Author Archives: mooring

Wish Upon a Star

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Atherton
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/21/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. While having dinner together at my family home, I asked her whether she remembered any rituals she and her friends had when they were young.

Main Piece: “Growing up in a relatively small town, my brother and I used to play outside a lot at night during the summers with the neighborhood kids. I remember from a young age being with my childhood girlfriends and we’d lay on the lawn in one of our backyards and wait for the first stars to come out and sing:

‘Star Light, Star Bright, the first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.’

Then, we’d each close our eyes and make a wish. It felt almost like a solemn oath and mysterious ritual to me. I think we kept the wishes to ourselves, rather than tell each other what we wished for. I don’t know who I learned this poem from. It was definitely something that was passed on orally and just seemed to be universally known by us all from a very young age. I think that I probably had a nursery rhyme book that included it, too.”

Analysis: “Star Light, Star Bright” is an English language nursery rhyme, has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 16339, and first began to be recorded in the late nineteenth century. The song and tradition seem to have reached Britain by the early twentieth century and then spread worldwide. This particular song calls out to the first star of the night, whereas other similar superstitions were based upon the granting of wishes made when seeing a shooting or falling star. The custom of wishing on a first star likely predates the rhyme, and that of wishing on a shooting or falling start may date back to the ancient world and the influences of the astronomer Ptolemy. (For another version of this chant, see the Disney Park Fireworks show performances.)

Throwing Salt Over Your Shoulder

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Atherton
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/21/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. As a child, her immediate family lived in the same general area as all four of her grandparents, and most of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. At dinner with my parents during the Covid-19 Shelter in Place timeframe, I asked her if she knew of any family superstitions or protection rituals. She was also raised in a practicing Catholic household.

Main Piece: “I do remember one from a Thanksgiving Dinner with our extended family. I was six or seven years old, and we were all sitting around the oval table in my parents’ dining room. I think that both sets of my grandparents were there, plus my great aunt, my mom, dad, and brother, and another aunt and uncle or two, and some cousins. We were ready to eat our turkey dinner, and I asked my brother to pass the salt, which I then accidentally spilled on the table. My great aunt, who was French, told me to quickly throw some salt over my shoulder. I went ahead and did what she said, assuming it had something to do with avoiding bad luck, but my great aunt and grandmother said it was done to ward off the devil. I thought at the time it was just fun, but never learned the origin of this custom.”

Analysis: One widespread explanation of the folk belief that it is unlucky to spill salt is that Judas Iscariot spilled the salt at the Last Supper and even Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper depicts Judas Iscariot having knocked over a salt-cellar. Because Judas betrayed Jesus Christ in the Bible, people began associating salt with lies and disloyalty. Some Christian beliefs hold that the devil hangs around behind your left shoulder, waiting to take advantage of you and force you into bad behavior. If you spill salt, the devil sees it as an invitation to step in and do evil. Throwing it over your shoulder into his face blinds him and renders him helpless. And the belief is that If you spilled the salt, you must be the one to throw it over your shoulder or you won’t thwart the bad luck or the devil. This superstition is now commonplace and is no longer associated with Catholocism. It is depicted in a lot of contemporary media and its origin is widely unknown. 



Festival de Force

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Atherton
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/20/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. Both of her paternal grandparents were of Basque descent. Her paternal grandmother emigrated from the French Pyrenees as a teenager, arriving at Ellis Island speaking only the French and Basque languages, and taking a train across the country to live with relatives in Livermore, California, where she met and married my great grandfather. My mom’s father (my grandfather) was very proud of and identified closely with his Basque roots. One night at a family dinner, I asked my mother if she could describe an event we had attended in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, the Basque “Festival de Force.” I was also in attendance but was quite young and have only vague images for memories. 

Main Piece: “This was about 16 years ago when you were six years old and your sister was 14. We had taken a family trip to the Pyrenees to visit the area where both my father’s mom and dad were from. We spent two nights in a pretty town named St. Jean Pied de Port and one day, you, your sister, your dad, and I took a long walk through the town to explore. Eventually, we found ourselves outside a small outdoor stadium, where lots of local people were buying tickets and going inside. We had no idea what was happening inside, and no one seemed to speak English, but it looked fun and interesting, and we decided to get tickets ourselves and check it out. We took seats in the bleachers and it was quickly obvious that we were very likely the only people there who couldn’t speak Basque or French and were not from the area. So, basically the event was called the “Festival de Force,” or in English a “Strength Festival.” The layout of the stadium was similar to a school stadium with a large open area in the middle and an oval running track around the perimeter. There were about six or eight teams of men, with eight to ten men per team, if I remember correctly, and they competed in several different events. I remember there being a log cutting contest with huge logs and axes; an ox cart lifting and pulling contest, with teams of men racing each other while pulling these large wooden ox carts around the track; another event where the teams of men were in a relay, and they were carrying what looked like two large metal milk jugs that they would then hand over to their teammates in the relay; a race while carrying a large sack of wheat over their shoulders; and also a tug of war contest with a huge rope that was the last event of the match. Each team represented a different town or region, and I think it was an annual event. There was a very loud and enthusiastic crowd with lots of team spirit, and the participants put everything they had into the competition. The winning team was declared at the end, and we filed out of the arena with everyone else and headed back to our hotel. It was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip for me, and I loved the energy, the spontaneity and the randomness of our finding this unexpected event during our vacation.”

Analysis:  Basque strength tests have their origin in the farm and forest laborers’ daily work, and for centuries, Basque men from different communities would challenge each other to test their relative prowess at these Basque rural sports. Several strength tests originated with the field and farmworkers, including “Orga Joko,” the cart lift, where contestants lift a 350 kg cart on its drawbar and pull it for at least two and up to five laps of the track; “Lasto Altxari,” the hoisting of a 100 kilo bale of straw on a pulley for as many times as possible in two minutes; the “Sakulari,” racing while carrying 76 kilo sacks of wheat on one’s shoulders, and “Untziketariak,” the relay race with large, heavy, metal jugs of milk. Others come from the traditional woodcutters in the forest, such as the Aizkolaria” axe-cutting of oak tree trunks and the “Segari” sawing beech beams. Finally, the “piece de resistance” is the “Sokatira” tug of war, where two teams of 8 to 10 men, wearing the colors of their villages, oppose each other across a rope weighing about one ton, until in a process of elimination the champion is determined. The first and largest modern Basque Festival de Force began in 1951 in the town of Saint Palais, taking place each year on a Sunday in the middle of August. On this day, approximately 150 strongmen from the six competing villages face off in these spectacular and very old challenges to pull the rope, hoist a bale of straw, raise a cart, spilt wood logs, carry milk jugs, and run a bag of wheat on their shoulders. For both the participants and the spectators, this is a unique experience and one of authenticity rooted deeply in centuries-old Basque traditional games which were common, especially at the time of the wheat harvest. The Basque Festival de Force my mother described took place in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port, approximately 30 kilometers from Saint Palais in mid-July 2005, and although smaller in attendance, it had all of the same elements as the original from Saint Palais.

Waist Beads

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 29
Occupation: Vice Principal
Residence: Oakland
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/10/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my sister (LC) who lives in Oakland and is a member of the diverse community there. The following text is transcribed from a phone call.

Main Text (LC): “I purchased these waste beads from a tent in Oakland. They are an old African tradition that has been brought over to America. Women wear them around their waist and they move if she gains or loses weight. They are kind of niché and cool and modern now while also being used as a weight-loss tool. The culture in Oakland added a new layer of symbolism to these beads by adding different chakras to the waist beads. Each color represents a different chakra and empowers the women who wear them in different ways.”

Analysis: These waist beads are a piece of material folklore that has come with its people to the United States from Africa. They originally more of a fashion piece but are now considered more culturally important to the African American community in Oakland and thus have developed new symbolism with the variations in chakra. The community in Oakland is very accepting and people love to share pieces of their heritage and ethnicity, which has created a mixing pot of folklore.

Dandelions

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 29
Occupation: Vice Principal
Residence: Oakland
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/10/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my older sister (LC) and the following text is transcribed from our phone conversation. She reflects on a good luck ritual she used to do with her friends that was taught to them by their parents.

Main Text (LC): “The belief or myth behind the meaning of the Dandelion is that if you make a wish and blow on one, and the seeds all go everywhere, your wish will come true. And I think that’s the myth everyone knows about them. But now, to me, they mean something else. They show up in this book about activism and social justice that I read and the book states that the dandelion is a metaphor for change. The book says that just like the dandelion, only one seed is necessary to spread great change, and I find this message very powerful.”

Analysis: The belief or ritual that blowing on a dandelion grants your wish has been commonplace in the United States for a long time. This practice reminds me of how a child blows out a birthday candle and makes a wish. I think it is interesting how the dandelion is used as a different metaphor in the book my sister read and demonstrates how an object’s symbolism can change over time and garner new meanings.

The Warlock

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Atherton
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my father (DM) who told me about the existence of an ancestor that was accused of being a warlock during the Salem Witch Trials and who was ultimately killed. My father heard about this story from his mother. The following quote is a retelling of the story my father heard from his parents with added information from his online research.

Main Text: “Samuel Wardwell was a wealthy ancestor of ours who was hanged in the Salem witch trials after being convicted of witchcraft. He had a lot of land and we suspect that his neighbor accused him of witchcraft in an effort to steal his property. He was noted as an ‘eccentric but harmless individual who sometimes told fortunes, played with magic, and perhaps in jesting moods even claimed supernatural powers.’ He and his family were pressured into confessing and although he did, he took it back and claimed innocence until his death. Apparently, witch hunters used his hanging as a warning against those who planned on taking back their confessions.”

More can be found about the life and death of Samuel Wardwell here: https://www.geni.com/people/Samuel-Wardwell/6000000001650662249

Analysis: This story interests me because it demonstrates how hard it was to avoid a charge of conviction. Wardwell was pressured into confessing, as were those closest to him. It also seems as if there were ulterior motives behind the witch trials; people used them as a way to improve their societal and financial status. People believed in these superstitions because of the lack of scientific evidence against them and the pressure from the witch hunters to convict innocent people who were forced into confessing. His tendency to perform tricks and his affluence were his downfalls because people feared what they did not understand and were jealous of his status.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 49
Occupation:
Residence: San Diego
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant is my aunt and will be referred to as L.I. She is originally from Hawaii and is of Filipino descent. She grew up in Hawaii, which is where she learned of this myth, but she now lives in San Diego with her husband (my uncle) and their two children.

Main Text: L.I: “The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is called Honu in Hawaiian and it’s a symbol of good luck. The Honu represents the link between man, the land, and the sea. It is believed that the green sea turtle is a form taken by the guardian spirit that Hawaiians refer to as Amakua. So if you see people taking photos with green sea turtles, its because they believe it will bring them good luck.”

MM: “And you aren’t allowed to touch them right?”

L.I.: “No you’re not, but there are always so many people that want to touch them because they are such big, relaxed creatures. People think that since they have a shell it is impossible to harm them.”

Analysis: The Hawaiian people are very in tune with nature and treat nature with great respect. It is now illegal to touch, collect, or harm green sea turtles because they are endangered and tourist populations in Hawaii disrupt them. After researching, it seems that Amakua can manifest in the form of several different types of animals as well, like sharks and owls.