Footnotes on Mushishi

Our culture values written speech a lot and this fact relates to the notion of ‘study’. Study as an extended linear analysis didn’t exist in oral people (tribes where written code isn’t used or isn’t common), since the latter didn’t have written documents and they depended on collective learning from mouth to mouth a lot. But what exactly is going on with oral culture? What is oral literacy? What’s the relationship of oral speech with the written word? And how is it all connected to Mushishi? 

Oral literature and texts

From Wikipedia:

Oral literature or folk literature corresponds in the sphere of the spoken (oral) word to literature as literature operates in the domain of the written word. It thus forms a generally more fundamental component of culture, but operates in many ways as one might expect literature to do. The Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu introduced the term orature in an attempt to avoid an oxymoron, but oral literature remains more common both in academic and popular writing.
Pre-literate societies, by definition, have no written literature, but may possess rich and varied oral traditions—such as folk epics, folklore, proverbs and folksong—that effectively constitute an oral literature. Even when these are collected and published by scholars such as folklorists and paremiographers, the result is still often referred to as “oral literature”.

So basically the hundreds and thousands of scrolls – texts- in Tanyu’s basement are a treasure chest filled with oral literature, not only with what appears also to be her cure from her curse. After all, mushi stories are folk tales (to us at least).

It’s worth noting that by the word ‘text’ linguists don’t refer only to what is written on a paper carrying a certain meaning. Images and pieces of oral speech are also texts. What’s very interesting is that ‘text’ relates to texture which connects with the act of weaving – weaving stories. Weaving is related to oral stories because the storyteller has to patch different ideas together all the while they (the ideas) may interlap with each other. But we’ll talk about the structure of an oral narration some paragraphs below.

The magic that lies in sound and in the written word

For now let’s focus on the base of oral culture- that is sound. Sound was considered to bear power and was perceived as magical, since the sound was believed to coincide with an event; sound happens and is something alive for the few moments it lasts. This belief takes usually the form of kotodama in Japanese. In Mushishi the stories- sounds told by the different mushi masters to Tanyu literally turn into (written) words. These words move, have a life of their own and ‘happen’.

The technology of writing didn’t spread fast widely and thus at first carried its own mystery. Writing was viewed as a tool of mystical magic power and indications of these ideas can be found in the Middle Age English word ‘grammarye’ (grammar) that meant learning a book associated with paranormal and magical folk customs, and the Scottish word ‘glamor’ which meant power to cast a spell. Plus, writing was limited to priesthood in the early years.  Do you see how the forbidden mushi is sealed in the scrolls? And Tanyu is a scribe, a job that before the popularity of typography was of high status, much like a priest’s.

Memorization and narration

We know big texts, like Odyssey, were learnt by heart, even though they weren’t written anywhere in the beginning. That is a big feat by today’s standards, since we are used to rely on stored data and don’t exercise our memory that much. But still that doesn’t mean that there weren’t tricks to help withhold all the information, which was crucial to oral people, a moral and historical compass of a sorts. Rhythm, repetition of phrases, contradictions, standard adjectives, proverbs and mnemonical motifs were utilized to make things  easier. I guess Tanyu might use some of those techniques.

The structure of narration also differs a lot to facilitate certain needs. Narration is a ‘place’ where the transition from orality to literacy is more obvious: literated people use what is often called the Freytag’s pyramid, hence they describe a climaxing action. Examples of first such narrations are the ancient Greek dramas, Jane Austen’s novels and detective stories. On the other hand oral people start in the middle of the action. In media res, as this technique is called, wasn’t though an option. It was a simple solution to develop a long story, because they couldn’t turn back to the first pages to check what they said. For the same reason  narrations before the 19th century are episodic.  Does this ring a bell? The whole series has an episodic format with Ginko’s childhood story set in episode 12, not in episode 1, while Tanyu’s story also begins in media res.

Where oral and written culture intersect

Orality put in the center the human since it was about him and was conveyed through him. Literacy focuses more on the objects and their descriptions, analysis of ideas, and there is an air of distance between the writer and the written. Even now when we speak we are more spontaneous, more subjective than we put down our thoughts on paper (always depending on the occasion though and the purpose of the text). Although the written culture has changed radically the way we think for many things (eg. we think in pictures not in sounds like when we had no knowledge of the alphabet), there are traces of orality in our speech and written texts.

For example, orality has influenced the outer appearance of texts. Headings, chapters (< capitulum <caput = head), footnotes are all allusions to the human body. Of cource, this is true mostly for the western countries that write horizontally, but it’s an interesting tidbit to know. In Mushishi the connection is made through Tanyu’s body; the text that is formed from the forbidden mushi travels through her whole body.


We ‘ve grown up into a written culture and thus take many things for granted. Isn’t it fascinating turning back time, learning about technologies and ‘lifestyles’ getting born, and reflecting on our fundamental ways of communicating ?
1. The post was inspired by Ong’s book about orality and literacy.
2. Do you see what I did with the title?
3. I apologize for any misconnections. I had a hard time putting my notes into this post in a meaningful way. If you don’t understand something, you can always ask in the comment section below. I hope you enjoyed the reading.


5 thoughts on “Footnotes on Mushishi

  1. Hello, foomafoo! Glad to see you here *waves tail*

    Yes, oral culture has to do with secrecy but this depends on the kind of 'text' and on which tribe we talk about. If we speak about medicine knowledge, then this of course is knowledge kept among circles. But stories that have to do with mythology and the history of the place/tribe, this would be more well-known.

    Written and oral language weren't developed simultaneously at all! Language as a form of communication but not as an extended code is engraved genetically in every animal and human being for survival purposes. Later on people developed language that included words and not just sounds, but written code that represents the sounds spoken was invented and took quite many centuries. Take a look here Consider that the Mesopotamian civilization arose around 5000 BC while a written system was invented 2000 years later.

    The bards are admirable but it's not like they didn't have their memorizing tricks as I've mentioned in the post.


  2. I'm not sure but the oral culture might also have something to do with secrecy and exclusiveness of the said literature to a limited group of people. In To aru Majutsu no Index, Index's photographic memory contains the prohibited texts and grimoire declared by the church.

    I'm not really sure but — yes it might have been a “culture” for some of the tribes but I also see it as an act of restricting the spread of the said literature. Written and oral language were almost simultaneously discovered and applied by ancient people so aside from this “intimacy” of the actual transfer of the culture via oral, don't you think it could have been easier for them to preserve the culture if they also produced a written copy? Then again, I might not fully understand how they see the whole intricacy for when their literature only functions using oral tradition.

    But of course, props to the poets/bards/oracles who did manage memorizing the literature.


  3. Interesting. For some reason whenever I read orality, I always remember oracle. I thought the two might have a connection.

    As for Odyssey, if there's nothing written in the beginning about it, then how did the Greeks produce the records? I understand that the folks are singing these poems and got passed from time to time, but I do wonder if the stories really happened. And, if Greeks are considering something authentic among all the stories and literatures that surfaced throughout the years.

    This episode of Mushishi is one of my favourites too. Aside from we have seen Ginko's love interest, I really enjoyed the fancy text animation whenever Tanyu is performing is ritual.


  4. don't appear directly connected…

    Well, the part about the war against Troia must have happened, just not for the eyes of a woman. The persons mentioned must have existed, too, but Odyssey's adventure are pretty fictional. Homer or better the many bards that stand under homer's name (we don't know, if he was a real person much like Aesop)composed the story around 8th century b.C. They got recorded around 6th century by the command of a tyrrant and some small parts were added to support political propaganda (we have this version of the text handed down to us nowadays). The notion of authenticity is one of our written culture. When something passes from mouth to mouth it gets a bit 'reborn' every time. Repetition and modifications aren't considered 'fake' in oral people. The storyteller has to adapt to its audience wishes. The main story must have remained the same to carry the morals and ideals of family, loyalty and bravery. If some parts got forgotten, that would mean that they weren't 'needed' for these societies to preserve. Oral speech is alive and thus changes according to the needs of people.
    Another interesting tidbit for you: Odyssey's adventures are very much alike Gilgamesh's You can reach your own conclusions about authenticity, needs of societies and universal uncounsciousness.

    It was hair-raising somehow, wasn't it?


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