Life From Death: Dema Deities

This is the story that started my current mini-obsession with food origin myths: the story of Ogetsuhime, as mentioned in volume 13 of the horror manga The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Note that the panels read right to left (and so do the voice balloons).


Ogetsuhime is a Shinto goddess of food and grain, and is also associated with Inari (or Oinari), the goddess of rice. The story above is similar to the story of Dewi Sri, the Javanese rice goddess, that I posted a few days ago. Though the vomiting and defecating of the banquet food in the Japanese tale is… different.

There is an Indonesian tale (from the Molucca Islands) with the same motif: Hainuwele, the coconut girl.

Once upon a time, a man named Ameta was out hunting on the island of Seram. He came upon and pursued a wild boar, which fell into a lake and drowned. Ameta found a coconut impaled on its tusk; he had never seen one before. Ameta took the strange fruit home. That night, a figure appeared in Ameta’s dream and told him to plant the coconut, which he did.

A palm tree sprang up three days later, and it flowered three days after that. Ameta climbed up the tree to cut down some flowers, for their nectar. He accidentally cut himself, and bled on one of the flowers. Nine days later, Ameta found a baby girl in the flower that he had bled on. He brought her down from the tree, to his home. Three days after that, the girl had grown into an adult, old enough to marry. Ameta named her Hainuwele (“Coconut Branch”).

Hainuwele had an unusual talent: she shat treasures. Gold earrings, porcelain dishes, knives, copper gongs….

About this time came a festival, during which it was traditional for the women (the unmarried ones I assume) to dance and distribute betel nut to the men. Hainuwele joined the dance, but when the men asked her for betel, she gave them gifts from the treasures she had defecated. At first, the men were all happy and excited about this; but then they grew afraid. Hainuwele must be a witch, or a demon! On the ninth day of the dance, all the men surrounded Hainuwele and pushed her into a pit. They buried her alive.

When she didn’t come home, Ameta went searching for her. When he found her body, he cut it into pieces and re-buried the pieces all around the village. From the pieces of Hainuwele’s body grew (you guessed it) all the plants that provide food to the Indonesian people, in particular tubers.

NewImageHanuwele defecating treasures
Image: Wikipedia

It turns out there is a name for this concept, for these gory food origin myths — origin myths in general, actually. Among the Marind-Anim tribe of New Guinea, a dema is an ancestral deity who must be sacrificed to bring about the transition to the human world as we know it. The death of the dema deity brings about the tribe, its culture and its agriculture. The idea of the dema deity as a general concept, common among many agricultural peoples (as opposed to hunter-gatherers), was introduced by Adolf Ellegard Jensen, who first recorded the Hainuwele myth in 1937 or 1938.

Hainuwele and Ogetsuhime are dema deities; so is Dewi Sri. And I bet that the original versions of Agahon (the mango girl from Aklan) and the husband from the Bicolano story of bananas were dema deities, too. I wonder if Cronus would be considered a dema deity? He seems to have been a harvest god, and he was overthrown by his son Zeus. But not killed, I don’t think, though I found one version of the story that says Zeus chopped Cronus’ body into a thousand pieces and threw them into a crater. That’s pretty dema-like. But I’m wandering out beyond my knowledge, here.

Incidentally, I really recommend The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, a comedy/horror manga. The series revolves around a group of college graduates, each of whom has a special psychic or technical talent. Their mission is to make sure that the dead get their final wishes so that they can move on. The series author, Eiji Otsuka, has a degree in anthropology; each episode abounds with cool references to myth and folklore, mostly Japanese, of course, but not always (Hainuwele also features in the story that I mentioned at the beginning of the post). The editor of the Dark Horse translations, Carl Gustav Horn, has a degree in history, I think. His endnotes for every volume are full of tidbits about Japanese myth, culture, and history as they relate to the story. I value the notes as much as I value the comic itself.

It’s still manga — sexy women in gratuitous nude/underwear scenes — but at least the women protagonists of this series seem to be the brainy ones of the outfit. Because it’s horror, there are some really gory splashes in every story, fortunately in black and white. The volumes are fairly standalone; you can start anywhere and pick up the thread. I would still recommend starting with Volume 1 to get the context. Funny and fairly erudite; give it a try.

8 thoughts on “Life From Death: Dema Deities

  1. Wow – how amazingly weird! I have never heard such unusual myths – what a great post! I will check out the graphic novel too sometime, it sounds really interesting.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, after reading the Ogetsuhime story I had to go looking more of these stories up. And do check out Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service if you get a chance; I like it a lot.

  2. What an interesting aspect of myth–one I’d never thought about. Since I’m interested in Korean history and culture as well as ghosts, I will have to do some research to find out if Korea has any dema deities.

    I’ve never read a manga novel, but this one you describe has me intrigued. The illustrations are lovely.

    1. I’d be interested if you found any Korean versions of the myth! I don’t know a lot about Korean folklore…

      Kurosagi is the only manga I read. The illustrations are great, but — as I mentioned above — it’s a horror manga, so they are prone to throwing at least one dramatic gory splash page in each chapter. Luckily, in black and white, they don’t squick me out too much.

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