Baku: The Legendary Dream Eating Monster of Japanese Mythology
The Baku, otherwise known as the dream eater, is a mythological being or spirit in Chinese and Japanese folklore which is said to devour nightmares. The Baku cannot be summoned without caution, however, as legend has it that if the Baku is not satisfied after consuming the nightmare, he may also devour one’s hopes and dreams.
Woodblock illustration of the Chinese mythological mo (貘), 1609. (Public domain)
The Chinese Mo and the Appearance of the Japanese Baku
Tales of the Baku devouring nightmares actually originated in Chinese folklore. Chinese mythology had a tradition of hybrid monsters created from the parts of several animals. The quadripartite mo of Chinese mythology was a fantastical monster made up of tiger paws, a cow tail, rhinoceros eyes and an elephant trunk. The 9th century poet Bai/Bo Juyi popularized the idea that drawings of this hybrid beast could ward off sickness and evil.
It was only later, between the 14th and 15th centuries, that the mythological being appeared in Japan, during what is known as the Muromachi period. Here the stories altered the powers of the mythological creature. While the Chinese mo powers were apotropaic, the Japanese Baku was imbued with the ability to fend off nightmares.
The Japanese Baku was a mythological beast comprised of the parts of a bear, an elephant, a tiger, an ox and a rhinoceros. This Baku was illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai, the Japanese ukiyo-e artist of the Edo period. (Public domain)
While the Baku was deemed to be a spiritual being, it had a well-defined appearance. The Baku was a chimera, a mythological beast comprised of a variety of parts from other animals, typically depicted with a bear’s body, an elephant’s trunk, a tiger’s paws, an oxen tail, and rhinoceros ears or eyes. According to Japanese legends, the Baku was created by the spare pieces that were left over when the gods finished creating all other animals.
18th century carved wooden netsuke, a type of miniature sculpture originally used to attach items to the sash of a man's traditional clothing. This netsuke depicts a crouching Baku and was created by the Edo period Japanese artist Sadatake. (Public domain)
Baku Dream Eaters and Talisman – The Power to Chase Away Nightmares
Descriptions and beliefs in the Baku have changed throughout the years. In ancient Chinese legends, the mo was an animal that was hunted for its pelt. Whomever killed a mo would use a blanket made from the pelt as a talisman, or an object with magical powers, which would protect them from evil spirits. This practice evolved over time and soon the pelt was no longer necessary, but an image of the beast was thought to have the power to repel evil spirits.
It wasn’t until Baku legends made their way to Japan that the beast was considered a dream eater, with the power to consume and chase away nightmares. Over time, the custom of using amulets to stave off unwanted nightmares developed. These beliefs have continued to this day, and Japanese folklore claims that those suffering from bad dreams should call out to the Baku for help.
A 19th century netsuke of a seated Baku. (Public domain)
By the turn of the 20th century it was common for children in Japan to sleep with a Baku talisman by their bed. Children suffering from nightmares were told to wake up and repeat the following phrase three times: “Baku-san, come eat my dream. Baku-san, come eat my dream. Baku-san, come eat my dream.” On speaking these words, the Baku was believed to enter the child’s room and devour the bad dream, allowing the child to go back to sleep peacefully.
The Baku were also summoned for protection from bad dreams prior to falling asleep at night and to this day it remains common for Japanese children to keep a Baku talisman at their bedside. However, the myths also stressed the need for caution. Should a Baku remain hungry after consuming unwanted nightmares, it was believed that he would then continue to munch away, devouring a person’s hopes and dreams as well. The effect would be that a person would end up living an empty and unfulfilled life.
Watercolor drawing of an adult Asian tapir, known as a Baku in Japan, from the early 1800s. (Public domain)
The Baku in Modern-Day Japan
Today you can find several modern representations of the Baku, including Japanese comics. Occasionally, a Baku is shown in a form that represents a tapir, as opposed to the traditional chimera form. In reality, the Japanese for a Baku is the same as that for the Asian Tapir. Some academics have even hypothesized that the mythological creature was inspired by a now-extinct species similar to the Asian Tapir.
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In 1984, Oshii Mamoru’s animated film Beautiful Dreamer, depicted a Baku as a tapir. Later, a Baku took on a tapir-like form in Pokemon in the Drowzee / Hypno and Munna / Musharna characters, and the popular Digimon (virtual pet monster) also has a character called Bakumon or Tapirmon, that bears similarity to the mythological Baku.
The idea of being able to summon a Baku to prevent or end a nightmare is one that can be understood across various cultures and different time periods, and the use of talismans or symbols for protection for sleep are a common thread seen throughout history. The Baku has remained a steady figure in nightmare prevention throughout the years, in both chimera and tapir form, and it is likely to remain so for many years to come.
Top image: Illustration of a dream-eating Baku monster from Japanese mythology. Source: Fair Use
By M R Reese
Davisson, Z. 20 October 2012. “Baku – The Dream Eater” in Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai - Translated Japanese Ghost Stories and Tales of the Weird and the Strange. Available at: http://hyakumonogatari.com/2012/10/20/baku-the-dream-eater/