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Secrets of the Woo People Revealed

by on April 22, 2011 6:00 AM

You will give these instructions to no one. You will carry them with you at all times. You will maintain complete silence at all times unless told to speak. You will NOT use tobacco. You will NOT eat between meals. ONLY water is permitted as a beverage. You will sleep ONLY when told to do so.

These are among 23 commandments printed on one letter-sized sheet of white paper that was found on a local roadway. Preliminary examination of the document suggests it is a guide for young men who seek induction into the ranks of Sigma Chi, one of the secret societies of the Woo people, the nocturnal tribe that lives in sex-segregated longhouses, subsists on beverages concocted from fermented barley and disks of dough slathered in crushed tomatoes and melted cheese, and pierces the nighttime silence with its warlike cries.

Anthropologists have long sought to study the myths and rituals of the Woo people. The problem has been that access to such arcana has been limited to the initiated. Scholars who had thought the Woo a band of savages may now have to revise their view in light of the strict observances enumerated in “Instructions for I-Period,” as the document is titled.

In addition to the prohibitions against tobacco and snacking, novices, or pledges, as the Woo call them, must “maintain silence at all times unless told to speak by a brother.” They must indicate their desire to speak by raising their right hand. They must spend their time in the dining room of the longhouse studying when not in class or “doing a duty.”

Perhaps the harshest deprivation has to do with the glowing devices the Woo people use to remain in constant communication with their familiars at a distance: “You will have your phone off when you are in the house.”

Pledges are, however, required to answer the house phone by the third ring “and recite the following memorized spiel”:

 “…This is the domicile of the proud and worthy wearers of the white cross.” The spiel continues with recitation of the founding myth of Sigma Chi and its “240 glorious chapters.” The pledge then says, “I aspire to membership in that noble order. With whom do you wish to converse?”

The other mortifications of the flesh the pledges must undergo involve their sleep schedule and their daily journey to the houses of instruction: “You will be up, showered, shaved and at the house by 7:30 a.m. every morning…You are men of high ambition! There is no need to take the bus. WALK TO CLASS!”

During the indoctrination period, pledges are also expected to keep a diary “of all thoughts,” write an autobiography and carve a wax cross.

Perhaps the strangest ritual the recruits are required to enact occurs during their passage from one level of the longhouse to another: “You will go up and down the stairs to the first floor hallway, and the main stairs backwards using the railing.”

Ethnographers are particularly intrigued by a hymn the pledges must sing while standing in front of the longhouse fireplace before the evening meal. The hymn is sung to “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” evidently a celestial goddess:

The blue of her eye and the gold of her hair

Are a blend of the western sky

And the moonlight beams on the girl of my dreams

She's the sweetheart of Sigma Chi.

No. 23, the final item on the list, suggests that the preceding 22 rules governed the lives of pledges during their first week of initiation: A new set of rules for Week 2 was forthcoming. “Your journey has just begun,” the document concludes.

Anthropologists love knowing the rules that govern a society; they are equally interested in knowing what happens to those who violate them. What, for example, became of the pledge – let’s call him Siggy -- who dropped the “Instructions for I-Period” on Shortlidge Road near the HUB parking deck? He was enjoined to give them to no one, to carry them at all times and to “know them in detail.” Assuming he hadn’t yet memorized his marching orders, the only way he could avoid breaking any of the other taboos would be if he violated yet another one – the prohibition against speaking unless told to speak by a brother – by asking one of his co-pledges if he could copy his instructions.

Of course it is also possible that Siggy decided that he did not like being told when to eat, speak, sleep or, worst of all, phone, and so discarded his instructions in disgust and no longer aspired to membership in that noble order. Maybe he had a crisis of belief in the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi or the wax cross.

If so, the anthropologists of the Woo people would love to debrief him. There is so much more they long to know about this mysterious people.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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