Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Namazu


As of today, BeastPedia is adding a new category.  Meet the yokai, mysterious beasts of Japanese folklore!  These creatures are an incredibly diverse bunch.  Some yokai are ghosts, some are monsters, some are demons, and many are too strange to classify.  In no other mythology will you see an ox-headed spider or an animated teacup.  Believe me, I know.  Excited to read about some yokai?  You should be -- read on, and prepare to meet the Namazu.  It's one heck of a fish story.

Mythology is rife with giant fish, and it's hard to say which is most impressive.  The Greek Aspidochelone was the size of an island -- and was often mistaken for one.  The Bible presents a fish who swallowed a prophet, and Arabian legend gives us Bahamut.  This piscine Atlas was so large that the world rested on its back.  Still, in my opinion, none of these can rival the Namazu.  This catfish was so large, and so dangerous, that it had to be restrained by a god.

The Namazu spent most of its time buried underground.  There a vigilant deity held it in place, preventing it from ever breaking loose.  When the god's concentration slipped, the Namazu thrashed around -- causing the earthquakes that ravaged Japan.  This beast was natural disaster personified.

In 1855, the Namazu went from yokai to national symbol.  After a devastating earthquake leveled Edo, the catfish appeared in a number of woodblock prints.  These prints utilized the Namazu as a symbol of the quake, for reasons ranging from religious to satirical.  On one end of spectrum, people began to venerate the Namazu.  They saw it as a force of cleansing destruction, wiping out the corrupt old order and replacing it with something new.  Others used Namazu prints as a sort of "political cartoon."  They mocked earthquake profiteers (such as carpenters, who built new buildings) by depicting them as catfish worshippers.

The image of the Namazu is still commonplace in Japan.  This yokai lends its likeness to an earthquake-causing Pokemon, and is the logo of an earthquake warning system.  The Namazu has transcended its mythological roots, and is now an icon of popular culture.

Read more about the Namazu:
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/history-of-geology/2012/03/10/namazu-the-earthshaker/
http://pinktentacle.com/2011/04/namazu-e-earthquake-catfish-prints/
http://historyofgeology.fieldofscience.com/2011/01/namazu-earthshaker.html
Image (public domain) from http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_tGHzOEp3UKA/TT2ROBYpXeI/AAAAAAAACcU/gVmUzwSvYGA/s1600/Namazu_Kashima.jpg

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