This post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.
With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…
Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.
I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.
Snow isn’t a particularly scary thing for those of us who live in cities, but once you’re outside that comforting envelope of civilisation the desolate crisp whiteness and obscure visibility can turn the landscape into a dangerous alien world. The idea that predators lurk, ready to come out in the snow and snare the unwary is hardly a surprise.
Yuki Onna is a Japanese ghost called the Snow Maiden. She is every rice-boy’s Japanese girl fantasy: beautiful, dark almond eyes; pale, almost translucent skin; delicate and demure. She might appear naked, invisible except for her dark hair and eyes against the snow. Other times she might be wearing a thin white kimono, but those dark eyes are cold and merciless. Her embrace, even her breath, is deadly.
For the hunter Hiro, trudging home through the snow, she was death. He saw her faint figure in the waivering snow. Fearing for a lone woman he called out, “Beautiful woman, beautiful woman, we must find out way home.”
She did not answer. He moved closer, calling, “Beautiful maiden, beautiful maiden, you have nothing to fear.”
Finally, he drew close enough to see her, the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on. His heart leapt for joy, despite the snow.
“Come closer, hunter,” she said, in a small voice. “And collect your reward.”
Hiro leaned forward, his lips ready to receive his kiss. Her pale, icy skin burned his cheek. At the last moment, he opened his eyes to see the cold, pitilessness in her eyes, but it was too late – her chill breath froze him into statue of ice.
Other times Yuki Onna preys on parents looking for children lost in the snow. She carries a baby in her arms, drifting through the snowstorm until someone finds her. Any who accept the child from her arms is frozen to death.
Sometimes, though, Yuki Onna can be merciful. In one Japanese folk-tale a young hunter/trapper/woodsman is spared because of his youth and good looks, but is made to promise that he will not tell anyone about the snow maiden. Years later he has met and married a beautiful wife who he regales with the story, only to have her reveal herself as Yuki Onna. In most versions she spares his life, sometimes because of the children, other times because he has technically told no one but her.
Another snow related spirit is Snegurochka. She’s another snow maiden, again with a heart of ice, but this time she has a loving mother with magical powers. When she meets a handsome woodcutter, but cannot love him, her mother gives her the ability to experience human feelings. Unfortunately the warmth of her love destroys her icy body and she melts away to nothing. Continue reading “Snow Queens and Devil’s Footprints: Haunted Winter Storms”