Tag Archives: belief

BURNING ESPHAND

MAIN PIECE:

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? 

REFLECTION:

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.

ANNOTATIONS:

Source cited above:

Oring, Elliott. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: an Introduction. Utah State University Press, 1986. 

Further reading(s):

“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.

Jõulu Vana – The Estonian Santa Claus

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following description of Estonian Christmas celebrations growing up, and more specifically her experiences with Jõulu Vana, the Estonian version of Santa Claus. Her Email was lengthy, but I decided to include the full text so as to preserve her performance of the traditions she grew up on.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: Estonian Christmas — “Jõulud”, which comes from the Swedish “Jul” (Old English ‘Yule’) — is a pagan holiday, a celebration of the end of the year. When I was growing up in Canada, a first generation immigrant, with two Estonian parents, our holiday celebrations began at the beginning of December, with Advent calendars, and continued to New Year’s Eve, when we melted candles and poured the liquid wax into buckets of cold water, where it became solid again with intricate shapes that were supposed to tell our fortune during the coming year. But the most important day for me and my brothers was the day that North Americans call Christmas Eve, December 24th, because it was on the evening of that day that Santa Claus (Jõulu Vana) would come.
I loved everything about Christmas as a child because it happened so slowly. We woke up in the morning to the delicious smell of the special Christmas bread my mother was baking (“pätsi sai”, a white bread made with raisins and almonds and flavored with cardamom that my mother ground in a special grinder). We went to the living room to admire the Christmas tree. When we were very little, my brother and I sometimes crawled under the tree to look up at the ornaments and the lights which we thought were magical. (When we were even younger, there were real candles on the tree.) After breakfast our parents gave us each one small present; the other presents would be coming from Santa.
The excitement grew during the day until we could hardly stand it. Finally, it was evening. My father, a doctor, announced that he was on duty at the hospital and had to leave. This happened every year, and I never wondered why. Awhile later my mother told us that we should go to the window to watch for Jõulu Vana. We could see him coming from a distance, through the snow, pulling a sled piled high with presents. Sometimes he would seem to get lost, approaching one of the other houses. (We were the only children on the block except for one other Estonian family who lived in the apartment directly below us.) We would knock on the window and call out frantically ‘’ “this way, Jõulu Vana!”
Before he gave us our presents, we had to each sing a Christmas song for him. We had been practicing these songs for weeks, but I remember still being nervous and even a bit scared. He always clapped and told us that we were fine singers. (Singing is a very big tradition for Estonians.) And then, finally, he handed us our presents.
As a child I did not really believe in God – most Estonians are pagan at heart, not Christian. (My mother once told me that she found it odd that Canadians go to church so often, every Sunday. In Estonia, she explained, there were only four occasions for reasons for going to church: to be baptised, to be confirmed, to be married, and to be buried.) But my faith in Jõulu Vana was strong. I must have been a gullible child. I never wondered why Jõulu Vana always came straight to our apartment, rather than the apartment of the Estonian family below us. I didn’t even wonder when I noticed, one year, that their Jõulu Vana was shorter than our Jõulu Vana. And when my Estonian friend told me: “You know, there isn’t really a Jõulu Vana; it is just our fathers wearing costumes from the hospital”, I looked her right in the eye and said: “Maybe your father pretends to be Jõulu Vana. But we have the real Jõulu Vana.”

Thoughts:

I’ve always been fond of childhood beliefs in Santa Claus or other versions of the figure. While discussion can be brought up of the commercialization of Christmas by the US, and by companies like Coca-Cola (who created the iconic imagery of Santa Claus we all know today) there’s something very pure and wholesome in the participation on the parts of parents in the myth of Santa Claus. Parents claiming that the presents under the tree are from this jolly red figure is a wonderful example of letting child’s imaginations run wild, and nurturing those imaginations by playing along with them, and I’ve never really understood claims that telling your children Santa Claus is real is actually cruel because they’re going to “discover you were lying” or something. Childhood wonder and magic doesn’t last forever, and I think rather than stamping it out, it’s something that should be protected, loved, and cared for by parents and other adults. I remember when I was a child my father would put on a big boot while we were asleep and cover it in soot before stomping around the house so that in the morning it would look like Santa came down from the chimney and had a wander about the house. Real effort was put into making Santa feel real, and I can see now after reading this from my mother, why that mattered so much to her, and the magic from her own childhood that she was trying to recapture for us in ours. The Estonian tradition of Jõulu Vana, where the father dresses up as the jolly red figure, is a perfect example of how putting in effort into creating this myth and captivating a child’s imagination can lead to wonderful memories that can last a lifetime.

Don’t Sweep Over Someone’s Feet

Context

This proverb is collected during a conversation I had with a friend when she came over for dinner at my house.

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Performance

The following is a proverb told to me by the interviewee.

I: Don’t sweep over someone’s feet or else they will go to jail

M: Who shared this proverb to you?

I: My mom and my dad. So I guess it’s from both Louisiana and Georgia. It’s a very much Southern African-American thing. I’m sure African-Americans from the west or east have never heard this saying.

M: That’s interesting I’ve never heard that one before.

I: Yeah I honestly hate telling white people this one, because then they’ll joke around and like sweep over my feet. And like why would you do that? I’m like a very superstitious person, just don’t.

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Analysis

What is interesting about this proverb is the latter half of it. I have heard from people that if you sweep over someone’s feet that you will have a bad love life, coming from the phrase “getting swept off your feet” as a way to say falling in love. It seems that this proverb takes that same concept but the latter half being about jail. As the interviewee comes from the African-American community in the South, where the incarceration rates for the African-American community are disproportionately higher than their white counterparts, it shows that the zeitgeist has made going to jail a part of their proverbs that they tell younger children. The interviewee also mentioned that this proverb tends not to be respected by her peers, showing that people’s level of superstition can vary even amongst similar age groups.

Honi Ihu/ Honi Honi (Hawaii Custom)

Context: KS was born and raised in Hawaii. She’s a really close friend of mine and is a senior at USC, studying psychology . I went over to her place one day and I asked her about some customs in her culture. She told me about honi ihu/ honi honi while she cooked dinner. 

YM: So what is a big custom you and your family have ? 

KS: Theres honi ihu/ honi honi which is just a hug and kiss on the cheek..both people at same time…that comes from the old belief of sharing the ha or breath of life

YM: Can you tell me about the breath of life in your culture?

KS: When I was young my auntys side of the family would always say honi honi and then proceed to do the mutual kiss on the cheek..honi means kiss

KS:I learned in school that this comes from the older tradition of touching noses and taking a deep breath when you meet people..this is called sharing the ha/ha which means breath

YM: What does it mean to you?

KS: To me when you greet someone with a honi honi it just expresses a genuine sense of both love and respect.

KS: I use it for family and close friends from there. It is a gesture that was taught to me by my mom, aunty and grandma..Hawaiian side.. that also makes me feel closer to them and other people from Hawaii 

KS:Since this is not how you greet people in American culture…it is a sort of bonding activity?…like I usually want to greet people with a hug because that is just how I was raised…. the whole handshake concept was very strange to me at first

YM: Awww that is so beautiful, thank you for sharing 

Analysis: I thought this was a beautiful custom. From what KS told me this custom was updated throughout the years, going from a touching nose to greet to mutually kissing both cheeks with a hug. The custom is practiced this way because the purpose of the customs is to share the breath of life. This belief and custom is similar to the eskimo kiss called kunik and the Maori greeting called the hongi where people actually touch noses to greet each other. It’s interesting how this culture decided to adapt or change up their greeting throughout the years. Either way kissing both cheeks and hugging is definitely a more intimate way to greet one another compared to American culture where a handshake is sufficient to greet someone. It seems this custom serves to create a bonding experience and well as promote more unification within the culture.  *****

For another version of this custom, please see pg 407 of Marriage Customs of the World: An Encyclopedia of Dating Customs and Wedding Traditions, 2nd Edition [2 volumes]: Volume 1, Edition 2, by George P. Monger

The Devil in your bed

Main Text:

“My Aunt always told me that if one of us in the house did not make our beds then the Devil would come and play in them. The only way to protect ourselves from the Devil was to make our beds before we left the house.”

 Context:

I collected this piece from a hispanic male whose family is Catholic. When I asked him why he remembered this piece and why he thinks he learned it from his family he told me that he remembers it because he used to have meltdowns when he would leave the house after forgetting to make his bed and that he also thinks that his Aunt only told them this as a way to get them to clean their rooms.

Analysis:

I agree with the informant’s explanation that the reason that his family was told to make their beds was not because the Devil would actually appear in an unmade bed but as a way for the children in the family to get in the habit of cleaning their rooms and making their beds. I think that one of the reasons this is passed down is as a way to teach children their manners as well as discipline and it is done in a folkloric way so that the kids will remember and abide by it.

Another explanation for why this folk belief has been told and continues to be shared by that family has to do with religion. Many western people’s religions all agree that there is a Devil and that the Devil is someone you meet in hell if you sin and do not repent for your sins. I think that this has a very strong affect on children who are just learning about religion and beginning to attend church because it equates their uncleanliness to sin and something that they have to repent for in order to protect themselves from finding the devil in your bed. Naturally, when a child gets in trouble for doing something that they are not supposed to be doing they try to apologize and find some way to not be punished. In this case, the punishment is coming face to face with the devil and the only way to avoid this is to make one’s bed- which is a pretty dark but effective way to make children more disciplined and clean.

I would also like to analyze this folk belief by seeing the choice of diction and how this would affect kids specifically and allow them to remember it. This folk belief  does not just say that the devil will appear in your bed but that the devil will play in your bed if you leave it unmade. The word choice here is directly targeted towards children to whom the notion and action of playing was natural ever since birth and that is what they are used to doing. When they hear the word play, I feel like they connect to it in a different way than an adult would because that is what they spend most of their childhood doing so it resonated with them in a different way.