Today’s yokai is a fairly obscure one, and he is a type of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai.
Sōgen-bi (叢原火 or 宗源火, そうげんび)
Sōgen-bi, literally “Sōgen’s fire” is a yokai that was sighted at Mibu-dera in Kyoto. (Mibu-dera is also very famous for being the home of the legendary Shinsengumi.) This yokai takes the form of a flying, burning priest’s head, suffering in agony.
Legend has it that long ago, a monk named Sōgen lived at Mibu-dera. Sōgen was a wicked monk, for he would steal money out of the offering box at the temple to keep for himself. He also stole the precious oil, which was to be used as an offering for the gods, and sold it off secretly, keeping the money for himself.
You’ll notice one recurring theme with yokai is lamp oil; cats who lick it turn into bakeneko, other yokai like rokuro-kubi and abura-akago like to drink it, people who steal oil die and turn into yokai like abura-sumashi, ubaga-bi, or something like wicked old Sōgen. This seems kind of strange to us today, with our electric lights, where candles are a quaint thing for entertainment (“We will make Electric Light so cheap that only the rich will afford to burn candles.” – Thomas Edison); but in old Japan oil was particularly precious. It could be acquired from fish or whales or by wringing leaves of certain plants, but no matter where it came from it took a lot of hard work to make lamp oil for burning. It was one of the most precious commodities, as hard to believe as it is today! Therefore, stealing something as valuable as oil was viewed as a particularly heinous crime, and these wicked people would have to pay the price in their next life.
Thus was the punishment for Sōgen. When he died, he was damned to hell and reincarnated as this yokai. Toriyama Sekien listed him in his Gazu Hyakki Yagyō yokai manual, and similar burning-head oil-thief yokai types have been recorded in other books.
There is somewhat of a moral to this story: don’t steal from your workplace. I know some of you have probably nicked a roll of toilet paper, or a stapler, or a notepad or something, haven’t you? Just be careful that when you die you don’t come back like old Sōgen did!
If you’d like to read more about Sōgen-bi, head on over to yokai.com.