Japanese myth

All posts tagged Japanese myth

A to Z: Shiisaa

Published April 21, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Somewhat ironically, my return to Japanese mythology is again visiting non-standard Japan.  Specifically, we’re looking at an Okinawan mythical being again.

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Though he didn’t show up in the earlier MegaTen games, Shiisaa has been a standard since the PS2 era.  (Though his earliest appearances were before that, he didn’t become standard until the Playstation 2.)  So I’ve got a couple of versions of compendium text on him for you.  First, from the two Devil Survivor games:

A holy beast said to protect houses from evil and grant them fortune.

It is known to have the power to keep evil away.  Ceramic statues in its image are placed on the roofs of houses, in similar fashion to gargoyles.  In Okinawa, souls of the deceased become balls of fire and will burn houses, but Shiisaa keeps such spirits out.

And from the Shin Megami Tensei IV games:

A holy beast said to protect houses from evil and grant them fortune.  It looks similar to Shinto guardian dogs, but is actually modeled after a lion.  There are many stories about it in Ryukyu lore.

Persona Q‘s text is almost identical to that; there’s just a couple of words deleted for it.

And, because the wiki made it available, here’s his text from Shin Megami Tensei IMAGINE (which is, I believe, a PC MMO, and one that’s not being supported anymore at that):

A legendary creature said to repel disasters and misfortune and bring good luck to villages. Shiisa resemble a cross between a lion and a dog. They are revered as guardian deities in Okinawa. Their form is thought to be derived from the lions of the ancient Orient.

Shiisa are holy beasts that possess the power to repel demons and exorcise evil spirits that cause fires. Shiisa statues can be found in a variety of places, such as on the roofs of houses and outside temples. The statues are placed so that they face northeast (toward the Demon gate), south (to guard against fire), or the direction of a gate or cross-street.

Okay, so that’s a lot of game text (admittedly, much of it is repetitive), so it’s high time to move on to the real thing, eh?

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A to Z: Kijimuna and Koropokkuru

Published April 12, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

This time, I couldn’t quite decide which one to do, and since they seem closely related (despite being from opposite ends of Japan), I thought I’d do them both.  (There must be something about K that makes it double:  the other contender for today’s post was the vampire hunter/vampire pair of enemies Kresnik and Kudlak.)

We’ll start with Kijimuna:

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

This little cutie is an Okinawan spirit.  (And on the 3DS screen, that body looks more like a green pine cone than something covered in leaves.  Guess there’s something to be said for a bigger screen…)  His text from the two Devil Survivor games is as follows:

A tree spirit of Okinawa.  They are about the size of babies and are covered in hair.

They are the spirits of old Chinese Banyan trees and are also known by the names of Kijimun and Bunagaya.  They love fish and crab, but if they eat one eye of a fish, they get tired of eating the rest and discard the remains.  They hate octopi and will run at the mere sight of one.

So, for those unfamiliar with Japan, Okinawa here refers to the island of Okinawa (it’s also the name of a Prefecture of Japan) one of the most southern islands of Japan.  (Or is it the most southern?  I’m a little unclear on whether the smaller islands that were formerly part of the Ryukyu Kingdom were annexed along with the rest of it.)  Okinawa is part of the Ryukyu chain of islands, which curve around very close to Taiwan.  Because of the short distances involved, Okinawa (and the rest of the Ryukyu Kingdom) had a large Chinese population, so Okinawan culture and language is different from that of the majority of Japan.  The Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in the 1870s after a couple of centuries of Ryukyu paying tribute as a vassal state.  Okinawa remains distinctly different from the rest of Japan, more than a hundred years later.  (It’s also still the site of numerous US military bases, though what possible excuse there can be to still have military bases there more than seventy years after the end of WWII, I can’t imagine.)

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Y is for Yamasachihiko

Published April 29, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

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Well, thanks to me being a complete and utter moron and totally misreading the information about the Aztec thing I was going to use today, I instead finally found a Japanese mythic figure who wasn’t in any MegaTen games, and was good for a few comparisons.

Yamasachihiko is known by many names:  Hikohohodemi no Mikoto, Hohodemi, and Hoori no Mikoto as well as Yamasachihiko…and, actually, it looks like there are even more variations than that.  (His story is a very old one, dating back to the eighth century texts the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki.)  I’m going with Yamasachihiko because it’s the end of April and I needed a “Y” post, of course!  Yamasachihiko means “prince of the mountain of fortune,” apparently.  (I know “yama” means mountain, but…well, one can’t really learn very much Japanese just by watching subtitled anime…)

So, Yamasachihiko was the grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and he was also a skilled hunter, though one of the sources I saw attributed at least part of his success to magic arrows.  He had a brother named Umisachihiko (which I suppose means “prince of the sea of fortune”?) or Hodori, who was just as skilled a fisherman as Yamasachihiko was a hunter, and who treasured his special — or magical — fishhook.

Well, one day Yamasachihiko wanted to try his hand at fishing, so he suggested to Umisachihiko that they could trade tools and see what the other’s lifestyle was like.  Umisachihiko was reluctant, but eventually agreed to it, and he loaned Yamasachihiko his fishhook, while accepting the loan of the other’s bow and arrows.

Excited by the new challenge, Yamasachihiko sat down at the edge of the sea and began fishing.

Or trying to fish, anyway.  It wasn’t really working out for him at all.

But then, at the end of the day, a huge fish bit down on the hook.  Yamasachihiko did his best to bring it in, but he didn’t really know how, when it came right down to it, and so the fish got away.

Worst of all, it got away with the hook, too.

Yamasachihiko went to his brother and explained what happened, and promised he’d make Umisachihiko a thousand new fishhooks — using his own precious sword as materials! — but Umisachihiko refused:  he had to have that fishhook.

There was nothing else to do.  Yamasachihiko walked into the sea and started searching the bottom of the sea, looking for the missing fishhook.  (As the grandson of such a powerful goddess, breathing water was no problem for him.)  But he couldn’t find it anywhere.

Eventually, he ended up at the palace of Ryujin, the god who ruled the sea.  Ryujin gave him a place to stay while the search for the fishhook continued.  While he was staying in that palace, Yamasachihiko quickly found himself falling in love with Toyotama-hime (or Otohime), the daughter of Ryujin, and soon enough the two were wed.

The search for Umisachihiko’s missing fishhook took three years, but eventually it was found in the belly of a gigantic fish.  By that time, Yamasachihiko was quite homesick for the surface world, so he and his new wife went back to the land, and he was finally able to return his brother’s fishhook, winning his forgiveness as well.

However, Toyotama-hime was pregnant, and soon it was time for her to give birth.  As she was heading into her chambers to give birth, she looked at her husband and told him that he must not, under any account, look inside while she was giving birth.  Because, of course, an underwater god like Ryujin didn’t have a human form naturally — though he had put one on for his guest’s sake — and the same went for his daughter.  But she was ashamed to think of her husband seeing what she truly looked like, and so she begged him to stay away while she was forced back into her real form.

But, being a man, Yamasachihiko could not bring himself to obey her command.

He had to know what she really looked like.  He just had to!

And so Yamasachihiko peeked into the room where Toyotama-hime was giving birth, and was horrified to see her true form, which was a bit like what you and I might call a “sea serpent.”

Broken-hearted at her husband’s betrayal — and embarrassed beyond belief! — Toyotama-hime fled back to the bottom of the sea to her father’s palace.

Ashamed at his own behavior, Yamasachihiko did his best to raise his son, never holding it against him that he was half sea-monster.

Eventually, that son grew up to marry his mother’s sister, and became the father of Jimmu, the first Emperor.


Obviously, this story is rather folkloric:  I suspect that the 8th century texts do not contain this version of the tale.

To start at the beginning, he’s a super-talented archer, possibly with magic arrows.  That calls up all sorts of comparisons:  Apollo is also an archer (and connected to the sun in that later Roman myths fused him with Helios) and his arrows have the power to cause illness, and Philoctetes has the Bow of Heracles, which never misses.  And, of course, there are powerful archers (sometimes with magical bows or arrows) in many (if not most) cultures, but I’m really running out of steam here, so I’ve become too lazy to look any of them up.  (Next year, I am totally picking an easier topic for April A-to-Z!)

I can’t, off-hand, think of other stories like this where the hero has to go retrieve something (like his brother’s fishhook) that he’s borrowed and lost, but it feels very familiar, so if I was not so mentally exhausted, I’d probably be able to come up with some.

When we get to Toyotama-hime giving him instructions not to look, whatever he does, then we get into much more easily identified familiar territory!  This is a very common folkloric device, one of the main ways that an enchanted/faerie/what-have-you spouse is unintentionally driven off.  (Similar to what I was discussing in terms of Qat’s wife…)  The example that really leaps to mind is Melusine, though that was actually fairly different.  (Well, depending which version of the story you’re looking at:  the earlier version casts her as a devil, whereas the later version, cooked up by one of the families most strongly considered her descendants, depicted her as more of a mermaid.  That was when it became more like this story.)  The “whatever you do, don’t open that door” or “whatever you do, don’t look” motif has two aspects:  there’s this type, where the cost of looking is to lose something wonderful that you cherished, but then there’s the other type, where the cost of looking is to risk your life, and what you lose (if not your life) is actually something rather awful.  (“Bluebeard” is a prime example of the latter type.)

One last thing:  the bit about Yamasachihiko’s son marrying his own aunt.  Uncle/niece marriages are common enough in mythology, but nephew/aunt marriages are much more rare.  I can only think of one other off the top of my head, and it’s not even the dominant variant of the myth:  in some versions of the Oedipus tale, Jocasta (or Epicasta) dies soon after marrying Oedipus, and so he gets re-married to her sister, and it’s with her that he has his children (or sometimes to a third wife, who was presumably not related to him, and/or his age or younger).


Okay…one more day to go.  I can do this.  I can do this…but I’m gonna be glad when it’s over.  I need the break.

Oh, btw, just a reminder:  tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day!  It’s a US event, officially, and only at about 400 stores that have signed up for it, but (obviously) everyone can go to their local independent bookstore to celebrate the joys of the small, local bookstore, regardless of whether or not it’s an official participant.  So if you’ve got a local bookstore, go and share the love, okay?

M is for Min

Published April 15, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

M

Min was an ancient Egyptian god, and his primary function was one of fertility.  And that brings me to the following point:

warning

The following post contains the discussion and depiction of ancient art featuring naked men, some of them more than usually endowed.  If that might upset you, then please do not read the rest of the post.  Thank you.

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J is for Jinde Sirinde

Published April 12, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

J

In the harsh desert, water is a very precious commodity, and it is the way of many people to placate the spirits who live in that water:  better to keep them happy, and still have water than to anger them and go thirsty!  This held true among the Fulani people, who would leave little gifts for the Waterlord — a seven headed serpent who lived in a local river — rather than dare to risk angering him.

At one time, among the people of a particular village, there was a young man who had two wives.  (This was not unusual at that time.)  One of his wives was pregnant, and the other was angry because she was not pregnant.  In order to vent her anger a bit, when the pregnant wife wasn’t looking, she filled her ewer with mud.  It was only meant to annoy, not to cause any particular harm; the ewer was going to be carried to the river either way, so why not make it a bit heavier?

Well, the pregnant wife — being extremely pregnant — didn’t find it merely annoying to have to carry that heavy vessel all the way to the river, and she was weeping with the strain long before she arrived there.  Once she did, she let out all her sadness in a song, begging the Waterlord for help.

To her surprise, the Waterlord himself rose out of the water, all seven of his heads looking down at her with a knowing wisdom.  He might help her, but only for a price.  She could see that, but she had nothing to offer him other than the child she was carrying.  And so she did:  she promised the Waterlord that her unborn baby would serve him in adulthood.

At this promise, the Waterlord nodded all seven of his heads, then lifted the mud-filled pitcher.  Using his magic and power over water, the serpent cleaned out the ewer until it was utterly spotless, filled it with the freshest, most pure water, and then returned it to the pregnant woman.

Gratefully, she returned home, and that very night she gave birth to a little girl.

Because of her mother’s bargain, the girl was called Jinde Sirinde, “the one who will be claimed by the Waterlord.”

Jinde Sirinde knew nothing of the weighty reason for her name, and she grew up in total complacency, no different — or so she thought — from any other girl in the village.

Like the other girls, she had friends, she had enemies, and she even had a sweetheart.

She also had chores to perform, just like anyone else in the village, so she never thought anything of it when her mother was constantly sending her to the river with a pitcher of water.

It wasn’t until the day the Waterlord decided he was ready for her that Jinde Sirinde learned the true meaning behind her name.

One moment she was standing in the shallow water, trying to clean her ewer, and the next moment the Waterlord had dragged her down beneath the surface, into his palace.  Once she was there, the serpent explained to her about her mother’s bargain, and told her that she was now his wife.  Having been promised to him, she now belonged to him, and was never again to return to the surface to see her friends, family, or the light of day.

Jinde Sirinde wept at this terrible pronouncement, and would not stop weeping for days.

When she finally calmed down, she informed her new husband that she couldn’t stand the idea of staying down there in the murky water for all eternity.  Couldn’t he bring himself to let her go — even for one day! — to see her family and friends again?

The Waterlord rumbled for a moment, then nodded his heads in acquiescence.  He told her she could have one day to visit her family and finish any tasks that she had left hanging upon the surface.  But if she refused to return, he would come after her and drag her back if need be!

Jinde Sirinde promised him that wouldn’t be necessary, then quickly hurried back out of the river before he could change his mind.

She ran all the way back to her home, but found the door locked against her.  When she begged her parents to let her in, they told her that a woman belongs to her husband, and to go back to the Waterlord before she brought all the village into danger.

More upset than ever, Jinde Sirinde turned away from her family’s home, and ran to the home of her sweetheart.  Even though she was now married to another, surely he would still be on her side — surely he would save her from the monster!

Her sweetheart’s family wanted her turned away, since she was married to the Waterlord.  But her sweetheart himself…he couldn’t bear to turn away from the woman he loved.  So when his father wasn’t looking, he crept out of the house with his father’s sword, and hurried towards the river’s banks, where the Waterlord was already rising in anger that his bride had not yet returned to him.

Though he was terrified, Jinde Sirinde’s sweetheart fought against the monstrous serpent, and in the end he managed to hack off all seven of the Waterlord’s heads.

The beast fell dead in the mud, and the newly widowed Jinde Sirinde was able to marry her sweetheart.


I probably shouldn’t have used this story, because I wasn’t able to confirm it as reputably as I’d have liked.  (Apart from the book I found it in originally, all I could come up with was a single one paragraph summary that’s been copy-pasted all over the Internet.)  But the allure of this story, from a comparative standpoint, was just too much to pass up!

There are two ways to approach this story, comparatively speaking.  First, there’s the obvious comparison between the Waterlord and Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed serpent slain by Susanoo.  In slaying the monster, Susanoo rescues the beautiful Kushinada-hime, who then becomes his wife.  The basic trope of “hero rescues girl by slaying monster” is nothing that need pointing out, of course, and examples are rife throughout mythology and folklore (and fiction) the world over, but the fact that in both cases the monster in question has so many heads is unusual.

However, there are also considerable differences, since Susanoo is a god, and Kushinada-hime was in the process of being sacrificed/fed to Orochi, as had her seven elder sisters before her.  Also, the tale of Susanoo killing Orochi is part of a very densely woven cultural and religious tapestry, while the Fulani tale of the Waterlord seems to be more in the “folklore” department.  (Though without any proper sources, it’s hard for me to be sure.)

More than the comparison to Orochi, what really caught my attention about this story was how it’s different from what we would expect if this tale was being told in a Western European context.

One one level, it may sound like exactly what you’d expect, since the monster is slain and the girl gets to live happily ever after with the man she loves.

But look at it from a structural perspective for a moment.  Here’s an outline of the story at its bare bones:

  1. Harried parent makes rash promise to monster.
  2. Child must carry out parent’s promise…
  3. …but the monster wants a wife, not a servant/slave.
  4. The unwilling bride begs to return home for a single day.
  5. This is permitted, but with consequences for breaking her word.

Sound familiar yet?

Yup…

…with a little tweaking, we have here a horrible alternate ending to Beauty and the Beast.

It’s not just that, though.  Not really.  Overall, the lesson of European folktales (particularly those that have been zealously repeated since the latter half of the 19th century) is that a child must keep his/her word, and/or the word of his/her parents, and if they do so, then that virtue will be rewarded.  (Obviously, there are exceptions, but…)

Even in the folktales where the protagonist goes awry, monsters are often not what they seem, particularly when they have behaved helpfully.  What looks like a dragon might be a fairy in disguise, what looks like a beautiful woman might be a wicked witch, it all depends on how someone is behaving, not what they look like.  So if this story were being told in a Western European context, we would expect that the Waterlord would be a fairy prince, or an enchanted and virtuous man, or whatever, and Jinde Sirinde’s betrayal of him would cost either her own life or the lives of her loved ones.  But in the story as it stands, her faithless actions are rewarded.  (Of course, that’s assuming that her actions can rightfully be called “faithless.”  They seem that way in the story as I read it, and I have tried to both transmit that and stay at least a little non-committal on the subject in my own version.  But this is coming from a culture I don’t know, and I don’t know its original source, or how old it is, or anything, so my interpretations are inherently flawed.)

Because my source is so minimal, I can’t be sure if this is a massive cultural difference writ large, or if the story was just really badly transmitted.  But, to be honest, I’m pretty sure it’s the former, and I thought that it was a pretty interesting difference.

I hope at least a few other people have also found it interesting.

 

B is for Bacab

Published April 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

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The Bacabs are four Mayan deities — or the aspects of a single quadripartite deity — who were associated with the cardinal directions.  Each was also associated with a color:  the northern Bacab was associated with white, the eastern Bacab with red, the southern Bacab with yellow, and the western Bacab with black.

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of myth associated with them, apart that they held up the sky, and had escaped when the world was destroyed in a flood.  (Guess I missed them yesterday, lol!)  Of course, if they were holding up the sky, then they obviously couldn’t do much without dropping it, and that would be bad…so they probably featured in a lot of now-lost stories of destruction at the ends of the various ages of the Mayan calendar.  (Or maybe they wouldn’t have; maybe there weren’t even such stories in the first place.  I didn’t have as much time to research as I wanted, due to class work and work work.)  In any event, the one myth I saw mentioned that featured them was one of upheaval on a truly massive, “I think we should call the Avengers” scale.  (Okay, that sounded totally out of left field, but…it’s less crazy than you think, between my post for today on my other blog and between my plans for today IRL.  And, now that I think about it, gods like these (but fictional ones, not ones stolen from a real culture) would make a pretty sweet opponent for a superhero team…)

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex.  Wikimedia Commons.

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

As the gods who held up the sky — and had associations with weather, particularly rain — the Bacabs probably had a much larger ritual presence than a mythological one.  All the more so since the Maya had another set of four gods, the Chaacs, who had pretty much the same function, and who were closely associated — perhaps even somewhat conflated — with the Bacabs.  (And yes, the Chaacs had been in the running for Monday’s post.  But I had fewer good options for B, so the Bacabs won.)

Okay, so that seemed a bit light, I know.  But now we get to the comparative side!

Obviously, an easy comparison is Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek mythology.  ‘Cause, you know, they both hold up the sky.  But that’s actually a pretty weak comparison.  After all, Atlas isn’t associated with any of the cardinal directions (in fact, his location was never quite certain and changed from version to version) and he isn’t associated with any colors as far as I know.  So let’s look for some better matches!

  • The Four Symbols.  Chinese (and Korean and Japanese).  This is very common in Japanese (and Korean) popular culture, so this was the first thing I thought of when I came across the Bacabs!  These four spirits are associated with colors and cardinal directions.  They also have animal forms and are not holding up the sky, but they are associated with constellations, so they are at least associated with the sky.  The northern spirit is the Black Turtle (Xuán Wū, or Genbu in Japanese), the eastern spirit is the Azure Dragon (Qīng Lóng, or Seiryu in Japanese), the southern spirit is the Vermilion Bird (Zhū Què, or Suzaku in Japanese), and the western spirit is the White Tiger (Baí Hǔ, or Byakko in Japanese).  None of the colors line up, but three colors are represented in both cases.  These four spirits are associated with the seasons, so that’s another tie to the rain and weather functions of the Bacabs, though again it’s not a perfect comparison.
  • The Four Heavenly Kings.  Buddhist.  This was the second comparison I thought of when I read about the Bacabs.  (Admittedly, I thought of them because I know their Japanese names from video games, but…ahem.  Moving on.)  They’re protective gods, and they don’t hold up the sky.  But they are associated with colors and the cardinal directions:  north (Vaiśravaṇa, or Bishamonten in Japanese) with yellow or green, east (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, or Jikokuten in Japanese) with white, south (Virūḍhaka or Zochoten in Japanese) with blue, and west (Virūpākṣa or Komokuten in Japanese) with red.  A number of the colors are the same, but not lined with the same direction.  (Which is hardly surprising.)  And their functions are different, so this is definitely a weak comparison when you get right down to it.
  • The Four Sons of Horus.  Egyptian.  Not a strong comparison, I’ll say that right now.  These four sons of Horus are each associated with a cardinal direction, but their primary role was as the heads on the canopic jars that received the Pharoah’s internal organs, and the jars were then left facing in the direction associated with the son of Horus in question.  (Though early canopic jars had the Pharaoh’s own head depicted on them.)  I saw an image on Wikimedia — a modern drawing of canopic jars — that depicted each jar a different color, and three of the four lined up exactly with the colors on the Four Heavenly Kings, but I don’t think that had anything to do with ancient Egyptian belief, and was modern cross-pollination of ideas, or whatever that might be called.  (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m no Egyptologist.)
  • The four dwarves who hold up the dome of the sky.  Norse.  Now this is a pretty good comparison!  They’re holding up the sky from the four corners of the world, just like the Bacabs.  They don’t have colors associated with them, and they probably didn’t see much in the way of worship (especially considering Norse dwarves turned to stone when hit by sunlight) but they’re still a pretty strong parallel.  Their names translate to Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western, and they’re believed to be associated with the four winds.

I didn’t find any perfect comparisons for the Bacabs — apart from the Chaacs, and even that’s a flawed comparison since they’re both Mayan — but there are several strong points of comparison between four cultures that are all quite distant and different from the Mayan culture.  (And also I found a Hindu comparison that I elected to leave out because it wasn’t four gods associated with the four cardinal directions, but eight gods associated with eight directions.)

Of course, the four cardinal directions are pretty universal.  Or rather, they’re always there, whether a culture comes to acknowledge them as important or not.  (Whether or not they are, in fact, important is a metaphysical speculation that I don’t really have time for right now.)  And colors are present in every culture, no matter how they’re named or recognized.  Beings holding up the sky…are also not uncommon.  After all, you cannot personally touch the sky (unless you’re on some really psychadelic medications) so it has to be far away, and before the advent of modern science, coming to the conclusion that it’s a dome of air and the color we see is the way it refract the light is not likely.  So some other explanation had to be arrived at, and some god(s) — or monster(s) — holding up the sky is as likely an explanation as any other, perhaps even a more likely explanation than any other.  (As silly as Aristotle’s crystal dome may sound to us now, it was actually an amazing leap forward in scientific thought at the time.)

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Dutch Fashion Doll World

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Confessions of a Doll Collectors Daughter

Reviews and News From the Doll World

It's a Britta Bottle!

Small Stories of a Twenty-Something Adventuring Through Life

DataTater

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The Photographicalist

Preserving the photographical perspective

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging

We're All Mad Here!

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