Hannya in Japanese Folklore

Friday Folklore

Welcome to my weekly feature, Friday Folklore, where I share stories and creatures from the lore and legends of the world. Today, we visit Japan to discuss the hannya.

Noh theatre is the oldest form of theatre in Japan. The word “Noh” comes from the Japanese , which means “talent” or “skill” 1. In Noh theatre, the actors tell the play’s story through their appearance and gestures. They mean to convey the essence of the story rather than act it out like in Western theatre. An important part of this form of theatre is the use of masks.

Hannya Mask
Hannya Mask

The hannya mask depicts a twisted, demonic face with eyes that hint at melancholy and heartbreak 2. In Japanese folklore, the hannya is a female demon that, usually, began as a human woman. But when the woman was betrayed or spurned by a lover, her jealousy, rage, and hurt twisted her into a demon.

Interestingly, the word “hannya” means “wisdom” in Buddhism. There are several explanations for this, some of them saying that it takes wisdom to carve the hannya mask, but the most plausible explanation is that the name can be traced back to Hannyabou, a mask carver that lived in the 15th or early 16th century 3.

Hannya Retrieving Her Arm, Zeshin Shibata (1807-1891)

One example of the hannya demon in Japanese folklore comes from the story of a samurai named Watanabe no Tsuna.

A hannya was tormenting anyone who tried to pass through the Rashomon gate in Kyoto. Watanabe, wanting to put an end to this, stationed himself by the gate to kill the demon.

As he waited, a beautiful young woman approached him and persuaded him to escort her home. Samurai are honorable protectors of women, so Watanabe agreed. As he walked ahead of her, he happened to glance back over his shoulder, in time to see his charge transform into the hannya.

Drawing his sword, he attacked the demon and severed its arm. The creature vanished and Watanabe, for reasons that only make sense in a legend, wrapped the arm and took it home with him. He locked it into a chest and forgot about it (because if I locked an arm into a chest, I would forget about it, too).

Years later, after the event became just a story, the hannya disguised herself as Watanabe’s aunt and went to visit him. She persuaded him to show her the arm. When he did, she dropped her disguise, grabbed her arm, and fled 4.

Kiyohime Changes from a Serpent, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka
Kiyohime Changes from a Serpent, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka

Another example comes from a story about a traveling priest and a princess named Kiyohime.

Kiyohime was the daughter (or, in some versions, a widow) of a village headman who lived on the banks of the Hidaka near a shrine known for its ascetic practices. Often, priests would pass by and this family was wealthy enough to provide lodging. One day, a priest named Anchin stopped at the family’s home on his way to the shrine.

In some versions of the story, Kiyohime and Anchin carried on a mutual love affair. However, Anchin overcame his passion and rebuffed Kiyohime. In other versions of the story, Anchin never had feelings for Kiyohime. He led her along, though, until he had to confront Kiyohime and tell her he had no romantic regard for her.

Either way, Anchin’s actions filled Kiyohime with rage and she pursued him. Anchin fled to the Hidaka, where he asked the boatman to ferry him across but not to ferry Kiyohime. When the spurned woman saw this, she jumped into the river and swam after him. As she swam, her anger transformed her into a serpent (some stories say dragon).

When Anchin saw this, he fled to the temple and begged the monks for help. The monks, being short on hiding places, hid him under a large bell. They did not account for Kiyohime’s now superior sense of smell. When she arrived at the temple, she sniffed out Anchin and breathed fire on the bell, which melted around him and killed him 5.

One last note about the hannya mask. Despite its frightening visage, it’s considered a good luck symbol in Japan and wards off evil. It’s a popular symbol in Japanese tattoos 6.

1“Noh Theatre”, Encyclopedia Britanica http://www.britannica.com/art/Noh-theatre

2 “Guest Author Post: Syndey Bristol on Hannya and The Harder He Falls”, Babbling about Books and More! Blog http://kbgbabbles.com/2013/08/syndey-bristol-816.html

3 “hannya”, JAANUS http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/h/hannya.htm

4 “Hannya”, SaruDama http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_folklore/hannya.shtml

5 “Kiyohime”, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiyohime

6 “25 Beautiful Hannya Tattoos”, Tattoodo http://blog.tattoodo.com/2014/01/25-beautiful-hannya-tattoos/

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