Tag Archives: ancestral spirit

The Warding Effects of Garlic

Main Piece:

During many traditional Korean commemorative ceremonies called jesa (제사), there is a part where a family’s ancestors are honored by being “brought in” through an open door and allowed to dine on the food first before the family that prepared it. Once it is time for the meal to be eaten by the family, the prepared foods are cooked again, but only this time, properly seasoned with garlic.


The informant is my mother who is the youngest child on her side of the family and the only one who has regular contact with her mother/my grandmother as our family is the only one among our extended family living in the United States with them. Because of this, most of my grandmother’s teachings and culinary knowledge have been passed down to her. Despite many of the commemoration ceremonies being done in the honor of my father’s side of the family, my mother dutifully carries out the traditional cooking required for the occasion. While not highly religious, my mother still holds out on traditional beliefs of karma and good deeds eventually being rewarded so perhaps she follows these traditional rules so closely as to hope for better for her children.


The ceremony for the commemoration of ancestors or other traditional events usually falls between brunch or dinner-times so most of the family does not eat until then. Because everyone gets hungry, I asked my mother why she needed to cook the food again when everything was prepared, the ceremony was finished, and all that was left was to eat. She replied that the food needed to be cooked again properly since she left out the seasoning, particularly the garlic. When I asked why, she said that garlic wards off spirits. I asked why this was and my brother chimed in to explain to me that one of the creation myths of Korea involved a bear turning into a human by eating nothing but gloves of garlic and mugworts for 100 days, giving garlic in particular some level of spiritual power.

My Thoughts:

Garlic being such a powerful supernatural warding tool surprised me as I thought it was specifically targeted towards vampires from Western legends. Garlic is an incredibly common ingredient found in Korean cuisine so it never properly registered to me as it could have any sort of special meaning beyond a universal ingredient. If garlic was so regularly consumed, why were there even ghost stories to begin with? Was superstition just that prevalent that it may have influenced every-day cooking to ward off malevolent and clingy spirits? There are some accounts where eating garlic wards off tigers and eating pickled garlic in particular being a procedure that was recommended to those traveling through mountains as to not encounter a tiger on their journey. As an avid fan of putting garlic as seasoning for most things, it made me question if garlic was used so extensively for its supernatural benefits, its taste, or the simple convenience of both tasting good and warding off evil. Interesting to note how garlic’s effects are indiscriminate to spirits in general as the spirits that are relevant in this context are “good” spirits who are honored to give blessings to their descendants but they are still affected by its effects.

In with the Old, Out with the New

In with the Old, Out with the New

I’ve lived in Riverside, CA for most of my life. However, I have a lot of family still in China. My father’s side of the family lives in Hefei in the Anhui region of China. My family is pretty traditional and was poor until the recent advancements in China’s economy. Hefei is now industrial, but when my dad was our age, the town was more of a village. The main family house is still located in the former rural area on a hill with the closest house a good distance away because it is not in the heart of the capital with a lot of people and newer homes. After my grandfather (head of the family) passed away in the summer of 2002, my uncle who was left the will of the house, decided to renovate the family home by adding two more floors below the house. The house already was two stories, but the uncle made arrangements for another floor for guests/ other family members and a game/leisure room at the very basement of the house. My dad was opposed to the change and told my uncle to just buy a new home rather than change the one they grew up in.

The renovations took 4-5 years and everything was good…or so everyone thought. My dad went back home every two years for the anniversary of grandfather’s death and he always comes back with crazy stories that I never really believed. Ever since the renovations, weird things happen in game/leisure room or the fourth floor of the house. Last time, my uncle brought a new arcade machine for the room, but randomly it would turn off and on or the controls would be going backward. The pool table has a big dark stain on it that suddenly appeared and does not wash out. Dad always joked that it was grandpa mad at uncle for changing things. However, uncle told me that the weird things stopped last winter when my dad passed away.

I found it interesting that common themes we discussed in class were demonstrated in a story that I happened to collect from a friend such as the emphasis on ancestral spirits in Asia cultures, the number 4, and the idea of disturbing the peace. In Asian cultures, the presence of ancestral ghosts is more common like China. Anhui is a recently developed industrial city; therefore, the old values and the new are at play in the modern society. Amy’s family home is located in a fairly older area of town in a rapidly developing capital; therefore, the Anhui province is in liminal state.  However, the classic idea of “let sleeping dogs lie” by not making changes that will upset anyone stands true (and on the fourth floor as well). Firstly, the number four is avoided as Western cultures avoid the number 13 because the direct translation is very similar to the English word “death.” It is still not proven that the weird occurrences were caused by the grandfather’s spirit, but how the Gong family considers that to be a valid reason demonstrates not only the beliefs of the Gong family, but can represent the beliefs of a larger people in China who believe in this “other world.” It serves as a justification that even today with all our technology and electronic toys, we have yet to discover an answer to this mystery. What I find more interesting is that it does not matter if we have the answer or not, but once we make a connection between a story and our personal lives, then the story becomes just as valid as any chemical process or theorem.

This is a personal story that Amy shared with me about something she encountered as a “ghostly” experience with her family. At first, she was telling me how this experience is not “technically” a ghost tale, but Amy is fairly superstitious and believed things were happening for a reason. Amy has never visited the room itself and the fact that she lives in California may have created a thought that this story was not too “close to home.” However, after her father’s passing, this story held a whole new meaning for her. The idea that the disturbances ended with her father’s passing or better yet the joining of father and son brought peace to the household serves as a comfort for the living such as Amy who still thinks of her father and holds him dear to her heart during this period of healing. Ghost stories serve a multitude of functions, but this specific form of storytelling has the effect of personalizing an event, unlike any historical fact or scientific explanation.

Information on Anhui, China: