Cross-Global Echoes At A Kiddie Party

Culture

So I was reading the Wikipedia entry for Malta — it was blasphemy-related — and I spotted this:

On a child's first birthday, in a tradition that still survives today, Maltese parents would organise a game known as il-quċċija, where a variety of symbolic objects would be randomly placed around the seated child. These may include a hard-boiled egg, a Bible, crucifix or rosary beads, a book, and so on. Whichever object the child shows most interest in is said to reveal the child's path and fortunes in adulthood.

That sounds familiar, I thought. It sounds just like a dol, which I have held for my two older kids, both born in Korea:

The highlight of the dol is a ritual where the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, brushes, ink and money. The child is then urged to pick up an object from the table. It is believed the one selected will foretell the child's future. For example, if the child picks up a brush or book, he/she is destined to be smart. If he/she picks up money he will be wealthy; If he/she picks up food that means he/she will not be hungry. If the child picks up the thread, it is believed he/she will live a long life. The types of objects placed on the table for the baby to choose has evolved over time, as a reflection of society's evolving perception of successful occupations. However, many parents remain more traditional in their selection of objects to place on the table.

photoSEIZE ALL THE DESTINIES

photo(1)Abby chooses rice, signifying prosperity, passing up a basketball, signifying a scholarship and an NCAA Women's Basketball championship in 2022.

So. Direct cross-cultural contamination? Common heritage from an ancient ur-culture? Or parallel development of fundamental human concepts?

Last 5 posts by Ken White

38 Comments

38 Comments

  1. Lizard  •  Oct 12, 2013 @10:52 am

    The "choosing an object to signify destiny" trope is very old: Here's a fairly ancient[1] one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_in_rabbinic_literature#Removes_Pharaoh.27s_crown . I'd go with "a trope that will re-emerge in many human cultures because our brains are, at the root, wired the same way". CAVEAT: I am as much of an anthropologist as I am a lawyer. (David has suggested I not opine on things I know nothing about. I do see the wisdom in his statement, but I must reply, if everyone heeded that advice, there'd be nothing on the Internet but cats and porn.)

    [1]The exhaustive[2] research I did shows this story was created well after the alleged Biblical events, but I'm not sure how far after; it may very well be a re-telling/alteration of events from another mythology. I have the most astoundingly dim memory of there being a Greek analog, but it may be because my exposure to Greek mythology and my own ethnic mythology happened about the same time in my childhood, and it's all a blurry mess.

    [2]By which I mean, "minimal".

  2. AlphaCentauri  •  Oct 12, 2013 @11:00 am

    It sounds like how Tibetan lamas are chosen. The child's choice of objects is taken as evidence that he is the reincarnation of a previous lama for whom the objects had significance.

    Sort of, you can't take it with you, but you can still get all your shit back in your next life ;)

  3. Fildrigar  •  Oct 12, 2013 @11:13 am

    So what happens if someone from Malta picks up a falcon? Does it mean they don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble?

  4. Adam  •  Oct 12, 2013 @11:25 am

    I work for a software company, and the team lead for the mobile team, which is split into an iphone and android team, just had a baby. We were joking that we should put an android and iphone in front of him and see which he chooses to decide which phone is better.

  5. Andyjunction  •  Oct 12, 2013 @12:25 pm

    Why were you reading the Wikipedia entry for Malta? Does it have anything to do with S.H.I.E.L.D.?

  6. Harrow  •  Oct 12, 2013 @12:36 pm

    @Lizard: …and not very much porn.

  7. PubDef  •  Oct 12, 2013 @12:36 pm

    It doesn't work, and demonstrably so. My parents did that when I turned one. I immediately picked up a copy of the Constitution and spit on it, but I didn't end up working for the government.

  8. Erwin  •  Oct 12, 2013 @1:12 pm

    My wife (Korean) has a vested interest in proving she's not Chinese. She has found a lot of instances that appear to be cross-cultural contamination in nations conquered by Mongolia.

    That said, I can find absolutely no evidence that Malta is one of those countries. That said, they're reasonably adjacent to countries that did have contact.

    –Erwin

  9. Ken White  •  Oct 12, 2013 @1:22 pm

    @Andyjunction:

    Malta punished 99 people last year for blasphemy against the Catholic Church, down from 130 the year before. Watch Monday for my annual blasphemy round-up.

    Plus, also the SHIELD thing.

  10. L. Nimoy  •  Oct 12, 2013 @1:37 pm

    It sounds to me like the answer you are IN SEARCH OF is… space aliens, of course.

  11. Bryan  •  Oct 12, 2013 @1:38 pm

    So, what does it mean when you swept everything on the table together and then laid your head on the pile?

  12. dfbaskwill  •  Oct 12, 2013 @2:54 pm

    I must have picked up a stethoscope, symbolic of financial ruin and long periods of slavery. Damn. Rice. It was within my grasp.

  13. Jens Fiederer  •  Oct 12, 2013 @3:02 pm

    Back in Germany, one of the regular parts of Sylvester (New Year's Eve) festivities was choosing items hidden beneath a cup: salt, coin, coal, bread. The coming year would be one of tears, wealth, misfortune, or health (IIRC) depending on your pick.

    Usually these forecasts were done on a quarterly basis.

  14. En Passant  •  Oct 12, 2013 @3:41 pm

    Fildrigar wrote Oct 12, 2013 @11:13 am:

    So what happens if someone from Malta picks up a falcon? Does it mean they don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble?

    Depends. It might mean they'll wind up loitering around the drugstore, drinking chocolate malted falcons and giving away free high schools.

  15. barry  •  Oct 12, 2013 @3:55 pm

    Romania too.

    It's a Romanian tradition upon a baby's first birthday to present him/her with a tray of different objects. Whichever one baby grabs first supposedly shows their destiny in life.

  16. AliceH  •  Oct 12, 2013 @4:03 pm

    Malta made the 2013 top 10 best places for overseas retirement, per some International Living company. I don't recall them mentioning the blasphemy laws/enforcement.

  17. Matt D  •  Oct 12, 2013 @4:13 pm

    Aliens, obviously. Ancient Astronauts gave them both the idea.

  18. Not the IT Dept.  •  Oct 12, 2013 @4:17 pm

    I am not a cultural anthropologist but I do have a passion for reading about archaeology, and I would not rule out the possibility of contact through trade routes right across Eurasia from (modern-day) Morocco to China. You can get damn good mileage out of a camel if you treat them right.

    In North America, there have been found Mesoamerican artifacts in North America which can only be explained by trade routes – granted, no camels. I will see if I can find an online citation for this one. I read it a few years ago in National Geographic. Most interesting.

  19. Trebuchet  •  Oct 12, 2013 @5:27 pm

    Apparently I picked up a slide rule. Or a pumpkin.

    @pubdef: So apparently you think US soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, government employees all, hate the constitution. Screw you.

  20. kenB  •  Oct 12, 2013 @5:37 pm

    India: Annaprashana:

    The feeding ceremony is often followed with a game, in which the child is presented with a tray containing a number of objects. These will include a bangle or jewel (symbolising wealth), a book (symbolising learning), a pen (symbolising career) and a clay pot or container of earth/soil (symbolising property). The child's future direction and prospects in life are indicated by the object which it prefers to hold and play with.

    This site lists a number of submissions along the same lines — looks like it's also a Polish tradition, judging by several entries.

  21. barry  •  Oct 12, 2013 @6:47 pm

    The question might be where did birthday parties come from?.
    At age one there's not many games a kid can play, so "grabbing at things" is probably a global favorite.

  22. Dion starfire  •  Oct 12, 2013 @8:24 pm

    The question might be where did birthday parties come from?.
    At age one there's not many games a kid can play, so "grabbing at things" is probably a global favorite.

    You'd never cut it as an archaeologist, anthropologist, economist, or conspiracy theorist. Such simple answers are not welcome in modern science. :P

  23. JimmmyMick  •  Oct 13, 2013 @5:16 am

    @PubDef
    …I immediately picked up a copy of the Constitution and spit on it, but I didn't end up working for the government.

    [snark]
    Surely, in these End Times, that would mean thou art a Republican? Or, perhaps, part of the security state?
    [/snark]

  24. Lizard  •  Oct 13, 2013 @6:43 am

    @Barry: Damn good question. An actual anthropologist could probably answer it. Ten actual anthropologists could give you 20 answers.

    Speculation based on nothing, the anthropological equivalent of folk etymologies (I'm hoping to anger an actual anthropologist in the audience enough that they'll be compelled to correct me — it's amazing how well that works to get people to do your research for you. Nothing motivates the clever like a chance to show the world how clever they are): Given the high infant mortality rate in pre-industrial culture, perhaps by the time a child made it to 1 or 2 years old, it was considered worthy of celebration simply because the odds were now much, much, higher that it would survive to adolescence. You track years of age so that you know when to have appropriate rituals of adulthood, when to impose new responsibilities, etc.

  25. Jo  •  Oct 13, 2013 @8:41 am

    Ken, if you have JSTOR access, you might want to look at this article:

    Choosing Their Futures, a Custom for Babies
    Christine Goldberg
    Western Folklore
    Vol. 53, No. 2, Apr., 1994
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500103

    Goldberg describes European analogues to the Korean ritual collected by folklorists in Germany, Czech Republic, and China as well as from Americans descended from Irish, English, Russian-Jewish, Polish, and Greek origins. There's a hypercomplete bibliography and a handy table showing the meanings of the objects chosen in the different variants of the ritual.

    Fun fact: In some rituals, lawyers are indicated by the choice of a dollar bill; in others by the choice of a snake's tongue.

  26. NotPiffany  •  Oct 13, 2013 @12:06 pm

    Ken, I'm pretty sure we all assume that ANY web search you do is "blasphemy-related."

  27. AlphaCentauri  •  Oct 13, 2013 @12:11 pm

    You can probably rig the game if you want to piss off your inlaws and get the kid to choose a profession they won't like.

    Just pick the most unappealingly inedible object to represent the profession you want the child to choose. Any one-year-old is guaranteed to go straight for that object and then put it in his mouth.

  28. eigenperson  •  Oct 13, 2013 @8:20 pm

    Are you allowed to put only money on the table, and just leave out the rest of the things?

    Because I would not mind guaranteeing that my kid will be able to support me in my old age.

  29. barry  •  Oct 14, 2013 @2:04 am

    @Dion starfire
    I became disillusioned with archeology when I found the Smithsonian Barbie wasn't real.

  30. Charles  •  Oct 14, 2013 @8:02 am

    Pretty far down in the comments and an atheist has to point out that this ritual is part of Moses' biography in the Old Testament and the cause of his speech impediment.

  31. anne mouse  •  Oct 14, 2013 @8:14 am

    This is pretty basic divination, not surprising to see it in multiple cultures. What's more peculiar is that it *isn't* present today in some places, notably most of Western Europe (and their colonies, e.g. North America). Theory 1: spread by Mongol traders/conquerors and/or their turkic/arab successors? Theory 2: originally widespread, but some churches (Roman Catholic) cracked down on sorcery while others (Eastern Orthodox) tolerated this particular practice?
    Malta would seem to rule out theory 2, and require the Fatimids as the agents of Theory 1 (unless it was the Vandals, but they also conquered a bunch of Europe where this tradition does not exist today, though they didn't stick around very long). Anybody know if modern North Africans have this kind of tradition?

  32. David  •  Oct 14, 2013 @8:20 am

    @Charles

    Pretty far down in the comments and an atheist has to point out that this ritual is part of Moses' biography in the Old Testament and the cause of his speech impediment.

    Pretty far down in the comments, and a Christian convert has to point out that this ritual is not reported in the "Old Testament", but rather in the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:31).

  33. anne mouse  •  Oct 14, 2013 @9:46 am

    The Moses incident with the coals isn't done for divination, it's an intelligence test – if the child Moses is too stupid to know that hot coals are harmful, then Moses is no threat to the crown.
    This is obviously a later story concocted to explain Moses' willingness (according to the Torah) to let Aaron do most of the talking. It's because of magical coals that burned Moses' tongue (but not his hand)!

  34. anne mouse  •  Oct 14, 2013 @9:52 am

    Just after the edit clock runs out: I see now that Lizard was referring to Moses grabbing the crown in the first place (which is what triggered the intelligence test). The Pharoah's counsellors were concerned about that because they shared a belief that a child's choice of plaything signifies his destiny [unless the child is an idiot].

  35. David  •  Oct 14, 2013 @9:58 am

  36. Irk  •  Oct 14, 2013 @1:59 pm

    If one of them chose the toy that the previous Avatar played with, they will become the next Avatar.

    Only half-joking, since that bit in Avatar was probably coming from a method of determining if a child was a tulku reincarnation.

    According to the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, “A number of objects such as rosaries, ritualistic implements, books, tea-cups, etc., are placed together, and the child must pick out those that belonged to the late tulku, thus showing that he recognizes the things that were his in his previous life."

    If one of your children does indeed lead the four nations together in harmony, 'grats.

    [EDIT - Ah, AlphaCentauri noticed this too, or a closely related rite. ]

  37. Jacob Schmidt  •  Oct 14, 2013 @7:21 pm

    Similar rituals are done here in Canada among some native tribes. except its done on adolesents.

  38. WhangoTango  •  Oct 18, 2013 @9:03 am

    Sounds like "Lone Wolf and Cub". If you choose the ball, you want a happy life, so I have to kill you, because right now is the happiest you'll ever be if you stay with me. If you choose the sword, then you want a warrior's life, and you can live, because a warrior's life is all I can give you.