Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

A Demon in the Sky: The Tale of Amewakahiko, a Japanese Medieval Story

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

A Demon in the Sky: The Tale of Amewakahiko, a Japanese Medieval Story

Article excerpt

In most cultures demons and dragons reside at the heart of the supernatural, where their distinct status reflects their various cultural roles. This is also true of Japanese culture and folklore, where these creatures play prominent roles. For present-day Japanese, oni (demons or ogres) typically reside in Buddhist hell to punish mortal sinners, but for their medieval counterparts, the oni's role and the space oni occupied were much more flexible. Perhaps a prime example of this is Amewakahiko söshi (Tale of Amewakahiko; fifteenth century), a fictional story that recounts one legendary origin of Tanabata (Festival of the Weaver, the Star Festival), the celebration of the annual meeting of the Weaver Maid and the Cowherd, who represent the stars Vega and Altair, respectively. In this version of the Tanabata story, an oni is standing in the beautiful serene sky. This oni turns out to be the father of a kairyüö (a dragon king of the ocean) who also lives in the sky. This dragon king calls himself Amewakahiko (sometimes Amewakamiko), hence the title.

The plot of The Tale of Amewakahiko is similar to "Cupid and Psyche" by Lucius Apuleius (second century CE). Some scholars in Japan recognize "Cupid and Psyche" as the source of The Tale of Amewakahiko, and others read the dragon king's tale as indigenous to Japan. Although there is no finally persuasive evidence that the Japanese tale was influenced by "Cupid and Psyche," it is worthwhile to examine the Apuleian tale's connection to The Tale of Amewakahiko and to share these different scholarly perspectives from Japan in an English-language publication. Thus in this essay I discuss the various possible origins of the tale. Thinking of The Tale of Amewakahiko in a Japanese folkloric and literary context reveals a specifically medieval Japanese view of space boundaries (or lack thereof) of underground, earth, and heaven that oni and a dragon travel; it also suggests that studies of ancient and classical Japanese literature (periods of ancient and classical literature, 645-1185 CE) by medieval Japanese scholars influenced the choice of the characters' names and their actions in this tale.

Plot and Genre of The Tale of Amewakahiko

One day a huge serpent appears in front of a wealthy family's house. The serpent demands one of the family's three daughters for his wife or, he threatens, he will destroy the whole family. The two older daughters refuse, but the youngest daughter consents. A huge house is built near a pond as part of the wedding preparations requested by the serpent, and there, alone, she awaits her snake husband. When the gigantic serpent appears, he asks the girl to cut off his head. As she does so, a handsome, young gentleman appears, and they live happily in their newly built house. After a while, the husband reveals his true identity as a dragon king of the ocean and tells the girl that he must go to the sky to do some business. He tells her how to find him in the sky if he does not come back. He then orders her not to open a certain treasure chest-if the chest is opened, he tells her, he will not be able to return to earth. While he is away, her two older sisters visit her and become jealous of her wealth and happiness. They open the treasure chest from which only smoke arises. When the girl leams that her husband cannot return anymore, she goes to Kyoto as instructed by her husband before he left and buys a gourd whose vine grows to the sky in one night.

Climbing the vine up to the sky, the girl journeys in search of her husband, whose name, the reader has learned, is Amewakahiko (or Amewakamiko). With great difficulty, she finally finds him. Although they are happy together, Amewakahiko expresses his concern that if his father, an oni, becomes aware of her, there could be trouble. So whenever his father visits him, the dragon king changes his wife into a pillow or fan. But the secret is finally revealed one day, and the oni-father takes her away and imposes on her four difficult tasks. …

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