"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 27, 2019

Toothache and the Temple God; Or, The Hazards of Indiscriminate Souvenir Shopping

19th century ivory Ho-tei, via Buddhamuseum.com. Not guaranteed to come with a curse.

In 1928, travel writer Charles James Lambert and his wife Marie were visiting Kobe, Japan. While passing the window of a junk shop, a small statue of Ho-tei, the Japanese god of good fortune, happened to catch Mrs. Lambert’s eye. Although the exquisite little figure was obviously very old and made of pure ivory, it was available at a very cheap price. The only visible oddity about the figuring was that centered on the underside was a small hole where the nerve of the elephant's tooth had ended. This hole was plugged with an ivory peg. The Lamberts, congratulating themselves on finding such a remarkable bargain, purchased it on the spot.

All of you with any exposure to Ghost Stories 101 will have some idea of what came next.

After they returned to their cruise ship, Marie Lambert, who had the statue in her luggage, began to suffer horrible toothaches that were impervious to painkillers. Her husband came down with mysterious joint pains and fevers. When she went to a dentist, his drill accidentally hit a nerve on the tooth, which, of course, just made matters worse. The couple became so debilitated that they abandoned their planned destination of Manila, obtained passage to Sydney, "and crept on shipboard more dead than alive."

On the next leg of their cruise, the Ho-tei wound up in Mr. Lambert’s luggage. He immediately began experiencing severe tooth pains. At the first port they reached, he visited several dentists, only to be told there was nothing whatever wrong with his teeth. In desperation, he told the last one to start pulling out his teeth and just keep pulling them out until the pain went away. After the first tooth was extracted, his agony stopped, but resumed the minute he went back aboard his ship.

When they reached Sydney, the Lamberts left their luggage in storage, so they were "parted from Ho-tei" for several weeks. While on land, their pains ceased, only to return as soon as their belongings were in their cabin with them. This pattern continued for the rest of their voyage. The couple only found relief from their pain when the ivory figurine was not in their direct possession. It never occurred to them that this might possibly have been more than coincidence.

When they were back in America, Lambert’s mother was so taken with the Ho-tei figure that they gave it to her. Yes, of course, within a few hours she came down with a severe toothache. The elder Mrs. Lambert, clearly considerably sharper than her son and daughter-in-law, quickly returned the statuette to them, saying it was "bad medicine."

The Lamberts did not connect their dental miseries to their new acquisition until a short while later, when they were sailing from America to Britain. A fellow passenger, who was a collector of ivory, borrowed the Ho-tei overnight. The next day, she told them that she and her husband had both suffered from toothaches all the time the object was in their cabin.

Mr. and Mrs. Lambert, at long last, put two and two together. "We went over dates and symptoms carefully all the way back to Japan, and our hair rose in horror." Mrs. Lambert was all for throwing the sadistic little object overboard, but her husband, who by now had a thorough dread of the figurine, feared it might retaliate by "rotting every tooth in our heads." They decided the safest thing to do would be to return the Ho-tei to its compatriots.

In London, they brought the statuette to a Japanese art shop. The manager was anxious to buy it, but the Lamberts told him they could not take money for the object. They felt obliged to warn him of the troubles the god had brought into their lives. A strange expression came over the manager's face. Speaking in Japanese, he had an assistant bring in an elderly Japanese man. When this older man saw the Ho-tei, he gasped and extended his hands "in a kind of supplication." The three Japanese carefully examined the object, speaking to each other in short, excited bursts of their native language. The elderly man carefully placed the Ho-tei on a shrine at one end of the shop and lit a row of joss sticks at its feet. Then they all fell reverently silent. The Lamberts quietly left the shop, utterly relieved to see the last of the ivory god. Lambert later wrote, "I do wonder sometimes what has happened to that tiny ivory figure, but I have no intention of finding out."

Lambert was subsequently told that some Japanese temple gods were given "souls." The figures were engraved with characters which matched the one on the Ho-tei. Perhaps this particular god was offended at being removed from its rightful domain.

Lambert later described the incident in his 1953 book “Together We Wandered.” The travel narrative sold very well, largely on the strength of his story of being cursed by a temple god.

So, in the end, perhaps the little Ho-tei brought him good luck, after all.


  1. Those toothaches sound absolutely terrible.

  2. Well, even if the spirit was annoyed at having been removed from Japan - or from his countrymen - he played fair: once the Lamberts did him the favour of returning him to a kind of home, he saw nothing wrong with rewarding them for their - eventual - wisdom.


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