Folklore: Funayurei

Horrific little mermaid

The legend I want to talk about today comes from Japan and delves into Japan’s apparent love for creepy ghost ladies. We will be looking at the funayurei, a type of ghost, commonly portrayed as women with a passion for sinking ships. 

The Myth


The funayurei legend has multiple variations, they all have the same basic structure and story but with subtle differences that change amongst tellers.  

Common points across almost all telling’s are that these creepy ghost ladies like to sink ships. In some versions, the funayurei are very much like sirens, beautiful women who lure ships into dangerous situations for the crew of the ship to meet a watery end. In some versions, the funayurei don’t lure the ship into dangerous territory but rather fill the ships with water themselves to sink them.

One of the key differences between funayurei and sirens is their origins. Sirens have always been sirens, meaning they are a creature completely separate from humanity, they were born sirens, they did not become sirens. However, the funayurei were once people who were turned into funayurei. Their myth has an almost vampiric element to it, in that those killed by the funayurei will rise themselves as funayurei. 

Appearance-wise the funayurei are creepy ghost ladies but they might not always appear as such. They can turn themselves into ships to ram into and take down other ships. This takes the ghost ship to a whole new level. 

Over time, funayurei have developed a range of abilities, not only do they sink ships but they can affect the navigation gear on a ship, effect the crews moral, they might force a ship to run aground by setting a fire in the open sea making the ship’s crew think it land is nearby so they sail off course.

Usually, funayurei live in the sea but have been known to swim up in rivers as well. They like to appear on rainy days, which is not a surprise as they were likely invented as a way for people to understand and explain ships having accidents in poor weather.

There are ways to protect yourself and your ship from the funayurei, such as throwing rice balls, flowers or incense into the sea. You can also freak them out by staring them down. They don’t like their water being messed with and will leave if you stir it with a stick.

My Thoughts 

Photo by Lisa on

I for one am fond of this myth. 

Researching this myth was a lot of fun, mostly because of the sheer variety involved with it. There are so many versions of this creature, with so many little differences depending on who you hear the legend from. 

Funayurei have so much in common with various other myths, such as sirens, vampires or zombies, the typical ‘ghost lady’ concept and the Kappa. There’s probably a lot more out there that I’m not aware of. It put me in mind of a mish-mash of various other creatures.

While they make for a very interesting story and the variety in the telling can be enchanting, it is likely the funayurei were dreamt up as a way for sailors to explain the phenomenon’s they encounter at sea, such as internal waves which are known to stop ships dead. 

As a species, humanity does tend to make stories as ways to explain the world around us and understand our place in it. However, we do not like the feeling of powerlessness (unless you’re a Lovecraft fan), and so often give ourselves ways to appease the insurmountable forces that affect the world.

The story of the funayurei taps into the instinctive fear we have of the sea, or any large body of water. Humanities relationship with water is a strange one, on one hand, it is essential to our survival, either as fresh drinking water, or the source of food and wealth in the form of the sea. But at the same time, it is also something to be respected and feared, water is dangerous and not understanding the dangers it holds can be fatal. 

Which is why I think we have the element of the myth where sailors can ward off the funayurei, they can make offerings or stir the water to drive them off. Humans love feeling like we’re in control, it gives us comfort. By giving the sea, and the shipwrecks it causes, a mind and a motivation we give ourselves away to respond and circumvent these disasters. 

Overall the funayurei myth is one of my favourites, for its variety and for how it takes an instinctive fear and turns it into something with a mind, with motivations and ultimately with a way for us to exert some control. Sailing has always been dangerous, and its hardly surprising that we would invent a creature for us to oppose while out on the waves. If something is real, has a physical form, it can be understood, explained and defeated. I think I’d rather go up against a funayurei than the mindless dark of a force of nature like the sea. 

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s