If we were to believe those uppity seismologists, we would assume that earthquakes are the inevitable result of plate tectonics. For those of you lucky enough to never have experienced an earthquake, rest assured, even a minor one feels like a bunch of freight trains bearing down on you from every direction. Definitely fraught with the Armageddon vibe. Author Salman Rushdie said it best, when he observed, “Once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth’s breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force”. It certainly helps if you have the wisdom not to live in the geographic vicinity of something aptly called the “Ring of Fire” – that would be your first clue. While conventional scientific understanding of geologic processes offer a perfectly reasonable theory about the origin of earthquakes, this is nowhere as parsimonious as the obvious explanation that seismic activity is evidence of the frenzied struggles of a monster catfish from Japanese folklore called the Namazu (also called Ōnamazu).
What is the “Namazu” in Japanese legend? This is a giant catfish that is supposed to live in the mud inside the earth. The fish has a penchant for pranks and must be restrained by the Kashima god, who protects Japan from earthquakes. He does this by keeping the Namazu pinioned under a large rock by means of his divine powers. When the deity relaxes his guard, the Namazu thrashes about impudently, thus causing an earthquake (Geological Survey, 1985, p234).
The first question that occurred to me was, obviously, why a catfish? Personally, I find a good, old-fashioned Cajun style catfish beignet with a spicy remoulade sauce to be one of life’s few pleasures. One of the tastier fish in my book. Due to an apparent lack of wisdom as to its monstrous nature, I have never associated it with natural disasters, unless I myself was trying to cook it. Catfish are a freshwater fish, some version of which is found on every continent save Antarctica. One of the largest catfish recorded outside of mythology was 16 feet long and 660 pounds (A European Wels catfish), topped only by a Mekong Delta catfish of 770 pounds, which no doubt required an exceedingly large amount of cornmeal for proper breading, but seems unlikely to have ever been measurable on the Richter Scale. Catfish make rare appearances in Native American mythology, and Ojibwa legends associate them with bad luck, but as catfish in Europe and Asia are on average about five times bigger than those in North America, it is unsurprising that they do not figure prominently as mythological monsters in the New World. One clue as to the origins of the monster catfish myth is the incredible rate of growth attributed to the Mekong Delta giant catfish (generally found in Cambodia and Laos)—they grow from a newly hatched quarter inch small fry (and the fact that a baby catfish is called a “fry” suggests that if catfish had a theology, predestination would figure prominently) to an inch on their 11th day of life, and by 6 years old, can weigh 100 pounds. Curiously, the first Egyptian Pharaoh (31st Century B.C.) was named “Narmer” (hieroglyphs identifying him essentially read “N’r M’r”, literally, “King Catish”). The importance of this factoid is twofold. First, it demonstrates that catfish have been around a long time. Second, it is highly suggestive of the possibility that catfish thirst for power. Just saying. Tor recap, catfish are pretty much everywhere, are known to grow to monstrous sizes, and undoubtedly resent their status as a barbecue staple. All things considered, I would start a few earthquakes too. Luckily, not every catfish is credited with supernatural strength and the ability to shake entire land masses. In fact, only Japan’s Namazu in particular gets this distinction. Namazu is especially angry due to the fact that Kaname Ishi sits on top of him. Opinions vary as to whether the Kaname Ishi was a structural element the Gods stuck in the Earth to hold it together and our catfish friend just happened to be in the way (eminent domain, ancient Japanese-style), or if the Kashima purposely stuck it there to keep Namazu from thrashing about, but needless to say, a great big rock is sitting on top of a gigantic catfish, who clearly does not appreciate it.
Namazu or Jishinuwo. This is the catfish to which earthquakes are due; the creature has a body like an eel, a large flattened head, and long feelers on both sides of its mouth, it lies with its tail under the provinces of Shimosa and Hidachi, and when angry, wriggles about, shaking the foundations of Japan. A large stone rests on its back, the Kaname Ishi, protruding in the garden of the temple of the God Kashima Daimiojin (Takemika Tsuchi no Mikoto). This stone goes deep into the bowels of the earth, it is the rivet (Kaname) which binds the world together: when Kashima and Kadori Miojin came from Heaven to subdue the world, Kashima thrust his sword through the earth, the mighty blade shrank and became the Kaname Ishi which Kashima alone can move. Kadori Miojin is Futsu Nuchi no Mikoto, he has a gourd, and with that gourd and the help of Kadori, this God keeps the fish quiet. Mitsukuni, Daimio of Mito, grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, with a Saint Thomas bent of mind, had the earth dug around the Kaname Ishi, but his men could not get at the base of it. Kadori and his gourd, hugging the Namazu, is sometimes a subject for artistic treatment. His efforts are little thought of if one believes the proverbial sentence: A Gourd against a Namazu (meaning useless effort) alluding to the slipping of the gourd on the fish’s skin (Joly, 1908, p59)
Although probably rooted in older, unrecorded folk traditions, some scholars maintain that the Namazu mythology is relatively recent, dating from the 18th Century, which saw a series of extremely destructive earthquakes, resulting ultimately in serious scientific investigations into the utility of catfish behavior as a predictor of earthquakes. Catfish in particular, well because with the mother of all catfish buried and fidgeting beneath the earth, it stands to reason that it’s more diminutive cousins might feel a certain simpatico.
This tradition is estimated to have started about 1700 A.D. After that time, some examples of catfish associated with earthquakes were reported in historic documents. In particular, many colored wood-block prints with catfish legends (i.e. namazu-e) appeared after the 1855 Edo earthquake. In the late 1800’s, J. Milne described some examples of unusual behavior of fish before earthquakes, but no remarkable scientific work was done until the 1920’s. The Kanto earthquake of 1923, which destroyed much of Tokyo, led several seismologists to pay attention to the problem of animal anomalies. For example, Hatai and Abe (1932) investigated the response of the catfish, Paraslurus asotus, to earthquakes, and Hatai, Kokubo and Abe (1932) studied earth currents in relation to the responses of catfish. One remarkable example was discovered by Terada (1932) where there appeared a good correlation between the number of fish caught and the number of felt earthquakes near the time of the 1930 Ito earthquake swarm (Evernden, 1976, p26).
It would seem that torturing a poor, giant catfish is not good inter-species relations, and we can hardly fault the unfortunate Namazu for throwing a tantrum whenever he gets a chance. He is regarded as a somewhat anomalistic addition to Shinto traditions.
It seems curious at first sight that a people whose treatment of animals is markedly kind should regard the deity of the animal world as an inhuman monster, and should attribute one of the most terrible phenomena of nature as well as many of the accidents of daily life to the malevolent interference of fabulous creatures. It is popularly believed that a giant catfish (Namazu) lies under Japan. Over its head is built the shrine of Daimyo-jin at Kashima in the province of Hitachi, and the deity is supposed to have his feet planted on the monsters snout. Whenever the god reduces the pressure or alters the position of his feet the catfish writhes and the earthquakes. Beside the shrine stands a stone called “the pivot rock” (kaname-ishi). It is in the form of a rude pillar, and the people believe that it penetrates to an enormous depth and reaches to the head of the catfish (Brinkley, 1904, p221-222).
Of course, other scholars argue that nobody has ever actually taken the myth of the Namazu very seriously, and he figures much more prominently in artwork, than in any robust literature. Additionally, Namazu is considered an extremely unimportant critter in the Shinto pantheon. No wonder he’s pissed.
The very origin of earthquakes is ascribed rather jocosely to the movement of a huge, phlegmatic cat-fish, Namazu, living in mud beneath the crust of the earth. When its barbells twitch, seismology makes record of fresh shocks; but should the hideous monster feel inclined to raise its broad, glum head in its dozing on the muddy bottom, then woe to civilization and all its achievements! Nobody takes this creature seriously. When it is mentioned, it is always in a humorous vein. Among the eighty myriad gods of the Shinto pantheon, there is only one solitary mention of a god of earthquakes, and he has no homage paid him such as Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, enjoyed at the hands of the Hellenes. Then among hundreds of nature-myths, to which one listens with more or less religious reverence, one looks in vain for the story of an earth-shaker (Nitobé, 1912, p33-34).
Now, you may scoff at the idea that our ultimate demise on this planet will result from the twitches of a gargantuan bottom feeder, but as Scottish geologist John Playfair warned, “The Author of nature has not given laws to the universe, which, like the institutions of men, carry in themselves the elements of their own destruction; he has not permitted in his works any symptom of infancy or of old age, or any sign by which we may estimate either their future or their past duration. He may put an end, as he no doubt gave a beginning, to the present system at some determinate period of time; but we may rest assured, that this great catastrophe will not be brought about by the laws now existing, and that it is not indicated by anything which we perceive.” This very loosely translates to the suggestion that just because you can’t see or conceive of something, it doesn’t mean it won’t kill you. Certainly that wasn’t his main point, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the author of our destruction will be a giant catfish.
Brinkley, F. 1841-1912. Japan: Described And Illustrated by the Japanese. Boston: J. B. Millet Company, 1904.
Geological Survey (U.S.), and National Earthquake Information Center. Earthquake Information Bulletin. [Rockville, Md]: the Center, v18:6, 1985.
Evernden, J. F., 1922-, and National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (U.S.). Abnormal Animal Behavior Prior to Earthquakes, I: EHRP Conference I. Menlo Park, Calif.: U. S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey, Office of Earthquake Studies, 1976.
Joly, Henri L. Legend In Japanese Art: a Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folk-lore, Myths, Religious Symbolism, Illustrated In the Arts of Old Japan. London: J. Lane, 1908.
Nitobé, Inazo Ota. [from old catalog]. The Japanese Nation. Its Land, Its People And Its Life. [n.p.], 1912.
Street, Julian, 1879-1947. Mysterious Japan. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page & company, 1925.