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Senbiki ōkami


Translation: one thousand (i.e. very many) wolves

Appearance: Senbiki ōkami is a recurring phenomenon in folk tales dealing with large packs of wolves. It occurs at night when wolves are active and hunting. Most folktales involving senbiki no ōkami fit a specific pattern. Usually, a traveler is chased by wolves on the road at night, and the only escape available is to climb high up into a nearby tree. However, the wolves start to climb on to each other’s backs, forming a living ladder. In this way, they are able to reach even the highest branches of the trees. However, the wolf ladder is one wolf too short to reach the traveler. The wolves call for their leader to complete the ladder and catch their prey. The leader of the wolves is a particularly large and canny bakemono, who climbs the ladder to face the traveler. However, the traveler is able to fend off the leader of the wolves with a sword. The following day, the wolves’ leader is traced back to the house of a person who is now lying in bed with an injury received the previous night; it is revealed that the person was actually the bakemono in disguise, responsible for the senbiki no ōkami and the deaths of many people.

Origin: This phenomenon appears in many stories about wolves, and is found in legends all across Japan. There are many variations, but they tend to follow a pattern very similar to the one described above. Folklorists consider it to be a very old tale which symbolizes wolves’ natural tendency to cooperate in large groups, their intelligence, and their athletic abilities.

Legends: One famous example of this phenomenon comes from Kōchi Prefecture.

A pregnant woman was traveling to Nahari and had to cross a mountain pass during the night. As misfortune would have it, deep in the mountains she fell ill with labor pains. To make matters worse, a pack of wolves was nearby. Just then, a courier showed up. He helped the woman climb safely into a tree, out of reach of the pack of wolves. He, too, climbed high up into the branches to guard the woman until morning.

The wolves gathered around the base of the tree. They leaped high into the air, but they could not reach the courier or the woman. The wolves clawed at the bark, but they could not climb the tree.

Then, a strange thing happened: the wolves began to climb on to each other’s shoulders and make a living ladder. One by one the stack of wolves grew higher and higher. It almost reached the spot where the courier and the woman were clinging for their lives. The courier drew his wakizashi and slashed at the wolves, but he could not reach them, just as they could not reach him.

Then, one of the wolves spoke: “Summon the blacksmith’s wife from Sakihama!” The other wolves bayed and howled. After some time, another figure appeared. It was a wolf of enormous size, wearing an iron kettle as a helmet. The great white wolf climbed up the living ladder towards the courier and the woman. When it was within striking distance, the courier struck his wakizashi downwards with all of his might. There was a loud crack as his blade split the kettle. At the same time, a human-like howl erupted from the giant wolf. A moment later, all of the wolves vanished.

When morning came and human travelers appeared on the road, the courier helped the woman down from the tree and asked a passerby to escort her to Nahari. Then the courier searched the ground where the wolves had been. He discovered a trail of blood.

The courier followed the trail of blood all the way to Sakihama, to the door of the blacksmith’s house. The courier knocked on the door and asked the blacksmith if his wife was home. The blacksmith replied that she had suffered a head injury and was sleeping. The courier entered the house. He went into the bedroom, found the sleeping wife, and cut her to pieces with his sword. Where the woman’s form had been now lay the corpse of a great, white-furred wolf. Underneath the floorboards of the house, the courier found countless human skeletons scattered about, including the bones of the blacksmith’s real wife.

Today in Sakihama, a memorial tower dedicated to the blacksmith’s wife still stands. And they say that the descendants of the blacksmith all have strangely spiked hair, like that of a wolf.

Alphabetical list of yōkai