Enko – sea nymphs or water creatures

Enko, sea nymphs or sprites reportedly found in the Seto Inland Sea coasts will waylay unsuspecting humans and drag them down into the depths of the sea, especially after O-bon (see article by Amy Chavez).

However, on the other side of Japan, the Enko Festival (Enko Matsuri) celebrates another kind of water sprite, a riverine one … the Kappa.

Kappa water imp 1836.jpg

The Kappa is venerated in the small town of Nankokushi, east of Kōchi City, Shikoku Island where it has more than one shrine dedicated to it. Nankokushi is famous for its centuries-old Enko Matsuri (mythological creature e.g. kappa, festival)…read about it here. Click here and here to see a Kappa hamakubo-gumi shrine. Kappa are known to all regions of Japan, but its “capital” is thought to be in Saga prefecture, alternatively, by another account(Ishida), Hyogo and Osumi in southern Kyushu.

The Seto Island type of water sprite resembles the vili-veela, melusina of the Slav-Russian type and Ved-ava of the Baltic-Finno-Ugric peoples, while the more ubiquitous kappa is closer to the Korea dokkaebi and perhaps the water spirits of the Altai river systems. Kappa also have an affinity to the Finnish Näkki, Scandinavian/Germanic Näck/Neck, Slavian Vodník/Russian rusalka and Scottish Kelpie in that all have been used to scare children of dangers lurking in waters.

However, some authors (Yanagita and Ishida) have noted that Kappa legends that say kappa are in the habit of luring horses into the water are a twisted forgotten or remote memory of the ancient practice of offering horses to a water-deity. In kappa-related stories, horses are connected to sea and dragon-horses (lung-ma), concepts  seen mainly in western and northwestern China, and further west in Central Asia. More on this from the extract below from The Kappa Legend: A Comparative Ethnological Study on the Japanese Water-Spirit  Kappa and Its Habit of Trying to Lure Horses into the Water by Ishida Eiichiro:

At Shifioda in Nagaoka-gun, Tosa province, which is one of the places where the legend is preserved from old times,
horses are brought to the riverside on June 15th of each year and tethered to stakes by long ropes. This is called the Nomaki (” Grazing in fields “), and on this day a kappa festival is held.506) Near Fukuyama in Bingo province,
it was believed that if oxen and horses were bathed in the sea or in rivers on July 7th, it made them immune against attacks of the kappa throughout the year.507) In some parts of Kyushu, the kappa are called kazca-no-tono (” lords
of the river “), and in the southern provinces of Kyushu such as Hyogo and Osumi where the kappa are the most venerated, they are called sui-jin (” water-gods “). One of Mr. Yanagita’s outstanding contributions to the etymology of the Japanese language is the theory advanced by him that such words as mizushi, which is used for kappa in Kaga and Noto provinces, medochi in Nambu and the Ainu mintsuchi, are all derived from mizuchi, which in its turn is
a variation of mizu-tsuchi meaning a divine being in the water and having no connection originally with the Chinese ideograph & chiao or ch’iu which is usually rendered into Japanese as m i z u ~ h i , ~ ~ ~ ) and being of the opinion that
the kappa are water-gods who had degenerated into water-monsters, Mr. Yanagita says at the e nd of his article, ” In this reason, such instances as the kappa festival in Tosa when horses are tethered to stakes by the waterside may pro-
bably be considered as a sort of an old-age pension paid to the mixuchi, and such place-names as Senzoku-no-ike (” Feet-washiilg pond “) and Uma-arai-buchi (” Horse-washing pool “), as well as the name Koma-tsunagi-no matsu (” Horse-tethering pine “), given to certain pine trees in all parts of our country and the reason for which has so far remained unknown, are most likely the relics of yearly rites held in ancient times at which horses were offered to the water-god, and which in course of time came to be regarded by the agricultural population simply as a means of safeguarding their horses from evil throughout the year, the origin of the practice becoming completely forgotten. The custom, however, of offering the heads of oxen and horses to the water- god to pray for rain was long preserved.” It may be difficult to find actual instances in Japan of oxen and horses being offered yearly to the water-god, but if we take into consideration the legends and customs in all parts of the Eurasian continent discussed in these pages, it becomes no longer possible to question Mr. Yanagita’s conclusion that such Japanese customs as the Nakoshi-matsuri and Ushi-no-yabuiri, or indeed the Japanese legend of the kappa trying to lure horses into the water, have their origin in the sacrifice of oxen and horses to the water-god in remote ages.”

Sources and further reading:

Enko Matsuri: Kappa Festival


JAPAN LITE | You can swim even after O-bon — the truth about jellyfish Japan Times

Despite the temperature being hot as blazes, mid-August is still considered the end of the swimming season in Japan. In our area of the Seto Inland Sea, it used to be said that after O-bon (around Aug. 15) the enko (sea nymphs) come out and can grab your legs and pull you down under the water to drown you. But these days the Japanese have abandoned that old-fashioned myth for the new-fashioned one — that the jellyfish come out after O-bon. So no one in their right mind would go swimming now. Read more here

Water sprites (Wikipedia)

Kappa (Onmark)

The Kappa Legend:  A Comparative Ethnological Study on the Japanese Water-Spirit  Kappa and Its Habit of Trying to Lure Horses into the Water by Ishida Eiichiro


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