A yakuyoke is a type of omamori (charm) which you can purchase from shrines and temples in Japan. There are many kinds of omamori. Maybe you need help finding love, or nurturing your current relationship. Or some support for coping with a health condition. If you’re going on a trip, get a travel safety omamori and tie it to your bag. Looking to attract positivity? Get a luck or happiness charm. Whatever your needs, there will be an omamori suitable for you. Put it somewhere you can see it every day, and never open it. As it becomes old and worn, you will see the harm it has saved you from in its fraying edges and loosened knots.
The above image is of a yakuyoke charm I took at house I stayed in in Kamikawa-cho, a rural part of Hyōgo Prefecture. A yakuyoke is for protection against evil spirits. This one hung above my bed. It was an old, mysterious house. Over a century old, made of wood, glass, and paper, with no locks. The washroom was a tiny cupboard with a stool and a cold tap in it. I boiled saucepans of water and took them in with me to wash with. There was a dusty parasol hanging from the ceiling, between the kitchen and a side room with a sunken area which I guess used to hold an irori (Japanese fire pit). My friends and I sat there wrapped in blankets, eating combini cookies & listening to the rain, and singing to mask our nerves at being alone in this peculiar place. I was as scared as I should have been, arriving in the dark to somewhere so isolated. But I soon felt at peace. The walls were happy. They held memories. The yakuyoke would let me sleep. The mountains would watch over us.
In preparation for a field trip, I was browsing through the Statistical Accounts of Scotland to learn about some of the towns I would be passing through. On the whole, statistical accounts do not make the most exciting reading material. They’re mostly overviews of the state of each place in terms of things like population, education, local industries, public health, and climate. I soon gave up hope of finding any juicy folklore. But then I came across a small former fisher town on the Moray Coast. The old account was very short, but it included a story about a nearby stone marking the spot where a chief had been slain during an argument over a round of cheese. By far the most drama I had yet come across, so I was instantly invested and then had to look at the later account to see if the mysterious cheese fight was mentioned further. It was, and with a whole lot more besides…
Welcome to 18th century Ardersier, where the beaches are either flat and sandy or overgrown with ridges of heather. If you can clearly see the Ross-shire hills in the morning, rain will come later in the day. If they are hazy, it will remain dry. In winter, you can hear the cries of visiting seabirds, and there is a small loch where white water lilies grown in such abundance that you can barely see the surface of the water.
The stories of the elderly are heard, and savoured. Old words are always true, when the young are too young to know different. Maybe this is why the belief in faeries remains strong beyond credence. They are said to revel in the moonlight around a nearby knoll, and everyone knows that a sickly child is a changeling. Frayed, desperate parents, trying anything to get back their loves and their lives…
TRIGGER WARNING: Post-natal depression and child death
My love would not have loved this. It was the fae’s child, not hers. Her gentle smile would not have graced her lips if she had looked upon it, I am sure. Those lips which tasted of all the blood in the room when I last touched them. After her screams ceased, and the screams of this creature began. Screaming, screaming. The midwife took it away, and I held her, who had left me for this.
It screamed. Every day, and every night. I tried everything a father could. I bathed it, and kept it warm. I soaked rags in milk for it to suck on, and nestled it in my arms as I stumbled through delirious lullabies. Nothing soothed it. It refused sleep, and denied me the same. She wouldn’t have wanted to hold it, either. Nasty, writhing thing. Not a child, but a demon.
It was the midwife who said it first.
The word slithered through the village, house to house. Changeling, changeling, changeling.
“Oh, aye,” said my neighbours. They heard its screams as well as I did, in the night, keeping their own children awake.
I took it to the healer. She rubbed it with salves, and burned St John’s Wort. It screamed more. Back home, it was sick. Then it ate everything, so I stopped feeding it. All the milk in the village turned sour overnight. I laid mistletoe and iron shears in the cradle. It shrank away from them, glaring at me between unearthly shrieks, with brown eyes that were like her’s but also not. They held no warmth, and reflected none of the hearth’s soft light. Slitted, weepy things, all dark and empty.
Weeks passed. A cow died. A crop spoiled. It rained. Changeling, changeling.
When my neighbour’s daughter fell ill, a knock came at my door.
“Take it. You know where. Take it now, before anything happens to my Elspeth.” Other faces peered out of doorways, nodding and murmuring in agreement. “The knoll, only way…” I shut my door.
It was a bright autumn twilight. No clouds, just an endless, sharp sky, pale blue fringed with red and orange. A twilight before a frost, when a waning moon would rise, and ice and silver would leach all life from the countryside. A night to carry away what was no longer desired.
I swaddled it in a blanket and left the house. The faces watched me go. Some cast their eyes down as I passed, others bore into me to make sure that I went. I felt them on my back long after I was beyond their sight.
To the knoll. Where the fae gathered and revelled in the moonlight. Where the chime of bells could be heard, and our cattle refused to graze. Small and unassuming, but a portal to Elfhame if ever there was one. Everyone knew it, and pretended they didn’t.
As I crouched and laid it on the grass, I could almost feel their unseen eyes watching me. They were in the stirring breeze, tugging at the blanket as I settled it around the creature. I paused for a moment, gazing at it, wondering. Thoughts drifting, as they do when you have not slept for so long, and you cannot tell right from wrong. Holding her. Holding her body. Tears. My tears, falling on its skin. Faces, on thresholds. Only way. The fae were watching. They must want it back. It was their fault, not mine.
I left it there. I left it screaming. I walked home. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would hold my child. Her child. A real child. I slept.
In the morning, I buried a frosted corpse.
‘Not Mine’ is based on events recorded in Ardersier’s 1845 Statistical Account. There was a father with a sick child, which he and his neighbours believed to be a changeling. To rectify this, he took them to Tom Eanraic (Henry’s Knoll), a local hill said to be where faeries gathered, and left them there overnight. It was believed that when he returned in the morning, he would find the faeries would have reclaimed the changeling and returned his real child. However, in actuality he returned to find the child had perished. The other characters and details given here are my own creation, speculating about how this tragic situation may have unfolded. ‘Not Mine’ was also published in Ex Libris, the University of Aberdeen’s Creative Writing Society Anthology 2019.
Two years ago, I returned home from work to my ancient, dust-ridden Japanese apartment. I shuffled out of my shoes and dropped my bags on the floor, & stepped out of the genkan into my kitchen. In front of me was the table. It was a good-sized rectangular dining table, pressed against the wall between the doors to my tatami rooms. It had a pale yellow cloth on it, which was always slipping. The left-hand side was occupied by my toaster oven, bought soon after I moved in in haste to experiment with baking Kit Kats. The right-hand side was covered by paper. At the bottom of the pile were important documents – payslips, city registration forms, the earthquake safety leaflet I never got around to filling out. The rest was all stories.
Half-finished journal entries, scribbled on post-it notes when I didn’t have my actual journal with me but needed to write. Torn pages with novel notes, story ideas, and snippets of song lyrics. Thin B5 notepads adorned with Sanrio characters, all full of garbled English and Japanese poetry, folktales, and musings about how the ocean looked whenever I sat beside it. Ink smudges, where I’d cried unexpectedly, when I hadn’t realised how upset I was until I’d picked up a pen and everything had come out. When I’d written about missing my family, and the wind running away from me, and things I’d lost. My stories, from both my life and my imagination, scattered.
I looked at them. For the first time in a while, I smiled for myself. It was like looking in a mirror, and reminding myself that I still existed. That after so much wondering who and where I was and should be, I finally got it.
“Words,” I said. “Words are my home.”
Here I am
Today I am writing this blog post whilst sitting on the floor of my room in Scotland. I am still surrounded by scattered paper. This time it’s on my yoga mat, which is annoying because I really want to stretch, but the squishy foam is so comfortable to spread my work out & flop onto.
I’ve moved around a lot over the past few years. Even before Japan, when I had papers all over the walls of my childhood bedroom, and in folders and on desks of various student houses in Winchester. I’ve loved and left many homes, and sometimes my heart feels heavy from it all. It took everything I had left to uproot myself and get here, to this grey city by the sea which sparkles in the sunlight and the rain. And I’m glad I did, because it is definitely the right place for me for now.
I’ve been thinking recently about where home is. Can I call this place home yet? When I am so happy here already, but have so little claim to it and it’s just another city on my list? And what is home, anyway? I always say it’s where you love, not where you live. But I’ve said ‘I’m home’ so many times in so many different houses and apartments, and it was true of all of them at the time. Now when I travel and people ask me where I’m from I say ‘Aberdeen’ because that’s where my journeys begin these days, but it’s not where I’m really from. And if they’d asked me a few years ago they would have received a different answer…
I look back at the papers on my yoga mat. Assignment drafts. Poems. Field notes. Journal scraps. I remember my Japanese kitchen table. I smile.
Over the years, I have changed. The Willow Web has changed with me, and doubtless we will change again. I’m not the same person I was in the past, and I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had to grow and become who I am now. Writing has always been the one constant thing, which I’ve been able to take everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I am, so long as I have a notepad and pen in my hands.
The past year or so has been difficult. I’ve been shy, and scared. I don’t like to say much about my personal life online, so I’ve hidden my words away; kept them for myself, in these messy piles. I’ve felt ashamed to call myself a writer, because I have so little credentials to show for it. It’s time to change that. I’m working on getting my words off of those pages and into the world, so they can find their own homes.
I have kept a journal for over a decade, and have started sharing snippets from them on here and on Twitter with the hashtag #ameliajournals. I may eventually post some longer excerpts, if I find some which I’d like to share. These are just for fun, and to remind me of all the madness which led me to where I am now. Hopefully they make you smile, or ponder something you might not have done before.
Recently I have also been writing quite a bit of poetry, which is a surprise. Not sure how that happened, but it keeps happening and I like it so I will continue to post my poems on here, too.
Stories will appear as and when they are finished and/or edited. I have so many stories to share, from so many places. Brave, withering stories, as much a part of me as my own skin. Some which I wrote to heal myself, or change things I cannot in real life, some just for fun. Maybe readers will never tell the difference. There are also new stories, beginning here, now. About the North Sea, and rowan berries, and feeling lost and found.
I will be keeping some stories back to use as parts of bigger projects or to submit to other places. I’d also like to put together some collections of stories and poems in booklets, too. Probably PDF or some other digital format to begin with, but hopefully some physical ones as well eventually.
Thank you for staying with me. Over the years I’ve watched my followers grow, and it’s been a pleasure to meet so many lovely people and learn from and be inspired by them. I am so thankful for all the friends which writing, blogging, and folklore have brought into my life. You are what reminds me to not give up, and that what I’m doing is worth it.
If you like my writing, then there are a few things you can do to help…
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Grissell Jaffray was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Dundee in 1669. Originally from Aberdeen, she moved to Dundee and married a burgess. They were respectable, prosperous people, and had a son who was a successful seafarer. Few details of Grissell’s trial were kept, so it is unclear why she was accused of witchcraft and what her supposed crimes were. According to legend, on the day of her execution, her son’s ship arrived in the harbour at Dundee. He saw the smoke from the fire, and sailed back out of the city never to return.
The mosaics of torches and a plaque with her name, year of death, and the word ‘spaewife’ (Scots word for a female seer, and perhaps a softer way of saying ‘witch’) can be found on Peter Street in Dundee’s town centre. When I saw the plaque, it had been defaced with graffiti which inspired me to write the above poem. There is also a stone in The Howff, a cemetery in Dundee, which allegedly marks the spot where Grissell is buried. People often visit it to leave her small offerings for good luck.
This story was the first assignment I wrote for my undergraduate degree in autumn 2012. It was published in Vortex, the University of Winchester’s creative writing journal, just before I graduated in 2015.
The One That Got Away
Each day you can admire the moon, the snow and the flowers.
Yet, flowers seldom bloom when it snows, and what if it’s the time of the dark moon? There is no beauty in winter. Once the sunlight and sakura leave, the countryside is rendered drab and austere. I am sure the trees watch us as our car passes; glaring into our wake, envious of our freedom to move. Our tyres grind their amber-coloured leaves into the road, a forced burial without ceremony.
Ryota insisted that we visit his okaasan. Apparently we need some ‘family time,’ which only ever seems to happen when it suits him. If we were at home, I would be hanging omamori from the lamps and on the thresholds. Kaori would be watching, and pestering Hisao to lift her up to get a closer look. I would be standing by, envying the innocence of my children.
One omamori never gets hung up. It stays with me, in my purse, or tied onto my keys or the zip of my bag. Now it sits in my lap, and I twine the frayed string around my fingers as my head rolls towards the car window. This one is a yakuyoke, for protection. Yes, winter can be charming. And we all know to be afraid of charm. I learned that when I met her.
She has many names. Some say she is a goddess, or a spirit. Others describe her as a hag. Many names, many faces. It’s all the same. To me, she will always be a demon. Yuki-Onna, who brings death with the snowfall. I remember her pallid complexion, that seemed to be made of mist. There but also not, obsidian hair the only fully visible part in the white landscape. She hummed a lullaby as she scooped me up from the frozen ground. I can still hear it…
I don’t remember falling asleep, but then I am waking as tyres jolt over the ramp covering the little irrigation canal and the car stops on okaasan’s drive. I shove the omamori into my bag and climb out, steadying myself against the door as a wave of nausea overtakes me and my legs shake.
Breathe. Calm down.
I smile at Ryota over the roof in an attempt to hide my uneasiness. He will be displeased if he sees me like this; I am supposed to be getting better.
We all trudge into the house where okaasan fusses over Ryota and clicks her tongue at how much Kaori and Hisao have grown. If my own mother were still alive she would probably do the same. We sit around the kotatsu and share tea and senbei. I let Ryota do the talking.
The afternoon passes in this way, and when darkness arrives I rise to help okaasan arrange our futons. She waves me away.
“Spend some time with Ryota. Make the most of him, while he’s not at work.”
So I go back to the kotatsu and we sit there, the children between us. After a moment, Kaori rises and goes to the window; presses her chubby palms against the glass.
“Look!” she calls, so the rest of us get up and join her. Outside, the sky is growing dark both from dusk and the heavy clouds. The air has that translucent glow it gets before… before it snows. Then I see it. A speck of white floating down, down. Kaori watches it, enchanted.
When I see the first snowflake fall, I do not just see a snowflake. I see blood, and the stiff corpse of my father staring up at me with glassy eyes. My mother’s lips, cracked and rimmed with frost. I smell their blood as the wind stirred it, and see my messy footprints as I run away. I escaped. I am sure the demon has not forgotten.Back then, I was too young to be afraid of beautiful strangers. Now I know better. Watching that first feathery snowflake drift down from the portentous clouds and hit the windowsill, I turn to Ryota and tell him we have to leave. Irritation flutters across his eyes, eyes I once lost myself in.
“It’s just snow, Hanako.”
His tone is weary; he doesn’t believe in Yuki-Onna. I am shaking again.
I order the children to go with okaasan and get ready for bed. They obey, to my relief and regret.Okaasan frowns at me as she ushers them to the bedroom. She will probably tell me later what I already know, that I should look after them myself. But sometimes I just need them out of the way.
My hands flit between my scraggy ponytail and the omamori, now in my pocket, as I check the window locks. Two presses on each catch until I am satisfied. Curtains drawn, because too many times I have gazed out into the night and seen her face staring back.
Ryota goes to retrieve our bags from the genkan. I want to help, but it’s so near the front door, and the front door is so near the snow… I cannot get the image of Yuki-Onna out of my head. A thread of the omamori comes loose. Ryota returns, as if he read my thoughts.I force another smile; it feels as worn and frayed as an old blanket. He drops the luggage and places a hand on my arm.
“You can get past this. You’ve been doing so well recently, even your therapist said so.”
“I know. I just… had a moment. I’m fine now.” I smile at him again, because it’s all I can think of to do.
“Good. Don’t push me away again, Hanako.”
I nod and pick up my bag.
Sleep evades me. I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling, whispering to the malignant shadows in the corners of the room. They don’t listen. They never listen. Eventually, I tumble into delirium. Of course, Yuki-Onna is there. Waiting. Always waiting.
When I find my way back to reality, it is morning. The bedroom is empty. Ghostly daylight creeps through the shoji, leeching all the colour from the room. I get up and go to the living room, where I find okaasan sitting.
“Hello, Hanako,” she says, handing me a cup of tea.
“He’s good with the children. You shouldn’t worry so much.” She sweeps her thin arm towards the window. “Take a look.”
Slowly, I turn to face the snowy world.
You’re okay, there’s nothing there.
Ryota, Hisao, and Kaori are outside, their booted feet making untidy dents in the white dusting on okaasan’s garden. I watch them scoop up handfuls of it and toss them at one another,and try not to imagine an ivory-skinned woman watching them, too. Ryota laughs when a snowball catches his leg; a wondrous sound my ears cannot remember hearing for a long time. Kaori throws herself down on her back, moving her arms and legs from side to side to make the shape of an angel. Hisao beckons to me…
I don’t bother to put my coat on, or fully lace up my boots. This way I won’t be able to stay outside for too long. They all turn to look as I slip around the front door.
“Morning,” Ryota calls. I wave, and Hisao takes advantage of the distraction and tosses another snowball at his father. Kaori laughs and pushes herself to her feet to join in. I hover beside the house, arms folded, toes brushing against the snow but not quite touching it. The white ground makes the trees at the edge of okaasan’s garden look dark and insidious; a perfect hiding place for a demon…
“The children will get cold, I’m taking them inside,” I tell Ryota, lunging forward to grab Hisao. Kaori evades me, though. She is already running towards the trees, giggling. Before I know what I’m doing, I have let go of Hisao and I am running as well. With each step, my boots make a crunching noise that seems too loud. Kaori keeps running until the trees swallow her. By the time I reach them, my feet ache and my face and arms are numb. I call her name, a frantic warble and wisp of breath, which both dissipate immediately as if I have not spoken. Branches snag at my clothes, like frozen fingers. Leaves rustle like the swish of ebony hair.
She’ll catch you, keep going!
I part my lips to call again, but then I catch sight of Kaori’s purple coat bobbing around a tree trunk. I hurry towards it, and find her crouched in a small clearing, patting handfuls of snow into tiny balls. And there is Yuki-Onna. Every bit as wickedly beautiful as I remember. Standing over Kaori, my snow angel.I shake my head,trying to eliminate the demon. Maybe she’s not real. Ryota doesn’t think so. I trust Ryota.
Then why can you still see her?
Kaori remains huddled on the ground, unaware of the danger.Yuki-Onnabends towards her.
No, she’s not real!
“You’re not real!”
I throw myself at Kaori, crushing her pile of snowballs and encircling her in my arms.
“Leave us alone!” I scream. “Leave, leave…” I clutch Kaori tighter, burying my face in her coat as she wriggles in my arms. I know I must take my daughter indoors, get her warm, but I cannot move. If I close my eyes then maybe the demon will disappear. Failing that, I won’t see her strike. I begin to shake from the cold.
Frozen bodies, found in the woods. A young girl, found wandering…
“No! It’s okay, we’re safe. She’s not real.”
“Who’s not real, mama?”
“Shhhhh, my angel.”
Blood, and snow. A young girl, found wandering…
I barely notice when a warm figure presses against my back and a hand starts stroking my hair. Ryota. He pulls us close, and I lean against him.
“She’s not real,” I whisper.
“I know, Hanako. Come inside.”
He pulls me to my feet and keeps hold of my hand. I grab Kaori’s with my free one, and she reaches for Hisao who was watching from the edge of the trees. I glance over my shoulder; the woods are empty. As we cross the garden, we create four sets of footprints in neat lines.
I glance over my shoulder. I have admired the snow, but there are still no flowers and no moon. There is also no fifth set of footprints heading back into the trees. Only my own as I ran after Kaori. No flash of a porcelain face. Just my own skin, pale from the cold.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Essex’s Myth Reading Group to run a session on Japanese folklore. The group is part of the university’s Centre for Myth Studies, which aims to support and promote the study of myth.
For the past two terms, the Myth Reading Group has been focusing on trees in mythology. My session was about sacred trees in Japanese culture and the story of the Takasago pines, which I previously explored in the article I wrote for the Centre for Myth Studies blog earlier this year.
The Takasago story is a popular noh drama (type of classical Japanese theatre) about two pine trees which were planted by the kami (Shinto deities) from the same seed. One stands in Takasago, and the other in Sumiyoshi. A Shinto priest visiting Takasago meets an elderly couple beneath the Takasago pine and asks them about the tree. They tell him about it being related to the one in Sumiyoshi, and that the man travels between the two places to care for the trees and be with his love. The distance between them is insignificant, because their hearts are the same. They also tell him that pine trees are special, because they are unchanging. Where other trees turn brown and shed their foliage in the autumn, pine trees remain evergreen. The priest then asks the couple for their names, and they reveal that they are really the spirits of the Takasago and Sumiyoshi pine trees temporarily in human form.
The priest meets the couple again in Sumiyoshi, and they have a feast to celebrate the relationship between humans and kami.
In Japanese culture, pine trees are revered as symbols of longevity and believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. You can often find them in the grounds of Shinto shrines, where visitors will tie omikuji (paper fortunes) to their branches. If the fortune is bad, the pine tree will help to negate its effects. Some larger shrines also mark their perimeters with pine trees to keep out negative energy.
Two ancient pine trees stand in the grounds of Takasago Shrine. They are nicknamed ‘Jo’ and ‘Uba’ (loosely translates as ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’), and many couples visit them to ask for blessings for a long and healthy relationship.
Some of the trees around Shinto shrines are especially prestigious. These trees are called ‘goshinboku,’ which means ‘god trees’ in English, and they are trees where kami are believed to live. You can tell a goshinboku because it will be marked by a shimenawa (rope made from woven rice straw) and shide (lightning bolt-shaped strips of paper).
As well as living in goshinboku, kami also use these trees to travel between the heavens and the earth. Some, like the pine trees in the Takasago noh play, are also reported to have been planted by kami.
Before shrines were built, places of worship were merely natural sites were it was believed kami were present. These were often groves of trees or mountains, called yorishiro. Also, the kanji for shrine 神社 (jinja) and forest 杜 (mori) are very similar. It’s possible that they could have been used interchangeably or meant to mean one and the same thing.
In her story ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree,’ Grace James writes in slow, dreamy prose about a pine tree planted by a kami on the beach in Takasago. It becomes home to a host of nature spirits, and also dark, mysterious creatures from Yomi which is the underworld in Japanese mythology. As the wind blows through the tree’s branches, it disperses the voices of the spirits and positive energy which draws lovers to it. The end of the story repeats this imagery, implying that it is a never-ending cycle of the tree sending out this mystical wind and drawing more positivity to it. The story is only one small part of its steadfast, evergreen life.
Having worked in Takasago, I can definitely vouch for the importance of pine trees in this city. I often found myself picking fallen needles out of my shoes, and many of the local mascots were based on pine cones. During school events, some poor teacher or student would draw the short straw of wearing the pinecone mascot costume and parading around the track in 80% humidity (thankfully never me!) It’s wonderful to see how the story of the pine trees shapes the identity of Takasago, and has made it a place of cultural and folkloric significance.
It was a joy to share this topic at the Myth Reading Group. Thank you to Pietra Palazzolo, executive of the Centre for Myth Studies, for inviting me to do the session. Also thank you to the Myth Reading Group members who attended, and for your enthusiasm during the discussion. It was lovely to meet you all, and I hope to attend more of your meetings in the future!
Grace James, ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree’ in Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Senate, 1996)
F. Hadland Davis, Myths and Legends of Japan (New York: Dover, 1992). Also available online.
Kato Kenji, Bilingual Guide to Japan: Shinto Shrine(Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2016)
Following on from my ‘All Kinds of Fur’ post, I did some more research into witchlike princesses. I made a poll on Twitter asking people which they would prefer to be. The results were overwhelmingly in favour of witch, with the strongest reason having magical powers. Some also specified they would like to be a ‘good’ witch. On the other hand, people who voted for princess said they would not like to be cruel and would enjoy wearing pretty clothes. Although the poll is now expired, you can still add to the discussion. Just reply to the tweet via the above link. I’d love to hear some more opinions!
I also found another fairy tale featuring a witchlike princess in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, which is an anthology of Bavarian fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the mid-19th century. It’s called ‘Tricking the Witch,’ and tells of three princesses who are captured by ‘an evil witch.’ However, instead of sitting around awaiting rescue, ‘the girls learned a few magic tricks.’ In particular, the youngest princess Reinhildaproves to have quite a talent for witchcraft. When a prince stumbles upon them and is also captured by the witch, she gives him strict survival instructions and ‘fled with him using the magic she had learned.’ Of course a chase ensues; the witch sends Reinhilda’s sisters to retrieve her but she manages to evade them with her skills. First she transforms herself and the prince in to a rosebush, to ward off the middle princess who ‘can’t stand the smell of roses,’ and then into a church and a preacher giving ‘a stern sermon about witches and their sinister magic’ to scare off the eldest princess (I just LOVE this! Sassiness points +100!).
When the witch herself comes after them, Reinhilda takes the prince’s sword and transforms him into a duck and herself into a pond. The witch drinks the pond, and then Reinhilda changes herself back and kills the witch by using the sword to cut herself out of the witch’s body.
Aside from her immense skills with magic, Reinhilda is also clever. She knows what will upset her sisters the most and doesn’t hesitate to use it against them, and shows cunning in her carefully thought out plan to defeat the witch. The prince is a mere accessory along for the ride; Reinhilda is the fearless agent in this story. But, in spite of her obvious witchy abilities, at the end of the story she frees her sisters, marries the prince, and they all live together happily ever after. Presumably in the royal palace. Reinhilda successfully manages to be both the witch and the princess, by using her powers and also not having to relinquish her royal status in the process.
As shown by these fairy tales, princesses and witches do not always have to be opposing forces. They change the dynamic of the story by proving that you can be magical and independent as well as being royalty. You can get the happy ending and keep the mysterious powers.
Can you think of any other witchlike fairy tale princesses? Please let me know in the comments! I’d love to find more examples for this topic!
Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, ‘Tricking the Witch’ in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (New York: Penguin, 2015)
Credit to Sara and Brittany for presenting the theory that the princess in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ could also be described as a witch. This resonated strongly with my own analysis of the story, hence why I chose to explore the matter further in my final project.
WARNING: CONTAINS REFERENCE TO POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING TOPICS (INCEST/RAPE/ABUSE/MISCARRIAGE)
As a child, my dressing up box was exclusively tailored towards transforming me into two things: a princess or a witch. These two masquerades could never coexist. The princess was what I wanted to be when I grew up; beautiful, admired, gracious (and hopefully with a handsome prince by my side!) I had my own Cinderella story planned out, certain that one day I would leave my mundane childhood behind and step into the world of the ball. On the other hand, the witch costume was only permitted to be worn on Halloween. The one time of the year which has no place for pretty; when darkness and magic reign and impossible things can happen. When I could forget my fairy tale ending and imagine being a cunning, powerful woman who was feared instead of adored.
The princess and the witch are both appealing characters, but for different reasons. In her article ‘The Princess and the Witch,’ Kat Howard notes that as a child she identified with the princess because she wanted to be ‘the girl at the heart of the story.’ Now as an adult, Kat reflects that she ‘want[s] to be the witch’ instead, because witches hold all the power. They make the stories, and know all the secrets like ‘what cup not to drink from’ and ‘will tell you, but only if you deserve to know.’ Backing this up, Kay Turner writes that witches have ‘unusual propensity for agency’ and ‘seem to take secret delight in going it alone in those cottages deep in the woods.’ Unlike the princess, who lets the story revolve around her, the witch makes her own decisions.
However, some fairy tale princesses manage to successfully adopt both sets of character traits and be the embodiment of the princess and the witch. They display agency and magical ability, whilst simultaneously remaining at the heart of the story and not dismissing their royal heritage. One example of such a princess can be found in the fairy tale ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (or ‘Allerleirauh’ in German), which was collected by the Grimm Brothers.
‘All Kinds of Fur’ is an often overlooked fairy tale, mainly because it includes the heavy topics of incest and abuse. In short, the protagonist, a princess, chooses to flee from her home when her father forcefully declares his intent to marry her and there is ‘no more hope to change [his] mind.’ She disguises herself as a furry animal, and gets a job in a palace kitchen. She courts the king of the palace, and at the end of the story marries him. However, like her father, he is far from kind and even goes so far as to physically abuse her in some versions. Furthermore, some versions also fail to differentiate between All Kinds of Fur’s father and the new king she marries, leaving readers to decide whether she actually escaped or not.
Controversial relationships aside, it is undeniable that All Kinds of Fur is not a typical princess. She proves she is capable of controlling her fate when she chooses to run away from her father, and the preparations she makes for this are also quite witchlike. She manages to fit ‘three dresses from the sun, moon, and stars into a nutshell’ to take with her. In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar notes that ‘the three dresses are affiliated with celestial bodies…and point to a connection with the heavens as well as with creatures on earth.’ Not only is she magically storing her clothes in a nutshell; the clothes themselves also connect her to traditionally magical and natural entities. Things which belong more in the realm of the witch than the princess. The final garment All Kinds of Fur takes with her is ‘a cloak of all kinds of fur,’ which she requested her father make by taking fur from all the animals in the kingdom. She put on the cloak, and ‘blackened her hands and face with soot,’ showing she is not afraid to be unsightly and dirty, which again is very witchlike. Witches are more likely to be ugly than princesses; there are few Baba Yagas to be found in the royal palace. Tatar says of the cloak that it ‘connects her with nature and with creatures in the forest where she finds refuge,’ and that its ‘gross animal form…masks a spiritual power.’ All Kinds of Fur’s cloak is more than a mere disguise. It transforms her into a strange, mystical creature who does not have a place in society. By wearing it she has chosen to remove herself from being a princess and instead entrust her life to the forest where she hides. In the world of fairy tales, the forest is the witch’s domain. She rules it, for good or ill, and those who enter risk peril. But not All Kinds of Fur. For her, the forest is a haven.
As well as her mysterious talent for hiding ballgowns in nutshells, All Kinds of Fur is also an excellent cook. Moreover, she is not afraid to use this skill to gain shelter. She finds work in a royal kitchen, where she makes soup for the king which is so good that the chef resents her for it. They even go so far as to call her ‘a witch, you furry animal.’ Judging from her horrid appearance and her mysterious culinary skills, the people around her do not perceive her to be anything other than a witch. Yet All Kinds of Fur hasn’t forgotten her heritage. She uses the celestial gowns to secretly attend balls and court the king, and when she is alone asks herself ‘oh, you beautiful princess, what will become of you?’ Both sides of her life are disguises. Where children choose to dress up as princesses and witches, this real princess is also choosing to dress up until she decides who she truly wants to be. Her liminal time as the furry creature is, as Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde, a ‘transitional stage’ which ‘hides her successfully’ and gives her the time to heal after the distress her father caused her.
At the end of the story, albeit at the harsh intervention of the new king, All Kinds of Fur removes the cloak and returns to being the princess.Personally, I can’t help wondering whether this is a truly happy ending. In true witchlike fashion, All Kinds of Fur seems to enjoy the anonymity of being the mysterious furry creature and creating her own destiny. At every opportunity she has to reveal her identity to the king, she lies and says ‘I do not know anything’ about the items she has magically hidden in his soup. After the third time, the king ‘grabbed the cloak and tore it off’ and she was ‘no longer able to hide,’ her healing time comes to a vicious, abrupt end which is not on her terms. She does not appear willing to give up her freedom, and the new king is not much better than the father she initially escaped from. She had the agency to run away, but now it has been taken from her.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ROBIN MCKINLEY’S NOVEL DEERSKIN BELOW
The novel Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which is a retelling of Charles Perrault’s ‘Donkeyskin,’ features a no less peculiar, plucky princess. Just like All Kinds of Fur, Lissar has strong witchlike traits. She isolates herself from the royal court, instead preferring the company of her dog and an elderly woman who teaches her gardening. The courtiers refer to this woman as ‘a dirty, uncouth old woman, some herb-hag,’ and believe there is ‘something amiss about the princess’ because she does not act as they think a princess should. Lissar is outcast to the point that when her father declares his desire to marry her, she is called ‘witch-daughter’ and blamed for bewitching him with madness ‘to devastate his country.’ Lissar’s witchy status has two sides: the harmless reality, which is her love of animals and plants and her innocent, timid nature which isolates her from the rest of the palace, and how the courtiers perceive her, as being quietly powerful, ‘evil,’ and seeking her kingdom’s downfall. Neither side fits the image of a fairy tale princess.
Like All Kinds of Fur, Lissar also shows agency by running away from her father. However, she has a great deal more to run from after he violently rapes her and she suffers a miscarriage alone in the wilderness. She is saved by the intervention of the Moonwoman, an ethereal being who seeks to help those ‘who wish to make a choice for themselves instead of for those around them.’ The Moonwoman’s backstory is similar to Lissar’s; she too was a princess, and refused all suitors on account of them not really loving her and only wanting her to gain her father’s kingdom. After being raped by one of the suitors and rejected by her father, she ‘fled to the moon, and lived there, alone with her dog.’In fleeing, both Lissar and the Moonwoman chose to defy the wishes of the powerful men around them and claim their lives for themselves. Moreover, both find refuge outside of society with their dogs instead of with other humans. Lissar goes to the desolate mountains and forests, and the Moonwoman to the moon. These lonely, mystical places are witch’s worlds; the moon especially has strong connections to nature, magic, and feminine power because of its cycles. Many cultures across the world worship moon goddesses, such as Selene and Luna in Greek and Roman mythology, and the Chinese Chang’e and other variations of her story across Asian countries. Throughout the novel, Lissar and the Moonwoman become synonymous. The people around Lissar call her ‘Moonwoman,’ and they trust her and her dogs to take care of them. Her agency leads her to a new life where she is accepted, in spite of having magical connotations.
The Moonwoman gives Lissar a deerskin dress, and when arriving in a new kingdom she calls herself ‘Deerskin.’ Like All Kinds of Fur, she too is not afraid to use her skills to earn shelter and employment. But instead of cooking, Lissar’s skills lie with dogs. She works in the royal palace, caring for a group of puppies which no-one believes would survive without her ‘gift’ for nursing them. Having an affinity for animals is another witchlike trait. Throughout history, many people have been accused of witchcraft for merely keeping pets, the idea behind this being that they are familiars (spirits in animal form who assist witches with magical tasks). For Lissar, although everyone thinks her gift is strange, no-one criticises her for it. She is still an outsider but because she chooses to be, as opposed to in her father’s court where she was rejected for her differences.
Lissar’s return to being the princess is gradual. Being Deerskin provides her with time and anonymity to process the trauma she has endured. When the time comes for her to reclaim her life, the emotions she has kept hidden physically manifest themselves and she becomes the full embodiment of the witch. When she next sees her father, she does not baulk from returning the hurt he caused her in a graphic, gory spectacle. It is when Lissar is her most witchlike, gathering her innate strength to finally address and expel the memories she has been too afraid to face. This is a messy, disturbing process, filled with fire, blood, and screaming, which matches the horror she suffered. Her actions are akin to conducting a ritual or casting a spell. Her skin seeped blood, and she ‘touched her hands to the red shining pool’ and ‘raised one finger and drew a red line down her cheek.’ Her hands ‘began to glow’ and her dogs were ‘pressing around her.’ When she speaks, it is not with the timid personality of the princess she once was but with a voice of conviction and power, and her words are like that of a spell; ‘I return to you now all that you did give me: all the rage and the terror, the pain and the hatred that should have been love.’ In witchcraft, blood is a potent substance because of its connections to life. It is also associated with fear, pain, death, and fertility, making it intrinsic to everyone’s existence. The patterns of Lissar’s blood on the floor later ‘came to be declared an oracle,’ showing the strength of her declaration and the power in the blood she sheds.
Despite people’s faith in her and her connection to the benevolent Moonwoman, Lissar’s father’s courtiers still dismiss her as a ‘wild woman’ in a country ‘steeped no doubt in witchcraft.’ It is easier for them to stand by their small-minded opinion that Lissar is a witch, and therefore evil and wrong by default, than it is for them to accept the truth of the situation: that their king is a devious, lying rapist.
By the end of the novel, Lissar’s life is in a position to successfully encompasses both princess and witch. She finds a patient, non-abusive prince who loves dogs as much as she does, and speaks to her ‘low and kind, as he would speak to a dog so badly frightened it might be savage in its fear.’ In contrast with the king in ‘All Kinds of Fur,’ this prince understands Lissar’s nature and her past, and with that her need to heal before she can truly love him. Her return to royalty is voluntary, and her kinship with the benevolent Moonwoman give her a simultaneously magical and positive reputation. Lissar went through the woods, both physically and metaphorically. She used her skills and connection with nature to survive, heal, and restore her life on her own terms.
The witch and the princess will always be there, warring in our childhoods, giving us the choice between making or watching our story happen. But perhaps, as All Kinds of Fur and Lissar demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be so clear cut. Be kind. Be graceful. Wear the ballgown, and dance the night away. But also use your skills. Make your own changes. Do things in your own way. Let it be known that you are wise and powerful, and never shy away from a trip into the woods alone.
Robin McKinley, Deerskin (New York: Ace Books, 1993)
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1857 version) in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)
Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1995)
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘All Kinds of Fur’ (1812 version) in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, ed. by Jack Zipes (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016)
Charles Perrault, ‘Donkeyskin’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Kay Turner, “Playing with Fire: Transgression as Truth in Grimms’ ‘Frau Trude’” in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms,ed. by Kay Turner and Pauline Greenhill (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012)
Halloween, or Samhain as it is traditionally known, is an auspicious time of year when the veils between worlds are thin. This means that all manner of supernatural creatures can pass through them to visit Earth – both friendly and unfriendly! Be sure to leave offerings for the spirits of visiting ancestors, and carve a Jack o’ Lantern to scare away the less civilised guests.
The weakness of the veils also means that Halloween is an excellent time for divination. Messages from other planes are more accessible, and the dark, reflective atmosphere of autumn makes it the perfect season for asking those deep questions.
Whether you are just after some seasonal fun or seriously looking for answers, divination is an intriguing pastime.
Most of us hover in that liminal space between both wanting and not wanting to know what our futures hold – especially when it comes to love. A hint of a future romance, however small, is enough to give us hope and set us daydreaming. As the Wheel of the Year is turning towards winter, things are ending. Joy can be found in seeking new beginnings.
On a night when anything is possible, when the dead return, supernatural creatures roam free, you can disguise yourself with a costume, and we do extraordinary things like carve vegetables and light them with candles… why can’t the shape of an apple peel or a reflection in a mirror not also be a premonition of love?
Take a ball of yarn and toss it so it unravels. Begin to wind it up, and an apparition of your future lover will appear to gather the end. Or drop it out of an open window and ask the night who is holding the other end. The wind will whisper their name to you.
At midnight on Halloween, light two candles and gaze into a mirror. Brush your hair. An image of your future lover will appear behind you in the reflection.
Peel an apple so the skin comes off in one piece, then using your right hand throw it over your left shoulder. The shape it lands in is the initial of your true love.
If you have more than one suitor, designate some nuts for each of them and place them in a fire. The suitor represented by the first nut to pop is the truest. If you are in a relationship, burn nuts with your partner to see your love’s future. If they burn calmly together, you will both stay true. If one is engulfed by flames, the owner of that nut has the strongest feelings. If one cracks or explodes, the owner of that nut will be unfaithful.
Finally, my personal favourite, if you want to find a partner, walk blindfolded to a cabbage or kale field and pull one out of the ground. The size, shape, how much earth is on it, and how easy it is to pull up will reveal clues about your future lover. Remove the blindfold and walk home, and you may catch a glimpse of them on the way. If not, balance the cabbage on top of a door and whoever it falls on you are sure to marry!
Of course you can also use more common methods to discern the future, like tarot cards, pendulums, and crystal balls. Whatever method you choose, have a happy Halloween and may all your visions be bright!
Marion Paull, Creating Your Vintage Halloween (London: Cico Books, 2014)
F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol II: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals – Candlemas to Harvest Home
Tottori may be Japan’s least populated prefecture in terms of people, but if it’s yōkai you’re counting then it will come out on top. In the city of Sakaiminato, they have taken over the streets with their somewhat disturbing charm.
In Japanese folklore, yōkai are mischievous supernatural creatures akin to spirits or demons in Western culture. The artist and writer Mizuki Shigeru brought them into the limelight with his 1960s manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎). Shigeru’s work tells the story of a boy named Kitarō, who fights to make peace between the worlds of humans and yōkai, along with his… unusual allies. Most notably Medama-Oyaji, an anthropomorphic eyeball who is also the reincarnation of his father, and Neko-Musume, a young girl who can alter her facial features to resemble a sinister-looking cat.
Mizuki Shigeru spent his childhood in Sakaiminato. To celebrate his work, the area around JR Sakaiminato station and the main road leading off of it has 153 bronze statues of yōkai. You can purchase a guidebook at the station (in Japanese only), which lists each one with some information about it. There are also spaces for collectable stamps, found outside of shops and restaurants along the road. Already being an avid collection of Japanese train station stamps, I was so on that! More so than the elementary school children I frequently found myself queuing with…
I took photos of some of the statues, which I shared on Twitter with the hashtag #dailyyōkai during the summer. For those who missed it, here’s a recap. Just click on the images to make them bigger. All images my own.
In Japanese folklore, it’s sometimes hard to define where yōkai ends and yūrei/obake (ghost) begins. Strictly speaking, the term yūrei should only be used for human spirits and obake for things which are possessed (like the chōchin-obake in my photo above). But in reality, these terms are often used interchangeably and there is much overlap of attributes between all three. This difficulty with defining them makes yōkai a subjective set of creatures, adding to their mystery and appeal. Each has their own identity, composed of their own power, purpose, and motivation. This makes yōkai very relatable – when we are stressed at work we can blame the isogashi, or when our bathroom needs cleaning we can wish for an akaname to appear. And I am sure after a terrible date we can sympathise with the Hari-Onna!
After living in Japan for a year, I thought I was impervious to the stranger sides of Japanese culture. I caught myself watching this Funassyi video and not even flinching; a giant fairy pear running through a minefield seemed perfectly normal. But after visiting Sakaiminato, I’ve discovered that there is still a lot left in this country capable of making me wonder ‘why is this even a thing?!’ Like the sagari – Ghost horse heads which spontaneously drop out of trees and scream at people? Okay. It’s Japan. Don’t question it. Embrace the insanity.
What’s your favourite yōkai? Tweet it to me @amyelize
For more about yōkai,read my tsukumogami post. These are a specific group of yōkai comprised of possessed household objects. Watch out for the boroboroton!
North of Caithness, on the islands of Orkney, the ocean is a magical place. The seals are its people. Those angels, who fell from heaven and landed amongst the waves.
Sometimes they come ashore to moult or have pups. Sometimes, on the night of the solstice or during a full moon, you will catch a glimpse of them dancing upon the sand.
Their sealskins will be laid upon the rocks, and their bare, human skin will shimmer in the half light. You will probably hear their laughter before you see them; soft and mellifluous, like the tinkling of seashell wind chimes.
Find somewhere to hide. Hush, now. Watch them dance. Hands clasped, damp, salt-matted hair flowing. The deceptive, lithe grace of their legs could make you believe they always had them.
But the selkie folk always return to the water…
Maybe you will fall in love, and be tempted to snatch one of their skins…
Aye, peedie selkie. Come with me, to my house, on the land…
You reach out and grasp the closest one, clutching it to your chest. But the selkie folk have seen you… they scatter, and within seconds have disappeared into the ocean. All except one. She searches, spinning around and around, looking under the rocks and amongst the seaweed.
Oh, where is it? My skin, my precious skin!
Then she sees you.
Come with me…
And of course she will come; what other choice does she have? In time, she will learn to be content. She will cook and clean and sew, and be a good mother. Although be warned, your bairns may have webbed fingers and toes.
But let me warn you, such marriages never have happy endings…
No matter where you hide it, one day that selkie wife will find her sealskin. Then she will run, out of the house and along the beach, her last human footsteps pressed into the sand the only trace of her left to follow. They will lead to the shore, where she will stand and gaze upon the place of her human life. She will smile; a smile which is a thank you and a goodbye and an I love you all at once.
Then, she will slip into her sealskin. Even after so many years, it’s still a perfect fit. Hands and feet turn into flippers. Eyes turn glossy black and beady. A splash, and she is gone. The selkie folk are the people of the sea, and they always return to the water.
Later, there will be two of them, reunited, frolicking in the sunset-stained waves. You will stand on the shore with the children, watching. Smiling.
Thank you. Goodbye. We love you.
Tom Muir, The Mermaid Bride and Other Orkney Folk Tales
It is said that dogs are our best friends, and if this story is to be believed then that is certainly true. In the city of Ise, on the south east coast of Japan in Mie Prefecture, you will find many shops selling little charms in the shape of dogs. You will also see people walking their dogs along the path to Ise Grand Shrine, and well-kept water bowls outside most establishments.
These things are homage to the Okage Inu (thankful dog) of local legend, who it is said made a pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine in his master’s stead. Whilst visiting Ise, I found a small booklet of this story and managed to translate it into English (Japanese reading skills level up!) Generic writer disclaimer – I have added some of my own details to flesh things out, since the translations are very basic and more like a list than a story. So this is my own version of it. As far as I can see, this story is not well-known outside of Japan. So I am happy to share it!
犬のおかげ参り – The Dog’s Thanks
What to do, when you live deep in the country and your husband is gravely ill? When you want to visit the shrine to pray for his health, but you cannot leave his side? When your old bones creak when you walk, and the shrine is so far away…
A wag of a tail. A sloppy, affectionate lick on his master’s feverish cheek.
ワンワン！ワンワン！* I will go, I will go!
Send the dog. Problem solved.
Carrying a banner proclaiming his mission, the faithful dog set out for the shrine. Not just any shrine, either. He was bound for Ise Jingu, the soul of Japan, the most sacred Shinto shrine of them all. It is there that Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun and the Universe, is enshrined.
It was a long journey, but that is not a problem for a Shiba Inu’s spirit. His enthusiasm and loyalty would carry him all the way.
He did not stray from the road – no chasing rabbits, or exploring thickets (I’m sure that those of you who have walked dogs will know what a feat this is – their attention spans are not always the most reliable…)
On the way, the Shiba Inu befriended many travellers. For who doesn’t want to stop and pet a sweet, lonesome dog? People donated money to help him, too. He was given a meal, and somewhere to stay for the night.
Finally, he reached the city of Ise. On he padded, through the streets, beneath he torii gate, over Uji Bridge, and along the gravel path all the way to Amaterasu’s house. He bowed (but of course he couldn’t clap, as it is customary to do at Shinto shrines. I am sure Amaterasu understood) and barked his prayers, and in return he received an ofuda (paper amulet) to take home.
With his mission complete, it was time to begin the homeward journey. Maybe this time he stopped off for some celebratory rolling in grass, or something else dogs do for fun (if it had been my dog, she would not have made it out of the city for stopping to lick everyone’s feet…)
Upon arriving back home, after being made a great fuss of, he presented the ofuda to his master and mistress. Soon his master’s health improved, and the three of them lived peacefully once more. Although, after such a long trip, I am not sure that the Shiba Inu asked for a walk ever again!
* Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a dog makes, pronounced like ‘wan wan!’ In English it would be ‘woof woof!’
Read more about Ise Grand Shrine and regional Japanese folklore in my article about the ama divers and sea demons on #FolkloreThursday.
So thrilled that this story has now been published by the lovely folks over at Do You Know the Story? and is accompanied by an beautiful illustration by my friend Kimberley Ford. Support them by following on Facebook and Twitter to discover and share amazing stories and artwork from around the world.
Where there are castles, there are also stories. Himeji is no exception. This vibrant, serene city is also home to one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories.
Japan has hundreds of ghost stories, known as 怪談 which is pronounced kaidan. Living near Himeji made it was impossible not to learn a kaidan called ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Its English title is ‘Okiku and the Plates,’ and there are many versions of it throughout Japan. It is often performed as kabuki, which is a traditional style of Japanese theatre.
Himeji castle is one of the most commonly cited locations for ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Let me take you there, and introduce you to Okiku…
DISCLAIMER: As I have said, there are many different variations of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ The one I have written here is taken from the plaque in the grounds of Himeji castle, which I visited and studied myself. In no way do I claim that this is the ‘proper’ version, or that it is my own. _____________________________________________________________________________
Himeji castle has many names. For over 400 years it has stood, dominating the cityscape with its calm, gleaming white walls. It is called ‘white heron’ or ‘egret’ for its beauty, and ‘miracle’ for its longevity. But for all their majesty, castles are dangerous places for love. They are filled with secrets, and peril. In the 16th century, Himeji was no exception.
Like any good tragedy, this story begins with love. Love between a brave warrior, called Kinugasa Motonobu, and a servant, the beautiful, honest Okiku.
Okiku served a powerful, influential samurai named Aoyama Tetsuzan. He was also the regent of Lord Norimoto, the true ruler of the castle. One day whilst working, Okiku overheard Tetsuzan discussing a plot to kill Lord Norimoto and seize the castle for himself.
Maybe it would have been better if she had never learned of this plot, or if she had ignored it. But when life gives you such choices, you either let them slide and what will be will be, or you take action. And Okiku was not a woman to let anything slide. In that moment, she knew she had to do something. She confided in her lover, Motonobu, and his allies, and they promised her things would be well and that the plot would be foiled.
And indeed it was.
Lord Norimoto was warned of the attack, and he fled the city. But although he was safe, Himeji castle and our lovers were not. In Lord Norimoto’s absence, Aoyama took control. He was furious that Lord Norimoto had escaped, and sought out the traitor. Secrets, secrets in his midst. Who to trust? No-one, no-one.
The only thing awaiting the traitor was death.
Fearing for their own lives, one of the warriors betrayed Okiku. They informed Tetsuzan’s accomplice, a man named Danshirō, of her role in foiling the plot.
It was her, the servant girl. Because of her, Norimoto escaped!
Danshirō was a devious, possessive man. He saw Okiku’s beauty, and planned to make her his own. Instead of informing Tetsuzan of the traitor’s identity, he confronted Okiku himself. Secrets, secrets.
Beautiful Okiku, marry me, and your life will be spared.
But Okiku had already given her heart to Motonbu. She refused Danshirō over and over again.
No, no, I will not marry you!
Not a man to give up, Danshirō tried one final time to gain Okiku’s acceptance. He stole one of 10 valuable plates which were treasured heirlooms of the Aoyama family.
It is easy to frame a servant for theft…
All of the plates were here this morning! Who has been in?
Only the servants, my Lord.
What were they doing?
Cleaning, my Lord. They always dust the plates…
Who dusted the plates today?
Okiku, my Lord.
And where is she now?
Okiku was running. From the otemon gate to the honmaru. In the West Bailey, and in all of the yagura. Through the gardens and every kuruwa, and to the moat and back. Running, searching. She crept into Tetsuzan’s rooms and counted over and over again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
Always nine. The missing plate was nowhere to be found.
Seeing Okiku so desperate, Danshirō seized his chance.
Marry me, Okiku. This is the last time I will ask you. Marry me, and I will return the plate and clear your name.
But how could anyone agree to such a proposal, when they are already in love with another? Okiku’s love for Motonobu was true, and she was fearless. The reckless kind of fearless which only the strongest love can bring. She took a deep breath…
No, Danshirō. I belong to another, and I will never, ever marry you.
Danshirō’s jealousy and rage overcame him. This woman, who had foiled their plans and defied him, and still refused his affection no matter what he tried. This woman who dared to risk her own life for her love. Well, she need risk it no longer…
Danshirō drew his sword. One swipe was enough. He was fast; so fast that Okiku didn’t have time to scream or run. By the time she realised what he was going to do it had happened, and her blood was spilling out of her.
Where to hide a body? Somewhere deep, which daylight never shines upon and no human eyes ever glimpse…
Somewhere like… a well?
Yes, the well!
Danshirō gathered Okiku’s body into his arms, and with a last, wistful look at her beauty, a lament to that which he would never own, he threw her into the castle’s well.
Secrets. Leave them to rot in the sombre, damp underground.
Okiku’s absence raised no questions. After all, everyone believed she had stolen the plate and they knew that Tetsuzan took no prisoners. Only Motonobu and his companions continued to fight Tetsuzan. Eventually they were successful. He was overthrown and Lord Norimoto returned to Himeji, and Danshirō’s terrible crime was discovered.
In tribute to her love and bravery, Okiku was enshrined at Jūnisho-jinja. This modest, tranquil shrine is tucked away down a side street, quietly emitting its charm into the city.
As for the well…
Once the sun began to set and the shadows lengthened, people started avoiding it. There was talk of hearing strange sounds, like whispers, from within, and glimpses of the ethereal figure of a woman.
For the few who dared to venture to the well in the darkest hours of the night, if they listened carefully, they would realise that the whispering voice coming from the well was counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…
Only to nine, never 10. One missing plate. One restless spirit eternally searching for it, counting every night. Never leaving her watery grave.
Throughout every version of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the presence of fate remains constant. Few other fairy tale heroines have their lives so dictated, or spend the majority of their story rendered so helpless. Although the circumstances surrounding her fate differ, Sleeping Beauty is always destined to fall asleep. But that’s not the only thing her future holds, and the line between death and sleep is not always apparent.
Some stories contain fairies or wise women, who bestow desirable qualities upon the princess. As Maria Tatar notes in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ‘the gifts given by the Wise Women promise to turn the Grimms’ Briar Rose into an “ideal” woman – virtuous, beautiful, and wealthy. In Perrault’s version, the girl is given beauty, an angelic disposition, grace, the ability to dance perfectly, the voice of a nightingale, and the ability to play instruments.’ Both sets of gifts are trivial things, putting emphasis on physical attraction instead of personality. They also reflect, as Tatar says, society’s notions of ‘ideal’ women during the times they were told. A beautiful woman who could sing, dance, and play music would certainly have been popular in 17th century Versailles.
However, none of these gifts bear any relevance to the plot. In earlier versions of the story, there is not even any mention of them. In his book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Max Lüthi observes that in Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ the ‘motif of prophecy’ and ‘threat of an unavoidable fate’ remain strong even without the gifts. The sleep curse is still predicted for Tahlia’s future, despite it not being given to her. The story doesn’t change.
The sleep is always caused by spinning — from pricking a finger on a spindle or a stray piece of flax. This also has a connection to fate, as mythology from several cultures contains beings called ‘Fates.’ These are women who spin the threads of mortal lives, determining lifespans and causes of death. My full discussion of Sleeping Beauty, fate, and mythology can be found in this article which I wrote for the University of Essex’s Centre for Myth Studies.
Aside from the gifts and the notion of spinning fate, the other irrevocable fate in Sleeping Beauty is death. Both ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ and Charles Perrault’s 1697 ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ do not end when the princess awakens. Instead, they continue to detail her life with the prince (or king in ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’) and their children. Her new mother-in-law has cannibalistic tendencies, and plans to kill and eat the children. They escape, thanks to some assistance from a compassionate servant who hides them. The mother-in-law then prepares a horrific death for the princess, but the king/prince arrives in time to prevent it.
Of this ending, Max Lüthi writes that ‘the theme of the death prophesy and the fortunate deliverance is once again called to mind.’ The princess survives not only the death-like sleep, but also attempted murder. Peril occurs at defining moments in her life. The first is during adolescence, when she is on the cusp of womanhood. The second is when she is a mother seeking to protect her children. These life stages are reminiscent of the Neopagan Triple Goddess, which represents aspects of female life through the phases of the moon. The waxing moon is the maiden, the full moon the mother, and the waning moon the crone.
The princess escapes death first as the maiden and again as the mother, which leaves only the crone stage to contend with. Things in fairy tales often happen in threes, with the third time being slightly different. Therefore, it can be assumed that when death comes the third and final time, the princess will not escape. Like for all living things, her ultimate unavoidable fate is death.
However, one Sleeping Beauty-inspired story challenges this fate. In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ by Angela Carter, the girl is already dead — or rather, undead. The main protagonist in this story is a vampiric countess; a simultaneous embodiment of life and death. Carter describes her as ‘both death and the maiden,’ showing that the mother and crone stages are absent. In an attempt to reconcile this, she wears ‘her mother’s wedding dress,’ which gives her the appearance of ‘a child dressing up.’ The countess’s servant is ‘a crone in a black dress,’ and through her the countess can vicariously experience the old age she will never have.
Instead of having her fate decided or predicted for her, the countess reads Tarot cards. But no matter how many times she shuffles them, she is ‘constantly constructing hypotheses about a future which is irreversible’ and they always show ‘the Grim Reaper.’ Her condition makes her biologically and emotionally dormant, so there cannot be any change in her future. She is, in a sense, sleeping. Carter acknowledges that ‘a single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,’ but the only desire vampires feel is for blood. She longs for a lover to save her, but trapped in her maidenhood she doesn’t know how to respond when one arrives.
At the end of the story, the countess cuts her finger and the sight of her own blood overwhelms her. This could be interpreted as an analogy for menstruation, as some folklorists interpret the blood drawn by Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger. However, instead of a long sleep to process the change and move on to become the mother, spilling her own blood is what kills the Countess. In true death, ‘she looked far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human.’ Her fate could not provide the remaining life stages, so instead it returned her to nature.
Fate in Sleeping Beauty stories goes far beyond the prediction of the sleep. They connect to the perennial cycle of life and death, and how we progress through its stages. The princess is always doomed to sleep and a pivotal moment in her life, and she can never be the same once she awakens. Life’s movement and nature’s processes carry on regardless of curses, spindles, fairies, or vampirism.
Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Indiana University Press, 1976.
Angela Carter, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ in The Bloody Chamber, Vintage Classics Edition, 1995.
Ocean folklore kindles my imagination like nothing else.Salty wind, sandy toes, and the scent of seaweed are my home. Ocean folklore kindles my imagination like nothing else.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Mie Prefecture on the east coast of Japan. It is a reserved, quaint place where the ocean’s influence is inescapable. Here is the city of Ise, home to the most sacred Shinto shrine Ise Jingu, and the Ise-Shima Peninsula, which is famous for the ama divers and abalone shells.
During my trip, I learned stories of sea demons, underwater dragon palaces, and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. I also got off the beaten track and visited a community of ama divers and a sea folklore museum, which was a fascinating and poignant experience.