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Shared Stories: Common themes in myths and legends across cultures

The returnee from the underwater world - similarities in Amazon and Japanese legends

In the Japanese legend of Urashima Taro, a turtle carries a young man to the magical undersea kingdom, where he is welcomed by a beautiful princess. The princess is a magic animal (in some versions of the tale, she is a dragon; in others, she is a turtle) who shape-shifts into human form to keep company with Urashima Taro. For a while, Taro lives in this underwater world which is not unlike own, only more splendid and more beautiful.

One day, he is seized by a desire to visit his home. Reluctantly, his hostess sends him on his way. She gives him a box and tells him that if he wished to return to the underwater palace, he should not to open the box under any circumstances. Back in the human world, the hero inevitably opens the box. He is instantly transformed into a white-haired old man, more ancient than anyone had ever seen. The box contained all the years of his life that had gone by while he lived in the underwater world - it turned out that hundreds of years have passed on land during the brief time he spent in the undersea palace.1

The indigenous people of the Amazon also have a tradition concerning an enchanted world under the waters of the Amazon.2 Brazilian and Peruvian lore ascribe shape-shifting abilities to the pink river dolphins who take humans to the sub-aquatic realm called Encante. Like the Japanese shapeshifters, the Amazonian shape-shifters can take human form and seduce or marry humans.3 A native Peruvian guide related the following story in Journey of the Pink Dolphins:

One time, at the mouth of the Napo River, a young man's boat disappeared, and his family was devastated. But just a little while later, the young man appeared to his mother in a dream. "All is well," he told his mother. "I am married to a beautiful girl who is a princess. I live underwater, in a beautiful city."... For twenty years, he lived happily under the water, but one day, he told his wife, the princess, that he would like to visit his mother and sister on the land. His wife told him, "Until you return to me, I will give you a little rock, and it is your life. Please don't lose it."

So the young man came to visit his mother and sister... But one night... he lost the stone. The following morning, his mother found him dead in his hammock. His hair had turned white, like an old man's.4

In addition to the obvious similarities between the two narratives - a journey to an underwater realm, a marriage to a shapeshifting princess, the return to land, a human life tied to single enchanted object, the hero's inevitable disobedience and his resulting transformation and death - there are some similar concepts about the underwater world in both the Japanese and Peruvian traditions. As in Japanese lore, Peruvian lore pictures the underwater realm to be similar to, but superior to the human world. The Peruvian guide in Journey of the Pink Dolphins explained: "The shamans say life in the water is same as here, but better... People live longer there; one month underwater is the same as a year here."5 The Japanese tale of Urushima also illustrates the idea that time in the underwater realm passes differently from time on land.

  1. Urashima Taro
    Urashima Taro and West Kagawa
    Urashima Taro on Netnihon Fairy Tales
  2. El Mundo Magico: Conversations with Sachamama - on Trinidad Vilces Peso and how she disappeared with the dolphins
  3. Sy Montgomery, Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest
  4. Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest, pp. 124-125
  5. Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest, p. 124