Taming Monsters

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

How do mythic creatures fare in the modern world?

When old stories enter the modern world, many once-frightening legends are softened, reflecting the modern desire to preserve childhood innocence. Mythic animals that once were scary may become cute and cuddly. In Japan, for instance, a creature called the kappa was long known for pulling children under water and drowning them. Today, Japanese children are more familiar with a cute, friendly kappa that appears in consumer products such as toys, movies and children's books.

Drawing of a kappa, a Japanese water imp, 1836.
Credit: Wikipedia.org


A kappa once sat on a big stone near a pond in Japan. Pretending to be a human child, it invited people to pull its finger as a game. But when they took his hand, the kappa pulled them under water and ate them. Many people died this way. At last a young man decided to stop the kappa's killing spree. He rode a strong horse to the pond. When the kappa grabbed his hand, he rode off, dragging the kappa behind him. The kappa begged for his freedom, offering to teach the man to heal broken bones if he let him go. The man agreed, and using the kappa's secret, he became a famous surgeon.

--Adapted from a traditional Japanese folktale

At a Glance: Kappa

  • The size of a child but stronger than a man.
  • Water carried in a bowl-shaped dent in its head is the source of its power.
  • Children in Japan were once taught to be careful when swimming in rivers and ponds, lest a kappa drag them under water.
  • Loves to eat cucumbers. Parents used to write their children's names on cucumbers and throw them in the water as gifts, so the kappa would not drown the children when swimming.
  • Face like a monkey, but with a beak.
  • Green, scaly skin and a shell like a turtle.
  • Webbed hands and feet.
  • Smells like fish.

Outwitting a Kappa

When a kappa leaves the water, its strength depends on the water it carries in a bowl-shaped dent on its head. When bothered by a kappa, a person should bow to it. Forced by politeness to bow back, the kappa will spill the water on its head and lose its power, forcing it to run back to its river or pond.

Modern Japanese signs warn children of kappa lurking in water. Hirakata, Osaka, Japan.
Credit: Wikipedia.org

Life with Kappa

The kappa is still very much a part of life in modern Japan. Many common phrases refer to kappas:

  • Kappa maki: cucumber sushi rolls (because kappas love cucumbers).
  • Okappa: bobbed hairstyle.
  • Kappa: straw raincoat, which somewhat resembles a kappa shell.
  • Kappa no Kawa Nagare: even a kappa can drown, indicating that even an expert can make mistakes.
  • Kappa no He: much ado about nothing ("just a kappa fart").
  • Kappa Mikey: TV cartoon in U.S. and Japan (name probably comes from kappa maki--see above).
  • Kappa Bridge in Tokyo.
Kappa Phone Strap
© Photo: AMNH

Kappa Nesuke

Tiny wood and ivory sculptures, called netsuke, were originally used as toggles to secure small containers or pouches to clothing. Made since the 1600s, netsuke are now prized by collectors.

Kappa Phone Strap

Today, tiny sculptures similar to netsuke are made out of plastic as ornaments for cellular phones, and the kappa remains a popular design.

Kappa Wrestling

Kappas love sumo wrestling. Kappas will also sometimes challenge humans to wrestle.



Kappa Mask

Kappa masks are sometimes worn in festivals or used as decoration. This mask was sold in a temple market in Tokyo, Japan. The face suggests a friendly, childlike kappa.




© AMNH / D. Finnin


Crying at night like a baby, the doglike creature called Ahuizotl ("ah-wee-ZO-tul") was said to lure people to their deaths. The Aztecs of Mexico told of how Ahuizotl lived at the bottom of deep pools of water. It had hands and feet like a monkey, and a long, coiled tail with a hand on the end. When people responded to the cries of the weeping child, Ahuizotl grabbed them with the hand on its tail and pulled them down into the water. A few days later, the victim's body would float to the surface, missing only the eyes, teeth and nails.

At a Glance: Ahuizotl

  • Aztec stories of Ahuizotl describe the creature as the size of a dog, with pointed ears.
  • Hands and feet like a monkey or raccoon.
  • Long, flexible tail with a hand on the end.
  • Pulls people under water and kills them.
  • Cries like a baby to lure people near.

Stamping Out "Superstition"

In 1529, the Spanish monk Fra Bernardino da Sahagun went to Mexico to convert the Aztecs to Christianity. He kept detailed records of Aztec stories, including a long description of Ahuizotl. His goal was not to preserve these stories, but to stamp out the beliefs associated with them: "For how are we priests to preach against idolatrous practices, superstitious observances, abuses and omens, if we are not acquainted with these?"

New and Improved?

The Pokemon character Aipom looks like an Ahuizotl, but it is cute and friendly, not a killer. Many old stories, including the classic European Grimm's fairy tales, have been stripped of violence, becoming safe and nonthreatening when they enter the world of contemporary children's movies, books and toys.