Author Archives: Sophia Ruiz

Name in the Honey Jar

Main Piece: 

“So when my grandma would think that someone had ill will towards you, she would write their name on a piece of paper and stick it in a jar of honey, and put it in the freezer. So it’s the idea that like, it would you know, ‘sweeten’ the person or like make them change their opinion [of you] or influence them in a way.”

Background: 

My informant is one of my friends who lives in Miami, Florida, and is of Cuban and Iranian heritage. This is a folk belief that her grandmother holds, and practices for both herself and the rest of my informant’s family members whenever they supposed someone had “ill will” towards them. This belief seems to have been passed down from my informant’s great-grandmother. When I asked if my informant believed in the custom, she confessed, “I think I want to believe it, it definitely gives me a sense of comfort,” then added, “I kind of feel like, ‘what do I have to lose by it?'”

Context: 

This piece was brought up when my informant and I were talking about the different kinds of superstitions we’d heard in our families growing up. Since she’d already told me a piece of Iranian folk beliefs from her father’s side, I asked if she knew any Cuban ones, and she provided me with the above piece. 

Thoughts: 

I’ve never heard of a custom like putting someone’s name into a jar of honey to “sweeten them,” so I enjoyed this folk belief for the content, but I also found it to be a good example of Homeopathic magic, whether my informant’s grandmother intended it or not. In this piece, the desired event is for the person intending to inflict ill will on— for example— my informant, to change their mind about doing so. In order to do that, my informant’s grandmother wrote the person’s name down on a slip of paper, and stuck it into a jar of honey, which is the mimetic action that is supposed to represent the kindness said person should show towards my informant instead of trying to inflict ill will. I’m not sure what putting the jar of honey in the freezer does, but the action of freezing could be to solidify the behavior that the person should show the informant without worrying that it will melt, and thus undo their way of thinking. 

However, this custom could also be interpreted as a combination of two types of magic: Homeopathic and Contagious. One element of the performance is to take the person’s name— which is deeply connected to their identity— by writing it down on paper. Contagious magic usually requires a physical part of someone’s body/identity, which can’t be done with a name, but it seems that writing it down is the equivalent of making it physical.

Circle — A High School Theater Ritual

Main Piece: 

Before every show we always had this thing called Circle, and the purpose of Circle was to kind of like, get you hyped up and get your nerves out, and kind of keep you from being shy or feeling stage fright by doing silly, silly things, and seeing people do silly things. And the whole tradition of Circle is that you chant, “Oooh, I feel so good like! I knew I would! Oooh I feel so good!” And you would just continually chant that while clapping to a certain beat until someone went into the circle and would be like, “Like [something now]”  and everyone would just mimic them no matter what it was. It could’ve been something that had been done every year before them; that’s like a very simple one, like “Like a chair now!” And you do a squat [laughing] and, y’know, you do a squat and then you continue the chant. Or, you could make one up every single time. I remember [a classmate] once went in the circle and went like “Like a parabola!” and literally did a backwards handstand and bent over backwards. And it was crazy, and people started doing it all the time after that even if he wasn’t at [the high school] anymore at the time. That was a fun one that, like, caught on. 

Background: 

My informant is one of my friends from high school, and was very involved in our school’s theater department. Circle was one of the most consistent rituals prior to every show, no matter if it was opening or closing night, and the chant from the piece was one of the most popular and well known. When I asked my informant what the tradition meant to him, he said it was about “being vulnerable and bonding with other people, especially if it’s your first show and you’re nervous.” Seeing people perform silly antics removed the fear of embarrassment and let everyone come together to prepare for a great performance while also feeling supported by those around you.

Context: 

This came up when my informant and I were trying to remember traditions that happened in our theater department during high school. While I was involved in a few shows, my friend had more experience than I did and was able to remind me of a ritual that the department participated in before every single play or musical show. 

Thoughts: 

In this ritual, we can observe that the purpose is to create an energetic atmosphere where the cast and crew could get excited for the show; in a way, this ritual is meant to bring good luck to them and alleviate tension. We can also observe that there’s an expectation for what to do during the chant, but not only that, there’s a myriad of variations to the chant that have been made up by people from past generations of the theater department. I also liked that my informant gave the example of “Like a parabola now!” because it shows that Circles functions not only as a stress reliever before a show, but an opportunity for a theater kid to leave a legacy behind, as seen by the fact that our past classmate’s variation is still performed even if he no longer goes to the school. Additionally, we see the multiplicity and variation in the different chants that are performed at each Circle, and know that some will die out and be replaced with others depending on how popular the chant becomes. 

Bigfoot the Friendly Creature

Main Piece: 

Collector (me): How were you introduced to Bigfoot when you were little? 

Informant: Um… I’m trying to think. I think my parents told me about him… um, and he was probably in various picture books as well that I saw. So in downtown Seattle we have the Space Needle as an iconic landmark of Seattle. And there’s a picture book that my dad had when he was younger, and it was the thing in the early 70’s— they were trying to make a thing that Seattle had a mascot called the Wheedle. And it was like the Lorax, except huge, and orange and yellow, and there was a picture book called the Wheedle on the Needle, and it was this friendly monster dude that hung out near the Space Needle. And my dad tried to like get me into the Wheedle. And it was not a thing. It was like 35 years later, and I was kind of scared of him because he looked scary, the Wheedle, and my dad basically told me, “He’s not crazy, he’s a friendly dude, he’s like Bigfoot. He’s just like a friendly person,” and then I asked, “What’s Bigfoot?” And then he explained he was a creature that lived in the woods, and that he’s not hurting anybody, he just wants to be left alone. He doesn’t want to be bothered so everyone gives him his space and he’s a nice nice person. If you run into Bigfoot you’ll be fine, don’t be scared.

Background: 

My informant is a 20-year-old student from Washington state, where the legend of Bigfoot is incredibly popular— to the point of airports selling Bigfoot merchandise such as hats and shot glasses. As my informant said, “he’s kind of a state treasure, like everyone loves him. In other places it’s more like a creepy legend, but around here Bigfoot’s a friendly guy.” Whether one actually believes in him or not, it’s part of Washington state culture to acknowledge Bigfoot’s existence. 

Context:

When my informant was providing me with some Washington folklore for a separate post, I asked if she happened to know any lore about Bigfoot, since most of the legends I’ve heard about him take place there. She did, and I asked how she first learned about him, which she stated in the above piece.

Thoughts: 

This is the first version I’ve heard about Bigfoot where he’s been portrayed not as a monster, but a friendly creature. It’s very endearing, actually, and I think it’s a good representation of how attached a group can get to their legend. Even if Bigfoot is a well known legend across the U.S., this iteration of him could be considered a local legend because of how different he’s described as compared to the other versions where he’s shown as a creature out to cause harm. Since legends are just beliefs in narrative form, it also says a lot about how Washington people would rather view Bigfoot as kindly— as an icon of their state and culture. Furthermore, my informant’s point about Bigfoot’s popularity in Washington state indicates the notion that in order to become part of the surrounding folk group, there has to be an acceptance of this creature, or at least an acknowledgement. What’s also interesting to examine about this piece is how Bigfoot’s popularity has led to the development of a myriad of merchandise for locals and tourists alike, and could be seen as an example of cultural intimacy.

Tale of Golem (Kid’s Version)

Main Piece:

Collector (me): So like, what’s the version [of Golem] you first grew up with and are most familiar with?

Informant: So the first one I heard is not gonna be the most common, but the first one I heard, but it’s like trying to teach little Jewish kids “Don’t be a kvetcher,” which is like someone who complains a lot. And so it was this story of this girl like had this golem who was like her pet golem, but not really her pet golem, but that was the idea of it. And, like, he was a very bad golem— he would just complain all the time when he was alive, so he wasn’t your “saving the day golem,” but he was a kvetcher, and he would just complain and complain and complain and complain. And you know at first the girl wanted to be like the golem, so she would also complain all the time, and then her parents were like “No,” and so they killed the golem, and then the girl was all sad. And then you know, they were like, “This is what happens.” Not dying, but people won’t like you and will get rid of you if you complain all the time.”

Collector: So is it like a cautionary tale or moral lesson for kids?

Informant: Yeah, so that one’s like, you know, your typical children’s story. Like if you do this bad thing, this bad thing will happen, so don’t do this bad thing.

Background: 

My informant here is a 20-year-old student from USC, and was raised Jewish. To those unfamiliar, my informant explained a golem as a figure made of clay that comes to life when someone puts “a piece of paper with Hebrew writing on it, and you put it in its mouth,” and depending on the version, they can either be good or bad guys. My informant learned about this version of golem during storytime at the Jewish preschool they attended when they were little. While it’s not one of the more known versions of the tale, it’s the one the teachers at the school told to my informant and their peers. 

Context: 

This came up when I was telling my friend about a golem figure that one of my classmates brought for the “Show and Tell” activity we had in one of our folklore lectures the other day. I knew that my friend was familiar with golem because of a conversation we’d had about him in the past, and I asked if they could tell me more about him and what version they were familiar with. 

Thoughts: 

While I’m not as familiar with Jewish folk tales or golem, I thought it was interesting to see that this version my informant presented me with was depicted through his actions as a moral lesson for children to abide by. In this version of the tale, we can observe the main lesson: in order to be well liked and taken seriously by others around you, one shouldn’t blindly follow the example of someone else, especially if they know their behavior would be frowned upon in society. This tale interweaves the expectations and values of the culture in a manner that makes it easy for children to understand. The fate of the golem isn’t a literal reminder of what could happen to those who don’t heed the lesson, but by portraying it in such a drastic measure, it helps kids piece together the way that they should conduct themselves in their group. Of course, this is only one version of the golem—

(For a more well known version, see Abedon, May 15, 2020 “The Golem – Jewish Folk Tale”, USC Folklore Archives).

The Tale of Salmon Boy

Main Piece:

The way that I heard it— so I heard different versions of it over time, like all my teachers told me slightly different stories. Um one of the field trips we went on in elementary school was going to the salmon hatchery which is the place where you hatch salmon…as I’m sure you could tell by the name (laughing). So we heard the story there as well. But basically what I heard the story was that there was this young boy who was not very respectful to the salmon. He would like spear them and just for fun he would like… torture the fish basically and just treat them horribly and was not respectful of the all of the things that having salmon meant, for their family, for their society, for him and he just was not was not aware. If he was aware he didn’t care, he was just a really selfish dude. And the gods got angry at the way he was treating their gifts to their society basically, and to teach him a lesson they turned him into a salmon. And he was living with the salmon and living their way of life and, um, going through the process of, you know, laying eggs in the river and going to the ocean, and going back to the river and he befriended the salmon and gained a lot of respect for their way of life. 

And this is where things get a little fuzzy and in the details of the different versions I heard was— one version I heard was that once he gained respect for the salmon, he befriended this other salmon that had taken him in and was like, making sure he was protected because he had no idea what he was doing as a fish… like you would if you were a human and turned into a fish… But there was another boy in the tribe that Salmon Boy knew, and that boy killed the fish he had befriended and was treating the fish horribly. And Salmon Boy was horrified and lost somebody that was very important to him and it, um, changed him and changed the way that he viewed salmon and the world, and having learned his lesson, he was turned back into a human and he was changed forever, you know. He was far more respectful and very careful with the way he interacted with salmon, and he still ate them because it was food, but he did it in a much more respectful way as opposed to actively torturing. 

So that was one version, but I heard another one where instead of it being a friend of Salmon Boy’s that got hurt, it was he himself that got hurt, and so the friend he’d known from the tribe that still remained human speared him instead of the [fish] friend, and treated him horribly and then he, like, you know, turned back into a human. And the other dude was like “oh no!” This is not the proper terminology obviously but that was the gist of it, that then he was treated horribly and then he goes to the salmon and learned his lesson that way. 

Background: 

My informant, one of my friends, is a 20-year-old USC student from Washington state. Having grown up there her whole life, a significant part of her education from K-12 focused on the history of Washington state with emphasis on the Native groups that live there. She told me that Washington State History was a mandatory graduation required course for her and her peers, where they would learn “a lot about all the elements of their culture, words specific to the Pacific Northwest, so obviously salmon was one of them.” As stated in the main piece, this story was often told to her by various teachers. To my informant, the meaning of the story of Salmon boy was about “being respectful of the environment and being respectful even when you are using it. There are spirits and animals and you have to treat them gently, and not be cruel, and not think that you’re better than anything around you.” 

Context: 

This story came up after I asked my informant that in one of my previous classes, we studied the Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest, and I told her that I heard a story about Salmon Boy. I asked if she happened to know the story, when she said yes, I asked for the versions she’d heard.

Analysis: 

 The story of Salmon Boy is a well known tale (told as a  among the people of the Pacific Northwest, whether they’re Native American or not. What I liked is that my informant was able to tell me two different versions of the story that she heard, showcasing Alan Dundes’ idea of multiplicity and variation within folklore that allows it to grow as it’s told over and over to different groups of people. With a story that has two very different endings, it’s interesting to consider the way that it was used and during what circumstances. For example, it could’ve been told to misbehaving children as a cautionary tale with a tragic ending, but simultaneously, the other version could have emphasized the themes of forgiveness and growth.

What I also found interesting about this piece is that it’s considered Native American folklore, yet it’s continuously taught in schools across the Pacific Northwest. As a whole, the United States doesn’t hold folklore on the same pedestal as it does anthropology in part because of the country’s colonialist roots, meaning that a good percentage of folklore within origins in the United States is that of Native Americans’. Additionally, this exchange serves as an example of active and passive bearers: I had only heard of the story of Salmon Boy in an academic setting, but couldn’t remember it enough to tell it on my own. My informant on the other hand, became the active bearer by being able to recite two versions of the story, having grown up hearing them so often in her youth.