USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Superstition’
Folk Beliefs

Pregnancy Craving Beliefs

Main Text:

DC: “When you are pregnant and you begin to crave a specific type of food, you must eat the type of food you are craving or else the baby will be born with the face of that food”

Collector: ” When you were pregnant with your son, did you ever ignore a food craving?”

DC: “Yeah, but nothing really happened” *laughter*

Context:

DC is a Mexican woman who immigrated to the United States and has one five year old son. DC mentioned before she told me this belief that when she was pregnant, her mother always told her not to ignore her cravings and she remembers it because of how bizarre it actually is. Despite this being just another folk belief in her eyes, today she continues this belief and mentions it to her friends or family whenever they mention that they are craving a specific food while pregnant. When asked why she continues to pass this belief along, DC responded that it encourages people to eat more when they are pregnant and not feel bad about the “weirdness” and the “changes” that their body is experiencing. She said that she likes to make people feel comfortable while they are pregnant and that sometimes this belief can just be for good humor if someone needs to hear it.

Analysis:

The idea behind cravings in general is a way for your body to tell you what food it needs or what nutrients it is lacking. To couple this with pregnancy, I believe that this folk belief was a way to address the needs of the baby and to make sure that it is also getting all the nutrients it needs from the mother. Another way to analyze this belief relates to the culture of the informant. Growing up in a hispanic family, one is usually encouraged to indulge at family dinners and to specifically not waste food. This in part can be explained by the limited resources of a developing country where water, food and money are very important life aspects.Either way, this belief is passed along by hispanic families who encourage others to indulge in their meals as well as not to waste anything, and both of these aspects would be fulfilled by a pregnant woman satisfying her cravings. Hispanic culture is also one that values new children to a high regard so in a sense I think that this folk belief is representative of the value placed on the birth of new children in that it encourages protecting and fulfilling all of the needs of an unborn child.

Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Black Cats Superstition

Main Piece:

“Black cats are bad luck.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 19-year-old female. I asked my informant if she knew of any superstitions people live by.  To this, she responded,  “black cats are bad luck.” My informant does not remember when she first heard this superstition, but she thinks it was around the time of Halloween. She claims she also saw it in a tv show she watched as a child called, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In the show, the black cat was friends with the witch. The informant states that a black cat is a sign that something bad is going to happen. For example, if you are going somewhere and you see a black cat it means something bad will happen in the near future. The informant recalls,

“One time I was driving in the car with a friend and her dad, can’t remember who it was, but we saw a black cat crossing the road and my friend’s dad turned around and drove the other way. My friend says that every time her dad is driving, and he sees a black cat he has to turn around and take an alternate route.”

The informant says she does not believe this is true and feels bad for black cats because everyone thinks they are evil.

I too have heard this superstition that black cats are bad luck. It is interesting to note the association with color. The color black is often used when referencing fear, mystery, evil and death. All of these themes are common around the time of Halloween, so it makes sense the informant believes to have heard this superstition around that time. One also wears black to a funeral to represent the mourning of a loved one. Therefore, seeing a black cat by the color alone can imply death. Death is a mysterious subject terrifying for many people. The black cats’ color can be enough to make people fear the superstition. Cats are also animals that hold a lot of mystery. Often it is said cats have nine lives. This makes the superstition that black cats are bad luck even more fascinating because if the color black is associated with death, and cats have nine lives, could this have some sort of implication that cats can take lives? An intriguing relationship to note.  When looking into this superstition I also found a reference to it in the book Fearful, Spirits, reasoned follies the boundaries of superstition in the late medieval Europe by Michael David Bailey. He also speaks of the association cats have with demonic beings and magical connections.

Bailey, Michael David. Fearful Spirits, Reasoned Follies the Boundaries of Superstition in Late Medieval Europe. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Pass the Salt Superstition

Main Piece:

“It is bad luck to hand someone the salt without setting it down on the table first to break the connection.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 47-year-old female. She says she first heard this superstition when she was having dinner with a couple of friends.  They were enjoying dinner when one of the ladies asked for the salt.  The person closest to the salt picked up the salt shaker and handed it to the person who had asked for the salt. The lady who had asked for the salt was reluctant to take the salt from the other person’s hand.  She then asked if it could be set down at the table because she did not want to take the salt shaker from the other person’s hand. The lady who had passed the salt asked why she had to set it down. The other lady responded that it was bad luck to pass the salt from one hand to another without setting it down first. My informant says she has since adopted the superstition claiming there is no harm in following the tradition and likes to think she is avoiding bad luck. I asked my informant where she thinks this superstition began, to this she responded she is unsure, but she thought it had something to do with the Jewish faith because the people she has encountered that strictly follow this superstition are Jewish.

I had heard this superstition before but was curious to know where it originates from and why this is the case. In looking into this superstition I found countless of other superstitions, beliefs, and traditions about salt. Such as the bad luck implied with spilling the slat on the table, and if one does so then they must immediately pick up a pinch of the salt and throw it over their left shoulder. It is also believed salt is a protector and would keep away evil spirits. To keep an unwanted visitors away some believed that if one sprinkles salt at the door right after they leave then sweep it up and burn it they will not return. I also discovered a belief in Buddhist tradition making it common to throw salt over your shoulder when returning home or after a funeral to keep the evil spirits away.

After finding so many beliefs about salt I looked into those related particularly just to the Jewish faith following my informant’s intuition this was a Jewish belief. To my surprise, there were also other Jewish superstitions related to salt. These included placing pockets of salt in the corners of a room or the pockets of clothing to drive evils away(myjewishlearning.com), and throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilled the salt. The likely reason for so many salt superstitions and beliefs is likely due to the value of salt in the Middle Ages. Salt was extremely rare and expensive therefore the thought of spilling it would be unspeakable; similarly to spilling a bag of miniature diamonds in current day standards(something of very high value). In Judaism salt seems to have positive connotations. It is customary to sprinkle it over the challah(ceremonial Jewish bread) and is used as a preserver making what it touches last forever, elevating its status (jtsa.edu).

I found it very difficult to find any information about the passing of the salt specifically. The most common salt superstition I found was about spilling the salt. I can’t seem to recall where I heard this but remember someone mentioning passing the salt being a taboo due to the high value of salt. Therefore setting the salt down before the other person picks it back up acts as breaking the connection between the holder of the salt and the person who is about to hold it. Therefore, if anyone spills the salt it will be clear whose fault it was. Whoever picks the salt back up is now responsible for the salt. This eliminates any debate or misplacing of fault if the salt is spilled.

“SPILLING SALT.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1876-1904), vol. XI, no. 4, 04, 1881, pp. 413. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/136551260?accountid=14749.

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/popular-superstitions/

http://www.jtsa.edu/sprinkling-salt-on-the-challah

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Game
general
Myths
Protection
Signs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

American Street Crack Superstition

Main Piece:

“Step on a crack and break your mom’s back”

Context and Analysis:

The informant claims the superstition is common knowledge. When asked when she first heard it she insisted not knowing when she picked it up, she just assumed it was common knowledge, “Everyone knows that when you are walking, you are not supposed to step on a crack it’s just what everyone says.” The informant does not know where the superstition originates from. The informant does not believe this superstition is true and therefore she does not apply it to her daily life. The informant states, “I know it is not true because I have stepped on a lot of cracks and nothing has happened.”

Like most superstitions, this one uses the threat of something valuable to encourage people to follow it. If something valuable is at stakes many times even if people do not believe in the superstition they will follow it to avoid any potential curse. This superstition emphasizes the dangers of stepping on a crack which can lead to breaking your mother’s back.

It is interesting to note the informant’s belief that this superstition is known worldwide. Often when someone does not know the origin of where something comes from or if they heard it at an early enough age, they assume everyone is familiar with the same things they are. Due to the understanding my informant has of the superstition I want to infer she heard it when she was in her early childhood years.

I also think it is important to note my informants reasoning as to what makes this superstition relevant. She states ‘everyone’ knows this. By emphasizing the use of a lot of people following a tradition or employing a saying, this gives any work reliability and validation.

There also seems to be a correlation with how difficult the superstition is to follow and how many people follow it. Many people follow superstitions when it does not inconvenience them. Therefore, when you have a superstition like this where it takes a lot of effort to avoid cracks everywhere one goes, it is less likely people will follow it.  Among children, this superstition can act as a game where a child will aim to avoid the cracks on the pavement and if he fails the punishment is the belief that his or her mom’s back will be broken.

Proverbs

A Sailor’s Proverb: Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning

The following is CL’s interpretation of the proverb, “Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight,” in a conversation.

 

“Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight”:

 

CL: The reason why [it’s called this] is [the following]. So, think sailors setting out to port at the first daylight; if the sky was red in the morning, that meant there was a lot of dust in the air and there was a chance that as you got out to sea, you’d get rained on because of the thickness in the air. So, if you got into a storm, it was bad for the sailor. Red sky at night meant it would be safe sailing because it would probably rain that night, and in the morning, you could set sail; you’d be safe to leave the port.

 

EK: Interesting, so where did you learn this from?

 

CL: That is an old, old story, and I think it probably goes back to the middle ages or before. I don’t know if it’s European in nature or if it’s something that was developed here. I learned it from my mother, though, who for some reason knew everything about sailing and sailing stories.

 

EK: So, what does this story mean to you, then?

 

CL: Well I’m not really much of a sailor, I just know the proverb exists. The closest tie I have to it is from my mother, so I guess it connects me to her in some way. I’m not sure if it’s still implemented today, but I’d imagine it is or was a pretty big superstition for sailors.

 

My Interpretation:

I’ve never heard this proverb before, most likely because I’ve never come in contact with a sailor. It could be true, or maybe it was something only used back in the day, before new technology has allowed us to set sail during a little rain or thunderstorm. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a red sky; it’s possible that the redness could be from pollution- I’ve heard that the deeper the sunset, the more particles from pollution. However, it is interesting to me that this is/was such a superstition for sailors. I can only assume that in past times they would have had to be more careful when setting sail because they didn’t have the knowledge of the seas or technology that they do today that could have given them more peace of mind and less uncertainty in their travels.

general

A Smoker’s Superstition

The following is a conversation with CL that describes his interpretation of a superstition found among smokers.

 

CL: As the story goes, back in World War One, there were three soldiers, I don’t know what army they were fighting for or whatever, but they were all in a trench and they were going to have a cigarette, but they only had one match. So, they lit the match, and the first soldier got his cigarette lit. And across the way, there was another soldier watching and saw the light, so he aimed his rifle at the light. And the second cigarette got lit with the next soldier, and that time the soldier across the way took aim. And then the third soldier got his cigarette lit, and the soldier across the way fired and killed all three soldiers. So, it has become unlucky to light three cigarettes off the same match.

 

EK: Interesting, so do you partake in this superstition yourself?

 

CL: Absolutely. To this day you’ll find people that will- guys sitting around having cigarettes will give a light to one person with a lighter, and then a second person, and then will stop the light and light the third cigarette with a different lighter. But to this day, I’m not sure if this soldier story is true or not, but smokers partake in it all the time.

 

EK: So where did you here this from, other than just being a smoker yourself?

 

CL: That comes down to me from my mom who told me that story when I was much younger. And yeah, I use it myself, so I guess that’s what it means to me, haha.

 

My Interpretation:

As a non-smoker, I’m not familiar with this superstition. However, several family members of mine are smokers and do partake in this superstition, though as I’ve asked around, not many know the root of the superstition like CL. Though I find the superstition to be strange, I think that smokers find the superstition very serious. I assume that they believe that if they don’t follow this rule, that a variety of bad things associated with smoking could happen to them. Happenings such as dropping the match and everything catching on fire, getting lung cancer, or maybe even just losing your lighter or box of cigarettes, would all be motivation for a smoker to follow through on this superstition, because it’s not worth the chance that these things could happen.

Legends
Myths
Tales /märchen

The Legend of the Fox in Japanese Culture

The following is a conversation with SS that details her interpretation of the legend of the fox in Japanese culture.

 

SS: So, in Japan the fox is called ‘Kitsune,’ and in a lot of stories and literature and folklore, the fox is, like, a bad omen. In a lot of narratives, if characters are traveling and come across a fox, they’ll turn back or go a different direction. They’re also known to shapeshifters, so they can turn into humans. There’s actually one story about these two men who are travelling, and one is always suspicious of the people they come across on the road, thinking that they’re all foxes out to get them, that they, like, are just foxes transformed into humans. So, it’s almost like a supernatural creature, especially in the Early-Modern period of Japan.

 

EK: What do you make of this legend of the fox, then, as you grew up in Japan?

 

SS: Foxes were one of those things that were worshipped on everyday level, not really in religion, but more of just like a folk practice, to bring things like successful business and so on. You can see little local shrines or like little houses with tiny fox figures in them, so I think it’s all over the place, this belief in foxes. I think it reflects the, kind of, way that foxes can be sneaky, you know like ‘sly as a fox,’ sort of thing.

 

My Interpretation:

In my experience with literature and different cultures, foxes seem to be a mischievous character, especially in Japanese folklore. They can either be a friend or foe, depending on how you treat them/the circumstances that you run into them. They tend to be trickster characters. Like SS said, we even have the saying “sly as a fox.” How the Japanese look at the fox during travel reminds me of how the Irish look at black cats as a bad omen before travel.

I’ve never heard of the fox being able to shapeshift into human form nor being worshipped like they are in Japan, though. It seems like Japanese culture sees a power in the fox that other cultures don’t. They view the creature as something that could either give them a gift of wisdom or trick them in some way, therefore they pay their respects to the animal through worship so as to make sure they aren’t tricked.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Muslim Traveling Superstition

Main Piece (direct transcription):

Mom: Before dad and I went on our honeymoon to Madrid, dad’s mom held up the Quran, and so did his grandmother, and we actually had to walk underneath the Quran to prevent anything evil from happening to us in our travels.

Me: It wasn’t just for the plane; it was for all of your travels?

Mom: Well, they didn’t state it, but I felt it was like their way of confirming that our trip would be as safe as possible.

 

Context: The informant, my mother, is a pharmacy administrator living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  She was originally born in New York but moved to New Mexico with her family at a young age.  Her father, a playwright and artist, was invested in his Native American heritage.  From her travels around New Mexico, moving from place to place when she was young, and also hearing stories from her father and my father, who is from Iran, she has gathered a variety of folktales.  My dad is originally from Iran, and all his family members are also from Iran, so my mom and I were talking about Iranian superstition and folklore that my mom has experienced while being married to him.  Since my grandmother is heavily Muslim, and is a very superstitious woman, my mom has learned about most Iranian superstitions through her.

 

 

My Thoughts: This is interesting because it is my mom’s, who is American, viewpoint on Iranian superstition.  Even though my grandma and my great-grandma did not explain to my mom why they wanted them to walk under the Quran before their travels, my mom was able to guess the purpose of it.  Although different cultures have their own superstitions, I feel like many feelings of superstition and fear are universal.  This superstition made me think about how different individuals express different feelings of things such as fear, excitement, and happiness.  People in America might say, “Have a safe flight!” or “Safe travels!” before a major trip such as a honeymoon; however my Iranian family wanted my parents to walk underneath a Quran to express this sentiment.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Korean Electric Fan Superstition

Main Piece (direct transcription):

M: “Okay, so there’s this like…It’s not really a superstition, but…back when the electric fan first came out [in South Korea], there was this news article that came out saying that if you slept—or if you were just in a room with a closed door—and the fan kept running, like you’d run out of like… (laughter) clean air, or oxygen, and you’d die.  So now people don’t like sleeping with fans running.”

Me: “So it was all derived from a newspaper article?”

M: “Apparently, I haven’t actually seen the source, but like, you just don’t sleep with your fan running or you die.”

Me: “Do most people believe that?”

M: “Yeah, in South Korea, because they think you’ll die.”

 

Context: The informant, M, is a 19-year-old USC student originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her mom is originally from South Korea and is the source of her knowledge about many Korean superstitions.  M’s primary language is English, but she also speaks Korean.  While sitting with M, I asked her if she knew any Korean proverbs, myths, or superstitions.  After a moment of thought, she told me that her mom is very superstitious, and that she knows a handful of Korean superstitions through experience with her mom in her house.  She then proceeded to tell me this superstition about electric fans in Korea.

 

 

My Thoughts: I thought that this superstition was interesting, because it originated from a popular source, such as a newspaper.  This was not rooted in any religious or sacred beliefs, as many superstitions are.  This is a fairly new superstition, yet it has seemed to take dominance throughout South Korea, and most people believe it.  I like this superstition because, although electric fans have been around for a while and are clearly safe, the majority of South Koreans still hold this fear that they will kill you if you fall asleep with one on.  I tried to think of any superstitions that might mirror this one in America, but I really could not come up with something.  This is a very unique superstition to South Korea, and I think that it’s both interesting and funny.  It is outlandish, yet superstitions are so powerful that people, although though they might not actually believe something will kill you, will still practice it because they want to be safe about it.

 

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Persian Flattery Superstition

Main Story (direct transcription):

Dad: If someone says that you are something positive, such as being pretty, young, wealthy, or successful, superstitious Iranians make a fire.  In the fire, they have some kinds of herbs that smell like oud, or incense, and they have seeds in them.  They make the fire in a coil, it’s not like a huge fire, and they throw all these seeds into it.  Some of the seeds make a big “pop” noise, and it opens, and it looks like an eye shape.  They say,

“This is the evil eye!  This is the enemy!”

Me: So why do they start the fire in the first place…?

Dad: To contradict something.  Back home (in Iran), you cannot say how beautiful someone is, or if when you have a kid, you can’t say “such a big baby!”.  Like here, in America, you can say those things, but in Iran, if you say that, it’s like you’ve jinxed it.  I remember when my youngest brother was born, my great-great aunt came home, and she was very old.  He was a beautiful baby, but when she saw him, she spit on him.  She said,

“What an ugly baby!”

She didn’t want to jinx it, so she said he was ugly.  I was so offended when she said it!  It’s the “evil eye”.  Here, when I came to this country, people were saying things like, “what a big baby, how beautiful…” and I was so confused.  You don’t say things like that in Iran because you don’t want to jinx them.  Making the fire to contradict something positive that was said is too much work, so they don’t say positive things in the first place.

 

Context: The informant, my father, is a pharmacist who was born in Shiraz, Iran.  He moved to the United States after growing up in Iran, and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His first language is Farsi, his second is Spanish, and his third is English.  He lived in Spain for several years before moving to the United States, and therefore has collected folklore from his time in these different countries throughout his lifetime.  My dad was telling me about different Iranian superstitions, since we were talking about how my grandma is a very superstitious woman.  I asked my dad if any particular superstitions popped out to him, or if any of them in particular were his favorite, and he proceeded to tell me this one.

 

 

My Thoughts:

I really liked this snippet about Iranian superstitions.  I didn’t know that it was negative to say something positive about someone, especially babies, in their culture.  Since my dad and his Iranian family in America have spent ample time here, I have heard them say positive things about others, and they are not as superstitious as their Iranian ancestors were.  I thought it was funny how my dad tied in this superstition to his own life, telling of how his great-great aunt actually spit on my uncle when he was a baby.  When my grandmother comes to visit next, I will be sure to listen and see if she says anything positive about anyone, especially about my youngest baby cousin on my dad’s side.  Now that I know this superstition, I think it will be fun to see how many people practice it, and how many don’t, and see whether or not there is a generational gap in those who do, and those who don’t.

[geolocation]