When an amabie rises out of the ocean (or even, as was chronicled in August 1895, out of an irrigated paddy field), it brings with it two tidings. The first is that an abundant harvest is coming. The second: epidemic will follow. But the amabie of Japanese lore – described as a three-legged mer-creature, usually either scaled or covered in hair – is both harbinger and healer. If the afflicted are shown a drawing of it, they will be free of disease. In the 19th century, woodblock printed newssheets carried these images; today, not only are paper amulets being distributed at Shinto shrines, but manga artists have shared tens of thousands of renderings of this entity online, to ward off the novel coronavirus.
The belief that there are powers that both bestow and dispel disease is reflected in India as well. Here, goddesses including Mariamman, Sitala and Raksha Kali are propitiated, often with the understanding that the illness itself is a form of grace. The Babylonian deity Aplu, the Yoruban orisha Babalú-Ayé, and the Tibetan Parnashabari (who once held sway in India religious practices too) also hold these dualistic powers.
Folk belief, legend and religiosity tread a fluid line. When Norway suffered from bubonic plague in the 14thcentury, the illness became associated with the character of an elderly woman. Named Pesta, she would carry either a rake or a broomstick. If she was sighted with a rake, some succour would appear in the community; if she was sighted carrying a broomstick, then all was doomed. In one tale about Pesta, a boatman realises only mid-way across a river that his passenger is the dreaded plague herself. This is when a third object in her possession is revealed: she has a book, presumably of final fates. The boatman pleads for mercy, but she consults the book and shake her head. She cannot avert his death, although she can ensure that he doesn’t suffer. The lesson: acceptance.
The German legend of the Pied Piper of the town of Hamelin is about a rat-catcher with a mysterious musical instrument that he played to bring the vermin out of their hiding places, holding them enchanted all the way to the outskirts and beyond. Despite ridding the town of the infestation, he didn’t get paid properly – so he exacted his revenge by playing his pipe to lure children away instead. Many versions of the story have tragic endings. Some believe there’s historical evidence of these events, particularly the loss of the children. Because they’d been led away dancing and singing, neither activity is permitted on the street, Bungelosenstraße (“drumless street”) where they were last reportedly seen in June 1284. The lesson: gratitude.
These beliefs and stories may find little favour with science, which does not regard pandemics and contagions as being prone to persuasions in this way. But they are vital. They honour how illnesses are largely arbitrary and inevitable, yet in the magical way of all stories, offer hope to allay the fear, like honey that helps the medicine go down. After all, if there’s one thing the myth of the amabie teaches us, it’s this: art is a remedy.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.