October Mythology Special: Kuchisake-Onna, or What Happens When Ghost Stories Get Too Real

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You’re walking down a dark street at night. Mist is starting to cover the ground making the road ahead of you hard to see. Suddenly you see the shadow of a woman step out of the mist and walk towards you. She looks like a fairly normal Japanese woman and is wearing a surgical mask to cover her face. That in and of itself isn’t weird as many people in Japan wear masks when they are sick or for various other reasons. The woman continues to walk towards you, and when she is close enough for you to see her face clearly, she asks, “Am I beautiful?” Not wanting to be rude, you answer “Yes”. The woman takes hold of her mask, pulling it down to reveal a mouth that has been slit open ear-to-ear, and asks, “Even now?” You have just met the Kuchisake-onna, how do you answer? Be careful, if you answer wrong, you could end up looking like her. Continue reading

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October Mythology Special: Gashadokuro, the Hungriest of Ghosts

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Japan is known for its hungry ghosts, yurei who come back to haunt those who have wronged them or come back to fulfill some unfulfilled purpose before they can move on. In the last post, we had the Manekute no Yurie or the beckoning hand that appears sticking out of empty rooms, and will only go away once its wants are fulfilled or someone reads it some sutras. However, the the Manekute no Yurei is a fairly benevolent ghost despite its hunger. Hunger can be an extremely powerful force especially when put into the perspective of starvation and famine, and that’s where tonight’s ghostly story comes from. The Gashadokuro is the hungriest ghost of all and one of the most dangerous of the yurei who walk the darkened streets of Japan. You definitely don’t want to meet this one, but if you do there’s only one thing you can do…..run. Continue reading

October Mythology Special: The Disembodied Hands of Legend

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I’m sure you’ve noticed just how much I’ve been talking about XXXHolic, and it’s not just because it’s that time of year when I want to read slightly spooky or mystical stories. The content of XXXHolic hits on a lot of humanity’s biggest fears and insecurities, including the ones from legends and folklore. In chapter 26 of the manga, Watanuki keeps running into a disembodied hand on his way home from buying groceries. A hand sticking out of a cherry blossom tree. A hand lying behind a sandwich sign. At first he brushes it off as a mannequin hand, but when he makes it to the park, the hand is there again sticking straight up out of the ground. As he watches, a small petal falls onto its palm, the fingers close and reopen. The petal is gone. When some kids get too close, Watanuki loses his grocery bag to the hand and it drags it back into the earth where suspicious crunching noises are heard.

Stumbling into this short encounter while reading XXXHolic had me wondering what other kinds of myths were out there concerning disembodied hands, and is this one related to any in particular. I realize it might be a strange thought to have, but hear me out and join me as I go down this rabbit hole. I promise I’ll try and keep it short this time. Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Raiju/Raijin and the Superstitions around Belly Buttons

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Never clip your nails at night. Make sure to hide your thumbs when a funeral procession goes by. Don’t whistle at night or you’ll invite a snake into your home. These are just a few of many superstitions that can be found in Japanese culture used to scare children into good behavior. Another common one you may hear is “always cover your belly button when thunder is rumbling.” It’s very obviously a cautionary tale to prevent children from getting sick when the temperature drops during a storm, but what are the mythological and cultural origins of this phrase? Why thunder and why belly buttons in particular? Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Homunculi and Alchemy

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The creation of artificial human life has long been connected to alchemy and can be traced back to the first recorded recipe for creating a Homunculus in an Arabic work titled The Book of the Cow. So what does an aspiring alchemist need in order to create artificial life? Well, according to this book you’ll need: magician semen, a sunstone, a cow or ewe, sulfur, a magnet, green tutia, and a large glass or lead vessel. Robert Lamb from How Stuff Works goes on to lay out the step-by-step instructions, and you can read those for yourself, but it says that after the cow or ewe is inseminated and fed exclusively on the blood of another animal it will give birth to some “unknown substance”. After being transferred to the large vessel with the before mentioned chemicals, it will start to form human skin and develop slowly into a small human.

At which point, alchemists thought these tiny creatures could be used in a variety of ways, some of which were: “The first type of Homunculus may be used to make the full moon appear on the last day of the month, allow a person to take the form of a cow, a sheep or even  an ape, allow one to walk on water and know things that are happening far away. The second type of Homunculus can be used to enable a person to see demons and spirits, as well as to converse with them, whilst the last type of Homunculus can be used to summon rain at unseasonable times and produce extremely poisonous snakes.” Continue reading

October Mythology Special: The Multifaceted Nature of Oni

In Noriko Reider’s Japanese Demon Lore, she recounts one curious tale of an Oni: “Shuten Dōji, the chief of an oniband, lives on Mt.Ōe. During the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Shuten Dōjiand his oni band abduct people, particularly maidens, enslaving them and eventually feasting on their flesh and drinking their blood. The concerned emperor orders the warrior hero Minamoto no Raikō and his men to stop the abductions by vanquishing Shuten Dōji and his band of oni followers. Raikō and his men disguise themselves as yamabushi (mountaineering ascetics) and by means of guile, deception and some divine help, they eliminate Shuten Dōji and his oni band. There are many theories regarding the origins of the Shuten Dōji legend, including the notion that Shuten Dōji and his fellow oni were nothing more than a gang of bandits who lived on Mt.Ōe, or that Shuten Dōji was a Caucasian man who drifted to the shore of Tanba Province (present-day Kyoto) and drank red wine.”(20) Continue reading

October Mythology Special: Zashiki Warashi

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“About 600 years ago, a warrior was fleeing forces from the south when he discovered and befriended two six-year-old brothers. The oldest brother came down with a deadly illness, and succumbed after swearing to protect his home – the land of Ryokufuso Inn. When the owners and visitors of Ryokufuso Inn began noticing strange occurrences such as the sound of child’s laughter and footsteps, objects moving on their own accord, and almost nightly incidents of sleep paralysis, they believed the spirit of the boy had settled as a zashiki warashi. In order to please the zashiki warashi, the owners collected toys and placed them in the front parlour tatami room. As well as toys suddenly springing to life, ghostly orbs are often captured on film.”

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The story above is about a real inn in Iwate that seems to be blessed with the spirit of a zashiki-warashi. I say blessed because these kinds of youkai are often seen as a sort of good luck charm to the families that they haunt, with the disappearance of a zashiki warashi from the home as a sign of bad luck. The zashiki warashi is a kind of house youkai, with zashiki referring roughly to the tatami room of a traditional Japanese house and warashi meaning small child. This youkai always appear as small children, and never adults, often between the ages of 3 to 15 years old. They are mainly known for the mischief that they cause rather than their appearance, but when you do see them, they often appear in kimonos if they’re girls and more patterned or striped outfits if they’re boys. They are also often depicted with short straight hair in a bob-cut.

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The origins of the zashiki warashi may come from the need to come up with an explanation to small children why their family’s fortunes have waned, but there are few other more historical origins it may be pulling from as well. The Book of Yokai by Michael Foster mentions that the basis of these legends might stem from the practice of infanticide in Japan that happened through at least the eighteenth century. A dead infant may not be necessarily memorialized like a more grown child would be, so they were often buried under the floors of houses and though to become a sort of guardian spirit because of it. Hyakumonogatari points to a similar yet more specific origin: the history of the relationship between the people of the Tono region and Yamabito. It is said that the men of Yamabito would often raid the villages of Tono, either raping or kidnapping local women. Any children born of these raids would either be hidden away in the depth of the house or killed if they became too much of a burden. The hiding away of these children and subsequent infanticide seems like a logical basis to the zashiki warashi legends.

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There are quite a few zashiki warashi characters in anime and manga, but as I haven’t seen all of these shows, I’m going to point to three that I have noticed in the past couple months of reading manga and watching anime. One of the more recognizable characters in recent anime seasons would be Ougon-douji from Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits. Ougon-douji is the owner of the two different inns featured in the anime, Tenjin-ya and Orio-ya, and she maintains a role as innkeeper and mistress mostly at Orio-ya. She is very clearly a zashiki warashi and is named as such in the show by the characters. Her appearance is similar as well with one key difference: her hair is blond instead of black. But she is pictured a lot wearing a traditional kimono, short hair in a bob cut, fairly young looking, and carrying a child’s toy. Ougon-douji also has the ability to bless certain places with good luck, which Aoi find out when she gets a huge influx of customers to Moonflower after she shows up.

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My next example is a little less clear, but still referred to as a zashiki warashi in the story itself. I’m talking about the Zashiki Warashi in XXXHolic. She’s a little less clear because when we first meet her, she doesn’t really look like a typical depiction of this youkai. For one, she’s on the high age range, looking to be around 15 years old maybe. She’s also wearing non-traditional clothes with a more Western looking winter outfit. Her hair is also longer, but it is straight and black so that fits fairly well. There’s no real reference to her bringing good luck or taking up residence in a house or building, but there may be a slight reference to the origins of the myth by saying she usually lives deep in the mountains secluded from other people, which may be referring to Yamabito or Toho and the way their regions were fairly secluded. CLAMP definitely took a few liberties when they chose to use this myth, but I think it’s a fairly clear depiction especially when we get to scenes of her in a traditional kimono.

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The last one I want to bring up may or may not be the case. This is a personal theory of mine on the origins of this character, but I do think it works. I’m talking about Kitaro from GeGeGe no Kitaro. I have to admit I don’t know much about the history of this series, so this very well could have been the intended thought behind his character design. My thoughts on Kitaro being a zashiki warashi come mainly from his appearance. For one, his hair is short and cut into a bob or bowl cut. He’s also wearing fairly traditional clothes with his sleeveless top shirt in a striped pattern. There’s no real reference to similar abilities of good luck, but I think it’s safe to say that at least his character design may have been based off of the look of the zashiki warashi.

Let me know what your favorite characters are that are based off of zashiki warashi in anime and manga, and join me next time for more myths and legends in the October Mythology Special.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~


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October Mythology Special: Gremlins

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“While I’m staring at the instruments, during an unearthly age of time, both conscious and asleep, the fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences — vaguely outlines forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. I feel no surprise at their coming. There’s no suddenness to their appearance. Without turning my head, I see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision There’s no limit to my sight — my skull is one great eye, seeing everywhere at one.

These phantoms speak with human voices — friendly, vapor-like shapes, without substance, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there. Now, many are crowded behind me. Now, only a few remain. First on and then another presses forward to my shoulder to speak above the engine’s noise, and then draws back among the group behind. At times, voices come out of the air itself, clear yet far away, traveling through distances that can’t be measured by the scale of human miles; familiar voices, conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.” (389) Continue reading

October Mythology Special: 100 Ghost Stories (Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai)

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High in the mountains, a group of samurai gather, bringing the youngest of their class with them. It is long after the wars between clans have ended, and so the samurai’s grasp at the chance to feel brave, to prove themselves the warriors they once were. The cave they come to is dark, eerie even. Slowly they set up their game. One hundred candles are lit and the group gathers around as the light sends flickering shadows dancing along the walls. One by one they tell a story. A story of horror, of demons and ghosts, those stories meant to scare children or even the strongest among them. Each one tries to outdo the other, pushing their companions to fail, to drop out and admit they are scared. One by one, the candles go out until there is only one remaining. The last storyteller plunges the cave into darkness as the last candle is extinguished. From the shadows, a great black hand descends, reaching for the samurai, scattering their courage as they flee from the cave. Continue reading

The Mythology of Ancient Magus’ Bride: Part 3 (Enchanted Animal Pelts and more…)

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Welcome back to another installment of The Mythology of Ancient Magus Bride, where we take a look at the origins behind many of our favorite characters and smaller aspects of the show. As you know from my previous two posts, the mangaka Kore Yamazaki, loved to pull from various mythology in her construction of this world. We see evidence of this all over the place, from the characters themselves to the world building to the minute details. With these posts, I wanted to try and capture and examine these myths and people as examining their origins allows us to have a better and deeper understanding of the show as a whole. Usually I would present you with six aspects of the show to examine, but I only had time for five this time. Tonight we’ll examine the meaning and history of poppy flowers, the origins of Chise’s stone necklace, the mythology of transformative animal pelts, the legends surrounding faerie world time, and the connection between red hair and magic. Continue reading