Friday, May 25, 2012

Death To The Earthquake-Causing Catfish! A Tale of Farting Gods and Flattened Fish

When the Great Ansei Edo Earthquake struck what is now Tokyo, Japan on November 11th, 1855 there was only one thing on the minds of the survivors: Death to the catfish!


You may think catfish are fairly harmless Siluriformes, with cute whiskers and bulgy eyes, but that's where you'd be wrong.

Okay, yeah, he's pretty darned cute. © Tetzl on Flickr.

As everyone in Edo-period Japan knew, a giant catfish called Namazu lived deep underground, lurking under cities in the depths of the earth. He was generally restrained by the god Kashima, who had a habit of  standing on Namazu's head to keep him from being too unruly (works great on kids, too).

Kashima Flattens The Catfish
Before you start to sympathise too much with the poor whiskered fellow, let's talk about that fateful November day.

You see, every once in awhile Kashima got bored and wanted to join a war. Or had to get up to use the bathroom. Or decided to start a lightning storm somewhere else. And whenever this happened, he'd place a large rock on Namazu's head to hold him down (This also works well on children.) and enlist the help of a minor god named Ebisu.
Don't even deny it - you're envious of his hat. I wouldn't mind tasting one of those fish, either.

 Ebisu was a fisherman's friend, a merry fellow known as The Laughing God, who also bore a great fondness for large hats. He was, bizarrely, born without any bones, arms, or legs. How he managed to overcome this, I have no idea, but he somehow not only grew a skeleton, but became a god. This didn't fix his other birth defects, however, so though he has very large ears, he does not hear very well, he still limps, and is extremely absent-minded.

If I wanted The Giant Catfish of Doom & Destruction properly guarded, I don't think Ebisu would have been my first choice, but maybe Kashima didn't want to be rude. Maybe no-one else volunteered.

However it transpired, Ebisu was left to guard said Giant Catfish of Doom & Destruction while Kashima rode off to argue with Thor over who made a better god of thunder.

Given what we know about Ebisu, is the following scene particularly surprising to anyone?
Oh, Ebisu...

 That's right. Ebisu fell asleep. Of course, that's not all that's going on in this picture, but we'll get there.

It also shouldn't be too surprising that Namazu was not particularly thrilled with the boulder-on-his-cranium idea. He didn't much care to be stood on, either. And he definitely didn't like being slept on. (Ebisu snored and everyone knows catfishes hate snoring.)

So on November 11th, 1855, while Kashima was elsewhere, and Ebisu was sleeping, oblivious, Namazu tried to escape. He thrashed and he rolled and he flipped.

He didn't manage to get the stone off his head, (or wake up Ebisu), but by the time Kashima came riding back at a fast gallop, Namazu had destroyed a good bit of the city of Edo.
Kashima plays Asian Legolas.

Namazu got trod on some more, to the delight of the villagers, and Ebisu managed to keep his job by apologising profusely.

Namazue earthquake catfish picture --
Those are the scariest catfish I have ever seen. Also, Ebisu has a serious drunk-face going on.

Here we see 18 Namazu apologising to Kashima for their crimes. I think catfish in robes are adorable. Maybe it's just me. This picture was supposed to protect your house from earthquakes if you put it on the ceiling. It would, at the very least, give you interesting dreams if you fell asleep looking at it. Or maybe that's me too.
Woodblock print of earthquake catfish --
Behold the magical Japanese converse shoe of earthquake-protection.

It almost makes you feel sorry for them, until you realise that, here they are, clearly plotting the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.
Is it me, or does the blue-robed catfish look like a communist?

But who on earth decided that catfish are the cause of earthquakes? And who is the strange fellow with the bare bum?

The catfish are the easier to explain. It is said that catfish are more sensitive to earthquakes than many other animals and so, before an impending earthquake, would thrash wildly, perhaps in agitation, fear, or an attempt to escape. People seeing this wrongly assumed that the whiskered fish were actually participating in the quake activity.

But the man with the naked backside is a bit of an odder story. Turns out his name is Raijin and he's the thunder god.
Thor has nothing on this. Sounds like he would have gotten on well with Joan of Finsbury. © Bamse

Gregory Smits explains in his work 'Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints', that:
The strange looking man to the left of the print is the thunder deity, engaging in a peculiar pastime of some Edo residents, which we might call “extreme farting,” or perhaps “thunder farting.” The basic object of this sport was to make more noise than one’s opponents. According to the scholar Hiraga Gennai (1729–1779) in his treatise H¯ohiron (On farting), thunder farting made its debut in 1774 at the Ry¯ogoku Bridge, a major site of popular culture displays in Edo. Small drums issue forth from the thunder deity’s posterior, no doubt to emphasize the booming sonic element in his performance.

At this point, really nothing from Japan should surprise me.

Thanks to Bamse and tetzl for their photographs. Thanks to PinkTentacle for the namazu-e (catfish pictures) and if you want to see catfish partying with prostitutes, you should check out the rest of the images I couldn't put in the post. Thanks to Gregory Smits for information on farting gods and thank you for reading to the end of odd catfish post.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to ask me anything. If it's a request for information, I will do my best to tell you what I know and research what I don't. I hope you're enjoying my blog!