Shoes are powerful symbols. A common American proverb “Don’t judge another until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” implies that the essence of one’s own memories, experiences, and even personality can be imprinted in the shoes we wear. In one old episode of the original TV Show “The Twilight Zone,” a man steals the shoes off of a corpse, only to become possessed by the soul of the dead man. To wear another’s shoes is to view life from their own perspective, to live it exactly as they do. So it isn’t surprising that shoes appear in our folklore in various ways.
A strange American ritual custom that emerged some decades ago (at least) involves throwing a pair of shoes into the branches of a tree or on telephone wires, leaving them dangling. No one understands it, or has explained it. It seems to be a random occurrence in random public locations. I mentioned this in another post about a similar behavior.
If the shoe is a symbol, though, it’s possible to view dangling shoes as a territorial marking of some kind, similar to a dog’s need to pee on posts, leaving the dog’s own scent. From that idea many have concluded that dangling shoes are gang symbols, but no evidence of any kind has ever supported that. I think that if these shoes were intended to mark territory we would see them in grid patterns or at intersections or other boundaries.
The other common explanation is that they represent “letting go.” Someone wants to move on, let go of the past, and throws their shoes away. Various military legends tell of soldiers throwing their boots in a tree when they leave the service.
Recently I was touring Norway and stopped in the Bryggens Museum in Bergen. It’s a museum dedicated to the history of the town, but I noted a new exhibit there was dedicated entirely to shoes and shoemaking, which was a big business back in Bergen’s heyday. At the beginning of the exhibit was this large display of one of Norway’s streets with the “dangling shoes” prominently placed in the foreground for a sort of 3D effect. I was quite shocked to see this in Norway, but nothing in the museum explained why it was there or what it meant. While puzzling over this, an American tourist family arrived. The father of the group immediately growled, “So, they sell drugs here, do they!” or something to that effect. His wife and kids said nothing, while he made several other angry comments about drug culture and how the dangling shoes were a sign that the spot was popular for drug dealers to make their transactions. Clearly he was upset that a respectable place like a museum would host this kind of display.
Now I was really astounded! Not only was I curious to know how such an odd American custom ended up in a Norwegian museum, but here was a American giving an impromptu folklore performance for me. His family remained silent; I was taking pictures and saying nothing, and suddenly the man became self-conscious. “Well,” he began, his tone now softer, less emotional, “I don’t know what these shoes mean here in Norway, but in America it means someone is selling drugs!” and with that he led his family off into another part of the exhibit. Clearly he had become aware of me and was worried that I was Norwegian and might take offense at his outburst.
This made me think of a few things. Of course to me it’s impossible to believe that anyone involved in illegal activity will advertise that fact using a symbol any policeman could easily become familiar with. But from a folklore perspective what the man said made some sense. In Central America, for instance, putting a red lantern in the window means the resident of the house is selling tamales. In many parts of Europe and America the same practice is a symbol of prostitution. In Germany, putting a broom over the door means the resident of the house is selling wine. In many parts of America this might mean a witch lives in the house. So it isn’t so far-fetched to imagine that shoes hanging in a tree may indicate someone is selling drugs, at least in some places. I don’t mean literally, but in the sense that the idea has parallels in folklore.
But what I found most interesting about this encounter is the experience of the practical. It doesn’t really matter what those shoes “really” mean. It was an opportunity for an American father to give his family an swift lesson in his (and his community’s) attitude about drugs. Folklore endures across generations because of its ability, in such indirect ways, to transmit the values, attitudes, and beliefs of a culture. Now every time this guy’s kids see dangling shoes somewhere, they’re going to remember the association and how their father felt about it.
Similary, scientists often get irritated at old stories that explain natural phenomena in un-scientific ways. As a most basic example, the story of Noah’s Flood from the bible explains that rainbows were created by the Judeo-Christian god as a sign that people could trust their god to never attempt to destroy them again. It would do no good to explain that we now “know” that rainbows are caused by refracting sunlight through moisture in the atmosphere. That misses the point. For people who can look at a rainbow and feel comfort, love, and community by remembering a story from their tribe, any other explanation by pedantics is just annoying.
I’m still curious on what Norwegians think about dangling shoes.