Throughout history and across cultures there have been countless spirits and entities that have managed to etch themselves into the lore of the places that have spawned them. These spirits are many, taking a wide variety of forms and behaviors, and there are myriad subspecies of such entities. One that has come to be firmly lodged within the legends and myths of numerous peoples is that of the familiar spirit, a sort of spirit who is bound to a master to do his or her bidding. Tales of these types of familiar spirit span across geographical boundaries, and in the far eastern country of Japan we have a particularly bizarre example of this.
One of these types of spirits was often conjured up by diviners, known as onmyoji, and were the ones called the inugami, with the name being a combination of inu, or dog, and the word kami, meaning “god.” Although traditions and legends of these spirits vary in their details depending on the region, the inugami were mostly described as a mummified-looking dog’s head upon a humanoid body, often dressed in traditional clothing, and they were said to be able to shapeshift at will in order to look like a regular dog. These spirits were known for their myriad supernatural powers, such as causing incurable sickness or disease and inciting madness, as well as the ability to possess the living, and were once much feared by the populace of the more rural regions of the country. Typically, they were conjured by a magic user or wicked priest who wished to use them as a sort of familiar or slave in order to do their bidding, often for the purpose of revenge upon an enemy, and the methods for bringing one into the world are at once fascinating and gruesome.
In order to create an inugami, the main way was to use a greatly feared and banned ritual called kojutsu, also known as kodō or kodoku. The precise ritual for conjuring an inugami differed from mage to mage, with the secret being passed down from master to apprentice, but one common way was to start with a normal living dog and burying it up to its neck. Since suffering and anguish were needed, the mage would then allow the dog to starve for several days, after which food would be placed around it just out of reach. When the dog inevitably died, this food would appease the spirit and hold it en thrall to its new master, after which the remains would be cremated and placed into a special vessel and enshrined, which would complete its transformation into a type of powerful maleficent spirit called an onryō. In some traditions the last step was to chop the dog’s head off and have it try to eat the food even in its dying breaths, after which the head would be buried at a crossroads, and still other traditions call for two dogs to fight to the death beforehand, with the “winner” being the one used in the ritual. The inugami would then appear shortly after to serve its new owner, also called the Inugami-mochi, literally “one who has an inugami.”
Once the inugami was created, invoked, divined, whatever word you wish to use, it was then kept in a special shrine within its master’s house, to be called upon whenever its services were needed. These services could include striking down enemies, spying, bringing wealth and good fortune, and granting all manner of requests, although these spirits were also known to act of their own accord, often activated by the envy or vengeance of their master. Inugami were known to be rather ornery, unruly, and prone to turning against their masters if they were not kept in line, similarly to how a pet dog might be. The owners of these spirits had to be careful to keep it appeased, give it offerings, and not mistreat or offend it, but if this was done then the spirit would stay loyal to them forever, passed down from generation to generation. Such families were often shunned and feared in the villages they lived in, often kept segregated and with it being forbidden for an outsider to marry into any family that owned an inugami, but for all of the benefits inugami-mochi got from the spirit it seems to have been a good trade off. Yet the inugami also had some other rather sinister and unsavory attributes that could backfire even on those who possessed them.
One of the prominent abilities of the inugami was the ability to possess people, called Inugami-tsuki, during which time they would leave their bodies to enter those who were susceptible, with emotionally unstable or mentally weak people being the easiest to invade. Those possessed by an inugami were said to feel pain in their chest, complain about pain in their arms and feet, suddenly sway without warning, develop intense, insatiable hunger, and bark and act like a dog, even snarling or biting people who got too close. The possessed would also become consumed by rage and jealousy and slowly go insane. The inugami were said to be able to also possess cows and horses and even inorganic objects. The only way for such a possession to end was is if the spirit left willingly or it was forcibly ejected by another mage or priest, a laborious process which could take days and which sometimes left the victim dead.
This could all be beneficial for the inugami-mochi if the possessed was an enemy, but there was a catch. It was said that when the inugami’s spirit left its body, it would deteriorate quickly. If it was uninhabitable by the time it returned, the inugami was liable to possess its very own master. The practice of using inugami for possession was widely feared and frowned upon, with any family suspected of carrying it out forced into exile or worse, very similarly to the witch hunts of Europe. Right up into modern times there are rural villages in Japan that still believe in the inugami, with some families still thought to possess them. Whether any of it is true or not, it is certainly a very interesting tale, and serves to show that such stories have managed to span the globe, inviting discussion and wonder.