Prayers Painted in Red

Graeme Lottering       

Once upon a time, my prayers were answered by the fox-god, and I still owe him a return visit to his shrine one day. The experience is folded into another story, an older one in which red heals a sick person, but before we get there, I would like to introduce you to the colour red. Yes, I’m sure you know what it looks like, but red itself has a history, a personality that takes an introduction before you can understand the value of the colour we take for granted today.

Red is the first colour the primate eye evolved to see. It is a physiological adaptation that would forever leave an indelible imprint on all cultures. While we were still proto-humans living in jungles and forests, the ability to see red provided us with a distinct advantage. It separated lush red fruits from the leafy inedible vegetation around it, and soon the ability to see red evolved to become an emotional signaling device. The rosy blush of skin can universally be interpreted as either anger, sexuality, or shame, which is precisely why red is the only colour that has common meaning across all cultures. Yes, we all use it differently, but red is unequivocally the colour of dominance, aggression, and passion.

Passion comes in many forms, some that you cannot understand until something is at risk of being taken away from you. In 2011, while living in Japan, I found out that my mother had been diagnosed with an incredibly rare form of cancer in stage IV. Her oncologist said it was the type of tumour, recently documented, that a seasoned doctor might never encounter in a long career. Odds of survival were low.

After I heard the news, I decided to climb to the top of Fushimi-Inari shrine on a forested mountain inside the City of Kyoto. To get to the top, you have to climb up, following a seemingly limitless array of red torii gates, the traditional post and lintel constructions signaling the entrance to a Shinto holy place. However, in Fushimi there was not just one, but thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—forming a long, snaking tunnel, through which you could make out the dense greenery of the forest blanketing the mountain. They say that torii gates were originally painted red to scare away evil spirits, and ancient cultures all across the world used red for the same purpose—to frighten away demons that cause diseases. I thought this as I climbed, sweating in the humid breeze, and stopping at every shrine to drop a coin in the collections box and to ring the bell that makes the spirit aware of my prayers. The god of Fushimi Shrine is a fox, a trickster and also a successful healer judging by the sheer number of votive plaques left by people thanking him for curing their ailments, broken hearts, and fixing their insolvency.

I circumnavigated the entire mountain that day, using up every coin I had in my pocket—starting from the lucky ¥5 with the hole in its centre, and proceeding upward in denomination as I climbed, until I was tossing in heavy ¥100s and even the rare ¥500 as I crested the summit.

Red is one of the most commonly occurring colours in nature. It is a mineral colour, which sets it apart from biological colours, produced mostly from plants. Essentially, red pigment is made from iron oxide, the residue of the earth itself, and so appears as early as the Paleolithic Age, over 40,000 years ago, when the jungle monkeys decided to up and leave and make for the relative safety of a cave. It was in those caves that we first developed religion, music, and art, recording on the limestone walls great hunts with ochres, siennas, charcoal and ash. Red, you see, was among the first colours of the artist’s palette.

It is to no surprise then that the colour would be associated with the spiritual world of beyond, the realm of deities that can affect fortunes, and cause and cure pox. When pervasive diseases like smallpox emerged for the first time in Asia, specific deities were set up and worshiped to fight the illness. In China, the smallpox goddess was called T’ou Shen Nian-Nian, who had to be tricked on the first night of the new year so that she would forget about handsome children sleeping in the household. In a bizarre carnivalesque atmosphere, kids would wear ugly, devilish masks to bed, cementing the belief that the most beautiful children were more at risk. These masks were painted with vermillion, surely harking back to some innate primitive understanding that a red face baring its teeth is scary to approach.

But let’s get back to the story I was recalling as I walked around the mountain with the red torii gates in Kyoto. This tale goes back to another pandemic, to the twelfth century in Paris, where the aristocracy had locked themselves into the Louvre in a voluntary quarantine against the Black Plague ravishing the city below them. The ruling sovereign was Louis IX, and his wife and son had both fallen ill, the distinctive buboes appearing under their arms and on their necks. Louis was a man of many resources, so he summoned the most esteemed doctors from Italy, all of whom had been on the front lines of the disease years before it spread northward to envelope the remainder of Europe in darkness.

The only doctor that responded was Dr. Schnavel von Rom, a generic name that history records simply as ‘the birdman from Rome’. This forgotten detail is perhaps due to the fact that medieval doctors wore an early hazmat suit, consisting of a long, waxed trench coat; a wide brimmed hat; and a beaked bird mask, filled with rose petals, which presumably afforded relief from the constant reek of decay all around them.

By the time the doctor arrived in Paris, the Queen was dead, but King Louis begged him to save his son. Contrary to all common sense, the doctor’s treatment was simply ‘red’. He had the boy move to a red room, wear red clothes, and eat only red food. The prince was sealed in that crimson environment for one year, slowly recovering from the bubonic plague. One year later, when the doctor returned, the boy was well.

This story had always been considered a myth or a legend, flowing from the many ambivalent cures and treatments of the Dark Ages. Red is an impossible cure for any illness, doctors claimed, dismissing this story. However, it was only in the twentieth century that medical researchers discovered that the plague bacterium, yersinia pestis, like most bacteria, is profoundly affected by infrared light. The light wave interferes with bacteria reproduction, slowing the growth rate of the disease. The high-energy radiation knocks electrons off atoms, forming ions inside the cells. This essentially creates peroxides inside the bacteria themselves, and causes a self-sterilization.

This is what I was thinking, surrounded by hundreds of stone statues of the fox-god hidden beneath ferns and perched on rocks. I was thinking how often belief in something is all you need. There are surely many things science will only validate after the fact. As humans we transform our concerns into metaphors in an attempt to come to terms with ancient, deeply-rooted feelings—feelings that can only be truly understood when chanted around a fire and smudged onto a cave wall. The colour red is just one example of this Ur-consciousness we still cling to, perhaps unaware that it fulfills a deep desire to be connected once again with the cycle of nature and its incomprehensible magic.

I made it to the top of Fushimi shrine, where the priest told me that the god is not, in fact, a healing god per se, but he does cure things and solves problems. Standing there under a small roof, where a giant copper fox smiled down on us, incense drifting like low-lying clouds across the summit of the mountain, I asked him how a fox could cure a disease.

“The fox-god,” he stated matter-of-factly, “is a trickster. He can outsmart the disease by simply doing something unexpected.”

“Kind of like painting a white room red?” I said mostly to myself.

“Yes, exactly like that.” Then I faced the copper statue, bowed, clapped twice, both hands in front of my heart, and bowed again, wishing for Fushimi-Inari to do something unexpected, to sway the odds in my mother’s favour.

And he did exactly that.

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Graeme Lottering was born in South Africa at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Currently, he lives in Toronto, Canada. His work has been published in The New Quarterly, The Montreal Review, Lost in Thought, and Nap Magazines. He is also a semi-regular contributor to CBC radio.