USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘witch’
Legends

Bell Witch Legend

The following was recorded from a conversation I had with my mom regarding ghost stories she was told in her childhoods. Our family has a few Southern ties, and she specifically remembered an old Southern ghost legend. She is marked JS, and I am marked CS.

 

CS: “So can you tell me a little synopsis of this ghost legend?”

JS: “Absolutely. So I believe it was called the Bell Witch, or Bo Witch…something like that. You might want to research it. Anyways, how the story goes from when it was told is that the witch appeared around Tennessee and has been there for centuries. Around the 17th or 18th century, I believe, a man and his family had moved to some settlement along the river. On a random day, the man—wait, now I remember. The man’s name was Bell. So the witch must be the Bell Witch. Anyways, the man (something Bell) came across an animal on their farm—I think they had a farm. Or maybe it was a cornfield. In any case, the animal I believe had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit. The man shot it, but the animal disappeared. After the incident, the man and his family kept experiencing kind of a haunting around the house—like, the kids would be sleeping and they thought someone or something was tugging at their covers, and each night the family heard a pounding at the door but couldn’t see anyone doing it. Then, they began hearing voices, and each night, the voice grew louder and louder, getting much creepier night after night. Then they eventually started to tell everyone in the town cause the presence was growing stronger, I think it had actually started hurting the younger daughter somehow. It may have been pulling her hair or pinching her? Something like that. Anyway, word of it spread around the town like wildfire and Andrew Jackson, who fought alongside Bell in the Battle of New Orleans, decided to pay a visit at the home. But his wagon stopped and the horses couldn’t pull it the closer they got to the home. It was there that even he learned of this Bell witch and believed the rumors he’d been hearing. Then I believe the witch later attacked one of Jackson’s men for being a fraud and many of his men left cause they were obviously so afraid. Eventually all of the men left. I think there was also a sub-plot to the story where the youngest daughter was engaged and had to end the engagement because of the presence of the entity whenever her and her fiancé would meet. And after she ended it, then subsequently the witch decreased her presence. Bell finally died from a poison, which was said to be filled with some kind of liquid in a vial, given to him by the witch herself. Apparently she told the family it was allegedly his cure. The poison also killed the dog. After his death, the witch stopped appearing and no longer tormented the family. I think it was at his funeral—yeah, at the graveyard—that all of Tennessee was there and all continually heard the witch laughing during his ceremony. Crazy story.”

 

Context:

A phone call conversation with my mom, JS, discussing old ghost legends and tales she’s heard of.

Background:

JS currently resides in Laguna Beach, California but was previously raised in Minnesota.

 

Analysis:

After hearing this terrifying legend, I decided to do some research of my own to compare my mom’s version with other recounts of the Bell Witch. For the most part, her version is very in line with most; however, there are a few variations (in part probably because of memory mix ups). For one, the “dog” she refers to I have read in other accounts was actually a cat. This was interesting reading the different variations and imagining how this legend came to be and its specific origins.

Magic
Narrative

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Myth

The informant is my friend (referred to as EP) who is from Brooklyn, New York, but lives in Spain for the summer. Her father is from Spain and her mother is from Puerto Rico. Every year when she goes to Spain she lives on her family ranch that is outside of a town called Porto. She is discussing one of her favorite movies and a movie that is highly regarded in Spain, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” and a conspiracy theory that was developed in Spain about the movie.

 

EP: “So in the movie, it’s all these women who are crazy and obsessed with all these men and they are having all these problems and throughout the whole movie gazpacho is a theme and ultimately the main character tries to kill a bunch of men with drug-laced gazpacho. The theory that a bunch of people came up with is that all the women are actually witches and the gazpacho kind of resembles one of their potions. It’s kind of a myth I guess but it’s like they are practicing witchcraft and making spells that kill men.”

 

This is so fascinating to me because after viewing “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” I know that this is one of the world’s most campy films. It is often used among scholars as the example for describing the style of camp in films.  Witchcraft is a type of folklore that is already highly gendered and what I have noticed is nearly all witch movies are extremely campy.  Females who are somehow outside of the box society creates for them, often become categorized as witches. Campiness is the style of nearly all films centered around witches and this is due to the fact that camp perfectly captures the inherent sexism and absurdity of the idea that powerful females are witches. Camp is able to employ qualities of duality and idiosyncrasies that are open to a double interpretation. There is a certain language that camp uses and it allows patriarchal code and codes of oppression to be debunked. To understand camp, the viewer must have some outside knowledge of the pre-existing codes of oppression. So, therefore, in witch movies camp is heavily employed and shows women as extravagant and over the top characters. So the fact that many people in Spain believe “women on the verge,” the trademark movie for camp, is actually about witches makes a lot of sense and shows how people in Spain (and in society) perceive women portrayed a certain way as “witches.”

 

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Protection
Tales /märchen

Blåkulla

Background information:

My mother and father introduced me to this piece of folklore when I was younger. They were both born in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden and have been raised in the city suburbs by parents that were all from the inner city of Stockholm.

 

Main piece:

Literally translated, “Blåkulla” means “blue hill” in Swedish. This piece of folklore is about the location of Blåkulla and witches, and how these two are in relation to one another. Blåkulla is a place in Sweden where all of the witches in Sweden supposedly meet up to celebrate the Sabbath of the witches. To get to Blåkulla, these witches traveled on broomsticks, so in order for the witches to be unable to travel to Blåkulla, people often hide their broomsticks and all of the supplies that can make broomsticks. Essentially, my parents explained that the witches travel to Blåkulla three days prior to Easter, on the Thursday, and therefore, everyone does what they can to stop the witches from going to Blåkulla on this day. In addition to hiding brooms and supplies, Swedes traditionally create fires or make loud noises outside to scare the witches and prevent them from engaging in the witches’ Sabbath at Blåkulla.

 

Personal thoughts:

My family has never been religious so my parents taught me this tradition in regards to it being just that: a tradition and not an event that was celebrated in respect to Christianity and Easter. When I was younger, I was very interested in witchcraft and thought this was a very exciting time of the year, and therefore associated Blåkulla with Easter instead of focusing on Easter in regard to Christianity.

Magic
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Take a Bath, Turn into a Witch

Main Piece:

When I was little girl, maybe five or six, I always liked to take long bath. My fingers would get all wrinkled and shrunken, and this annoyed my mother. She told me that if my skiw wrinkled too much, that I would turn into Baba Yaga [note: Baba Yaga is a witch-like common character in Russian folklore] and start eating children. This scared me a lot, so I only took only very quick baths afterward. I now know it was to scare me away from taking too long baths. It seems so silly to me now that I was afraid of turning into Baba Yaga (laughs). Children will believe anything especially if it is scary.

Background Information:

  • Why does informant know this piece?

It was told to her by her mother.

  • Where did they learn this piece?

Soviet Union

  • What does it mean to them?

This was a cautionary tale of what happens when you shower for too long.

Context:

This is told to children to scare them from wasting water and taking baths for too long.

Personal Thoughts:

Parents often tell weird stories to children to keep them from wasting food, water, or time. This is a cautionary tale about what happens if you waste water and bath time. This was probably used to save money and prevent the child from staying in the bathroom for too long and not letting other people take their turn.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

The Rice Witch

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: My roommate’s family was extremely superstitious when they lived in Vietnam before he was born.

Dialogue: One day my uncle got enough, like, money on a shopping errand to buy some bags of rice, and, you know, apparently, as far as we know, he did get the rice. He was heading back with two bags of rice, um, and… he came back with nothing! What he told the family was that, in the middle of the way he encountered an old lady who asked him to give him the rice, and… he just could not… control anything except the fact that he handed the rice over to her and watched her walk off with it, and then came back with, uh, nothing, and actually… everyone believed him. So I guess there’s that.

Analysis: This feels extremely of its culture, largely because my roommate specified that his family’s superstition were directly connected to the country they come from, Vietnam. This fact also leads me to believe that this witch is a kind  of witch specific to the Vietnamese and/or Southern Asian area, rather than just a witch that everyone in Western civilization is familiar with.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Rosary in the Oxen’s Horns to Protect Against Witches in Rural Slovakia

Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.

 

Main piece:

A.J.: So with the cows, owner were protecting about which all your animals like cow they make hole to the horn and put inside rosary – protect them because witch was scary from “saint” stuff and they have like blessing water – they always take some branches – nice young branches from tree and they like make cross with this sand water in the stable – protect this stable from witch.  And when sometimes happen like a animal’s broke horn and they lost this rosary when they no more protect.  Yeah.   And this happen in my Dad family, they animal broke leg cause they were on the field and more cows together and they start fighting and they broke the horn off that had the rosary in it and until they come home they broke leg and this cow die on the field.  This was like true story what Dad told me.  He was very sad but they said this was like witches in the religion.  The witches broke the horn which was this protection – the rosary.  They were out and no more this cow was protect they when she was walking then on the way she broke leg and they cannot fix this time and she died.

 

Q: So when do witches come?

 

A.J.: All the time they were. Witches come all the time.

 

Q: Could you see the witches?

 

A.J.: They think this was like one lady but they were not sure but once this was happen they saw in stable frog and Grandpa take this pitch fork and he was stick this frog and this frog was like make sound like a hurt people – when you hurt somebody they was making sound and was hopping away and next day or couple days later he saw one lady she was hurt – she was like some wound from this – like it was from the pitch fork – she was the frog and they said this is the witch

 

Q: How can you tell who’s a witch?

 

A.J.: You cannot tell but always something happened when this lady was around.

 

Q: Just one lady in your village?

 

A.J.: Not my village, my Dad village.

 

Q: There was only one?

 

A.J. They know about this only one lady but maybe is more.

 

Q: Do you know what she looked like?

 

A.J.: She was a regular lady but she had power what she can make bad stuff.

 

Q: And how did you know that she was the witch?  Did she go up to people and say something like “I’m going to curse you” or something like that?

 

A.J.: No, no, no, no when she was walking around, there always something bad happened to you. But she was just choosing people. Not all people make something bad but some, some people what she doesn’t like maybe.

 

Q: Is there a way to get rid of the witches’ curses?

 

A.J.: People usually with the “saint” stuff protect their self – like blessing water, praying, um carrying rosary with you, just maybe like that.

 

Performance Context: A rosary would typically be put into an ox’s horn in rural farms of Slovakia to protect the ox from being hurt by the witch’s magic.

 

My Thoughts: I think it is interesting how a rosary, a strong symbol of Christianity, would protect against the evil magic of witches, who are typically known to be part of a pagan religion. Christianity and Roman Catholicism is the most prominent religion in Slovakia. It is possible that the rosary’s ability to protect the oxen symbolizes the importance of Christianity in Slovakian culture, and the idea that Christianity is able to protect against all evil of the world, including witches’ magic.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Name of Future Boyfriend Hidden in a Dumpling

Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.

 

Main piece:

A.J.: Same day – December 13. On St. Lucy, we make dough and on small piece of paper we write name what boy you like it – mostly this girl do it. What boy you like it – can be one, can be couple, how many you want and you put in in this flour dough and make dumpling.  Then you cook in water – boil in the water and when was ready this dough you put to the cold water and you choose one dumpling and what name of boy was there you will dating in this year.

 

Q: So does each girl do it for themselves?

 

A.J.: Yes – OK.

 

Q: So you can put maybe 5 names down and then whichever one you pick that’s who you are going to be dating?

 

A.J.: Yeah but we put the all girls in the one bowl. Yeah – all girls in one bowl.

 

Q: So what happens if you get somebody else’s boy?

 

A.J.: We just were thinking this will be my boyfriend for this year.

 

Q: Why did you do it on St. Lucy Day?

 

A.J.: Because they said December 13 is like witch day you know – witches coming and they would doing this stuff. This is like Witch Day. Witches are never good on this day. They make always trouble.  They said when the witch came to your house they kill animals and something happen to your family and bad stuff always happen.

 

Performance Context: This ritual would occur in Slovakia on December 13, also known as St. Lucy’s Day, by groups of young girls typically in their teenage years.

 

My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how much of the Slovak culture surrounds witches and magic. This ritual is done on December 13, or St. Lucy’s Day, because it is the “witch day.” However, witches are typically associated with bad things that happen, so it is curious why girls typically do this ritual to “find their boyfriend” for the next year on the witches’ day. It could be because since it is the day of the witches, it is also the day of magic.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Coffee Fortune

Original Script: “Basically he Armenian culture has this thing where they can get the fortune read through coffee…it has to be…they have a specific coffee powder that they use…usually a group of woman gather at a table and the coffee is poured. It is usually the oldest woman who reads everyone’s fortune at the table, you know ‘the wise woman.’ Who my cousin mentioned was kind of scary…Anyways, after they drink the coffee the head lady reads the fortune…it is kind of like Harry Potter at that part where the lay was reading tea leaves…kind of like that. Basically my cousin fortune was true that she got from the coffee reader. The wise woman told her she was going to get married soon…and she did! It was really cool”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Kamilah and her mother have always been spiritual people. The belief in witches, demons, and angels is strong to Kamilah’s mother however, it is even more so in her home country—Nicaragua. While Kamilah did not particularly believe in witches as her roots from Nicaragua do, the case with Rosario Murillo, really made Kamilah a strong believer in them. However, while Kamilah is not technically Armenian, her closest friends, who are like her family, are. Thus, she is very familiar with the nationality and practices of the Armenian folk.

Context of the Performance: Getting a fortune read

Thoughts about the piece: When Kamilah had told me this story about the coffee reading, my mind automatically went to the pop culture Harry Potter series before she had made the comparison herself. I knew that there were cultures that believed in the drinking of an herb (in this case coffee) could tell one’s fortune, however, hearing the process from Kamilah was a very fascinating experience. As mentioned, the connection with the pop culture phenomenon of Harry Potter, was an interesting parallel to this Armenian practice, for both have an elderly woman communicating the fortune to the individual out of a herb like substance. Additionally, I thought it was very interesting how they have a “wise woman” at the head of the table. It reminded me of the previous story I had interviewed Kamilah about (one that was about witches in Nicaragua) and that being personified as a witch is attributed to people fearing a person. In this setting, to me, it seems a that this fortune telling can be attributed to witchcraft because of the group not only being compiled of woman—and only woman—but also for the fact that there is a head “wise” witch, a woman which all the woman look up to as a leader and also fear her—personifying the woman as a witch.

Moreover, it is also interesting how it has to be a specific kind of coffee for the fortune telling to take place. With the group of woman, and the specific type of coffee, the coming together of a fortune seems almost ritualistic. Especially, the going around of the table to tell one another’s fortune as well as the wise woman being the head of the table, and also the only one to tell the fortunes—seems like it is all part of a ritual. This also brings in an interesting question, and opposition to the common American belief, in respecting elders. While America separates themselves entirely from the elderly—having specific designated homes for the elderly and having one of most developed retirement programs in the world, most foreign countries have a great respect for their elders, specifically their wisdom which is shown in this display of fortune telling among the Armenian women.

Furthermore, I think it is interesting that even though Kamilah is not Armenian, she does believe in some of the customs of the Armenian people because of her closeness to her friends. This adds the notion of culture being learned and not being something one is born with. Thus, her cousin—whom she is also close to—going to one of these fortune telling rituals, even though not Armenian, and the fortune actually becoming true, initiating the belief in both Kamilah and her cousin tells us that culture can be learned. Hence, this ritual can also be seen as an inanition to a kin group.

general

Witchcraft: Sitting Pretty

Text:

“My mom always told me that I shouldn’t sit with my legs against the wall. Back in the day witches sat like that, so people would think that I was a witch…. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because they were thought to be able to walk on walls.”

Background:

My informant told me that in a lot of Africa, a lot of families were of tribal and animistic religions. There were “really dark tribal things” going on and people would report really weird things like people turning into cats, a lot of kidnappings, and people turning their friends into witches for uses in witchcraft. She felt uncomfortable when she first heard her mom tell her that. She told me that a lot of things in Nigerian culture was stigmatized. Certain ways that you sleep were bad too. For example, sleeping on your side kept you from being robbed. She feels that a lot of it goes back to village culture, before Nigeria was urbanized.

Context:

My informant heard it from her mom when she was young.

Personal Thoughts:

I think this is a great example of folklore showing certain fears that a community has. From what my informant said, it seems like witches were powerful figures back in Nigeria history, but they were seen in a negative light which explains why the informant’s mom didn’t want her to be associated with witches.

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.

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