Tag Archives: homeopathic magic

Loss of Knowledge Conversion Superstition Ritual

Context: The informant, A.V., is an 18 year old student with parents who immigrated from Gujarat and practice Jainism. This isn’t necessarily specific to North India, as she has seen South Indian people do it. However, she’s never seen anyone non-Indian do it. She was taught to do this from a young age by her parents, and continues to do it even when on her own/living away from home.

Text: The informant explained that every time she accidentally touched anything containing the written word with her feet, she would have to touch the item and, with the same hand, touch her forehead immediately after. These items could include books, loose papers, and iPads, as long as the written word was directly on the item.

Growing up, she was told that the reason they did this was because if anyone touched the written word with their feet, they were disrespecting knowledge. If knowledge was disrespected, the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati, would take it as an offense and leave; knowledge would abandon you. By this, her parents meant that one’s intelligence and opportunities would disappear. Touching your hand to the item and then to your forehead would allow you to apologize, making it clear that you had not intended to do that.

Analysis: This is a conversion superstition ritual, done to rectify or invalidate actions that would normally result in bad luck in the future. Feet are considered dirty, and touching something with one’s feet is seen as a way of saying that whatever was touched doesn’t matter enough for you to treat it well. Knowledge, being a goddess, is held sacred in Indian culture, and books/words are seen as an extension of her. Much in the way that like produces like in homeopathic sympathetic magic, disrespecting items of knowledge with one’s feet is an imitation of disrespecting knowledge itself and will convey that message unless some apology is made.

Chinese New Year Festival Foods

Context: AT is a 22 year old student at USC. Her family is Taiwanese, and they celebrate Chinese New Year by cooking a variety of specific foods. AT listed these for me, along with the reasons behind why.

Text: “For one, we eat fish, because in Chinese, there’s a lot of words that sound the same and fish sounds the same as wealth. There’s a saying that every year you get more fish, you get more wealth. We also make this like fortune? cake? Or prosperity cake? It’s called fa gao, you can look it up. We make it because the word for fortune sounds like the word for rise, like bread rising. It’s really good! There’s also sweet rice cake, because it’s sticky, and the word for sticky sounds the same as the word for year. Oh, and of course, dumplings, because they look like the old fashioned coins or like ingots of gold they used to use. Let me think… oranges too, because one of the ways to say the fruit orange sounds like the way to say good luck”

Analysis: AT gave me a list of foods, all that are made and eaten due to a perceived relationship with something they sound or look like. The choice of food seems very sympathetic-magic based, specifically homeopathic magic based. Since the word for the item of food sounds like the word for another preferred item or outcome, engaging with that imitation is thought to produce said item/outcome, in this case, producing fortune in the form of money or in the form of luck. Making a food that either sounds or looks like luck/fortune is equated to making luck/fortune for oneself.

Pan de Muerto

Context: the informant, A.F., is a 21 year old USC student. Her family is Mexican, when asked about rituals or festivals, she brought up Dia de Los Muertos. Before she explained her family customs, she did give me a small disclaimer, saying that a lot of this feels normal to her, and so she wasn’t sure what would/wouldn’t matter.

Text: The informant explained that when her family celebrates Dia de Los Muertos, they always buys a specific bread, known as “pan de muerto”. She described pan de muerto as a round sweet bread with a cross on top; along with this, she explained that her family also makes the favorite foods of their loved ones who have passed. When asked if she leaves some out for ancestors, she told me that they do that alongside eating it. Her family puts up an altar in their house with photos of loved ones who have passed, decorating it with their favorite foods, candles, and a vibrant flower that her family calls “cempasuchil.” She told me she wasn’t sure what flower it was exactly, but she thought it was a marigold. To offer the bread and food to them, her family places it on the altar.

Analysis: Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical part of Dia de los Muertos festivities, as is creating an altar for the living to offer things to their dead loved ones. The act of placing food on the altar for them seems like an idea based in homeopathic sympathetic magic, in that items given to photos of loved ones will also be given to their spirits in the afterlife. As the photo looks like the person, affecting it in some way will also affect the person, even once they’ve passed. The bread itself, to the informant, is essentially just a normal sweet bread, but the intent behind offering it is what matters, rather than anything special about the bread.

Fortune Keeping


A is a Pre-med biology major at USC, currently a freshman. A is a Vietnamese American who grew up in Vancouver, Washington a short drive from Portland, Oregon. 


A: Okay, so I’ve learned this at a very young age, but my family has told me that fortunes come true. Like, the fortune in the fortune cookies. I keep the slip of paper in my pocket like, as a way to make it come true. Keeping it with me helps make sure the fortune will come true, but if I don’t want this fortune to come true, I won’t keep it. 

Me: Do you ever lose them?

A: I keep them for as long as I think I need the fortune. Like, if I think it came true, then I’ll throw it away. 


The fortune tellers A is talking about are finely printed words, usually in a vague phrase or arrangement, that come from restaurant complementary cookies. As fortune telling is a way of predicting or controlling the future, I think what A experiences reading a fortune teller is something along the lines of superstition and homeopathic magic. Fortune tellers are usually signs, a specific message from the universe or time or fate telling you something important will happen. A believes this sign and wants this future to be his, so fortune tellers encourage some change in behavior to bring about that important thing. To bring fortune into reality, it is important for A to keep evidence of the future (the fortune paper) with him, as if to constantly be summoning it into his reality. Through this “like produces like,” A believes the paper in his possession (representing good fortune) will eventually produce what is predicted on the paper (actual good fortune). For A, he associates the paper with telling the future and keeps the fortune with him to invite the future to happen. He chooses to indulge in a sense of control or a kind of understanding over the world, where there is usually something wholly unpredictable. 

乖乖 the Taiwanese Snacks

The informant is a 21-year-old woman who lives in Taiwan. When asked about some folk beliefs that she knows, she told the collector about a superstition regarding a brand of Taiwanese snacks and machines.

Collector: Do you know any folk beliefs?

Informant: Oh yeah. This happened couple days ago in the office where I’m interning for. There was this copy machine that was always jammed and apparently the manager tried to fix it many times already. The machine was jammed again and after the manager fixed it, he asked me to grab a bag of 乖乖 (kuai kuai) from convenience store.

Collector: Can you describe what 乖乖 is and why did he ask you to do so?

Informant: 乖乖 is this snack made out of corn i think. It has many different flavors and it’s really popular in Taiwan. As of why he told me to do that, it’s because the brand name 乖乖 means to be obedient. He put the 乖乖 on top of the copy machine to tell the machine to behave. I know a lot of other occupations do the same thing. I’ve seen bus drivers, scientists, and some stores on top of their cash registers.

The Taiwanese folk belief regarding the snack 乖乖 and machines is a form of homeopathic magic. By putting something that literally says “behave” on top of something that is not behaving, the performer of the magic attempts to change the current status of a machine according to his or her want, which is for the machine to stop malfunctioning. Besides magic, reception theory proposed by Stuart Hall can be utilized to further analyze the popular superstition in Taiwan. 乖乖 is a snack that is meant to be eaten; however, the consumers of the snack give a new meaning towards the product that the producer never intended for it to be. For more information and picture reference, please read this BBC article.