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Two Rustic Ema

Written on January 3, 2012

An ema is a pictorial votive offering generally painted on a flat wooden surface. 

Seen as the messenger of human wishes to the world of the gods, horses were once given to Shinto shrines.  They were eventually replaced by ema (literally “picture horses”). 

For many years ema were presented as offering to heal physical disorders or illness, and they were painted with related symbols: eyes for eye problems, a catfish for skin problems, an octopus for warts, and so on. 

They were also offered when making a wish for success in battle or as thanks for a wish that had been granted.  In recent years their use has come to include wishes for success on tests, in marriage, in childbirth and so on. 

-From “The Forgotten Japanese: Encounters with Rural Life and Folklore,” Miyamoto TsuneichiThese two rustic ema illustrate very well the quote which leads in this post.   Obviously the ema, above, has to do with ailments of the hands, while the one below, has to do with the eyes.  Each probably dates to the mid twentieth century or so.And each is small: the ema depicting hands measures 5 1/4″ x 6″ or 13.25 cm x 15 cm while the ema depicting eyes measures 6 1/2″ x 7″ or 16.5 cm x 17.75 cm.

You can tell by the weathering and wear to each piece that they were hung outside in the elements for some time.

I really love these old, rustic, folk emas: with disembodied human organs set on a stage that is festooned with cloth bunting or crudely rendered heavenly clouds, they are wonderfully surreal.   I have others which I may show over time, if there is interest to see more.



Comments closed

  1. Comment by paula:

    Love these! Thanks for sharing and explaining.

    “a catfish for skin problems, an octopus for warts” — i want to know how that tranmogrified. catfish, scales –> bad skin? octopus, suction cups –> warts? the mind boggles. but somehow hands = hands. ^^

    meanwhile, the Captcha phrases produce their own little zen koans…

    January 4, 2012 @ 1:17 am

  2. Comment by diane:

    and milagros and ex-votos from Mexico, Central and S. America. Didn’t know about this Japanese form. THanks they are lovely.

    January 4, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  3. Comment by velma:

    these are terrific. wonderful.

    January 4, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  4. Comment by Barbara:

    Thank you for introducing these, they are absolutely enchanting, would love to see more!

    January 7, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

  5. Comment by helen:

    Yes, very interesting. Would like to also see more. Would also like to know how they came up with the symbols for specific ailment, if you know, like the first comment eluded to. thanks.

    January 11, 2012 @ 2:51 pm