HI. It’s Thursday, and since you’re here, I’m sure you know what that means! It’s post time. And today –given last week’s post on Hisaishi and Miyazaki– I felt inspired to talk about the tree spirits known as kodamas.
If you’re familiar with Miyazaki, you’ve probably seen or heard of the film Princess Mononoke. It is this Miyazaki directed (and Hisaishi composed) film that first introduced me to the concept of kodamas. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “But it’s a fantasy movie, kodamas could be a made-up creature.” A solid point, but! Miyazaki is kind of a traditionalist and that shows in his films. He’s even quoted as having said something along the lines of, “I look forward to the buildings and cities being overrun with wildlife.” The man loves nature. If you’ve seen the documentary In the Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, you’ll know that Miyazaki spends a lot of his time in a cabin in the woods. Because a lot of his movies feature spirits of sorts, and he’s a “nature guy” it’s only natural he would include real mythological creatures in his work. And kodamas are historical, mythological creatures.
Their name first appeared in 10th century CE, otherwise known as the Heian period, in the Wamuryorui Jyusho (和名類聚抄) or Japanese Names for Things written in 931-938 CE. The kodamas are listed as 古多万 or spirits of the trees. In The Tale of Genji (the first novel ever written, and it just so happened to be written by a woman!) kodama are described as tree-dwelling goblins. One thing is for certain, however, and that is that these creatures exist for the trees. They are the protectors of the forest.
In paintings, it is said the kodama take residence in trees that have passed one hundred years of age. Other references say kodamas can move freely about the forest, moving from tree to tree. I think many would agree, that kodamas are also responsible for the sounds of the forest. Falling trees and mountain echoes have long been associated with kodamas until modern times. Nowadays, mountain echoes are said to belong to the yokai yamabiko.
When written in kanji, the oldest form of the name kodama is written as 古多万. Which roughly translates to old many. As kanji evolved, the characters for kodama changed to 木魂 which caused the meaning to change to tree soul. The final character of the name changed in modern times, however, it only changed the meaning from soul (魂) to spirit (霊).
In certain areas of Japan, some people still worship kodama. Some place shrines at the bases of trees while others hold festivals.
No one agrees upon what kodamas look like. In the Edo period, kodamas were said to have been able to take human form. An ancient belief is that kodamas are invisible or indistinguishable from the trees they inhabit. It really depends on the person you as or the story you read. As the title photo of this post portrays, Miyazaki’s kodamas are monochromatic, although they do have the ability to make themselves appear and disappear at will.
Do you know of any myths or legends about kodamas or other tree spirits? If so, comment below! For those interested in my sources, I’ve provided links in the comments section below.
Thank you for reading,