Tag Archives: sleep

Tokoloshe

Context: I heard about the Tokoloshe from my friend who lived in South Africa for two years. His mom is also a professor of South African Art.

The Tokoloshe is a small and terrifying creature that seriously messes with your ability to have a restful night’s sleep. Tokoloshes are a creature from Zulu mythology that inhabit South Africa.

Tokoloshe are described physically in many ways, though a constant seems to be their small size. Sometimes they are described as small humanoid creatures and other times they are described as more primate-like.

These creatures are often malevolent and quite dangerous. They are said to crawl into sleeping people’s rooms and cause all kinds of havoc — from simply scaring them all the way to choking them to death with their long, bony fingers. It seems to particularly enjoy scaring children, often leaving them with long scratches on their bodies. One way to keep the Tokoloshe at bay is to put bricks beneath the legs of one’s bed. This will put them out of reach, and hopefully out of harm’s way, of the Tokoloshe.

As mentioned above, raised beds are an important way to combat the Tokoloshe. Traditionally, many South Africans in areas rife with Tokoloshe myths slept on grass mats encircling a warm, wood fire that would keep them warm during the bitter winter nights. However, sometimes healthy people would inexplicably be found dead come morning.

There is a theory that sleeping close to the fire in their homes may have depleted the oxygen levels and filled the home with carbon dioxide. As it is heavier than pure air, it would sink to the bottom of the home where people slept. Thus, seemingly healthy people and sometimes entire families would be found dead. A parallel was found between elevated sleepers and a lack of death so the Tokoloshe was told as a story forewarning those who slept close to the ground (and the fire). While it might not be an actual malevolent creature, what kept away a Tokoloshe would also keep away death from carbon monoxide.

This is a fascinating example of the use of folklore to create tangible changes in the lifestyles of people. Although the Tokoloshe might not actually exist, the introduction of this creature in Zulu mythology ultimately resulted in a positive impact on communities who believe in it. It has saved people from becoming ill and has prevented deaths, as well as indirectly educated children about the potential dangers of sleeping close to a fire indoors. Even people outside of the intended audience of believers of Zulu mythology can benefit from the knowledge that the Tokoloshe exists in case they find themselves sleeping near a fire source within an enclosed area, and I am sure I will keep this in mind if I encounter a similar situation.

Haunted House in Indiana- The Funny Man and the Woman with the Red Eyes: Sleep Paralysis and Two Traveling Ghosts, Cured by a Witchdoctor

I first heard this story when I asked the speaker if she had ever seen a ghost, but when she began telling her story I remembered that I had heard parts of this tale before. The speaker told her story in a very matter-of-fact tone and spoke first about her experiences with friendly and unfriendly ghosts. For another example of a ghost legend by this same speaker, search “Haunted Theaters and Ghost Lights” in the USC folklore archive.

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When the speaker and her twin brother were three years old, they shared a room in Gary, Indiana in a house completely made of brick. “My mom came in [to the children’s bedroom], she had just put us to bed. And then she heard me and my brother laughing. And so she like came back into the room and she’s like, What’s going on here? She’s like, what’s happening? And we’re like, ‘The man, the man. He’s making a funny face.’ And there was nobody there.”

“Was I scared? No, because he was one of the friendly ones of the house,” the speaker said. “He was kind of just there for jokes and like to make children laugh, because apparently, um, his grandchildren died in the house. And he like, died out of grief. And he loved kids. So he would just play with my brother and I [sic] occasionally.”

The speaker said that there were also unfriendly ghosts, and that she had recently gotten rid of one of these malicious specters. ” “They moved with us to Florida. And at first, I didn’t notice because they didn’t approach me. At first, they would just stay in the corner. And I didn’t realize it would always be a really scary woman with two red eyes. And I didn’t know what she was. I thought she was just like, a spirit… But no, she turned out to be worse than I thought.”

The speaker said that she began to experience sleep paralysis and that “I would be screaming, and she’d be attacking me. And I couldn’t move. And I’d wake up with bruises on my arms and my legs because she was sitting on top of me.” She slept with her mother at age 17 because of these nightly attacks. When she returned to her bedroom, she said, ” “I was screaming to save my mom and my brother. But they couldn’t hear me. And then just the woman was just taking my family away from me. And I didn’t like I couldn’t do anything. I was just sitting there. And then again, my mom woke me up screaming, crying in real life. “

The speaker’s Puerto Rican grandfather, Julio, was a witch doctor. “We had to pin a square piece of black cloth underneath my pillow. I don’t know what it was to catch her something like that.” Soon after that she moved to Southern California to attend school, and she hasn’t seen either ghost since.

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This story was told at night in the kitchen, and three college-age females were present. The speaker said that she was relieved to be rid of the ghosts, and that after her parents’ divorce, she rarely visited the Gary House. She also said that the house was torn apart after the divorce, and that her father would start projects that he wouldn’t complete (for example, fixing the bathroom tub). I think these ghosts may have something to do with the divorce, but I believe that this experience was very frightening for the speaker.

This speaker later scoffed at my mentioning that a friend received therapy when recovering from his parent’s divorce. Her response suggested that children do not need therapy for this life change.

For another example of ghosts stories indicating changes in property ownership or status quo, see the scholarly article “Ghostly Possession of Real Estate: The Dead in Contemporary Estonian Folklore” by Ulo Valk (2006).

The concept of traveling ghosts is certainly frightening, and this story was welcome after a long day’s work.

Old Woman Scratching the Tipi Walls

Main Piece:

Informant: We wouldn’t go to sleep and it was getting really, really late. And the younger kids were still awake. My older cousins and my older sisters would tell us that if we didn’t go to bed there is an old woman with really long nails that would scrape her nails along the outside of the tipi. She said that every time you talked or were loud, even laughed or anything, she would come closer and closer. And you knew she was about to take you when you start hearing her nails on the tipi, on the tipi canvas. It would start on the opposite side of the tipi and get closer and closer until it went passed you to the door. Then she would grab you and take you to the coulees. 

Background:

The informant is a fourteen-year-old Native American girl from the Choctaw, Blackfoot, and Lakota Nations. She was born and raised in Tennessee and frequently travels out west to visit family and friends. She is in eighth grade.

Context:

During the Covid-19 Pandemic I flew back home to Tennessee to stay with my family. The informant is my younger sister. Admittedly, I may or may not have told her this story long ago. We were cleaning the kitchen and I asked if she remembered any old stories she heard while growing up.

Thoughts:

There is a story about the lost children who get separated from their camp. Lost in the woods, they stumble across the home of an old woman. She takes them in and is later revealed conspiring to eat them. The villainous hag is a common trope in stories worldwide. In folklore, a crone is an old woman who may be disagreeable, malicious, or sinister in nature. She often has magical or supernatural abilities which can make her either helpful or obstructing. It is also a reversal of the nurturing and protective role a women traditionally plays in a child’s life, though historically, the most power person in a child’s life is the mother, so perhaps it is just a pendulum dynamic. The part shared above is a bit of a tag on, a tail end used to make sure children kept in line. It also shows the use of spirits as a disciplinary measure, serving as a warning when you edge too close to certain bounds.

Chinese Sleeping Superstitions

Text:

Informant: Chinese people say that you can’t sleep with the fan on or else it will suck up the air out of the room. Then you’ll die of suffocation. You can’t sleep with your stomach showing or else you’ll wake up with a stomach ache. You can’t watch a baby sleep because it’s bad for the baby. It will make it so they don’t grow up correctly. They’re crazy, but I learned them from my parents.

Context:

I asked a group of friends about any superstitions they were raised with. This was one of their responses. The informant is of Chinese descent.

Thoughts: I am not of East Asian descent and have never hear of any superstitions regarding sleep, but the other people present when the informant shared these with me were and had heard all of these. This may reflect a greater importance of sleep in East Asian societies.

Never Eat Bananas Before Bed: Folk Medicine

Context: I met with the student in his dorm room at around noon. A few students were milling around the room, waiting until their afternoon classes began. I started to chat with the group, all of which are freshman at USC, and I realized it would be the perfect context to record. I began by asking the informant about “Punch Buggy,” a popular childhood game to play in the car. Next, I asked the informant if his parents had ever shared some strange medical advice with him during his childhood. He replied with, “Never eat bananas before bed.” Somewhat confused, I asked him to elaborate and recorded his response.

Transcription:

WD: What did your parents used to tell you about eating bananas before bed?

SN: They told me to never eat bananas before bed ‘cuz you’ll wake up with a cough. Now, because of that, I won’t eat bananas before I go to sleep.

WD: Hunh, interesting. Where are your parents from again?

SN: My dad is from Burma and my mom is from Madagascar.

WD: So they won’t eat them before going to bed either, I bet?

SN: Yeah, they never do, so now I don’t either I guess.

Informant: The informant is a 19 year old male student at the University of Southern California. He was raised in Santa Monica, California, and his father is Burmese and his mother is Madagascan. The informant attended Santa Monica High School before arriving to USC. His parents informed him of the folk medicine, and he chooses to not eat bananas before going to sleep as a result.

Analysis: This piece of folk medicine could be derived from either of the informant’s parents, but is most likely tied to his mother. The Madagascan people were some of the first to ever cultivate bananas, however, they are contemporarily considered inedible, due to their high amount of seeds. It is possible that, since the bananas were so tough to eat, that swallowing the seeds before sleeping could cause a sore throat, in turn leading to a cough in the morning. However, this has no scientific evidence. While, it’s true that congestion can be worsened by bananas for some people, the body is also more prone to infection at night. Since the body takes roughly 2-3 hours to digest a banana, one’s immune system is weakened further by eating a banana before sleeping. Yet, at the same time, bananas are quite useful in protecting and strengthening one’s immune system. Possibly, the cough had been developing slowly, and sleeping worsened the preexisting affliction. It seems that, although  there is no guarantee of whether or not this particular piece of folk medicine is accurate, bananas could be a cause for a morning cough.