Monday, October 29, 2012

Raijū, the Shinto Storm God's Lightning Companion

So now it's Day 6 of Yōkai Week, and I've run out of the Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy.

"Well, that's obvious," you may be saying, "we were wondering why in the world you made such a big deal about the five elements when you knew you had a week's worth of entries to do. That was a pretty bone-headed decision."

Hey now, no need to be hurtful. I can just switch over to the Five Elements of Japanese Philosophy, which conveniently have two different elements.

"Why didn't you just do that in the first place?"

Good question. Actually, that would mean that today's element would be air (風) or nothingness (空).

"Hey, nothingness, that sounds pretty scary. What a great concept for Halloween!"

Yes, I do have projected conversations with myself quite a bit, but it's nothing to worry about. But you're right, nothingness is an extremely terrifying concept. Too terrifying for me to cover, in fact, without a bit more religious education.  Though some insight can be gained from people like Miyamoto Musashi or a high-ranking Zen monk like the one in Lone Wolf and Cub, it only really reinforces the fact that I am nowhere near capable of understanding it myself, let alone possessing the capacity to explain it to you, accompanied by witty comments and interesting pictures.

I think instead I'll just combine the remaining two elements, air, and use the alternate reading of nothingness for sky or heaven, and how about the additional element of electricity, for all you Pokemon fans out there?

So yes, while this is more of a legendary creature than a yōkai, and I hesitate to lump in sacred things with the "spook" nature of yōkai, I'm already grasping quite a bit, so I'll cut you a break and get on with the profile.

Let's talk about Raijū,(雷獣), the thunder beast.

Right away you may be reminded of the Japanese chimera yōkai, the Nue.  You wouldn't be the only one.  In fact, when the Nue began descending over the Imperial Palace in a storm-cloud, causing sickness to befall the Emperor, everyone initially thought that the culprit was Raijū.  But, as they and you will soon find out, there are many differences between the Nue and Raijū, most notably that Raijū is not out to make you terribly, terribly sick.  Besides, since he's not a yōkai, and comes from what is known as a very good and revered place, he wouldn't fall prey to the feelings of onryō against the Emperor.  But can Raijū cause you great inconvenience and inflict illness upon you?  Oh, yes.  In fact, since you and I are not the Emperor, we are more at risk to experience a painful fate at the hands of Raijū than Nue.  So I'll tell you all about Raijū, and how to avoid being lightning'd to death.

Like the Nue, Raijū appear to be an amalgamous creature comprised of various other creatures.  However, Raijū are much smaller than Nue, and seem to resemble more closely to various woodland animals, like badgers, raccoons, and foxes.  It seems that Raijū differ in appearance in accordance with where they are spotted, leading one to believe that Raijū tend to adapt to their location.  Where I grew up, Raijū are said to resemble a small grey wolf, with long legs and a tail and pointed head like an enchanted fox.  They also possess claws like those of a bird of prey.  Other accounts describe it more as resembling a monkey or large cat, or having a tawny or reddish colouring.

Raijū does differ from your average woodland creature, however, in that it travels around via storm-cloud and his barks come out as booming thunder.  He also has a constant crackling coat of lightning surrounding his fur.

The claws are also significant (many Raijū have claws like raptor birds, but some are said to be positively crab-like).  As I'm sure you're aware, during a lightning storm, it's actually worse to hide under a tree.  Lightning strikes trees more often, as evidenced by the ragged marks left on trees that have been hit.  This is because Raijū prefers to jump around on trees, and those striations are the marks from his claws.

But the most telling difference between the Nue yōkai and Raijū stems from its origins.  As kitsune are the messengers of the Shinto god Inari, Raijū serve the storm god Raijin, or Raiden (雷神/雷電).



But of course, the reason so many strong characters (and also that guy from MGS) are named Raiden and have lightning-based attributes stems from the kami Raijin/Raiden, who controls storms, thunder, and lightning.

He actually looks like this.  Raijin is one of the earliest kami, and you can tell him in art by his cloud transportation and a ring of drums floating behind him.  Often, he appears in a pair with Fūjin (風神), the kami of wind.

And sometimes he just completely destroys notable and beloved landmarks throughout Japan.

But while yōkai and demons and monsters and ghosts roam freely throughout Japan and visciously attack humans, kami don't do that, right?

Well, technically, that isn't their intention.  But nature is uncontrollable, which is why it is so revered.  But no, for the most part, kami have no real desire to wreak havoc on humans, there are enough other things wandering around causing mischief.

Like Raijū.

He means no harm, but, just as they are partial to clawing up trees, they also find great comfort in sleeping in human belly buttons.  It's weird, but what else do you expect from a thunder beast?

But Raijin understands, and if he sees a Raijū nestling into somebody's stomach, he's going to reprimand it and get it out of there... hurling lightning at the unwitting person Raijū is laying on.

From xxxHoLic.

Because of this, in Japan, people will most likely warn you to make sure you sleep on your stomach during storms, so Raijū won't crawl into your belly and get you electrocuted.  I was also told, as a child, that when you had an upset stomach, you should sleep with your middle fingers in your belly button.  According to some mountain ascetic, the fingers each correspond to a different function of the body, and the middle finger relates to the stomach.  If you keep your middle fingers in your belly button while you sleep, it will cut the pathway for indigestion and/or Raijū to enter, and help calm an upset stomach.  It's awkward, but it always worked when I had a stomach ache.

Let's see some other depictions of Raijū.

From Devil Summoner.

In GeGeGe no Kitarō and on Mizuki Road.

A modern-day Obake Karuta.

So that's Raijū the Thunder Beast, as seen from ancient times until today.  Raijū aren't yōkai, and I guess, unless you start getting lightning bolts thrown at you, they aren't very scary.  But it's almost Halloween, so I guess I'll show you something about Raijū that is rather terrifying.  If you have a weak stomach, put your middle fingers in your navel and look away now.

Another thing that Raijū have in common with yōkai, particularly the Nue and the Kappa and other such famous creatures, is that they are so prevalent that they are often captured and observed, and then, of course, stuffed or mummified and put on display in museums that deal with this sort of thing.  Enjoy some creepy old pictures of mummified Raijū.

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