Dr. Joseph Valks – Mythical Creatures and Ghouls from the Orient

In a previous blog I looked at whether God created man, or men created their own gods and demons.

It can be fascinating to look at some of the ancient myths and legends of different cultures and the fantastic creatures that have been created; let us take a look at the myths and legends of one particular country: Japan.

According to Japanese folklore, Japan is a magical land whose very fabric is entwined with supernatural spirits. This mystical spirit energy is shared by humans, and upon their death this essential power is unbound. The Japanese call their ghosts Yurei. They fear and revere them, but most of all they love to tell stories about them.

In olden times, Japanese people would sit in a circle and swap ghost stories, telling them one after another in a story-telling game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, as a hundred candles were extinguished one by one. This relinquishing light and shadow provided an eerie atmosphere of tension that added excitement to the mood of this favorite pastime. In the relentless quest for good ghost stories the Japanese people delved into every darkened corner of their culture and history until no half-decent tale remained untold.

The Japanese people believed that both good spirits such as Kami, and evil spirits such as the un-worshipped dead and Buddhist hungry ghosts, traveled on the wind. They have passed down from generation to generation a fear of the un-pacified deceased. Everything from droughts, to strong winds, to plagues was once blamed on these angry spirits. The festival of Oban was a ritual where rice and sake were offered to appease dead ancestors, preventing them from laying any ungodly curse upon the living. According to legend, on this day the souls of the un-worshipped dead would take flight upon the winds and anyone who felt the deathly kiss of this ghost wind, or Shorokaze, was believed to fall ill and collapse.

Bridges are a method of spanning boundaries and often feature in traditional tales of Yurei. Many of these ghost stories center on the Gatagata Bashi, or rattling bridges. The legends grew up around the sound of the rattling wooden boards and the most famous tale involves a parade of the dead crossing over on their way to hell.

Maruyama Okyo, "The Ghost of Oyuki"
Maruyama Okyo, “The Ghost of Oyuki”

The Japanese accepted image of a ghost is based upon “The Ghost of Oyuki,” a very famous and influential Japanese ghost painting. According to legend, the talented artist, Maruyama Okyu, was very much in love with a beautiful young geisha, who died too young. One night he was awoken from a sound sleep to behold Oyuki hovering over his bed covers. The image disappeared into the night, but Okyu painted his vision so realistically on canvas that the beautiful pale woman with raven hair, white burial kimono, and absent feet, was taken to the heart of the Japanese people and has depicted the archetypal Japanese spook ever since.

Japanese temples are another good source of ghostly tales. In fact some Yurei are said to gather around houses close to temples, or even holy people who are sensitive to ghostly matters. Mysterious footsteps or a ghostly disembodied hand are common in tales and are believed to be signs that someone from the other side is looking for help. The simple reading of a Buddhist sutra or memorial chant may be enough to leave the restless spirit with honor and they often then disappear never to be heard of again.

Japanese legend also contains a fabulous menagerie of mythical monsters, or Yokai. Some of these are strangely unusual and unique to Japan, while others can be likened to creatures from the mythologies of nearby China and Korea.

Kappas could well be the strangest Japanese mythological creature. Their body is like that of a monkey and their head resembles a turtle with a beak. They also have a turtle’s shell, but their strangest peculiarity is the bowl-like depression on the top of their heads. This must always remain filled with water, for if it dries up the Kappa will surely perish. Kappas love to eat cucumbers and small children! Japanese parents tell their children, when accosted by a Kappa, to give an extremely low bow. The reason is that Kappas are sinister, yet honorable creatures and will always return the bow, causing the water to spill from their heads. While the Kappa returns to the river for a refill, the child can make good its escape. In modern Japan there are still signs present at rivers warning bathers to “Beware of Kappas.”

The most evil Japanese monster is Tsuchigumo the Earth spider. In this legend an army led by Raiko to rid Kyoto of evil spirits are faced with an army of horrible Yokai who are led by a beautiful enchantress. Embraced by her charms and webs Raiko slices open her belly and thousands of human victims and gruesome baby spiders pour out.

Some Japanese Yokai can be either evil or good. Kitsune, or fox spirits, are magicians and pranksters. They can cause calamity, but sometimes also serve as protectors.

They grow more powerful with the passing of each one hundred years at the end of which they are given another tail. They can live for nine hundred years on earth and the oldest Kitsune are believed to be very powerful indeed. The most notorious is Tamamo-no-mae, who reputedly wreaked havoc throughout the imperial courts of India and China before bewitching the Japanese Emperor. She was eventually shot with an arrow and her spirit was transformed into a rock.

The most pleasant Yokai are almost certainly the Baku. They rescue people from evil dreams, devouring the malevolent demons of the night responsible for the nightmares. The Baku has the head and tusks of an elephant and the body of a lion, and if they have a bad dream Japanese children will often call out for a Baku to aid them.

Even more ferocious defenders of the innocent are Kirins. These dragon-like creatures are the powerful protectors of virtuous leaders. When roused they spit fire and roar like thunder.

Perhaps the wide variety of bizarre monstrous creatures and ghouls captured in the ancient Japanese tales can be rivaled only by those of the famous Greek legends or Norse sagas. However, many are still unknown in the Western world even today.

Dr. Joe Valks

Joe recently helped develop the British Woodlands food webs educational simulation for Newbyte and is donating his share of The Last Tiger (available Amazon kindle) children’s fantasy novel profits to the Animals on the Edge conservation project.

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