Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rare Exports

In my last blog post on the history of Santa Claus I mentioned how researchers such as Phyllis Siefker and Jeffrey Vallance have argued that the character of Santa Claus derives many of his attributes not only from such figures as St. Nicholas of Myra and the English Father Christmas but from the monstrous Bigfoot-like wildmen of European legend as well.

It is unknown how many people's conceptions of Christmas and Santa have been effected by such theories but one man who clearly has been is Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander. In 2003 Helander and small crew made a short film entitled Rare Exports based on such scholarly conjectures. The film proved immensely popular and in 2005 a sequel Rare Exports: The Safety Instructions was made. Now a feature film slated for 2010 is in the works.

Below I have posted the original shorts films dubbed in English. I would love to tell you more about what you're in for when you view these but frankly words escape me...





You can visit the Rare Exports website here and the feature film's official website here. Also check out their Facebook page for some awesome desktop backgrounds.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Santa Claus: The Man, the Myth, the Monster


With Christmas just around the corner it seems now is as good a time as ever to tackle what is perhaps the biggest Christmas myth of all. No not the birth of Jesus (sorry, next year) but Santa Claus. Santa Claus, without a doubt, is the most recognizable icon associated with the holiday this side of the Atlantic. But where does old Kris Kringle come from?

Well as it turns out that is a rather loaded question. Santa has one of the most complex, confusing, and utterly fascinating back stories of any mythological character ever. What that means is that there is no way I can possibly cover every facet of St. Nick’s history unless I start writing a book (which I may one day do), so what this really is then is Santa Claus: A Very Short Introduction.

Before beginning however it would be fortuitous to remind readers of two things. One is that Christmas, which Christians first began celebrating in the 3rd and 4th-Centiries C.E., was given the date of December 25th in order to compete with the Roman festivals of Sol Invictus (a day in honor of the Sun) and Saturnalia (a harvest festival in honor of Saturn).

The second is that elsewhere in Europe the time of year we now recognize as “Christmas-Time” originally carried much darker connotations. In Eastern Europe it was seen as a time of great darkness when demons and other monsters roamed the Earth while the people of Northern Europe identified this time with a great supernatural nocturnal hunt which could be equally dangerous to mortal bystanders.

It was in this world that the figure of Santa Claus first emerged.

The Man

As many people probably know Santa Claus is, at least in part, based on a real life person; St. Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas was born in 280 C.E. in Patara, Lycia (what is today modern Turkey) into a wealthy family. As an adult he became the Archbishop of Myra and became famous for his generosity and numerous miracles.

The two most famous stories about Nicolas tell how he once saved a poor man’s three virgin daughters from a life of prostitution by secretly leaving a bag of gold for each of them three nights in a row. The other story is much darker and relates how during a famine a butcher murdered three youths, cut them up and placed their dismembered parts in a pickle barrel to cure; his intent being to pass off their flesh as ham. Nicholas arrived at the butcher shop, however, and sensed that something was amiss. Discovering the boys’ bodies in the barrel Nicholas then performed a miracle to rival those of Christ himself and revived the dismembered youths, restoring them to life.[1]


Nicholas died in 343 C.E. on December 6th and was buried in a modest tomb in Myra. In 540 an ornate basilica was built over Nicholas’ tomb but in 1087 Italian merchants broke into the tomb and spirited Nicholas’ remains off to Bari, Italy where they still reside to this day.

That same year (1087 C.E.) the Roman Catholic Church also officially granted Nicholas sainthood and bestowed upon him the title of patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, repentant thieves, pawnbrokers, archers and pharmacists. He was also granted the impressive title of “Supreme Controller of the Winds.”

As a saint, Nicholas’ fame grew quickly and he soon became the most popular figure in all of Christendom, right behind Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. In France and Germany alone two-thousand churches were dedicated to him while another four hundred were consecrated under his name in England. In America St. Nicholas was named the patron saint of New York City in 1809.

Because of his reputation for generosity and gift giving Roman Catholics began exchanging gifts on December 6th, St. Nicholas’s feast day (the anniversary of his death). However, during the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) Martin Luther, in an attempt to abolish the veneration of saints, moved the day of gift giving from December 6th to December 25th (Christmas Day) and attempted to replace St. Nicholas with the Christ Child, a substitution which did not last.

The Myth

As St. Nicholas’ fame as a yuletide gift giver spread throughout Europe his image and story began to synchronize with other similar characters one of the most important of these being England’s Father Christmas.

Also known as King Christmas, Sir Christmas, or Old Christmas the character of Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 14th-Century, though many folklorists argue that the tradition goes back even further to pre-Roman times and the Druids. Father Christmas is traditionally depicted as an elderly man with a long white beard, dressed in robes with a crown of holly on his head. He is seen riding either a donkey or a goat; animals traditionally associated with pagan fertility rituals. In exchange for gifts English children would leave Father Christmas an offering of mince pie and alcohol.


In England Father Christmas’ presence denoted a time of great feasting and merrymaking, complete with rowdy drunken behavior. Such behavior incensed England’s Puritan denizens who in 1644, upon seizing control of Parliament, officially outlawed Christmas. It would be sixteen years before King Charles II would finally restore Christmas as a national English holiday and usher in the return of Father Christmas.

Though Father Christmas and St. Nicholas would eventually merge in 19th-Century America helping to give birth to the character of Santa Claus, England would nevertheless still retain their traditional gift giver who, as it turns out, stands apart from jolly old St. Nick quite well in having a much more fiery and combatant nature. Examples of this can be found in both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters (1920-1942) and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) which feature Father Christmas battling goblins and handing out weapons respectively.

Further north in Holland the legend of St. Nicholas arrived via the Spanish (In fact to this day children in Holland are told that St. Nicholas hails from Spain not the North Pole). The Dutch called St. Nicholas by the name of Sinterklaas and depicted him as a bishop dressed in long robes, riding a magical white flying horse and distributing presents with the help of a Moorish assistant named Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).[2]


When Dutch immigrants came to America they brought Sinterklaas with them where 19th-Century American children slurred the name into the familiar Santa Claus. The first written mention of Santa Claus in America comes from famed author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, etc…) who in 1809 described Santa Claus as a Dutch burgher, flying over rooftops in a horse drawn wagon dropping presents down chimneys.

In 1821 a children’s book by an anonymous author featured what is recognized as the first modern depiction of Santa Claus, showing a fur clad man with a white beard driving a sleigh pulled by a single reindeer over a snowy rooftop. Where this image came from is one of the great mysteries of modern folklore.[3] Nevertheless the following year this image was codified with the writing and publication of Clement C. Moore’s famous poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, better known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas.


Following the publication of Moore’s poem the popularity of Santa exploded amongst American children. Popular depiction of Santa from this time – the most famous being those of political cartoonist Thomas “Nasty” Nast – mostly kept inline with the poem’s description. One issue that was left up to the artist’s imagination, however, was what color was Santa’s fur suit. Early color depictions usually rendered it brown, this being a logical color for fur, but it was soon decided that this was too boring a color for a figure as lively as Santa Claus who soon found himself dressed in blue, black, white, orange and purple furs. Green and red fur suits were particularly popular and in the 1940s soda-pop manufacture Coca-Cola officially decided, via a series of popular ads, that Santa Claus’ colors should be red and white; the same colors as those used by the Coca-Cola Company itself.


The Monster

In the 6th-Century in Austria, St. Nicholas was given his first sidekick. No not loveable toy making elves but Krampus, a shaggy demon with curled horns, a long red tongue and a talent for punishing naughty children with switches and chains. Like St. Nicholas the popularity of this Christmas devil soon spread and became a part of holiday traditions in Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and Italy. In Germany Krampus became Knecht Ruprecht or “Black Rupert.”


Such Christmas monsters were likely inspired by old pre-Christian legends which told of dangerous Bigfoot-like beasts known as wild-men who roamed the dark winter nights searching for children. Researchers like Phyllis Siefker and Jeffrey Vallance have argued that today’s Santa Claus has much more in common with these mythical wild-men of Europe than with the Christian saint whose name he uses. Vallance has even pointed out that the name Nicholas may not actually be derived from the saint at all but rather from Nikolas; a 19th-Century colloquialism for the devil.


Part of Siefker and Vallance’s argument rests on the fact that Krampus and his kin failed make it across the Atlantic and into American Christmas tradition. So where did they go? The answer is that like Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, Krampus was absorbed into Santa Claus. Indeed, beginning in the late 19th-Century (1880s and especially 1890s) depiction of Santa Claus began showing the gift giver performing various Krampus-like acts including not only threatening children with switches but in two remarkable illustrations stuffing a (presumably) naughty child into his sack (to carry off who knows where?) and in another beating a child tied to a tree!


Siefker and Vallance also argue that the amalgamation of the Krampus further explains Santa’s furry outfit. Both Sinterklaas and Father Christmas where always traditionally depicted wearing long robes, so the fur must have come from shaggy old Krampus.

Conclusion

In conclusion one can see that the figure of Santa Claus truly is a complex and multifaceted character. So now that I’ve said my piece about him I strongly encourage readers to go out and learn more about Santa in his many and various forms. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Pictures

At Top: Santa, we hardly know thee.

Second down: A statue of St. Nicholas with the Three Boys in the Pickling Tub. South Netherland, c.1500.

Third: An Eastern Orthodox icon of St. Nicholas.

Fourth: England’s Father Christmas riding a goat.

Fifth: In Amsterdam, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to distribute presents with the help of his Moorish assistants.

Sixth: One of Thomas Nast’s famous drawings of Santa Claus (1881)

Seventh: In the 1940s Santa Claus had his first run in with American consumerism, and it forever changed his life.

Eighth: This German Christmas card shows St. Nicholas and his demon lackey Krampus at work, carrying toys to good children while carting off the bad ones.

Ninth: This giant statue in Lapland depicts the countries' heraldic Wildman. With his red skin, white beard and green leaf garb he looks an awful lot like Santa and is, in fact, probably an ancestor of his.

Last: With Krampus having failed to make it across the Atlantic it was now up to Santa to become the source of both yuletide rewards and punishments as this card from 1907 shows.

Sources and Additional Information (Partial List):

Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays ( 2006) by Gabriella Kalapos, Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1996) by Carol Rose, The Encyclopedia of Saints (2001) by Rosemary Guiley, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (2006) by Phyllis Siefker, Santa is a Wildman! (2002) and Lapp of the Gods (2005) by Jeffrey Vallance
________________________________________________________
[1] In France the character of the murderous butcher went on to become a traveling companion of St. Nicholas known as Le Père Fouettard (Father Spanky).
[2] Traditionally Zwarte Piet is always portrayed in live parades by a caucasian actor (or actors) dressed in stereotypical Moorish clothes and donning a wig and blackface (See photo number five). As one can imagine this concept is far from uncontroversial in the Netherlands today and is seen by many black citizens as racially insensitive and an open endorsement of slavery. In 2006 attempts were made to substitute the traditional Zwarte Piet with a less racially offensive one. Public outcry however saw the return of the traditional Zwarte Piet the following year and in 2008 the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven canceled a planed exhibit on the racial implications of the Zwarte Piet character after receiving numerous death threats.
[3] Of particular interest to many folklorists is the question where the reindeer motif originated. Some researchers have suggested a connection between Santa’s flying reindeer and the flying reindeer in Siberian shamanism, though this seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stallo


Having already introduced readers of my blog to Krampus the Christmas Devil (who I am happy to say is gaining popularity in America, having recently made an appearance on the Colbert Report) it is now time for us to get acquainted with the rest of Krampus' family of dark Old World yuletide monsters.

One of Krampus' close relative is the Stallos; Yeti-like yuletide beasts from the country of Lapland home of the Sámi people.

The Stallos are traditionally depicted as hairy giants (sometimes with horns) dressed in the chain-mail armor of a Viking berserker; a fact which explains the name Stallo which literally means “metal man.” Though the Stallos are never descried as being intelligent they are regarded as cunning and have access to magical powers such the ability to see the future.

Though the Stallos possess the same impressive stature as traditional Scandinavian giants they should not be confused with them. Author Johan Turi notes that the main difference between the Stallos and the giants was that the giants did not “hate mankind like the stallos did.” In Sámi mythology, giants are also regarded as being kin to mankind (both decedents of the Sun god) while the Stallos are described as being “half human and half troll or devil.”

Perpetually plagued by thirst the Stallos roams the countryside on Christmas Eve looking for fresh water to drink. Sámi yuletide tradition involves driving a stake into the ground near the closet body of water so that the Stallos can easily find it. If a Stallo does not find any fresh water to quench his thirst than he will be forced to enter the home and bash in the skulls of the resident children lapping up their brains and blood instead.

On a related note, lakes that lack fish or are covered in a heavy coat of green moss are said to be poisoned by a Stallo body which was evidently buried nearby.

The Stallos could also prove a threat to young women as the monster “delights in macabre acts of genital mutilation of his innocent victims. (Stallo pokes his staff up the skirts of young girls.)” In the myths and legends of the Sámi it is possible for a young girl to be courted and even married off to a Stallo though the marriage will ultimately end badly. Stories like these are used by Sámi parents as a kind of reverse of the traditional Beauty and the Beast fable with the lesson here being that marriage to “a beast” of a man is ultimately a bad idea.

Though a freighting semi-supernatural monster the Stallo was still mortal and could be killed. In the legend of Potto-Podnie a young shepherd boy confronts a Stallo and overcomes the monster beheading the beast with its own sword.

The legends of the Stallo were probably based in part on the Sámi people’s encounters with foreign invaders such as the Vikings. Subsequent Sámi generations kept the legend alive by prescribing the traits of the Stallo to other human invaders such as the Tschudes, Christian missionaries, and in the 1940s the Nazis.

Today the Stallo remains a reminder of Christmas' darker roots in world mythology and legend.

Pictures:

At Top:
The Lapland heraldic coat of arms depicts a Stallo-like wildman on it. Similar wildmen can be seen on heraldic shields throughout Europe.

Middle: A knight confronts a Stallo-like wildman in Hans Burgkmair's "The Fight in the Forest ," 1500 CE

Sources/More Information:

Santa is a Wildman (2002) by Jeffery Vallance

The Stallo Throughout Sámi and World History
by Andrew F. Besa

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Krampus on the Colbert Report

Last Christmas I introduced readers of my blog to Krampus; Santa's demonic yuletide companion of Old World Alpine tradition. Luckily this year, however, I won't have spread the scary solstice spirit alone as Comedy Central funnyman Stephen Colbert has also decided to share the tradition of Krampus with his many viewers and has even invited Krampus himself to come visit the studio.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude - Hallmark & Krampus
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Festival" by H.P. Lovecraft

It's Christmas time again here at Of Epic Proportions and that means another month full of exciting and frightful holiday myths and legends. To kick things off this year I've decided to start with a poem by one of my all-time favorite authors; early 20th-Century writer
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).

Though Lovecraft is best remembered today for his innovative work in the realms of science-fiction and horror, the man was also an accomplished poet and a true lover of Christmas. The following poem by Lovecraft was original published in the December 1926 issue of Weird Tales magazine under the title "Yule Horror."

There is snow on the ground,
And the valleys are cold,
And a midnight profound
Blackly squats over the world;
But a light on the hilltops half-seen hints of feastings unhallowed and old.

There is death in the clouds,
There is fear in the night,
For the dead in their shrouds
Hail the sun’s turning flight,
And chant wild in the woods as they dance round a Yule-altar fungous and white.

To no gale of earth’s kind
Sways the forest of oak,
Where the sick boughs entwined
By mad mistletoes choke,
For these powers are the powers of the dark, from the graves of the lost Druid-folk.

And mayst thou to such deeds
Be an abbot and priest,
Singing cannibal greeds
At each devil-wrought feast,
And to all the incredulous world shewing dimly the sign of the beast.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wicked John and the Devil: A Halloween Tale

Last October readers of my blog were treated to the story of "Jack of the Lantern," an Irish folktale about an unlikeable man who tricks the devil into granting him amnesty from hell only to learn, upon death, that heaven doesn't want him either - seeing how he made a deal with the devil and all. Jack was thus doomed to walk the earth for all eternity carrying with him a lantern made from a turnip lit with a coal plucked from the fires of hell. Jack's turnip lantern was the first jack-o'-lantern which were originally made from turnips by the Irish until coming to America where they discovered the pumpkin, which was much easier to carve. I also told readers last year that the tale of "Jack of the Lantern" is one with many variations, including this one which I have not related before.

"Wicked John and the Devil" as told by Justin M...

A long time ago there was a wicked man named John who worked as a village blacksmith. John took great pride in his wickedness and practiced it with vigor, and it was because of this that no one in the village ever came to visit him, unless they needed a horseshoe made or a tool fixed and even then they never stuck around.

Now because on one ever came to visit and because John enjoyed being wicked so much John took to inviting strangers, who passed by his shop on the way into town, in for a free meal. Every time someone would accept, John would sit them down to a nice hot meal and as soon they were done eating would proceed to play all sorts of nasty tricks of them.

One day John saw an old man walking past his shop. John called out to the old man and asked if he would like a free hot meal. The man said yes but that he was to crippled to make it up the path to John's shop, so John went down the path and carried the old man up. John then took the man inside and gave him some hot soup, but the man said that his fingers were to cripple to lift the spoon, so John had to feed him. Just as John was starting to think that he was going to far to much trouble just to play a few mean-spirited pranks on this old man John's kitchen lit up with bright white light and where the old man had been hunched over a different old man with a long white beard, a rings of keys hung around his waist, and a back as strait as a stick now sat.

"Who the hell are you?," asked John. "I'm St. Peter; heaven's gatekeeper," replied the old man, still glowing. St. Peter then explain to John that because of his kindness to him he would grant him three wishes, thus giving John a chance to turn his life around. But all John could think about was how much more wickedness he could with those three wishes.

First John asked St. Peter for a rocking chair that would rock and rock with the sitter trapped in it and that the only way they could get out is if John had mercy on them. The second wish was for a sledgehammer that wouldn't let go of the user's hands and would keep hammering until John had mercy them too. The third and final wish was for a prickly firebush that would sit out in front of his shop and that would pull anyone who touched it in and not let them go until John had mercy and freed them. St. Peter granted everyone of John's three wishes even though he knew that all three would only be used to create more wickedness. After granting John's wishes St. Peter departed and returned to heaven.

It wasn't long before John's seemingly endless ability to cause wickedness caught up with him and the Devil, not wishing to be outdone by a mere mortal, sent his youngest son to go fetch John and bring his soul to hell. The Devil's youngest son then made his way to John's workshop where John was hard at work on a horseshoe. "You're coming with me," said the little demon to John. "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just let me finish this here horseshoe and I'll come straight to hell with ya, and while you wait why don't you have a seat in my rocking chair over there." "Don't mind if I do." said the little demon and no sooner did he sit down in the chair then did he find himself stuck fast. Then the chair began to rock back and forth, faster and faster rattling the little demon. "Let me go!" he cried out to John. "Only if you promise never to come for my soul again." said John. "Alright" said the little demon and John had mercy and let him go.

The next day the Devil sent his eldest son to go fetch John's soul. He also found John in his workshop hard at work. "You're coming with me," said the eldest demon to John. "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just hand me that sledgehammer over there so I can finish this horseshoe, unless it's too big for ya." And the demon, not wanting John to think he was a weakling, grabbed the sledgehammer only to discover that he could not let go. Then the hammer began to hammer up and down knocking all of the demon about. "Let me go!" he cried out to John. "Only if you promise never to come for my soul again." said John. "Alright" said the eldest demon and John had mercy and let the him go too.

The next day the Devil himself came to fetch John's soul. Again John was found in his workshop hard at work. "You're coming with me," said the Devil to John. "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just let me finish this here horseshoe and I'll come straight to hell with ya, and while you wait why don't you have a seat in my rocking chair over there." "No thank you," said the Devil, "I don't feel like sitting, now lets go." "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just hand me that sledgehammer over there so I can finish this horseshoe, unless it's too big for ya." "No," said the Devil, "I'm not handing you any hammers because you're not finishing any horseshoes, you're coming with me to hell right now."

"Oh? Alright," said John and put down his tongs and headed outside with the Devil. However, as soon as they were outside John gave the Devil a push and knocked him right into the prickly firebush which pulled the Devil in and would not let go. The Devil struggled for what seemed like hours to try and free himself from the bush but the more he struggled the more confined he became. Finally the Devil cried out to John "Let me go!" to which John replied "Only if you promise I'll never have to serve one single day in hell." "Alright" said the Devil and John had mercy and let the him go as well.

Finally the day came, many years later, when John died and found himself standing before the pearly gates with St. Peter looking down at him. "What are you doing here John?" asked St. Peter. John explained that he had died and was here to take his place in heaven. St. Peter took and long, hard look at John and then explained that they couldn't let him in. John had lived a life filled with too much wickedness to be allowed into heaven - plus he had made a deal with the Devil to boot. John tried to argue with St. Peter but to no avail.

So John turned around and headed for hell to see if the Devil would let him in, but when he got there the Devil informed him that their agreement still stood and that John could not enter hell - ever. John asked the Devil what he should do having been denied both salvation in heaven and damnation in hell. The Devil only laughed and then gave John a red hot piece of coal and told him to go make his own hell on earth. John then returned to earth where he found a gourd which he hollowed out and placed the coal inside so he could use it as a lantern to light his path as he wandered the earth for all eternity. And the light from that lantern? Well some say it can still be seen on Halloween night to this very day.

The story of "Wicked John and the Devil" is a variation of the story of "Jack of the Lantern." It is a tale told in both American and on the British Ilse. It is hard to say which tale, "Wicked John" or "Jack," is older. Some evidence which would suggest that "Wicked John" is the older of the two tales include the fact that semantically speaking the name John predates the name Jack, but that doesn't necessarily mean that John's story came first, especially when you can find versions of either story with either man's attached, i.e. "Wick Jack and the Devil."

Another point of interest, which may also help lean credence to John's story being the older version of the two, is the fact that John's profession is that of a blacksmith. The role of blacksmith was once a time honored profession in the days predating the industrial revolution. In the ancient world blacksmiths were revered for their seemingly magical abilities to manipulate both fire and metal. This is why many cultures had gods who specifically looked over the profession of smith. Some of these gods included; Hephaestus (Greco-Roman), Ilmarinen (Finish), Ogun (West Africa), and the Wayland Smith of Scandinavia - just to name a few.

During the medieval period when Christianity dominated the European landscape blacksmiths came to be regarded as having a connection with the Devil, again because of their ability to manipulate both fire and metal. However, this association was not negative and did not make blacksmith a target of medieval persecution but rather resulted in numerous folktales and legends of heroic blacksmiths who defeated devils in various bouts - similar to Wicked John's.

One of these legendary blacksmiths was St. Dunstan, today the patron saint of goldsmiths, who is said to have been visited by the Devil while at work in his blacksmith's shop. The Devil came to Dunstan in the form of a beautiful woman and tried to seduce him, but Dunstan saw through the disguise and with a pair of red hot tongs grabbed the devil by the nose and refused to let go until he promised never to bother him again. Thus one can see that the basic framework for John's tale had already been laid.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dao of the Undead

With Halloween at the end of the month people will once again be finding themselves confronted by a seemingly never ending barrage of witches, ghosts, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and, of course, vampires. However, with the success of such book series – and now TV and movie series – as Stephanie Myer’s "Twilight" saga and Charlaine Harris’ "The Southern Vampire Mysteries" it may seem as if one has been dealing with blood suckers all year long.

I certainly don’t need to tell anyone that the vampire is without a doubt one of the most malleable mythological archetypes of all time, a fact which has guaranteed their survival and success right down to today. Storytellers of all stripes are constantly reimagining the vampire in a wide variety of ways; from gothic aristocrats hailing from foreign countries to katana swinging trench coat wearing warriors to baseball playing teens with sparkly skin.

However, one variation on the myth of the vampire which I think has failed to get more exposer here in the west is that of the Jiāng-Shī, sometimes referred to as the Chinese vampire. Back in the fall of 2008 I wrote my final paper, Dao of the Undead, for Introduction to Eastern Religions on the Jiāng-Shī and their context within the Taoist religion.

What follows is an abridged version of that same paper. I’ve removed much of the paper that dealt with the nuances of the Taoist faith’s perception of the body and soul. Suffice to say what one needs to know before continuing is that according to the Taoist faith, in particular the Shangqing school of the 4th-Century C.E., every human has two souls; an upper soul or cloudsoul (hun) composed of yang qi (chi) and a lower soul or whitesoul (pò) composed of yin qi (chi). When a person sleeps their souls travel outside of their bodies, the cloudsoul towards heaven where it communes with enlightened spirits and various deities; this being the cause of pleasant dreams. Whitesouls, on the other hand, travel down into the earth where they copulate with the dead and demons causing nightmares and sexual dreams. Keep this in mind while reading the following as such terminology will be used throughout...

Tales of the undead have been with humankind for thousands of years, whether they be Arabian ghouls, Slavic vampires, or Haitian zombies all cultures have some conception of the unquiet dead who refuse to stay in their graves. Chinese myth, legend, folklore, and film also have their own quirky, wholly original variation on this theme called the Jiāng-Shī[1] (pronounced Geungsi in Cantonese), a term which literally means “stiff corpse.”

According to Matthew Bunson, author of The Vampire Encyclopedia, the Jiāng-Shī of Chinese myth and legend are cadavers that return to life when their pò souls fail to leave the deceased’s body due to improper death (such as suicide) or burial (allowing an animal to jump over the body or moon/sunlight to fall on the corpse). Upon returning to life Jiāng-Shī will hop about with its arms out stretched (due to rigor mortis) causing trouble such as draining the life sustaining qi (pronounced chi) out of people. The skin of a Jiāng-Shī will often be discolored (usually green) as a result of mold which has accumulated on the body of the corpse.

A nearly identical report to Bunson’s is given by early 20th-Century religious historian J.J.M. de Groot who describes the Jiāng-Shī as; “a corpse which does not decay, a horrible or ferocious specter fond of catching and killing passers-by, more malicious than others because, having the body at its service, it possesses more strength and vigor than other disembodied ghosts.” Groot also comments on the physical appearance of the Jiāng-Shī describing it as being “covered all over with long white hair, and its nails are exceedingly long.”

It is not uncommon for scholars (and filmmakers) to compare the Jiāng-Shī to the western concept of the vampire. Even Groot, writing at the end of the 19th-Century, comments on the parallels between the Jiāng-Shī and the European vampire; “In China a vampire generally breaks out of its coffin during the night, as the powers of evil specters are paralyzed by daylight. It commonly kills its prey by sucking the blood out of the body, a proceeding which it completes in a few seconds.” However, Groot also notes that while tales depicting Jiāng-Shī as anthropophagi (man-eaters) are not uncommon, stories depicting them as blood suckers do not appear in China until the 19th-Century, a fact which undoubtedly betrays a western influence possibly even that of acclaimed 19th-Century horror author Bram Stoker himself whose classic novel “Dracula” was given the title of “Blood Sucking Jiāng-Shī” when first printed in China.

Folktales featuring Jiāng-Shī abound and both Bunson and, especially, Groot have collected numerous examples. One story from 1741 tells of a shepherd who took refuge, along with his sheep, in an old temple which was allegedly haunted. Around midnight the shepherd awoke to strange sounds. Gazing around he caught sight of a terrible green skinned cadaver with “eyes like lighting” rising from a grave located beneath three statues. The man attacked the Jiāng-Shī with a whip only to find that the weapon was useless. Fleeing for his life the shepherd took refuge in a tree where the Jiāng-Shī could not reach him. In the morning the Jiāng-Shī returned to its grave and the shepherd alerted the local authorities who immediately traveled to the temple where they unearthed the corpse and burned it “despite a putrid black vapor, the cracking of its bones, and the blood, which gushed forth from the remains.”

Another folktale recounts how a Jiāng-Shī once frequented the village in Ngan-cheu where it would come “soaring through the air, to devour the infants of the people.” In great need of assistance the villages contacted a “Taoist doctor, proficient in magic arts” who, after being showered with money and gifts, instructed the villagers to have the bravest man in town hide in the grave of the Jiāng-Shī with “two bells” which he should ring once the ghoul attempts to return home. The ringing of the bells, explained the Daoist, will paralyze the monster as they “generally fear very much the sound of jingles and hand-gongs.” Trapped outside its own grave, and unable to fly away due to a spell cast by the Daoist, the Jiāng-Shī is then ambushed by the villagers who fight with the corpse until dawn when it falls down dead once more at which point the villagers burn the body.

How dose one become a Jiāng-Shī? Traditionally, there are four ways that one can be created: “a violent death, an improper burial, a need for revenge against the living, or simply a desire to create mischief (sometimes of a sexual nature).” Another way in which a Jiāng-Shī can be created is “improper burial.”

According to Peter Nepstad, of The Illuminated Lantern.com, proper burial is an extremely important facet of the Taoist faith…

“Taoist funerals must be carefully conducted in order to keep the dead happy and at peace. Improper burial procedures may anger the spirit of the deceased and cause ruin or even death to one or more generations of the family. When a person dies, it is believed that the spirit separates from the body, but stays nearby until the body is buried. At the time of death, a Taoist priest is often summoned to the home to oversee the careful ritual preparations needed to ensure the burial is ritually correct. When the body is placed in the coffin, children of the family put the deceased's favorite things in with it. A banquet is prepared, and special charms are written on slips of paper. The charms are burned to send them to heaven and new charms replace them. The burial day is determined by a Taoist priest according to calendrical considerations. The site is also determined by the priest, using feng-shui. The priest must accompany the coffin to the cemetery, chanting and ringing bells. This is an important part of the priest’s duties to the community.”

Groot also confirms this and has dedicated much of his six volume series The Religious System of China, to the subject of death and burial. One way in which a burial can be botched, says Groot, is if sunlight or moonlight is allowed to fall on a corpse, an act which will transform the deceased into a Jiāng-Shī. This metamorphosis, says Groot, is the “natural consequence of the conception that light, fire, warmth, Yang in short, are identified with life.” Bunson also confirms this by noting that “direct sunlight or moonlight” is “capable of infusing the corpse with a supply of yang (a positive force), thereby fortifying the lower soul.” To prevent this, buildings which are used to store coffins must be without windows or cracks, least moon or sunlight spill inside.

Other ways in which a funeral can go so wrong as to wake the dead include burying the body in foreign or unfamiliar soil; which would sometimes happen if the person died while away from home. Also, according to some traditions, allowing an animal to jump over the body before burial will also solicit the ire of the dead since it is thought to literally block the soul’s accent out of the body.

Also according to Groot it is important to allow a body to decompose slightly before burial; “If burial takes place before decomposition, and the corpse obtains breath from the earth, it will after three months be overgrown entirely with hairs; if these are white, it is called a white evil, and if they are black, a black evil. It then enters houses to cause calamity.” Three months, not exactly a speedy process.

With so many things to potentially go wrong and wake the dead Daoist priests were constantly on standby and developed numerous incantations and rituals to deal with these troublesome corpses. This is another important aspect of the legend of the Jiāng-Shī for in none of the stories to we read of either Buddhist monks or parishioners of Confucianism arising to thwart these horrors.

Some of the methods by which a Jiāng-Shī could be stopped or thwarted include things as simple as holding your breath. Because the Jiāng-Shī is usually blind they have to find people by listening to the sound of them breathing, so holding your breath will confuse them. Other tricks involve blocking the Jiāng-Shī’s path as they are not very mobile, being confined to hopping in a straight line. Installing a threshold approximately 15 cm (6 in) high along the width of the door at the bottom can prevent a Jiāng-Shī from entering a household as it is apparently not possible for a Jiāng-Shī to hop that high. Other means of thwarting a Jiāng-Shī include scattering grains, rice, beans, seeds, and other small objects in the path of the Jiāng-Shī who will then have to count them before proceeding. Sticky rice is also believed to draw the evil spirit out of the Jiāng-Shī.

By far the most iconic method of confronting a Jiāng-Shī is to use a paper talismans typically made from strips of yellow paper with words written in chicken blood mixed with ink (or alternatively red ink). These talismans have the power to open celestial gates as well as paralyze evil spirits in their tracks. Today modern representations of the Jiāng-Shī often depict these ghouls with such talismans attached to their foreheads, a sign that they are under a priest’s divine charge.

Beginning in the 1980s movie production companies throughout Hong Kong began producing films featuring Jiāng-Shī as the monster of choice. These films were often a mix of horror, fantasy, comedy and kung-fu, two of the most famous of which were Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) and Mr. Vampire (1985). Both films stared actor Lam Ching-ying as a sort of Chinese Van Helsing and were highly successful at the Chinese box office, Mr. Vampire so much so that it inspired five sequels and numerous spin-offs. One of the more recent Chinese films to feature Jiāng-Shī (albeit in a supporting role) was 2004's Shaolin Vs. Evil Dead which stared Gordon Liu of Kill Bill (03-04) fame.




Visually, these films tend to depict Jiāng-Shī with blue skin and dressed in the clothing of a Qing Dynasty official from Manchuria; a not-so-subtle social critic on the Qing Dynasty which is widely considered amongst the Han Chinese to have been a bloodthirsty and inhuman rule. Mr. Vampire was also the first film to give Jiāng-Shī fangs in conjunction with the visual aesthetics of Western vampire movies.

Jiāng-Shī have also become popular in other East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan. Jiāng-Shī can be found hopping about in numerous Japanese cartoons, comics, and video games most notably Capcom's Darkstalker series which encompasses not only a series of video games, but also Japanese and American comics and cartoons and features an as-kicking female Jiāng-Shī by the name of Hsien-Ko (see center image).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Blofeld, John. Taoist Mysteries and Magic. Bolder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1973.

  • Bokenkamp, Stephen. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

  • Bunson, Matthew. The Vampire Encyclopedia. New York: Gramercy Books, 1993.

  • de Groot, J.J.M. The Religious System of China. 6 vols. (published with a subvention by the Dutch Colonial Government)., 1892-1910.

  • Nepstad, Peter. “Taoist Priests and Hopping Vampires

  • Whitney, Ian. “Horror, Humor and Hopping in Hong Kong

  • Hopping Mad: A Brief Look at Chinese Vampire Movies” at pennyblood.com

  • Mr. Vampire. DVD. Directed by Ricky Lau. Screenplay by Ricky Lau, Chuek-Hon Szeto, Barry Wong, and Ying Wong. New York: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment,
    2004.
  • _____________________________________________________
    [1] Though I will be using the spelling of Jiāng-Shī throughout this essay I have discovered that nearly every authoritative source out there offers its own variation on how to render these revenant’s name; author Matthew Bunson calls them “chiang-shi or kiang-si” while sinologist J.J.M. de Groot refers to them as “kiang si or kiong si.” Ian Whitney at GreenCine.com calls them “Gyonshi” as well as Jiāng-Shī and Penny Blood magazine labels them as “Geung-Si (or Chiang-Shih, or Jiangshi).” Another term which I have also come across is "Kyonshi" which means "hopping spirit."

    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    “The Secret Saturdays” Popobawa Toy Pulled?

    The Secret Saturdays is a Cartoon Network original animated series created by two time Emmy-award winning cartoonist Jay Stephens (whose blog can be found in the menu on the right). The Secret Saturdays revolves around a family of cryptozoologists[1] who travel the world seeking out mythical monsters in part to study and in part to protect from those who might wish to do these creatures harm. The show premiered on October 3rd, 2008 and is currently preparing for its third season.

    In conjunction with the show’s August second season finale Cartoon Network and toy mogul Mattel have recently released a series of The Secret Saturdays themed actions figures and related merchandise. Among these products are a series of miniature pre-fabricated models of the various “cryptids” or monsters featured on the show.

    As a lover of mythology and monsters one of the things that I most enjoy about The Secret Saturdays is Jay Stephens’ use of some rather obscure creatures such as the Hibagon (Japan’s version of Bigfoot), the Buratsche-al-Ilgs (a Swiss lake monster that looks like a stomach covered with eyes), and the Biloko (a mandrill-like swamp monster from the Congo) rather than the sundry choices of dragons, Sasquatches, lake dwelling plesiosaurs, and chupacabras (though this particularly famous Mexican monster does make a cameo in episode #13).

    Nevertheless it may just be that Jay Stephens’ love of obscure mythical creatures has actually gotten him into some trouble.

    In episode #6 of the first season a pink, one eyed, bat-like creature identified as a Popobawa is featured in the opening scenes. The creature is shown dive bombing the Saturday family, apparently guarding its nest.

    Though the Popobawa is only featured for a few minutes (the Saturdays leave it once a distress call is received) its presence on a children’s cartoon show is intriguing nonetheless as the Popobawa is actually a type of incubus from Eastern African folklore. In world folklore and mythology incubi are male demons who rape human women, however in the Popobawa’s case men are actually his preferred targets.

    Photos from both the 2009 New York Comic-Con and Toy Fair back in February revealed that first line of cryptid models would include a Popobawa figure among others.

    Naturally I began to suspect that the presence of this demonic sodomite not only on a children’s cartoon show but also as a collectible action figure might cause some controversy, for in the age of the internet it would not be hard for any child to quickly learn about the show’s decidedly cute Popobawa’s more unsavory exploits. A Google search for “Popobawa” yields a surprising 18,500 hits the first being a Wikipedia entry on the monster (which as it turns out is hyperlinked to Wikipedia’s The Secret Saturdays entry) and the second an article titled Awesome Or Off-Putting: Popobawa, The Man-Raping Winged Monster. An unfiltered Google Images search also reveals several suggestive artistic depictions of the creature, some of which still showed up when I reset the search to “Strict” filtering.

    In the end, I simply considered it a matter of time before some outraged parent contacted Cartoon Network, Mattel or the media upset over their child learning about and or playing with a plastic toy incubus.

    But low and behold it appears as if Cartoon Network and Mattel have beaten this controversy to the punch. I went by my local Wal-Mart today and, as is customary for me, decided to take a walk down the toy aisle. I was delighted at long last to see The Secret Saturdays action figures and models out on the shelves and began looking at some of the various plastic monsters. However as I began pulling toys off the rack I noticed that the pink Popobawa was nowhere to be seen. When I flipped over one of the packages to look at the back I discovered that a green sticker had been clumsily placed over one of the cryptid’s pictures. After easily removing the sticker enough to peek underneath it I saw that it was the Popobawa that was being hidden.

    Intrigued I returned home where I jumped online and went to several different toy store websites only to learn that none of them were carrying the Popobawa figure. I then did a Goggle search to see if any news had broken regarding the toy being pulled from the shelves or simply delayed. After finding nothing regarding a pull but also nothing to persuade me that this was a simple delay in the toy’s release I decided to check one last source.

    On Amazon.com I found The Secret Saturdays Official Cryptid Field Guide book along with a customary peek inside the interior. This peek allowed me to see that even though the Popobawa was plainly featured on the book’s cover no entry for the cryptid existed in book’s table of contents.

    Suspecting that some sort of cover up was afoot I decided to e-mail Jay Stephens himself and ask for an official statement regarding the disappearance of the Popobawa from the recent merchandise release. Was it a simple delay or had the powers that be removed the monster after doing a bit of research into its mythology?

    Fortunately Jay Stephens was nice enough to e-mail me back the same day and after complimenting Of Epic Proportions stated that he had no official comment concerning the Popobawa merchandise but would like to go on record as saying this regarding the creature’s presence on the show…

    "Many creatures from world folklore/mythology are studied by cryptozoologists to determine if a real, live, animal-- unknown to science-- might be behind the legend. Such is the case with the Popobawa. There have been many modern sightings of a bat-like creature that have been identified by locals as the Popobawa. If such an unknown creature exists, it is highly unlikely that the legendary proclivities attributed to the mythical Popobawa are true... it is (if it exists) merely an unknown winged mammal, nothing more or less. This is the view of several real-life cryptozoologists, and the unknown animal (or 'cryptid') that appeared in our cartoon is based upon this research. I chose to dismiss the accounts of rape as pure myth, just as anyone who features a 'Bigfoot' in their cartoon ignores the many reported cases of rape associated with that much more famous cryptid. In any event, the Popobawa in our Secret Saturdays world was portrayed as a female, egg-laying creature, clearly incapable of the deed."

    In the end we can not say for certain that The Secret Saturdays merchandise related to the Popobawa has been pulled permanently and will not simply be released at a later date. For now however it appears that something is definitely up.

    As for my thoughts on the matter I have long recognized the fact that mythology contains adult content and that we should be careful when relaying such myths to our children to not expose them to themes that they are not yet ready for. I also believe that no matter how you look at it Jay Stephens took a real risk in deciding to include the Popobawa on his children’s television program but that hopefully any repercussions that do come from it will not be too harsh.

    ***UPDATE***

    Turns out an earlier statement (8/12) from Jay Stephens was actually given to "Agent Specter" the owner and administrator of the fan site Cryptid Saturdays regarding the Popobawa but was not publicized outside the site’s forums. This time Stephens went on the record as saying that episode #6 of The Secret Saturdays is going to be re-dub so as to remove the word "Popobawa" and replace it with the less offensive "Devil’s Cave Bird." Stephens says that "the change was last minute, and came as a surprise." However, still no word on how this will affect the potential toy release.

    Pictures:

    At Top: The Secret Saturdays from top to bottom - Zon (a pterosaur), Fiskerton (a gorilla-cat), Doc Saturday (the dad), Drew Saturday (the mom), Zak Saturday (the son), and Komodo (the Komodo dragon).

    Center: The Popobawa toy as seen at the 2009 New York Comic-Con via cryptidsaturdays.com.
    ________________________________________________
    [1] In real life, cryptozoology (lit. “the study of hidden animals”) is a pseudoscientific discipline most notably characterized for its interest in proving the existence is such mythical creatures as Bigfoot, the Yeti, lake monsters (ala Loch Ness), and the chupacabra. Today the world’s foremost expert in the field of cryptozoology is probably Loren Coleman, author of several books on the subject and curator of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009

    Men of Metal: Mini Cooper Robots Attack!

    Having recently done a post dealing with robots, religion, and mythology I've decided to follow it up with, what else, more robots. I was about eighteen-years-old when I found Men of Metal: Eyewitness Accounts of Humanoid Robots by Rowland Samuel in the copy of Esquire (April 2004) I was reading. As the following video explains Men of Metal was a pamphlet created as part of a viral marketing campaign designed to sell mini cooper automobiles by creating an urban legend which claimed that a UK based mini cooper engineer named Dr. Colin Mayhew had turned mad scientist on the world and was building a fleet of giant robots out of the vehicles.


    Unfortunately the ad campaign was not a particularly big success, in part because so many people found it so convincing as the ad itself gave no indication at any point (whether in the pamphlet or on the various wed sites it led you to) that the whole charade was nothing more than one big car commercial.

    As for myself, at age eighteen I had read alot of 'strange but true' books on various topics (UFOs, ghosts, bigfoot, etc...) and could smell a hoax the moment I read the opening of the pamphlet which quoted Aristotle about being open minded. Nevertheless, I still found the whole thing quite fascinating.

    Today the ‘Mini Cooper Robot Myth’ remains a fascinating footnote in the long history of humankind’s relationship with mythical mechanical men.

    Sources/More Information:

    Pursuing Marketing Buzz at NYTimes.com

    Men of Metal: Horror or Hoax and Men of Metal: The Anatomy of a Hoax by Michael Walls

    The Art of The Lie: Disinformation in Advertising by John J. Fanning (One man who was not at all amused by the myth)

    Links to the various Men of Metal viral websites

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009

    “Ave Machina! Deus Est Machina!!”

    Raise your hand if you remember Power Rangers

    Ok, now raise your hand if you still watch Power Rangers

    Ok, you don’t really have to answer that. I, myself, don’t watch Power Rangers anymore. I have however recently been taking a look at the original Japanese series which the U.S. Power Rangers was based on; Kyoryu Sentai Zyu-Ranger which in Japanese means “Dinosaur Squadron Beast Rangers.”

    Zyu-Ranger was a very different show from the American series Power Rangers. In Zyu-Ranger the titular rangers were actually five ancient warrior priests, as oppose to five “teenagers with attitude,” awaken after millions of years to fight the evil witch Bandora. As priests they served the prehistoric Daijuujin or “Great Beast God.” Since there was no Zordon or Alpha 5 in Zyu-Ranger it was Daijuujin who acted as the team’s instructor and mentor. Western fans will recognize Daijuujin as the Power Ranger’s Megazord.


    That’s right ‘the Megazord’ was originally a fully sentient mechanized deity, not just a big toy robot for a group of super-powered teens.

    The concept of robotic deities is actually one which is encountered quite often in Japanese popular culture whether it be in Tokusatsu shows like Zyu-Ranger or in the form of anime (Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Evangelion, Shaman King, etc..), video games, or robotic toys like this “God Jesus Robot” which was popular in Japan in the 1980s and lives on today as an internet meme.

    But wait, how can a robot be a god?

    The answer to this question is actually part of a far greater one, namely why is it that the Japanese view of robots is so much more optimistic than that of Westerners? As is evident the Japanese have a clear fascination with the idea of robotics, which undoubtedly helps to explain why they are also the world’s leading experts in the field and will probably be the first country to possess actual sci-fi style robotic workers.

    Westerners, however, have been fascinated with idea of artificially intelligent automatons for just as long as the Japanese have, but with one key difference. While the Japanese have been dreaming up stories about god-like robots that will make our lives better Westerners have been conjuring nightmare scenarios such as those seen in films like Metropolis (1927), Westworld (1973), The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), and I Robot (2004) where such machines ultimately turn on their creators and either enslave or destroy humanity.

    What can explain this polar opposite reaction to the idea of robotics? According to a thought provoking essay entitled How Religion Affects Our Views of Humanoid Robots published earlier this year on zyobotics.com the answer may actually lie in both culture’s mytho-religious backgrounds and how such sacred stories have themselves perceived the idea of man-made life.

    To begin with, stories about man-made artificial intelligence have never gone over well here in the West. One of the earliest examples is a legend concerning the philosopher Rene Descartes who was said to have constructed a mechanical maiden called Ma fille Francine in 1640. All was well until Descartes took the robot with him on a sea voyage where the God-fearing sailors threw the creation overboard believing it to be the work of Satan.

    Another example, even more pertinent to our discussion, is the story of John Murray Spear a former Universalist minister turned spiritualist who in 1853 attempted to usher in a New Age by constructing a mechanized messiah later immortalized under the moniker of the God Machine. Spear’s God Machine excited many people at the time of its completion and the minister proudly took his new deity on tour across New England. Unfortunately, things once again took a turn for the worst when an angry New York mob, torches in hand, set fire to the barn where Spear was housing his synthetic savior, ultimately destroying it.

    However, the most famous western myth to involve the creation of artificial intelligence gone bad is not one of metal but of flesh in the form of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818); the basis for every robot run amok story ever written since then.

    According to Religious Studies scholar Prof. Robert Geraci in an article for the November 2006 issue of Theology and Science, this distinctly Western distrust of intelligent automatons is based largely in part on the Christian association of physical matter with evil, sin, and death and that in order to be “saved” one must transcend this corporal sphere of existence. Because of this the idea of beings (i.e. robots) whose existence is wholly physical (as oppose to humans who are assumed to have a spiritual component or soul) is a frightening concept. This is, of course, without even touching on the obvious factor that certain religious proponents would also undoubtedly perceive the idea of man creating life as being inherently blasphemous.

    In contrast to this are the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions which teach that all things have a soul or kami. This not only goes for people, animals, and plants but for rivers, mountains, forests and even inanimate objects like samurai swords, sandals, and sowing needles. Because of this prevailing idea it’s not at all hard to see why the Japanese would not have the same inherent disdain for robots that many Westerners seem to possess. For the Japanese a robot would have a soul, the proverbial “ghost in the machine,” as do all other things.

    Likewise, according to researcher Kristy Boyle the Japanese’ love of robots can also be traced back to their strong affection for puppetry or Karakuri Ningyo which dates back as far as the 12th-Century. Japanese puppets, says Boyle, can take many forms from theater puppets to children’s toys but there is also a special class of puppets known as the Dashi Karakuri which are used in religious festivals. These puppets are used to mediate the boundaries between the human world and the spiritual world and are important ritual tools for ensuring fertility, healing the sick, bringing luck and rain. It is with the same reverence towards the Karakuri that many Japanese roboticists approach the idea of modern day artificially intelligent robots.

    But getting back to the original point, how can a robot be a god?

    The answer is quite simple from a Japanese point of view. First off Daijuujin (a.k.a. Megazord) meets the Shinto qualifications for a god in that he invokes awe in his mortal subjects, the Zyu-Rangers, and even in his enemies (Bandora is completely shocked when she first sees Daijuujin in his complete form). Secondly, if kami (souls or gods) can be found in all things, even weapons like swords, then it is quite easy to see how a weapon like Daijuujin can also be in possession of a kami. Furthermore, as a humanoid robot Daijuujin recalls the sacred Dashi Karakuri puppets thus making him an ideal mediator between the mortal realm and the spiritual one. In essence Daijuujin as a robot can be a god in Japan because he meets all of the qualifications and invokes all of these sacred ideas.

    This concept is one that will be undoubtedly hard to grasp for many Western-minded readers who in my experience have a hard time grasping even the idea of the role of idols in Eastern religions. For these people, whether they are religious or not, the idea that a physical object – be it a fetish, idol, statue, puppet, or robot – can be more than what it appears – that it can in fact be or at least embody a god – is a wholly baffling concept due to Western religions own conception of God as invisible and beyond depiction.


    In the end it is nevertheless interesting to see how technological advancements, such as robots, have been and are being interpreted by different cultures. In the recent film Terminator Salvation (2009) the cyborg character Marcus Wright was played out as a messianic figure (he’s even crucified twice in the film) who helps the human resistance in their fight against the evil A.I. Skynet. Then there are the two Transformers films which feature the heroic Autobots in their fight against the evil Decipticons. There’s even a council of god-like robots called The Primes who appear towards the end of the second film in what looks to be some sort of cyber-heaven. Both films have been massive box office hits, so perhaps times are a changing here in the West and a more positive view of robots is on the way in.

    Sources:

    “Robots!” by Sam Boykin, in Creative Loafing (March 28-April 3, 2001)
    How Religion Affects Our Views of Humanoid Robots (April 12th 2009) at zygbotics.com
    John Murray Spear's God Machine (May 2002) by Robert Damon Schneck at forteantimes.com
    Power Rangers - What you might not have known (May 16th 2009) at retrojunk.com
    More on Kyoryu Sentai Zyu-Ranger at http://www.supersentai.com/

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009

    Yamata no Orochi: In Legend and on Film

    The Yamata no Orochi is a legendary dragon from Japanese mythology. Described as a beast so gigantic that a cedar forest grew on its back the Orochi possessed eight-heads and eight-tails, had eyes as red as winter cherries and a belly that was always stained with blood.

    According to the Kojiki (lit. “Records of Ancient Matters” c. 712 C.E.), Orochi was slain by the Shinto storm god Susanoo, who was one of the three deities born to god Izanagi following his return from the underworld. Susanoo’s brother and sister were Tsukuyomi, god of the moon, and Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. Susanoo resented his role as god of storms and rebelled eventually causing so much disruption that he was banished from heaven and sent to Earth.

    Once on Earth, Susanoo encountered an elderly couple who along with their young daughter were all weeping profusely. Susanoo inquired as to what was the matter and learned of the Yamata no Orochi and how the couple had been forced to sacrifice one of their eight daughters every year to the beast and now the time had come to sacrifice the eighth and final daughter.

    Susanoo then promises the elderly couple to slay the Orochi if they in turn will let him marry their last daughter. The couple agrees and Susanoo transforms the girl into a comb which he then fastens in his hair. Susanoo then goes to work setting a trap for the dragon. He prepares eight barrels of rice wine and places them on a platform surrounded by a fence with eight openings. When the Orochi arrives to devour the young girl it instead discovers the wine. The monster greedily consumes the wine until it passes out drunk. Susanoo then goes and splits the Orochi open with his sword. When he does this he discovers fabulous Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (lit. “Grass Cutting Sword”) which he gives to his sister, Amaterasu, to make amends for past wrongs.

    Amaterasu later passes the sword along to her descendent; the first emperor of Japan. This sword along with the Yata no Kagami mirror and Yasakani no Magatama jewel become the three sacred Imperial Regalia of Japan which still exist today in the emperor’s keep.

    Orochi: The Eight-Headed Dragon

    Over the years Orochi has appeared in a handful of Japanese comics, video games, anime, and even live action films beginning with 1959’s The Three Treasures and most recently in 2003’s Onmyoji II.

    However, perhaps the most famous film to star the titular dragon is the 1994 fantasy epic Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon. Produced by Toho Studios (home of Godzilla) and directed by 90s Godzilla series veteran Takao Okawara, the film is set in medieval Japan and tells the story of Osus; the younger son of a pair of twins born to the Emperor of Yamato. An evil shaman named Tsukinowa tells the Emperor that if the boy is allowed to live that great misfortune will fall upon the kingdom. The Emperor agrees to kill his infant son and has Tsukinowa throw him off a cliff. However, the child is saved at the last minuet by the intervention of the phoenix-like White Bird of Heaven who deposits the child with the Emperor’s sister who is a priestess of the gods.

    Osus is raised by his aunt and grows into a fine young warrior. Eventually his father tells him that he may return to the palace, much to the dismay of Tsukinowa. However, Osus’ return does bring misfortune in the form of the eminent death of both his mother and brother. Angry at his son the emperor sends him away on what must surely be a suicidal task to kill the chieftain of a nearby clan of barbarians.

    On the way Osus encounters a young priestess named Oto who possesses the nifty ability to shoot fireballs from her palms. The two travel to the palace of the barbarian chieftain and Oto attempts to infiltrate the palace but is captured and bound to a post where she will be sacrificed to the demon-god Kumasogami. Osus storms the palace, kills the chieftain, and rescues Oto but not before Kumasogami materializes and the two duel it out.

    Upon returning home the emperor says that he is proud of his son but does not yet forgive him. Tsukinowa, however, is furious and summons a sea monster to kill Osus. Osus battles the monster but goes down for the count until Oto sacrifices herself to save him.

    Meanwhile Osus’ aunt learns that Tsukinowa is actually a devotee of the nefarious lunar deity Tsukuyomi who is preparing to return to Earth (he's been floating around in the depths of space in what looks like a UFO made out of crystals) where he will wreak havoc. Osus, distraught over Oto’s death, takes refuge in the temple of the Bull-Headed Judge of the Underworld. The Judge appears before Osus and challenges him to a duel. Impressed by his skills he makes him the gods’ champion and returns Oto to him as well. The Judge then tells Osus that he must travel to the moon where Tsukuyomi has set up base and defeat the evil god.

    Together Osus and Oto fly to the moon upon the White Bird of Heaven and attack Tsukuyomi in his palace. Osus and Tsukuyomi sword fight and then eventually transform into giant monsters; Tsukuyomi into Orochi (there was a reason this film was named after him) and Osus into a giant robot armed with light saber, I mean….oh hell it’s a light saber!

    Of course, Osus triumphs banishing Tsukuyomi back to the depth of space. In the end Oto asks the Judge of the Underworld why, if Tsukuyomi is evil, the other gods don’t simply just kill him. The Judge responds saying that the next time Tsukuyomi returns to earth he will prove a force of good because “gods are like that.”

    Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon is an epic if flawed film. The film’s story obliviously takes several creative liberties with the original mythology, most notably the fusing of the character of Tsukuyomi with that of Orochi. This aside the film has several other problems. The plot feels episodic and forced. The human fight scenes are well staged as is the fight between Osus and the demon-god Kumasogami which reminded me of something one might see in an old Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie.

    However, director Takao Okawara has often been criticized for his inability to stage a properly choreographed monster fight scene, a fact which is especially true when dealing with Orochi and Osus’ final anemic lunar battle. Part of problem is the fact that Orochi is simply a large mechanized puppet and thus can’t move around very well. Then there is the fact that Osus transforms into a robot reminiscent of something one might see on The Power Ranger. Not that Tsukuyomi and his lunar palace (did he buy it from Rita Repulsa?) don’t also come across as the type of villain one might expect to see on that show.

    In the end, Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon is definitely not one of Toho Studios’ better films. Using the Netflix five star rating system I give it a two and a half; I like it – just not that much.

    Ghidorah: Spawn of Orochi

    While Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon was a weak movie in many ways, Toho has nevertheless produced a large number of stellar giant monster films (or “kaiju eiga”) over the past fifty-years. During this time Toho has created a number of iconic creatures including Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah; a golden three-headed dragon dedicated to destroying all life on Earth. A force of nearly unstoppable destruction Ghidorah is the modern day descendent of Yamata no Orochi; in spirit at least.

    Having first appeared in the 1964 monster mash Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ghidorah quickly became one of Toho Studios’ most iconic villains battling such characters as Godzilla, Mothra, and even the superhero Zone Fighter on numerous occasions. Ghidorah was a beast so powerful it often took the combined effort of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and on one occasion four other monsters to stop him.

    In the 90s Ghidorah’s size was increased and he was rechristened King Ghidorah. Ghidorah has also taken on a number of different forms over the years including; Mecha-King Ghidorah (a cyborg form), Desghidorah (a black four legged version), Cretaceous Ghidorah (who was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs), Grand King Ghidorah (a pointer version of King Ghidorah), and Keizer Ghidorah (a four legged shape shifting version).

    The connection between Ghidorah and Orochi was always implied, never explicit, until the 2001 film Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack in which it is actually stated that Ghidorah is an immature Orochi having failed to grow its remaining five heads.

    Sources:

    The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm
    Orochi at www.tvtropes.org

    Pictures:


    At Top: Susanoo battles Orochi (c. 1870s) by Toyohara Chikanobu.

    Center Left: Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon (1994) movie poster.

    Center: Godzilla vs. Ghidorah from Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)

    Bottom: The many faces of Ghidorah. Clockwise from the top left; Desghidorah, Cretaceous Ghidorah, Keizer Ghidorah, and Mecha-King Ghidorah.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009

    R.I.P. John A. Keel

    I just learned that amongst the recent string of celebrity deaths experienced these past few weeks that writer John A. Keel has also died (July 3rd). While Keel may not have been a household name like Michael Jackson he was an important figure for those of us with an interest in mythology, folklore, cryptozoology, and Fortean studies. It was Keel who coined the term “Men In Black” and who made the West Virginia Mothman a famous enough monster to warrant a theatrical film in 2002. Keel published his book The Mothman Prophecies in 1975 based on his first hand investigations of the Point Pleasant, WV Mothman sightings.

    While I will definitely be preparing some kind of tribute to the life and works of Keel for now reader of my blog can learn more about Keel and his work by following the link below to cryptozoologist Loren Coleman’s obituary article at Cryptomundo.com.

    Photo: Unveiled in 2003 this 12-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of Mothman stands at the center of town in Point Pleasant, West Virginia where for thirteen months between 1966 and 1967 the creature allegedly terrorized locals.