Moidon – The Lords of the Forest

Translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara

The Moidon’s name tells you exactly what it is. The word moi (森) means “forest,” and the word don (殿) means “Lord.” It is a title of honor bestowed upon grand and aged trees. In ancient Japan, long before there was any sort of organized religion, people believed that these great trees were deities and the land they inhabited was a sacred space. Southern Kyushu in particular is home to moidon, although on Osumi peninsula they are called moriyama. In Kagoshima prefecture you can find more than a hundred moidon.

Long before any shrines were built, moidon served as places of worship to the ancient Japanese. Very old and massive trees were said to be the bodies for gods. In particular, broad-leaf evergreen trees were considered to be moidon, such as beech, camphor, and fig trees. In modern day Shinto, you can still see moidon that existed long before the buildings were built. Indeed, many of those oldest shrines were built around a particular moidon, as the area was already considered a sacred space by virtue of the tree.

In Hioki ward, Ichiki city, there is a moidon whose festival is celebrated every year. On November 5th, by the counting of the old Japanese lunar calendar, people eat festive red rice to mark the occasion, and a dish is always set in front of the tree as an offering. However it is said that if you take a single leaf home, or if any part of the great tree is burned as firewood, you will fall under its curse.

Moidon were long worshiped as gods, but they were also greatly feared. It is said that moidon are quick to take offense, and bestow curses more readily than blessings. Those who ask too much of them, or who gather their fallen branches to burn, will find themselves stricken with various illnesses, including a burning, itchy skin. Sometimes doing so much as to touch the tree brings about its curse, so villagers are often careful to give their moidon trees a wide birth except at festival time.

Because of their ability to curse, it is thought that these lords of the forest may be one of the origins of yokai legends throughout Japan.

Translator’s Note

A new translation at last! Sorry about the delay, but work has kept me very busy as of late.

The moidon is a choshizen type of yokai, referring to a sort of natural phenomenon. As Mizuki Shigeru says, you can still see these ancient trees in old Shinto shrines, usually demarcated by a straw rope and other sacred symbols. When I lived in Nara prefecture, I used to go to Miwa shrine that had a massive, ancient tree that was said to be much older than the shrine itself, which was already several centuries old.

Other magical tree stories on Hyakumonogatari.com

Jinmenju – The Human-faced Tree

Enjyu no Jashin – The Evil God in the Pagoda Tree

Ochibanashi nantoka – The Chinkapin Tree of Unfalled Leaves

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. barbaraelka
    Jul 01, 2012 @ 13:30:42

    Oh such a interesting post…a tree as a symbol for faith- common theme around the world

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Jul 01, 2012 @ 13:46:07

      Thanks! With the moidon, and with Shinto, the trees are not a symbol however. They are the actual gods. It is something you can see all over Japan — sacred trees, sacred rocks — at some point in time people found power and significance in those natural objects, and they have been worshiped ever since.

      Reply

  2. Bill Ellis
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 08:05:43

    Your entry, as always, reminds me of the extensive lore collected in rural Great Britain about the dangers of using the leaves or wood from certain trees unwisely. The Rev. R. M. Heanley of Lincolnshire recorded some interesting beliefs about the black elder tree in a paper delivered in January 1902 before the Viking Club, London, parts of which were reprinted in the [British] Folklore Society’s journal County Folklore (v. 63, 1908) and from that source in a variety of publications on fairylore.

    He paid a pastoral visit to a family whose baby had been reported to be ill. When he arrived, the child looked well enough, but the mother explained that when a rocker had fallen off the cradle, her husband had made a new one out of “illerwood [elderwood] without axing the Old Lady’s leave, an’ in coorse she didn’t like that.” In retribution, the “Old Lady” pinched (or raised bruises) on the infant’s skin until he was nearly black in the face. The mother knocked off the elderwood rocker and replaced it with one made of ash, and the child was soon right again.

    Rev. Heanley, intrigued by the mention of the “Old Lady,” soon after saw a parishioner chopping firewood. Calling attention to a log made of elderwood, he asked if he was afraid of chopping up that one. “Nay,” the man replied, for the wood was seasoned and dry. But if it were “wick” (still green), he added, “I dussn’t, not without axin’ the Old Gal’s leave.” The minister asked how this would be done, and the countryman (perhaps with a twinkle in his eye) said that was “slape” (slick) enough: “Owl Gal, give me of thy wood, an Oi will give some of moine, when I graws inter a tree.”

    There seems to be a certain amount of practical truth behind these beliefs. Wikipedia notes that green elderwood contains a cyanide-inducing glycoside, and that there have been reports of children being poisoned by making toys such as whistles and slingshots out of green wood. Similarly, serious allergic reactions to processing lumber made of the camphor laurel are easy to find on the Web. One entry noted that a lumber mill in Australia actually had to close down because too many workers refused to work when green wood from camphor trees was being processed. The entry notes that some varieties seem to provoke allergic reactions, including serious skin and respiratory reactions, more quickly than others.

    Whether the culprit is an offended moidon or “Owd Gal” indwelling in the tree, or a chemical released by chopping, handling, milling, or burning the wood, I’d say that the folk are preserving some good biochemical information by means of these legends.

    Reply

  3. Zack Davisson
    Jul 03, 2012 @ 14:39:22

    Interesting additions as always Bill! Especially since the moidon specifically calls oat the camphor tree, and the “curse” of itchy, burning skin AKA allergic reaction.

    Reply

  4. vilajunkie
    Jul 05, 2012 @ 07:32:40

    I wonder if the concept of moidon had any direct influence on Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirit of the Forest in “Princess Mononoke”.

    Reply

    • 83n831
      Jul 05, 2012 @ 07:45:05

      Certainly seems explicit in “My Neighbor Totoro.” When Mei comes home after meeting the large creature in the woods, there’s a moving scene in which the father leads the two girls to the huge camphor laurel in the woods and leads them in ritual thanks to “the keeper of the forest.” (My Japanese isn’t good enough to catch if Tatsuo actually uses the word “moidon,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does, or at least a term associated with this belief.)

      Reply

      • Zack Davisson
        Jul 09, 2012 @ 13:04:53

        It is very explicit. I did a short paper during my MA on Miyazaki’s use of Shinto imagery in his films, one of which was Totoro. The tree is decorated with a Shimenawa rice straw and paper ribbon that marks a sacred tree (moidon), and there is an abandoned shrine and Torii gate as well. Miyazaki invented the Totoro spirits himself, as the tree spirits of folklore have no physical form, but they draw heavily from the same nature-worship traditions.

  5. angrygaijin
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 22:53:47

    Kagoshima! That’s close to me…. (sorta). Maybe I can find some Moidon around here, too.

    Reply

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