Spontaneous generation is an old, now forgotten idea first expounded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It is one of those ideas that make you wonder just what people were thinking back then. Basically the idea is that creatures could be generated from rotting flesh; for example it was believed that rotting meat generated maggots, the spinal columns of dead humans grew into snakes, and dead lions brought forth bees. Anyone bothering to watch dead meat in warm weather for any length of time would have seen flies laying eggs on the meat and the eggs hatching into maggots. But it seemed no-one bothered to do this, and Aristotle’s word went largely unchallenged up until the time of Louis Pasteur in the 19th Century.
Aristotle held that pneuma, or the breath of life, was present in non-living matter, was a mixture of elements and acted as a generative printable.
There are a number of legends that attest to monsters developing from the decaying remains of human beings:
At Norton Fitzwarren in Somerset, the Roman general Ostorius was said to have killed hundreds of ancient Britons. Over the centuries a dragon is said to have grown from the corruption of the rotting bodies. The dragon took up residence in an Iron Age hill fort and preyed on the populace until Fulk Fitzwarine, a 13th Century knight, slew the creature. Despite his brave deed Fulk fell foul of King John and was exiled, but he continued his adventures abroad when he saved the Duke of Iberia’s daughter from a dragon near Carthage.
Gashadokuro is found in the folklore of Japan. It is a titanic animated skeleton fifteen times taller than a man, and is composed of the bones of people who died of starvation that have aggregated in to a huge cannibalistic spirit. It is animated by the deads’ anger at their own horrid deaths. They stalk the night making a "gachi gachi" sound. If this monster catches a human it will bite off their head. The appearance of a Gashadokuro is foretold by a ringing in one’s ears.
In one story, a man from Bingo (the old name for an area in east Hiroshima) was out in the fields one night when he heard a strange voice complaining about a pain it its eye. In the morning, the man located the weather-beaten skull of a Gashadokuro, and was able to appease it by removing the bamboo shoots that had grown up through its eye socket, and by leaving a bowl of dried boiled rice as an offering.
The feudal lord Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701) supposedly battled a Gashadokuro summoned by a magician.
In a story from the 10th Century a provincial warlord called Taira-no-Masakado led a coup against an outpost of the central government until he was killed by his cousin Sadamori. He was dismembered and beheaded as a warning to others, but his head carried on living. It leered and laughed and eventually flew away. His daughter, outraged at the treatment of her father’s body, preyed at the ancient Kifune Shrine in Kyoto until her outrage was given form as a monstrous skeleton.
Likewise the Itsumaden has its creation from the dead.The Taihei chronicles, a 40-volume history of the war between the Northern and Southern Courts which took place between 1336 and 1392, tells of a monster bird manifesting over the capital’s ceremonial hall at night. It first appeared on an autumn night in 1334, when it spat fire and wailed in a woe begotten voice “Itsumademo! Itsumademo!” meaning “How much longer? How much longer?”
The monster caused worry in the hall so the nobles hired an archer called Hiroari to shoot the beast down. On examination of the carcass they found it had the head of a human but with a bird-like beak, the body of a snake, bird’s wings and dagger-like talons. Its wingspan was about sixteen feet.
Hiroari was rewarded with two large estates in the province of Inaba.
The Itsumaden had manifested at the time of a great plague when vast piles of human corpses had been dumped outside the city. It was thought that the yokai bird was a creation of the spirits of the dead, angry at their neglect.
It was also thought that a person who starved to death could return as an Itsumaden that would moan “Itsumade, Itsumade” (How long, how long?)