Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Konjaku Monogatari 今昔物語


And this is what I do for my PhD^^

Demons and spirits in 27th scroll of Konjaku monogatari shū

          Beliefs in ghosts and demons are rooted in Shintō and Japanese folklore. With time, Buddhist images penetrated Japanese minds leaving strange mixture of entwined beliefs, and separating one from another is simply impossible.
          One anecdote can serve as an example. In one of many residences in ancient Kyōto (called in that time Heian kyō, in official documents), there was a pillar. And starting from one night, a child hand began to appear from the hole in that column. Terrified inhabitants of the residence tried to place Buddhist sutra above it – without any effect. They pinned up an image of Buddha himself, again in vain. One man came and stuck his arrow in the hole, and when he tried to remove it, the arrowhead remained inside. But the brave man died the same night.
          This is a universe in one, short anecdote. It poses a lot of questions: why sutra and image of Buddha didn’t help? And continuing this line of thought: why arrow helped? Another interesting question, yet it remains unanswered is: what was that? Child hand that arouses fear, appearing in the dead of night? If somebody tries to picture this, there is nothing fearful in it. But for ancient Japanese, as for any ancient nation or tribe, night is full of terror, the night is terror itself. Every evil creature has its dwelling in dark, desolated places and appears in night.
          Child hand may indicate an ancient rite that was very common in many places on Earth – human sacrifice for a benefit of future place. There is no evidence, however, that those practices took place across Japan. Apart from few scattered stories about brave wives and daughters that sacrificed their lives in order to help in erecting either temple or private house, there are no such examples. Perhaps, and those are theories that need to be proven right, there are two explanations. Firstly, there is a possibility that on the tree this pillar was made from, someone hung oneself. Secondly, it could be that under that tree lied the body of a child.
          In the same time, the first theory can be easily neglected, why child’s hand because of an adult’s death? But the second one shines a light on the problem of kami. In Japanese beliefs everything could be kami: rocks, streams, trees. And anyone could become kami after death. If it was abrupt, unexpected death, person could take the form of a malevolent kami, and otherwise, one can become a peaceful kami. Child, buried under the tree, could become kami and started to treat this tree as a home. This could explain why the hand of a child appeared from a crack in the pillar. It doesn’t explain the interval between child’s death and its manifestation.
          There is one interesting point in this story. The arrowhead. Why this strange manifestation continued to appear defying sutra and image of Buddha, but was such easily defeated by a piece of metal? Here lies one of eternal leitmotif of many cultures – the cult of metal. This is the same category as silver in case of European werewolves and vampires. Metal has always been seen as a weapon against demons and supernatural beings.
          To sum up, one thing needs to be stated. Japanese didn’t feel any regret moving from one belief to another in case if the first one didn’t help. Sometimes a great Buddhist monk sought the guidance of kami. Konjaku monogatari shū shows us true amalgam of beliefs, superstitions and folklore in ancient Japan.