I don’t really believe it, is above your body and moves around. So if you have a mirror facing you when you are sleeping, your soul will look into the mirror and get confused. So it will, like, not go back to your body.

XZ: My parents just told me the story. They think it’s funny. But some people really believe in this. They never put mirrors where mirrors reflect their bed.

 

The informant doesn’t think it is an Asian folk belief but rather an American one. She said that she didn’t believe the saying, but when asked about whether she would put a mirror against her bed, she answered no.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Reflection of the real world in the mirror is a common topic of folk belief. There seem to be an underlying fear of the other self in the reflection, which threatens the exclusivity of self in the real world.

This folk belief also involves the topic of body and soul separation, and the process of sleeping. In this folklore, the connection between the soul and the body is unstable. The soul can get lost easily.

Legends
Magic
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Menstrual Blood in the Food

Background

Location: Tarzana, CA

Informant: M.S. - Black, female hairstylist in her late 20’s, born and raised in Los Angeles but has family in New Orleans, LA

Context

Overheard in a hair salon in Tarzana, California. M.S. is a stylist that was working at the salon, speaking to her client. Told in the context of Louisiana witchcraft. The collector has heard this piece of folklore told many times before this encounter.

The Bayous of Louisiana are well known to the locals for being places of witchcraft practice and voodoo. Many local wives-tales revolve around the idea of this witchcraft having real effects. I have summarized the telling in my own words below

 Main Piece

The tale goes that if a woman wishes to “keep” a man, or ensure that she and the man will stay together romantically, she should put her menstrual blood in his food while she is cooking and serve it to him. This will create a mystical and unbreakable bond that influences the man to stay as her partner.

Thoughts

I have personally heard this wives tale told to me from members of my family that still reside in Louisiana. The folklore itself points to both an interest in Louisiana witchcraft and the belief that those methods can be employed by common folk to help them achieve certain goals, specifically when relating to other people and controlling them through supernatural means.  Stories like this circulate and are based in areas of Louisiana that are known for witchcraft, specifically Black, female witchcraft. The informant seemed to tell the story as though she believed there was some merit to the idea of witchcraft, as she expressed that it would be foolish to attempt witchcraft as it could have dangerous effects on the “caster.” It is a common held belief in Louisiana that witchcraft is not to be trusted and should be treated with caution.

Folk Beliefs

Right/Left Eye Twitches

Text: “It is believed somewhere I don’t know where that if your left eye twitches that means something good will happen and if your right eye twitches something bad will happen. I never really believed this or looked into it until there have been multiple cases where you could say it is hindsight bias, but to me it is the way this superstition works. After my right eye twitched the first two cases: I played my best volleyball game, I got an A on a test. Some left eye twitches included falling and getting hurt, arguments with my family, and just small things in general that are either positive or negative.”

 

Context: The subject is a Chinese-American female from Palo Alto, California. She is one of my peers at USC and I asked her casually if she had any superstitions. She then proceeded to tell me this one that she believes because she thinks it has successfully predicted whether good or bad things were going to happen to her.

 

Interpretation: I thought this was an interesting superstition that I had never heard before. I don’t necessarily believe it’s true, especially considering what the informant mentioned about “hindsight bias”. Because she had already heard about the superstition, she was actively taking note of good things that happened to her after her right eye twitched. Because she was so eagerly looking for something good to happen, she could have easily missed or ignored any bad things that happened to her that day. The same goes for after her left eye twitched; she was so intent on identifying bad things that happened to her that day that she could have easily ignored the good things. Although getting into an argument could have seemed bad on the day when her left eye was twitching, it could have seemed mundane on the day when her right eye was twitching.

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