While most catfish are harmless—well, apart from the ones that sting—in Japanese mythology giant catfish were believed to be the cause of earthquakes. These giant Namazu (鯰) lived in the mud under Japan. They were guarded by the god of thunder Kashima who kept them in check with a large stone. Of course, it didn’t always work. And when the catfish escaped, it thrashed freely in the waters causing the most terrible earthquakes.
This belief became very popular after the Great Ansei earthquake on November 11th, 1855. The earthquake struck near Edo (Tokyo) with a magnitude of 7.0. The quake caused a tsunami. Seven thousand people were killed.
In the aftermath, the catfish or namazu was feared and worshipped. Prints of this giant beast—called namazu-e—became very popular with residents of the city. It was claimed some of these pictures would give the owner protection from earthquakes. Others depicted the battles between Kashima and Namazu. And there were even satirical prints depicting the builders, roofers, plasterers and carpenters who prospered from others’ misery. These colorful woodblock prints are incredibly beautiful and very surreal.
Victims of the earthquake attack the giant catfish Namazu.
A mob takes revenge on Namazu.
More beautiful prints of Namazu, after the jump…