There are a lot of bizarre animal yokai out there, and we’ve seen a few this week. Today we’ll look at a strange chimerical monster called the Nue!
The nue is one of the oldest yokai to be written down, having its first appearance in the Kojiki (712 CE), an account of the early histories of Japan. It also appears in the Heian-period encyclopedia Wamyo Ruijusho (938 CE), and again in the Heike Monogatari (1371 CE), a record of one of Japan’s bloodiest civil wars and most tragic family clans. It is recorded as having the head of a monkey, the body of a tanuki, the tail of a snake, and the limbs of a tiger. In ancient times it was thought to be a kind of nocturnal bird — it’s call is supposed to sound like that of a White’s thrush — and thus its name is written with a kanji that contains the meanings “night” and “bird.”
Unlike some of the Japanese chimeras we’ve seen (kirin, baku, houou), the nue is not a holy animal, and is not good at all. In fact, they are considered to be pretty evil monsters. One very famous account of a nue attack occurs in the summer of 1153 in Kyoto. Emperor Konoe began to have nightmares every night, and grew very ill. Neither medicine nor prayers had any effect on his illness, and the source was attributed to some kind of evil spirit which was visiting the palace every night, early in the morning. These events climaxed some days later in a storm which appeared over the imperial palace around 2 AM. Lightning struck the roof, setting it on fire. The emperor summoned the legendary samurai Minamoto no Yorimasa, to deal with the evil spirit. Yorimasa brought his trusted companion I no Hayata, and his legendary bow which he received from Minamoto no Yorimitsu, to hunt the best. During the night, a strange wind came over them, followed by a black cloud. Yorimasa fired his arrow into the clouds above the palace, and out from the sky came a horrible scream as a nue dropped to the earth. I no Hayata immediately leaped upon the body, dealing it a finishing blow. The emperor immediately recovered from his illness, and rewarded the heroes with the legendary katana Shishiou for their service. This event has been immortalized in numerous paintings and ukiyoe prints.
After the nue was slain, the inhabitants of Kyoto were so afraid of a curse for killing the best, that they loaded its body in a ship and sent it down the Kamo river. The boat with the nue’s body eventually washed up on the shore near the village of Ashiya in Hyogo prefecture, and the good citizens of Ashiya removed the body and built it a burial mound and gave it a proper funeral. Apparently, you can still visit the mound, “Nuezuka,” today, though I’ve never been there…
Are you interested in yokai? Can’t get enough of strange Japanese culture? Then you should check out my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, on Amazon.com and learn the story behind over one hundred of these bizarre monsters!