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Wytch Cross

Tread lightly upon the crossroads..

Photo by Pedro Figueras from Pexels

It was now a month into our first album tour, and the collective will to go on was being stretched to its limits. We had experienced worse tours than this, but now the numbing fatigue that came from playing to empty rooms, night-after-night, had begun to turn into caustic resentment. Tonight was no exception.

As we loaded the last of the gear into the van, Foxy our engineer appeared from around the corner carrying a half-empty crate of beer, a consolation prize for tonights half-hearted performance. This evening had been yet another dead, tedious show for us in an equally dead, tedious part of England; playing to indifferent audiences in lifeless venues was becoming something of a theme.

Angie our drummer poked her head out from the dark recess of the van, wiping a bead of sweat off her forehead and onto her denim vest.

“Is that the last of it? ’Cause I’m not carrying any more shit into the van. Foxy better have got those drinks out the dressing room.”

Foxy, hearing this cry for succour, peeled a tepid beer can from the pack and tossed it up into the van. There was a cry of triumph inside from Angie, followed by the soft hiss of a beer can being pried open to surrender its nectar.

Angie hopped out of the back of the van, and leaned against the open doors. She shivered in the cool night air, her denim ensemble providing little protection against the cold. “If you need anything else shifted, ask Shithouse to do it. It’s what he’s here for.”

‘Shithouse’ was the semi-affectionate name for Ed, our temporary bassist/heavy lifter. We called him this…well, because he had the physical dimensions and fortitude of a brick-shithouse. Standing six foot eight and with arms like a stevedore, we had once seen him pick up a bouncer by the scruff of the neck and lift him a foot off the air. One-handed.

Ed didn’t seem to mind the nickname we had given him. Then again, his permanently stoned brain resembled scrambled eggs at this point, so he probably didn’t even register its existence.

Saffie and Rex, guitar and lead-singer respectively, were up in the front of the van bickering over the radio stations. As for me, I had packed my things away hours ago. my job in the band was relatively simple these days; I painted their music.

It had seemed like a great idea at the time. My musical skills were always pretty lax, but I got along well with everyone in the band. So one day they shunted me from rhythm guitarist to ‘artist in residence’.

I would bring my canvas to each show, applying liberal waves of oil paint to its blank surface in a vain attempt to reflect the sounds I heard onstage. I even started to enjoy it, eventually.

I was pretty pleased of my results so far, even though I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. My brushstrokes were imprecise and crude, and the paint had become a sludge of clashing pigments, but it worked for me. My pseudo- ‘Pollock-by-way-of-Francis-Bacon’ artistic aesthetic, mostly born from my own incompetence, had begun to take on a life of its own.

Even the guys in the band seemed to like my work, although our unwilling audiences had been either bemused or outright hostile to my presence. I had experienced at least one pint of piss-weak lager poured over my head as I was working, and more than a few comments of ‘art-wanker’ slung in my general direction.

Hastily leaving the empty venue in our wake, the van carried us down a series of dark country lanes. As we drove, the radio played an eerie hiss of untuned frequencies, intercut with snatches of human voices. Finally, we found a signal that was relatively within range; a country-and-western station, of all things. So we sat in tired silence as Hank Marvin provided the soundtrack to our nocturnal ramblings.

The van was an old royal mail delivery vehicle, which we had bought from Angie’s dad on the cheap a few years ago. The engine was knackered, the suspension was a joke, and the back of the van contained all the creature-comforts of a tramp’s toilet. Still, it got us to where we needed to go, even if the inside did smell faintly of exhaust fumes when we turned the heater on.

As we trudged along the narrow roads, we passed a road sign that was wrapped in ivy, strangled in a net of green: ‘Wytch-Cross = 3 miles’. The dull light from the vans headlamps’ illuminated the faded sign for a brief moment, before it vanished into the night as we passed.

Saffie, who was driving the van, muttered to herself as we passed the signpost. “Wytch-Cross. That would make a good album name. Bit on-the-nose though.”

Rex, overhearing her, chimed in with a tired sigh. “It’s a bit too ‘Sabbath’ I think. We’re not that kind of band. Least, I think we’re not.”

The music we played (or rather, everyone besides me played) was the subject of such intense debate among us, that it had become the great philosophical question of the century: were we new-wave, post-punk, grim-core, blood-metal, anarcho-funk or disco-terrorism?

Most people outside the band agreed that whatever we played, it was loud, and at the very least enthusiastic.

The name ‘Wytch-cross’ was good, though. Bit of a pagan angle, but I could work with that. Perhaps that’s what I could call my finished piece, after we had completed the tour. Crossroads were meant to be magic, weren’t they?

A half remembered story about Robert Johnson crossed my tired mind, before I dozed off, uncomfortably, against the passenger window beside me.

An hour passed, and soon we could see the motorway beyond the trees. Across the empty dual-carriage we drifted, and down toward the cheap travel-motel we had booked into for the night. The building glowed like a ripe pustule on the side of the motorway, its flaccid neon sign winking un-welcomingly at us as we approached.

We checked in, the drowsy receptionist handing us three tawny-yellow keycards to access the rooms.Then carrying six suitcases full of unwashed clothes between us, we headed to our beds.

The corridors in hotels always look the same, don’t you think? Like in that Kubrick film. You could so easily get lost, the repeating mosaic of cheerless wallpaper and frayed carpet becoming the path of a labyrinth from which you may never return.

We assembled in the first room we found, which was Saffie and Rex’s. As they were a couple, it seemed only fitting they share together. Though this tour was perhaps the point-of-no-return for them; their relationship was already becoming strained by the constant, unrelenting proximity to one another over the past few months on the road. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Angie pulled two half-drunk bottles of rancid scotch from her suitcase, and ‘Shithouse’ Ed rolled a joint the size of a chair leg on the dressing table. Foxy disappeared into the toilet to powder his nose, while Rex and Saffie collapsed onto the twin bed.

“I never want to see another fuckin’ empty fuckin’ venue as long as I fuckin’ live.” Said Rex, his head buried in a pillow.

“It’s like playing at a miser’s funeral every night. If I knew any better, I’d have told the label to stick this poxy tour up their fat, pimply arse.”

Saffie grunted in agreement, before rolling over to stare at the ceiling. “The merch sales from last month will cover the petrol to Coventry, but christ know’s how we’ll get to Glasgow at this rate. That twat at the venue almost didn’t pay us tonight. Thought he could sneak out through the fire-exit while we were playing.”

Foxy came out of the bathroom at this, his eyes now like black pin-pricks and his cheeks flushed. “Yeah, I managed to grab the little toe-rag before he scarpered off. Made him count the manky notes in front of me on the bar. It just about covered the rooms tonight, plus some money for a takeaway.”

During this exchange, Ed had finished crafting his monolithic smoke on the dressing table, and was headed toward the windows by the bed. I tugged on his immense arm as he made his way past.

“You can’t smoke that in here, Ed. Smoke alarms.” I pointed up to the white smoke detector on the ceiling.

Ed looked at me with utterly vacant eyes. “I’m gonna open a window, though.” He blinked at me then, as if I had said something thoroughly baffling. In a deadpan voice, he added: “It’s fine, mate. Don’t worry about it.”

Two half-bottles of cheap scotch and a crate of beer later, we were all soon experiencing the unique, trance-like state that comes from drunkenness and lack of sleep.

(And Ed had been partly right about the smoke alarm. It hadn’t gone off, and more than likely it was purely ornamental.)

Myself and Foxy headed off to our room, though we seemed to take the longest route conceivable getting there. We lurched from identical corridor to identical corridor, under blinking overhead lights and past buzzing ‘fire-exit’ signs. We found our room, which was just as nondescript as all the others, and Foxy practically swan-dived onto his bed. He began to snore like a buzz-saw almost immediately, and in that moment of drunken clarity, I realised I had left my ear-plugs in the van.

I took the plastic key-card from between Foxy’s tobacco stained fingers, and walked out the room, shutting the door behind me. I headed back down the corridor toward the reception desk, then through the main doors and out into the car park.

The air was still bitterly cold, and I shivered in my thin T-shirt as I crossed the car park. Fumbling with clammy, inebriated fingers I opened the van, quickly snatched my earplugs from the glove compartment, and then slammed the doors shut again. I weaved a pirouetting, inebriated path back across the car park, and returned to the hotel.

Later, as I made my way past hotel door after hotel door, I found myself to be completely without bearing. In my foggy, scotch-soaked mind, I could not for the life of me fathom how to return to my room.

I looked at the key card, and the numbers on it seemed to shift and scatter, like black insects scuttling from beneath a rock. I muttered in irritation to myself, as I rocked gently on uneven footing, the carpet at my feet looking like an inviting place to be in this moment.

Perhaps I could just find a corner somewhere, to rest my eyes for a moment? Then my memory would be sufficiently sobered with rest, and I could make my way back to bed again. Like all ideas when utterly knee-walking, cross-eyed drunk, it seemed to be perfectly sound in its premise.

I found a soft spot opposite a fire-door, and lay my head on the rough carpet. It smelled of disinfectant and cigarettes, but I didn’t care; the floor made for as perfect a bed as any. I let sleep take hold of me then, and drifted into a twisting, uneasy slumber.

In my dream, I awoke in the corridor of the hotel. It was just as miserable as it had been when I was awake, still brightly lit and utterly charmless.

I looked up at some of the numbers on the doors, but they were twitchy and indistinct, moving like epileptic hieroglyphs across the wooden frames. I scowled in frustration, then shook my head to try and rouse my senses.

I looked down one end of the corridor, and then another. As I did so, I saw a that I was not alone..

Walking toward me was a man, wearing dark blue overalls and carrying a tool-box. He seemed old, and his hair was a shock of white curls atop his head. On his hip he carried a vast ring of keys, that jingled merrily against his leg as he walked. He stopped right in front of me, and smiled broadly; he then knelt down, and offered me his weathered, wrinkled hand.

“You seem lost, old son. Can’t find the right door? Come with me, i’ll sort you out.”

His voice was a musical burr, full of the rich overtones that come with age, and a life well spent.

I stood up, reassured by the warmth of his words and the strength of his grip as I took his hand. Together, we walked down the long corridor, which seemed to expand then contract around us, almost as if the building was breathing. We passed door after door, the numbers on them still a swirl of unrecognisable shapes. The old man spoke to me as we walked:

“I’ve got keys to all the doors here, you see. I’m sort of the caretaker ‘round these parts, though I am getting on a bit. Not a lot of diesel left in the old engine, if you catch my drift.”

We came to a door that seemed different to all the others. It was made of a brittle, dark wood that was stained with time and dry-heat. A rusted handle was set in the middle, and a small glass aperture was embedded above it. Light seemed to be passing through the lens, a soft beam that looked like moon-light. The old man spoke:

“I think this is the one we’re after, don’t you? Just let me find the right key.”

The old man rattled through the ring of keys on his hip, before he seemed to find what he was looking for. It was a strange, thin looking opener he held in his hand; it was made of a black, tarnished metal, and the head of it was shaped into a cross. It reminded me a little of a road sign, one I had seen on a family holiday to America. A cross-walk, I think it had been called.

The old man pushed the key into the lock, which unlatched the door with a strange, mournful sigh. He put out his hand to usher me through, and together we crossed the threshold of the doorway.

It was dark this side of the door, and a yellow hunter’s moon hung in the air above us. We were on a road, out somewhere in a bleached, empty wasteland. A few lifeless trees could be seen by the light of the moon, and the soil beyond the road seemed almost black. As I looked around, I saw that the road we stood on was intersected through another, creating a stout ‘X’ carved into the earth, reaching toward the horizon.

“This is a very special place, you know.” I heard the old man say, as he walked past me and into the middle of the road, to the heart of the crossroads. “All sorts of thing happen here. Deals are made, souls are sold. You know back in the old days, they buried suicides in places like this? Staked them through the heart they did, so they wouldn’t rise on judgement day.”

The old man put down the toolbox he had been carrying, resting it onto the cracked surface of the road. “Shows how much people know, really. No, this is more than just a place to be buried, or a place to bargain with the devil. This is a threshold between worlds. Where one existence starts and another begins. The start of a journey, and the end of another.”

“Back in my glory years, I used to be the one that helped those who wished to pass here and through the veil. Not anymore, though. They just don’t worship like they did in the good old days.”

I stood numbly in the pale light of the hunters moon, fear and incomprehension rooting me to the spot. I spoke, but my voice sounded hollow and sluggish, as if it was not my own.

“I’m not supposed to be here, sir. I just got lost, I swear. I don’t want to go anywhere with you, I just want to find my friends.”

The Old Man scratched his head with a weathered hand, then shrugged. “Well, if you’re sure of that. You did ask for my assistance you know, in your own way. Not many do, these days. But I suppose I can perform this rather trivial act for you, if that is what you want.”

He flexed his fingers outward, and looked at me with eyes that would have stopped a clock. He seemed immense in that moment, his shadow huge and twisting, spitting like a black flame across the surface of the road. He began to murmur in a lilting tongue, and as he did the sky above seemed to split in two.

The Moon turned from yellow to blood red, and lights began to flash across the horizon in blinding eruptions of fire. I cowered in fear, and as I shut my eyes, I heard the old man speak to me with a voice that made my ears ring:

“Tread carefully upon the crossroads, stranger. This is where the old gods dream.”

I came to in a pool of my own warm bile, laid out on the carpet, surrounded by Rex, Foxy and Ed. They all looked significantly worse for wear, and the light that crept under the frame of the fire door behind them indicated that a new day had dawned outside. I tried in vain to sit upright, my head spinning and my guts lurching.

Foxy helped me to my feet, and wiped the drying vomit from my mouth with a wet towel that he held. “What did you sleep on the floor for, you daft bastard? The room’s only two doors down from here.”

I slurred a monosyllabic response, before evacuating more putrid vomit onto the carpet.

Carried by Foxy and Rex, I was lifted back to our shared room. Hosed down in the shower and lathered with pink, frothy soap, I had a coffee forced down my neck and a dry slab of toast pushed into my waiting hand. After Rex rummaged in my suitcase for any clothes that were not suffused with either stale beer or B.O, I was dressed in fresh attire, and then frog-marched out of the hotel.

We assembled back in the car park, the sound of the radio in the van blaring with a shrill fury. Ed stepped out from behind the van, and patted me on the back with a heavy hand, which caused the bitter coffee and stale toast to lurch in my stomach more violently than I perhaps wanted. Ed spoke to me in a soft, hushed voice that was sincere in its concern:

“You alright, mate? Feeling ok? We heard you got lost in the hallway. Took ages finding you.”

“Anyway, the painting you done last night is looking good. Might need to tidy it up a bit, though, not sure what it’s supposed to be.”

Teetering on sea-legs that felt like they weren’t my own, I staggered into the van, and placed my fevered brow on the cool glass of the window beside me. Letting thoughts of crossroads and lights in the sky lull me into sleep, my dry eyes began to close lazily. The warm confines of the van and the huddled bodies of my friends beside me helped sooth my soul, and quickly I fell into a dreamless slumber.

Wytch-Cross was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Uncovering Greek Tributes in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away


20 references spotted by a non-otaku

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Pinterest

Spirited Away is a poignant masterpiece. Hayao Miyazaki excels in endowing this animated feature with a sense of calmness that numbs one’s sorrows and worries. Every frame oozes charm and purpose, hand-drawn with meticulous detail. One that modern animation techniques fail to replicate. Let alone best.

If orthodox means of discerning plot arcs were to be used to make sense of Spirited Away, one would perform a disservice to the art that Studio Ghibli bestows upon its viewers. For there are no truly good or evil characters, no ulterior motives, no appalling twists. This tale is one of development, of outgrowing one’s slippers and donning new shoes to face the unknown, just a little better than before. Heck, it didn’t even have a script.

Despite its whimsical beings, the narrative is grounded in values that are a staple of Japanese culture even today. Greed, compassion, bravery in the face of adversity, these are but a few of the themes that are explored at length. Its conclusions are yours to derive.

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Ghibli Wiki

Greek myth is fascinating, but far from forgiving.
Which is why references to a bastion of myth that prefers disembodied talking heads to ordinary ones stood out to me in a Ghibli film. Not that Spirited Away doesn’t have disembodied heads of course.

Listed below are some of the references I spotted that hark back to the Greek pantheon of gods and their indulgence in human matters. Seeing allegories of myths come to life in a film that deals with a vastly different culture altogether is a riveting experience. Peruse through the list quickly or dive in to learn a bit more about the myths themselves. The choice is yours to make.


Chihiro lies on the car seat with a bouquet of flowers in the first scene — Greek funeral

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Pinterest

A somber start to an otherwise positive film, the first still of Spirited Away is one of a bouquet of flowers. The parallels to death are clear; some have even debated upon the possibility of the film taking place after Chihiro’s demise. It was given to her by her friends as a parting gift. No reason for it not to be an adornment of one making her way to the afterlife. The allegories of the rivers of the Underworld across the film merely add to said suspicion.

The dried-up river between the real world and the mystical one — The River Styx

As Chihiro and her parents stumble upon desolate buildings and red arches that are tell-tale signs of transition in Japanese culture, they encounter a river that seems to have dried up. As our protagonist makes her way across the glistening stones, it brings to mind the five rivers of the Greek Underworld. For this is but one of the water bodies that Chihiro crosses on her personal odyssey.

The bathhouse run by the witch Yubaba — Circe

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Steinsgatecool

A witch who turns visitors to pigs? There’s no mistaking the similarities between Yubaba and Circe, the unofficial queen of the Greek Bermuda Triangle, the Sea of Monsters. Both rule impressive islands and rely on stealing identities to cement their position among the populace. Both rely on subverting the noble Greek tradition of hospitality to lure their unsuspecting guests with food. Nevertheless, Yubaba’s greed and the reasoning behind the eventual seasoning of her victims make for an intriguing tale.

The importance of one’s identity — The Odyssey

Much like Odysseus’ tussle against the witch Circe, Chihiro also gives away her identity in order to overcome impossible odds. She turns into docile Sen, a humble servant just as Odysseus consented to stay with Circe for a year as her consort. Their memories, Odysseus of his wife Penelope and Chihiro of her parents, serve as motivation to unshackle themselves from their predicaments.

Greed turns Chihiro’s parents to pigs — Circe

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Letters to Ischka

Just as Circe ensnares poor sailors who have the misfortune of ending up on her island with the promise of food, the abandoned bathhouse reels in Chihiro’s parents with delicacies that give off an aroma so tantalizing it can be seen on-screen. Their greed roots them to the spot, consumed by thoughts of consumption. Chihiro returns from a bit of exploration to find her parents turned into pigs.

Haku gives Chihiro a red seed to anchor her to the Spirit Realm — Persephone and Hades

The tale of how Hades wins Persephone is one of trickery and deceit. One that even the woman’s father Zeus was in on. Hades ensures that Persephone, the love of his life, is to stay in the Underworld by deceiving her into eating a pomegranate of the Undead Realm. For if one is to partake of what the Underworld offers, they are doomed to stay there forever. The red seed that Haku offers to Chihiro in the Spirit Realm needs no further explanation. But it is a gesture subverted from one of deception to one of trust. In true Studio Ghibli spirit.

The evident hierarchy between the Japanese Shinto gods who visit the bathhouse — Greek pantheon of gods

Greek pantheon. Source: Freepik

The pantheon of Greek gods is one that places some equals above others. By virtue of a twisted family tree that looks more like inter-connected brambles, some gods have a bigger role to play in the machinations of the universe than others. Some merely traverse the realms to seek pleasure and contentment; they have no clear role or purpose. Japanese Shintoism also believes in a vast multitude of gods. 8 million of them in fact. A number considered analogous to infinity.

Hospitality, a tenet practiced by all at the bathhouse — Xenia

While the air surrounding the witch Zubaba’s bathhouse is initially oppressive, the gentle nature of its employees shines through the muck and grime of its customers. Some look down on Chihiro because she is a human. Others take advantage of her duties to mistreat her. Despite being hard on Chihiro at first, the workers under Zubaba’s command eventually help her in her time of need and even celebrate her triumphs.
But Zubaba subverts this notion of Xenia, the Greek term for hospitality, as she lures mortals with food that turns them into pigs.

Eight-handed Kamaji works tirelessly at the old boiler room — Hundred-handed Ones

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Pinterest

The boiler room under the sheer opulence of Zubaba’s bathhouse is a rather contrasting sight. Its unembellished wooden frames and cupboards are a realm apart from the sights of red and gold above. A not-so-subtle nod towards the Greek Underworld. Hades’ highways are constantly bombarded by the dead. Ensuring its smooth functioning is paramount to the safety of the surface-dwellers, those among the living.

In the Greek gods’ moment of despair in their war against the Titans, they free the Hundred-handed ones from their prisons beneath the Underworld. And their terrible captor. These mythic beings fashion weapons of unfathomable destruction for their saviours, tools instrumental in the Titan War. Beings akin to humble Kamaji, an eight-armed man under the iron grip of Yubaba. He tirelessly sees to it that the water that circulates across the bathhouse is kept at just the right temperature. A cog in the machine.

Kamaji presents Chihiro with two choices — Janus

Haku instructs Chihiro to work under Kamaji, for it is the only way of evading Zubaba’s wrath. She darts across a rickety staircase and lands up at the old boiler room. Tiny soot-like creatures, known as sootballs, work under Kamaji by lifting pieces of coal several times larger than themselves and tossing them into the furnace. Chihiro helps one that is crushed under the coal’s weight, leading to a decisive moment. Akin to the Greek god of gateways presenting choices to the Greek hero, two doors open before Chihiro. She can either finish what she started. Or run away.

Chihiro performs incredible tasks to save her parents — Labours of Hercules

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Imgur

Even one merely acquainted with Greek lore must know of the trials of Hercules. The famed hero of legend, Hercules performs 12 impossible feats beyond mortal comprehension to atone for killing his entire family while under the effects of a curse (thank you, Hera). While Chihiro is no demigod, she faces her own challenges and tribulations. Be it toiling away at the boiler room, ferrying coal across to the furnace or dousing the Stink Spirit with a gushing torrent of hot water, she defies her circumstances to even the odds. To become more than she ever thought she could be.

Chihiro cleans the bathtub of muck, then cleanses the Stink Spirit — Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables

Speaking of Herculean ordeals, one task that bears an uncanny semblance to one of Hercules’ labours is the challenge of bathing an unwelcome guest. The Stink Spirit reeks of pestilence and is effectively a living mass of muck and grime. Its sight was reason enough for the bathhouse inhabitants to reconsider their social distancing principles. As expected, they send Chihiro to perform this repulsive deed. She gets to it with gusto, with not a word of complaint. With some help, she purifies the River Spirit, setting it free from the taint of humanity. The entire bathhouse joins in on the celebrations, despite their hostility mere moments ago.

The River Spirit offers Chihiro a herbal cake with immense healing properties — Hermes and Odysseus

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Fanaru

In return for cleansing the human junk that had seeped into its essence, the River Spirit offers Chihiro a herbal cake as a reward. Known to have incredible magical properties, she saves it, hoping she can use it to save her parents. In the Odyssey, Circe’s magic has no effect on Odysseus. For he too has a herb, one offered to him by Hermes, the Greek god of travellers and trade.

Dualism embodied by most of the prominent characters — Greek and Roman pantheon of gods

A theme that permeates through Studio Ghibli’s delicate yet intricate canvas is dualism. Be it Chihiro’s transformation into Sen in servitude, or Haku’s dragon form, every character seems to have a hidden side, the second face of a coin. This eerily aligns with how Romans were inspired by Greek tradition. Roman gods are often considered by historians to depict the change in how Romans viewed the importance of Greek customs and values. Some had their roles reprised, while others remained unchanged.

Swamp Bottom, the Sixth Station — Five Rivers of the Underworld

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: CuteWallpaper

Five rivers of the Greek Underworld. Five stations before Chihiro and No Face reach Zeniba’s abode. A coincidence or something more?
Mere spectres of beings that were once mortal accompany them in the train that takes them across the stations. Most are clothed in simple clothing, making Chihiro and her parents look like lavish tourists in their own nation.
The decaying clock that greets them as they alight at the sixth station suggests that time holds no sway here.

Chihiro’s quest to save Haku and not the other way around — Psyche and Eros

Few plots are as terrible as those fuelled by a kidnapped woman. Mario may be an exception. Regardless, Hayao Miyazaki works his magic as he subverts this trope on its head. It is Chihiro who heals Haku of his curse. She then journeys to Zeniba’s lair to return the seal that Haku had stolen. It’s refreshing to see a tale that shatters stereotypes, making for some compelling storytelling.

Haku’s dragon form sheds its scales as Chihiro utters his real name — Icarus

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: Studio Ghibli Constructed

The classic tale of Icarus is one of gratification and sorrow. Soaring towards the Sun before plummeting to the depths as the wax in his makeshift wings give way, he is perhaps among the more popular of those who pride consumed. As Haku soars through the skies with Chihiro in tow, she figures out his real name, freeing him from Zubaba’s bondage. This is portrayed by the dragon shedding its scales as it weaves across the clouds. A breathtaking visual.

Zeniba’s thread of remembrance helps Chihiro find her parents — Ariadne’s String

As Theseus descends into the mystic maze known as the Labyrinth, he has with him a means of escape: Ariadne’s string. While some debate upon the nature of the string itself, none can deny the role it plays in his survival. It ties him to the realm outside the cold embrace of the bewildering puzzle. Zeniba gifts Chihiro a hairband, woven from the thread spun by her friends. This proves instrumental in binding her to the Spirit Realm and helps her pick her parents amidst the swine.

Zeniba plays the role of a mentor figure — Mentor and Telemachus in the Odyssey

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: WallpaperMemory

The word mentor has a rather intriguing origin. Mentor (yes, that’s his name) serves as a trusted counsellor of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. While Odysseus dukes it out with the Trojans, Mentor gives his son advice and wisdom that he might normally not have been ready to receive had he known that Mentor is Athena in disguise. By the same token, Zeniba mentors Chihiro and her band of odd companions. The witch reveals that it was Chihiro’s love for Haku that breaks the curse, freeing him from its adverse effects. She also agrees to take care of No Face, giving him a home when every living being in Zubaba’s bathhouse fears him.

Haku telling Chihiro not to look back as she ran — Orpheus and Eurydice

A man shattered by despair, the famed singer Orpheus undertakes a journey into the Underworld. He parleys with the god of the Dead and strikes a deal; he could revive Eurydice if he doesn’t look back as he escorts his beloved through the abyss back home. Eager to mend strands that were snipped by the Fates, Orpheus readily agrees. He speaks to her, of his love, of his endeavour. But it is met with silence. Orpheus senses her presence, but could not turn back. Just as he sees the light from the Mortal Realm above, he turns for a moment. To see his beloved return to the icy depths. Crushing what little remained of his sanity.

Soon, all that remains is a disembodied head that sings of woe and sorrow.

Those who had already witnessed Orpheus’ lament were forced into a position of hope when Chihiro was instructed by Haku to head back to the Mortal Realm without turning back. Worried that expectations may lead to disappointment, just as before.
Fortunately, Chihiro doesn’t make the same mistake.

By no means am I making the claim that a great deal of inspiration was drawn from Greek lore to craft this love-letter to childhood and serenity. But some traits of similarity are harder to ignore than others. For every fairy tale has in it a grain of truth. Questions that beg to be answered.

Still from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (2001). Source: WallpaperMemory

Uncovering Greek Tributes in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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