Author Archives: Sarah Kirby

Theatre Rite of Passage: Pre-Show Game

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student, was describing rituals, related to both her family and her passion for theatre, that she believes help define different facets of her identity. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which she describes a pre-show ritual that she witnessed several USC MFA Acting students take part in during a production.


Informant: So, last year, the first show that I worked on at USC was doing the spotlight for the MFA repertory. Um… and so I was doing the spotlight for a show called A Bright Room Called Day and it was for the third year MFAs, so they’re in their last year. And it was incredible to sit up in the light booth and watch this really tight ensemble just like completely vibe with each other and fall into place so effortlessly. And I got to see so much from the outside-in that was very inspiring, and it was so cool to observe the rituals they had formed through three years of spending so much time together, creating and growing. And so, they did this thing where, before the show, they would all gather in a circle um… and for a while I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I ultimately figured out that they were saying this chant where on of them would say, “Get in your body!” And then everyone else would say, “Get in your body!” Um… but then it got really like intense and loud and it was hard to even like keep track of whose voice was saying what. And, basically, this whole eruption of sound would turn into passing the word “bah” across the circle, so you would just throw your hands up in someone’s face — the face of the person standing next to you — and say, “Bah!” And then it would… you know… it was just like lightning! It would just shock through each person. Usually it would go around the circle, but sometimes someone would stop and turn it the other way and people would get in these matches where they would yell “bah” back and forth at each other. And everyone in the circle was so invigorated and clearly so dedicated to committing to each other. So, that was a really amazing ritual to observe.

Informant’s relationship to the item: Though the informant did not personally take part in the pre-show ritual that she observed, she was clearly affected by witnessing other USC students participate in such a high-energy, impassioned, and invigorating display of connectedness. She describes feeling inspired by the game as an outside observer, as well as how the pre-show game seemed to energize each player and provide the entire group with a sense of cohesiveness. While she only watched the game from afar, being able to witness the passion of the production’s actors also seems to have filled the show’s crew with energy and excitement. It also seems to have made the informant feel more connected to the entire process.

Interpretation: The folk chant and game in which the actors participated appears to be some sort of pre-show ritual that the entire ensemble used in order to connect with one another and energize themselves before a show. Such rituals are common in the theatre, as well as other occupations in which people do not have total control over their actions or the ultimate outcome of their craft. There is a psychological element to these kinds of rituals, which some people believe to be magic, because they allow the participants to feel as if they have some level of mastery over the universe. The informant’s account is also interesting because it serves as an example of the distinction between active and passive bearers of folklore. The informant — who only witnessed and did not participate in the game — can be considered a passive bearer of the other actors’ folk game. The actors who participated in the game and, thus, performed that piece of folklore are considered active bearers of the pre-show ritual. However, if the informant decided to teach the game to others, she could become an active bearer of the ritual, as well.

Family Ghost Story After Relative’s Sudden Death

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student, was describing stories and rituals, related to both her family and her passion for theatre, that she believes help define different facets of her identity. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which she describes a highly personal family ghost story relating to the sudden death of her uncle in the San Francisco marathon when she was young.


Informant: Okay, so… my uncle passed away in the San Francisco marathon. It was very sudden because he died while he was running, and he was extremely physically fit and no one could have ever predicted that this would happen. But, on that day, we were up in Tilden Park, as a family. And I was hiding in the bushes with a stick and poking the stick around. And I’m like young. I’m like six or seven. So, I’m poking around with a stick and my mom is like, “Where’s L—?” And then she looks around, and she sees what I’m doing, and she’s like, “What’s going on? What are you up to in the bush?” And I tell her that I hear a voice… and I have no recollection of doing this! My mom actually told me about this when I was doing an interview with her for a project, so it was really an emotional thing to find out. But basically I was with the stick, hearing a voice that was saying, “Long live my sisters.” And so it was really really shocking to hear when she told me this. It was almost like my whole body froze. I didn’t know that my uncle had passed away, but I told her I heard a voice that sounded like my uncle, saying, “Long live my sisters.” And so that was really wild and it had a huge effect on my mom because she knew that he had passed away. It was super weird that I was having this voice in my head, but she said that I told her that is was my uncle’s voice, coming from San Francisco — it sounded far away. I said it was in San Francisco, but that I could hear that it was leaving. So, it was like a goodbye from him. My mom talked a lot about it with the adults in my family. Especially since I was so young, it’s just a really strange thing to have a feeling about. She didn’t tell me until I was much older, but she talked about it with her sister a lot. And I think it was crazy and I think it was something that really helped throughout his passing because my mom is a very spiritual person. We don’t really believe in God or anything, but we believe in spirits. And we found a lot of comfort in the fact that one of us received a message that our uncle was okay, and that he was leaving with a message about bringing power to his sisters. That’s kind of how my mom took it.

Informant’s relationship to this item: The informant was visibly touched and emotional as she recalled the events of her uncle’s passing, as well as the interaction her mother claims that she had with him from beyond the grave. The story clearly holds significant weight for the informant, who only learned of it in very recent years. The story was also very impactful for the informant’s mother and aunt, as they firmly believe that their brother’s ghost was sending them a comforting message with the goal of easing their grieving processes and helping them progress after his death.

Interpretation: I completely understand how this occurrence would be both surreal and comforting to the informant and her family after the sudden loss of her uncle. The informant’s young age, the specific details she used when describing her uncle’s voice, in addition to the fact that she was unaware of her uncle’s passing at the time all make the interaction particularly inexplicable. The story definitely falls under the category of friendly ghost stories, which typically feature deceased family members communicating with their relatives with the supposed goal reassuring and comforting them after tragic losses. Additionally, the nature of the informant’s uncle’s voice, which she described as sounding “far away” and slowly drifting further, emphasizes the widespread belief that ghosts exist in liminal spaces, in which they are not fully alive or dead.

Jewish Names Superstition

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old female college student, was sharing different folk beliefs that are shared by members of her religious community. She was describing how the traditions carried out by Ashkenazi Jews have impacted her life and continue to do so, today. The following is an excerpt of our conversation, in which the informant describes a tradition involving the naming of children that varies radically between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.


Informant: The two main types of Jews, I guess, are Sephardic Jews, who are of Spanish descent so they were kicked out during like the Christian Crusades, and then there are Ashkenazi Jews, who are more traditionally what you think of when you think of what a Jewish person looks like.  Sephardic people have blue eyes and they’re tan — they’re Spanish. But like I’m Ashkenazi, and they’re like Polish, Russian, and Eastern European. There’s a ton of different traditions that distinguish the different types of Jewish people. So, Ashkenazi Jews believe that it is bad luck to name somebody after somebody who is living. So, like my sister’s name is Jamie and my grandfather’s name is Jaime. So, they thought they were naming her after him when she was born and they were like, “You can’t do that. It’s bad luck.” I guess it’s because you’re like keeping the memory of someone who is still alive. I don’t totally know why it’s bad luck. So basically, Ashkenazi people don’t name people after the living because they believe it’s bad luck, but in very religious Sephardic cultures, it is tradition and grandparents expect to have their grandchildren named after them. So like, if you have a Grandma Rose, she’ll be pissed if her granddaughter isn’t named after her. So, the names mean a lot and they get carried down through the living.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant, who was raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish parent, was taught that naming a baby after a relative who is alive is bad luck. This superstition clearly had an impact on the informant because it almost resulted in her sister, Jamie, being named a different name, so she would not be named after their grandfather, Jaime. The informant is also very fascinated by the cultural differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, despite both groups studying the same source material.

Interpretation: The radically different cultural practices and superstitions that define Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities demonstrate the distinction between institutional religious beliefs and folk religious beliefs. Another example of this distinction is the Catholic superstition that one’s mouth will fill with the blood of Christ when they bite the host during the sacrament of Eucharist — a belief that is not found in the bible. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jew study the same source material: the Torah. However, the Torah does not state anything about the practice of naming children, so both superstitions have clearly developed over time within the distinct cultural groups and schools of thought. The superstition also shows that names and family lineages hold a lot of significance across cultures. However, different folk groups will define this significance in radically different ways. While Ashkenazi Jews believe that naming a child after a living relative serves as a bad omen because it appears as if you are predicting or waiting for that relative’s passing, Sephardic Jews expect children to be named after living relatives as a sign of honor and respect.

Venezuelan Suitcase Superstition on New Year’s Eve

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, described various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant recalls a Venezuelan superstition that people take part in during New Year’s Eve celebrations.


Informant: In Venezuela, New Years is a huge holiday. It’s not as big as Christmas or Easter, but it’s still pretty big, and we have a few things that we do that are like really unique to Venezuela. So one thing we do is we grab a suitcase that represents good travels and we run around the block once. This is kind of supposed to represent running around the world and so it’s basically done so that you can travel in the new year. Basically, if you don’t do that, it means that you won’t travel to a different country or somewhere else that’s new. I’ve done it since I can remember, with my family friends. We didn’t have a block when we did it, so we would run up and down their huge driveway. But basically in Venezuela, when it wasn’t… you know… deadly and violent, we would go around the block. We always did it and I always thought that it would come true, and it usually did! I think a lot of people know of it… I don’t know if everyone does it. I definitely believe that there is some truth to it. Because, you know, if you do something then you’ll put it into action. You’ll be like, “Oh, I did that, so now I should probably travel.” But yeah, I think it was definitely a staple part of my New Year’s celebrations growing up.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The superstition is clearly significant to the informant because she started practicing it when she was a young girl growing up in Venezuela. Even after moving to Boston, she continues to practice the superstition at every New Year’s Eve celebration with family and friends. The informant also acknowledges that there is a psychological element to the superstition; she feels that because she practices the ritual, it plants the idea in her head that she should travel and that makes traveling one of her resolutions in the new year.

Interpretation: This Venezuelan New Year’s Eve superstition and ritual serves as a prime example of folklorist Jame George Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic, particularly homeopathic magic. His theory describes the belief among folk groups that certain practices can be carried out on a smaller scale that then produce major effects on a larger scale, or “like produces like.” An example of a superstition that involves homeopathic magic is the belief that whistling on a fishing boat will encourage the wind to pick up and a storm to start. The act of running around one’s neighborhood with a suitcase in tow in order to have good travels in the new year is very similar. Whether or not the superstitions are valid is a subject of debate, and belief in the ritual’s magic will vary among communities, but there is likely some truth to the informant’s statement about the psychological impact of performing such a specific superstition. Additionally, the country’s current economic crisis has forced more than a tenth of Venezuela’s population to leave the nation in the past few years. Thus, the suitcase ritual now also serves as a reminder of this tragic exodus, demonstrating how the significance of rituals evolves over time.

Works Cited:

To read more about James George Frazer’s theory of Sympathetic Magic, refer to:

Dundes, Alan. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, pp. 109-118.

Chinese Superstition: Eyelid Twitch

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old Chinese-American college student, shared this proverb with me on the Lunar New Year. We were discussing how her parents raised her to embrace her Chinese-American identity. She began describing several cultural superstitions that she was taught as a child and continues to practice today


Informant: Alright, so I’m not sure if it’s all Chinese people or just my family, but… so basically… you know when your eyelid twitches? I’m sure it happens to everybody, but whenever my right eyelid would twitch… like whenever I was younger, I would run to my mom and go, “Look! My eyelid is twitching!” And she would be like, “Is it your right eyelid?” And I would be like, “Yeah.” And then she’d be like, “That’s bad luck.” But then if it’s my left eyelid, apparently that’s good luck. So now every time my left eyelid twitches, I get really excited about nothing and when my right eyelid twitches, I get really nervous in case something bad happens.

Interviewer: Do you know where your mom learned the superstition?

Informant: I actually don’t. I’m sure it’s just been passed down through our family forever, but it might also just be like a wider Chinese thing because Chinese people are weirdly superstitious about a lot of things. But yeah, I still practice it, and I’m sure I’ll pass it on to my children.

 Informant’s relationship to the item: Though the informant does not know the origin of the superstition, or why it is practiced by her family members, she has believed in the superstition since she was young and continues to believe it today. She mentioned that, depending on which eye it is, her eyelid twitching will either fill her with excitement or dread, due to the folk belief associated with it. Because it is a lesson that her mother taught her as a child, she also plans on passing the superstition on to her children.

Interpretation: The cultural superstition shared by the informant is an example of a sign superstition. Sign superstitions involve the belief that certain random happenings are signs that either good or bad luck is imminent for the viewer. Magic superstitions differ from sign superstitions in that the person who desires the good luck/fortune usually has to deliberately complete a specific task in order to acquire the good luck. Sign superstitions occur randomly and without warning, to either the pleasant surprise or the chagrin of the viewer. Additionally, sign superstitions usually have some sort of historical or psychological element associated with them. For instance, a black cat crossing one’s path is widely considered to be a bad omen because black cats were associated with witches in medieval times.


Chinese Proverb About the Farmer and the Rabbit

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old Chinese-American college student, shared this proverb with me on the Lunar New Year. We were discussing how her parents raised her to embrace her Chinese-American culture. She explained how the lessons she was taught as a child still impact her outlook on life today.


Informant: I know an old Chinese proverb. Um… it’s from, I think, a famous philosopher. Basically, I learned it from my parents and then again in Chinese school. I can’t remember the Chinese translation, but basically the gist of the proverb, or what the proverb literally means is… um “waiting by the tree for the rabbit.” And the story behind it, because all Chinese proverbs kind of have like a story behind them, um… is that there’s this farmer who um basically lived off his land and sold his crops and sort of lived that way. But one day, while he was plowing his land, um a rabbit ran into a tree and died. So, the man got his dinner that day and he had the bright idea of basically… he decided, “Screw farming! I’m just going to wait by this tree for more rabbits to crash into the tree, so I can eat, you know, rabbits for the rest of my life.” And then, he waited for a really really long time and, no surprise to anyone else, no rabbits crashed into that tree again. And, it’s kind of confusing, but basically the proverb means that you can’t wait for things to fall in your lap. Like all good things that are like worthwhile um… take a lot of work and a lot of dedication. And if you sit around and wait for that rabbit to come, it will never come.

Informant’s relation to the item: The proverb is important to the informant because it was taught to her by her parents and then again in Chinese school as a young child. Thus, the proverb has both significance within her family and also cultural/educational significance. Additionally, the proverb, which stresses the important of hard work, continues to impact the informant’s work ethic today.

Interpretation: This particular proverb does not make much sense to a listener who does not have much knowledge of Chinese culture. Without the context of the folk tale surrounding it, the proverb seems like an insignificant phrase. However, knowing the story as well as the importance of hard work and industriousness within many Asian cultures, the proverb clearly holds a lot more weight. This is a common occurrence when analyzing proverbs, which are usually very hard to translate across cultures due to language and cultural barriers.


Venezuelan Folk Dishes: “Moros y Cristianos” and “Pabellon”

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, was describing various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant describes two Venezuelan folk dishes


Informant: So, in Venezuela, but I think this is also like throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, there is this dish called “Moros y Cristianos” and it means “The Moors and the Christians.” It’s basically just rice and beans. Because, you know, race relations are very prevalent in South America, especially with the slave trade and the differences in how races were treated. So, this plate is meant to represent the difference between the two races. I have always found it interesting because my dad makes this meal and he calls it that and I’ve always been like, “What? That’s so weird.” He just says it’s like a thing that people have done since people were slaves in Latin America. And I’ve just always thought it was so weird because you’re like calling a plate like Moors and Christians, which usually relates to like darker-skinned and lighter-skinned people. So it’s just really interesting because I’ve definitely eaten that plate since I was a child. There’s another dish that’s called “Pabellon.” It’s just rice, beans, plantains, and shredded pork. It’s supposed to also represent all the different races, including indigenous people. That’s why is contain plantains because the yellow part is supposed to represent the indigenous people. I don’t really know why it’s called “Pabellon.” That’s a really common dish… that’s just kind of like, “Oh, we’re going to have this for dinner.” You really eat it on any old day. It’s not like both of these dishes are used in any specific celebrations or events. It’s like a home food or a comfort food.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant grew up eating “Moros y Cristianos” and “Pabellon,” two Venezuelan folk dishes. The dishes were so integral to her childhood, that she only realized their historical significance later in life. The meals served as an important piece of folklore for her and her dad to use as a means of starting a dialogue about Venezuela’s complex history and the multiculturalism of its citizens. Both dishes remind her of her family and her birth country; she considers them “comfort food.”

Interpretation: Both “Moros y Cristianos” and “Pabellon” hold a lot of symbolic and historical significance to the people of Venezuela. They are more than just the traditional cuisine of the country, which citizens tend to eat on a regular basis; the ingredients that make up both dishes are important symbols for the country’s history of complex race relations and rich multiculturalism. While Venezuelan’s history includes shocking atrocities such as the nation’s slave trade, which made up a large part of its economy for centuries, it is interesting to see how Venezuelans have immortalized this history within their cuisine. Like in the case of my informant, the meals seem to serve as important folk dishes capable of sparking dialogues about Venezuela’s complex and problematic history of race relations that ultimately led to the diverse population seen in the country today.



Venezuelan Yellow Underwear Superstition on New Year’s Eve

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, described various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant recalls a Venezuelan superstition that people take part in during New Year’s Eve celebrations.


Informant: On Venezuelan New Year’s, we have a tradition that… it’s kind of weird… we have a tradition that you’re supposed to wear yellow underwear on New Year’s Eve. It’s supposed to be good luck, but I don’t really know. My mom always told me it was thing, but she and my dad never did it. Then I was like, “Well, I want good luck!” So, I started doing it. Maybe it’s like yellow and like gold and gold having to do with riches or something… maybe it’s something like that. But we always would talk about it and do it. I purposefully bought a piece of underwear the other day, so that I know I would have it for this year, because my other pair is too old. So yeah, I definitely intentionally do it and it’s another integral part of my New Year’s Eve experience every year.

Informant’s relationship to the item: Though the informant’s parents do not take part in the New Year’s Eve tradition, the informant has taken it upon herself to buy multiple pairs of yellow underwear in order to take part in the Venezuelan tradition. This demonstrates her belief that the practice holds some form of validity, in spite of the fact that no one in her immediate family practices it. Additionally, she expressed some embarrassment while she was describing the superstition to me, due to the nature of the tradition. Yet, she still reaffirmed her belief in the folk ritual.

Interpretation: The Venezuelan New Year’s Eve tradition of wearing yellow underwear is a good example  of a superstition that involves a color that holds symbolic significance to a group of people. Throughout the world, colors are culturally-encoded; sometimes a color’s symbolic meaning is more universal and other times it varies throughout communities. In this case, the yellow underwear seems to represent good luck and good fortune because yellow and gold are often associated with money, wealth, and riches. In more recent years, which has seen Venezuela living through one of the worst economic collapses in the world right now, the New Year’s Eve superstition likely is even more significant to Venezuelans than before. The tradition could also serve as a very tragic reminder of current misfortunes.

Proverb: “This, too, shall pass”

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant relayed a personally significant proverb and the legend associated with it.


Informant: Okay, so I’ve heard this story told a lot of different ways because like apparently Jewish people tell the story as part of a Jewish religious moment, but I’m not Jewish and my mother used to tell the story and she would take all religion out of it. So, what I know is that basically this king was on a journey to find a ring that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. The king eventually finds this ring with the words “This, too, shall pass” engraved on the inside. And so, for the happy man, it’s supposed to remind the happy man that bad things can come at any moment, so you really need to be like in the moment and present and enjoy that and try to extend it. And it makes the sad man happy because it’s also supposed to tell you that bad things come to an end, so like good things will eventually have to come. So, I don’t know… I just really like that proverb: “This, too, shall pass.”

Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant is unsure of the proverb’s true cultural and/or religious origins, the proverb’s meaning and the legend surrounding it has remained with her for years. The proverb almost appears to be a family mantra, as it was taught to the informant by her mother. The informant appears to refer to the proverb during times of happiness, as a remainder to savor every moment, and during times of sadness, as a reminder that her misfortunes will also end.

Interpretation: The proverbial phrase is simultaneously metaphorical, rhetorical, and short — all the criteria for a proverb. It is interesting to hear the tales and legends surrounding such phrases, as many of them would lack the same impact or clarity without the context in which they first originated. While proverbs are usually fixed phrases, the double meaning of this proverb demonstrates how they typically do not have fixed meanings, and their significance can readily change in different contexts. Additionally, the fact that the informant was told the proverb by her mother shows how proverbs typically hold a lot of vernacular authority. Her mother likely could have taught her the same lesson using different wording, but the history of the proverb and the fact that it is commonly heard in society gives the impression that her mother is imparting community wisdom on her daughter.






Cowlick Tea

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant described a folk medicine used by her immediate and extended family.


Informant: So, one of the folk things my family does is that when I’m sick my father will give me this thing called cowlick tea, and basically it’s tea with cow droppings in it. I think it’s because cows eat grass, so their droppings are really good for you. And my dad’s grandmother was the one that started this apparently and she always insisted that my dad drink it. And now my dad believes in this cowlick tea because they’re from Oklahoma… and apparently that’s relevant. My dad’s grandmother was from Marshall, Texas, and she also has Native American Cherokee roots, so it could possibly be from that. But it’s used to alleviate the symptoms of sore throat, headaches, and other head colds. It’s also known for clearing nasal passages and it’s basically just made of cow droppings. And it’s given to anyone of any age to relieve themselves of the common cold.

Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant does not fully understand the proposed scientific benefits or the cultural origins of cowlick tea, the folk medicine is a practice she took part in growing up. The fact that the folk medicine has been passed down through multiple generations in her family makes her more inclined to take part in the family tradition and folk belief.

Interpretation: There are often folk medicines used for the goal of relieving people of symptoms of the common cold because there had not yet been a scientifically-proven method to cure someone of a cold. There is often a belief in American society that western medicine is a superior approach to other healing methods. However, many western medicines find their origins in folk medicines that have proven scientific health benefits. Additionally, western medicine is based on the belief in the mind body split, a theory put forward by philosopher René Descartes. The theory describes how a person’s mind and body are two separate entities and encourages people to think for themselves, rather than trying to find all of life’s answers in religious doctrine. While many folk medicines have proven health benefits, even the ones that do not point out a major flaw in the theory of the mind body split: the placebo effect. Sometimes simply the belief that one has been given healing medicine can actually improve their condition. Whether or not cowlick tea has any health benefits is not known by the informant. Regardless, her family members report feeling better after drinking it, and that could be a result of the placebo effect.