Monday, October 10, 2011

Magical Mondays #4: Ikiryō, Haunting by the Living

Welcome to my fourth Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly overviewing various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


"Now in the torchlight Genji saw at her pillow, before the apparition vanished, the woman in his dream. Despite surprise and terror, for he had heard of such things at least in old tales, he was frantic to know what had become of her, until he shed all dignity and lay down beside her, calling on her to wake up, but she was growing cold and no longer breathing."

The Tale of Genji (Tyler Translation), Chapter 4.

The above snippet from Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century Japanese novel recounts the fatal end of tryst between the protagonist and a young woman. One night when they travel together to an abandoned mansion to spend some amorous time together, his lover is literally frightened to death by a frightening ghostly apparition.

Now Japanese folklore is filled with a variety of spirits, ghosts, and mystically inclined animals that can threaten people's lives and souls in a myriad of unpleasant ways. Indeed, in the full chapter I've quoted from above, the protagonist, Genji, who initially doesn't take some spookiness at the mansion seriously, even suggests that foxes (who are associated with many magical powers in Japanese folklore) might be causing mischief. 

Interestingly enough, the killer of Genji's lover is not a ghost, spirit, fox, demon, or any other sort of hostile (or even mischievous) supernatural entity. Instead, she was killed by another jealous lover of Genji's (yes, he gets around a lot), Rokujo no Miyasundokoro. This is where things get even more interesting. The jealous lover never laid a hand on the woman. Instead, it was her ikiryō--a sort of malevolent traveling spirit manifestation from a person--that killed Genji's latest conquest.

Ikiryō are said to manifest because of extreme and generally personally directed negative emotions. They are basically a piece of the soul (or the entire thing) of the other person detaching themselves temporarily from their source and going to harass the source of their anger. In some cases, these ikiryō can even possess other people. Although though the tales note can be exorcised, particularly by Buddhist priests, they were often harder to remove with such rituals versus actual ghosts or supernatural creatures, perhaps due to their living human source.

The relative awareness of the person who provides the source of the ikiryō varies. In many tales, people weren't truly aware that their soul is striking out at another. Though, it is often the case that it is easier to separate from the host body when the person is resting or sleeping. Although the spirit may be acting on deeply held emotions of the person, it is effectively an autonomous entity. In some tales, the ikiryō manifests when the person isn't actively aware of the level of antipathy they hold in their souls. Potentially killing someone you don't even  realize you hate is a fairly disturbing idea.

As the ikiryō is a part of the person's soul, excessive absence from the host can lead to weakness and sickness. That's an important aspect to note. This isn't about summoning some hostile creature with negative emotion but just taking a piece of a person and having it strike out. In that sense, it's kind of an autonomous version of something like the evil eye. 

Although I won't discuss it today, I should note that Japanese folklore also has a positive flip-side of souls traveling distances to contact love ones, help people out, et cetera. Such examples, along with the ikiryō, are a reflection of the idea in Japanese folklore (and many other belief systems throughout history and around the world) that the soul and body as linked, yet still somewhat autonomous entities.


Chrystalla Thoma said...

This is very interesting and can easily be compared to European folklore of the soul leaving the body temporarily and traveling to cause harm or even just to observe - for instance the Benandanti tradition of Italy.

J.A. Beard said...

Indeed. The level of parallelism in a lot of this stuff is fascinating. I was thinking a lot about that when I wrote up the Taoist alchemy entry. I was planning a European alchemy entry, but though there are some detail differences, many of the overall concepts are so parallel it almost seems a waste.

Cate Masters said...

Fascinating. I love learning about the legends of various cultures. It doesn't surprise me that certain notions carry over from culture to culture, though. Joseph Campbell noted many parallel beliefs in his books.