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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.

Bo Tah Bo Lampa

Proverb: Bo tah bo lampa

Phonetic Translation: Boe tah boe lam pah

Translation: If you don’t chug, you have no balls

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This piece of folk speech was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room.

Background: This informant is from Singapore, where the drinking age is 18. Because of this, he has gone to clubs and other places with his friends to drink. While out drinking at one of these clubs for the first time, his friends shouted this over and over while they were drinking, essentially telling each other to keep going over. He personally likes this piece of folk speech because or its origins. It did not arise in Singapore initially, but rather has roots in Cantonese bars.

Analysis: The first thing that struck me about this phrase was that, despite the informant identifying it as mainly Singaporean, its origin is in fact in Canton. Though Singapore is a mainly Malay-speaking region, this phrase has replaced other, native sayings. Furthermore, this phrase is an awesome view into how many pieces of folklore formed. In this case, Singapore and Canton share strong trade ties and relatively close geographic locations. That, coupled with the maritime nature of the two regions, meant that sailors temporarily onshore, as well as passengers, were most likely the ones to make the phrase well known. Personally, I think the phrase is crude, especially when translated to English, but still, I can see why it spread easily. Phonetically, it’s an easy and fun phrase.

Spiders and Surveyors

Informant: This story is a bit goofy… not sure if it’s what you’re looking for.

Interviewer: Let’s hear it.

Informant: So my father, was a bit of a trickster. He worked for a time as an urban surveyor – one of the men who plot out sewer systems and those sorts of things. Mostly urban planning. Anyways… he uses this surveying tool, a sort of telescope, and these tools have to be very accurate. If they’re not, your instruments are off. So their crosshairs are very precise (pause)

Interviewer: Ok…

Informant: My father liked to trick people – so he loved this trick. While he was using this tool, he asked one of his friends how the crosshair was so precisely made. His friend… well, he had heard an explanation before, and so he began to talk about spiders. See, someone had told them that spiders, with the sort of.. Natural geometry of their webs, were able to accurately make these crosshairs. Factories would sort of… uh, train them, to make these crosshairs.

Interviewer: Did your father believe this?

Informant: (Laughs) He thought it was a bit ridiculous, but still, it’s just… just reasonable enough to pass under the radar. I’m not sure he ever believed this was true, but at the same time, he never did disprove it. He always talked about how he’d visit a factory and see the machines just to settle the matter, but I never did hear whether it was spiders or machines.

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 loves this story because of her scientific background, to a part. Everyone from her family was bent on things making sense. This story, however, is stupid and preposterous, but not quite stupid enough to immediately dismiss. So, if people don’t immediately accept it, they waste a bit of time searching around before finally ending up in this limbo of knowing it’s not quite realistic, but not being able to verify it.

Analysis: This is a great example of an urban legend. This piece seems preposterous, yet it also has its own sort of logic to it that makes one consider its truthfulness – seeing as how some of the informant’ father’s acquaintances believed and spread this story. Once someone has heard it, the story is good enough to keep on passing around, and so it keeps on circulating. I personally don’t believe it, seeing as how machines can probably do the exact same thing for far cheaper, but still, spiders making the crosshairs is not completely outside of the realm of possibility.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Proverb: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Full Translation: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect essentially means: Always put your greatest effort in – that is how you will improve. If you practice perfection at every step, perfection itself is far more attainable.

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 proverb from her own husband, who himself learned it from colleagues in a university setting. She loves this updated take on “practice makes perfect” because it reflects her work ethic. Though she’s well into her 80s, she is constantly seeking out new challenges for herself. She likes to be her best her, and this saying helps her do that – to be the best possible person she can be, she always practices perfection, though she may not necessarily attain it.

Analysis: This is an intriguing example of a proverb changing shape to reflect differing ethical or societal standards. This phrase is interesting since it takes a very well known American proverb – “practice makes perfect” and modifies it, changing its significance with the addition of a single word. The significance immediately changes – this is no longer saying that practice itself will lead to success, but rather putting maximum effort into ones work will ensure maximum reward. I personally think it’s a really cool way to further stress the importance of work ethic. It changes a well known proverb in a very simple, yet noticeable way, so that the phrase is still easy to remember  and catchy, and inspires even greater effort in those who hear it.


The Shrimp That Falls Asleep

Proverb: Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente.

Phonetic Translation:ˈɾõŋ ˈke se ˈðwɛɾ.me se lo ˈʝe.βa la ko.ˈrjɛ̃n̪.te

Translation: The shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current

Full translation: This proverb boils down to a relatively simple message. If you don’t put in work or effort, whether in daily life or in a specific situation, you risk being “swept away by the current”, or risk losing agency over your life.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This proverb was recited in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

My informant heard this proverb from his parents after he waited until late at night to begin a long assignment. He likes this proverb because it stresses the importance of effort. If you don’t put in effort, you won’t get anywhere – an especially important lesson to keep in mind when one is away at college. Also, he appreciates that phonetically, the words duerme and corriente rhyme, which makes the phrase flow easily off the tongue.

Analysis: The first thing I noticed about this proverb is its similarity to one from my own culture, “You snooze, you lose”. Though my informant’s proverb itself differs significantly in terms of wording, its meaning is essentially the same – slacking off or not doing anything will ultimately result in a more difficult struggle further down the line. The similarities in meaning but differences in wording suggest that the Mexican and American proverbs arose independently from each other, despite having essentially the same message – or, in folklore terms, the two are oikotypes, local variations of a common piece of folklore.