Tag Archives: folk beliefs

Ghost Parties in Thailand

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Thai American
Age: 24
Occupation: Student
Residence: Long Beach
Date of Performance/Collection: April 30 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: So, like, my family is kinda, like, the official designated ghost family in my village. And my family is from this very small, um, place, kinda outside of Chiang Mai, like 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Um. And so my mom, even though she was adopted– so she doesn’t have this official designation, but it’s my family, they basically take care of all the ghosts in the village. And the ghosts are like the ancestors of all of the families that live there and each generation, they have a special woman that they picked out, that’s like part of the bloodline, and.. it can’t be a man, it has to be a woman, and she’s like the keeper of the ghosts. Um, and so it used to be my grandma, and now it’s, um, its fallen to, like, one of my aunties, and now it’s with my cousin who– lemme tell you about my cousin, her name is {name}, and she has like a very severe, like.. learning disability.. So she’s the new keeper of the ghosts. And its, its, kind of interesting because, like, she can’t work, she can’t have a job, she can’t marry.. She’s very, very frail and very thin, but.. It’s kinda nice, cuz now she’s the one that has this responsibility. 

Collector: Right, right, she doesn’t need to… Does she makes money off this?

Informant: No, no, it’s not– it’s more of like a communal village position. But the village is like one big extended family. Y’know. And all of our ancestors are everyone else’s ancestors. And we have one little temple in the very center, y’know, we go to like, mass– it’s like Buddhist mass, basically, on Sundays. Um, so.. But anyways, every eight years there’s what we call like a ghost party. I missed the last couple cuz I was in school, um, but basically every eight years it’s like throwing a big party for all of the ghosts. Like, all of the ancestors, and you get, like, all the food gets spread out.. Spirits in Thai culture are very hungry.. They’re basically like, the ultimate hedonists, they just wanna consume everything. And so you give them, like, entire spreads of like chicken, and food, and like carnations, flowers, they love cigarettes, you get them a lot of cigarettes, they really like, um, whiskey, so you give them a lot of whiskey. Um, and it’s like, everyone gets drunk and gets together, and the process of getting drunk with your family members and your village, its like the spirits come, and they’re getting drunk, and they’re eating with you. 

Collector: This is all so interesting.. When, when you say taking care of the ghosts, you mean like giving them offerings, and keeping the altars clean? 

Informant: Yeah, so it’s kinda like that, it’s also kinda like, part of the spirit lore is like, they’re ghosts, so its like human ancestors, and another part of it is like, like, a lot of high-elf fantasy stuff, like, kind of speaks true to Thai culture, where like before the humans came, there were spirits in the forest. And these spirits are very old, and they had been there for like millennia. And they owned the forest, that’s their domain, and like, in Thailand, you know, we cut down the forest, we lived there and we farmed, and so we need to like, give back to the spirits. 

Context: The informant is a close friend of mine, and is a Thai-American young woman. She lived in Thailand for several years with her mother, before they both moved to Southern California.

Analysis: This is possibly my most exciting collection, seeing how I have a friend who has thrown a ghost party before. This experience is obviously personal to not only my informant, for also for the entire village. They do not differentiate their own ancestors from the village ancestors, which ties the entire village together, even after death. It is interesting that Thai spirits are considered to be hungry, as I have seen previous examples of hungry ghosts in Korea and Japan, all of which stem from Buddhism. I also find it interesting that only woman can serve the ghosts, as previously mentioned.

Filipino Leprechauns

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Filipino American
Age: 24
Occupation: Electrical Engineer
Residence: Long Beach
Date of Performance/Collection: April 28 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: Ok so , in the Philippines, ah, the way leprechauns show up, is ah, they’re these, like, really dark-skinned, short people, that–that have really bright, like, teeth, right? So when you see them at night, and when they smile, its kind of like the cheshire cat? Yeah, so, umm, basically, whenever you see one you don’t want to mess with them because, if you, uh, hurt them in any way, they’ll most likely attack you in the middle of the night.

Collector: Will they kill you? Will they eat you?

Informant: They won’t eat you, but if like, you could die from it, so for example, the story that happened to my dad’s relative, he saw a leprechaun, and then he smacked it with a shovel. And then, ah, the very next day, my relative’s back just started hurting out of nowhere, and it basically bedrid him, and then, yeah, he died later. 

Context: My informant is a close friend of mine, and is a Filipino American young man. His father is an immigrant from the Philippines, and has extended family still living there.

Analysis: At first, when my informant named the entity as a “leprechaun,” I was momentarily confused, and could think only of a stereotypical Irish leprechaun, complete with a red beard and green suit. The image I was thinking of is entirely different from what my informant told me, namely the dark skin and bright teeth. My informant recalled that these entities were found largely in more rural areas of the Philippines, and so it was often smaller towns or villages that experienced leprechauns. Though it is unclear what would have happened if the relative had not hit it with a shovel, what is clear is that because of that, the relative was bedridden, and died shortly afterwards. While searching the USC Online Archive, I found another post regarding Filipino dwarves– could this be another version of the leprechaun?

Filipino Dwarves post: http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=36181

Tao Po– Filipino Superstition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Filipino American
Age: 23
Occupation: Student
Residence: Long Beach
Date of Performance/Collection: April 27 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Tagalog

Piece:

Informant: I heard another one, I don’t know if this, like, is a Tagalog thing, but like, um, if you have someone come into your house, and you say, oh, um, you knock on the door and you say, like, tao po, like, oh, I’m a person. So, like, like–

Informant’s mother: Tao Po, Tao Po

Informant: Yeah, cuz it’s like, the whole thing is like, you’re not supposed to let spirits in, so it’s like, “Hey, I’m a person, let me in!” 

Informant’s mother: Yeah, that’s right, so y’know, normally you just knock or doorbell, right, so when you’re entering a house, you will knock and you will say tao po.

Collector: To make sure you’re not letting in a spirit? 

Informant’s mother: Yeah, yeah.

Context: The informant is a close friend of mine, and is a Filipino-American young woman. Though she does not herself speak Tagalog, she can understand much of it. Her mother, a Filipino immigrant who has lived in Southern California for roughly 40 years, also joined the conversation. 

Analysis: This belief assumes that there are other entities wandering about knocking on doors, which makes it necessary to declare your personhood at the front door. Once I did some online research, I found that this is now used as a general greeting, and seems to have left behind its supernatural origin. I believe it speaks volumes about the number of superstitious folk beliefs that still permeate everyday living, despite the Philippines now being primarily Catholic or Muslim. When I asked other Filipino friends about this, many reported back that it was mostly a Tagalog thing, and that Ilocano people generally did not say it.

Sweeping Good Luck Away– Filipino custom

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Filipino American
Age: 57
Occupation: Healthcare Receptionist
Residence: Long Beach
Date of Performance/Collection: April 27 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Tagalog

Piece:

Informant: If, ah– let’s say you’re sweeping at night, and you have your, y’know.. So if you sweep at night, don’t sweep the dirt, the– y’know, the dirt out on the door. It’s, ah, bad, bad luck.

Collector: If you sweep it out the door?

Informant: Out the door. So it has to be–you can sweep, but y’know– the door is closed, and you just sweep and get all the, y’know, 

Collector: Get all the dust out?

Informant: But not to sweep–yeah.

Collector: So you’re supposed to sweep it into a pan and then take it outside?

Informant:Yeah, oh no, well, you just sweep–just not the door.

Collector: Do you know why?

Informant: Yeah, y’know, it’s same thing, it’s– no good [laughs].

Context: The informant is the mother of a close friend of mine, and is an immigrant from the Philippines, specifically Cavite City, which is about an hour away from Manila. She has lived in Southern California for roughly 40 years, while still maintaining close connections with her home country. 

Analysis: By sweeping the dust out of the door, one might inadvertently sweep the good luck out of the house. When asked, she reported that she had heard about the custom from other housewives in the Philippines. I have heard similar sayings in Jewish culture, though I cannot recall anything specific. As I did with my previous piece, I looked up “sweeping dirt out door” online, to better gauge who participated in this belief. This time, the results were varied; Though there were still many posts that labeled it a strictly Filipino custom (i.e. “You know you’re Filipino When..”), many seemed to consider it a general housewife belief. In this case, it seems as if this particular ritual can be seen in many different cultures.

Filipino Utensil Superstition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Filipino American
Age: 57
Occupation: Healthcare Receptionist
Residence: Long Beach
Date of Performance/Collection: April 27 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Tagalog

Piece:

Informant: So what I remember is, like, y’know, like that one, if you drop a utensil, either like, a fork– if you drop a fork on the floor, then they were saying that you’re gonna have a visitor, it’s gonna be a male. And if it’s, ah, a spoon, then it’s gonna be female.

Collector: Do you know why, like, the fork and the spoon have genders?

Informant: Yeah, it’s kinda like, the fork kinda like, represents the male, y’know, and then– if it’s like the little spoon, then the young, young, yeah, young girl. And then if it’s the little fork, it’s like young boy. Y’know, something like that, so it doesn’t have an age or anything.

Collector: Right, right, where did you pick this up, just like–?

Informant: Yeah, I heard it from the people, y’know, like, my relatives, and folks in the Philippines, y’know–

Collector: Where in the Philippines are you from?

Informant: Um, I’m from Cavite City. Yeah, it’s like an hour away from Manila.

Context: The informant is the mother of a close friend of mine, and is an immigrant from the Philippines. She has lived in Southern California for roughly 40 years, while still maintaining close connections with her home country. After the interview, the informant then recalled a past incident in which she had dropped a fork minutes before her daughter’s boyfriend came for a surprise visit. 

Analysis: This particular omen, as she mentioned, she had picked up from not only her relatives, but the general folk as well, suggesting that it is a household belief. While transcribing the interview, I searched the internet for more information of who participates in this belief. One thing I noticed is that when I searched up the phrase “dropping spoon company,” the only sites I found that mentioned it were at least ten years old, the latest being posted in 2010. However, when I searched up “dropping spoon Philippines,” there were far more results, most of them posted much more recently. Nearly all of them involved lists of Filipino superstitions, which were then posted on Filipino websites. One could reasonably assume that many of these lists were written by younger people, and from there, infer that this belief is still very much alive. 

Overall, this omen, though a minor thing, seems now to be a point of pride for many Filipino people. This pride could be an enactment of “cultural intimacy,” which Michael Herzfeld describes as “the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered as a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with the assurance of common sociality”. Though perhaps not too embarrassing, this belief is certainly not a proven fact by any means, and so could be seen as superstitious or outdated. Despite this, many Filipino people seem to regard it as an identity marker, given its inclusion in many lists entitled “You know you’re Filipino when..” 

Herzfeld, M. (2005). Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. New York: Routledge.


Cowlick Tea

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: College student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/01/2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant described a folk medicine used by her immediate and extended family.

Text:

Informant: So, one of the folk things my family does is that when I’m sick my father will give me this thing called cowlick tea, and basically it’s tea with cow droppings in it. I think it’s because cows eat grass, so their droppings are really good for you. And my dad’s grandmother was the one that started this apparently and she always insisted that my dad drink it. And now my dad believes in this cowlick tea because they’re from Oklahoma… and apparently that’s relevant. My dad’s grandmother was from Marshall, Texas, and she also has Native American Cherokee roots, so it could possibly be from that. But it’s used to alleviate the symptoms of sore throat, headaches, and other head colds. It’s also known for clearing nasal passages and it’s basically just made of cow droppings. And it’s given to anyone of any age to relieve themselves of the common cold.

Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant does not fully understand the proposed scientific benefits or the cultural origins of cowlick tea, the folk medicine is a practice she took part in growing up. The fact that the folk medicine has been passed down through multiple generations in her family makes her more inclined to take part in the family tradition and folk belief.

Interpretation: There are often folk medicines used for the goal of relieving people of symptoms of the common cold because there had not yet been a scientifically-proven method to cure someone of a cold. There is often a belief in American society that western medicine is a superior approach to other healing methods. However, many western medicines find their origins in folk medicines that have proven scientific health benefits. Additionally, western medicine is based on the belief in the mind body split, a theory put forward by philosopher René Descartes. The theory describes how a person’s mind and body are two separate entities and encourages people to think for themselves, rather than trying to find all of life’s answers in religious doctrine. While many folk medicines have proven health benefits, even the ones that do not point out a major flaw in the theory of the mind body split: the placebo effect. Sometimes simply the belief that one has been given healing medicine can actually improve their condition. Whether or not cowlick tea has any health benefits is not known by the informant. Regardless, her family members report feeling better after drinking it, and that could be a result of the placebo effect.

 

 

Albanian Broom Superstition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Bronx, New York
Date of Performance/Collection: March 17, 2017
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: The informant is Mrika. She has lived in the Bronx, New York for her whole life. She is eighteen years old and is a freshman at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. She is of Albanian descent.

Context:We sat across from each other at a table at a diner in Yonkers, New York during our spring breaks from college.

Original Script:

Informant: So, if someone accidentally hit you with a broom while they were sweeping, it would be bad luck. If they hit your feet, people would say that you wouldn’t get married. It seemed like an allusion to slavery. Brooms deal with the ground and the dirt. You had to get rid of the bad luck. To do that, you have to spit on the broom.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: I learned about this while I was on vacation in Albania, so it reminds me of that culture. I must have been eight years old. This is the one superstition that makes me remember the month I spent in Albania when I was growing up.

Personal Thoughts: I find it interesting that not only did Mrika explain the piece of folklore, but she also had developed a sense of the potential meaning behind its reason. Usually, people do not really know where the folklore they follow comes from or its meaning, yet Mrika, as she got older, was able to infer why getting hit with a broom is considered bad luck.

The Baobab Tree

--Informant Info--
Nationality: South African
Age: 55
Occupation: Computer Tech
Residence: Dallas, Texas
Date of Performance/Collection: 5/1/13
Primary Language:
Other Language(s): Afrikaans, English

Item:

“The Baobab tree, also known as the upside-down tree, is a strange looking tree that grows in low-lying areas in Africa and Australia. The Baobab is also called the upside-down tree because when bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the Baobab look like roots sticking up into the air, as if it had been planted upside-down. Legend holds that god Thora took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it out over the wall of Paradise on to Earth below, and although the tree landed upside-down it continued to grow. Another story goes that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving. Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. When water is drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, this serves as protection from crocodiles and the drinker will be mighty.”

Context:

The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), heard all of these stories about the Baobab trees from the trackers who would lead the safaris she went on in South Africa. The trees did not grow where she grew up near Johannesburg.

Analysis:

In the first two stories about the tree, I see an expression of the traditional subject of minor myths; explaining why things are the way they are. In the folk beliefs of the bushmen, however, I see an intense tie to their surroundings. The tree, for them, is an extremely important part of their relationship with nature. In addition to these stories, the informant sent me some factual information about the tree: “The Baobab has a special role in Africa. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects; bush babies also spread the pollen; the pollen can be used as glue; the seeds are rich in protein, calcium, oil and phosphates – they can also be roasted and ground like coffee beans; young leaves have a high calcium content and can be used as spinach; the trunk is fibrous and can be woven into rope mats and paper; beer and tea can be made from the bark, but you need a strong constitution to drink either.” These facts demonstrate the many ways in which the tree is used, by humans and animals alike. That said, all of these things the tree does augments the tie between it and the bushmen that is expressed in the stories.

Do not put money on the table when you eat

--Informant Info--
Nationality: African
Age: 22
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April
Primary Language: French
Other Language(s): English, Spanish, Fang, etc

After a day of shopping with my informant and friend, we went to a restaurant for dinner. Once I was done eating and she was finishing up her last bites I pulled out my wallet and placed it on the table.  She startled me by abruptly saying, “Don’t do that!” Confused, I picked up my wallet checking to see if I killed a bug or something. She then explained that it was a superstition in her country. Now a year later I reminded my informant (a twenty-two year old female from the Gabonese Republic, a state located on the west coast of Central Africa) of that specific event and she revealed that “In my country…you’re not supposed to pull out money or put it on the table until everyone is done eating…It’s okay to keep it down near the chair but not on the table.” When I asked why, my informant stated, “Because you will be broke [laughter].” When asked where she learned this from the informant claimed “everyone does it” meaning it is the custom among locals. She admitted not paying much attention to this belief as a child, however, once old enough to pay for her own meals she often forgot to not put money on the table. Days later, “I would be broke.”

As revealed by my informant wealth is a concern among the locals. “A lot of the beliefs in my country have to do with losing money. I think this superstition hints at a negative attitude towards poverty. I think by placing money on the table while people are consuming food it symbolizes consuming wealth.  Another thought is that exposing ones wallet leaves opportunity for others to think against someone’s wealth. Similar to the evil eye a negative thought may be a form of contagious magic.

Smurfs Peed in My Toilet

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Japanese-American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/18/13
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Smurf

 Ok…so when I was little I was in my “why phase”—I’m not really sure when that was exactly, I think I was maybe like four or five—you know that point in your life when you just ask why to everything? Ok, so every like, once every like, once every two weeks I would come home and see the bathroom and the toilet was, like, blue! And I would always go to my dad and ask why the water was blue, and he’d always say, “well, because a smurf came and peed in our toilet!” I didn’t question it—I mean… I was four or five so… smurfs exist right!? Um… but yeah, I just never questioned it until I started helping clean the bathroom when I was, like, 8? Until then I believed that smurfs came and peed in our toilet and made the water blue. He thought it was funny. I think its funny too…now that I know, like…I just think it’s a really funny story.

 

Haley’s story touches upon an interesting paradox of childhood: constantly questioning everything about the world but also believing whatever your parents tell you. Haley come from a very intelligent family that is scientifically and mathematically inclined—her mother is a doctor and her father a computer engineer. Being of a rather analytic nature, it is surprising that her parents simply didn’t explain to her that the chemicals in the toilet bowl cleaner made the water turn blue. Haley says that if she ever had a question about anything, her parents would take the time to sit down and thoroughly explain to her the details of what she was inquiring about.

 

I find that, being of such a scientific nature, her parents wanted to experience the magic of childhood in which the fantastical, the supernatural, and the improbable is generally preferred over the banality of reality. For Haley, the blue smurfs’ pee was an escape to a fantasy realm. Yes, she eventually learned the truth about the toilet bowl cleaner, but her mental dislocation from the real world afforded her a wonderful childhood.