Enchanted World: A Podcast About Fantastic and Mythical Creatures
The Enchanted World podcast is a podcast about the fantastic creatures and animals and beings that appear in fantasy and in myth and folklore. From the well known to the obscure, we'll explore this vast list of creatures one by one in each episode, and look at their origins as well as the legends that surround each creature.
In the first episode of Enchanted World, we'll travel all the way to Japan to look at the origins and myths surrounding the bakekujira, or the ghost whale.
Welcome to the Enchanted World podcast. I’m the creator and writer and also a writer. I’ve grown up on fantasy; it’s been such a huge part of my life. Fantasy has helped shape me, and that’s not at all an exaggeration. I think people who don’t like fantasy dismiss it but they fail to see the many parallels between fantastical worlds and wars and struggles and triumphs and the one we actually inhabit, and really, the job of any book is to transport you to that world, and great fantasy writers like Le Guin and Pratchett and Tolkien and Pullman and Carroll and Sage and Wynne Jones – all so renowned that just their last names will do – do just that. It’s not just about temporarily escaping reality to inhabit and walk through another world; the best fantasy novels help us make sense of the real world, of our worlds. They refract real things, real struggles, real emotions: heartbreak, love, loss, pain, triumph, victory – all things we’re familiar with – through a lens of wonder and magic and it helps us see things more clearly. The best fantasy books help us immerse ourselves in this world of magic and wonder but then linger in our minds and memories for a long time because of that connection that it made us feel to our actual lives. The best fantasy books hold up the world to us in a mirror.
Whilst we’re on the subject of fantasy, that’s really what this podcast is all about. Specifically, it’s about the fantastic creatures and animals and beings that appear in fantasy and in myth and folklore. We’re going to look at all the amazing beings with magical and supernatural powers. Some you may be familiar with elves and vampires and werewolves and so on, and we’ll look at them down the line too because there’s probably history and myth surrounding those creatures you may not know about, but we’ll also look at the really obscure ones too, and maybe I’ll be able to introduce you to some you haven’t heard of until now.
It’s weird because people think that all of this is a fairly recent thing, as in maybe eighteenth century onwards, but if you think that you couldn’t be more wrong. Humans have been imagining fantastic creatures since time immemorial, it’s such a huge part of the human experience. Take the classical era. If you look at the art and the stories of the classical era, you’ll see a wide variety of mythical and fantastic creatures. In the Odyssey, Odysseus fights a number of them, including the Cyclops, which is a one-eyed giant that appears widely across both Greek and Roman mythology. Then of course there’s the medusa, which is a winged human female with a head full of venomous snakes in the place of hair. Talk about a bad hair day.
Then, of course, we have the minotaur, a mythical creature that was described as part man, part bull. The minotaur lived in the centre of the labyrinth, which was an elaborate maze that was designed by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus, on the command of King Minos of Crete. And because good must eventually vanquish evil, the Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus.
The hydra comes to mind as well. She was a serpentine water monster, and she haunted my imagination after I learned of her, so much so that I refused to swim in the community pool as a child because I was so afraid she’d be lurking in it. In Indian art, we can find references to centaurs and flying horses and even sphinxes, which are winged lions.
Anyway, that’s what this podcast is all about. In each episode, we’ll look closely at one figure from fantasy or the supernatural lore or folklore and we’ll look at their origins and explore them more closely. I’d like to start with something fairly obscure though if that’s okay, and I’d like to apologise in advance to Japan for any mispronunciations in this podcast.
I first encountered tales of the bakekujira sometime ago when I was researching something else, and the legend of the ghost whale stuck with me. The bakekujira – which quite literally translates to ghost whale – are animated whale skeletons that appear during rainy nights in the seas off the coastal fishing villages of Japan. The ghost whale surfaces for air, just like living breathing whales do, and one of the most fascinating things about it is that it doesn’t appear alone. It brings with it a horde of strange birds and fish, the like of which has never been seen before!
The origins of the bakekujira are a little misty, but basically, the story goes like this. On a rainy night off the island of Okino, fishermen and their families noticed something large and white swimming in the water. After it had remained there a while, some of them took a rowboat out to see what it was. Many were convinced that it was a whale. As they rowed out to where the creature was swimming they noticed that the waters were filled with all kinds of strange fish, the likes of which they’d never seen before, and the skies above were teeming with bizarre birds. Finally, they reached the creature, and through the hissing rain, they managed to get a look at it. It was a whale, a white whale. Of course, people will be people, so one of the fishermen threw his harpoon at it and it passed through the whale as though it weren’t even there. And although they were terrified at this point, they rowed a bit closer and then they saw it – the skeleton of a great whale, all bones, no skin, no flesh. But it was moving and alive, swimming with its fish and bird companions, even coming up to the surface for air as though it were breathing.
I don’t know about you, but that would scare me, and sure enough, the fishermen were terrified and rowed quickly back to land as fast as they could, afraid that this apparition would pursue them. But it didn’t. It stayed swimming in the general area where it was and then it swam out to sea, followed by the fish and the birds and they never saw it again.
Now, it’s easy to interpret this as some sort of an omen and indeed, the fisherfolk of Okino island wondered aloud whether it was the ghost of a whale that one of them had killed that had come back to haunt them. They wondered if their island was cursed and if they were cursed. I guess when you live that close to nature, braving the whims of the ocean every day, you can’t help wondering sometimes if your actions have consequences that are more long-reaching than the immediate. Either way, nothing seems to have happened to those fisherfolk but other stories of the bakekujira are a little more sinister. People who saw it became sick and their lives were cursed, their families lives were altered completely, and the people whom they came into contact with were affected by their bad luck. Basically, in some tellings of the story, seeing a bakekujira is terribly bad luck because it is indeed the soul of a murdered whale, come back to life to extract some kind of vengeance upon its murderers and upon the people who kill whales for a living.
It was pretty interesting to me to note that the bakekujira doesn’t really seem to find a place in popular culture or literature; it doesn’t even find a mention in Toriyama Sekien’s yokai collection. A yokai means a ghost or a phantom and it's a class of supernatural monsters and spirits in Japanese folklore. So I guess this ghost whale – with its strange and beautiful fish and bird companions – is far too obscure a yokai to even find mention in popular culture. Having said that, I think that it’s a rather beautiful legend, even if it is a little creepy and sad to think of a ghost whale swimming endlessly in the sea, coming up for air as though it were alive, with its creature companions. It’s a rather fascinating thing to think about, so for that reason, I wanted to start my podcast with the bakekujira. I really hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this as much as I enjoyed researching, writing, and recording it, and I hope you’ll tune in to the next episode of Enchanted World.
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