Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.
BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.
I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!
There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.
The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.
CATS AND BIRDS
Perhaps this story has more longevity as a stage play because my daughter’s class performed it last year as part of the Year 2 drama unit here in Australia. The book, however, is out of print.
A bogle, boggle or bogill is a Northumbrian and Scots term for a ghost or folkloric being, used for a variety of related folkloric creatures including:
- The Hedley Kow
- Giants such as those associated with Cobb’s Causey (also known as “ettins”, “yetuns” or “yotuns” in Northumberland and “Etenes”, “Yttins” or “Ytenes” in the South and South West).
They exist for the simple purpose of perplexing mankind rather than seriously harming or serving them.
There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez nos, or the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always by night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the frefusers into the stream and drown them.
— A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence in France, Principally in the Southern Departments, from the Year 1802 to 1805: Including Some Authentic Particulars Respecting the Early Life of the French Emperor, and a General Inquiry Into His Character, Volume 3, , 1 January 1810
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
- A washerwoman night or washerwoman’s death is a legendary character dating back to the 8th Century.
- She is some sort of creature or ghost originating in Gaelic culture. In Scottish Gaelic she is called a nighe bean.
- Always met at night, cleaning cloth in a stream or a public wash-house.
- The washerwoman is always linked to the death realm.
- Like the Grim Reaper, if you met her it was a sign of death.
- This washerwoman is often connected to/confused with banshees, white ladies and night spinners. (Night spinners appear in earlier versions of Rumpelstiltskin and various other fairytales.)
- Also known in French as Lavandière de nuit, ‘washerwomen of night’.
- The function of these legends was to reinforce certain social or religious prohibitions: mainly to punish women who kept washing clothes after sunset, while night was traditionally devoted to rest and the day to work. The risk of encountering the night washer would also be an incentive for the villagers not to go out at night and stay in their house; a principle that was recommended by the Church and sometimes reinforced by Britain in the 19th century by the evening bells ringing a kind of curfew.
- Sometimes night washerwomen were thought to be mothers who were cursed for killing their children.
- Another story told people that night washerwomen were laundresses responsible for washing the laundry of the poor. By avarice, they replaced the soap by pebbles and rubbed the linen with the pebbles. The linen was terribly damaged and of course remained dirty. In a Sisyphean twist, to punish the washerwomen for this crime they were condemned to wash dirty clothes forever.