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May 21, 2019

More on the Koi

Season 2, Episode 5: Chaos

Koi are actual animals that you may have seen in decorative ponds in fancy places.  In the US and most of the world, "koi" is the term used for a specific species of Japanese carp, which are patterned or speckled and come in a variety of colors--mostly orange, white, and black.  Early koi in Japan were kept in muddy ponds, which were common near rice patties.  The fish were used as a food source in addition to rice and veggies.  But the koi soon started to show mutations of different colors and, instead of eating those, they were kept as collectors items.  Koi breeding really took off in the early 1900s, spreading to the rest of the world.

In fact, my favorite phone game, Zen Koi, is one where you breed koi until you collect them all, eventually ascending them to dragon-hood.  You may also be familiar with Magikarp, the carp-like Pokemon that's pretty much useless until it evolves into Gyrados, the huge water dragon.

Koi are associated with joy, luck, beauty, both friendly and romantic love, strength, and courage.  There's a lot to get into with them.

But the koi episode of the podcast is specifically in conversation with a legend from the late Han Dynasty.  In it, a school of golden koi were swimming upstream in the Yellow River, trying to leap the waterfall at the end to reach the Dragon's Gate.  Most of the koi were not brave or strong enough to make it up the waterfall, but it's said that after a hundred years of trying, one finally succeeded and was transformed into a dragon. Thus, koi are symbols of perseverance, determination, and destiny fulfilled.

These are, of course, virtues that people want and identify with, so koi images appear all over the place.  Koi tattoos are super popular.  Koinobori, windsocks that look like koi, are usually flown over houses in Japan in late April and early May in celebration of Children's Day on May 5th, which is part of Golden Week.  Putting up a koinobori is a way to wish for the koi-like virtues of perseverance and determination onto your children.

May 7, 2019

More on the Tanuki

Season 2, Episode 3: The Weird Raccoon

The tanuki is a creature from Japan.  Unlike most magical creatures, the tanuki actually exists.  It's also called a raccoon dog, and it's a member of the Canidae family, closely related to foxes and wolves  While the real life tanuki is a pretty basic animal, and does basic animal things like find food and hibernate, in folklore they're yokai (a kind of Japanese monster) called Bake-danuki (monster raccoon dog) and are attributed with magical powers.  They are tricksters and have the ability to shape change.  Long ago, the folklore around the tanuki was influenced by Chinese fox-lore, and the tanukis were evil creatures that should be feared.  However, over the years, the image of the tanuki became more playful and goofy.  Now, unlike so many yokai, the tanuki use their shape-shifting powers not to tempt people and then murder them, but to make them look stupid.  They also bring generosity, cheer, and prosperity.

Some examples of the kinds of hi-jinx they get up to:

There was a tanuki that hung out on a bridge, and whenever someone would cross the bridge, it would shave their hair.  There was a tanuki that disguised itself as a child and asked for piggy-back rides, because it loved piggy-back rides.  There was a tnuki who carried an umbrella and offered to share with people who didn't have their own umbrella, but once underneath, they'd be whisked away to another world.  There was a tanuki that disguised itself as a wine bottle, and when people tried to drink from it, it would roll around so they couldn't catch it.  There was a tanuki that disguised itself as a piece of cloth on the side of the road, and when people tried to pick it up, it'd fly out of reach.  Once, a tanuki changed into the shape of a monk and lived at the temple for years, until one day it fell asleep outside and accidentally revealed its true form. The other monks figured that he'd been a pretty good monk and didn't kick him out.

But tanuki are also symbols of prosperity.  Their big bellies are reminiscent of happy Buddhist monks (who used to be considered charlatans, who would deceive you, so the imagery works pretty well in bridging the more wily aspects of the tanuki with its cheerful side.)  Tanuki statues are set outside restaurants and bars, or in the windows.  These statues show the tanuki with a straw hat, a bottle of sake in one hand and a promissory note in the other. They're often depicted to have huge scrotums. Tanuki do have rather noticble testicles, but the exaggeration in some art borders on the absurd. This is because tanuki fur is so strong that gold workers used to wrap the gold in tanuki fur before hammering it down into gold leaf.  In Japanese, a small ball of gold is called a "kin no tama," and testicles are "kintama." Since the two phrases sound so similar, a tanuki's testicles are a symbol of good financial fortune and stretching your money.

There's a 1994 Studio Ghibli movie called Pom Poko, where a bunch of tanuki use their rascal-y trickster powers to stop deforestation.  In Mario games, Mario can put on the tanuki suit and then fly.  There's much debate over if Mario is turned into a tanuki, or if he's wearing a tanuki's skin, but I think the answer to that one is obvious.

For the podcast, I borrow mostly from folklore of the US and Europe.  This is because I try to not to let podcast episodes take too long to write, and I believe that the folklore of other cultures requires and deserves research.  What do their stories mean in the cultural context that produced them?  What did these stories mean when they first appeared--what were people afraid of?  How do people familiar with these creature relate to them: Do they think they're goofy, are they sacred, are they scary, are they obscure or part of daily life?  Failing to grasp the answers to these questions does a disservice to the monster, the folklore, and the people.  And as much as I wish I could be more diverse with the monsters, I'd prefer to have them absent than to do a poor job portraying them.  It's a trade off that I struggle with.

There are only a few instances of monsters outside Eurocentric traditions where I've felt I had a good enough grasp to write about them.  The tanuki is one.  (The koi is another.)  And I hope I did this goofy critter justice.

April 23, 2019

More about the Hoop Snake

Season 2, Episode 11: The Race

The Hoop Snake is a fearsome critter from the US and Canada.  There are sightings dating back to colonial times, and it was popular enough to be in a Pecos Bill story.  The snake grabs its own tail and rolls like a wheel, straightening out at the last second to skewer its prey with the sharp spike of its tail.  It's hard to tell if its poison kills its prey on contact or if its prey dies because it's been skewered.  You can escape a hoop snake by hiding behind a tree, so the tree is skewered instead of you, or by jumping over a fence, which the snake will have to straighten out to crawl through, thus slowing it down.

There are other mythological snakes around the world that latch onto their own tail.  The most well known is the Ouroboros, which is a symbol for infinity, or all being one, and was very popular in the iconography of alchemy, which had a strong focus on living forever.  August KekulĂ©, a famous organic chemist, discovered the structure of Benzine in 1865 after having a dream about the Ouroboros--a story that's about as truthful as Newton discovering gravity when an apple fell on his head, but whatever.

It was a wacky dream!

There is also the poisonous Tsuchinoko of Japan, which can bite its own tail and roll like a wheel, but can also speak lies and jump a meter into the air where it then preforms a second jump while still airborne.  There's also the Jormungander of Norse Mythology, the serpent that grew so large that it surrounds the world and it able to bite its own tail.  Ragnorok begins when it lets go of its tail.  Since the hoop snake is such a recent legend, it's fair to say that stories of the hoop snake are informed by its predecessors. 

It's also fair to say that there are a bunch of snakes in the South-West, and they are terrifying.  Coming up with a goofy snake makes it a little less frightening, while at the same time warning people to give snakes some space because they might chase after you at fifty miles an hour.  Also, the Mud Snake (a real snake species) likes to coil up in a loop, and has a pointy little tail that it points at predators to get them to back off, even though it can't actually sting or poison anything with that tail.

For this story, I thought, if Hoop Snakes were real, surely someone would have one and use it for something weird.  Since they chase things at high speeds, a drag race seemed a good idea.

April 16, 2019

More about the Jackalope

Season 2, Episode 4: The Jackalopes

The jackalope is a fearsome critter of North America, which is a jack rabbit with antlers.

Stories about horned rabbits have cropped up across the world, but the American variant traces its roots back to Douglas Herrick. Herrick was a hunter and taxidermist, and in 1932, he put together the first taxidermized jackalope by stitching antlers onto a rabbit. That first jackalope was displayed in the La Bonte Hotel in Douglas, Wyoming, where it became a big tourist attraction. Other taxidermized jackalopes followed to the point where many people thought (and still think) that they must be real.

While most stories about monsters come from a place of trying to explain the unknown and giving yourself a little scare when you think, “well, it might be true,” stories about jackalopes are more tongue-in-cheek with both the teller and the listener knowing it doesn’t exist. Stores in Wyoming sell jackalope milk, but the New York Times notes that that’s ridiculous, because milking a jackalope is too dangerous for a sustainable business. They only bread during lightning storms, and even though the rabbit part would lead you to believe that they multiply, the antler part of them makes the process difficult, thus their scarcity. You can lure out a jackalope with whiskey, its beverage of choice.

Jackalopes can imitate human speech and learned to sing from cowboys around camp fires. They use this skill to avoid capture by leading hunters off track, shouting, “Over here!” and “Not that way!” and “Help! Help!” in the voices of the hunter’s buddies.

April 9, 2019

More on the Dullahan

 Season 1, Episode 9: Lost Your Mind

The dullahan is a kind of Irish fairy.  They usually ride around on horseback with their head tucked under one arm.  The head is gruesome looking with a smile that stretches across the face and skin that looks like stale dough or moldy cheese.  Sometimes they drive a carriage, which is made out of bones and driven by six black horses that move so fast that the friction of the wheels sets fire to bushes on the sides of the road.

It's said that when the dullahan stops riding, someone will die, and when they ride up and say your name, they call your soul from your body and you drop dead.  The eyes in its head can see all around, so it holds its head aloft in order to see the whole countryside and find the home of a dying person.  If you happen to spot a dullahan riding across the country, instead of saying your name, it may just throw a bucket of blood on you or blind you in one eye.  They have an irrational fear of gold, so carrying some with you is a decent defense.

The dullahan is inspiration for the Headless Horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but my favorite fictional dullahan is from the 1959 live action Disney movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, where the banshee calls the dullahan to take Darby's dying daughter away, but Darby offers himself in her stead, which leads to a scene of him sitting around in the dullahan's creepy bone carriage while on his trip to the afterlife.

I took some extreme liberties with this one.  There's no evidence at all that dullahans could put their heads back on their shoulders and have the heads look not creepy enough to interact with people.  But I thought the extremeness of their strangeness was a good jumping off point to tell a story about the friction between honoring your roots and assimilating into American society.

April 2, 2019

More on the Snow Wasset

 Season 3, Episode 10: Regina

The snow wasset is another fearsome critter from North America, listed in William T. Cox's "Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods."  The snow wasset lives in the snowy areas around the Great Lakes and north to the Hudson bay.  It's a monster created to explain what happened to lumberjacks who vanished in the woods in the winter.  They were eaten by snow wassets.

The creature travels around under the snow, feeding on hibernating animals, but also if given the chance leaping out of the snow to attack prey.  They look like long weasels or otters, and are said to be "four times the size of a wolverine and forty times as active."  In the summer, they grow little, stubby legs so they can move around, but in the winter, they shed those legs and move by wriggling through the snow.  They also change color with the seasons for better camouflage: white fur in winter and green fur in summer so they can blend into the cranberry bogs where they hibernate.

I'm sure the snow covered Midwest must have been terrifying during pioneer times and the lumberjack heyday when people would vanish into the stow with some regularity.  But there's something about the Chicago snowdrifts that stay for weeks and weeks on the edge of every sidewalk and in the corners of every parking lot.  They draw the eye when I'm walking home alone.  Could something be lurking there, ready to pounce?  The primal fear of the unknown under the snow is still alive and kicking in my lizard brain. 

I wanted to write about a pack of snow wassets attacking a snow plow, but I eventually felt that there wasn't enough going on there to maintain the whole A-plot of an episode.  In the Regina episode, the snow wassets stay in the background as a threat that looms in the unknown.

March 26, 2019

More about the Squonk

 Season 2, Episode 9: The Squonk

The squonk is a fearsome critter from American folklore.  The earliest written account of the squonk is from William T. Cox's Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods--a book from which I take a lot of monsters.  The squonk lives in the forests of northern Pennsylvania, and it's one of the many creatures that arise out of lumberjack tall tales.  Lumberjacks' jobs were grueling and dangerous, and they were isolated out in the forests.  Out in the wilderness with physically taxing jobs and no women-folk around, they did a lot of manly man activities like cutting down trees and wrestling and spitting.  And since they were such manly men, their story telling had a competitive edge where they would constantly one-up each other. 

Paul Bunyun was so big--How big was he?--He was so big that it took four storks to deliver him when he was born!

Paul Bunyun was so big that when he was three weeks old, he rolled around too much and knocked down five acres of timber!

They told stories to entertain on nights they were too exhausted to arm wrestle, but also to give some explanation to the mysterious tragedies that took place around them. Jeff wandered off into the woods and never came back? Eaten by a monster.

The squonk fits in this first category of tall tale.  It doesn't kill or maim or lure people into the woods.  It's just weird and maybe funny if you think about it in a certain light. 

The squonk was so ugly--How ugly was it?--It looked like a pot-bellied pig, but with ill-fitting skin that wrinkled and bunched like a rhino.  It was covered in warts and blemishes and clumpy patches of wiry hair.  It was so ugly that it hid so no one could see it its ugliness.  It was so ugly that it spent all its time crying.

The squonk can avoid capture by crying so hard that it turns into a puddle of tears.  In almost every description of the squonk, it's mentioned that one time some guy caught a squonk in a bag, but by the time he brought it home/back to camp/to is competitor naturalist to prove the squonk's existence, the squonk had turned to liquid.

Even though it arises out of such a manly man tradition, and the squonk's ugliness and its over-exuberant emotions about being so ugly is meant to be a joke, you can guess that I latched onto something else in this story.  People--especially women and especially young women--spend so much emotional labor on worrying about how ugly they are.  Feeling so ugly that you just want to hide and cry constantly?  I've been there.  Feeling like you'll cry so hard, so focused on one single flaw that you might as well just turn into a puddle of tears?  Yeah, I remember junior high. 

There's a lesson in there, which is basically "don't be a squonk."  Don't let your vanity get the best of you.  Don't be so consumed with your perceived ugliness that it's the only thing the "More about the Squonk" post talks about.  But then there's also a lesson in there about not focusing on other people's looks until they feel they have to hide away and lose themselves.