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8 Mummified, Mythical Monsters Found in Remote Japanese Temples

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In remote locations, far from the eyes of foreign tourists, Shinto temples across Japan claim to house the ancient, mummified remains of everything from ogres to mermaids. These artifacts are commonly believed to be elaborate pieces of faux-taxidermy created for entertainment purposes at Edo Period carnivals called Misemonos. The proceeds of these carnivals often benefited local shrines, and the mummies were either presented alongside or later associated with myths that represented local beliefs and practices. Now, hundreds of years later, they stand out as some of the most unusual pieces of cultural history in the world. Here are some examples of mythical mummified creatures—and where they can be found.


Original illustration by Zardulu

Ogres, or oni, are one of the most common figures in Shinto folklore. While most of them live in the netherworld, a few of these brightly colored brutes end up wandering the Earth doing all kinds of terrible things like eating people. One ogre may have bitten off more than he could chew when he visited the town of Naruto—at least that's what we can guess based on the remains at Kikotsuji Temple. Inside is a golden shrine that holds a few thumb-sized ogre molars and a bulbous horn.

Original illustration by Zardulu

The remains of a second ogre can be found in the town of Usa, near the Jyuppouzan Daijyoin temple complex. A set of 108 stairs leads to an entire mummified body, complete with horns and three-fingered hands. No one knows for sure how old the specimen is, but for many generations, it was in the possession of a noble family—until the patriarch fell ill in 1925. Believing himself to be cursed by the ogre heirloom, he handed the mummy over to the local temple, after which he reportedly made a complete recovery.


Original illustration by Zardulu

Ushi-Oni is a term that's come to encompass any supernatural creature with the head of an ox; the most common depictions feature giant, bipedal flying squirrels. If you've never had the opportunity to see one, look no further than Negoro-ji, a temple near the town of Iwade. Not only is there a statue of a googly-eyed, dancing ushi-oni outside—the inside houses the horns of one that, according to legend, was slain 400 years ago by a famous archer, Yamada Kurando Takakiyois.

Original illustration by Zardulu

The remains of another ushi-oni are housed in the city of Kurume's Ishishikakizan Kannonji temple. This one was vanquished by a priest named Konko Fujinori Konnon using only the power of prayer. According to the temple, the creature’s foot, now mummified, has been in their possession for the nearly 1000 years since its disembodiment.


Original illustration by Zardulu

Almost everyone is familiar with the Disney cartoon The Little Mermaid, where Ariel gives up her life in the sea to become human. But in the Japanese mermaid tale of happyaku bikuni, things turn out a bit differently, with the mermaid giving up her life to become ... dinner.

The mummified remains of a mermaid that managed to avoid the dinner plate can be found in a little temple outside Hashimoto. The creature—which is said to have been caught a thousand years ago in a local river and brought to the temple—is not likely to get a kiss from a Disney prince: Its grotesque face is captured in the middle of a terrifying scream.

Original illustration by Zardulu

A second mermaid mummy can be found in the Hachinohe City Museum. It has the unique distinction of having not one, but two screaming faces on a single head. The museum also claims to possess the remains of another supernatural creature, the tengu.


Original illustration by Zardulu

The tengu varies in appearance but is most famously some combination of a human and a crow. The creatures have a nasty reputation—they’re known for carrying people off into the sky, after which they’ll leave them at the top of mountains or drop them to their doom. The Wakayama Prefectural Museum of History and Folklore has an entire mummified tengu, its withered body propped up by a wooden crutch.

Original illustration by Zardulu

The long-beaked skull of another, larger tengu can be found in the city of Ibaraki at Sōji-ji temple. Even more impressive may be the mummy on display next to the skull—the contorted body of a storm spirit, the Raiju.


Original illustration by Zardulu

Raiju are said to be the embodiment of a storm: They strike the earth, tear through trees, and set fields on fire when they're angered. Though descriptions of their appearance vary quite a bit in Shinto folklore, all of the mummified examples appear to be feline. In the town of Nagoka, the treasury of Saishō-ji temple displays the dried up husk of a raiju stretched out among other ancient relics. Another raiju, very similar in appearance, is nestled in an ornate wooden box in Iwate-ji Temple in the town of Hanamaki.


Original illustration by Zardulu

The kudan is a creature that has the body of a cow and the face of a human. These creatures (which probably originate from real calves born with genetic defects) live only a few weeks—and, according to legend, they're able to foretell the future. While there are many historical accounts of mummified kudan, the only remaining example is in the private collection of Chan Kihon Kihara, a self-described “mystery collector” who loans it to museums from time to time.


Original illustration by Zardulu

Like their Chinese counterparts, Japanese dragons are wingless, flying serpents with four clawed feet. The Zuiryūzan Hōun-ji temple, located outside the town of Chichibu, claims to have discovered a dragon's bottom jaw on its grounds several centuries ago.

Original illustration by Zardulu

In Osaka, the mummified remains of an entire dragon can be found at Ruilong Temple. Legend has it that the dragon was purchased by a Japanese general, Akizawa, from a Chinese farmer who witnessed the creature dying, bashed it with a stick, stuffed it in a sack and smuggled it to Japan. This temple also has a mummified mermaid as well as one of the most popular Japanese supernatural creatures, the kappa.


Original illustration by Zardulu

Kappa—which are frequently depicted as bipedal turtles from Shinto folklore that drag people into rivers and lakes—are often blamed for drownings. To stay in their good graces, people leave offerings of the creature’s favorite food: cucumbers. One popular place to leave an offering is Sogenji, a kappa-themed temple in the Kappabashi-dori neighborhood of Tokyo. Inside the temple is a large collection of kappa memorabilia, from ancient scrolls to souvenir coffee mugs—and, inside a wooden box, one kappa's mummified hand.

Original illustration by Zardulu

A more complete set of kappa remains is on display in the town of Imari at Matsuuraichi Shuzo Sake Brewery. A carpenter claimed to have found the mummy while doing renovations on the building in the 1960s. The owner, recognizing the mummy’s cultural significance, turned it into a tourist attraction and adopted it as a symbol of his company. Cheers!

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.


Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?


This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.


An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.


Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.


Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.


Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.


"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."


"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."


"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."


"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."


"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."


"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."


"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."


"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."


"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."


"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."


"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."


"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."


"True friends stab you in the front."


"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."


"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."


"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."


"Genius is born—not paid."


"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."


"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"


"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."


"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."


"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."


"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."


"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.


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