Every year at the New Year, fearsome monstrous mountain demons called Namahage visit children in Japan’s Akita Prefecture on the Oga Peninsula.
There, at the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, people continue the ancient customs. Although the tradition nearly died out, it has seen a rise in popularity in recent years.
With parent’s permission, men in groups of three come house to house in costume as oni-like demons carrying giant ritual knives and asking:
“Are there any crybabies here? Any kids who don’t listen to their parents?”
“Are there any naughty kids around?” the ogres scream.
“Are there any lazy daughters-in-law here?” they cry.
The Namahage warns against laziness, threatening to eat naughty children. However, they are also seen as mountain spirits that descend on the village to ward off evil. Thus, like the fairies of Ireland, they can be depicted as good or evil.
While the screaming creatures are often horrifying for kids, many parents find them a harmless and hilarious spectacle. According to the folklore, the lesson is meant to instill obedience and good morals, a tradition handed down for hundreds of years.
Carrying flaming torches, the Namahage scream as they come down from the mountains.
See scenes from the Oga Namahage Festival:
Emperor Wu of Han and the Namahage
Legends say Emperor Wu of Han arrived in Oga from the sky with five bat-like creatures over 2,000 years ago. By one account, he was in pursuit of an elixir of immortality made from a plant.
Related: An Ancient Tablet’s Clue to Immortality Sounds Like One Scientists Study Now
The Legend of 999 Stairs
Then, the bat-like creatures transformed into demons and began kidnapping young women and stealing crops from the villages. After wreaking havoc, the villagers made a deal, hoping they could trick the demons into leaving with a difficult task.
They asked the creatures to build a giant stone staircase of 1000 stairs. It would connect the beach to the Goshado shrine in the mountains.
If the demons could make the stairs before the rooster crowed in the morning, the village would agree to turn over a young woman each year. The beasts agreed to the deal, finding it all-too-easy to move the stones.
However, on the 999th step, a villager tricked them.
Crowing like a rooster, a villager made the ogres believe daylight was upon them. Thus, the demons left feeling they had been defeated. In another version, it is an imitation demon who tricks the others, becoming the Namahage.
Visitors can see the site of the beautiful Akagami Shrine Goshado today and climb 999 stairs leading to it.
The Namahage and Western rituals
The Namahage custom sounds terrifying but shares some elements of Western rituals. For example, the Namahage carries a book to write down whose been naughty or nice. Then, to appease the ogres, the parents will offer them food and send them on their way. Indeed, these customs immediately invoke Santa Clause and Trick or Treaters at Halloween.
Today, the creatures appear all over the town of Oga on souvenirs. There’s also a Namagage Museum. Besides, the ritual is becoming famous in part to a new short film by director Sato Takuma.
Related: An 800-ton monolith from Japan and its similarity to tales of strange otherworldly visitors
The Pandemic Changes Ancient Customs
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Namahage are adopting new safety protocols. Instead of coming into homes and partaking of food offerings, they will instead roam the streets screaming from afar. Now, volunteers will wear masks as well as the ogres. Nearby, people will enjoy seafood as they watch from a safe distance.
It may be quite a relief for many kids in the town of Oga!
Similarly, in Germany and Austria, the annual Krampus festivities are changing or will be put off due to COVID-19. According to centuries-old myth, the Krampus is the half-goat half-demon son of Hel in Norse mythology.
Each year on December 5, the Krampus arrives to beat people into being nice instead of naughty. While St. Nicholas brings sweets, the Krampus swats misbehaving kids with a switch, stuffs them into sacks, and takes them away.
Like the revitalized pagan festivals of Samhain, the Krampus and Namahage have been scaled back in 2020. However, all of these ancient rituals have been growing in popularity in recent years.
See more about the Namahage last year from The Speakeasy:
Featured image: Namahage costumes by Douglas P Perkins via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)