While Halloween has passed, literature has always had a year-round relationship with monsters. These legends have occurred all around the world. Where there is the famous Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, there is also "Champ," the purported leviathan of Lake Champlain, Vermont. Or perhaps in Detroit, where they celebrate the famous "Nain Rouge" or "Red Dwarf" who protected the city for nearly 300 years.
Monsters have been a large part of mythology. Greek mythology boasts more monsters than you may ever encounter. Sirens, Gorgons (like Medusa,) Chimera, and even Giants roamed the Earth to protect the norms of their burgeoning society or simply provide unspoken parameters for all to follow.
Japanese mythology found a way to combine the efforts of all these monsters into a variety of methods to promote Shintoism or respect (and healthy fear) of nature. The history and natural majesty of this land are reflected in their mythology. Japanese myths follow the Yokai, a class of spirits that range from kind to malevolent. This group includes ghosts, plants, animals, tricksters, demons, goblins, shapeshifters, and even those who can assume a corporeal form. So, like the nature that dominates their beliefs, the yokai are found everywhere.
What started in the Royal Court spread to its people after the First Century. The mononoke, a synonym of Yokai, first appears in "The Pillow Book" around 990. The first chronicle of all of these myths, "The Kojiki" or "Furukotofumi" actually records the existence of around 641 myths - and that was cut down. Here the oldest known literary work of Japan was designated to capture the hierarchy of power and the genealogy of its people. As the Yokai are tied together with history, they too need explanation.
Yuki-onna, or the "snow woman" assumes a human form. In the earliest tale, a man falls in love with Yuki-onna. Though she refuses to take a bath, the man makes her. Then, he panics when he cannot find his new love - he only finds icicles floating in the bathtub. The Yuki-onna tale is the basis for a wide range of variations. She hugs a child, and the child is covered with snow and freezes to death. These stories then morph into the best possible way to protect your children from going outside on a snowy night - “don't go out on a snowy night, or the Yuki-onna will hold you until you freeze to death.”
The Rokurokubi appears to those around her as an ordinary woman by day. However, when she sleeps her neck grows long, allowing her head to prowl around attacking small animals and being mischievous. Such a nebulous purpose made room for the introduction of more subtext into her legend. The Rokurokubi was a sinner or even the victim of the sins of another. These transgressions against man or nature resulted in this uncontrollable desire. While it began with lamp oil (a commodity that strangely turned up missing in the palace,) it grew into retribution. A monk met a kind, young woman and eloped with her. The woman became ill, and instead of using his money to get her help - he murdered her. In his travels, he meets another nubile young woman and lays down with her. In the middle of the night, her neck stretches out and her face grows monstrous. She scares the monk so terribly, he confesses to the murder the next morning.
Not all Japanese myths sound like urban legends though. The daidarabotchi’s reclined form makes mountains and their footprints are lakes and ponds. The ayakashi often appear as "ghost lights" on the water to those traveling on ships, or even the segments of a large sea snake. The kitsune was derived from the fox, an animal that commanded great respect for its cunning and intelligence. The kitsune in their mythology was a shapeshifting entity with nine tails. As needed, the kitsune could change into a monster or giant - or even the form of a beautiful woman. No matter what shape the figure took, the tail or tails could still be found.
Like the chimera or other mythology creatures formed from the characteristics of other animals, the amphibious Kappa was a turtle-like human with webbed hands and feet. Its skull was dented into a bowl-like shape designed for carrying. This "dish" or "sara" contained water, which would make the kappa strong. The Kappa displayed a talent for sumo wrestling and at its most dangerous could drown animals and humans. Legend has it that the Kappa explained bone setting to people and the good ones could even help a farmer irrigate their land or bring fresh fish to a pond. If you bow before one, it would then empty its sara - and be most vulnerable.
Modern birds of prey are generally outfitted with fantastic eyesight, incredible stamina and speed to fly long distances, and strong talons to carry creatures away for their nourishment. The Tengu is the Japanese mythological bird of prey - with a hint of both monkey and human features. Between having a beak or a long nose, and wings or an armored carapace that appears wing-like, the Tengu would grow from warmongers to protective spirits. Anyone who disrespected the guiding myth of Bushido ("the way of the Warrior" or chivalry in Arthurian terms,) was prey for the Tengu.
At first, the Tengu was a vengeful ghost known to possess men and women of all walks of life. By the 12th Century, the Tengu was actually told as the ghost of Emperor Sutoku, who was forced to abdicate his throne by his father. Later on, Sutoku returned from exile to lead a rebellion - but perished. As he was dying, it was said he told those around him that his ghost would haunt Japan forever. This spirit of vengeance then took the form of monks who would lead travelers to the wrong destination or demons that could enter your nightmares.
Japanese mythological creatures vary in shape and size, as well as purpose. However, as the stories are passed down from one generation to the next - they are easily adaptable to their needs and wishes. Like the creation myths, these tales have been altered to raise awareness and even fear in nearly every environment. The myths of Japanese literature demonstrate the ability of the word to conjure images and provoke actions that always preserve tradition.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.
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