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Amabie: The Japanese Legend of Fish People and Plague Prevention

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Back in March, I had a dream. Standing in my backyard, I looked up and saw lights in the sky coming from a large structure that looked like a building made of light grey metal, shaped like an upside down L. There were fish flying in and out of the windows of this “building.” A few minutes later, the fish had come down to about 10 feet above me, dancing about in the air. They were beautiful, silvery, about 1 foot in diameter. A little while later, after I had gone inside, I found a blue plastic-looking tube-shaped thing, which appeared to be alive in the room near where I had seen the fish in the air outside. I tried to pick it up, but it began to release a thick luminous substance, which had a type of intelligence of its own. I picked up some of it and went to show it to my daughter, and the rest of it followed me.

I shared my dream with my friend, Clifford Mahooty, who is a Zuni elder. He suggested I look into the legends of the Fish People. I Googled a few times, coming up with different fish stories, including the Salmon people, but nothing really fit with what I had seen in my dream. A couple of weeks later, I came across the story of the Amabie, a yokai (spirits that take physical form for various purposes) in the form of fish person.

The Amabie first appeared in 1846, during the Edo period in Japan. People had been reporting glowing lights coming from the sea off the coast of the Kumamoto Prefect for several nights in a row, so a government official went to investigate. A yokai appeared to him as a shimmering being with human, fish, and bird features. It announced the coming of a six-year period of abundant harvest. It also proclaimed that a plague was coming soon, and that people should draw and share its image to help stave off the disease. [I have included an image of the government official's drawing of the Amabie above]. And, I set about creating my own rendition of the Amabie, based on the original description, combined with the fish beings I saw in my dream.

I called Clifford and told him about my discovery. He was not surprised, as the Zuni have many legends about Fish People as messengers. And, he said that there is evidence that the Zuni Nation and travelers from Japan have a long history of sharing culture. He referred me to Nancy Yaw Davis's book, The Zuni Enigma: A Native American People's Possible Japanese Connection.

Soon after, I found that several European and American media outlets (BBC, NPR, The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian) were covering the story of the Amabie.

And, on an interesting side note, when I was researching yoga poses for one of my classes around this same time, I came across a factoid about Fish Pose (Matsyasana). According to Yoga Journal, in a traditional yoga text, it is said that Matsyasana is the “destroyer of all diseases,” so I now include it in every yoga class I teach. All of this, plus the fact that Mi'kmaq elder, David Lonebear Sanipass recently told me that animal protein is important in keeping our immune systems functioning properly, is making me think there must be something to this. So I have been making salmon for dinner at least once a week!


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