Author Archives: rscharen@usc.edu

American Alabama Tribe Myth: Fire

Informant: I have a myth I heard from an Alabama tribeswoman I used to work with. Want to hear that one?

Interviewer: Sure.

Informant: At the start of the world, Bear owned Fire. It kept him and his people warm and let them see even when it was dark. One day, Bear came to a forest. On the forest floor, he found tons of acorns. He set Fire at the edge of the forest, and began to gorge himself on the delicious acorns. As the acorns around him began to run out, the wandered deeper into the forest.

While Bear was eating, Fire was burning at the edge of the forest. Soon, though, Fire had burned up nearly all of its wood. It began to shout “Feed me! Feed me!” to Bear, but Bear was too far away.

Man, however, was not far away, so he, hearing Fire’s cries, wandered over. Man hadn’t seen Fire before, so he asked it what he could feed it to help out. Fire explained that it ate wood, so Man picked up a stick and fed fire. Then he grabbed another, and another, until Fire’s hunger had been quenched. Man, meanwhile, warmed himself by the Fire. He sat nearby, feeding it wood and enjoying its warmth and colors.

After a while, Bear returned to Fire, but Fire was angry at Bear for abandoning him. Fire blazed brighter and brighter until it was blinding to Bear, and told Bear to leave it alone. Fire’s heat scared Bear away, and Bear could not get close enough to carry Fire back with him. Man and Fire were left alone, and that is how Fire came into the possession of Man.

Context: My informant is an eighty year old woman from a very scientifically/factually inclined Midwestern family. This performance was done over Facetime with my informant, since she lives in Seattle. Otherwise, however, it resembled a classic storytelling situation.

Background: My informant heard this story from one of her coworkers while working at a company in Alabama. It stayed with her because she enjoyed how well the story personified the wildness of Fire, but also thought its dependence on other beings for “food” made a lot of sense. Furthermore, the fact that Fire had not been found by Man, but rather had been inherited by a member of the natural world also stuck with her.

Analysis: Personally, I thought the story was great. It shares many similarities with myths I’ve heard from my own home region in the Pacific Northwest, primarily through its use of animals as characters and its personification of elements such as fire. It also demonstrates a really interesting progression where an important facet of our own life – in this case Fire – is not discovered by the ingenuity of mankind alone. Rather, mankind receives Fire from nature, as if we were successors of animals and part of the natural world, rather than detached from it.

The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb

Informant: There once lived a boy named Conrad, who loved to suck his thumbs. He sucked his thumbs day in and day out, and when his mother told him not to, he did anyway. Finally, his mother gives up, and tells him that if he keeps sucking his thumbs, the tall tailor will find him and cut his thumbs off.

But, as soon as Conrad’s mother had left the room, he immediately began to suck his thumb again. But, his mother had not been joking. The door burst open and a tall man with a pair of huge shears ran into the room and chased Conrad down, cutting off both of his thumbs.

Now Conrad has no thumbs.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this story from his parents when he was younger, although he clarified that it was in a joking light, rather than a serious one. He seemed to think the tale was useful for keeping rowdy or otherwise disobedient children from retaining bad habits or bad behaviors.

Analysis: This story struck me from the moment I heard it as quite brutal. Cutting off a child’s thumbs is an uncharacteristically serious punishment for as small a transgression as thumb-sucking. However, it did strike me how the seriousness of the tale reflected the culture of Germany itself. Germany, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, has developed a culture of strict order, one that especially stresses the importance of a superior’s orders. This tale is reflective of this cultural attitude – the child, after displaying disobedience, is given a brutal punishment as recompense. I especially enjoy this tale for its short and to the point attitude. This is a story to listen to and heed the warning of. It isn’t told to entertain children. It is told to caution them.

Annotation: Consult this source for another version of this tale

Hoffman, Heinrich. “Struwwelpeter.” The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, Virginia Commonwealth University, germanstories.vcu.edu/struwwel/daumen_e.html.

Annotation Comment: This is an alternative source for this tale found in the Virginia Commonwealth University database. It doesn’t seem to diverge significantly in terms of narrative, but interestingly, this version seems to be prose. Since the story is translated to English, and the words are in English, I’m inclined to believe this is a modification further down the line. Furthermore, the story has an author attached, an impossibility for folklore, which makes me think that this prose-form of the tale was a modification by Mr. Hoffman to the original.

 

Sie Hat Nicht Alle Tassen Im Schrank

Original: Sie hat nicht alle tassen im schrank

Translation: She doesn’t have all the teacups in her pantry

Full translation: This phrase is used when one is trying to say someone else is crazy. When used, one is implying that the person in question is not entirely right in the head.

Note: This piece of folk speech was only provided using the pronoun “she”. However, he/she can be interchanged and the phrase would still work in conversation.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this piece of folk speech used almost interchangeably with any other permutation of “that person is crazy” both in the city and in the countryside. He does not see it as a piece of folk speech, but rather as another piece of his vocabulary. When someone is acting crazy, this phrase comes as naturally as simply saying “That person is crazy” in German.

Analysis: I was especially excited by this folk speech because it closely resembles a similar phrase used in the United States. In the US, the phrase “the lights are not all on upstairs” shares a similar meaning, to imply that the subject it is referring to is somehow not right in the head. The two phrases most definitely appear to be oikotypes – regional variations of a piece of folklore. Interestingly, however, the German use of “teacups” and “pantry”, more traditional objects may suggest that the German phrase is actually the original, from which the American phrase was derived. Considering there is a sizeable German population in the US, this could most definitely be the case!

Řízek

Interviewer: You said you had a family recipe?

Informant: So you take a piece of meat, usually it would be turkey or pork, but it could be whatever honestly. A lot of people use chicken. You first flatten it out by hitting it, so you basically make it into a flat piece of meat. Then, you have three key steps.

First, You have flour. You put the meat into the flour and cover it all with flour. Then, there’s egg, beaten, you cover the whole thing in the beaten egg. The final step, you cover the whole thing in breadcrumbs, that you would traditionally make yourself from old leftover bread. Then, you fry the whole thing, flip it in the middle of the frying process.

Interviewer: Then serve?

Informant: Yeah, then serve. Usually you would serve it with mashed potato and a pickle.

Interviewer: You said your family modified the recipe a bit?

Informant: Every family does it a little different. What changes usually is the type of meat people use, whether or not they add other stuff to the mix. Maybe herbs or something, each family uses different things. Furthermore, you could not use meat at all. A lot of people just use different vegetables and make this recipe with them, which strays further away from the original recipe but, it’s still a variation that’s common. Personally, me and my family use turkey. We think it gets the most tender during the frying. Also, we add a few small pieces of rosemary into the batter , not a lot, but enough for it to be noticed.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old Czech national attending school in the United States. He’s lived in Prague for most of his life, and Czech is his first language. The interview was conducted face-to-face in a college dorm room.

Background: My informant was taught how to make Řízek by his grandmother while back home in Prague. He likes Řízek because Czech cuisine is a fusion of German, Austrian, and Slavic cuisines, and as a result doesn’t have many uniquely Czech dishes. My informant told me that, because of this, Řízek is considered a sort of “national dish” in the Czech Republic, and is thus close to his heart. My informant himself has made it many times, and considers Řízek one of his favorite dishes.

Analysis: Usually, recipes don’t strike one as the material for folklore, but Řízek is an excellent example of the malleability and word-to-mouth nature of cuisine. The dish apparently had origins stemming from Italian “chicken parmesan”, but used flour and breadcrumbs to make up for a lack of flour. From there, ingenuity led to it further being changed, to the degree that the meat, herbs, and even recipe of the batter itself are subject to interpretation. Řízek is a dish of variation, everyone makes it differently. I also found it interesting that the dish was considered uniquely Czech. Considering that the Czech Republic is still a young country, it appears to be a valuable source of national pride. One might note the use of folklore in this instance to reinforce a nationalistic attitude.

 

No Pig Was There

Slang: Kein schwein war da

Translation: No pig was there

Full Translation: There was no person there, no one was around or present at that point in time.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this piece of folk speech used mainly within his village in Germany, but also at times in Frankfurt and other major metropolitan centers, albeit used less frequently. He likes it because it showcases an interesting motif common within German folk-speech, namely, the use of “pig” or pig related objects. To him, the phrase doesn’t necessarily have any significance emotionally, but is rather an important part of his speech – he confessed that he used it often while in Germany.

Analysis: On the surface, this piece of folk speech appears bland. It’s simply a slang term used to ‘spice up’ language. However, I was intrigued by the use of the word “pig” in place of the word person. Pigs were, and to some degree, continue to be a staple of German agricultural life. This piece of folk-speech seems to imply that, at one point, they were so integral to German life that they found their way into common speech. This seems to be backed up by the fact that, in more rural areas, this construct is more common, whilst it is less likely to be used when one is speaking German in more urbanized areas, separated from livestock.