Significance of Wives’ Tales: Nail Cutting at Night around Asia

Why are Wives’ Tales Told?

Many cultures have stories that pass down through generations for different reasons. Although some are just for fun, others are more informative. Many wives ‘ tales are based on experiences and lessons the other generations want their kids and grandkids to learn. One of the tales that Nepali kids learn about is about what happens when they cut their nails at night time. After some research, it was clear that this wives’ tale is not just popular in Nepal and India, but also a tale told to children in other Asian countries such as Japan. This ominous story is for kids that are deep in history and fills the listeners with good intentions. It is a great story for historians to learn about and dissect as well as get an understanding of everyday life for these early civilizations.

A person cutting their nails at night, which is a taboo in Asia.
A person cutting their nails at night, which is a taboo in Asia/ nail-cutting

History of Nail Cutting

Wives’ tales are an important part of our history worth talking about. Back in the olden days, lamps and lights were scarce in the night time. They didn’t have enough resources as they lived in such an isolated part of the country. Gathering oil and other things needed for light was hard to come by and only used at certain moments. Nail cutters didn’t look the way they do now either, as they were merely blades and nothing more. The question lies in why something

Cutting your nails at night with something like that could become quite deadly. One could accidentally cut themselves too deep and cause them to bleed out throughout the night. To prevent that from happening, parents would tell their kids to not cut their nails or “something wrong could happen”( Lamsal). Many times, that something will be their, or their parents’ death. Each South Asian country has its own version of this wives’ tale and each of them is just as intense.

India

A group of men sitting around a campfire, listening to a girl telling stories with flashlight in her hand.
A group of men sitting around a campfire, listening to a girl telling stories with flashlight in her hand/ Storytelling

Some say that based on the day you cut your nails, it will depend on what bad thing will happen.

“Cut them on Monday, you cut them for health;
cut them on Tuesday, you cut them for wealth;
cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for news;
cut them on Thursday, a new pair of shoes;

cut them on Friday, you cut them for sorrow;
cut them on Saturday, see your true love tomorrow;
cut them on Sunday, the devil will be with you all the week.” (Nail cutting Superstition)

This is a rhyme that ancestors sang to their families in parts of Asia to help them remember the importance of not cutting their nails at night. It is significant to many people.

In many Asian countries, there is an auspicious date and time for every event. Cutting nails is also one of them, even though it may not seem that way. Cutting them during the evening is also not a good sign. The best time to cut nails is in the afternoon or the morning.

Nowadays, with greater access to light and newer nail cutters that are less dangerous, this wives’ tale is not as believed and people cut their nails at night, but some people continue to tell their kids this story and believe the myth.  The idea of such a story passing down through the ages is quite impressive. The fact so many people still believe in it and follow it is also unbelievable. It goes to show that some traditions never change.

Japan

Manga panel of boy cutting his toenail. Behind him is a sinister pair of blades encasing him from the back without his knowledge.
Manga panel of a boy cutting his toenail. Behind him is a sinister pair of blades encasing him in the back without his knowledge./ xxxHolic

This tale is also known in Japan and was also part of a short story manga collection called xxxHolic. In this manga, there are a lot of superstitious stories that are told in Japan and animated as real things. It is quite a grungy story but a good read for those who have an interest in the supernatural. In this chapter, the main character denies the rumours and stories about what will happen if you cut your nails at night. When he goes to do that, he unknowingly invites the evil spirit who comes to take his life. Luckily, the lady of the house is able to prevent the tragedy from happening and the boy starts to believe the old wives’ tale.

Theories for Nail Cutting

People claim that wives’ tales are just fictional, but they are more than just that. There are many other reasons for not cutting your nails at night. In some stories, we hear the obvious ones about cutting too deep and bleeding to death. In other stories, it talks about inviting evil spirits into your body. Any way you look at it, the chances of death are eminent in this tale.

Even with the advancements in science and technology, there are still many instances where supernatural events happen. As Sadhve Vaithyanathan writes in his blog, “Even today, being in the “Digital era” of the 21st century, there are so many observations on the very planet we are living in, that are mysterious.” While some of these mythologies are very far-fetched, a lot of these stories are weaved into our society in intricate ways. Many Asian ancestors made these stories based on real instances which we could relate to as “trial and error” experiments that scientists use to this day. Even with the scientific evidence, how can such a unique story spread so far is another mystery.

Spirits & Death of the Wives’ Tale Myth

Image of different types of nail cutters from less common style to a more modern style.
Image of 3 different types of nail cutters from less common style to more a modern style/ Nail cutter

There are many theories when it comes to the tale of cutting your nails at night. The biggest claim is that cutting your nails at the “hell hour”, 3 am, is when you are most likely to open the portal to the spirits, when the physical and spiritual realm is at the thinnest boundary. It is said that every part of the human body has become part of our soul, and when we cut our nails and “reject” the soul, it calls upon the evil spirits to take the rest of one’s soul along with them to the other world.

Although many people would still take their chances with the spirits, people still fear their death from the logical point of the story. Cutting your nails in a dark or low-lit room was the most common way to cut your nails and having low visibility can lead to cutting your nails too short and into your skin, maybe even severing a nerve. Okay, then let’s say you cut your nails in front of a well-lit flame? In this case, many people fear that the nail would fly and fall into the blazing flames, which may be harmless, but still not the best situation to be in. The dangers of lighting a fire in the wilderness is a risk already, but the thought of sending a message of invitation to Death isn’t easy to sleep through.

Different Country, Same Story

One question to ask is how can different cultures all believe in the same story when they have never even interacted with one another?

Map of Asia representing how cultures are different, even in one country
Map of Asia representing how cultures are different, even in one country/ Asia

While time has caused some lines of the story to become a blur, there are still many who believe these myths to be true as time has progressed. The culture of the people in Asia at that time was different and in poor condition. Many of the citizens didn’t earn enough to afford such luxuries as oil for any purpose other than cooking. Interaction between different communities of people also helps spread the norms, beliefs, culture, and in this case, wives’ tales (Smith). Although all these communities across Asia believe in the same tale, each region has its own version. The internal details may be different, but the main synopsis of the story always stays the same.

What Does Culture Have to do With Wives’ Tales?

Pictures representing different wives' tales from around the world.
Pictures representing different wives’ tales from around the world/ tales

Each culture in each country is different. In Asia, even the same country will have many cultures within it. In olden times when stories would be passed down, they would also get moved from one community to another. Many groups of people would travel far and wide to sell and trade their goods with those in other nations. While material goods were the main item of trade, stories and tales would also pass around and people would trade them amongst their groups. People retelling the tales helped spread it from one country to another as one merchant would retell them to another and keep them going.

The version that each country tells this tall tale signifies the different cultures that each tale originates from. In countries like Japan, where scary stories and horror fanatics are common, there are more gruesome versions of the tale that are more descriptive than just “not getting to see your parent’s death”. In India and Nepal, they relate it to spiritual reasons, saying “cutting nails at night will cause you to lose your luck in some sense.” South Asian countries are very religious and spiritual and this was the best way to convince people to follow the instructions of this wives’ tale.

Religion & Myth

How are religions and myths related to one another? They are both stories about things that happened long ago because of supernatural events. Religion is followed by many people across borders who believe in a higher power and what they have to give us. Myths are tales parents tell their kids that pass down and spread around. Sometimes the family and society agree with the story and follow it. Other times, people toss them out and forget about them. Both are, in some ways, one and the same.

Image of a Baku, a Japanese mythical spirit who eats bad dreams, drawn by Katsushika Hokusai.
Image of a Baku, a Japanese mythical spirit who eats bad dreams, drawn by Katsushika Hokusai. / Baku

All around the world, spirits are very popular and you can find them everywhere. Spirits are written or told about in every culture and there is a spirit and deity/God for everything. From a God of fortune known as Laxmi to a spirit that eats away your bad dreams called the Baku. Spirits have many links to tales that are said to children in the form of bedtime stories. These spirits are mostly harmless and only like to cause trouble. Sometimes, they come in a more dangerous form, as we can see from the spirit that comes to end the life of anyone who dares to cut their nails at night.

It seems odd to label such an everyday thing as such a dangerous task, but people always have a reason for doing what they do. Creating a spirit who takes lives away from any who defies him seems to be extremely harsh for us in modern-day times. Sometimes, doing the extreme is necessary.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The main question of this blog is to discuss why wives’ tales are significant in the field of anthropology.

Myths are an important part of our history. They help define our communities and our cultures from years ago. It helps bring together people from different backgrounds and share tales that are full of knowledge. It shows the compassion that families have for one another. Knowledge travels far and wide, especially when it is as important of a lesson as wives’ tales tend to be.

We can learn a lot of important information based on the experiences of our ancestors as they get passed down throughout time.  Many times, this information comes in the form of wives’ tales as a way to entertain children and teach them to follow these life lessons as well. Historians can dissect these tales and find so many valuable life lessons that are embedded in them.

Why do Asians consider such an innocent tool to be so deadly? Why was this one tale with so little significance so important for such a large community of people? These are just a few of the questions that anthropologists will ask when they hear and learn about these random-sounding wives’ tales, but there is always more than meets the eye. As they say, there is more to a story than meets the eye. This tale is very telling in the quote as we have only begun to scratch the surface of these mythologies and heavenly spirits.

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