The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


Japanese Ship of Souls

They say the sea always roughens during the period of the Festival of the Dead in the seventh month of the old lunar calendar. After the Ships of Souls have been launched no one dares enter it: no boats can be hired : all the fishermen remain at home. For on that day the sea is a highway for the dead, who must pass back over its waters to their mysterious home, and therefore upon that day is it called Hotoke-umi - the Buddha Flood - the Tide of the Returning Ghosts. And ever upon the night of the sixteenth day, whether the sea be calm or tumultuous, all its surface shimmers with faint lights gliding out to the open, the dim fires of the dead; and there is heard a murmuring of voices, like the murmur of a city far off, the indistingshable speech of souls.

Lafcadio Hearn (1891)


Lorna Smithers said...

I don't know much about Japanese culture and folklore. Do they actually send ships of the dead out?

I guess our nearest equivalent in Britain is the Viking longships, although I often wonder if the Britons had an equivalent, especially the Setantii ('the dwellers in the water country') in Lancashire.

I do love the idea of the sea being a highway for the dead, passing to their home and the myriad lights.

Another similar myth that has haunted me is the 'ship of fools.'

Heron Mist said...

I don't know much about Japanese folklore either Lorna, but that quotation from Lafacadio Hearn struck me sufficiently to want to share it.

Yes ships and seaways to the Land of the Dead is a common theme that crops up across cultures:


I'm not sure if the original 'Ship of Fools' fits this pattern but it's more recent use seems to focus on the idea of humans going nowhere. 'Sailing to oblivion' might conflate the two ideas but I think the Land of the Dead was thought of as a place of some significance. So while the image is suggestive, its more recent connotations are, perhaps, less so.

Lorna Smithers said...

The Roos Carr figures are fascinating, especially as they're Late Bronze Age. Could this point to a British traditon, prior to the Vikings having some kind of ship of the dead / ferryman? Was there a Norse influence at this time?

Heron Mist said...

Yes Lorna I certainly think this looks like a tradition of, a the very least, a transit to the Land of the Dead by water before the Viking era. The seaways were certainly being used in the Bronze Age and there was likely to be some interaction across shallower seas with the northern lands, though whether we can call the people inhabiting those lands 'Norse' in the later sense is uncertain.