Tag Archives: Jinx

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.

Pui Pui: Spitting the words off of your lips

Main Piece:

What does Pui Pui mean?

“It’s like ‘get the words off your lips,’ kind of a purification thing, but it’s also about spitting. It’s like when you don’t’ want to jinx something, like ‘I hope I start feeling better soon, pui pui pui.’ It’s so the evil eye… to get rid of the evil eye, and it’s an Ashkenazi Jewish thing. Plus there’s hand motion associated with it! You kinda flick your hands like you’re getting rid of something, though all of the old people point their hands instead. I guess it can be spelled ‘ptui ptui’ like spitting, but the real question is how is it spelled in the original Yiddish (laughs)?” 

Context: 

The informant is my mother. She is was raised Conservative Jewish and has an Ashkenazi (Easter European) Jewish background. This information was collected during a family zoom call where we were checking in with each other.

Analysis: When explaining Pui Pui to people who have never heard of it before, I often call it the Jewish “Knock on wood.” My entire family uses it as a replacement to knocking on wood whenever we don’t want to jinx something. Most Jews I’ve met have never heard of this saying, and those who have heard of it have strong ties to Eastern Europe. The combination of the spitting sound and the flicking hand motion are reflective of sympathetic magic practices, and it’s as if miming spitting the words off of your lips will actually prevent them from having been spoken. 

Taboo of Discussing the Baby during Pregnancy

Main piece: The idea that you don’t talk about it (the baby). You don’t talk about it, you don’t bring the furniture in the house, buy the furniture but can’t open it, or put it together until the baby’s born. You come home from the hospital and have to put the crib together. In the day, when your father was born, you stayed in the hospital after you gave birth for a couple of days. So you (or the husband) had time. People that weren’t you, giving birth. So probably a month before I was due to have the baby, we went to Hutzler’s, which at the time was a very lovely department store, and we bought everything that we needed. Furniture, clothes, everything. And when the baby was born, Z [her husband] called Hutzler’s and told them to deliver tomorrow or whatever, and that’s why we did. Because you just want to make sure everything is alright. 

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also my grandmother. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meise” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fable”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions. The baby she is discussing was her first child (of three), my father, who was born in May 1965. 

Context: This practice is customary for Jewish couples. During a celebration for my father’s birthday, my mother brought up a (non-Jewish) co-worker, whose wife didn’t want to know anything about the gender of the baby, or even talk about her pregnancy before the baby was born. My mom then told the co-worker, “how Jewish of her”. When I asked for an explanation, my grandmother interjected with this story about her pregnancy with my father. She takes this superstition incredibly seriously, having heard it from her mother, who heard it from her mother.

Analysis: This custom seems to exist to protect the emotional and well-being of couples who may end up losing their baby. As there is a high risk in giving birth, especially prior to the invention of modern birthing practices, having the room set up/furniture ready for a baby that may not end up coming home could be emotionally and financially taxing on expectant parents. With this practice, not talking about the baby or preparing for its arrival home until after its birth creates the illusion of low to no expectations in the liminal and risky space of pregnancy. Over time, this has almost become a superstition like a jinx, that talking about the baby will result in bad luck and potentially riskier birth. 

Superstitions Among Nurses in the ICU (The “Q-Word”, Full Moons)

Informant Context:

Stella is a traveling ICU (intensive care unit) nurse who currently work in Atlanta, Georgia.

Transcript:

INTERVIEWER: You seemed really excited to talk about [laughs] superstitions.

STELLA: Mhm!

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any particular ones you had in mind?

STELLA: Yeah like, nurses are really superstitious. Um… especially like, in the ICU. Um… so like, we call it like, “Saying the Q word”. Um, you can’t say like, “Oh, it’s—it’s been like, really *quiet* on the unit today”. ‘Cause then it’s going to suddenly be not quiet. Like, you jinxed us. Um… so like, people will like—freak out. Or if you… you can’t say like, “Oh… like, you know, Mr. Jones is doing like, so great today. I think he’s gonna like, be able to get transferred out.” Like, you can’t—if like… Or, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I feel like we’re really making progress.” [You know(?)], you can’t jinx things, you know? Um… like—you just have to say like, “Oh, like, these things are going well. Like, this is great, we’re making progress…” but you can’t be like, “Oh, I think by… I think like, we—we’re out of the woods.” ‘Cause then the patient’s gonna like, code. It’s just like, a superstitious thing. Or like, um… another thing is like, full moons. Like, people say that like, when it’s a full moon, like—patients like, go crazy. [It’s a (?)] thing that like, everyone believes.

Informant Commentary:

Stella went on to recall the first time she violated one of these superstitions, causing some nurses around her 2 become angry with her. This serves as a kind of “rite of passage”, in which a new member of the folk group becomes rapidly acquainted with a folk belief, such as a superstition. Stella also noted the community that these superstitions offer to nurses working in the ICU. When members of a group are mutually forbidden from doing or saying a particular action or word, deep meaning can be communicated even when the action or word remains undone or unsaid. In this way, silence itself acts as an offshoot of “tabooistic vocabulary”.

Analysis:

Stella jumped at the chance to talk about superstitions, insisting that nurses are “really superstitious”. This could be partially explained by the high intensity nature of the medical workplace. A very small error can have deadly consequences, so it follows naturally that this folk group has developed small, vernacular ways—even unscientific ones, in a highly scientific workplace—to avoid failure. In addition, the folk belief in full moons causing irrational behavior is a well-documented phenomenon in folklore studies, stretching as far back as the ancient Rome and earlier. A few medical journals have even published research challenging the correlation between full moons and hospitalizations.

For more information about the inquiry into full moons and their affect on hospitals, see the following (the first is emergency-room trauma, the second psychiatric):

Zargar, M., Khaji, A., Kaviani, A., Karbakhsh, M., Yunesian, M., & Abdollahi, M. (2004). The full moon and admission to emergency rooms. Indian journal of medical sciences58(5), 191–195.

Gupta, R., Nolan, D. R., Bux, D. A., & Schneeberger, A. R. (2019). Is it the moon? Effects of the lunar cycle on psychiatric admissions, discharges and length of stay. Swiss medical weekly149, w20070. https://doi.org/10.4414/smw.2019.20070

“Cheshm Zadan” (The Evil Eye) – Persian Superstition

Description of Informant

NV (75) is a retired school teacher born in Abadan, Iran. She went to boarding school in England from 1956-1963, moving to American for college afterward. She always remembers her arrival in the states, as it was the day before Kennedy was assassinated. Currently, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.

— 

Context of Interview

The informant, NV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. She is opposite the collector, BK, her grandson. Most text spoken in Farsi is rewritten phonetically using Roman characters and italicized. Some Farsi is translated and italicized for efficiency.

Interview

BK: Tell me about your superstitions.

NV: Oh! I have a lot of superstitions. You don’t want to hear about all that. Oh, I always say “pinch your butt!” That’s an Iranian one, “pinch your butt.” I say that all the time. For instance, if [my daughter] is saying something nice about [my granddaughter], I’ll tell her “pinch your butt! pinch your butt!” so straight away she pinches her butt. If you compliment someone, but you don’t want something bad to happen to them, you say “pinch your butt.” Or at least I do. And now [my daughter] does it, everybody does it, but it comes from Iran. 

NV: It’s a Persian thing. Cheshm zadan. Do you know cheshm zadan? That’s a very superstitious thing in Iran. Like, they say some people have the “Evil Eye.” You know? Yeah, the evil eye. Like if somebody looks at you and— for instance, we had gone to [visit] my dad’s side of the family in Tehran. And that night, they had complimented [my daughter] a lot. “Oh what a cutie she is!” She was like 3 years old. “How cute!” That very night, she walked in the middle of the night to come from her bed to our bed, and she hit the corner of her forehead and split it open and we had to have three stitches. We had to take her to the emergency room for three stitches! From that day on, everybody said “cheshmesh zadan“. They kept saying that, in that house when they were saying she was so cute, cheshmesh zadan. So someone gave her the evil eye and that’s why that bad thing happened. That’s a very big superstition with Iranians.

BK: How does pinch my butt come into it?

NV: No idea! They just say “pinch your butt!” Like in English you’d say cross your fingers. Pinch your butt, or koonat rah veshnkoon begeer.

BK: And that’s how you “undo” the evil eye?

NV: Yeah. Now, some people, they believe that if you give a compliment you should follow it with mashallah. You know, like, if you say “this child is so beautiful, mashallah” then you’re taking away the evil eye. The thing that, like [my cousin] she really believes in the evil eye. You know the eye, like the blue stone, she’s got it all over her house. That’s a big superstition. They got it hanging over the doors, they got it all over. I don’t have any of those. But this cheshm zadan is really something.

NV: My cousin is known for giving the eye. My mom had bought these fancy stockings from England. I mean really nice, with decorative holes in them, top of the fashion, right? She’s sitting there at a party, and her legs are crossed and looking gorgeous. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then my cousin says “What beautiful socks you have!” And that very minute— everybody laughed their heads off— that very minute, it got a run in it. You know what a run is? It tore. You know the stockings that are nylon? If you cut a little bit it just *tearing noise* starts to run, it messes it up. She’s known for having the evil eye. “Cheshm mezanan!”

Collector’s Reflection

چشم زدن (phonetically cheshm zadan) is one of the greatest of Persian superstitions. The term literally means to glare, but free translates to jinx someone/something. If you compliment someone without protecting the compliment, you risk jinxing it, causing something bad to happen to the referenced trait (e.g. compliment the face = facial injury, compliment the socks = socks are ruined). The jinx concept is often referred to as the Evil Eye, and shares a space with similar Mediterranean traditions (many are familiar with the blue glass evil eyes that decorate many middle eastern and mediterranean homes). An individual known for jinxing or giving the evil eye (such as the informant’s cousin) would be said to have “salty eyes” (چشمش شور, cheshmesh shooreh).

There are many ways to dispel of the evil eye, such as the aforementioned religious (ماشالله) mashallah or the secular pinching of one’s butt (كونت را وشگون بگير, koonat rah veshnkoon begeer). The latter is the equivalent of the American crossing of one’s fingers to block a bad omen/jinx. One may also burn esphand (wild rue seeds), the smoke of which is said to cleanse the air and prevent bad omens, such as the eye.

Another evil eye story comes from my (the collector’s) other grandmother. When my father was born, she began producing an incredible amount of milk. She was the envy of the town for this display of fertility. One day, she was out with a friend when her breasts started to leak. Out of surprise, her friend exclaimed, “Wow! You have so much milk!” And that was the end of it. That evening, she didn’t have enough to feed her son, and they had to run to the market in the middle of the night for powdered milk. From then on, she barely produced a drop. They said her friend gave her the evil eye, and jinxed her.