Baku (spirit)

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Baku (獏 or 貘?) are Japanese supernatural beings that devour dreams and nightmares. They have a long history in Japanese folklore and art, and more recently have appeared in Japanese anime and manga (see examples cited below).

The Japanese term baku has two current meanings, referring to both the traditional dream-devouring creature and to the zoological tapir (e.g., the Malaysian tapir).[1] In recent years, there have been changes in how the baku is depicted.

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History and Description

The traditional Japanese nightmare-devouring baku originates in Chinese folklore and was familiar in Japan as early as the Muromachi period (14th-15th century).[2] Hori Tadao (2005) has described the dream-eating abilities attributed to the traditional baku and relates them to other preventatives against nightmare like the use of amulets. Kaii-Yōkai Denshō Database, citing a 1957 paper, and Mizuki (2004) also describe the dream-devouring capacities of the traditional baku.

An early 17th century Japanese manuscript, the Sankai Ibutsu (山海異物), describes the baku as a Chinese mythical chimera with an elephant’s trunk, rhinoceros eyes, an ox tail, and tiger paws, which in belief protected against pestilence and evil, although eating nightmares was not included among its abilities.[1] However, in a 1791 Japanese wood-block illustration, a specifically dream-destroying baku is depicted with an elephant’s head, tusks, and trunk, with horns and tiger’s claws.[3] The elephant’s head, trunk, and tusks are characteristic of baku portrayed in classical era (pre-Meiji) Japanese wood-block prints (see illustration) and in shrine, temple, and netsuke carvings.[4][5][6][7][8] Writing in the Meiji era, Lafcadio Hearn (1902) described a baku with very similar attributes that was also able to devour nightmares.[9]

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