Category Archives: Homeopathic

Don’t Step on the Books – Hindu Custom

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Rhode Island
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/19/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Telugu, Hindi, Spanish

“So basically, if there is like a book on the ground, you are not allowed to step on it, deliberately or accidentally. And you are also not allowed to let them [books] touch your feet, because it’s kind of like, books are seen as this sacred holy thing that gives up knowledge, so we have to give books a certain level of respect. So if you kind of touch the books with your feet or kick them, you are disrespecting the sacredness of the knowledge that the books are giving us.”

Context: The informant was raised Hindu, but is non-religious. She explained to her roommate why she should not step on her books in order to reach a high shelf. For her [the informant], this was something that was told to her throughout her childhood by her parents and grandparents. Though this custom/folk belief is rooted in religious belief, the cultural aspect of the custom is what sticks with her and impacts the way that she lives her life–specifically whether or not she is able step on books.

Analysis: I agree with the informant’s insights about this particular custom. For many superstitions and folk beliefs–especially those that are rooted in religious beliefs–they are not just about religion, but are also influenced by the culture from which the custom was derived. For example, while literacy and knowledge is influential in the Hindu religion, but I believe the Indian culture is also a large factor in how impactful this belief is on non-religious members of the culture. For Indians, intelligence, and more importantly, the acquisition of knowledge is extremely important, and the value of an education has been instilled by many parents into their reluctant children. This shows that even though some see knowledge as sacred based on Hindu belief, there is also a cultural component to the custom. This cultural component of the custom is what carries with the non-religious members of the community.

Along with this, there is a component of homeopathic magic in this superstition/folk belief. As homeopathic magic follows the principle that “like produces like”, this folk belief follows the idea that if you step on a book, then you are disrespecting that book, and thus you are disrespecting knowledge itself. Like placing pins in a voodoo doll to inflict pain on another person, placing your foot on something–which is seen as disrespectful–then there is a greater significance. Books are often placed in front of the god Ganesha, who is god of knowledge and wisdom, so disrespecting books would thus also be disrespecting this god. This is a hallmark of the “like produces like “ phenomenon.

Kicking the Lightpost – USC Band Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Washington
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/09/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

“So the band has a tradition of, every time we march to the football stadium–the Coliseum–for games, everyone has to kick the bottom of the light pole as we are leaving campus for good luck. Then, we also kick it on our way back on [campus] after the game.

If we win the football game, we always play ‘Conquest’ at Tommy Trojan as, like, a celebration.”

Context: The informant, EK, is a member of the USC Trojan Marching Band (also called Spirit of Troy), and specifically part of the drum line of the band. We were having a discussion about some of the strange and somewhat rituals that the band does on game days (football) and how they affect the outcome of the games. EK feels an obligation to participate in this ritual as she is a member of the band, and fears the consequences of not participating in the tradition as it is a highly ingrained belief in the student group. The band, according to EK, relies heavily on many superstitions and traditions in order to ensure the success of the USC football team.

Analysis: For the informant, this ritual is extremely important for the band and to ensure a good outcome for the football game that they will be performing in. In this manner, this ritual is a demonstration of folk belief and superstition and how it supposedly affects the outcome of events that can be seemingly out of our hands. With this superstition, this group of performers can have a level of control over an unpredictable event.

There is also a participatory context for this superstition. If you do not participate in this ritual and kick the light pole, then if the football team loses, the band can blame the person who didn’t kick the pole. In a way, knowing and participating in the superstitions of the marching band is a way to figure out who is a member, and who is an outsider. Due to this, if you choose not to participate, or merely forget, your band members will see you as someone who is not really a member of that group anymore, and only after you resume your participation in that ritual can one resume their membership. This is mirrored in many other societal groups, from firefighters to physicians to USC students. Particular superstitions and customs are defining components of culture, and the groups that perform them claim them as a piece of their identity.

Splitting Poles and Friendship

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/3/2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Transcription

Collector: So yeah, I remember when we were hanging out that you, like, had us walk around the poles if we both went on opposite sides of it. Is that something you do with everyone or, like, how did you learn that?

Informant: Yeah! So, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, my best friend did it because she was superstitious. And she was superstitious because her mom was, so like it kind of passed on to me. But now it’s basically conditioned in me so I always do it.

Collector: so what does it even mean to split the poles?

Informant: So if you’re walking with someone or a group of people and you pass by a pole or trash can or anything that’s an obstacle, you all need to walk on the same side of the obstacle or you will split with the person who walked on the other side. And by split, I mean no longer be friends. Like there will be a big fight in the future or the people will just stop talking with each other. So you have to walk on the same side because then you’ll lose each other.

Context

Collector lives with the informant and is best friends with her. The practice was viewed many times as they were together and the collector wanted context for it. This explanation was prompted by the collector’s question about the origins of the custom. At this point, the custom is a habit for both the informant and the collector, who both make conscious efforts to walk on the same side of the pole. If one of them is on the wrong side by accident and realizes after the fact, they will go back and walk around on the correct side of the pole to undo the mistake. 

Analysis 

In this case, I feel that the act of “splitting the pole” is seen as homeopathic magic, as the physical, bodily splitting represents the metaphorical and emotional split as well. However, in this case, it isn’t a representation of the person that is being performed upon, but instead the people themselves representing a future version of themselves. The tangible, current action of walking on either side of the road is a representation of the future emotional split that could happen as a result of the gesture.

Bad People Go In The Freezer

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 21
Occupation: student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: March 20, 2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Piece:

My informant begins by specifying: “Also, my family’s not crazy”

JK: “I don’t know if this is a Columbian thing or just my mom, but whenever there is someone that has wronged someone in my family or is really bad for someone in my family, she will write their name on a little piece of paper and put it in the freezer. That is supposed to keep that person away from you and out of your life.”

I: “Would she take them out ever?”

JK: “No. We have a bunch of people in our freezer!”

Context:

The informant grew up in Newport Beach, CA. Her mother only started writing names for the informant after the informant started college. The practice is saved for serious offenses. The informant’s mother is 56, from Columbia, and grew up in New York. The informant learned of this practice when her mother starting writing and freezing names for the informant.

Analysis:

This is a practice of protection, with a somewhat magic-like element. Something literal (the freezer)  is used as a means of bringing about an emotional catharsis (blocking someone out of your life/ emotionally detaching) and consequence (being left alone by Person X). While the names literally get put in the freezer, the hope is that the person represented by the name will be frozen from interacting in your life. To me, this practice seems like it helps the person doing it attain an emotional state of peace rather than cause an actual result from the practice (singularly causing an actual result would be the possible magic- like element within this). It reminds me of the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy”– if you put that person in the freezer in your mind, then they will stay out of the rest of your life, likely because your actions toward that person are reminiscent of of you putting their name in the freezer. Perhaps keeping names in the freezer is similar to holding a grudge, or it is a symbol of a betrayal of trust and therefore a reminder to not let that person back into your life!

 

Splitting poles

--Informant Info--
Nationality: African American
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Memphis, Tennesse
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/13/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

“So one day my aunt and I and were walking to this little fashion jewelry store where they sell really cheap jewelry by the way and as we were walking we came across this pole and I was about to go the opposite way so we started to split the pole. She got so upset she was like don’t you dare split that pole with me. so from that day forward, I learned it was like bad luck to split the pole with someone. and the person that’s younger gets bad luck. ”

Why bad luck and why the younger person?

“well its cause the two of us have a connection and when a pole comes between us you are letting it cut that connection so the younger person who is less wise than the older one gets the bad luck since they have had less time on this earth and just lost the connection to an older and wiser person. So they don’t get bad luck, they have to reestablish that connection and you do that by saying hi”

Context: The informant is a twenty-one-year-old student at USC she is from Tennessee. Once before she had mentioned that it was bad luck to split the pole so I asked her more about it.

Background: She heard this from her aunt and since then she has been afraid to split poles with anyone she is walking with, especially if they are older than her. She is an active participant of this superstition, always careful when she walks and has even had to say hi to strangers because she does not want that bad luck.

Analysis: Like many superstitions, it is better to participate just to stay on the safe side. Ever since she explained this superstition to me I am careful not to split any poles with her or anyone I am walking with. However, I do not go out of my way to remove the “bad luck.” I have also heard a different version where if you split the pole with someone you must neutralize the situation by saying “bread and butter.” I asked the informant if she had heard about this one and she said she had not. This shows that maybe it is a geographical difference since she grew up in the South.

Pasar El Cuy

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Peruvian
Age: 50
Occupation: Spanish Teacher
Residence: St. Petersburg, FL
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/20/19
Primary Language: Spanish
Other Language(s): English, Russian

Original
“En Peru, se dice que cuando las personas estan enfermas, les pasan un cuy, lo frotan por todo el cuerpo. Cuando matan al cuy y lo abren, la parte que tiene el cuy mas oscura es la parte que esta enferma. Por ejemplo, si tienes algun problema en el igado, cuando abren el cuerpecito del cuy, el igado se ve mas oscuro, como, enfermo. Dicen que scientificamente hay como probarlo pero, bueno, yo no se.”

Translation
“In Peru, they say that when people are sick they pass a guinea pig through their body, they rub it all over their body. Then, when they kill the guinea pig and they open it, the body part that is dark on the guinea pig is the sick part. For instance, if you have a liver problem, when they open up the guinea pig’s little body, the liver will look dark, like, sick. They say that there are ways to scientifically prove it, but I don’t know.”

Context: The informant is my mother, a Peruvian woman whose parents both come from villages near Cuzco, Peru. She grew up in Lima, the capital and the most metropolitan city in Peru. Peruvian culture, however, is deeply rooted in pride about their myths and legends, and these forms of folklore are widely known. I actually inquired about Inca creation myths on my own, but realized that this is a prime example of folklore.

Analysis: This custom is highly recognized and highly debated in Peru. As we learned, I believe that the belief rate for this technique is much higher in Peru, but there have also been scientific attempts to debunk or confirm the scientific element of this folk medicine strategy and they determined that it does work, but no one truly knows why.

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese, Vietnamese
Age: 49
Occupation:
Residence: Ewa Beach, HI
Date of Performance/Collection: April 14, 2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): Vietnamese, English

Item:

Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.

 

Context:

I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.

 

Analysis:

This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.

Step on a crack, and you will break your mother’s back.

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 18
Occupation: student
Residence:
Date of Performance/Collection: Apr. 8, 2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context
The informant is a Chinese American. We were discussing interesting superstitions in Chinese or American cultures when she brought out this item.

Content
You’re not supposed to step on cracks in the floor. If you step on it, you’re going to break your mother’s back. And I think kids kinda play for fun with it when they’re little. There are very few kids who actually believe it. Obviously, because kids step on it all the time, and no one’s mother dies of that. It’s mostly just for fun.
Interviewer: And how do they play with it? Like in what situations?
Informant: Someone would say, don’t step on the cracks or you would break your mother’s back. And all the kids have to avoid stepping on cracks. They just have to all walk around like to avoid cracks,
Interviewer: And they just do it for fun?
Informant: Yeah, they just do it for fun.
Interviewer: Like, they laugh and walk around it?
Informant: Kind of. It’s more like if someone does accidentally step on a crack, they would point it out and like, ‘haha, you stepped on a crack; you broke your mother’s back!’ kind of thing. It’s obviously rude and stupid.

Analysis
First, the saying itself includes a rhyming between “back” and “crack”. This is probably how the crack in the road is connected with the mother’s back.
Second, the saying involves homeopathic magic. Stepping on a crack is likened to actually stepping on mother’s back.
Third, the kids make fun of the saying, because they don’t believe in it. There is a counter-hegemonic feeling involved. The kids are supposed to follow the saying even they don’t believe it, so they follow the saying in an exaggerated way: for example, they intentionally avoid all the crack, and make fun of the kid who accidentally steps on a crack instead of feeling worried for the kid’s mom.
My informant doesn’t believe in the saying. She thinks the saying is stupid. She also cannot understand the doings of the kids.

4 Will Bring Death

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 20
Occupation: student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/31/19
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

The informant shares how the number four is a connotation for bad luck in Chinese culture. She shared this in a group environment, where another member of the group, ‘Support,’ provided additional information to what the Informant was sharing:

 

Informant: We also don’t like the number 4

Me: What’s the number 4?

Informant: Like the number, four. We don’t like it. It means death. It’s associated with death

Support: Because when you say four in mandarin it sounds like the same word as death in mandarin.

Informant: So literally in my building there is no fourth floor, it’s the fifth floor.

Support: It’s kinda like how sometimes in America in buildings there’s no 13thfloor. It’s the same way… they just skip the number 4 when doing floors.

Informant: Yeah theres no 14th, 24th, they just skp the number.

Support: Oh really?!  I remember seeing the 4thskipped,but I don’t remember seeing 14th.

Informant: Like in my building there’s nothing floor.

 

Support: yeah because you don’t wanna live on the death floor… its kind of a pun.

 

Informant: But then lucky numbers are six or eight for a similar reason. Eight is associated with wealth, like you’re getting more money.

 

Context:

I was talking with a group of friends while we were working on a class project and some of the group members wanted to share pieces of their traditions with me. It was a very casual setting and the performance took place in front of three other individuals.

Background:

The informant is from Hong Kong, China, but attends school at USC. She has experienced the stigma of the number four first hand, because there is no floor containing ‘4’ in her apartment building in Hong Kong.

Analysis:

I love learning about how different cultures have similar superstitions to the United States, but while similar there is a different reasoning. While the US may view 13 as unlucky, it is not that way in China.

Kalo Farming and Menstruation Superstition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese-American
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/6/2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main Text

Subject: There was a superstition. Um…that, like, while we were helping with the kalo fields. Was that, um, anyone, anyone who is menstruating at the moment, couldn’t help. Um…basically like, plow the fields or whatever. Because like, native Hawaiians, they didn’t have as like, strong, as like…um…like gender binary, misogynistic, like, beliefs. But…more that like…that, and so like everyone was expected to help for, um…agriculture and harvesting and all that. But that like, anyone who is menstruating, like, the smell of blood attracts like, evil spirits. So like—and, when you’re…when you’re farming, like, any energy that you have while farming, um, will…be put into, like, will grow with the food, so if you have like, negative thoughts while you’re farming, um…like you will have, like, negative energy in your food. Um…so like, not that like people who are menstruating have like, negative energy on—already, but that like, they will attract like, negative energy to the field. While it’s being plowed.

Background

The subject, a 21-year-old Chinese-American student at USC, went on a service learning trip to Hawaii, as part of the Alternative Winter Break USC program. The trip lasted five days. The goal of the trip was to learn about native Hawaiian culture and the independence movement and contemporary struggles the state experiences.

Context

The subject first learned about this superstition from a Native Hawaiian student majoring in Native Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii. That student shared the superstition while people on the Alternative Winter Break trip were helping Native Hawaiians prepare a plot of land for the planting of kalo, a staple Native Hawaiian food. During the initial sharing of this superstition, people who actually were menstruating were not allowed to help in preparing the field, out of respect for the cultural significance of the superstition.

The subject recalls a similar superstition with regards to cooking, which they learned from a Hawaiian botanical garden tour guide. Traditionally, Hawaiian men would make food, because if women were menstruating and cooking, the evil spirits would enter the food as well.

The subject once shared this superstition about menstruating in the field with a person outside the Native Hawaiian folk group. The person hearing about the superstition called it misogynist, because it purposely excluded women from the fields. The subject thinks it is not right for themself to pass a judgment on the superstition, because they are not Native Hawaiian.

Interviewer’s Analysis

This is an example of Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic in practice. Homeopathic magic is the idea that like produces like—in this case, that negative energy from menstruation draws evil spirits or other types of negative energy into crops and food. In addition, outside the context of Hawaii, farming superstitions are quite a common phenomenon, due to the uncontrollable environmental risks that are involved in growing crops. Any superstitions that provide any additional sense of personal control over the environment helps to ease anxiety.

As someone who is also not Native Hawaiian, the interviewer agrees with the subject’s opinion that it is improper to judge the morality of this superstition. The interviewer would like to further argue that trying to evaluate whether a folk belief is discriminatory is unproductive. Folk beliefs are not necessarily adopted with social justice theory in mind—nor should they be coerced into forming some sort of coherent ideology. Folklore is unofficial discourse with no predestined direction of development, and to treat it as if it were a systemic institution would be scientifically inaccurate.