Folklore Snippets: Omamori, Pocket-Sized Luck

Omamori of Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha
By jetalone via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good look at some folklore, isn’t it? Under the spotlight today is a Japanese cultural and religious object – the omamori – which is a surprisingly common item of stock sold by our favourite occult tradesman:

Peggy straightened her notes. “Honestly, Jack, you’re never prepared. You never know when you might need something as simple as a pen and paper.”

“I’m prepared in different ways,” I said, patting the protective paper charms in my pockets.

“Jack, when have your charms ever actually worked?”

“They all work!” I said, indignantly. This, at least, was true. I don’t often lie to my customers (that’s a lie, part of me pointed out), it’s just that I sometimes omit important information. I will give a lifetime guarantee, on my word and my honour as a tradesman, that every one of my protective omamori charms are in fine working order. What I can’t guarantee, however, is what they protect you against.

From Episode 18: Stone Bridge, of The Jack Hansard Series

Omamori is a name given to a type of Japanese amulet: loosely translated, it means ‘protection’. Omamori normally take the form of a rectangle of patterned silk which contains prayers, the name of a god, or other religious text written on paper or wood. They exist as charms of good luck, or to act as wards against bad juju. Whether providing good luck to help pass a driving test, for example – or avoiding the bad juju of traffic jams – the main function of omamori is protection.

Sayamasanfudoji omamori
A traditional omamori.  Image Source
Omamori are a shared aspect of Japan’s two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Both have several varying branches of tradition so it’s hard to sum them up briefly – but I’ll try. You might describe Shinto as a religion that grew out of a rich body of native mythology and which is structured around belief in a huge host of gods and spirits (also known as kami) who can have both positive and negative effects on the world. Kami can include personifications of nature, natural forces, and even ancestral human spirits. Meanwhile, Buddhism was introduced later to Japan from its spread through China, and might be considered a more philosophical doctrine based heavily on the teachings of the Buddha – the central tenet being a realisation of the temporary nature of life and the ongoing cycle of rebirth.

Kyoto FushimiInari01
The Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto. Image by Mochi via Wikimedia Commons

Omamori charms are usually dedicated to one of these Shinto kami or a key Buddhist figure, and they are designed to provide a very specific brand of luck or protection. Charms to protect your health and ward off illness, for example, are quite common. If you’re going on a long journey, there’s an omamori to keep you safe while you travel – it’s particularly popular with bus and taxi drivers! A student might buy a charm specifically designed to bring luck in their education, especially during exam-season. If you can think of it, there’s probably an omamori for it.

“I’ve learned over time, and through an array of consumer complaints, that my stock of oriental paper charms can variously protect against finding moles in the garden, slight breezes, rains of fish, tripping over on a Sunday, burning your tongue on hot tea, sneezing in alleyways, and success – one charm so counter-intuitive that I could’ve sold it as a revenge curse if only I’d known what it did at the time.”

From Episode 18: Stone Bridge, of The Jack Hansard Series

If you hadn’t already guessed, these little amulets are still hugely popular in Japan today and can be bought from the vast majority of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The modern omamori is bright and colourful and most are designed to hang from things like bags and straps. You can even buy them in less traditional forms such as car bumper stickers, phone charms, and (my personal favourite) memory cards to protect your digital data and electronic devices! The key thing is that a true omamori will have been properly blessed and so infused with power before use.

Omamori of Dazaifu Tenman-gu
Many colourful omamori for sale. Image by Kanko via Wikimedia Commons

Good news for tourists: buying omamori as souvenirs is encouraged – it’s a nice way to participate in Japanese culture and support the shrine or temple you are visiting.

I for one am saving up my pennies. I’d love to visit Japan some day.

For further reading, try the following:

Folklore Snippets: Knockers, Knackers, and Welsh Insults

mine pixabay.jpg

The third instalment of the Jack Hansard short story series, Episode 3: Iron Bridge, is now up. This week Hansard finds himself in the idyllic Ironbridge Gorge famed for, you guessed it, its iron bridge. But the real curiosity is the strange species Hansard runs into on the other side of the bridge: Knockers, the subject of today’s folklore snippet.

I doubt Knockers are a particularly well-known creature of folklore. They are born of miners’ tales about the knocking and tapping sounds heard while working in the deep dark. As with most folklore, there are many versions of these creatures: some say they are the spirits of departed miners, while elsewhere they may be considered a separate species, like a goblin or a brownie. From what I’ve read, they seem to be particularly associated with the mines in Wales and Cornwall – easy to see how they could be found in Ironbridge, an area close to the Welsh border and rich in industrial heritage.

These creatures are just a couple of feet tall and wear the same clothing donned by miners. The knocking sounds in the mine were said to either be the sounds of the Knockers at work, or a warning to the miners that a collapse was imminent. Many a miner would claim to have escaped within an inch of his life due to the forewarning of the Knockers; in thanks, miners would leave some kind of food offering lying around (at the very least, the crust of their pasties was considered a tasty Knocker treat). However, the Knockers were also to be blamed for missing tools and other mischief, especially if you were careless enough to insult them.

‘Knacker’ is another word for Knocker, and probably comes from an association of the creatures with the ‘knacking’ (abandonment) of a mine. A story I find incredibly sweet is the 1956 case of a sealed mine in California where a group of Cornish-descended miners petitioned the mining company to have the knockers ‘released’ so they could move on to other mines – the company agreed. Californian Knockers are known as Tommyknockers, and travelled over with the migrating Cornish miners, themselves known as ‘Cousin Jacks’.

As Hansard discovers, a Coblyn (plural: Coblynau) is a Welsh version of the Cornish Knocker. Sounds a lot like ‘goblin’, don’t it? Again known for the knocking sounds they make, they are considered good friends of the miner and generally harmless unless provoked. An intriguing quirk to the personality of this strain of Knocker is that they may be often found hard at work, but it is work they never seem to complete. This rather amused me when considering the current state of the Ironbridge Gorge: the area suffers from landslides and a shifting of the riverbanks. In particular, the famous Iron Bridge is buckling under the strain – I rather like the idea that the Knockers are behind all of this.

Now, with the Coblynau that we meet in Episode 3, we get some choice picks of the Welsh language, so consider this a bonus section! I am not in any way fluent in Welsh, but I wanted to put some time and effort into giving my version of the Coblynau an authentic identity. (Their accent isn’t like modern Welsh by the way, before you start nitpicking my portrayal of their speech :P) So for those who may be wondering, here’s the glossary of Welsh terms seen in Episode 3:

igam ogam = zigzag, used colloquially like ‘the way you walk when drunk’

mwnci = monkey (pronounced ‘mun-ki’)

pen pigyn = dickhead

pentwp = stupid head (pronounced ‘pen-tup’)

twpsyn = idiot (pronounced ‘tup-sin’)

And finally, ‘go and scratch’ is a literal translation of the Welsh insult meaning ‘piss off’. (Oh, and an ‘oggie’ is a traditional welsh pasty.)

I hope you enjoyed that, and if you have any other lovely Welsh words you’d like to offer, then please do! (popty ping!) Furthermore, if you have any feedback you’d like to share on the Hansard series, it is more than welcome. Constructive criticism especially. Take care now~

If you wish to indulge in further reading:



The results of the Knockers’ work in Ironbridge