Monstrous Demons of Asian Folklore

Monstrous Demons of Asian Folklore

Every village, town and city in the world has its array of monsters and mythological creatures, many of whom that have sprung from thousands of years of folkloric traditions. And while dragons are regarded as the kings of the monsters, appearing in both western and eastern folk systems, Asia has several other horrific monsters and each one holds secrets about how mankind used to interact with nature and the struggles of man’s times between the bookends of life and death.


Hantu Penanggal’, or Penanggalan, is a vampire-monster of Malaysian mythology generally descried as a beautiful woman, who was transformed through the application of dark or demonic magic. During the day it appears as a regular woman but at night it terrifies people by separating at the neck and flying through the air dragging its entrails behind it, holding its head in its hands, while looking for newborn babies to eat, just like the Fairy Queens of European mythology travelled by night claiming unborn children.

Known as Krasue (Thai) or Ab (Khmer), the Penanggalan is a nocturnal female spirit of Southeast Asian folklore. (2012) (Xavier Romero-Frias / CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Anthony Mercatante and James R. Dow in their 2004 book Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, variations of the mythological creature are the Krasue of Thailand and the Kasu or Phi-Kasu in Laos, while in Cambodia it is the Ap. Its victims are generally pregnant women and young children and like the Banshees of Ireland and Scotland it appears at a birth rather than a death, screeching above a house when the new child is born. With its long invisible tongue, the Penanggalan consumed the blood of new mothers and if it didn’t feed, it infected them with a wasting disease and anyone who brushed against the Penanggalan was inflicted with painful open sores.


The Kappa is a turtle shelled water dwelling creature of Japanese folklore described as having scales like a fish and sometimes fur. The Kappa can walk upright like a human and it holds water in a depression in its skull which is the source of its supernatural power, and just like the Pied Piper of European mythology the Kappa comes out of the water and enchants children into the river where it eats them.

Kappa caught in 1801 in a net Mito Domain's east beach (now Ibaraki Prefecture). From a 1836 copy by Reikai 霊槐 of Koga Tōan

Loving cucumbers and sumo wrestling Kappas are a mythological archetype used to scare children from getting to close to water.

The Japanese Dragon - Myths, Legends, and Symbolisms

Ghosts, demons, and spirits are the most popular creatures often associated with Japanese mythology but are far from being the only beings present. A lesser known entity is the Japanese dragon, which usually lives in water and shapeshifts into a man, if not a beautiful woman.

Although dragons may be iconic mythical creatures, as well, not a lot of people are aware of their roles in Japan&rsquos classical legends. A common misconception when it comes to dragons is that all of them are exactly the same throughout Asia. This statement may be true to some extent but, essentially, each country has its own kind of dragons.

Pupil size surprisingly linked to differences in intelligence

So much for rest in peace.

  • Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
  • Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
  • This study could help better identify time of death.

We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.

An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.

Dead bodies keep moving

Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.

Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.

"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.

The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:

"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."

During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.

The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)

Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.

Implications of the study

The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:

"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."

While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.

Where Do Yokai Come From?

One Hundred Monsters by Toriyama Sekien, the Met Museum

Yokai had existed in Japanese folklore for centuries, but was during the Edo period (17th-19th centuries) that they began to be widely seen in art. It is no coincidence that their rise to the forefront of artistic culture began at a time when the printing press and publishing technology became widespread.

One of the oldest examples of yokai art was the Hyakki Yagyo Zu, a 16th century scroll that portrayed a pandemonium of Japanese monsters. This formed the basis for Japan’s first definitive encyclopedia of yokai characters through the work of 18th century printmaker Toriyama Sekien. Using the newly developed technologies of woodblock printing, Sekien was able to mass-produce yokai illustrations in his own catalogs of the monster parade. How many yokai are there? The series was known as Gazu Hyakki Yagyo series, meaning Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Spirits, although in this context, one hundred just means many! These three texts illustrate more than two hundred of these Japanese demons, each with its own brief description and commentary.

Shokuin from One Hundred Monsters by Toriyama Sekien, the Met Museum

Here, in his third book, Konjaku Hyakki Shui (Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past), Sekien finds inspiration in Chinese mythology. He details a spirit named Shokuin that haunts Nanjing’s Purple Mountain. It appears as a red, man-faced dragon, which looms over the mountain a thousand meters tall.

Kiyohime from One Hundred Monsters by Toriyama Sekien, the Met Museum

Much of Sekien’s work may seem familiar to fans of modern Japanese horror films. His illustration of the Kiyohime - a woman that fell in love with a priest and was transformed into a terrifying serpent demon through the rage of unrequited love - is a prime example of a style that would go on to inspire many artists in the horror genre.

This is not just another rendition of the old, dried-up vengeful ghost tale that we are used to seeing. It is a twisting and morphing of something once familiar to the reader, until it no longer was. By merging the natural with the unnatural, a woman and a serpent, Sekien strips away the reader’s sense of security by infecting what was previously normal.

Japanese mythology

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Japanese mythology, body of stories compiled from oral traditions concerning the legends, gods, ceremonies, customs, practices, and historical accounts of the Japanese people.

Most of the surviving Japanese myths are recorded in the Kojiki (compiled 712 “Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon shoki (compiled in 720 “Chronicles of Japan”). These works tell of the origin of the ruling class and were apparently aimed at strengthening its authority. Therefore, they are not pure myths but have much political colouring. They are based on two main traditions: the Yamato Cycle, centred around the sun goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami, and the Izumo Cycle, in which the principal character is Susanoo (or Susanowo) no Mikoto, the brother of Amaterasu.

Genealogies and mythological records were kept in Japan, at least from the 6th century ad and probably long before that. By the time of the emperor Temmu (7th century), it became necessary to know the genealogy of all important families in order to establish the position of each in the eight levels of rank and title modeled after the Chinese court system. For this reason, Temmu ordered the compilation of myths and genealogies that finally resulted in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. The compilers of these and other early documents had at their disposal not only oral tradition but also documentary sources. A greater variety of sources was available to the compiler of the Nihon shoki. While the Kojiki is richer in genealogy and myth, the Nihon shoki adds a great deal to scholarly understanding of both the history and the myth of early Japan. Its purpose was to give the newly Sinicized court a history that could be compared with the annals of the Chinese.

The purpose of the cosmologies of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki is to trace the imperial genealogy back to the foundation of the world. The myths of the Yamato Cycle figure prominently in these cosmologies. In the beginning, the world was a chaotic mass, an ill-defined egg, full of seeds. Gradually, the finer parts became heaven (yang), the heavier parts earth (yin). Deities were produced between the two: first, three single deities, and then a series of divine couples. According to the Nihon shoki, one of the first three “pure male” gods appeared in the form of a reed that connected heaven and earth. A central foundation was now laid down for the drifting cosmos, and mud and sand accumulated upon it. A stake was driven in, and an inhabitable place was created. Finally, the god Izanagi (He Who Invites) and the goddess Izanami (She Who Invites) appeared. Ordered by their heavenly superiors, they stood on a floating bridge in heaven and stirred the ocean with a spear. When the spear was pulled up, the brine dripping from the tip formed Onogoro, an island that became solid spontaneously. Izanagi and Izanami then descended to this island, met each other by circling around the celestial pillar, discovered each other’s sexuality, and began to procreate. After initial failures, they produced the eight islands that now make up Japan. Izanami finally gave birth to the god of fire and died of burns. Raging with anger, Izanagi attacked his son, from whose blood such deities as the god of thunder were born. Other gods were born of Izanami on her deathbed. They presided over metal, earth, and agriculture. In grief, Izanagi pursued Izanami to Yomi (analogous to Hades) and asked her to come back to the land of the living. The goddess replied that she had already eaten food cooked on a stove in Yomi and could not return. In spite of her warning, Izanagi looked at his wife and discovered that her body was infested with maggots. The angry and humiliated goddess then chased Izanagi from the underworld. When he finally reached the upper world, Izanagi blocked the entrance to the underworld with an enormous stone. The goddess then threatened Izanagi, saying that she would kill a thousand people every day. He replied that he would father one thousand and five hundred children for every thousand she killed. After this, Izanagi pronounced the formula of divorce.

Izanagi then returned to this world and purified himself from the miasma of Yomi no Kuni. From the lustral water falling from his left eye was born the sun goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami, ancestress of the imperial family. From his right eye was born the moon god Tsukiyomi no Mikoto and from his nose, the trickster god Susanoo. Izanagi gave the sun goddess a jewel from a necklace and told her to govern heaven. He entrusted the dominion of night to the moon god. Susanoo was told to govern the sea. According to the Kojiki, Susanoo became dissatisfied with his share and ascended to heaven to see his older sister. Amaterasu, fearing his wild behaviour, met him and suggested that they prove their faithfulness to each other by bringing forth children. They agreed to receive a seed from each other, chew it, and spit it away. If gods rather than goddesses were born, it would be taken as a sign of the good faith of the one toward the other. When Susanoo brought forth gods, his faithfulness was recognized, and he was permitted to live in heaven.

Susanoo, becoming conceited over his success, began to play the role of a trickster. He scattered excrement over the dining room of Amaterasu, where she was celebrating the ceremony of the first fruits. His worst offense was to fling into Amaterasu’s chamber a piebald horse he had “flayed with a backward flaying” (a ritual offense).

Enraged at the pranks of her brother, the sun goddess hid herself in a celestial cave, and darkness filled the heavens and the earth. The gods were at a loss. Finally, they gathered in front of the cave, built a fire, and made cocks crow. They erected a sacred evergreen tree, and from its branches they hung curved beads, mirrors, and cloth offerings. A goddess named Amenouzume no Mikoto then danced half-nude. Amaterasu, hearing the multitudes of gods laughing and applauding, became curious and opened the door of the cave. Seizing the opportunity, a strong-armed god dragged her out of the cave.

The myths of the Izumo Cycle then begin to appear in the narration. Having angered the heavenly gods and having been banished from heaven, Susanoo descended to Izumo, where he rescued Princess Marvellous Rice Field (Kushiinada Hime) from an eight-headed serpent. He then married the Princess and became the progenitor of the ruling family of Izumo. The most important member of the family of Susanoo was the god Ōkuninushi no Mikoto, the great earth chief, who assumed control of this region before the descent to earth of the descendants of the sun goddess.

Before long, Amaterasu, the leader of the celestial gods—the gods of Izumo were known as earthly gods—asked Ōkuninushi to turn over the land of Izumo, saying that “the land of the plentiful reed-covered plains and fresh rice ears” was to be governed by the descendants of the heavenly gods. After the submission of Izumo, Amaterasu made her grandson Ninigi no Mikoto (ninigi is said to represent rice in its maturity) descend to earth. According to the Nihon shoki, Amaterasu handed Ninigi some ears of rice from a sacred rice field and told him to raise rice on earth and to worship the celestial gods. The grandson of the sun goddess then descended to the peak of Takachiho (meaning “high thousand ears”) in Miyazaki, Kyushu. There he married a daughter of the god of the mountain, named Konohana-sakuya Hime (Princess Blossoms of the Trees).

When Ninigi’s wife became pregnant and was about to give birth, all in a single night, he demanded proof that the child was his. She accordingly set fire to her room, then safely produced three sons. One of them, in turn, became the father of the legendary first emperor, Jimmu, who is considered to mark the watershed between the “age of the gods” and the historical age but Jimmu’s eastern expedition and conquest of the Japanese heartland was also a myth.

8. Pesta

“I’m gonna have to go with Pesta, an anthropomorphic personification of the Black Death from Norwegian folklore. Pesta was an old woman dressed in black, carrying with her a broom and a rake. She travelled from village to village, bringing pestulance and death with her. If you was carried the broom, she would take the lives of everyone at the farm. If she carried the rake, a few would survive.
There’s a lot of stories told about Pesta, one of which is about a ferryman.

There was a ferryman out in his boat one evening. On his way across the water he could hear someone call out for him. He looked towards the harbor and there he could see a old woman. As he came closer to the harbor he could see it was not some ordinary woman, it was Pesta herself.

The ferryman called out with a trembling voice. ‘I will bring you across if you spare my life!’ The old crone slightly tilted her head and reached for the big black book she hid within her clothing. With a bony finger she read the names written within, her thin and pale lips muttering to herself.

She lifted her eyes towards the ferryman. Who now had reached the harbor, and said, ‘You do not escape, but you will die a peaceful death.’ The old crone stepped on board the boat and seated herself in the prow. When the ferryman came home later that evening, he felt very tired. So he laid himself down in bed, and never woke up.” — exteus

History of Yokai

The origin story for Yokai comes from a piece of ancient Japanese literature written in the 8 th century called the Kojiki (古事記), which translates to “Records of Ancient Matters”. Isolated stories of folklore were present long before Japan was a nation, and each village and kingdom had their own stories about creatures that existed. It wasn’t until the 3 rd century when the Yamato clan unified much of the nation. Once unified, information spread more easily. Then, as time passed, folklore that was created in isolation was shared across the country.

Fast forwarding to the Edo period, the tales of yokai have reached their peak in popularity. Sano Toyofusa, better known by his pen name of Toriyama Sekien, was a scholar, an artist and a poet. Toriyama traveled across Japan and recorded every story and piece of folklore he could find. From the common legend to the most obscure of tale, Toriyama made sure he collected them all so that he could fill his illustrated encyclopedia of Yokai. With the help of ukiyo-e printmaking, he was able to mass produce his encyclopedia, which proved to be very popular and allowed him to create three more sequels.

After the Edo period, the popularity of Yokai dropped dramatically as Japan tried shifting its image to a more Western style in an attempt to modernize. Things like the supernatural and superstitions found in Yokai folklore seemed embarrassing to share to the rest of world according to the Meiji government’s perspective. Even though Yokai were forgotten by the government, they were not forgotten by all of its citizens who still passed down the stories and legends. One such person who inherited those stories is Mizuki Shigeru. Mizuki was born in 1922 and he learned about yokai from his village elders. Mizuki was drafted into the war in 1942 and it wasn’t until 1960 that he would use his knowledge of Yokai to create a manga called Hakaba Kitarō, which was later renamed in 1967 to GeGeGe no Kitarō.

GeGeGe no Kitarō is a story about Kitarō (the last survivor of his Ghost tribe) and the adventures he has with other supernatural beings. The manga became fairly popular in Japan and helped bring yokai and their stories back into Japan’s mainstream culture. Many children grew up reading about Kitarō’s adventures and some would go on to create their own works about Yokai. One example is the popular video game Yo-kai Watch. Thanks to Mizuki, Yokai have made a resurgence in popularity throughout Japanese culture.


The Scandinavian Nidhogg, or “tearer of corpses” (as he is affectionately known), constantly threatens the existence of the entire world. A giant serpent or dragon, he eats corpses to sustain himself and gnaws on the third root of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. He resides on Nastrond, the Shore of Corpses, in Niflheim, “house of the mists,” which is situated on the lowest level of the universe. When he’s not biting away at the foundations of our world, he bickers with the unnamed eagle that sits on top of the tree. And don’t worry, he’s not alone: he has other serpents aiding him in his goal of destroying Yggdrasil.

Magical Creatures

A group of monkeylike creatures called kappa displays both good and evil qualities in Japanese myth. Associated with water, they live in rivers, ponds, and lakes and carry water in a hollow space on top of their heads. If the water spills, the kappa lose their magical powers. Kappa drink the blood of humans, horses, and cattle. But they also eat cucumbers, and families can avoid being attacked by throwing a cucumber bearing their names into the kappa's watery home.

Among the kappa's good qualities is a tendency to be polite. When they meet someone, they bow, often spilling the water in their heads. They also always keep their promises. In many tales, humans outwit the kappa by forcing them to make promises.

patron special guardian, protector, or supporter

primeval from the earliest times

When the youngest pair of deities—Izanagi and Izanami—were born, the other gods ordered them to make solid land out of the material drifting in the sea. Standing on the floating bridge of heaven, Izanagi and Izanami stirred the primeval ocean with a

Izanagi and Izanami then created gods and goddesses of the trees, mountains, valleys, streams, winds, and other natural features of Japan. While giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi, Izanami was badly burned. As she lay dying, she produced more gods and goddesses. Other deities emerged from the tears of her grief-stricken husband.

When Izanami died, she went to Yomi-tsu Kuni, the land of darkness and death. Izanagi followed her there and tried to bring her back. But Izanami's body had already begun to decay, and she hid in the shadows and told Izanagi that she could not leave. Izanagi could not resist looking at his beloved wife one last time. When he lit a torch and saw her rotting corpse, he fled in terror. Angry that Izanagi had seen her, Izanami sent hideous spirits to chase him. Izanagi managed to escape, and he sealed off the passage to Yomi-tsu Kuni with a huge boulder. Izanami remained there and ruled over the dead.

Feeling unclean from his contact with the dead, Izanagi decided to bathe in a stream to purify himself. As he undressed, gods and goddesses emerged from his discarded clothing. Others came forth while he washed. Susano-ô came from his nose, Tsuki-yomi emerged from his right eye, and Amaterasu appeared from his left eye. Izanagi divided the world among these three gods. He gave Susano-ô control of the oceans, assigned Tsuki-yomi the realm of the night, and made Amaterasu the ruler of the sun and the heavens.

Myths of Amaterasu. One famous myth tells how Susano-ô, Amaterasu's brother, was unhappy with his share of the world and caused much destruction. Banished to Yomi-tsu Kuni, he asked to go to heaven to see his sister the sun goddess one last time. Amaterasu became concerned that Susano-ô might be planning to take over her lands. The two agreed to a contest to prove their power. If Susano-ô won, he could stay in heaven forever, but if he lost, he would have to leave.

Amaterasu asked for her brother's sword, which she broke into three pieces and chewed in her mouth. When Amaterasu spit out the pieces, they turned into three goddesses. Susano-ô then took a string of five star-shaped beads that Amaterasu had given him. He put the beads in his mouth, chewed them, and spat out five gods. Susano-ô claimed victory because he had produced five gods and Amaterasu had produced only three goddesses. However, Amaterasu pointed out that he had created these gods from her possessions, which proved that her power was actually greater than his. Susano-ô refused to acknowledge defeat, and Amaterasu allowed him to remain in heaven.

While in heaven, Susano-ô began doing things that offended his sister and violated important taboos. He destroyed rice fields, made loud noises, and dirtied the floors of her palace. Finally, Susano-ô killed one of the horses of heaven, skinned it, and hurled it into the hall where Amaterasu was weaving cloth. This so angered Amaterasu that she hid in a cave and refused to come out.

When the sun goddess concealed herself, the world was plunged into darkness, plants stopped growing, and all activities came to a halt. Desperate for Amaterasu's return, 800 gods gathered to discuss ways of getting her to leave the cave. A wise god named Omori-kane proposed a solution.

The gods hung a mirror on the branches of a tree outside the cave. Then they had a young goddess named Ama-no-uzume dance to music while they laughed loudly. Amaterasu heard the noise and wondered what was happening. Opening the door to the cave a little, she asked why the gods were so happy. They told her that they were celebrating because they had found a goddess superior to her.

Curious at who this goddess might be, Amaterasu opened the door wider to look and saw her own image in the mirror. When she paused to gaze at her reflection, a god hiding nearby pulled her completely out of the cave. Another god then blocked the entrance with a magic rope. After Amaterasu emerged from the cave, her light shone once again, and life returned to normal. To punish Susano-ô for his actions, the gods banished him from heaven.

The Izumo Cycle. The Izumo Cycle of myths features the god Ôkuninushi, a descendant of Susano-ô. One of the most famous stories is about Ôkuninushi and the White Rabbit.

According to this tale, Ôkuninushi had 80 brothers, each of whom wanted to marry the same beautiful princess. On a journey to see the princess, the brothers came upon a rabbit with no fur in great pain at the side of the road. They told the animal that it could get its fur back by bathing in saltwater, but this only made the pain worse. A little while later, Ôkuninushi arrived and saw the suffering rabbit. When he asked what had happened, the rabbit told him how it had lost its fur.

Folklore and The Folkloresque

One of the my key research areas focuses is folklore, both as a subject, as well as a scientific discipline. First coined in 1846 by William Thoms as “The Lore of the People” [1] , the term ‘Folk-Lore’ gained some degree of popularity in the mid-to late 19th century as a developing subject of study as well as an item of popular interest. In the United Kingdom, the end of the century saw the forming of the Folklore Society (FLS) in 1878 [2] , as well as a variety of print publications that were fascinated with the subject, culminating in the second International Folk-Lore Congress being held in London in 1891. [3]

Yet, since the subject’s “heyday” in the late 19th Century, Folklore studies has somewhat struggled to sustain its academic position in the United Kingdom, despite a wealth of brilliant critical work being undertaken by many notable academics and researchers within the field. My work seeks to contribute to Folklore’s continued academic development, helping to further develop folklore as an academic discipline, whilst also attempting to further nurture and invite a variety of interdisciplinary and theoretical approaches into the field.

As a cultural historian, my research focuses not only on the scientific development and mainstream popularity of folklore in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Alongside this, my work also focuses on the concept of the ‘Folkloresque’, a term coined by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert in their 2017 book The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture world, which focuses on how and why certain motifs, narratives, characters, traditions and ideas are deployed within popular culture texts to resemble or appropriate folklore [4]. My study particularly assesses how the Folkloresque is used within many of the famous late 19th Century Werewolf Fictions and how such items from traditional folklore and mythology are ‘remixed’ or ‘re-imagined’ within such texts, alongside the potential effects and impact of such a deployment.

As part of my research, I have spoken at several events, most notably The Folk Horror Conference 2019 at Falmouth University and at the London 19th Century Studies Graduate Seminar in 2020 at Queen Mary University in London.

If you have any questions about my research, or would just simply like to add me to your research network, please feel free to get in touch!

[1] Merton, Ambrose [pseud. William J. Thoms]. “Folk-Lore.” The Athenæum, No. 982 (22 August 1846): 862c–63a.

[2] ‘About the Folklore Society’, The Folklore Society <> [accessed 30 May 2020]

[3] Richard M. Dorson, The British Folklorists: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp.298-315

[4] Michael Dylan Foster, ‘Introduction: The Challenge of the Folkloresque’ in The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World, ed. by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert (Boulder, University of Colorado Press: 2016), pp. 3-33 (p. 5-6).