O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).

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Kwaidan (Ghost Story)

THERE was a young Samurai of Kyōto who had been reduced to poverty by the ruin of his lord, and found himself obliged to leave his home, and to take service with the Governor of a distant province. Before quitting the capital, this Samurai divorced his wife,—a good and beautiful woman,—under the belief that he could better obtain promotion by another alliance. He then married the daughter of a family of some distinction, and took her with him to the district whither he had been called.

— “The Reconciliation” from Shadowings, by Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1965), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film consists of four short stories, taken from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.


At first, it seemed odd to me that a Japanese film, about Japanese folklore, should be based explicitly on versions of this folklore as rendered by a westerner — even a westerner as fully assimilated into Japanese culture as Hearn apparently was. Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece, raised in Ireland, lived much of his adult life as an American, and finally moved to Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen in 1895. He taught English literature at the Imperial University in Tokyo, changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, and married a Japanese woman. His previous wife, in Cincinnati, was African-American — this, at a time when miscegenation was illegal in the United States. Although he is best known for his writings on Japan, he also wrote extensively on New Orleans, where he lived for about ten years. In a sort of foreshadowing of his future Asia-based writings, he wrote the first known article (for Harper’s Bazaar) about Filipinos in America: the “Manilamen” of Saint Malo, Louisiana.

On the face of it — especially when reading his lovely prose — one might accuse him of Orientalism — that is, of promoting an overly romantic view of the far East, especially Japan. On the other hand, much of what I’ve read while researching him for this post suggests that Hearn was a champion of “cultural miscegenation”. His goal was not to appropriate the cultures of The Other — the Creoles of Louisiana, the Japanese — but to try to understand them (and encourage understanding of them), to find the commonalities in all human experience, and to create literature, colored by his own multicultural, “perpetual outsider” experiences.

And as far as I can tell, his writings on Japan are looked on favorably by Japanese readers and folklorists, even now. So it’s not so surprising, after all, that Kobayashi would base his film on Hearn’s stories.

So. Back to the movie.

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Johnny Cash, The Wild Hunt, and Lord Shiva

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw 

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

“Riders in the Sky” was written by Stan Jones, and first recorded by Burl Ives in 1949. My favorite version is the 1979 recording by Johnny Cash:


The old cowboy in the song sees the devil’s herd riding through the sky, chased by the exhausted ghosts of damned cowboys, who will never catch them. One of the ghosts stops and warns the old cowboy to mend his ways, or he, too, will be chasing the herd for all eternity.

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Things have been quite hectic lately, and I’m on another business trip next week. I’m still working my way through Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and I plan to post some folktales and folklore from Letters 3, 4, and 5 when I get a chance. I also want to post about some of the witchcraft trials that Scott discusses in Letter 5. I may stop after that; the rest of the letters are still interesting, but not necessarily on the theme of this blog. We’ll see.

Just to keep things from going completely quiescent, here’s a little folktale straight from Letter 3 (I’ve reformatted it a bit). The motif of hiding someone (usually a lover or a son, I think) by turning them into an ordinary household object is a common one. I have vague memories of a Baba Yaga story where the heroine uses this trick, but my Russian Folktales book is in a box right now, so I can’t look it up. I could try to find the Aarne-Thompson tale type for you — but alas, I feel lazy today. So just enjoy the story, instead.

328px William adolphe bouguereau the spinner
The Spinner (1873)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Image: Wikipedia

There is a remarkable story in the Eyrbiggia Saga (“Historia Eyranorum”), giving the result of such a controversy between two of these gifted women, one of whom was determined on discovering and putting to death the son of the other, named Katla, who in a brawl had cut off the hand of the daughter-in-law of Geirada.

A party detached to avenge this wrong, by putting Oddo to death, returned deceived by the skill of his mother. They had found only Katla, they said, spinning flax from a large distaff.

“Fools,” said Geirada, “that distaff was the man you sought.”

They returned, seized the distaff, and burned it. But this second time, the witch disguised her son under the appearance of a tame kid. A third time he was a hog, which grovelled among the ashes.

The party returned yet again; augmented as one of Katla’s maidens, who kept watch, informed her mistress, by one in a blue mantle.

“Alas!” said Katla, “it is the sorceress Geirada, against whom spells avail not.”

Accordingly, the hostile party, entering for the fourth time, seized on the object of their animosity, and put him to death. This species of witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.

Not Odd, but Wise

I came across an interesting story while reading a 1991 paper called “‘Be Bold but not Too Bold’: Female Courage in Some British and Scandinavian Legends”, by Jacqueline Simpson. The story is a variant of a Norwegian legend that Dr. Simpson calls “The Interrupted Fairy Wedding”.

Photo: Wikipedia

In this legend, a young woman is alone in the mountain pastures tending to cattle when she meets a hulder, or mountain fairy. The hulder tries to marry the young woman by force. The wedding is generally interrupted by a villager (her father, or her sweetheart) who arrives in time to shoot steel over the bride’s head. The wedding entourage vanishes.

The variant of this legend that I’m especially interested in was collected in 1948:

[The story was] told as having happened to a certain Anne Rykhus who is described with such particularity that it is obvious that she was a real person; from internal details, it seems she must have lived at least fifty years previously.

Every evening, Anne would stay late in the pasture, because an attractive young man visited her there. Eventually, she agrees to marry him. Anne’s dog, “knew quite well that it wasn’t a real man” who visited her, and he runs back to the farm. This alerts the farmer (Anne’s father?), who arrives in time to fire a gun over her head, and drive away the hulder.

Here’s the interesting part:

Everything vanished as if it had sunk into the ground. Only Anne was left, and she just sat and stared straight ahead of her. ‘How are things with you?’ asked the man. ‘I want to go home to the village’ said she, and began to weep.

He took her home, but from that day she was never like other folk. She used to say that when the farmer fired that shot up there at the dairy, the man she had been about to marry shouted at her, ‘You’ll see much, but understand little.’ And so it was. She could see all sorts of beings which were invisible to others. Sometime she would see the path so full of them that she would take a stick and drive them away. She could also see things which would come true later. She once declared she could see wagons on wheels going up the valley of their own accord, and fifty years later the railway came through Fron, just outside the house where she had lived. What’s more, she declared she could see things like huge birds high in the sky, and some years later aircraft passed over the village. After some years had gone by, Anne Rykhus was no longer considered to be odd, but wise.

This variant is significantly different from the others that Dr. Simpson gives in her paper. Doesn’t it remind you of the story my mother told me, about the ibanan maid? (And my uncle dropped by, to add a few more details about this maid in the comments.)

The Norwegian story has no invisible boyfriend, but it does feature “The Hidden People” — that is, invisible beings. And the story seems to be about a historical person: a woman, Anne Rykhus, who begins to manifest behaviors that could be schizophrenia.

The symptoms of schizophrenia generally appear between the ages of 16 and 30; but as my mother said about her grandmother’s maid, “they didn’t know about those things back then.” So perhaps the villagers blamed it on the hulder. They even had an existing legend — the interrupted wedding — to hang the explanation on. Did Anne really foresee the railway and aircraft? Well, hindsight is always super-psychic, and stories do have a way of getting embellished. But now this village has its own legend, a real, honest-to-goodness seer. And rather than being shunned, as must happen to so many like her, Anne Rykhus is honored.

Who knows if what I’ve speculated has any basis in reality. But it makes a good story, and sometimes, that’s what counts.