Spotlight: driving out the demon of smallpox

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Smallpox plagued medieval Japan, the disease was thought to be brought on by an Onryō (怨霊), a vengeful mythological spirit. This specific spirit or demon was eventually given the name Hōsōshin (疱瘡神).

In the tale of Tametomo and Hōsōshin, the story goes that Tametomo the great samurai was exiled to the remote island of Oshima by his enemies. When the smallpox demon launched an attack on the island, Tametomo came to the rescue of the defenceless islanders. In the face of Tametomo’s extraordinary courage and ferocity, Hōsōshin shrank to the size of a pea and was cast into the sea by Tametomo, as depicted in this Yoshikazu print.

Tametomo banishes the smallpox demon from the island of Oshima Colour woodcut by Yoshikazu Utagawa  1851/1853

Tametomo banishes the smallpox demon from the island of Oshima. Colour woodcut by Yoshikazu Utagawa 1851/1853. Wellcome Library reference: 565203i.

Japanese families typically tried to appease Hōsōshin by building shrines, burning incense and offering flowers in their homes. Where that failed, they had no choice but to try and drive it away. Legend had it that Hōsōshin was afraid of the colour red, so families typically put up red cloth and red dolls.

Interestingly, the “red treatment” for smallpox was also used in medieval Europe.  One of the treatments that John of Gaddesden (died 1361), royal physician to King Edward, suggests in his medical treatise, Rosa Anglica Practica Medicinae, is to “expel the matter to the surface of the body” using fennel, smallage and saffron,

“Then take a scarlet or other red cloth, and put it about the pox; as I did to the King of England’s son when this disease seized him, and I permitted only red things to be about his bed, by the which I cured him, without leaving a trace of the smallpox pustules on him.” [from a translation of Rosa Anglica]

The treatment continued to be used for centuries and Queen Elizabeth I of England was said to have been wrapped in a red blanket when she had smallpox.

Author: Gillian Daniel is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust.



Gillian Daniel

Gillian Daniel is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust and the creator of the popular fashion and art Instagram page @FashoftheTitans.

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