Author Archives: Thomas Seli

Jiu Jitsu Belt Washing

Background: The informant is my father. The informant is well aware of the culture surrounding martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do and Jiu Jitsu as his children have been practicing martial arts for almost a decade, and he also practiced martial arts himself when he was younger.

Context: I spoke to the informant while eating dinner with my family and I addressed the topic of folklore to my father.

Main Piece: My father remembers hearing while at my martial arts academy that whenever a Jiu Jitsu practitioner washes their belt, they are believed to have lost some of their skills and techniques. The Jiu Jitsu practitioner is free to wash their ‘Gi’ (traditional Jiu Jitsu uniform), whenever they please, as not washing one’s uniform after training will leave it rancid. However, the belt is not to be washed as when one washes their belt, they are essentially washing away all of the techniques and skills they have learned.

Interpretation: When my father told me about this Jiu Jitsu superstition, it rang a bell in my head because I had heard this multiple times on the mat myself. I remember one day a black-belt admitted to cleaning their belt and many people were poking fun at him and saying that he had just lost exactly 75% of his techniques. Of course, this is more of a running joke from my experience then an actual superstition that people still believe, however it is still relevant. In my personal interpretation, when you wash your belt, you are essentially getting rid of all the sweat and dirt that symbolize your efforts to learn and grow as a Jiu Jitsu practitioner.  

Italian Family Drama Proverb

Background: My informant is a 52-year-old with Italian heritage. Both his mother and father are from Mola di Bari, a seaside town in Southern Italy. The informant was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Santa Monica, California at a young age. While he was not born or raised in Italy, the strong Italian roots in his family meant that Italian culture and tradition was still very prevalent in his household. The informant is also my father.

Context: I spoke to the informant while eating dinner with my family and I addressed the topic of folklore to him to see what interesting things he knew about the Italian side of my family.

Main Piece: The informant told me about an Italian proverb that he has heard used in his household which states: “Every family has their own candle to burn”. The informant interprets this as a way of saying that no family is perfect and every family has their own issues to deal with. The informant also mentioned that the candle is quite significant in Italian culture, which is heavily influenced by Catholicism, and that there is deep symbolism of candles in Catholic traditions.

Interpretation: Having never heard this proverb before, I became interested in the symbolic significance of candles in Italian culture that the informant mentioned. After doing a little bit of research I discovered that the burning of candles is used to represent prayer and worship in the Catholic church. After thinking about it, the saying “Every family has their own candle to burn” essentially means that every family has their own problems and conflicts to pray for, as prayers are often used to ask God for aid to relieve a certain conflict or fix a certain problem.

Estonian Tin Prognostication

Background: My informant, HS, is a 52-year-old professor at USC. She was born and raised in Estonia and moved to the United States when she was twenty. Her mother and father were both physicians in Soviet Estonia. Even though she no longer lives in Estonia, she still stays connected with Estonian tradition through her involvement with the Los Angeles Estonian House and still speaks the Estonian language with family and friends. She also happens to be my mother.

Context: One lunch, during quarantine, I decided to sit down and interview my mother about interesting Estonian folklore she was aware of and has experienced.

Main Piece: “At the winter solstice, which also is in Christianity right, but at the darkest point of the winter, and when we knew the new year was gonna start, or at least traditionally that indicates that a new year was gonna start, we melted tin and then we would pour it, like… y’know, bit by bit and put it into a cold or room temperature bucket of water which would solidify it. And then take sort of the mini sculpture out of the water and try to interpret it. If you saw something that looked like a horse, then that would mean that, y’know, you would get a new horse or get a new calf that would make it and become a working horse for the family. Or anything else, if you saw a baby or… um y’know a tool, where you would maybe say, I don’t know, my son is gonna become a uh…. or if there was obviously a sword looking thing then it would be like, OH this is an ominous sign of enemy armies coming again. It would be kind of a time to, uh, to interpret, to predict what was going to happen in the next year”. 

Interpretation: I was never aware of this tradition. What stuck out to me the most about this sign superstition was that it is based more in nature then something like luck or magic. Estonian culture is extremely down-to-earth in the sense that it is simple and not very extravagant, and also in the sense that it deals a lot with nature and earthy materials like tin and rock rather then more luxurious materials like gold and diamonds. While some cultures look into a crystal ball for signs of the future, Estonians put molten tin into a bucket of water if you get what I’m saying. This superstition is a reflection of the down-to-earth nature of Estonian folk culture and how Estonians look to more natural occurrences for signs.

‘Kalevipoeg’: Estonian National Tale

Background: My informant, HS, is a 52-year-old professor at USC. She was born and raised in Estonia and moved to the United States when she was twenty. Her mother and father were both physicians in Soviet Estonia. Even though she no longer lives in Estonia, she still stays connected with Estonian tradition through her involvement with the Los Angeles Estonian House and still speaks the Estonian language with family and friends. She also happens to be my mother.

Context: One lunch, during quarantine, I decided to sit down and interview my mother about interesting Estonian folklore she was aware of and has experienced.

Main Piece: “Our national epic, which is Kalevipoeg, which is this huge -y’know- larger than life, obviously oversized peasant. Um, who -y’know- tilled and toiled the earth so the mountains… or the, the hills, the rolling hills, that are in southern Estonia particularly are, like, his fields that he toiled. He was a simple peasant guy who warded off warriors and alien invaders from other lands, because we were always taken over by Germans, Swedes, Danes, and Russians”.

Interpretation: While my mother did not remember many of the more specific plot details of this  Estonian tale, it was clear to me what the significance of the tale is. Being part Estonian, I am very aware of the fact that Estonia has a long history of being conquered and subjugated by more powerful European nations such as the ones mentioned by my mother. The story of Kalevipoeg served as a symbol and a mascot for the Estonian peasantry who were resisting the rule of invaders. It is important to note that the hero of the story is not some kind of king or royal knight who saves the day, it is a simple farmer who fights to protect his land. It is a reflection of Estonian history and folk culture.

Annotation: For another version of this tale, refer to:

Kreutzwald, Friedrich Reinhold. Kalevipoeg. JiaHu Books, 2013.

Crossing Obstacles on the Same Side When in Groups

Background: My informant, HS, is a 52-year-old professor at USC. She was born and raised in Estonia and moved to the United States when she was twenty. Her mother and father were both physicians in Soviet Estonia. Even though she no longer lives in Estonia, she still stays connected with Estonian tradition through her involvement with the Los Angeles Estonian House and still speaks the Estonian language with family and friends. She also happens to be my mother.

Context: One lunch, during quarantine, I decided to sit down and interview my mother about interesting Estonian folklore she was aware of and has experienced.

Main Piece:

“If you are in a group of people, or even two people, and you come to a post of any kind, you have to cross on the same side so that there will be nothing that comes in between your relationship to splinter the relationship. So it avoids conflict or, y’know, teaches you or makes sure that if you have conflict you resolve it in a way that you stay in a relationship.”

Interpretation: This is essentially a superstition to avoid bad relationships. I have never noticed this when I visited Estonia but I am sure that people were doing this as they were walking down the street. It seems that if a group of people split up to go around some kind of post in the street, whether it be a mail box or stop sign, it reflects a breaking of bond in a sense and a reflection of a dysfunctional relationship. My personal interpretation is that many Estonians likely believe in some kind of bond or energy that unifies groups. If a group splits up to walk around an obstacle, then the group is no longer unified and the group relationship will likely go south.