Author Archives: Alex Tomkow

Use And Misuse Of The Left Hand In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me. NOTE: For this dialogue, I am AT.

Performance:

SV: “So… In India there’s a tradition of eating with your hands, and-which is quite common, and one of the, I guess, major rules or things that may offend someone is if you use your left hand to eat or grab things or get things. And the primary reason for this is it is considered unclean, because in older generations in India, uhm, when you’re cleaning yourself, uhm, after taking a shit… It’s usually using water and your hands, and most people are sort of taught to use their left hand, so that’s one of the reasons why your left hand is unclean, even though obviously you’re going to wash it with soap or gonna wash your hands. So that’s one of the kind of traditions there is that’s kind of prevalent in India.” 

AT: “What if you’re left handed?”

SV: “So that’s sort of a weird, uhm… So the way it started was even if you’re left handed you use sort of- you use your right hand to eat or like you use your right hand to for example, if you’re in a shop or in someone’s house and you’re giving something or taking something from them you’re always taught to use your right hand, or maybe if it’s heavy both hands, but never your left hand. But uhm… Like, I don’t know, I think that maybe in slightly older time they didn’t want people to be left handed for this reason, but I think nowadays less emphasis is placed on this thing.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “Overall I think like… There’s sort of like some reason-like some reasoning behind it that is sort of valid to some extent. But like I guess like with modern like, uhm, advancements and like stuff like washing your hands with soap and I think now in most urban settings people have a bidet they use to wash their like, bodies once they’re taking a shit. So I don’t think it’s as big an issue, using your left hand, and now being left-handed or using your left handed doesn’t make you any worse than any other person. I think maybe if you were in some more rural areas and you used your left hand I think maybe some people might like be offended. But in general I think this is not very common a lot now.

Thoughts:

I had never really heard of anything like this until now, but I think SV is right in that it maybe seems like fairly sound reasoning in times before advancements in modern day sanitation and cleanliness. Upon some further research, it appears that the left hand is not only used for wiping one’s rear but also for other “unclean” actions as well, such as the removal of shoes, and cleaning your feet. Apparently left-handed activists in India today are attempting to fight prejudice against left-handed people, in schools some left-handed kids are taught to only use their right hand and are beaten for using their left. However overall, as SV said, it seems these practices and prejudices are fading in modern India.

Jõulu Vana – The Estonian Santa Claus

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following description of Estonian Christmas celebrations growing up, and more specifically her experiences with Jõulu Vana, the Estonian version of Santa Claus. Her Email was lengthy, but I decided to include the full text so as to preserve her performance of the traditions she grew up on.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: Estonian Christmas — “Jõulud”, which comes from the Swedish “Jul” (Old English ‘Yule’) — is a pagan holiday, a celebration of the end of the year. When I was growing up in Canada, a first generation immigrant, with two Estonian parents, our holiday celebrations began at the beginning of December, with Advent calendars, and continued to New Year’s Eve, when we melted candles and poured the liquid wax into buckets of cold water, where it became solid again with intricate shapes that were supposed to tell our fortune during the coming year. But the most important day for me and my brothers was the day that North Americans call Christmas Eve, December 24th, because it was on the evening of that day that Santa Claus (Jõulu Vana) would come.
I loved everything about Christmas as a child because it happened so slowly. We woke up in the morning to the delicious smell of the special Christmas bread my mother was baking (“pätsi sai”, a white bread made with raisins and almonds and flavored with cardamom that my mother ground in a special grinder). We went to the living room to admire the Christmas tree. When we were very little, my brother and I sometimes crawled under the tree to look up at the ornaments and the lights which we thought were magical. (When we were even younger, there were real candles on the tree.) After breakfast our parents gave us each one small present; the other presents would be coming from Santa.
The excitement grew during the day until we could hardly stand it. Finally, it was evening. My father, a doctor, announced that he was on duty at the hospital and had to leave. This happened every year, and I never wondered why. Awhile later my mother told us that we should go to the window to watch for Jõulu Vana. We could see him coming from a distance, through the snow, pulling a sled piled high with presents. Sometimes he would seem to get lost, approaching one of the other houses. (We were the only children on the block except for one other Estonian family who lived in the apartment directly below us.) We would knock on the window and call out frantically ‘’ “this way, Jõulu Vana!”
Before he gave us our presents, we had to each sing a Christmas song for him. We had been practicing these songs for weeks, but I remember still being nervous and even a bit scared. He always clapped and told us that we were fine singers. (Singing is a very big tradition for Estonians.) And then, finally, he handed us our presents.
As a child I did not really believe in God – most Estonians are pagan at heart, not Christian. (My mother once told me that she found it odd that Canadians go to church so often, every Sunday. In Estonia, she explained, there were only four occasions for reasons for going to church: to be baptised, to be confirmed, to be married, and to be buried.) But my faith in Jõulu Vana was strong. I must have been a gullible child. I never wondered why Jõulu Vana always came straight to our apartment, rather than the apartment of the Estonian family below us. I didn’t even wonder when I noticed, one year, that their Jõulu Vana was shorter than our Jõulu Vana. And when my Estonian friend told me: “You know, there isn’t really a Jõulu Vana; it is just our fathers wearing costumes from the hospital”, I looked her right in the eye and said: “Maybe your father pretends to be Jõulu Vana. But we have the real Jõulu Vana.”

Thoughts:

I’ve always been fond of childhood beliefs in Santa Claus or other versions of the figure. While discussion can be brought up of the commercialization of Christmas by the US, and by companies like Coca-Cola (who created the iconic imagery of Santa Claus we all know today) there’s something very pure and wholesome in the participation on the parts of parents in the myth of Santa Claus. Parents claiming that the presents under the tree are from this jolly red figure is a wonderful example of letting child’s imaginations run wild, and nurturing those imaginations by playing along with them, and I’ve never really understood claims that telling your children Santa Claus is real is actually cruel because they’re going to “discover you were lying” or something. Childhood wonder and magic doesn’t last forever, and I think rather than stamping it out, it’s something that should be protected, loved, and cared for by parents and other adults. I remember when I was a child my father would put on a big boot while we were asleep and cover it in soot before stomping around the house so that in the morning it would look like Santa came down from the chimney and had a wander about the house. Real effort was put into making Santa feel real, and I can see now after reading this from my mother, why that mattered so much to her, and the magic from her own childhood that she was trying to recapture for us in ours. The Estonian tradition of Jõulu Vana, where the father dresses up as the jolly red figure, is a perfect example of how putting in effort into creating this myth and captivating a child’s imagination can lead to wonderful memories that can last a lifetime.

Hitchhiking And Serial Killers In The U.S.

Informant’s Background:

My informant, DK, is a undergraduate student at Arizona State University studying aerospace engineering. He lives in Tempe, Arizona. His family is American and he was born and raised in Arizona, where he has lived his entire life.

Context:

My informant, DK, and I are friends, after meeting online through a mutual friend during the pandemic. I asked him if he had any folklore to share.

Performance:

DK: “Alright. Uhh… My middle-school math teacher, his name was (REDACTED), uh, very interesting guy. He fled home when he was 18, and I think he joined… he joined up with a traveling circus. (DK laughs). Like, I’m not making this up he legitimately joined a traveling circus. Uh, and then, at another point he decided to hitchhike across America. You know, hitchhike from point A to point B… uh, not really caring where he was going, you know… it’s the 70s. Uh, and so he is on the West Coast, in California during this time… And uh, he is hitching of course, like I said… and so he gets picked up by some guy, guy is giving him real creepy vibes. Just like a no-good dude kind of situation. Uh, and the guy keeps asking like creepy questions like… “Do you have any family? Do you live nearby?” Like that kind of stuff. And eventually my math teacher gets creeped out SO much the decides to bail from the car, literally like jumps out of the car while it is still rolling and runs away. And… you know, and normally that’s the end of the story except my math teacher saw on the news later that day, err…. The next day, actually, that there was a hitchhiker found who was found dead on the beach, uh, nearby where he was. And that… probably was the like same guy picking up another hitchhiker and killing him. And that that was like a serial killer who was doing that stuff so… that’s the story of my awesome math teacher who was almost killed by a serial killer when he was a young lad.

AT: “Ok, did you hear this from your math teacher?”

DK: “Yeah!”

AT: “Ok, what was the context in which he told you the story?”

DK: “Uh… It was math class. (DK laughs.) We didn’t have much to talk about at the time. He was a really neat dude, he had a lot of stories like that.”

AT: “Was it a known or a famous serial killer?”

DK: “I think it was, but… it… it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten which serial killer.”

Thoughts:
Serial killers have played a prominent role in American culture and folklore ever since the late twentieth century, if not earlier. While serial killings still occur in modern American society, the rise of mass shootings and other large-scale violence and killings such as the rise of domestic terrorism have in a way pushed serial killings and serial killers away from the limelight, and at least in the collective conscious they have become a almost quaint thing of the past. Television shows such as Netflix’s Mindhunter, or it’s various documentaries about real-life serial killers have propelled the murderers of the late twentieth century into the status of myths and legends. This particular story seems a perfect encapsulation of this kind of serial killer tale. The time period is the late twentieth century, with the setup of the story being that the informant’s teacher is hitchhiking, a phenomenon that has widely fallen out of practice as it is nowadays deemed “unsafe”, primarily because of stories such as this one. Popular American media is also full of such stories, such as in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where a group of hitchhikers find themselves at the mercy of a family of hillbilly serial killers. The scary and widely now considered relatively unsafe times of the late twentieth century in America lead themselves to all sorts of morbid tales, cults, serial killings, and the like were at the forefront of American cultural consciousness at the time, and as a result many such tales of the period, such as the one found in this article, have lasted to this day.

The Goat-Man Of Pope Lick Creek

Informant’s Background:

My informant, AH, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, but now lives in Los Angeles where she attends undergraduate study at USC. She is 21 years old.

Context:

The informant is a close friend and former roommate of mine. I asked her if she had any folklore from her hometown in Kentucky she could share with me. For the purposes of this performance, she is labeled as AH, and I am labeled as AT.

Performance:

AH: “So there’s this creek, pretty close to my house, probably about like ten minutes away, it’s called Pope Lick, I don’t know why, but uhm me and my friends would go there pretty often because there’s these like train tracks that run up above and underneath there is where the goat man is supposed to be. So the goat man he’s supposed to be like legs of a goat, top part of a dude, and what he’s supposed to do is if you’re there at night (which we were pretty often), he’d go and like either like lure you down and then go and like grab you and eat you or he’d like fucking jump down and get you. But that was his whole thing like (*in spooky voice*) oooOOhhh we’re hanging out, and we might die! Someone’s gonna get killed by the goat man! But it was very fun, yeah, that’s most of the stuff.”

AT: “Where did you first hear about it?”

AH: “So I first heard of it… my uh-my girlfriend at the time she was like “oh, have you heard of the goat man?” and I was like “no” and she was like “yeah so if we go here at night we might see this like goat man person thing.” And that was like when I first heard about it and then we went together and we didn’t see anything, but it was definitely kind of like a creepy vibe, like abandon fucking train tracks, kind of creepy.”

Thoughts:

The first thing that came to mind upon my hearing about this was Ray Cashman’s article Visions of Irish Nationalism, which we read in class, more specifically where Cashman discusses how a seemingly innocuous location can hold a special meaning to the locals of the area or to those properly informed (Cashman, 373). In this case, the location is seemingly mundane, a railroad trestle bridge, yet there it has a different meaning to those that live in the area that are “in the know”. According to my research, there actually have been a number of deaths as recently as 2019 at the location, as it is actually not abandoned and is a major railway for trains. So in this case we see an example where depending on the time of the visit, and how safe they were being, the informant and their partner could easily have been seriously injured by going to a location that is actively dangerous and prohibited of entry to the public, yet the myth surrounding the location provides a new meaning to the location, and makes it a desirable destination to visit for locals.

Cashman, Ray. Visions of Irish Nationalism. Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 45, No. 3. Pp. 361-381.

Persian Sugar Rubbing Ceremony

Informant’s Background:

The informant is my (not-blood-related) aunt, who married my uncle on my Dad’s side. She is from Iran, and moved to Canada a few years before marrying my uncle. They had a traditional Persian wedding.

Context:

My uncle and aunt were visiting us, and so I asked my aunt about a particular tradition I saw practiced at their wedding.

Performance:

AN: “Ah, yes. At the wedding we grind sugar cones together and put it over the white sheet that’s held over the bride and groom’s head as a symbol of them having a sweet life together for the rest of their lives.”

Thoughts:

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ask many questions as it was a busy day, but the ritual seems in-line with many wedding rituals, in that it is good-spirited, and intended to bring joy and happiness to the newly wedded couple.