Snakes top Wild in Japan’s search item hits, so it stands to reason that the more posts about snakes I write, the more hits I get.
However, one does not simply walk into material for writing serpentine-themed posts. Well, not usually.
I was hit with a question just recently – “What’s the difference between a daija and an uwabami?”
It seems that Madoka was particularly confused as to why the boa constrictor from The Little Prince was rendered uwabami in the Japanese translation she was reading.
This will take a while to explain, but bear with me.
Daija (大蛇) literally translates as “big snake” and has come to mean large snakes, both in reality – particularly the large pythons and anacondas – and fiction. This is confused, however, by the word orochi – also written 大蛇 – which specifically refers to the giant snakes from mythology and folklore.
Uwabami (蟒蛇) also has two meanings. One refers to snakes of the family boidae – the boas, most famously the boa constrictor. The other is an older word pertaining to those aforementioned mythological giant snakes.
Saint-Exupéry specifically states that his “hat” picture is a boa snake (“serpent boa”). So it seems that the translator of Madoka’s particular edition of The Little Prince decided to use a more folklore-sounding translation.
I was also asked why uwabami has also come to mean a heavy drinker. I answered that, as a guess, I imagined it was either because large snakes are (in)famous for swallowing large prey whole, or perhaps because of the ancient association of giant snakes with sake, as in the myth of Susanoo tricking the Yamata no Orochi into drinking eight barrels of sake.
Then Susanoo no Mikoto descended from Heaven and proceeded to the head-waters of the River Hi, in the province of Idzumo. At this time he heard a sound of weeping at the head-waters of the river, and he went in search of the sound. He found there an old man and an old woman. Between them was set a young girl, whom they were caressing and lamenting over. Susanoo no Mikoto asked them, saying:-“Who are ye, and why do ye lament thus?” The answer was:-“I am an Earthly Deity, and my name is Ashi-nadzuchi. My wife’s name is Te-nadzuchi. This girl is our daughter, and her name is Kushi-nada-hime. The reason of our weeping is that formerly we had eight children, daughters. But they have been devoured year after year by an eight-forked serpent and now the time approaches for this girl to be devoured. There is no means of escape for her, and therefore do we grieve.” Sosa no wo no Mikoto said: “If that is so, wilt thou give me thy daughter?” He replied, and said: “I will comply with thy behest and give her to thee.” Therefore Sosa no wo no Mikoto on the spot changed Kushi-nada-hime into a many-toothed close-comb which he stuck in the august knot of his hair. Then he made Ashi-nadzuchi and Te-nadzuchi to brew eight-fold sake, to make eight cupboards, in each of them to set a tub filled with sake, and so to await its coming. When the time came, the serpent actually appeared. It had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail; its eyes were red, like the winter-cherry; and on its back firs and cypresses were growing. As it crawled it extended over a space of eight hills and eight valleys. Now when it came and found the sake, each head drank up one tub, and it became drunken and fell asleep. Then Susanoo no Mikoto drew the ten-span sword which he wore, and chopped the serpent into small pieces. When he came to the tail, the edge of his sword was slightly notched, and he therefore split open the tail and examined it. In the inside there was a sword. This is the sword which is called Kusa-nagi no tsurugi.
From the Nihon Shoki, translated by W.G. Aston, 1896
It turns out that both of these are given as probable explanations!