Author Archives: Sam Hassell


“He who knows and knows he knows, and he who knows not and knows he knows not, has knowledge; but he who knows and knows not he knows, and he who knows not and knows not he knows not, is a fool.”

The above proverb was learned by the informant from a school teacher in his first year of minor Seminary (i.e. equivalent to high school), who likely repeated it several times in reference to learning. The informant states that the proverb could be used “whenever you think any of the four parts is true” but that it is most often used “when you think the last part is true.” It could be said to the person you think it relates to (as in somebody who thinks they truly know something when they really don’t), or to someone else. The informant considers this proverb “useful because it points out to everyone that they should be aware of what they are doing.” Furthermore, it “applies to every aspect of life; no matter what you are doing, you should have knowledge about what you’re doing and knowledge of that knowledge itself, whether you are buying something, selling something, using something, or whatever.”

This proverb seems to be a shorter variation of the following Arabic proverb:

“He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him. He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child. Teach him. He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Wake him. He who knows, and knows that he knows, is a leader.”

The message of the version given by the informant seems, in general, to align well with that of the more often cited version, though the latter clearly makes a more specific statement about each of the four kinds of person and their respective degrees of knowledge and, more importantly, of self-knowledge (or knowledge about their knowledge). The theme of determining the extent of one’s own wisdom or ignorance is a prevalent theme in Western thought, contained everywhere from the famous maxim “Know thyself,” to Socrates’ apparent belief that the oracle at Delphi proclaimed him the wisest man in the world precisely because he claimed to know nothing (hence, like the second type in both versions of the proverb, but more so the informant’s). I agree with the informant that the last section of his version of the proverb is the one that we would most likely have in mind when using this saying, but I believe in general the proverb sets-up a slippery slope; for if one must appeal to a sort of meta-knowledge in order to evaluate his more immediate knowledge, it follows from the same logic that he should continue on so that he not only had “knowledge of his knowledge” but even knowledge of this higher order knowledge and so forth ad infinitum making the notion of an ultimate form of self- knowledge, and perhaps knowledge itself, impossible.


Walsh, William Shepard. Handy-book of Literary Curiosities. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1893. 593. Web

Ghost Legend of Mae Nak- Thailand (Buddhist)


About 100 or 150 years ago, there was a married couple in Bangkok. While the husband was gone on military service the wife, Mae Nak (??????), delivered their first-born baby, but because medicine wasn’t as good at that time, she and the baby died during delivery. When the husband came back, nobody in the village told him that Mae Nak and his baby died because they thought that he would be sad since he was expecting to see his wife and baby, who he hadn’t seen in a long time, when he came home. However, he comes to his house and finds Mae Nak and their baby. Everyone in the village saw that the man had gone home and yet was still acting normal, and talking about Mae Nak and his baby as though they were still alive. These people wonder what is going on and talk among themselves but do not say anything directly to him about the death of his wife and child.  Though someone in the village finally comes and tells him that his wife and child are dead, he doesn’t believe them because he sees them still alive.

One day, Mae Nak is cooking a meal in which lime is one of the ingredients, and the lime falls between the cracks in the floor of the house. The husband sees the lime fall and he goes downstairs to pick up the lime. His wife doesn’t know that he is going to get the lime and, because she is a ghost, she extends her arm all the way through the crack of the floor to the ground under the house to pick up the lime. The husband sees this and now he also recognizes that the house appears differently—all of a sudden, he realizes that his house is also very dirty because his wife is dead (he originally thought that it looked very clean). He finally believes what the village people told him about his family being dead. The husband runs away and goes to a village temple, asking a monk to help him.

At the same time, Mae Nak doesn’t know that her husband saw her ghostly arm extend to pick up the lime and so she doesn’t know why her husband left or where he is and goes searching for him. After looking for a long time, she finally finds him at the village temple. When she gets to the temple a group of monks holds a rope together in a circle with the husband in the middle and pray at the same time (a Thai practice believed to protect the person in the middle from spirits) in order to protect him. One of the monks explains to Mae Nak that she is a ghost and that she must go to the ghost world to be reincarnated, but Mae Nak tells the monk that she really loves her husband and wants to stay with him. The head monk then explains that her husband is not hers forever, and that she cannot fight with nature; she must be reincarnated and cannot stay like she is. However, Mae Nak breaks through the circle of monks and the husband runs away from her. She keeps following her husband, and is very sad and angry that her husband doesn’t want to be with her anymore. He explains to her that a man and a ghost cannot live together, but she still doesn’t understand why and they keep arguing.

Finally, a famous head monk (equiv. to a Christian bishop in Christianity, according to the informant), named Somdej Toh (????????) comes to Mae Nak and explains to her the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, teaching her that from birth, nothing is yours—your body, your property, anything—and that being with this man or not being with this man is no different because she is just a part of nature; no matter what happens, everything is the same. Because this monk is such a great teacher Mae Nak understands now and leaves her husband and goes to the ghost world. Still, to this day, when people go to the district in Bangkok, called Prakanong (???????), where Mae Nak and her husband lived, they claim to see Mae Nak’s ghost around the place where her house used to be.

The informant learned this item from his grandmother while he was very young, perhaps 6 years old. The legend is usually told “by parents to young children so that if they misbehave something very bad will happen to them because the ghost of Mae Nak will come and get them.” “If you are concerned about the Buddhist context” then the story is “good and very deep,” according to the informant. However, he does not believe most people care very much about the story’s Buddhist themes, but rather “just as a ghost story.” The informant also states that the story is good because it helped him to “learn about people in an earlier time period and how they lived.”

I agree with the informant that the main purpose and value of the legend, besides its use by elders to scare children into behaving properly, seems to consist in its conveyance of the important Buddhist principle of “non-attachment” as the informant refers to it. However, despite its apparent connection to Buddhist belief and practice, it is interesting to find that one of the main events in the story—the encircling of the husband with a group of praying monks who are  connected to each other with a rope in order to keep Mae Nak away—is actually described by the informant as a practice which is not part of Buddhism but rather is a Thai folk belief. Since this practice ultimately fails with Mae Nak breaking through the sort of “force field” created by the praying circle of monks, while the teachings of the great Buddhist teacher Somdej Toh succeed in convincing Mae Nak to depart her husband and this world, it is quite possible that the legend is in fact asserting the efficacy of Buddhist teaching over mere Thai superstition. Finally, the story need not have a specifically Buddhist message (though this seems very clearly intended) but rather may serve to teach in general that we must know when to let go of something, such as a person or an endeavor, and simply move on instead of foolishly trying to hold on to it.

Upon more closely analyzing the story, I also found that the story’s main dilemma—namely, Mae Nak’s unwillingness to go to enter the spirit world—is resolved only on the third attempt, echoing the importance of the number three which pervades much of American folklore. In the legend, we find that the first attempt to persuade Mae Nak is made by one of the “superstitious” temple monks who is protecting her husband. Next, it is the husband himself who tries to convince his wife that a ghost and a man simply cannot remain together in this world. Finally, the famous Thai Buddhist teacher, Somdej Toh, enters the story for the third and final attempt, so wise and compelling that he is able to successfully demonstrate the foolishness of Mae Nak’s wish to remain with her husband in this world, and persuade her to depart this world for the next.


Nadeau, Kathleen, and Johnathan H.X. Lee. Encyclopedia of Asian-American Folklore and Folklife. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2011.

Folk Belief- China

Belief: Never give shoes, watches, and clocks as presents to someone

The informant learned the above Chinese folk belief from her mother, around the time that she “first started give presents,” which was about the age of 12. The item is to be performed “any time you’re going to give a gift.” The informant views this belief as “embedded” into her life, claiming that she “gets paranoid” about receiving these items as presents, since the belief was reinforced “so many times and for so long.”

Though the informant stated that giving the above items as presents is considered bad luck for the recipient according to this Chinese folk belief, she was uncertain why. Simply not giving these items as gifts to others serves here as a protection, as do many forms of folk belief, against bad omens. While the informant didn’t seem to know much about the reasoning behind this item, it was clear that, as with most folk beliefs, the belief was a product of her social circumstances and formed a part of her identity as Chinese, even though she lives in Australia.

Prank- “Tabletopping”

The prank of “tabletopping” involves “one person secretly getting down on their hands and knees, and flattening their back like a table behind another person who is standing up. Then, another person in front of the person who is standing pushes them and they trip over the person who is behind them.” The informant learned this item about two years ago in the 7th grade by seeing his friends or kids in general at school playing the prank on others. The item is usually performed during recess on a “grassy, soft area so the person doesn’t get hurt too badly” but it can also be performed inside. The informant would perform the item on anybody he knows. His opinion of the item is that “it hurts when it’s done to you, but it’s funny when it’s done to other people.”

The above prank described by the informant has both an inside group—the ones planning the prank and working together in order to execute it—and an outsider, or the person who is being “tabletopped.” There is, however, much flexibility in this dynamic since the insider can quite easily become an outsider—the person upon whom the prank is played—and vice versa. Accordingly, the informant expressed that he had both performed the prank on others as well as having the prank played on him. The prank can also be played on a relatively large number of people, which the informant describes as “anybody he knows,” as opposed to just one’s best friend or member of one’s clique.

Though I agree with the informant that watching somebody fall over can be “funny,” I believe there is another, perhaps more significant reason why the prank might be played besides merely for the sake of humor: it could also be a way of demonstrating one’s ability to control others (namely, their own ability to control their bodies or movements) and thus assert one’s agency. In this sense, the prank could be especially useful to a bully or any kid (or group of kids) wishing to pick on another, in which case, unlike I stated previously, there could be a very definite distinction between the identities of those who perpetrate the prank and those who are its targets.

Folk Remedy- “Hot Toddy”

Remedy: a “hot toddy,” or warm drink consisting of tea, lemon, and “one shot to half of a shot” of whiskey.

The informant states that the above drink is supposed to be a remedy for the “cold, flu, or if you are feeling under the weather.” He learned this in childhood from many of the “elders” of his family or friends—“particularly the older generation of men”—who would suggest this as a remedy. The informant states that whether or not the remedy is used may “depend on how badly you feel” but is “kind of arbitrary”: you may use it “one time and not another.” The informant claims to have only used the remedy himself “two to three times” and didn’t really remember how well it worked, stating “maybe once it made me feel better, but I’m mostly guessing.”

As can be seen from the statements of the informant, a medical doctor, he possessed no strong opinion either way as to the efficacy of  the “hot toddy” remedy. One thing that was interesting, however, was that he remarked that “there’s more of a tendency for those who have used it [in the past] to use it every time they feel under the weather,” which, though the informant didn’t explicitly make this accusation, may attest to the propensity of this drink to be used more for its whiskey content than for its specific salutary use for ailments. Similarly, the informant’s statement that it was the “older generation of men” who proposed this drink as a remedy makes one wonder whether the concept of a “hot toddy” might not have been used merely as a good way to make light of (as in a euphemism; cf. “grandpa’s old cough syrup”) or conceal one’s propensity for liquor consumption.