Tag Archives: fraternity

Frat Initiation: Fight Night

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 02/28/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: The informant was born and raised in southern California. He is a sophomore at the University of Southern California and joined greek life in the spring semester of his freshman year. The following is a ritual that occurred at the end of his freshman spring semester just prior to his graduation from “pledge” to “active member.”

Context: This piece was collected in a casual setting in the informants apartment. It was a staged interview so it did not come from a completely natural recount of the ritual. We are good friends so the setting was relaxed, although the informant was adamant on retaining confidentiality surrounding his identity. 

Piece: 

The following is a summary of a conversation, including a few direct quotations, so as to protect the identity of the individual and his fraternity.  

After a semester of hazing, pledges (people who have pledged to join a certain fraternity but have not been completely initiated into the fraternity) the pledge masters (who are active members of the fraternity responsible for the hazing/initiation rituals) gather the pledges and any active members who are interested  in participating in a large room in the frat house. The pledges and active members then form a circle. One of the pledge masters then goes into the center of the circle and says, “Pledges, who do you have problems with?” 

The pledges then wait silently until one of them declares that they have a problem with another frat member (active or pledge). At that point, the member who made the declaration along with the member who they declared to have issue with enter the center of the circle along with the referee who is usually the pledgemaster. The surrounding frat members begin to cast bets on who will win while others bang on their chests and jeer. The fighting consists of “slap boxing” for three rounds regulated by the referee. Often if a pledge or active falls during the fight, the surrounding crowd will shout statements like, “Get the fuck up!” and encourage the continuation of the fight. 

While both active members and pledges make up the circle, only pledges are allowed to call upon other members to enter the circle. It is considered taboo to refuse to enter the circle after being called out.

The informant noted that the night was a time to release pent up anger against fellow frat members who had issues with each other. The event occurs in the final week, dubbed “Hell Week,” before the pledges are officially inducted into the fraternity. It is not uncommon for participants to develop broken bones or other injuries during the event.

Analysis: 

I wasn’t very surprised to hear that violence, an action that typically denotes masculinity in American culture, was so deeply intertwined in the tradition considering the heteronormative history of Greek life on university campuses. Although the ritual is violent, the informant was not bothered, often laughing as recounting the event and suggesting that the event is not perceived, at least by him, as a traumatizing event but is rather an empowering event. 

The ritual serves as a brief dismissal from the hierarchy within the fraternity and allows for retribution. By seeking vengeance for abuse (perceived or real) at the hands of other pledges and active members, the pledges are able to gain equal status and regain respect and dignity by evening the score. The taboo on refusing to enter the circle further ensures that pledges are put on the same stage as other members of the fraternity who may have brutalized them. It allows pledges (who are to be inducted very soon) an opportunity to exert power over other members for the first time.

The Brown Helmet

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 62
Occupation: Investment banker
Residence: San Mateo, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/15/2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Text:

Informant (R): Yeah the KA’s had a tradition, we called the Brown Helmet, um, we had a travelling trophy that was awarded to the last person that got dumped by a date or a girlfriend. Uh and it was a brown army helmet. The reason it was brown or was called the Brown Helmet, or why it was appropriate was because you had been shat on by your girlfriend or your date who dumped you. So you know if you were unlucky enough to have the brown helmet, you were just waiting for someone to get dumped so you could give it back to them. Yeah, so we had that.

Collector (J): Was that something you learned during pledging (initiation)?

R: No, it was even before, because we lived in the house and we hadn’t gone through hell week or any of those things yet and you know I got, shit, I probably got the Brown Helmet before I was an active actually.

Context: The informant was recalling his experience as a fraternity brother in college. He is remembering his time there and the traditions celebrated as his child goes through the pledging process.

Analysis: The Brown Helmet is a way of expressing the recent loss of a relationship in a humorous way, encouraging brothers to be open about their experiences. The fact that every individual has the potential to wear the helmet also allows for a sense of solidarity for those who currently have the helmet, as they can seek advice from previous recipients. At the same time, it shows other brothers to be more sympathetic to the wearers of the hat. However, this could also make the wearers more likely to be teased for being “dumped.” Regardless, the sentiment behind the color brown certainly shows the negative attitude and stigma around being broken up with. In a way, the brown army helmet shows that regardless of their relationship status, the brothers are able to fight through it and reclaim their identity as a bachelor.

Fraternity origin story

--Informant Info--
Nationality: US
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/16/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): CA

Main Piece:

Informant: Yeah I can tell you that. Does it matter if it actually happened or no ‘cause I’m not sure.

Interviewer: No

Informant: Okay, so the story is about this guy, Billy Bags. William Bagnard was his full name. When he was like around twenty he was drafted into World War II. He goes to Japan and eventually gets taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the army. When he’s there he goes through absolute hell. But Billy Bags is a tough guy so he eventually makes it through and comes back to the US after the war. The story goes…and I’m not positive…but the story goes that after the war he enrolled at USC. When he’s there he tries to join a fraternity, cause, like, he wanted to recapture the brotherhood or whatnot he found in the war. But when he joins he is disgusted by the act of hazing. Billy Bags had been through hell in Japan and like, for him he had seen how bad his experience as a POW was and didn’t want to ever put other people through anything similar. Billy Bags says, “screw this, brotherhood isn’t supposed to make you want to put your brothers through pain, I’m gonna start my own fraternity where we don’t haze.” Pretty much that’s the story we all tell each other, although we have no idea if it’s true or not.

Background:

            The informant is a friend of mine from high school who know goes to school here at USC. He is a sophomore, majoring in Business Administration and from Denver, Colorado. I asked him if he could re-tell me the story of how his fraternity was founded. The fraternity in question carries a strict ant-hazing policy that the members are incredibly proud of. This interview was conducted in person and recorded for transcription.

Context:

            The informant learned of this story through other members in his fraternity one night during his new member semester. He said, however, that no one formally “taught” him the story. Rather, the story is passed down through informal interaction. I have personally heard the informant talk fondly of this story previous to collecting this piece.

Analysis

            As best I can observe, the story of Billy Bags is an identifier for the members of the fraternity and provides commonality through a shared legacy. The informant was even doubtful of the validity of this legend, yet he still considers it a part of his own community’s history, regardless of the truth. In this way, the story of Billy Bags is a legend for the informant and his peers. Legends often provide causal reasoning for the laws of a given society/community. In this case, the legend of Billy Bags provides the fraternity with a tangible reason for its anti-hazing policy. The story of Billy Bags could be considered a myth in some cases. It is a creation tale that simultaneously establishes reasoning behind the fraternity’s belief system and traditions.

Fraternity Pinning

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: NA
Residence: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: April 23, 2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): NA

 

*In order to anonymize the fraternity and keep its secrets, it will be referred to as Zeta.

 

Abstract: Fraternity brothers in Zeta are given two separate pins at different times. The first they receive while pledging and wear for the whole semester until they ceremoniously throw it off of a cliff. The second they receive as initiated brothers and wear at their leisure.

 

Background: ZB is a collegiate student and brother in the Zeta fraternity. He grew up in Chicago, but goes to school in California. He joined his fraternity his freshman fall semester and is currently finishing up his sophomore year. He does not know when pinning started, but knows the tradition of wearing it and its significance. The topic came up after fraternal folklore was discussed in class, and I was curious about it, so I asked one of my friends in a fraternity if he could give me any insight.

 

ZB: At one point early on in pledging, we were given this pin that we had to wear. Like all the time. We could not be seen without it on. It had like three little stars and signified we were pledges of Zeta. Not only to other brothers, but also the campus. So like we wear it all semester then um, I don’t know if I should go into detail. We get driven to this cliff where we basically learn a lot of the lore of the house and things we were wondering all semester, then we throw all of our pins off the cliff into the ocean. It is a tradition for this ceremony. Houses across the nation bury their pins, but since we are in California, we used the ocean. It was really cool because the pin brings the national fraternity together, but we had our own little way of getting rid of it at the same cliff since our chapter started. But after initiation we got this new pin with a diamond and three stars on it. And our names on it. So it was pretty cool. Like an upgrade.

 

Interpretation: The pin was a method of identification. It was, for the entire semester, identifying the pledges of Zeta. They were not brothers, but pledges. The pin itself makes those who wear it proud to do so because they really have no other choice. If they want to be in the fraternity, they must demonstrate that they will wear this pin proudly. It seems like a test of loyalty early on to ensure that those who want to enter the house are willing to identify with and stick with it through thick and thin.

The ceremony holds a lot of meaning. Due to the location of the university, the fraternity was able to put their own spin on the nationwide tradition. This personalization gives brothers something to differentiate themselves with the national fraternities. While being part of a nationwide brotherhood can bond people across borders together, having individuality gives reason for the brothers in that specific chapter to bond to each other.

The symbolism of burying the pin, or in this case, throwing it into the ocean, signifies that the pledges are now done with pledge process and ready to move on. However, they must always remember that the pin never disappears, nor should the values or lessons they learn throughout pledging.

Biz- Fraternity Folklore

--Informant Info--
Nationality: U.S.A.
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Chicago
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/25/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: Jimmy Lonergan. 21 years old. From Chicago. Student at USC and member of a fraternity.

Informant:  “When I pledged a fraternity, we were told by the older members in the house we weren’t allowed to say the number ‘5.’  Instead of saying the number ‘5’ we had to say ‘Biz.’ For example: “It’s Biz o’clock, I have Biz siblings, etc. The origins of Biz is actually a very funny story. There is a popular drinking game called beer die. The game involves four people standing on opposite sides of the table. There are two beer cups at each corner and a player throws up a die in the air, attempting to hit the opponents side of the table. The die is supposed to bounce off and the opponent has to catch it. If the die does not leave the table, the die lands on a number. If it lands on 5 then the team who threw the die has to drink because in the game, the number 5 is forbidden so.

Collector: “So why BIZ?”

Informant: “So this alumnus from the fraternity whom I never met decided that because the number 5 is forbidden in the game, he would say ‘BIZ’ instead. I don’t remember why he chose BIZ specifically. Since then, it has become a part of my fraternity culture. In the fraternity, BIZ has become part of the everyday vocabulary. When someone forgets the rule, for example, people humorously scream BIZ at them!

Thoughts: This fraternity lore is very interesting. It is fairly recent and it is crazy that one individual literally created the custom of saying BIZ instead of 5. Since pledges follow most orders, it comes as no surprise that Biz would quickly replace 5 in their vocabulary.

Fraternity Song

--Informant Info--
Nationality: USA
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Chicago
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/25/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: Jimmy Lonergan. 21 years old. From Chicago. Student at USC and member of a fraternity.

“When I joined a fraternity this song really spoke to the values I hope to live and abide by. When I came to USC, I really wanted to join a fraternity due to the powerful experience of brotherhood. I come from a big family—five siblings—and I really wanted to have brothers throughout my college career. We sing this song after Monday Dinner and during chapter, all the brothers stand in a circle, lock their arms together, and sing in unison while moving from side to side:

Our strong band can ne’er be broken

Formed in ole Phi Psi

Far surpassing wealth unspoken

Sealed by friendship’s tie

Chorus:

Amici, usque ad aras

(“Friendship, ongoing until death”)

Deep graven on each heart

Shall be found unwav’ring true

When we from life shall part

 

College life at best is passing

Gliding swiftly by

Let us pledge in word and action

Love for old Phi Psi”

 

Thoughts: The lyrics really emphasize the importance of friendship, pledging, brotherhood, and a sacred bond. Truly, a fraternity tries to emulate these values and as Jimmy said it is the brotherhood that drew him to the fraternity. This fraternity song reminds me of the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration of Independence, it says: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Fraternities are very old American organizations whose founders were inspired by the same values this country was founded upon. Truly, the song encapsulates a similar sentiment that is portrayed in the Declaration of Independence.

Amici

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/12/16
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

 

  • Since joining Phi Kappa Psi in the fall of 2015, we sing this song every Monday night before we begin eating. We all stand up and form a big circle linking linking our shoulders, kind of like a big huddle that you would see at a football game or something. We do a little sway back and forth as we sing and then once we are done we can eat. This song is important to me because it signifies the long lasting friendships that I have formed in the fraternity. Singing this song makes me really feel like I am part of something bigger, because people in different Phi Psi chapters are singing it all over the country, and have been for years. I first had to  learn the song before I became an active member of the house. One of our house mottos is “continuing our friendships until death”, which is emphasized in the lyrics “Amici, usque ad aras” which means “Friendship ongoing until death”. I think it’s very interesting that if I were to meet other Phi Kappa Psi brothers from different schools, they know all the same stuff that has been passed down and we immediately share a bond. Knowing how strong my bond is with my friends that I have made here is truly inspiring and the elements of loyalty expressed in a song that we sing together weekly, lead me to believe that I really will be close with my brothers for the rest of my life. 
  • Lyrics to Amici
    (“Friendship”)
    Our strong band can ne’er be broken
    Formed in ole Phi Psi
    Far surpassing wealth unspoken
    Sealed by friendship’s tieChorus:
    Amici, usque ad aras
    (“Friendship, ongoing until death”)
    Deep graven on each heart
    Shall be found unwav’ring true
    When we from life shall partCollege life at best is passing
    Gliding swiftly by — Then
    Let us pledge in word and action
    Love for old Phi Psi
  • For more information see video of Brothers from California Gamma, California Beta and California Iota join one another to sing Amici.
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWxWXQl16vo

ANALYSIS:

Being a part of a the greek community myself, i share the feeling of belonging and community that comes along with learning a song that is special to your chapter yet has been passed down within the house for many many years.

Amici-Fraternity Song

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Saratoga, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/16
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): latin

Information on the Informant: The informant, Cameron Borch, is one of my good friends who is in the same fraternity as I am at USC. He is 19 years old and is originally from Saratoga, California. He played Water polo and swam while in high school as well as participated in Crossfit. He has two older brothers, whom he looks up to and sees as his best friends. Cameron grew up in a very “masculine” environment and values brotherhood more than anything because of his family situation. Being the youngest child, he always respected and emulated his brothers actions. In fact, both his brothers attend USC as well so it follows plan that he decided to attend USC as well. In the Fall of 2015, Borch decided to join a fraternity and on the way, learned this traditional fraternity song that he shared with me.

“Our strong band can ne’er be broken
Formed in ole Phi Psi
Far surpassing wealth unspoken
Sealed by friendship’s tie

Chorus:
Amici, usque ad aras
(“Friendship, ongoing until death”)
Deep graven on each heart
Shall be found unwav’ring true
When we from life shall part

College life at best is passing
Gliding swiftly by — Then
Let us pledge in word and action
Love for old Phi Psi

When we sing our life’s last measure
Sweetest then shall be
Strains recalling every treasure
Of fraternity”

Analysis: This song displays a lot of the qualities that many fraternities pride themselves on. The song begins with emphasizing the fact that their bond can never be broken, that their brotherhood within the fraternity will withstand any obstacles that are thrown at them in life. It goes on to say that something like material wealth will never trump the bond that was developed in Phi Psi (the fraternity whose song this is). Additionally, what is cool about this song is that it is unique to this certain fraternity and it is known by every member who has ever joined the house, regardless of the school. Furthermore, there lies latin words within the song–the chorus and the title of the song (Amici) are latin. This corresponds with the fact that Fraternities are based on a “Greek System” of classifying houses.

 

Phi Alpha

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 22
Occupation: Student
Residence: Rohnert Park, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: March 20, 2016
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

The informant, a 22-year-old college student, is a member of a PanHellenic sorority. The informant is my sister, and while chatting at home over spring break I asked her if she would be willing to tell me any of the rituals that were performed at her sorority events. She refused to tell on the grounds that they are all highly confidential and she has been sworn to secrecy. After a moment of silence, she said that she would be willing to describe a secret tradition of her ex-boyfriend’s fraternity, because she felt no obligation to keep it secret for him any longer.

“He’s in SAE, and they have this saying that all of the brothers constantly use in secret. It’s ‘Phi Alpha,’ and it means ‘Brighter from Obscurity.’ Usually they just say it means ‘Under the Sun’ because that’s easier to understand. It has something to do with being close to God. Members of the fraternity say it to one another under their breath as a greeting or when saying goodbye. Sometimes they also say it in place of ‘I’m serious’ or ‘this is actually true.’ Like, if one guy is telling a story and his brothers don’t believe him, he’ll say ‘Phi alpha’ so that they do. Only brothers are supposed to know what it is, I was just around so much that they accidentally said it in front of me and [my ex-boyfriend] told me what it means.”

This Greek phrase intended to be shared among fraternity members in secret serves to place emphasis on the deep-rooted connection that is meant to be formed between two men as a result of their shared Greek affiliation. I asked the informant whether pledges—new members of the fraternity who had not yet been initiated—knew of the phrase and she said that they don’t. Therefore, acquiring knowledge of what the phrase is, when to use it, and what it means is a part of one’s initiation into the fraternity. It is a special privilege granted only to those who have endured several months of probationary membership, and serves as a way of asserting one’s status within the fraternity. I asked the informant what the significance of being close to God is for the members, and she replied that there really was none. The fraternity has no religious affiliation, but rather the idea of being close to God serves more as a way of encouraging members of the fraternity to take responsibility for their actions, by implying that some greater power is watching over them and ensuring that they represent the fraternity appropriately. I have always heard that a plethora of secret handshakes, rituals, and traditions exist within Greek organizations, and the depth of meaning associated with the simple saying “Phi Alpha” makes me wonder just how intricate many of these other forms of folklore are that I am unaware of.

Alpha Phi Omega Initiation

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/6/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Mandarin Chinese

“I don’t know how long it’s been in practice, but like every time like we wear pins, like a pledge pin on the right side [of your chest] when you’re pledging and then you put it on the left when you have been initiated. So, ‘cause the left side is your heart, so like the service pin is more on your heart like, you’re like in. Um, and then during the initiation ceremony we like light candles for each, kind of characteristic we talk about, um, and then we also, when people are ushered in to the initiation ceremony they’re, they have to close their eyes and not look and they get in a line with hand on shoulder, like in lines of maybe ten people and then someone leads them who’s an active member already to lead them to the place of the initiation. And then once they’re all there, um, they can open their eyes and then they, everybody says their name in order and they say the oath repeating after the person leading the ceremony. Um, let’s see. That happens once when you find out you’re gonna become a pledge and that happens another time when you’re initiated to become an active member. The pledging period is, like, a semester long, basically . . . It just seems like it’s always been done that way and so, when I experienced it as a pledge, it’s how I also experienced it as an active, like it, it feels like it’s always been that way.”

 

The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies biology and is currently applying to medical schools. This interview took place in the new Annenberg building when I was having a conversation with another friend about superstition and the informant started to volunteer information about the rituals that have taken place in her life. She is a part of the campus service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, or APO and has been for all four years she has been at USC. APO is co-ed and is somewhat culturally removed from USC’s other Greek life. It states its principle values are “leadership, friendship, and service” and the members of this service fraternity are supposed to embody those values in their everyday lives.

 

This ceremony is clearly a liminal moment that has been ritualized. It is a way for new members to join the fraternity on a consistent basis while knowing that they have the approval of the active members. Essentially, it is a way of very clearly establishing who is a part of the frat, who is not, and who is in the process of joining. I thought it was interesting that the informant interpreted the movement of the service pin from the right side to the left side as having to do with the left side being where your heart is. Part of me believes this interpretation is influenced by her studying biology and the human anatomy currently being the most important area of study in her life, while the other part thinks this is probably the original symbolic meaning of the movement. Having the pin on the right side of your chest makes it merely a form of decoration, at most an acknowledgment that you are interested in being a part of this organization. However, as soon as you move it to the left side of your chest, it is a statement that the organization is a big part of your life as it is next to one of your most vital organs.

 

The repetition of the initiation ceremony is important, as it gives the active members and pledges a period to adjust to the change in the community. It is noteworthy that the active members light a candle for each “characteristic” that an APO member should embody, i.e. leadership, friendship, and service, as this means three candles are lit and three is an important symbolic number in American culture. I think the reasoning behind making the pledges close their eyes when they are led to the ceremony has more to do with symbolism than it does with keeping the location of the ceremony a secret. The pledges are going to find out where the ceremony is as soon as they open their eyes, so there is really no reason to think that keeping the location a secret is an important part of the ritual. Rather, I think it has to do with the fact that when the pledges close their eyes they are in a location that represents their lives before APO, and when they open them they are somewhere that represents the their new lives with this fraternity. This action also increases the suspense and sacredness of this ritual. That an active member leads the lines of pledges into the ceremony shows the approval of the existing members of APO and is an important step in making this outgroup a part of the in-group.