Japanese Folklore

Oiwa was a woman given poison by her unfaithful husband. It disfigured her but did not kill her. She prayed to become a demon to kill her husband, his new girlfriend, and their families.

February 11, 660 BC is celebrated as the birthday of Japan as the first emperor, Jimmu, was enthroned on that day. Less gloriously, February 19, 1942 marked the beginning of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in the United States. Over 110,000 people living along the Pacific coast lost their businesses and property when they were moved to “relocation centers” inland.

Japan is the home of tremendous folklore and mythology, much of it unknown to Americans or Western Europeans. Japanese mythology is a complex system of beliefs that also embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agriculture-based folk religion. Oni (demons) and yurei (ghosts) have played a role in Japanese culture for thousands of years, and stories of new spirits continue to be told today. Many stories are about hannya, which in Noh theater are women whose rage and jealousy turned them into oni while still alive.

One story about such a woman tells how Kiyohime was a young woman scorned by her lover, a monk named Anchin, who grew cold and lost interest in her. Realizing he had left her, Kiyohime followed him to a river and transformed into a serpent while swimming after his boat. Terrified by her monstrous form, Anchin sought refuge in a temple, where monks hid him beneath a bell. Not to be evaded, Kiyohime found him by his scent, coiled around the bell, and banged loudly on it with her tail. She then breathed fire onto the bell, melting it and killing Anchin.

Yuki Onna is a terrible ghost who haunts the snowy forests looking for victims. She is a kind of ghost-vampire who lives by sucking the vital energy of the human body. She extracts the soul by first freezing her victims to death, then sucking their souls out through their mouths. Some stories about Yuki Onna say that she particularly prefers the souls of children.

Click here or here to read more about Japanese folklore.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Kelpie, or water kelpie, is the Scots name given to a shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. It has usually been described as appearing as a horse, but is able to adopt human form.

Mary Stuart, commonly known as “Mary, Queen of Scots” was beheaded on February 8, 1587 at the order of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary (a Roman Catholic) had become caught up in complicated plots and counterplots surrounding Elizabeth, a Protestant queen, on the throne of England. Although Mary was kept a prisoner in England for 19 years and was finally beheaded for her role in a plot to have Elizabeth killed, Mary and Elizabeth never met. But the other great queens of the Scots were the goddesses known as the “hag”, the Cailleach, and the Giantess.

The folklore of Scotland is not nearly as well known as the folklore of Ireland or England, except perhaps for the monster said to live in Loch Ness. The first reported sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was in the River Ness in 565 AD. The Irish monk Saint Columba was staying in the land of the Picts with his companions when he came across the locals burying a man by the River Ness. They explained that the man had been swimming the river when he was attacked by a “water beast” that had mauled him and dragged him under. They tried to rescue him in a boat, but were able only to drag up his corpse. Hearing this, Columba stunned the Picts by sending his follower Luigne moccu Min to swim across the river. The beast came after him, but Columba made the sign of the cross and commanded: “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” The beast immediately halted as if it had been “pulled back with ropes” and fled in terror, and both Columba’s men and the pagan Picts praised God for the miracle. Many modern people think the monster is a lone survivor of the otherwise extinct plesiosaurs.

Brownies–not the youngest division of Girl Scouts!–are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around houses in Scotland, like getting rid of spiders. However, they do not like to be seen and will only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts of food. Among food, they especially enjoy porridge, honey, butter, and cream. They usually abandon the house if their gifts are called payments, or if the owners of the house misuse them. Brownies make their homes in an unused part of the house, often in attics and holes in walls.

You can read more about Scottish mythology here. Or find lots of fairy tales from Scotland here.

Why Estonia?

The historic old town of Estonia's capital Tallinn is included in Unesco's World Heritage List. (Photo from the BBC.)

The historic old town of Estonia’s capital Tallinn is included in Unesco’s World Heritage List. (Photo from the BBC.)

Estonia? Where is it? Who has even heard of it?! Why set a story there, of all the places that you might possibly set a story?

It just so happens that Estonia, although little known to non-Estonians, has a fascinating although difficult-to-trace heritage of folklore and legends that set it apart from not only its Baltic neighbors (Latvia, Lithuania, Russia) but from almost everywhere else; traditional beliefs and practices survived in Estonia for much longer than in other regions of Europe. These traditional Estonian legends and folklore were primarily handed down via oral tradition until very recently; there were occasional references to Estonian beliefs and stories but no systematic attempt to write collect these and write them down until the 19th century. (The Brothers Grimm made their collection of stories, etc. almost 100 years before that.)

I picked up a book one day about folklore as I was researching another project and found a brief reference to the Estonian version of werewolf folklore: in Estonia, werewolves could fly and would drive away the storms that would otherwise devastate the farms and destroy the crops, resulting in starvation when winter came. They killed storm clouds and ate weather devils, not their neighbors. Because of this, werewolves were heroes, not monsters. I was shocked: Werewolves were the Good Guys?!

Because they were heroes, everyone in a village or district knew who the local werewolf was. It was an honored position. (The only other place that had an even slightly similar version of werewolf folklore is a small Italian region northeast of Venice where the werewolves are called “good walkers” and drive away witches that attempt to destroy the crops.) Estonian werewolves were so unlike their more commonly known cousins in other parts of Europe that it almost seems a shame to characterize them all with the same moniker as “werewolves.”

This distinctly Estonian version of flying heroic werewolf folklore set off fireworks in my imagination! Werewolves as heroes? In a traditional pre-modern, non-ironic culture?! This was too good an opportunity to pass by! I grabbed it and Alexei, my werewolf in 1880s Estonia, was born.

Read more about Alexei’s adventures as a werewolf in Estonia in Storm Wolf.