Informant: So my grandma does this a lot and I actually just asked her for clarification about it, but… A lot of the time when I was younger, and especially now, I’ll like wake up and the house will smell like… Smoke… It smells like burnt popcorn, almost? And it’s not like a great smell. And I always thought, like, “Oh, like, my grandma put something in the toaster-oven for too long.” But it turns out it’s an intentional thing. So what she’s doing is… There’s this thing called Esphand… And it’s almost like… Black sand, it looks like? It almost looks like little seeds. I’m not sure what it actually is. It’s not edible. But… Something that Persians do––particularly Persian mothers or grandmothers––is they will put it, you know, in like a pan on the stove, and they’ll toast it and it burns and it smokes, and it smokes very quickly. And it fills the house with that like burnt popcorn aroma… And they’ll like get a towel or something and sort of wave it through the air so it like fills the house… Um… Yeah, and that smoke is supposed to cleanse the air. Um… And it alleviates any bad luck. It’s not that it gives you good luck, but it just prevents bad things from happening, sort of. And the Esphand is, it’s not like only confined to the home? Uh… It’s also… It can be incorporated into weddings? It’s not really done these days, but something they would do in the past is… They would kind of sprinkle the Esphand on the ground before the bride as she was walking. And as she was walking down the aisle, uh, they would kind of… Actually burn it in front of her as she was walking. So someone was leading, walking in front of her, and she would walk through the smoke… So it was kind of like… Like cleansing her on her way. So she’s entering into this marriage cleansed of bad luck.
INFORMANT’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE PIECE:
Informant: My grandma, she would usually do it if my sister and I weren’t home, ‘cause she knew it––we’d always complain about it… And actually when I was at college, she’d do it, like, she would do it for me, right? Like to… Cleanse my spirit from afar. So that was an interesting kind of practice… And it’s not really about the Esphand… It’s what you do with the Esphand. It’s the ritual… But it’s not like––it’s not an everyday type of thing. It’s only if she’s like––if she’s nervous, she’ll do it. It’s like to cleanse bad luck. So like, if the family is preparing for something and she, uh, doesn’t like want anything to go wrong… Like at the beginning of the pandemic it was a little bit more common… Like she was doing it more than she ever had before, I think. Or at least, I noticed it more. But like, when I was in high school, I hardly knew it was a thing. Like sometimes I’d just come home and like, “Ugh, someone burned something,” you know?
In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, Elliott Oring claims there is “difficulty [in] interpreting the meaning of symbolic acts in human behavior” (55). In order to give meaning to the act of burning Esphand, one must first be familiar with its ties to the evil eye. The lighting of Esphand is thought to ward off the evil eye. The evil eye is a contagious form of magic; if someone who has the evil eye engages with you, they may bring on bad luck or “jinx” you (jinxing stems from the concept that if you have a jinn attached to you, you bring on bad luck). For example, if a houseguest who has the evil eye compliments a child on their beauty, a mother or grandmother might burn Esphand to clear the air, concerned that the child has been met with an evil eye (i.e. been jinxed) and is thus at risk of their beauty being ruined. While burning Esphand is unique to Persian culture, the act of trying to reverse bad luck is shared across cultures. Similar actions include throwing salt over a shoulder or knocking on wood. These behaviors (performing an action to remove bad luck) can be referred to as a conversion superstitions. The existence of conversion superstitions suggests that humans have an underlying, psychological preoccupation with controlling luck and fate; if we are apprehensive that something will go wrong, it makes us feel better to perform a ritual or action that is meant to steer things in a more desirable, less unlucky direction. And these rituals or actions only have meaning through their association with reversing bad luck.
Source cited above:
Oring, Elliott. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: an Introduction. Utah State University Press, 1986.
“Esfand & The Evil Eye.” My Persian Kitchen, 2016, www.mypersiankitchen.com/esfand-the-evil-eye/#:~:text=It%20is%20pretty%20safe%20to,curse%20on%20someone%20else’s%20behalf.
Saba Soomekh. “Iranian Jewish Women: Domesticating Religion and Appropriating Zoroastrian Religion in Ritual Life.” Nashim : a Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, vol. 18, no. 18, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 13–38, doi:10.2979/NAS.2009.-.18.13.