Aquatic week is over, I hope you guys enjoyed looking at some of the lesser known underwater yokai. This week we won’t be looking at a theme, but I’ll be sharing some requests that have been made by my Patreon backers. It’s an interesting mix of yokai that covers the whole spectrum.
Tonight’s yokai is really fascinating. As you saw in my writeup for atuikakura, I really enjoy digging deep and getting into the nitty gritty details about the origins and the history of yokai. Probably the craziest and most difficult yokai I ever had to research was Tamamo no Mae, because the rabbit hole went so much deeper than I ever could have imagined it would. I did a long writeup on her history last year. Even though it took a lot of time and energy, uncovering that folkloric thread that stretched back thousands of years was really satisfying. However, while Tamamo no Mae may have one of the most distant origins in time that I have ever come across, she isn’t the yokai with the most distant origin geographically.
Many years back, I wrote about Fujin, and I mentioned how his origins went back to ancient Greece. Even that, however, does not go as far as today’s yokai does.
I’m really fascinated with these ancient connections between East and West, although it’s important to realize that these were not necessarily conscious transmissions. Stories get passed around locally, and then people exchange them with their neighbors, who exchange them with their neighbors, and so on. This has been going on for thousands of years, and so it’s not surprising when a story gets passed around so much that it travels halfway around the world. But it is still interesting. And that is why I think today’s yokai is so fascinating.
Ninmenju (also commonly known as jinmenju) has the honor being the most geographically and culturally diverse yokai that I have ever come across. It probably originated in Arabia, and describes a mythical tree that was found in the land of Zanj, which is present-day Mozambique! There are legends that take it all the way back to Alexander the Great’s time, although I think those legends may also be Arabic in origin, as I don’t know if any Greek stories about this tree at all.
Tracing “history” like this is pretty apocryphal, and there is a lot of speculation and guesswork involved. It can be hard to tell if a similarity between two particular legends is coincidental, an example of two cultures developing the same myth as each other, or if it was traded from one to the other, or if they both got it from somewhere else. So it’s very hard to say anything truly definitive about the actual path of transmission of a particular yokai. For example, with Tamamo no Mae, even though her history can be traced back to ancient India and China, there’s no way to verify if the stories of her were written back then or if her identity was simply stapled on to existing myths centuries later, sort of retcon-ing her into the story. In fact, I would be much more willing to bet that she was indeed retconned into those myths by a Japanese author than that the Indian and Chinese writers of those stories actually were writing about the same person. Still, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to me; after all, all folklore is fiction anyway, so a fictional history about a fictional character seems somehow appropriate.
So it goes with ninmenju; whether or not this is the same tree that we see in Persian and Mughal art, that the Arabs described as having spoken to Alexander the Great, we can’t know for sure. However, based on the descriptions, it seems very likely to be the same tree, which means that two very distant parts of the world, which probably had no communication and no or almost no knowledge of each other at the time, are tied together by a thread of folklore.
Click the illustration below to read about ninmenju, and click here to join my Patreon and support the creation of these illustrations and translations.