by Emily

In the polygamous society of Japan's Heian period jealousy was a woman’s greatest failing. Forbidden from voicing their grievances, often the only way to make themselves heard was to surrender to spirit possession.

The Noh drama ‘Kanawa’ tells of such a wife, betrayed by her philandering husband. After praying day and night for retribution, the shrine priest approached her with a premonition; she was to dress in red, part her hair into seven loops, streak her face and body with red cinnabar, and wear an inverted iron brazier with three lit candles upon her head. If she did these things and prayed for twenty-one days and nights in the Uji River, the Gods would transform her into a curse-bearing demon.

Whether she really transformed is unclear. Already unhinged with rage and sorrow, daubing herself with poisonous cinnabar and praying for days in freezing waters would have induced severe hypothermia and mercury poisoning, leading to dilated pupils, unnatural movement and a disturbed mental state.

Known only as “the wife”, I have named this heartbroken, tragic woman Kanawa after the iron crown of her revenge. Her golden eyes are taken from the Noh mask of the same play, where they signify a character in the grip of spirit possession.

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Copyright © 2011 Marina Bychkova.