Tag Archives: ancestral worship

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.

Preparing Food for Ancestral Rites

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing how to prepare the table for ancestral rite, which is different from regular meal table rites. She is identified as K, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : As far as I know, the ancestral rite table is related to the belief in geomancy. To start off, the table must be facing the North side. 

E : Is there a reason why it must be facing the North side?

K : Yes. Ancestral rite day is considered as a ‘mini-day of the dead event’ and it is believed that all spirits come from the North side. So if you don’t have the table that way, it means that you’re not welcoming them. 

E : I see.

K : Other rules that need to be kept are related to this. Since the spirits will be coming from that side, all food and utensils must be prepared on the opposite side of us, so that the spirits can eat while we face them. 

E : So you’re putting utensils as if someone is sitting across from you?

K : Yes. You also need to put the rice on your, the person who is holding the ancestral rite, right and the soup on your left so that the spirits will have rice on their left and the soup on their right. Koreans have a ‘tacit agreement’ that warmer foods are supposed to be placed on the right side. 

She ended her description by noting how all families tend to have different styles of how they perform ancestral rites and that her description is just the basics; some families might not care what side their table is facing and some families might not even perform the rite at all. 

Analysis :

I live in a family who doesn’t perform ancestral rites as often and I found this piece very interesting. I’ve only attended ancestral rites twice or thrice when I was very young and didn’t know the details to it. The belief that the dead spirits of our ancestors return to have a quick meal that their descendents have prepared reflects the strong Confucianist belief of Korean societies; Korean descendents and the younger generations are expected to respect and take care of the older generations and even after they have passed away too. However, a lot of Korean families quitting to do annual ancestral rites also show that the new generations are walking away from Confucianist traditions that have been taking a spot in the Korean society for centuries.

Vietnamese “Day of the Dead”


My informant is a 20 year old student at the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a Vietnamese tradition, similar to the Day of the Dead, that his family practices every year in order to honor and respect his family’s ancestors. My informant says he never officially learned this folklore, but rather that his mom “just started doing it… One day I woke up and there’s just this altar in the middle of my house.” This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N and I am identified as K.



N: Hello, so um, this is really similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead—I don’t really know what it’s called to be honest—but it’s kind of like an ancestral worship thing, so like…


K: But specific only to Vietnamese?


N: Yeah for Vietnamese people! So we have a bunch of pictures of our ancestors, and then we have a bunch of food that we put on the table… Honestly we didn’t do much more than that. I’m pretty there’s a whole other tradition that went along with it…


K: Okay but why did you do it?


N: Just to like worship your ancestors and stuff. Like, “pay respect to your ancestors” kind of thing, and we’d just have pictures of a bunch on them on our table and we’d like offer them, like, Vietnamese food offerings.


K: Were they supposed to, like, come back and visit you or something?


N: No… well, maybe, I don’t know! Yeah… so that’s it.



In this account, it was clear that my informant didn’t know a lot about the tradition and was even slightly unenthusiastic about it. This may be attributed to the fact that he’s uncomfortable because he feels that he should know more about the tradition because his family has been doing it every year ever since he can remember. During our conversation, it seemed like he felt a little ashamed or guilty that he wasn’t as informed, especially when he knows it’s so important to his family.

In a separate conversation, my informant told me that his parents were immigrants to this country, but that he was born in Los Angeles, California. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed or shy when they tell cultural stories, especially if they don’t have strong connections to their culture, which seems to be the case with my informant. Even though he gets the gist of it, my informant seems disconnected from this practice because he was never the one to set up the altar, pull out the photos of his ancestors, or cook the food that his family offered. In this case, my informant seems to only be a passive bearer of this tradition: he can recognize the folklore when it’s performed or being created, but he doesn’t seem capable of replicating it. His parents, on the other hand, have clearly been the active bearers of this tradition in his family. This could be due to the fact that they are immigrants, and thus are much more strongly connected to its purpose.

This tradition speaks to immigrant status and identity; my informant is in a liminal state of being a part of a Vietnamese identity because he was born to Vietnamese parents, but also being American because of the fact that he was born and raised in America. Because of this, he loses a lot of the authenticity of his Vietnamese identity. Even from the very start, we can see that he introduces this tradition not by it’s Vietnamese name, but as a tradition that is “similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead.” Perhaps this is because in America, Day of the Dead is much more well-known and integrated into American culture than most other ethnic holidays. For example, when I took Spanish in high school, we would celebrate Day of the Dead every year as a way to immerse ourselves into the culture. As a child, it’s possible that he came to understand his own family’s folklore in the context of America. Thus, rather than thinking that Day of the Dead is similar to this Vietnamese tradition that his family practices, his mind was instead wired to notice that this tradition is similar to the popular holiday of Day of the Dead.

On the other hand, understanding that Day of the Dead is a much more understood and well-known celebration, my informant perhaps uses Day of the Dead to explain his tradition in terms of other peoples folklore to help it be better understood. His way of introducing it as a Vietnamese version of the Day of the Dead could be his way of saying “Day of the Dead is not a mainstream holiday, and neither is mine.”