Occupation: Medievalist, Professor
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April 23, 2016
Primary Language: English
The informant is a 45 year old Panamanian woman, LF. She has a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies and she is particularly interested in the way that animals play into folklore and literature throughout history. LF recounts a folk belief she learned as a child regarding the magical properties of dogs:
“It is believed that during the night, when dogs perceive something that humans cannot hear or see- you can see the dog’s reaction. They perk up, and they move their ears, and sometimes they bark or they howl. It is believed that when this happens at nighttime, it is because they can see supernatural stuff that humans cannot. It could really be, like, a mouse or a cat moving somewhere and they are reacting to that, and we don’t see it because we can’t see as well in the dark as they can. But some people believe that this means that they can see spirits, or devils, or that kind of entity that lurks in the night unseen.
It is said that if it’s nighttime and the dogs are howling, and you go up to the dog and you take the secretions of the dog’s eye- the ones that form in the corner of the eyes, just like humans- if you take these secretions and rub them in your own eyes, and you look in the direction the dog is howling at, you can see the spirits too. And you can see whether it is a devil or a spirit- you can see it because the secretions briefly give you the powers of the dog.”
You have to be in the right place at the right time. Then you have to go through this nasty ritual (laughs). And then you get to see.”
Why do you know, or like this piece?
“I really like this one because it’s like a superpower- you get to do something that only animals can do with their senses that are better than human senses. So you get to see something that humans can’t normally see.”
Who did you learn it from? And have you ever known anyone who has done this?
“I think I learned it from my cousins. We were teenagers. They were trying to gross me out, because it’s kind of a gross process!
I have never known anyone who has done it or seen anything. My cousins hadn’t tried it. I personally wouldn’t do it because I don’t want to get an eye infection! But it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s someone out there who had the courage to do it and deal with the consequences of seeing a demon- and getting pink eye, probably.”
So I know that one academic area of interest for you is the role of animals and the way they fit into medieval society, culture, and literature. Have you ever heard of anything like this at all in any other society?
“Animals in medieval folklore are usually used in fable-like discourse. Like if you were talking about a king who was too ambitious, in the tale you would reppresent him with a lion who was too ambitious who was deceived by other animals. They usually appear in fables- less so in rituals or magical beliefs.
In late medieval folklore though, there are stories of dogs who have magical properties. There was a trick witches might use to deceive people. They would have a dog who was crying or fussing, and the witches would say she was a maiden who did something wrong, so they turned her into a dog- when really it would just be a dog who was fed a pepper or something like that in order to trick people. And the witch would then try and sell the person who asked about the dog a potion so that they would be protected from being turned into dogs themselves. Essentially, people tell themselves all kinds of stories to explain animal behavior that we humans can’t understand.”
My thoughts: I agree with informant when she says that folk beliefs like these arise from the desire to explain animal behavior that may seem unusual ot incomprehensible to us. Because dogs have such fine-tuned senses, they may seem to react to things that “aren’t there”. I enjoyed the connection with medieval folklore that the informant brought up because it shows that humans from many different times and cultures have wondered about this themselves and come up with explanations for it through folk belief.