Category Archives: Magic

Ritual actions engaged in to effect changes in the outside world.

Saci: The Brazilian Prankster

Abstract: A description of a Brazilians view of the character known as Saci-pererê. He is a one-legged short creature with dark skin who smokes a pipe and wears a red hat. He is the Brazilian prankster who is said to cause chaos when he teleports in and out. One of the key iterations told is his red cap is said to have a bad scent with doesn’t fair well. Other aspects that were mentioned about the trickster is his willingness to cause little harm to day to day life such as teasing dogs, releasing farm animals and cursing essential items such as chicken eggs to prevent them from hatching.

Background: MC is a Brazilian currently living in Florida and is a student at the University of Southern California. She’s an advocate for Brazilian culture and expresses it by speaking highly of their myths and legends and even partaking in the semi-religious activities such as wearing bracelets with powers to grant wishes to the wearer. She describes one of the few stories heard from parents when she was younger and details it below.

The legend

P: So tell me a legend that’s been with you to this day

MC: Ok so there is this character that I remember known as Saci and he was like a mischievous little guy who always wore a red had only one leg which I thought was so weird. He also had this red hat which when he wore it allowed him to disappear and then reappear and the thing was every time he did this, he caused a small tornado to appear like a dust devil I guess. 

P: So he’s like brazils version of the Norse god Loki? 

MC: Yeah exactly he’s like the Loki in the marvel movies except he bothers all of the locals and enjoys it too. Like what I heard is he tends to mess with your crops and stuff and ruin your day so people try to catch him and contain him to keep him from annoying the hell out of you 

Interpretation:

My understanding of this character really came down to the parallel between Loki and Saci. It seems like he was a character commonly referred to when things went wrong in brazil such as MC made the comment that there was a phrase people said where it went like, “Saci must’ve been here again.” He seems like a great example of a Brazilian Oikotype seen this type of personality has been interpreted into other cultures like Norse Mythology or the Brazilian version of a Leprechaun. It was also mentioned that the story of this character was told by slaves and adapted in a way to scare both the children and fellows members. It seems like this character was a great influence on the culture as a way to explain certain phenomena which they had no explanation for so Saci was a great answer to the question of who released my animals or why there are small tornados across the land.

Waving/Beckoning Cat

R: Well, we gave him a cat for luck.
C: Why? And why is it waving
R: I’ve actually heard two stories for that. One, was a long time ago, there was an emperor who was a good man. He would always greet everyone he saw as he went about his walks. One day, he saw a cat waving at him and so he stopped to wave back. Then, right in front of him, whoooosh, a horse galloped by and would have hit him!
The other one I’ve heard is that the cat is actually beckoning you. So there was an emperor who was sitting under a tree and enjoying his day when he saw a cat beckoning him to come. So he did and then right after he was out from under the tree, lightning struck it and would have killed him had he not gone to the cat.
So now when someone is starting a new business, you give them a waving cat.
Context
The informant gave their brother-in-law a waving cat when he opened a new business and shared that story to those present when prompted to by his children. To the informant, it was a way of honoring their brother-in-law’s culture and sharing stories (the informant enjoys storytelling) that they had heard from their parents when growing up.
My Thoughts
I have heard several versions of this story besides the two shared here and have seen many different waving cats in Japanese stores. This shows the cultural desire to be able to influence things such as luck and to honor the things and people that bring good fortune: a good turn for a good turn. In another version of the story [see link below] the samurai is the one saved by the cat and he then goes on to give much wealth to the temple that the cat belonged to and honor the cat upon its death.
https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/maneki-neko-temple-tokyo/index.html

Penny for a Clock

Piece
“You cannot give time”
Context
In Chinese culture, you cannot give someone a clock, watch, or any other time-keeping device as it is seen as giving the person time or highlighting how much time they have left on earth. It is especially insulting if given to someone older than you. So instead of giving someone a clock or other time-keeping device, you sell it to them. The person you are “gifting” the clock to will then give you a penny (or the lowest form of currency of that region) so that they are instead purchasing it from you.
My Thoughts
Death is terrifying for most people and thus their culture will reflect that fear of the uncertainty. This practice shows the desire to ignore the passing time, or at least not acknowledge that there time may be coming to close. It also showcases a level of respect shown to ones elders in Asian culture that is not seen in American culture.
Scholar Annamma Joy writes about this in Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties where on page 250, she reports on a field study where a participant said, “I did buy a clock for a friend, but in Chinese culture clocks are never given as gifts because they are associated with death. But before I gave the gift, I asked her for a small amount of money, so that it appeared as if she had bought it for herself.”
Joy, Annamma. “Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 239–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/322900. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Egg Healing

Context:

MV is a 2nd generation Mexican-American from New Mexico. Half of her family is of Japanese-Mexican descent and much of her extended family lives in Mexico. I received this item from her in a video conference call from our respective homes. She knows about this practice from her nana (grandmother) but she has never had it conducted on herself.

Text:

MV: When someone gives you the ojo… the lady, this could be your nana, or like anyone really, they could get an egg and rub it all over your body, and then all the bad energy goes in the egg.

JS: What’s the ojo?

MV: The ojo is when someone puts the ojo on you, like… if I gave you the ojo you’d be getting some bad energy. It’s like I bewitched you.

You pray a little bit and then rub it over your body… you do the cross up here (draws a cross on her forehead with her finger) and then just rub the egg over the rest of your body.

And then some people even say if you crack the egg in a glass of water, and like you see a trail, like in the water from the yolk, that’s the bad energy. But some people don’t do that.

JS: So it has to be, like, a special someone?

MV: Yeah usually it’s the brujería person… a bruja, a witch I guess… all nanas are like that.

Thoughts:

The association of eggs with luck and goodness has long and deep roots. Venetia Newall provides a sketch of the various uses of eggs in ritual, magic, and belief: cosmological models, magical properties, the notion of resurrection, games and festivals emphasizing fertility and fecundity. (Newall) Her study focusses mainly on egg-lore in an Indo-European context but these significances resonate with our example here. The notion here is that eggs have healing properties, capable of dispelling and absorbing “bad energy.” The association of the egg with rebirth, shedding of old ways, fertility, youth, suggests that here, the egg is valued for its life-giving properties. Brujería likely has a long history that cannot be fully examined here but of note in this example is that the bruja, or intermediary, is always an old female – “all nanas are like that.” There is a kind of magic associated with older females which resonates with the egg as a symbol of fertility, the womb, and a source of life. In this variation, the catholic gesture of signing the cross on one’s body is present with some notable exceptions to the mainstream church’s gesture. The cross is made on the forehead, combined with the secular folk magic of the egg. This is not the gesture sanctioned by the catholic church as an international institution, but a gesture that incorporates elements of both secular, paganistic belief as well as religious reference: it is both Catholicism and Brujería, a mix of Christianity with a folk magic which the Catholic church has historically demonized. This healing practice is thus a way of combining multiple sacred traditions and forming a unique model of spirituality that sets secular magic against and alongside the hegemonic colonial forces of Catholicism.

Newall, Venetia. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 80, No. 315. (Jan. – Mar., 1967), pp. 3-32

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit

Context:

I received this tradition and superstition from my mother, who grew up in a white suburban household in Colorado during the late 20th century. She learned it from her father, an English professor, who read it in a student paper about superstitions. When I was younger, she used to practice this little act of magic, but she does not do it anymore.

Text:

If the first words you say in the month are “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” you will have good luck for the whole month.

Thoughts:

Rabbits symbolize good luck in various cultures. I have seen rabbit foot keychains, which are intended to endow their owners with good luck. The word comes in threes, another example of the primacy of the number three in American folk belief. This piece of folklore was transmitted through the written word and stuck in my own family. To attach a special incantation to the beginning of each month gives the start of the month some special significance. It helps to mark off the months as distinct from one another, each as an opportunity for a new beginning, a renewal of luck. Rabbits are also associated with procreation and fertility, so their evocation at the beginning of each monthly cycle could signify renewal, new birth, and fecundity. This incantation is a way to be ‘reborn’ each month, as if to say: “no matter how difficult or painful last month was for me, here’s a chance to start one anew.” This little act of superstition can help people to maintain their faith in the future and retain a spirit of hope and growth going into each new month.

Hiccup Remedies

Context:

I collected this piece of folk medicine from my mother (LP) during a particularly infuriating bout of the hiccups. She grew up in suburban Colorado in the late 20th century and learned these tricks from her parents. She has “had success with all of them” but wonders “if it is psychosomatic, like you think it’s going to work so it does.”

Text:

LP: you’re supposed to drink water like this (mimes drinking water upside-down), drinking from the back of the rim. You can also hold your breath, or eat a spoonful of sugar. And being scared, startled, when someone says BOO!

Thoughts:

With no surefire medical consensus on how to deal with hiccups, people have often resorted to folk remedies that sometimes seem farfetched. The hiccups (Synchronous Diaphragmatic Flutter) are a quite harmless and normal biological event. They often happen after eating fast or drinking carbonated beverages and amount to little more than an inconvenience, and since they often pass within minutes, it is not common to seek professional medical help to remedy them. Nevertheless, they are annoying, and we feel like we must do something to address them. In a brief experiment, I tested all the methods my mom mentioned: the upside-down drinking and the sugar had no effect. My mom even sat down to startle me, and while I was indeed startled, I continued to hiccup moments after. Ultimately, holding my breath, after multiple tries, worked to alleviate my hiccups. I believe that my informant’s thought on the matter, that these remedies are mostly forms of placebo, is convincing. All of these different techniques require you to do something unusual, something that takes concentration or stimulates the senses in a startling way. These remedies can distract someone, often to the effect of clearing the hiccups away. Since the remedies that doctors offer are often unsatisfactory, people have created a long list of folk remedies that employ the placebo effect to address this annoyance.

The Day of the Dead

Main piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between informant and interviewer. 

Informant: The day of the dead for example. This one is very popular throughout Latin America too. And it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor… everyone celebrates November 1st and 2nd. There are festivals in the streets and everyone buys those skulls that your mom has as decorations. Some make them and paint them. And they’re very colorful. You can paint them any color you want and add a bunch to it so it looks nice. 

Interviewer: Do you make them or buy them? Or how do you celebrate it? 

Informant: We set pictures of them. We prepare their favorite foods and drinks. We get openwork paper and we adorn with sugar skulls and tequila… every family sets at least one bottle. Umm. bread too. Candles and wine and there. And that’s set before the 1st. And it’s there the 1st and 2nd. And on the 3rd day you don’t throw it.

Interviewer: Do you eat it? 

Informant: Yes, it basically means that your dead are sharing their food with you so you can eat. 

Background: My grandpa was my informant. He was born and raised in Guadalajara and did not travel to the U.S. until a couple years ago. He has lived in Mexico for about 70 years so he knows of a lot of Mexican traditions. He has been celebrating this one every year from as far as he can remember and that it’s a special day for him because he is able to feel the presence of his dead. 

Context: This conversation was held on the patio. I was playing basketball and I came to sit down and rest and my grandpa had been watching me and I asked him about a big tradition he does. I’m really close to him so it was easy to ask him for more information about a tradition or festival he celebrates for part of my collection project. He was very happy to help. 

Thoughts: I personally haven’t celebrated it but I know it’s a big tradition across hispanic cultures. Even in my family my grandparents are big on it and my mom to a lesser extent too. They make very good food and drinks and have a very nice and colorful set up these two days. They never talk to the spirits but it’s a way for them to remember their dead and welcome them for a family dinner again. Some people might think it’s spooky but it’s not. The dead are not mourned but actually celebrated. 

Mexican myth

Main piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.

Informant: A ritual that you have to do, no matter if you are Mexican, German, Chinese, American… it doesn’t matter what nationality you are. Everyone does this when they go up the first time. 

Interviewer: Wait what? Where?

Informant: Oh umm at the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the ones we’ve gone to in Mexico. 

Interviewer: Oh ok. I know what you’re talking about. 

Informant: When you go up the sun pyramid, you count the steps, all 365 of them and once you’re at the summit. At the top of the pyramid there is a circle etched in the center and a hole where your finger fits. When you’re there, you have to raise your hands towards the sky so that Quetzalcoatl, the sun god, fills you with energy, purifies you, gives you wisdom and fortifies you that year. 

Interviewer: And everyone does it? 

Informant: Ahhh! Don’t you remember when we went, we have pictures of us raising our hands. And the people around us were raising their hands towards the sky. All the people, doesn’t matter what nationality, sex, or religion… Everyone does this when going up the sun pyramid for the first time. 

Background: My informant was my dad. He was born in Mexico City as well. He knows pretty much every touristic area in Mexico because he traveled a lot in his 20s and 30s when he was a marathon runner. He’s taken me to the pyramids before, and after collecting the performance, he helped my mom find pictures of us raising our hands when we reached the summit of the sun pyramid. 

Context: I just asked my dad if there were any cool stories or myths he knew about for a project I’m working on. He asked “what do you mean” and I responded with “anything, a story or a myth” and he proceeded with the myth about the sun pyramid. The setting was in our backyard as we were taking a break from yard work. 

Thoughts: I was a kid when we went to the pyramids of teotihuacan and I remember going up a bunch of steps. The pictures helped me fill in some gaps but I never knew the hand-raising to receive energy was a thing. I thought we did it just as a pose or something, but after hearing the myth, I was impressed with it. It’s something that traces back to the Aztecs and something that tourists from all over the world do, so I found that pretty enticing.

Udala~ Folk Object/Legend

Context: Udala Tree is a folk object/legend native to my dad’s village of Onitsha. He knows about this legend because he is a titled man just like his father before him, hence why knowledge was passed down to him.

C: Udala tree is a sacred tree in Onitsha that can only be used by titled men[Ozo title and members of Abalenza] who are the spiritual and cultural leaders within the village. The Udala tree is a powerful tree that is kept as a means of communing with one’s ancestors. Titled men receive what is called an Osisi, which is made from parts of the Udala tree. The Osisi is a staff that has immense power as it too is a means of communing with one’s ancestors and is connected to the Udala tree. No portion of the tree can never be given as a gift because it holds immense power that could possibly be used for evil doing and should not be given to those without the proper understanding of its potential.

Thoughts: I think this is really interesting and is something that I never really understood until now. Growing up my dad was always telling my brother and I stories revolving around his childhood and in particular my late grandfather who was a titled man who was widely respected in his village. Similar to my grandfather, my dad is also a titled man and is designated as a spiritual and cultural leader within his village and in our family as well. The description of the Udala tree is eye-opening because it represents a sacred folk object for men like my dad. Tapping into my memory, one instance stood out to me that became more clear because of the description of the power held by titled men. I remember that my dad would refuse to pray when he was angry. I never really understood why, but in seeing the power he held it makes sense[i.e. It would not be wise to pray angry because you could unintentionally wish harm or do harm to someone out of anger during prayer].  I am unsure in my dad’s description, however, as to whether this tree is real or only a legend passed down by titled men. I know there are some things that my dad refuses to tell me because I am not yet ready to learn or even understand the things that he does, but I hope to eventually verify whether or not this sacred tree is in fact real.

Burning Salt

Context: The following is an account of a ritual told by the informant, my paternal grandmother. 

Background: My father’s youngest uncle was sick as a baby, so the consensus was that he must have received the evil eye. In order to find out who gave it to him, this ritual was conducted. This same thing was repeated when one of my father’s brothers got sick and died as a baby.

Main piece: 

To find out who gave the child the evil eye, a solid chunk of rock salt was but in a burning fire. As the salt burned, those watching would carefully observe the fire to see what shape the flames would make. If they formed the shape of a person, they were the source of the evil eye. In my father’s uncle’s case, it was determined from the flame that a woman from one of the neighboring houses gave it to him. In his brother’s case, an odd inhuman shape was formed, leading people to believe it was jinn.

Analysis: It is not clear where this practice originated, but it seems to have come about as a result of people not wanting the cause of their child’s death to remain a mystery, so as to attach a name or face as to who was responsible. That being said, it is unknown from my conversations whether there was any confrontation with the person who was seen in the fire, and there was almost certainly no action taken on that basis.