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Yamata no Orochi

Yamata no Orochi


TRANSLATION: eight-branched serpent
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Yamata no Orochi is a gigantic serpent with eight heads and eight tails. It has bright red eyes and a red belly. The beast is so large that its body covers the distance of eight valleys and eight hills. Fir and cypress trees grow on its back, and its body is covered in moss.

ORIGIN: Yamata no Orochi appears in the earliest written Japanese documents, the Kojiki and the Nihongi. Without a doubt, the legend goes back even farther into pre-history.

LEGENDS: Ages ago, the storm god, Susanoo, was thrown out of heaven and descended to earth at Mount Torikama near the Hi River in Izumo Province. There, he came upon an elderly couple of gods named Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi, who were weeping. When Susanoo asked why they were crying, they explained that they once had eight daughters, but every year the eight-headed-eight-tailed serpent Yamata no Orochi demanded one as a sacrifice. They were now down to their eighth and final daughter, Kushinada hime. Soon it would be time for Yamata no Orochi to demand a sacrifice.

Susanoo explained that he was the elder brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and offered to slay the beast in return for Kushinada hime’s hand in marriage. The elderly couple agreed, and Susanoo set in motion his plan to defeat the serpent.

First, Susanoo transformed Kushinada hime into a comb, which he placed in his hair. Then, he had Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi build a large fence with eight gates. On each gate they raised a platform and on each platform they placed a vat. They poured extremely strong sake into each vat. When this was finished, everyone waited for the serpent to arrive.

When Yamata no Orochi appeared, the great serpent slithered into the fence and noticed the powerful sake. It dipped its eight heads into the vats and drank the alcohol. Soon, the monster fell into a deep, drunken sleep. Susanoo used this chance to make his attack. He sliced the enormous beast into tiny pieces with his sword. The carnage was so great that the Hi River flowed with blood. When Susanoo had cut the creature down to its fourth tail, his sword shattered into pieces. Examining the part of Yamata no Orochi’s tail which broke his sword, Susanoo discovered another sword within the creature’s flesh: the legendary katana Kusanagi no Tsurugi.

Susanoo eventually offered Kusanagi as a gift to his sister, Amaterasu, and was allowed to return to heaven. The sword was passed down through the generations in the imperial line of Japan. It is one of the three pieces of imperial regalia, along with the mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. Today, the sword which came from Yamata no Orochi’s tail is said to be safeguarded in the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.




TRANSLATION: none; this is the creature’s name
HABITAT: oceans, seas, and lakes
DIET: omnivorous

APPEARANCE: Wani are sea monsters that live in deep bodies of water. They have long, serpentine bodies, fins, and can breathe both air and water. Wani are able to shapeshift into humans, and there are even tales of wani and humans falling in love.

BEHAVIOR: Wani are the rulers of the oceans and gods of the sea. They live in splendid coral palaces deep on the ocean floor. Wani have a complex political hierarchy which mirrors that of the surface world. There are kings and queens, princes and princess, courtesans, servants, and so on. Ōwatatsumi, also known as Ryūjin, is the greatest of them. He rules the sea from his palace Ryūgū-jō. He controls the ebb and flow of the ocean using the tide jewels kanju and manju.

ORIGIN: Wani appear in the earliest written records of Japanese myths, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Their stories almost certainly date back even further, into the mists of prehistory. Scholars disagree over whether the earliest legends of wani originated in Japan or were imported from other cultures, citing similarities between wani and the Chinese long or the Indian naga. Wani play an important role in Japanese mythology, including in the mythological founding of Japan.

The word wani first appears in the Kojiki written with man’yōgana (an archaic phonetic syllabary). Later it came to be written with the kanji . Wani came to refer to sharks and other “sea monsters” that sailors and fishermen might encounter out at sea. The sea was a dangerous and mysterious place, and sailors may have thought that sharks were the powerful serpents of legends. Over time, the meaning of the word expanded to include to crocodiles as well as sharks, and then shifted to refer only to crocodiles. Today both the kanji and the name wani mean “crocodile” and are rarely used to refer to sea dragons.

LEGENDS: One of the most famous wani legends is the story of Toyotama hime, the daughter of Ōwatatsumi. She married a surface dweller named Hoori. Hoori and his brother Hoderi were grandchildren of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. One day Hoori borrowed and lost Hoderi’s fish hook. Hoderi insisted that Hoori find and return the lost hook, so Hoori went into the ocean to look for it. He was unable to find the hook, but instead he discovered the palace where the dragon king of the sea, Ōwatatsumi, lived. Hoori visited the palace and asked Ōwatatsumi for help finding the hook. With the dragon god’s help, Hoori found the hook, but in the meantime, Hoori had fallen in love with Toyotama hime, the daughter of the dragon god.

Hoori and Toyotama hime were married, and they lived together at the bottom of the sea for three years. Eventually, Hoori became homesick and longed to see country again. Together, he and his wife returned to the surface world with Hoderi’s lost hook. While on land, Toyotami hime gave birth to a son. When she went into labor, she asked Hoori not to look upon her, because she had to change into her true form in order to bear her child. Hoori became curious and sneaked a peak at his wife while she gave birth. He was shocked to see, instead of his wife, a huge wani cradling their newborn son. The wani was, of course, Toyotama hime in her true form. Toyotama hime was unable to forgive his betrayal, and was so ashamed that she fled back into the ocean and never saw Hoori or her son again.

Although Toyotama hime abandoned her son, her sister Tamayori came to raise him in her absence. The boy, Ugayafukiaezu, grew up to marry Tamayori, and together they had a son. Their son was Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.