Ghostly Lover: from the Sioux and from Japan

While flipping through my copy of American Indian Myths and Legends yesterday morning, I stumbled upon this gem, collected in 1970 from a Brulé Sioux informant at Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a terrific ghost story all on its own, but it caught my eye for another reason as well. Before I give you the reason, though — the story:


Ghostly Lover

There was a young man, a brave warrior, but cold-hearted. He liked to play with women’s hearts: making love to them, often promising to marry them — and when he tired of them, he would throw them away. Once he was involved with a beautiful woman who lived in a tipi with a sun-and-moon design. She loved him very much, but eventually he tired of her. So he told her that he was going away on a horse-stealing raid, but that he would be back soon.

“I’ll wait for you forever!” the woman told him.

So off the young warrior went, and of course, he never came back. And the woman waited, and she waited….

Many years later, while out hunting, the not-so-young-anymore warrior happened upon a fine tipi, with a sun-and-moon design. When he saw the dwelling, he remembered his old lover, and wondered whatever happened to her. Was she still beautiful? Would she welcome him back?

He decided to find out.

Entering the tipi, he saw her, dressed in a white, richly quilled buckskin dress. She was, possibly, lovelier than he remembered. The woman greeted him warmly.

“You have come back at last!”

She sat him down, and served him a delicious meal, and afterwards, the couple lay down on a thick buffalo robe and made love. It was the most amazing experience that the man had ever had. Afterwards, he fell asleep beside her.

In the morning, the man awoke, and to his surprise found himself in a ragged, rotting tipi. The thick buffalo robe that he’d fallen asleep under was now hairless and tattered. He lifted up the robe, and  found lying beside him — not his lover — but a skeleton! A few black strands of hair still clung to the skull, which was turned in his direction, as if it were smiling up at him. He had spent the night making love to a corpse.

As the thought sank in, the warrior cried aloud, jumped up, and began running in great fear, running he knew not where. When he finally came to, he was witko, mad. He spoke in strange sounds. His eyes wandered. His thoughts went astray. He was never right in his mind again.

Sound familiar? If you’ve followed my blog a while, or are interested in Japanese folklore and ghost stories (or classic Japanese film), then it just might. “The Ghostly Lover” bears a strong resemblance to “The Reconciliation“, from Shadowings, by Lafcadio Hearn. And “The Black Hair”, the opening tale of Masaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous 1965 ghost story anthology film, Kwaidan, is based on “The Reconciliation”.

In Hearn’s story (and in the movie), an ambitious samurai divorces his loving wife to make a more advantageous marriage. This gives him all the worldly success that he’d hoped for, but his second marriage isn’t happy, and the samurai begins to regret what he’s done. So he leaves his second wife, and goes back to Kyoto to try to find his first wife. He returns to their old home, and finds his wife just as young and beautiful as when he left her. She welcomes him back, and… well, you can fill in the rest.

There’s a clip of the decisive moment from “The Black Hair” here. Unfortunately, the clip ends before we see the samurai go witko. It’s quite a scene.

Here’s the climactic scene of “The Reconciliation”:

When he awoke, the daylight was streaming through the chinks of the sliding-shutters; and he found himself, to his utter amazement, lying upon the naked boards of a mouldering floor…. Had he only dreamed a dream? No: she was there;—she slept…. He bent above her,—and looked,—and shrieked;—for the sleeper had no face!… Before him, wrapped in its grave-sheet only, lay the corpse of a woman,—a corpse so wasted that little remained save the bones, and the long black tangled hair.

The samurai doesn’t go mad in Hearn’s rendition, but I find it interesting that both his version and the Sioux version make a point of mentioning the woman’s black hair.

So are the two versions related?

NewImage Hearn’s Japanese story collections are generally presented as received folklore — he attributes “The Reconciliation” to a text called Konséki-Monogatari (I think monogatari means “tales” — hyakumonogatari apparently means “100 tales”; see here). Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the telling of his tales, Hearn added in pieces of disparate stories or folklore, or his own observations of Japanese life. I’ve also sometimes wondered whether he fused in bits and pieces of folklore from other places. As a journalist, Hearn lived in Cincinnati, New Orleans, and the West Indies before moving to Japan, and in all of those places, he collected folklore and folksongs. He also had at least scholarly familiarity with Chinese folklore. I can imagine Hearn taking a Brulé Sioux folktale and adapting it to the Japanese — except casual web research doesn’t turn up any evidence that Hearn ever visited the Plains states, or had any communication with Native American peoples from that region.

It’s also within the bubble of the possible that the Sioux informant who provided “Ghostly Lover” had read Hearn, or seen Kwaidan — or gotten the story from someone who had. Though I don’t think either Hearn or the films of Kobayashi were well known to the general American public in 1970. Or now, for that matter.

Or maybe both stories derive from yet a third version. If so, I’ll leave someone else to find it.

Or it’s just a happy coincidence. That’s not unlikely — good ideas can pop up independently in different places. Ghost lovers aren’t all that unusual a motif.

Whatever the relationship, it was kind of cool to find it.

  • The quote in my retelling is from “Two Ghostly Lovers” in American Indian Myths and Legends, Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, Editors. The story which I’ve retold was one of two “ghostly lover” tales told by informant Lame Deer and recorded by Richard Erdoes. The other story is about a womanizing man who continued to serenade pretty ladies even after he died.
  • My information about Lafcadio Hearn comes from Wikipedia and from the article “Lafcadio Hearn’s Twice-Told Legends Reconsidered”, American Literature Vol. 34(1), 1962. Available via JSTOR, if you belong to a subscribing institution.
  • The top image is “Sioux tipi’ by Karl Bodmer (1833). Image from Wikipedia. The photo of Lafcadio Hearn is also from Wikipedia.

8 thoughts on “Ghostly Lover: from the Sioux and from Japan

  1. By the second to last paragraph of the retelling, even my neophyte brain went off and thought about Japanese tales. This is a good one. Thanks for sharing. It’s always curious how different cultures are influenced by one another, even on different continents. Or to another extent, how similar tales are told throughout history regardless of locations. Worries and anxieties might be manifested differently, but seem to come from a common place.

    1. Exactly. The pattern-finding part of my brain wants to believe that these two versions are related, that one came from the other, or that they both come from a third source. But it’s also plausible that they aren’t related: “man abandons woman who loves him, gets supernatural punishment” is a plotline that works in many cultures. I bet if we looked hard enough, we could find an EC comic with a similar story.

      Except of course, if it’s in EC, then it probably really did get lifted from somewhere else….

  2. This is a wonderful story. I think there might have been a version of this tale in an old (1960s or early 1970s) television series on Friday nights called “Ghost Story.” I watched it every week as a kid and got freaked out every time. And on another note, I prefer the version where the selfish lover goes mad. Plus, I love your blog and I’m so glad I found it!

    1. Glad you enjoy the blog! I like the lover going mad, too.

      I’d never heard of “Ghost Story”/”Circle of Fear” before! A quick look on its Wikipedia episode page doesn’t turn up anything that looks obviously like “Ghostly Lover”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the story got used in a similar show or movie. Also “Ghost Story” looks really interesting! I’ll have to see if it’s streaming online anywhere. Thanks for letting me know about it!

  3. This is also quite similar to a recurring episode in Jan Potocki’s 1805 novel The Saragossa Manuscript. It goes something like: a character drinks and carouses with two women at an inn, goes to bed with both of them, and wakes up in the morning surrounded by corpses fresh from a gibbet.

    1. Yes, I remember that! It’s a long time since I’ve read The Saragossa Manuscript, but I seem to recall that the explanation for that wasn’t entirely supernatural, not that this makes it any less creepy. But it’s been a while. I should read it again.

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