[note: it occurs to me that, as with many stories taken from folklore, this is a bit of a NSFW post–for those not acronym-savvy, that means not so much that it is violent, which it is, but that some of the dismembered body parts involved are (in the normal course of events) used to make babies. So reader beware.]
Happy Halloween! Now that the “Paganism Past” conference this last weekend is over, I’m relaxing today by, among other things, reading some non-Scandi folkloristic type stuff–right now Japanese Tales edited and translated by Royall Turner (who was apparently placed at the University of Oslo at one point, so it just goes to show that everything connects to Scandinavian Studies in the end). Appropriately enough today I hit the “Haunts” section of the book, and thought I would illustrate the short but grim story “The Grisly Box” for my last Inktober 2016 drawing.
Like most of the other texts in this volume, the story is from Heian-era Japan, so if I remember my Japanese history correctly (that one class in undergrad is a long time ago now…) this is prior to the Samurai, and instead the period of poetic aristocrats improvising on cherry blossoms in the court at Kyoto. Well OK, this story really has nothing to do with that. In “The Grisly Box” a bureaucrat who works for a regent is traveling home to see his family and comes across a woman on a bridge who gives him a box, which he is to 1) give to a woman on another bridge, whose name he does not need to know because she will be there, don’t worry, and 2) ABSOLUTELY NOT OPEN. Btw, his servants don’t see anyone and are wondering “What the hell is our master doing?” He takes the box, but forgets to stop at the other bridge so ends up taking the box home with him. His wife say “Well, Mr, that’s a nice box, where did you get that WHAT IS HER NAME” and, of course, because we can already tell we are in a story that is going to either stereotype women’s motives or turn them into absolute monsters, she opens it and inside there are EYEBALLS AND PENISES. (btw, spoiler alert). Then the husband is like “Oh heck, we better get this to the right person now” but when he gives it to the other bridge woman she says “hey you looked didn’t you” but he denies it, and some time later he dies. The end. I know, out of possible Japanese-themed stories I don’t know why they didn’t do this story instead of Kubo and the Two Strings…
Some comparative comments as a folklorist (OK, I am more a Scandinavianist than a Folklorist but whatever):
-Not uncommon in a patriarchal society to find female monsters/supernaturals coded as sexually threatening (male supernaturals can be as well, but they turn up in different sorts of stories), so this is not an especially surprising story to come across. The inclusion of a jealous wife highlights the theme as well, with whatever guilt we might impute to an unfaithful husband displaced onto the castrating, apparently voracious (what else do they need all those pricks for?) spooky women. I don’t have comparable castrating legends in mind at the moment from Scandi folklore (doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but my recall is not great at the moment), but we do find supernatural women coded as sexually threatening in many narratives, as with the Swedish skogsrå. The “point” of these stories (not that they were always intended explicitly as moral lessons) is not always consistent, which serves to remind us that each individual version of a legend comes from an individual, and so can be taken as part of a larger debate regarding, for example, gender norms, the status of the supernatural community, etc–but the threat in many of these stories is framed around the danger of leaving the human community, diminishing the reproductive and other capacities of that community, in favor of the supernaturals, who to some degree (not to say this is somehow the most primal or foundational meaning) stand in for competing communities in general. And of course, it inverts the usual run of things in a patriarchy–the woman becomes powerful, the man weak, perhaps simultaneously expressing patriarchal guilt (“if they treated us like we treat them…”) as well as justifying the status quo (“if we let them have power…”). But let’s also note that, again, there is no need to assume culture is monolithic, and what might seem subversive can nevertheless end up be a fairly prominent part of the cultural production–I’m thinking here of the fact that the Valkyries of Norse mythology in some instances (not all) get a fairly positive treatment while in others they seem tied to quite thoroughly patriarchal cautionary tales. Also, spooky, castrating women can be used in politically subversive ways rather than cautionary/kinky ways, and of course, subversive readings are always possible as well.
-The eyes–well, it is an easy enough Freudian move to take the eye itself as a phallic symbol. Not that we need to take Freudian symbolism and apply it “willy”-nilly (did you see what I did there?)–but if this is a matter of supernatural women subverting the patriarchy, then this is a good complement to the theme of castration, as the “woman as seen, man as see-er” is an obvious binary opposition in patriarchal ideologies (btw, I wrote a dissertation on this… well, on related things).
-The fact that these women show up at bridges is a great example of the association of supernaturals with liminal space (though I confess I have no idea if these bridge women are common in Japanese folklore or not). By liminal I mean in-between. This is easiest to see in terms of geography, as these women are found at rivers, common markers of boundaries (I think also of the fact that liminal spaces are common in oral poetry, a point I picked up somewhere but can’t remember, and that many important moments in Norse mythology take place in in-between places, like a coastline), but it has a semantic dimension as well, meaning, involving the boundaries between things/concepts. Think “both/and” or “neither/nor”–fairies show up at twilight, when it is neither day nor night, people in Scandinavian folktales, at least, are at-risk during in-between times of their life (between birth and baptism, between childhood and adulthood, etc), and (again in scandi folklore, sorry, it is what I know) you find spirits associated with water mills, which are often geographically on the periphery, between the human community and the wilderness, and semantically in-between in that it is both/and neither/nor land/water (build above a stream as it must be). The bridge location is an obvious one for a supernatural, then–both/and neither/nor land/water (which, of course, is why the Billy Goats Gruff run into a troll at a bridge). Liminality in this sense is, of course, bound up in some very basic cognitive/linguistic faculties, and so it is no surprise that this seems to be a pretty universal aspect of folk narrative (and other narrative–though this is not to say that we can’t find supposed “universals” expressed very differently, or expressive of very different concerns, from culture to culture and person to person).
And to end, I can’t help but note how even at the academic level it can be easy for us to think “what! penises! this is ridiculous, no one believes something like this might happen!”, given that at this conference this past weekend my friend and colleague Merrill Kaplan, who does both Old Norse lit and Scandinavian folklore like myself (but more and better, if I may say so) gave a talk reinterpreting one of the words in a particularly odd tale about the conversion in Norway in which our intrepid missionary comes across a cult in which women cuddle a dismembered and preserved horse prick. Yup. In the very lively discussion that followed (wow, people had Opinions on this…) one of the throw-away comments implied that none of us took seriously the idea that there ever actually was a cult practice like this, since it was really just totally ridiculous. Merrill (and for the record, I’m quite convinced by her argument throughout, but can’t say I am super familiar with the philological issues) insisted we had to take the story seriously–not meaning we had to assume a cult actually did look like this once, but that, however much it was meant to ridicule pagans, the story must be taken as believable against the (admittedly biased) horizon of expectations of medieval Christian Icelanders when it comes to what paganism might look like. I do find myself agreeing that, in a more explicitly historical text like the one in question (Flateyjarbók), however much the intent is to mock, it will still build on what people are willing to see as a reasonable expectation. And you know, there is so much crazy stuff (sorry, not an emic perspective there) in world religion and mythology (can’t single out my own religion here either) that at some point you have to say a horse-penis-cuddling-cult is not necessarily out of the question… Nor are spooky women collecting eye balls and pricks, apparently, at least at the level of legend.