Mythical creatures, by their nature, do not actually exist outside of the stories told about them. Lately, I’ve been exploring deep in their realm, from the primordial demons of the distant past to the cryptids of today, encountering all manner of creatures and beings.
But yesterday, I came upon something interesting: a mythical version of an already mythical creature. How does that work, you ask?
Meet the gashadokuro, a yōkai (supernatural Japanese being) whose story proved strangely elusive, for a giant clattering skeleton-demon.
What’s A Gashadokuro?
Finding little information initially on the English Wikipedia page (which I later fleshed out), or elsewhere online, I cracked open one of my recently purchased books, Encyclopedia of Japanese Yōkai by Shigeru Mizuki. After spending a few minutes figuring out how Japanese alphabetization works, I came upon the entry I was looking for…
…or so I thought.
After a couple sentences’ description of the gashadokuro (it’s a giant skeleton formed from the bones and grudges of unburied corpses, that roams at night and devours any human it finds), I came to this:
That is, “It’s not a gashadokuro, but there’s this other story in the Nihon Ryōiki.”
And then proceeded to tell a story that, indeed, was not about a giant people-eating skeleton, but about a plain old haunted “dokuro” (どくろ), or skull, with a bamboo shoot growing from its eye socket. A man walking through a field at night hears “My eye hurts,” finds the skull of a murdered child and removes the bamboo shoot, and in gratitude it treats him to a New Year’s Eve feast at its parents’ house. Reminds me of “The Stepchild and the Flute.”
I felt a cheated — where was the badass gashadokuro I was promised?
The None-Too-Ancient Origins
Back to the Japanese Wikipedia page, where once again I faced my grammar inadequacies. But eventually, I found the giant skeleton in the closet: the gashadokuro is a myth built on a myth. As far as I can tell, it was created in the tail end of the 20th century, somewhere in the ’70s and ’80s, by manga authors. It appears that the first instance was in a 1968 book by Shigeaki Yamauchi, and it was later picked up by other manga authors, so it became more widely known.
But wait. If the gashadokuro is a recent invention, what’s it doing in an illustration from 1844?
Apparently, Kuniyoshi’s giant skeleton was, in the original tale, many regular-sized skeletons summoned by the witch Takiyasha. Kuniyoshi simply decided to depict this as one giant skeleton, which I’ll admit looks way cooler. Later illustrations were modeled after it, including the one by Shigeru Mizuki earlier in this post.
In the end, the gashadokuro is no more or less “real” than its more ancient brethren, nor is the tale of its creation inaccurate (after all, it really is the sum of a hundred regular evil skeletons, conceptually).
The gashadokuro isn’t even the first mythical creature born of a mistranslated description or misinterpreted illustration — okay, I didn’t find a particular link to back up that second claim, but take a look at the 13th-century illustration below and tell me, which one is the mythical creature?
And no, that’s not a trick question — up top is a “monoceros” (basically a unicorn, though from the description it could well have been a rhino), and the lower illustration is a bear. I guess bears once were part pangolin, part sheep, part dog, and always nervous, probably out of fear that the universe would realize their existence was a mistake and erase them from being.