Friday, December 16, 2011

Goblin Market and Japan's Yokai spirits

I was led by a BBC In Our Time podcast to a wonderful poem by 19th century poet Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market. The poem describes two sisters struggling against the temptation to devour luscious fruits offered to them by goblins. I was struck by the description of these 'little men':
One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.
I was reminded of Japan's yokai, monsters of folklore, many of whom are humanoids with animal or monstrous heads. The kitsune, for example, are fox spirits and often tricksters, delighting in fooling humans. In some stories the foxes transform into beautiful women and seduce human men; this 19th century print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi shows that the woman casts a humanoid shadow with the face of a fox:

Below are many more anthropomorphicised animals and demons from Japan. In many cases these are spiritual explanations for natural phenomena, or justifications for social taboos. I wrote here before about how most early human societies seemed to be broadly animist. Perhaps this is why I found Japan's yokai at once alien and familiar: the wild imagination applied to the same kinds of natural and social challenges we face in Europe. As Rossetti's fruit-selling goblins may have represented the risks of disease from lingers in the cooling twilight to feast on wild fruits, or the darker dangers of accepting gifts from malicious strangers, Ireland had its pĂșca who, I was warned as a child, would race about the countryside on Halloween night, spitting on fruit to make it poisonous. Japan, meanwhile, has its kappa water-dwellers that drag careless people in to wrestle and drown in lakes and pools or, as in this image, to rape women beneath the water.
I am charmed by our common humanity here: distant folk at far ends of the earth suspecting mischievous unseen deities of the troubles that nature and society burden us with.

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