Ningyo: The Japanese Mermaid

11 x 15

Western influence has resulted in ningyo seen as attractive, dark-haired mermaids with golden scales.

The Japanese ningyo, which translates as “human fish,” is a monstrous and magical equivalent to the Western mermaid. The ningyo’s first written account appears in a 7th century chronicle, The Nihongi. In folk tradition, the nature and appearance of the ningyo have changed over the years. Some descriptions involve an enormous fish with a hideous human face or head, while others include more human attributes, such as arms and fingers. Golden scales, a monkey mouth, and pointed teeth appear in many descriptions. Western influence has  even led to a variation of the ningyo which looks like a seductive, dark-haired female from the waist up and a fish from the waist down. Generally, ningyos can not speak, but they can make beautiful, birdlike sounds.

Ningyos’ great fame lies in the magical powers of their bodies. Ningyo blood heals wounds. Eating ningyo meat grants immortality and youth. Whether this blood or flesh is offered willingly or taken by force dramatically changes the nature of the story.

A famous folktale, “Yao Bikuni,” involves a fisherman who brought home mermaid meat. As his companions guess the source, they avoid eating it, but by chance–in one version it is offered as a gift to a fisherman’s daughter and in another she takes it from the trash to avoid wasting food–a young girl eats the meat. In some versions she is a teen and ages no more, and in others she is a child and continues aging until she grows to about 15. The girl became a wandering nun and lived over 800 years. She was known as the 800 nun or the white nun–the second name was derived either from her white skin or her white hair. There are shrines around Japan honoring her.

Ningyos are also associated with the weather and fortune. Some stories say that if a fisherman catches a ningyo it will bring on terrible storms and misfortune, but if he throws her back he will be safe. Story variations include the devastation of entire communities due to ningyo transgressions. Similarly, taking the healing blood or meat of a mermaid by force also will bring devastating disasters. For these reasons, ningyos are to be utterly avoided.

One modern variation of this tale can be found in Rumiko Takahashi’s Mermaid Saga, which is available as manga and anime. Yuta is a fisherman from the 1400s who ate mermaid meat and became an unaging immortal. His companions who also ate the meat transformed into deformed ones. Yuta’s dear ones are frightened by his lack of aging. He discovers that when he dies he is miraculously reanimated. Yuta learns that his immortality is a curse rather than a blessing. He travels constantly, searching for a mermaid who might be able to make him human again. After 500 years he meets a woman who has eaten mermaid flesh and survived. Together they continue to search for a method that would allow them to grow old and die. Mermaid Saga is more horror than fairy tale, as monstrous humans and ningyos vie for youth and immortality. If you decide to seek out the story, check a source such as the Rumic World website to help you sort out the various versions of anime available. I found a copy of the out-of-print OVAs through rentanime.com.

Interestingly, contradictory evidence from some sources suggests that encountering an elusive ningyo would mean good fortune. In these sources the ningyo is described as helpful to man, protecting him from harm and offering beneficial magic freely. The ningyo is contrasted with water creatures from other cultures that seek to harm humans. These descriptions, however, are only found in encyclopedic sources non-specific to Japanese folklore and mythology.

Sources:

Acres, Harley and Dylan Acres. “Mermaid’s Flesh.” Rumic World. 2002. <http://www.furinkan.com/mermaid/index.html>.

Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013.

Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. Ed. Jacqueline Stone and Mariko Namba Walter. U. of Hawai’i Press, 2009.

Mermaid Forest. Dir. Takaya Mizutani. DVD. Manga Corp, 1991.

Meyer, Matthew. “Ningyo.” Yokai.com. 2013 <http://yokai.com/ningyo/>.

Poitras, Gilles. The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation? Berkely: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.

Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth. New York: Norton, 2000.

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Posted in Folklore Tagged , ,

Cherry Blossoms & InuYasha

InuYasha and Kagome with Cherry Blossoms, 9" x 12" watercolor on hot pressed Acquarello

“InuYasha and Kagome with Cherry Blossoms,” 9″ x 12″ watercolor on hot pressed Acquarello

The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan and has a long history of representing life and death or the transience of life. Flowers are the reproductive part of plants, firmly equating them with life. Folklore associated the cherry trees with mountain deities. Folk religions held that the mountain deities would drift down to the populated regions on the falling petals, ensuring the rice crops, which further linked the trees with life. Cherry blooms are famously short-lived, providing an ephemeral burst of fragile beauty. Rather than wilting and dropping with decay, the blooms are lifted on the wind and float to the ground in the prime of their beauty, dying at their most glorious moment of life. The death of the blooms at the height of their blossoming power led to the symbolic connection between cherry blossoms and dying warriors. The medieval samurai claimed the cherry blooms as representative of their way of life. Cherry blossoms became traditional decorations of samurai accoutrement. Anthropologist Ohnuki-Tierney explains that the cherry blossom was further embraced by the Japanese emperor in the 19th century as a meditation of fearlessness in battle. Soldiers were told, “You shall die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor.” Kamikaze pilots of World War II also accepted the symbolism of the cherry blossom. Photos reveal kamikaze pilots’ planes with cherry blossoms painted on the sides and the pilots posing while holding branches heavy with cherry blossoms. Warriors’ long held connection with cherry blossoms has not stopped them from being beloved by people of all backgrounds who gather beneath the falling petals of the trees to celebrate life.

detail of InuYasha with Cherry Blossoms

detail of InuYasha with Cherry Blossoms

Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha focuses a great deal on life and death, with Japan’s Muromachi period serving as a backdrop of warring discord. The long lives of yokai are contrasted with the short lives of humans. Select characters are brought back from the dead via mystical powers. Rather than falling into a category of the undead, these people serve to represent both life and death in their tenacity to continue living and their status as having already died. The drifting petals of the cherry blossom recur to highlight impermanence and beauty.

InuYasha and Kagome in the cherry tree

InuYasha and Kagome in the cherry tree

Link to previous post with cherry blossom poetry

Thanks to Glynis Irwin for pointing me towards samurai.

Sources:

Rolfes, Ellen. “For Hundreds of Years, Cherry Blossoms Are Matter of Life and Death.” PBS. Apr. 12, 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/for-more-than-1000-years-cherry-blossoms-move-world-to-emotion/>.

Takahashi, Rumiko. InuYasha. Trans. Gerard Jones. San Francisco, Viz: 2004.

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Sesshomaru from InuYasha

Lord Sesshomaru in watercolor and graphite

Lord Sesshomaru in watercolor and graphite

Within Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha, there are many yokai, including the half-yokai title character and his full-blooded yokai brother, Sesshomaru.

Yokai is a Japanese term for supernatural creatures that covers a diverse variety and is generally translated into many different English words. Widely speaking, yokai includes spirits, faeries, ghosts, and nature gods. To learn more about yokai, check out http://yokai.com/, which includes a portion of Matthew Meyer’s illustrated encyclopedia of yokai.

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Shippo the Kitsune

Shippo in watercolor and graphite

Shippo in watercolor and graphite

I wanted to draw Shippo, the kitsune kit from InuYasha. My requirements were that we could see his feet and fangs, with bonus points if he looked irritated. My husband found a screenshot for me. Those tiny fists take the cake.

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InuYasha: A Fairy Tale of Feudal Era Japan

InuYasha and Shippo in watercolor and graphite

InuYasha and Shippo in watercolor and graphite

InuYasha, created by manga artist Rumiko Takahashi, is my new favorite thing. InuYasha is described as a fairy tale of feudal era Japan, but I think of it as more of a demonstration of collected Japanese folklore. Kagome, a modern day girl, falls down the temple well and is transported to the past where she finds a boy, InuYasha, pinned by arrows to a tree. The ensuing drama results in Kagome releasing InuYasha, and the two working together, although not entirely in harmony. The story and characters are complicated and enticing Takahashi said that when she created InuYasha she wanted to deal with darker subject matter, and InuYasha reveals complex motives and Sengoku period violence.

InuYasha means dog forest spirit. The creatures, good and bad, are translated as demons in the subtitles, so since InuYasha’s father was a dog demon and his mother a human, InuYasha is known as a half-demon. His characterization is terrific. InuYasha is growly, rough, and stand-offish. He wants to be a full demon, so he seeks the Sacred Jewel, which greatly enhances the power of its bearer. His upbringing as a half-demon has resulted in life of social ostracization, distrust, and loneliness.

Not realizing that inu meant dog, I accepted InuYasha as a cat demon, since he has cat ears and acts so much like a cat. I didn’t understand or dismissed the terms as insults when he was called a dog or mutt, pejoratives that InuYasha took extreme umbrage at. InuYasha tends to perch in trees. He growls and yowls. He wants to be by himself sometimes. He has golden, reflective eyes. He eats fish. He watches the moon. He fights with his claws. Despite being a dog demon, I still consider InuYasha a cat demon.

Kagome is the reincarnation of Kikyo, the priestess who pinned InuYasha to the tree fifty years before. Kikyo was the protector of the Sacred Jewel and had the power to cleanse it of its evil aura. Untrained, Kagome also has this power, but as she tries to recapture the Sacred Jewel from a demon, the Jewel is shattered and its powerful shards cast across the land. Kagome can sense the presence of the shards, but she doesn’t have the training to overcome the demons who are so eagerly gathering the pieces. She’s also a fifteen-year-old girl who is normally stressed by exams, but now surrounded by life-threatening violence.

Old Kaede is Kikyo’s sister and the priestess of the village near the well that Kagome fell through. Kaede guides Kagome to work with InuYasha to gather the shards. Kaede also places the Beads of Subjugation around InuYasha’s neck, so that whenever Kagome says, “Sit!” InuYasha slams into the ground. On their adventures, Kagome and InuYasha gradually meet three other characters, who join them.

Shippo is an orphaned kitsune kit. He has fox magic, including the ability to call foxfire or temporarily hold small illusions, especially if they’ve been built upon leaves or his arsenal of toys. I’m normally not a fan of cute, but Shippo is so kawaii that I regularly find myself exclaiming, “Look at his feet!” which are beyond adorable, and any time that InuYasha decides to start beating on Shippo in order to show the kit who’s stronger, I just can’t stop laughing. Shippo also has the habit of voicing his sudden realizations, which tend to be observations which should have remained unsaid, creating awkwardness or revealing a weakness that could be taken advantage of by evil demons. Shippo adds interest as a companion, but, to his dismay, he often can’t help when trouble arrives.

Miroku is a Buddhist monk who has been cursed by Naraku, the demon who eventually takes the position as ultimate baddy in the story. Miroku’s curse is a hole in his right hand that, when not bound by holy beads, sucks everything present into it. Someday this hole, known as the Wind Tunnel, will become so large that it will yank Miroku into it as well, just as the same curse had killed Miroku’s father. While Miroku aims to break the curse by destroying Naraku, he also has decided to use the Wind Tunnel to destroy as many demons as possible. While a reliable companion and fierce demon fighter, Miroku is also a dodgy monk, using his position to trick the naive into feeding and sheltering him and his party for fake exorcism services. Miroku also asks every woman he meets if she will bear his child, and takes any opportunity to caress a female bum.

Sango becomes the final member of the shard-seeking group. Sango is the last survivor of a village of demon slayers. She has been raised since childhood to fight demons, notably with her Hiraikotsu, a boomerang almost the same size as Sango. Sango’s weapons and armor are constructed of demon parts. Sango, a formidable addition to their group, is accompanied by her demon cat, a two-tailed creature that can expand to a size large enough for several people to ride. Sango was introduced with her little brother, who is manipulated by the demon Naraku and becomes a complication of love for his sister. Moved by the loyalty shown to her by the others, Sango allies with them to gather the Sacred Jewel and avenge her village against Naraku.

The manga serialization of InuYasha began in 1996 and the anime in 2000. InuYasha the anime ran till 2004. Takahashi wrote the final manga in 2008. To finish off the anime story, a new InuYasha, called InuYasha: The Final Act, ran from 2009-2010. I’ve only made it through series three, so I still have quite a ways to go.

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Posted in Fairy Tale, Folklore Tagged , ,

Hugin & Munin

Hugin and Munin

Hugin and Munin

I painted Hugin and Munin again. Here is a bit I wrote about the ravens and an earlier attempt at the same painting.

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Posted in Art Tagged , ,

Folklore

Folklore, volume 124, number 2, August 2013

Folklore, volume 124, number 2, August 2013

Folklore, self-described as “one of the earliest English-language journals in the field of folkloristics, first published asThe Folk-Lore Record in 1878,” is offering free access for the month of July to its online special editions, which consist of five collections of recent scholarship. 

Here is a link.

I’ve been reading their August 2013 edition on Death, Burial, and the Afterlife, and finding it absolutely absorbing. My favorite read so far has been Philip Clarke’s “Indigenous Spirit and Ghost Folklore of “Settled” Australia,” which includes accounts of Aboriginal understanding of the initial Europeans, as well as interesting yet brief studies of Aboriginal faery creatures (not referred to as faeries, of course) and sorcerers with their feather shoes and boning knives.

One enticing line Clarke offered was that “On the frontier, Aboriginal people frequently treated the first Europeans they saw as dead kin returning from the grave with their rotting skin peeled off and underlying white flesh exposed.” How fascinating that they would understand these strange looking people to be returning kin. I highly recommend those interested seek out the article.

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Night

I drew Night using tips from Ed Org's art book.

I drew Night using tips from Ed Org’s art book.

I’m going to call this one done before I start forming too tight a bond with Lovecraft and his mind-altering geometries. I’m not sure if I prefer the darker version over the lighter version. The darker version certainly involved more graphite smeared all over my drawing table.

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Nyx

Night in progress

Drawing of Night in progress. Graphite on pearl grey Stonehenge. I’m working with guidance from Ed Org’s Draw and Paint the Realm of Faerie. Currently I’m filling in the night with a solid 6b black, and I can see that I will likely need to go over much of the drawing, making it darker to work with the much darker background.

Hesiod’s Greek cosmogony begins with Chaos. As a beginning of the universe, this doesn’t seem a bad start. From Chaos comes Darkness and Night, called Erebos and Nyx. Darkness and black Nyx with her night wings fill outer space. Nyx and Erebos mate, and Nyx bears Aether and Day, known as Hemera. Out of darkness comes light. Separate from Chaos and with no entry explanation, Gaia appears.

Earlier within the same text, Hesiod says that Nyx was brought to maturity by Pontos, the sea. Pontos was a child of Gaia. The sea must have brought night to maturity before the arrival of day, because an immature night could not produce a child. This leaves us with Earth in darkness, although the sky, sea, and hills are present, as the sea raises the night, until Nyx makes love with Darkness and brings forth Day.

Hesiod’s Theogony provides us with fourteen poetic lines of Nyx’s later progeny, all produced without the aid of a partner because Nyx is mighty. Within Lattimore’s translation, these children include: horrible End, black Fate, Death, Sleep, Dreams, Mockery, Pain, the Hesperides, the Moirai, the Fates, Nemesis, Destruction, Affection, Old Age, and Discord (Hesiod 211-225). My, my–Nyx has quite a brood.

However, Nyx’s power is not restricted to the capabilities of her formidable children. In Homer’s Iliad, Sleep refuses to do Hera’s bidding against Zeus, explaining that once before he had done so, and Zeus would have trapped Sleep within the sea if Sleep had not first been able to flee to his mother. Zeus, “in awe of doing anything to swift Night’s displeasure,” let Sleep go (Homer 14.261). One wonders how the Earth would have fared with Sleep plunged beneath the waves. Also, what might Nyx have done had Zeus displeased her?

As a primordial being, Nyx does not reside with the other gods, including the chthonic deities she has birthed. Instead, she abides beside Atlas, who holds up the heavens. Nyx lives in “terrible houses […] sheathed in the dark of the clouds” (Hesiod 744-5). Nyx and Day both live in these buildings, but only see each other as the one returns home and the other leaves. During the night, Nyx travels in “a cloud of vapor,” carrying Sleep in her arms (Hesiod 757). Traveling as she does with Sleep, his gift must not work on her. When she returns to her bronze home, does she then bow to his powers for the day, or does she pursue other interests, waiting for Day’s return when she will again travel around the Earth?

Later texts provide variations of Nyx’s origins and offspring. The prettiest begins with Chaos, Night, Darkness, and Tartaros. It’s worth mentioning that Night is often described as having dark wings. Aristophanes explains that Nyx laid an egg within the Darkness. After the passing of ages, out hatched the golden winged Eros, god of desire. This image of an egg nestled in the darkness until out bursts golden love doubles as the birth of a star in the cosmos, and the creation of love from darkness–beautiful.

Young Night Sleeping (detail--work in progress)

Young Night Sleeping (detail–work in progress)

Resources:

Atsma, Aaron. The Theoi Project. Aukland, 2011. <http://www.theoi.com/>.

Hesiod. Theogony. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Michigan: Ann Arbor, 2010.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1961.

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Posted in Myth Tagged , , ,

Whipped Bog Hop

Portrait captured in the Columbia River Gorge.

Portrait captured in the Columbia River Gorge. Prince test results: negative.

I was invited to participate in the Whipped Bog Hop, more widely known as the WIP Blog Hop, by Scottish writer Andy Livingstone, who has somehow managed to write a fantasy novel without the inclusion of dragons, or so he purports. Instead, Andy has tackled a delightful subject, the making of a hero. Hero Born is due for publication via Harper Voyager this September.

Back to my bog:

WIP refers to a writer’s work in progress, but since our hop has been whipped, I’ll be writing on a novel I’ve been peddling about rather than one I’m spinning out at the moment. Participants in the hop answer the following seven questions.

2. When and where is the story set?

The Wish Givers is set in an alternate version of ancient Oceania. When I’ve gotten a chance, I’ve studied ancient to medieval history, primarily of northern Europe, in relation to literature and myth. This came in fabulous use for another story in which I took an Anglo-Saxon and put him in a future version of the Pacific Northwest. But for The Wish Givers, I wanted a fantasy story that wasn’t built on some variation of medieval Europe. In fact, that was the cornerstone upon which I built the tale–I wanted a fantasy story outside of the traditional setting.

After forming my idea, I took an Anthropology course on ancient Oceania. (Whoah!) Separately, I read a fair amount on ancient Polynesian tattooing processes. Somewhere along the line my husband and I went to French Polynesia, where a chieftain married us and I learned that my pronunciation of Tahitian words was beyond native comprehension. The end result of my study and travel, I sincerely hope, is a written world that can live inside your mind.

1. What is the name of your main character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

3. What should we know about your character?

The main character of The Wish Givers is Seraph, a fictionally historical member of the Pittura clan. Seraph and her clan have the misfortune to be capable of tattooing wishes into reality, which leads to the answer to number four. Additionally, Seraph is rather impulsive and doesn’t play well with others.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

The Pittura’s ability to tattoo wishes into reality has resulted in their death, enslavement, and hiding. Seraph’s disobedience to the old mothers has additionally earned her the animosity of pretty much her entire clan.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Seraph intends to free her people and destroy their greatest enemy by granting his every wish.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

Yes. No. (Notice the increased speed of my exit.)

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

Yes. I want to know, too.

And there you have it.

I hereby invite Bishop O’Connell, author of the soon-to-be-released The Stolen, to regale us with his answers to these seven questions. Bishop’s novel may be of particular interest to readers of this site as The Stolen is subtitled An American Fairie Tale.

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