Prophetic mermaid whose image prevents disease.
There was once a town official, who resided in Higo Province in Japan (today known as the Kumamoto Prefecture). Matters of state kept him busy, but he would make time every night for a walk along the beach. Something about the dark, steady waves washing onto shore would calm his mind, even during the most hectic times of the year. The beach where he walked afforded a clear view of the castle on one side, and the endless ocean horizon stretched on the other. In this position he could look to one side and acknowledge his earthly duties, then look to the other and acknowledge his small place in infinity. It was peaceful.
One night, he felt unusually restless. He had grown aware of a general uneasiness spreading throughout his community. Some spoke of business slowing down, others of worse things like droughts and famines approaching. Whatever the true cause, his mind was restless and sleep eluded him. That night he walked further than usual, losing himself in thoughts he could not remember moments after entertaining them. At times he felt a vague ache in his feet. The cold, damp sand had got through his sandles and it itched. He turned a corner and he felt his eyes adjust as a pale dawn seemed to break. There was a strange light beaming from the water directly ahead of him. It looked like a glowing orb, just a few feet beneath the water's surface. He stopped in his tracks for a moment, not afraid but not sure what to do. He decided to approach and what he then witnessed he would remember for the rest of his life. From beneath the water's surface, the pale orb slowly emerged. The light dimmed and there, floating in the air, was a small creature covered in scales and standing upright. It had long hair, and a bird's bill, with three legs beneath it. It looked directly at him and addressed him presently: "I am an amabie, and I have come here from the open sea to speak with you. Do not be afraid." The dull shimmer around it's scales brightened at that moment, and it's voice became profound. The official heard it as if it spoke from within his own head or from the very air surrounding them. "Good harvest will continue for six years from the current year. If disease spreads, show a picture of me to those who fall ill and they will be cured." It was a prophecy.
Afterwards, the amabie returned to the sea. The town official wrote down his story and sketched the creature from memory. The story and the portrait were printed on woodblock and shared around his town, later spreading across Japan.
Many consider the amabie to be a copy-cat creature, or perhaps even a clerical error. There are other prophetic yokai who are reported to appear and deliver promises of bountiful crops and protection from disease. Like the amabie, they recommend spreading a picture of themselves around to protect yourself. You could say that social media memes haven't changed much since the 17th century… These other yokai have many more recorded sightings and so you could argue that the amabie was unlikely to have really existed.
I prefer to believe that this mysterious little creature was, in fact, a member of a family of similar creatures. The group of creatures is called "Amabiko" and has a few variants. There is an illustrated manuscript from 1844 in Echigo depicting an amabiko with no torso, only a hairy face and three long appendages - like a strange squid. An article from 1876 reports of another variant that appears ape-like, again with only 3 legs. Finally there was the "holy Amakibo" (Amabiko-no-mikoto), recorded in a newspaper in 1875. This one appeared doll-like, with less hair and four legs. It was unusual because it was spotted in a rice paddy rather than in the sea.
If the amabie can indeed protect us from pestilence, we must consider the possibility that it has some connection to the gods. The story of Amabiko-no-mikoto makes that connection appear indesputable. However, seasoned adventurers and sages know that the ability to forsee the future is often possessed by creatures of the sea. It is for that reason, that we can be reasonably confident in classifying the amabie as a type of mermaid . Regardless of the final taxonomy, may the amabie's image protect you in these trying times.
Written by Giles Ravensong.