Category Archives: Folk Beliefs

Finnish Tar Remedies

Informant Background:

My informant, KL, is my mother. Her father was born in Finland and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. When she was younger, her father would heat up pine tar in boiling water and have her breathe in the fumes if she as sick.

Piece of Folklore:

            When KL was sick as a child, she remembers her father heating up pine tar in boiling water and having her lean over and breathe in the steam to clear out a head cold. Tar would also sometimes be diluted and rubbed on her and her siblings’ chests for the same effect. She also remembers a saying: ”Jossei viina terva ja sauna auta ni se on kuolemaksi,” which roughly translates to “If vodka, tar, and a sauna cannot cure you, it is likely fatal.*”

*: A slightly different version of this saying is referenced in a Finish journal of social medicine:

Pietilä, Ilkka. “Kontekstuaalinen vaihtelu miesten puheessa terveydestä: yksilöhaastatteluiden ja ryhmäkeskustelujen vertaileva analyysi.” Sosiaalilääketieteellinen aikakauslehti 46.3 (2009).


            Tar was believed to have powerful medicinal qualities – everything from treating skin ailments to serving as an antiseptic and antibiotic. It was more or less considered a cure-all, and was often at hand because it was also used for sealing boats. Similar treatments for colds are still in common use across many cultures – breathing in steam is thought to help de-congest the nose, and similar chest rubs are used to relieve coughs.

Ouija Boards in Portland and Palm Springs

J. has always had a fascination with the supernatural. From her strong belief in fairies, forest and water spirits, and ghosts growing up, she held onto her belief in the paranormal well into her teenage years.

“The summer after ninth grade, I was gifted a ouija board from one of my mom’s friends. I had always loved horror movies and anything that had to do with ghosts or spirits–people on ‘the other side.’ That summer, I went to Palm Springs for a family trip. That was the first time I used the ouija board. Me and my friend who had come with us sat down to try it out one night, and we contacted a spirit named Dino. He said he was an older man, around his 50’s–he was a nice spirit. He told us that him and his brother had grown up near the area we were staying, and that he remained in that area because he was waiting for his brother to return.”

That wasn’t the only time that J. used that Ouija board. J. was my best friend in high school, and after she came back from that trip and we started sophomore year together, the Ouija board was the main event of every sleepover, birthday party, and even casual after school hang out sessions. The first time we pulled it out in Portland, Dino visited again. He had followed J. home from Palm Springs, saying she was the first person he had been able to connect with from across the grave.

Not all the spirits we encountered were nice like Dino, though.

“I remember we were both here the night of my 16th birthday party. Remember? That’s when all the really crazy stuff happened and we decided to stop using the ouija board.”

I do remember that night. This is how J. gave a run down of the events:

“All of the girls had come over to celebrate my birthday and we couldn’t wait to pull out the ouija board. We were sitting in my living room downstairs, all gathered in a circle on the floor. You were sitting out because you always refused to touch the board–so lame.” She laughs. “Anyways, we started playing and the first spirit we contacted was a 10 year old girl named Rose. You were freaked out because that was your middle name and something only people in your family called you. It started to get scary because she told us that she was outside the door and needed us to let her in. All of us got super scared and I think it was Avery who got up and ran to lock it. After that, she told us she had a message but all of us had to power off our phones so that we couldn’t share her message. Then, she told us that one of our friends from school was in danger–that he was going to be in a car crash that night. All of a sudden, we all panicked, saying we needed to use out phones to call and check on him. She let you, actually, turn on your phone and text [L] to ask if he was with that friend and to make sure he was okay.”

“After that, she started counting down from 10, which we all learned is really dangerous and you’re not supposed to let them reach zero or they could enter the house or even one of our bodies and like, possess us. We had to quickly say goodbye–that’s really important, too. If you leave a spirit without saying goodbye they get really mad and some bad things can happen.”

After the first attempt at the ouija board that night, and our crazy experience with Rose, J. wanted to try again, but this time in her spooky attic. All of her late great grandmother’s old clothes, furniture, and paintings were up, and she thought it would heighten our connection to something across the grave. When we went up there, we came into contact with Dino again, but he soon revealed that he was actually an evil spirit named Zozo. We had heard about Zozo before, and he was supposedly more evil than the devil himself. Long story short, he threatened to break our friend E.’s fingers if I didn’t join in and put my hands on the planchette. After refusing, he wouldn’t let us say goodbye, and we all got really scared before eventually forcing him to leave.

“That was the last night we ever did Ouija. I still carry the board in my car, but all of us are too freaked out to try again.”

For more information about the infamous, malevolent spirit, Zozo, see here:

Ouija boards can be seen as a kind of contagious folk belief, because one has to come into contact with the board and the planchette to be able to contact spirits.

Turkish Good Luck Charms 

Background Information: 

The informant is a residential real estate developer who learned a lot of traditions and superstitions from their mother. They currently live in Detroit, Michigan but emigrated from Turkey. 

Main Piece: 

ME: Hey GD, would you mind telling me a bit about what you would do for good luck when selling your homes?

GD: Well… what I would do when initially trying to sell a house… elephants are supposed to be good luck. It’s a set of seven elephants from Turkey, and they are like a graduated size, starting from a big one all the way down to a baby one. I would always put them together in a room in one of my spec houses to bring good luck in selling the home. 

ME: Do you have any idea where this comes from or how you found out about it?

GD: Well I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but uh I imagine it is cross-cultural. Only because we have friends from India and they do the same thing. Uh but I got it from my mother who is Turkish. And obviously seven… seven is a lucky number too right, so. 

ME: Would you do anything else to try and sell your homes?

GD: So whenever I present any of my new homeowners with their keys, I always put their keys on an evil-eye keychain that I buy from Turkey. 

ME: So what’s the significance of the evil eye?

GD: So the evil eye… it’s basically like a mirror. If there are, you know, legend has it, that if there are people that give off bad vibes their vibes can affect things, and the evil eye will reflect their bad vibes and give it back to them… It basically reflects evil back to the evil person.  


This interview happened a month ago at my home. 


It is interesting to me that the informant does not seem to know a ton about the origin of their superstitious beliefs, yet they still use them in their business, and partially credit their successes to these artifacts. It is also interesting how the informant brought up aspects of multiculturalism through folk artifacts. According to the informant, the seven elephants signify good luck in their culture as well as the culture of their Indian friends. The origin of the elephant as a good luck symbol actually does not originate from Turkey at all, but instead comes from Hinduism and the god Ganesha, and elephants are commonly used in Feng Shui practices as good luck. For more information see here: Cho, Anjie. “Uses of the Elephant Symbol in Feng Shui.” The Spruce, The Spruce, 24 Feb. 2022, Looking at the evil eye, it’s origins surpasses even those of the Ottoman Empire. Researchers think that the first evil eye amulet was created in 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, or what is now Syria. The origin of the modern-day blue evil eye beads first appeared in multiple locations around the Mediterranean at around 1500 B.C. For more information see here: Hargitai, Quinn. “The Strange Power of the ‘Evil Eye’.” BBC Culture, BBC, 19 Feb. 2018, It is very interesting that these two charms, which are very widespread in Turkey, are neither original to the region, nor originated in the region. 

Palestinian Tradition When Moving Into A House 

Background: The informant is one of my good friends. They have been born and raised in America, but one of their parents is an immigrant from Palestine, while another has roots in Iraq. 

Main Content:

ME: So do you mind telling me about what your family does when you move into a new house. 

DS: So yeah, during the construction of, or when we just move into an existing house, my mom’s side of the family always has this tradition of putting a bible and a cross within the walls of the house. Usually that Bible or Cross is blessed by a priest on my mom’s side, and she is Greek Orthodox, or it is blessed once it is in the wall. In all of the houses that we have ever lived in we have had both the cross and the Bible in the walls. In the one that we are currently in, we have it right by the front door. 

ME: That’s really interesting, do you know where your mom learned this from, or why she started doing it? 

DS: She got it from her home village of Ramallah, which is in Palestine, right outside of Jerusalem. 

ME: Do you know if this is something commonly done in Ramallah or Palestine, or is it just something that your mom’s family does? 

DS: So I know that my mom’s whole family does it, and I know my grandparent’s house has it. I assume that it is a tradition because the village that my grandma and grandpa came from was very small and closely knit, and we basically know everyone who has come over from there, that like live near us and around us. I’m pretty sure that they do it too, but I definitely know that my mom’s family does it for sure. 

ME: Do you know what purpose it is supposed to serve? Is it to protect the family and house or is more to keep away bad stuff? Or is it more general, kinda like good luck?

DS: I think it is mostly good luck, but I think a big part of it, my mom is always going on about, you know, having Jesus watch us and making sure that we are okay. So I think that it is another way to keep the house as a holy place. So like we always kinda have the eyes of the Lord looking at us and keeping us safe. Its kind of a safety thing, but its less about keeping bad things out, and more oriented towards keeping the eyes of the Lord on us and making sure that we are okay. 


This interview took place at my house. 


I think that this tradition is really interesting because after doing a little bit of research I could not find any other examples of people doing this. I always assumed that it was commonplace, because I grew up with a lot of Palestinians, and I remember seeing a Bible in the framing of the walls during the construction of the informant’s current home. So, this might be a tradition that is truly unique, and it is entirely possible that Christians from Ramallah, or those who have emigrated from there, are the originators of this tradition. I also think that this is a way for them to make their home in Michigan seem culturally similar to the home that their mother grew up in, in Ramallah.

Turkish Coffee Fortune Telling

Background Information: 

The informant is a residential real estate developer who learned a lot of traditions and superstitions from their mother. They currently live in Detroit, Michigan but emigrated from Turkey. 

Main Content: 

ME: So can you tell me a bit about using Turkish Coffee to tell someone’s fortune? 

GD: Yeah so, um, after you drink your Turkish coffee, in your Turkish coffee cup, its a small cup, maybe about like 5 mL ish, you turn it upside down and once the bottom is cool to the touch, um, you turn it right-side up, and there are people who claim they can tell your future and your fortune from what they see in the coffee grounds. 

ME: Do you know what they look for in the grounds? 

GD: If they see, like, it really depends on the person’s interpretation, it’s very subjective. But, like, you know, if someone sees something that looks like a mountain, one person will tell you that it looks like there will be a big obstacle in the way, while another person will tell you that it looks like you will be traveling somewhere soon. It’s very subjective, it’s like an art, really.

ME: I’ve seen you do it a number of times before, in cafes in Turkey with your friends, do you believe in it at all, or do you just do it for fun? 

GD: Kaya, some people absolutely believe in it, and they have people they go to regularly to read their fortunes. But if we’re doing it, it’s just for fun. I don’t believe in it, but there are definitely people who believe in it, and there are definitely people who know what they are talking about. 

ME: Do you know how it started, or how you learned about it? 

GD: I have no idea, you would have to look it up. My family is Turkish, and, um, I grew up with my aunts and family friends, that, after they drink their Turkish coffee, they turn their cup upside down and have their fortune read. 


This interview happened at my house. 


This tradition is very popular in Turkey. The informant is my mother, and I remember seeing her do this countless times with her Turkish friends. However, to them, it was always something that they laughed about and nobody really took it seriously. Upon further research, this is a tradition that has been around for thousands of years and can be referred to as Tasseography. Trying to find the origin of this tradition was very difficult, and I could not find a credible source citing one place where this began. However, some say that this practice did indeed begin in Ottoman Turkey in the 16th century. However, other sources say that this tradition started with reading tea leaves in ancient China, whereas others claim that it first began in Victorian England. Regardless, this is a very old tradition that has a lot of history. To Turkish culture, it is something very old and cherished, and even though some do not take it seriously, most Turkish people take pride in doing this activity, just like the informant.