Vegder's Blog

November 23, 2018

Oh Hell! – part two

His idea was build a church in Pokrovskoe,
for, as Rasputin wrote, echoing the words of
the Apostle Paul, he who builds a church will
never be conquered by the gates of Hell.

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
by Douglas Smith

Scenes of Heaven and Hell by Kuniyoshi from the 1830s
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Center panel of the Kuniyoshi triptych seen above.
The British Museum

I am showing you a larger representation of that section of the triptych so you will be better able to see the details. If you look closely at the oxidized brownish and green demons in the lower center you will see them applying an instrument of torture – an iron clamping system placed over two large, flattened rocks. Sandwiched between those rocks you can make out the legs of many of those poor souls who have merited being squished between them. I mean… that has got to hurt… a lot.

Below is a detail from the right-hand panel showing souls being boiled (‘adead‘ – not really a word, but I just thought of it and thought it would fit well here) and in the upper right souls forced to climb a mountain of sharpened knife blades or needles, Hariyama (針山).

Detail from the right panel showing souls being forced to climb
the razor sharp slope of Mt. Hari. Yeow!
Tokyo Metropolitan Library

The Blood Pool Pond and other stuff

Detail from the left panel from the collection of the British Museum.
In the middle-ground is a scene from the Blood Hell Pool.
Behind that is the figure of Datsueba holding the
clothes and/or skins of souls condemned to Hell.
On the other side of the river is the figure of Jizō,
the deity that saves the souls of babies from eternal damnation.
Tokyo Metropolitan Library

Datsueba (奪衣婆)? So what do we know about the Old Hag of Hell?

Datsueba is first mentioned in a spurious Chinese sutra which deals with Bodhisattva Jizō and the Ten Kings of Hell. Along with a elderly, demonic male companion she punishes a thief, ties his head to his feet, strips him of his clothes and send him off to his final judgement. In a 13th century work she skins the sinner if they arrive without clothes. And yet the Old Hag may also function as a goddess: at birth she may provide the newborn with their skin which she will take back at their death.

‘Datsueba, the old woman who snatches away clothes’
19th century
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

So how much does the Spanish concept of Hell differ from the Japanese one? Not much, I would say.

Considerations of the Pains of Hell
Spanish – 1849
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(This is just the top part of a broadsheet.
The whole image is shown at the museum’s web site online.)

What about those two disembodied heads you will keep seeing, Mirume and Kaguhana (見る目嗅ぐ鼻)?

Detail from a Yoshitoshi print showing the disembodied heads.
Notice that they are resting on a black cloud here, which lies atop a blossoming lotus flower, a holy symbol.
Sometimes the heads of Mirume and Kaguhana are shown on separate poles near Emma-O.
Sometimes they are shown as only a huge eyeball and flaring nostrils.
The entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica says that ‘Mir-ume’ is represented by a female head
which can see “a sinner’s most secret thoughts” while the other head is that of a male
and pretty much can sniff out evil.

Kuniyoshi had a favorite kimono 

There was one particular robe in Kuniyoshi’s studio that he used in quite a few different prints. It, or something very much like it – there is such a thing as artistic license, you know – graphically displayed scenes of the Hell judgment where Emma-O played a central role. One such example can be seen below. But that is not why I am showing it to you here. While the robe is spectacular and most likely cost a small fortune to make and purchase, it is the disembodied use of the eye-ball and the tip of a very large nose in the (our) lower right that interests me. They show up right above the fiery Hell wagon wheel. You can’t miss it.

One panel from a triptych showing a scene from a kabuki play, ca. 1849
The British Museum

Kuniyoshi had his ‘Judgements of Hell’ robe and Vermeer had his lion-headed chair. Both had their own studio props which they used in more than once in their incredibly creative pieces. Below is only one example from a Vermeer painting in the Rijksmuseum. In that painting not one, but two lion-headed chairs appeared near the beautiful woman reading a letter. Considering how Vermeer worked, the two lion-headed chairs may actually have been the same chair placed in the picture at two different angles. I don’t know for sure… only speculating, but it is possible. My point: the lion-headed chair is to Vermeer what the Hell robe was to Kuniyoshi: a visual element to be used over and over again. One obviously more subtle than the other, but basically the same use of props.

Vermeer’s ‘Woman reading a letter’ – ca. 1663
The Rijksmuseum

Detail from the painting shown above – featuring the lion-headed chair

The chair shown below with the lion-headed carvings is said to have been made in the Netherlands, while art historians say Vermeer’s prop was probably made in Spain. Who knows? Who cares? The point I am making is the same either way.

Rosewood, lion-headed chair – ca. 1610-50 – Netherlandish
The Rijksmuseum

The painting and detail shown below are not by Vermeer. They are forgeries made by Han van Meegeren, who had the common sense to use Vermeer’s lion-headed chair twice, just to fool the art crowd. Fortunately he was found out in time, but not before this painting entered the collection of the Rijksmuseum, too.

‘Woman reading a musical score’ by Han van Meegeren on the left and a detail on the right – ca. 1935-40
The Rijksmuseum

Personal note: If there is a hell, something I am not convinced of, then there must be a special place in hell for van Meegeren. Of course, that would only happen if I was in a position to judge others. Oh well…

Here is another Kuniyoshi example with that self-same robe.

Token Gonbei by Kuniyoshi from 1845
The British Museum

Thank goodness there were two days in a year when a soul could find a little relief…

‘Holiday in Hell’ by Yoshitoshi – 1868
Jigoku kyūnichi (地獄休日)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

‘Holiday in Hell’ by Kawanabe Kyōsai (河鍋暁斎: 1831-89)
dated to 1863-66
Jigoku no kyūjitsu (地獄の休日)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

If I understand it correctly there are two days in the traditional Japanese calendar when even Hell was said to take a break. One was the 16th day of the first month and the other was the 16th day of the seventh month. Perhaps this theme relates to one of those days.

Nineteenth century inrō of Emma-O
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kunichika triptych – 1865
Tokyo Metropolitan Library

Emma-O passing judgement on hordes of Chinese
from the series 100 Victories, 100 Laughs by Kiyochika – 1895
Waseda University

The Hell Maiden surrounded by an orchestra of skeletons
Kawanabe Kyōsai
Tokyo Metropolitan Library

Hell Maiden by Kunichika in 1880
National Diet Library
Please click on the above image to go to my first ‘Oh Hell’ post.

The Hell Maiden looking at her reflection in the karmic mirror
Yoshitoshi – the 1880s
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Naughty, naughty… tsk, tsk, tsk…

Below is a group of women brought before Emma-O and made to look at the source of their sins in the karmic mirror. Three guesses what the artist thought it was. But don’t be distracted. Make sure you notice the large eye-ball and nose. There is no escaping the truth… as they saw it.

Anonymous – 19th century
The Achenbach Foundation

Don’t read any further if you are easily offended.

If you are one of those people who think Western men are the worst sexist pigs, then think again.
What about some of the basic Buddhist beliefs? It isn’t pretty.

Below is some information I collected a number of years ago. Please don’t blame me. I am only the reporter, but it is shocking and somewhat eye opening. Sexism seems to exist everywhere. No wonder so many women feel oppressed.

The most blatant case of Buddhism’s relentless enforcement of the blood taboo is the propagation of the Sūtra of the Blood Bowl (…Jap. Ketsubongyō [けつぼんぎょう]). The short apocryphal scripture of Chinese origins opens with the arhat Mulian… descending to hell in search of his mother. Upon discovering a blood pond full of drowning women, Mulian asks the hell warden why there is no man in this pond, and is told that this hell is reserved for women who have defiled the gods with their blood. Having found his mother, Mulian is unable to help her. In despair, he returns to the Buddha and asks him to save his mother. The Buddha then preaches the Sūtra of the Blood Bowl. This scripture first explains the cause of women’s ordeals: women who died in labor fall into a blood pool formed by the age-long accumulation of female menses, and are forced to drink that blood. This gruesome punishment is due to the fact that the blood was spilled at the time of parturition contaminated the ground and provoked the wrath of the earth god.”

Quoted from: The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender, by Bernard Faure, published by Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 73.

Mulian in Japanese is Mokuren (目連 or もくれん). In the Chinese version of the story of his mother she is a terrible woman who is not only greedy, but refuses to offer food to monks. And these are only two of her sins. In the Japanese version, the Mokuren no sōshi,  she has morphed into a model mother. (Ibid., p. 146) “Yet, she is reborn as a hungry ghost as a punishment for her obsessive maternal pride. The ‘sin of motherhood,’ based on blind love of a parent for a child, is expressed by the topos of the ‘darkness of heart’ (kokoro no yami) of the mother.” (Ibid., p. 146-7) Kokoro no yami is 心の闇 or こころのやみ.

There is another story of a living woman descending to the Blood Pool to rescue her mother. Like Mulian she is willing to drink from the pool. Her willingness alone transforms the Blood Pond into the Lotus Pond and all of the suffering women are rescued. “In a version of the ritual inspired by this scripture, and still performed today in Taiwan, the children of a dead woman, at the time of the funeral, redeem their mother’s sin by symbolically drinking the blood that was spilled during their childbirth. ¶ The Blood Bowl Sūtra seems to have spread in Japan during the medieval period. The fact that the Japanese commentaries emphasized menstrual blood rather than parturition blood has led to the somewhat misleading translation of the scripture’s title as ‘Menstruation Sūtra.'” This becomes a sin damning all women. “Because they were born as women, their aspirations, to buddhahood are weak, and their jealousy and evil character are strong. These sins compounded become menstrual blood, which flows into two streams in each month, polluting not only the earth god, but all the other deities as well.” (Ibid., p. 76)

Faure continues by giving examples of ghost possession which can cause a female to descend to hell, but he also gives remedies to correct this injustice. One sect would place the Sūtra of the Blood Bowl into a woman’s coffin to help bring about her salvation. (Ibid., p. 77)

“The Blood Pond Hell also appears in a text related to Tateyama, a place believed to be the gate to the other world…” Women were not allowed to climb the mountain, but they were allowed to ritually change themselves into men. However, to be careful, they were still banned from making the pilgrimage. Instead they would acquire copies of the Sūtra of the Blood Bowl which they would then give to monks who would carry them to the top and throw them into “…an earthly replica of the Blood Lake.” (Ibid., pp. 77-8)

Faure notes that Buddhism considers menses natural, but still give it a sexist twist by giving it a karmic meaning. Hence, females defile their world because of past transgressions. While it may be considered natural “At the same time that it reinforces female guilt, Buddhism claims to offer absolution. By its magic power, the Blood Bowl Sūtra allowed women to avoid the ritual pollution of menses and childbirth to come into the presence of the gods and buddhas.” Now the sutra wasn’t just used for funerary purposes, but also as talismans for the living. On one hand Buddhism seemed to be condemning blood pollution while on the other praising motherhood. This concept of Buddhist salvation “…is based on male superiority, exploiting female fears, more than on compassion.” (Ibid. p. 78)

“The blatant injustice of the Blood Pond Hell was accepted by women as just another ‘fact of life’ (or rather, of death) – a woman’s life of toil and trouble.” (Ibid. p. 79) In another account a nun describes a woman’s life of grief: The husband has total control. “After they are married she necessarily suffers the pain of childbirth, and cannot avoid the sin of offending the sun, moon, and stars with the flow of blood.” By the time of the Heiki monogatari (平家物語 or へいけものがたり) pregnancy and childbirth were described as “pure hell” and 90% of women were thought to die giving birth. This, of course, was an exaggeration. (Ibid., p. 80) In a text called ‘The Path to Purification’ a description of the child in the womb makes it sound as disgusting as disgusting can be. This is as far from being reborn on a lily pad in the Western Paradise as one can get. 90% would be a shocking figure if it were true, but odds are, while the numbers were great, it couldn’t have been that high. Faure relates a couple of other possibilities for the death of the mother after a long and torturous pregnancy and birth: 1) In the case of Māya, Buddha’s mother, who passed away one week after giving birth, she died to avoid sexual intercourse in the future. Obviously a willful death. Or, 2) she died heart-broken knowing that Buddha, her beloved son, would be leaving soon. There are even accounts that say that the mothers of all of the Bodhisattvas died for the same reason seven days after their deliveries. “the could not escape the grief of motherhood.” Māya’s sister adopted the new born child, but she became blind from weeping when he left home. Her sight was restored when he returned. (Ibid., pp. 148-9)

The exclusion of women from sacred sites in Japan due to blood pollution is referred to as nyonin kekkai (如人結界 or にょにんけっかい). We have noted elsewhere that women were prevented from making pilgrimage climbs up mountains. This made sense in the Japanese mind for both the traditional association of the mountains with kami and the Buddhist concepts of pollution. “The mountain and the temple are symbolically equivalent. Therefore, the most extreme purity was required in both the temple’s inner sanctuary and on the sacred peak. This contrasts with the profane impurity that rules at the bottom of the mountain or outside the urban temple’s gate.” Faure does cite the belief expressed by Abe Yasurō (阿部泰郎 or あべ.やすろう) that if a woman does defile a Buddhist site it is miraculously purified anyway. (p. 238)

In the 2008 translation of the Tale of Heike by Watson and Shirane it states in footnote 8 on page 161: “According to Buddhist belief, a woman may not become (at least directly) a Brahma, an Indra, a devil king, a wheel-turning king, or a buddha. She is expected to submit to and obey her father in childhood, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age when she is widowed.”





  1. Hello! I am currently learning about Japanese art in my Contemp. Art History course and I deeply enjoyed this post along with many others. I really enjoyed seeing the different takes on the Hell Maiden depending on who the artist was, I especially liked Kyōsai’s rendition on the Hell Maiden with all of the skeletons. It highlighted the perspectives seen, of a large object in the foreground and smaller objects in the background. I also really loved the detailing in the robe in Kuniyoshi’s “Token Gonbei”, it’s a really beautiful piece.

    Comment by Viviana — September 18, 2019 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  2. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx, “I refuse to be a member of any club that would accept me.”
    Think about it, is Shinto fair to women? Was Kuniyoshi fair? Somehow, I feel he was just reporting the facts, too.

    Comment by Penelope — December 19, 2019 @ 6:39 pm | Reply

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