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.
Most people know that rice is a prevalent food in Japan. But apart from being a source of nutrition, rice also has cultural and folkloric significance attached to it.
New Year Mochi
Much of Japan’s folklore is based on the concept of animism, due to the ancient Shinto belief that every object has a spirit. This belief extends to rice plants, with many Japanese people believing that they contain good energy. Therefore, eating products made from rice will bring good luck. This is especially true at the beginning of a new year. Mochi, a sticky, sweet cake made from pounded rice, is used as a new year decoration and eaten in early January. This type of mochi is called ‘kagami mochi.’ It is composed of two mochi cakes adorned with daidai (bitter orange) and leaves. It is believed that eating the kagami mochi will bring you strength and luck for the coming year.
Mochi making is also popular in January. Many places have events called ‘mochi-tsuki‘ where community members get together to make mochi. As well as the belief that eating mochi is good luck for the new year, mochi-tsuki is a time to come together and have fun!
I was able to attend a mochi-tsuki event in a nearby town, and it was a great experience. I learned how mochi is made, and got to take part in the process. Firstly, the rice is soaked, usually overnight. Then, it is steamed. Fires were lit, and steamers containing the rice were placed over them. After steaming, the rice is moved into a traditional Japanese mortar, which is called an usu. It is then squashed and pounded with a kine, a large wooden mallet. It’s very heavy and awkward to use, and also scary – whilst the pounding is going on, someone has to rearrange to mochi to keep it in shape. Get the timing wrong and they would definitely end up with broken fingers!
After being pounded, the mochi is placed on a tray of flour and separated into small chunks. These are shaped into balls by first pulling them into a circle, then folding the sides together and twisting so they stick. It’s a lot harder than it looks, because the flour makes the outside of the mochi quite dry. But without it, it would be too sticky.
After that, flavourings are added to the mochi before eating it. We used kinako (roasted soy bean flour, yum!) and soy sauce. It was wonderful to see people of all ages working together to make and eat the mochi.
Rice is also associated with another celebration later in the year. In Autumn, dango (a sweet rice paste ball similar to mochi) is eaten during harvest festivals called Tsukimi or Jugoya. These festivals take place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is usually a full moon night in August or September. People gather in gardens and at temples to celebrate the year’s crops and the beauty of the moon. Symbolically, dango represents the moon and is eaten as an offering to bring good health.
月の兎 Tsukino Usagi – The Moon Rabbit
Besides good fortune and symbolism, mochi has another connection to the moon. In Western countries, there are stories of the man in the moon. But in Japanese folklore, instead it’s a mochi-making rabbit.
According to legend, an old man who lived on the moon decided to visit Earth. He asked a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit for food. The monkey climbed a tree and brought him some fruit, and the fox caught him a fish. But the rabbit, unable to bring anything, instead built a fire and jumped into it to be cooked. The old man pulled him out and praised his kind sacrifice, and as a reward took the rabbit back to the moon with him.
Other Asian countries also have moon rabbits in their folklore. In China, the moon rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e. Instead of pounding mochi, it pounds the elixir of life. In Korea, the moon rabbit also pounds mochi but stands underneath a gyesu tree (Korean cinnamon tree). They also have a mid-Autumn festival to celebrate the moon, which is called Chuseok.
White rabbits are a popular motif in Japan, and can often be found on things like crockery, linen, and chopsticks. Also, fans of the anime Sailor Moon will probably recognise the name ‘Tsukino Usagi.’ Yes – Sailor Moon herself is literally called ‘rabbit of the moon’ in Japanese! That’s also how she ended up being called ‘Bunny’ in the Italian translation.
Personally, I prefer the Asian idea of a rabbit on the moon. As a child, I always found it a little bit creepy to think of the moon as a man’s face watching us every night. Tsukino Usagi is a much-loved and celebrated part of Japanese culture, which combines folklore, food, and nature. Whether eating mochi in January truly brings good fortune or not, it ensures that each new year in Japan begins with community spirit and sharing good food. What a fantastic combination, and hopefully a way for the year to start as it means to go on.
I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.
Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.
Deer in Scotland
Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.
If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.
Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’
In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.
Deer in Japan
In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.
The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!
Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?
I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.
Deer in Fairy Tales
In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.
Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.
Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.
John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). First published as Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Tales and Traditions Collected Entirely from Oral Sources (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1902)
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
George W. Macpherson, The Old Grey Magician: A Scottish Fionn Cycle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2018)
Maybe you’ve heard of Hello Kitty, and how she’s actually a British schoolgirl (if not then read that article & prepare to gawp with incredulity for at least 10 minutes). But what about Sanrio’s other characters? There are many of them, each with their own stories. In the case of My Melody, her origins are entwined with a well-known fairy tale.
My Melody is a little girl bunny, who was released by Sanrio in 1975. According to her character bio, she was born in a forest. She is often depicted playing amongst trees with her woodland animal friends. She also wears a hood, which nowadays is usually pink, but when she was first introduced it was red. This hood was made by her grandmother.
In 1976, a children’s book was published in Japan featuring My Melody as Little Red Riding Hood. It was reprinted in 2015, and I was lucky enough to find a copy of this edition.
The title reads ‘My Melody’s Little Red Riding Hood.’ The text in red literally translates as ‘Akazukin’ which is the Japanese name for ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ The text at the bottom translates as ‘Little Red Riding Hood! Be careful of the wolf!’
Here are some of the inside pages:
I find it interesting that Sanrio decided to use My Melody for this fairy tale. Rabbits are prey animals, so in this story the wolf is taunted by having its meal turn on it. Also, this is a good example of how fairy tales can travel and evolve for different audiences. For Japanese children, Little Red Riding Hood is a foreign fairy tale. Perhaps attaching it to a familiar character makes it more appealing to them.
My Melody is very popular in Japan. Now that I live here, I am taking full advantage of this. Many people who know me will say that I like Hello Kitty. Whilst this is true to a degree, in England I grew to like her out of lack of choice. But I’m sorry everyone, I have a confession: My Melody is actually my favourite! Whenever I’ve needed something, I have found a My Melody option. Here are some of the more obscure ways in which she is taking over my life, filling it with her little pink ears one thing at a time…
All images my own.
My Melody’s Little Red Riding Hood is a cute fairy tale bridge between cultures, and I hope to encounter more of her stories in the future.
There always seems to be a nucleus of well-known fairy tales, which many people don’t know there is a whole world beyond. The help rectify this, idea of this blog tour is to share some obscure fairy tales!
Whilst travelling a couple of years ago, I came across an antique bookshop. Of course I went inside, and it was there I found William Canton’s True Annals of Fairy-Land. I’d never heard of it before, and it wasn’t overly expensive so I bought it. I still don’t know that much about it – there’s an inscription on the inside cover stating it was awarded to a student at Hulme Grammar School in Manchester for ‘general form work’ in 1924, but the name is illegible and there is no date or place of publication. I’ve found out that William Canton was a British poet and journalist, who lived from 1825-1926.
I’ve chosen a tale from the True Annals of Fairy-Land for this post. It’s called ‘The Valiant Blackbird.’
Mr. Blackbird is a very good singer and lives with his mate, Mrs. Blackbird. Upon hearing his song, the king wants to keep him in a cage so he can hear it all the time. However, the king’s servants catch Mrs. Blackbird by mistake. Determined to rescue her, Mr. Blackbird dons a helmet made from half a walnut shell and armour made from frog skin, and makes a sword from a thorn. With the other half of the walnut shell he makes a drum and, beating it, sets out for the king’s palace.
On the way there, he meets a cat and some ants who also have a score to settle with the king. They jump into Mr. Blackbird’s ear and travel with him. Further on, he meets a rope with a club and a river, who also jump into his ear and join the others on the journey to the palace.
When they arrive, the king’s porter laughs at Mr. Blackbird (who now refers to himself as ‘General Blackbird,’ in light of the eclectic army hidden inside his ears) but lets him in and takes him to the king regardless. General Blackbird demands his wife back, but the king refuses and locks him in the hen house for the night thinking they will kill him. But General Blackbird has other ideas. Once alone, he sings:
‘Come out, Pussy, from my ear,
There are fowls aplenty here;
Scratch them, make their feathers fly,
Wring their necks until they die.’
The cat does exactly this, then returns to General Blackbird’s ear and they sleep. In the morning, the king sends his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. Instead, they find him singing surrounded by the dead hens. Outraged, the next night the king locks General Blackbird in the stable with wild horses. Yet again, he sings:
‘Come out, Rope, and come out Stick,
Tie the horses lest they kick;
Beat the horses on the head,
Beat them till they fall down dead.’
The rope and club comply, and the next morning the king again sends in his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. But again, they find him singing and all the horses dead. On the third night, the king has him locked in with the elephants. This time, General Blackbird summons the ants:
‘Come from out my ear, you Ants,
Come and sting the Elephants;
Sting their trunk, and sting their head,
Sting them till they fall down dead.’
I’m sure you can guess what happens next! The ants sting. The servants arrive in the morning, and find the elephants dead and General Blackbird singing. On the final night, wanting to find out how General Blackbird has slain his animals, the king has him tied to his own bed and watches. He sings one last time:
‘Come out, River, from my ear,
Flow about the bedroom here;
Pour yourself upon the bed,
Drown the King till he is dead.’
The river flows, and as the king’s bed begins to float he cries out and tells General Blackbird to take Mrs. Blackbird and begone. Reunited, they live happily ever after.
I find it pretty amusing that a blackbird can take on a king and win. Definitely taught him a much-deserved lesson! The full version of the story as it appears in the book is available to read online here.