Tag Archives: mythology

The Little Prince and the Big Snake

2 Jul

Hi blog.

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.

Depending on the Japanese edition, this may or may not be an uwabami.

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.

The famous boa digesting an elephant picture. Some Japanese versions translate it literally as “big snake”, use the scientific “boa” or opt for uwabami.

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!

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, 1870s by Toyohara Chikanobu. Here it has been given a more dragon-like appearance.


Sweet Dreams and Life Imitates Art

18 Jan

Hi blog.

This winter had been warmer than usual – ski resorts were having to resort to snow machines, ice smelt fishing areas remained closed due to lakes not freezing over, and golf courses unexpectedly found themselves open for business.

Then the cold came, bringing frost on the ground and on leaves, and freezing up my bike’s gear shifter.  Believe me, riding to work stuck in bottom gear is NOT fun.

My brain was equally stuck for ideas for new posts when inspiration struck.  Why not write about animals whose names were inspired by myth?

The two mythical creatures I want to look at both have their origins in China.

The first is the kirin (麒麟), which is the Japanese reading of the Chinese qilin.  Legends concerning this creature go back to antiquity – one was said to have appeared before the mother of Confucius –  and descriptions have changed over time.  They have been said to resemble deer but with a dragon-like head, horse-like hooves and a golden mane.  They have been depicted as either being hornless or having one, two or three horns (more like deer antlers than actual horns), with the single- and double-horned  versions being best-known in Japan.  Other attributes include not treading on living grass or eating anything that lives.

Kirin, from the Wakansansaizue.


Qilin/Kirin are sometimes known as Chinese unicorn, but there are very few similarities between the two animals.

In Japan, images of the kirin tend to be limited to Buddhist art or as carvings on shrine buildings.  In a previous post I mentioned kirin as guardians of the Yasaka Shrine.  

What appears to be a horned kirin at the Yasaka Shrine.

However, the best-known image is commercial – the logo of the Kirin Brewery Company on its fine, fine products.

The official Kirin beer logo kirin.

As a piece of trivia, the name Kirin appears as three katakana symbols hidden within the kirin logo (with the キ and リ in the mane and the ン in the tail) on the beer labels.

Where to find the hidden “kirin” on the label. This is great for showing off at drinking parties.

Before this turns into a beer commercial, let’s look at the real-life animal that takes its name from the mythological one.

In 1419, one Zheng He returned to the Ming court from a voyage to eastern Africa.  and presented the emperor with gifts of live animals including leopards, lions, zebras and giraffes.  The emperor particularly liked the giraffes, which were declared to be qilin.

A Ming attendant with the gift giraffe. This may or may not be the original 15th century artwork. Taken from Wikipedia.

The name filtered through China’s sphere of influence, including the Korean peninsula and Japan, although most modern Japanese use the katakana script when referring to the giraffe.

Curiously, the modern Chinese name for giraffe no longer reflects any connection to the mythological beast.


“Devour, O Baku ! devour the dream !”

Lafcadio Hearn

The second mythological creature also originates in China, but has made firm footing in the Japanese imagination.

Known as baku (獏)  in Japanese (very different from the Chinese “mo”), it has undergone a few transformations.

The animal was described as having the trunk of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the body of a bear, the tail of an ox and the legs of a tiger.

Baku from the Wakansansaizue

In China the mo was said to prevent illness, and that a pillow made from the creature’s fur would prevent nightmares.  Following its transition into Japan, the baku became an animal that ate nightmares.  (Some are of the opinion that the baku was confused with a nightmare-devouring Chinese god read as “bakuki” in Japanese).

Baku by Hokusai.

There have been customs since then of placing a picture of a baku under one’s pillow to ensure pleasant dreams, or of having a baku-shaped pillow or having a picture of a baku on one’s pillow.  The treasure boat of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune sometimes has the character for baku written on the sail.

Baku makura, pillows depicting baku. From the Tokyo National Museum.

Carvings of baku can be seen at temples and shrines.  They could be mistaken for elephants with short trucks, except for their clawed feet.  Look for them on the corners of large shrines.

Look at the carving at the top right – notice the trunk and tusks? That is the baku.  At the Mitsumine Shrine.

Now, as for the real animal… it is the tapir!

Many modern Japanese are unaware that there is actually a difference between the mythological baku and the real tapir, and depict the former as the latter.

A bronze statue based on Shigeru Mizuki’s cartoon art. Taken from Wikipedia.

There are theories that Malayan tapirs may have existed in China in early times, along with elephants and Indian rhinoceroses.  One professor claims that a bronze statue of a Malayan tapir has been dug up at a Chinese archaeological site.  

Maybe the real animal is named after a mythological animal which was modelled on the real animal…


The White Hare of Inaba & Crocodiles vs. Sharks

1 Nov

So this Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land had eighty Deities his brethren; but they all left the land to the Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land.  The reason for their leaving it was this: Each of these eighty Deities had in his heart the wish to marry the Princess of Yakami in Inaba, and they went together to Inaba, putting their bag on [the back of] the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, whom they took with them as an attendant.  Hereupon, when they arrived at Cape Keta, [they found] a naked hare lying down.  Then the eighty Deities spoke to the hare, saying: “What thou shouldest do is to bathe in the sea-water here, and lie on the slope of a high mountain exposed to the blowing of the wind.”  So the hare followed the instructions of the eighty Deities, and lay down.  Then, as the sea-water dried, the skin of its body all split with the blowing of the wind, so that it lay weeping with pain.  But the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, who came last of all, saw the hare, and said: “Why liest thou weeping?”  The hare replied, saying: “I was in the Island of Oki, and wished to cross over to this land, but had no means of crossing over.  For this reason I deceived the crocodiles of the sea, saying: ‘Let you and me compete, and compute the numbers of our [respective] tribes.  So do you go and fetch every member of your tribe, and make them all lie in a row across from this island to Cape Keta.  Then I will tread on them, and count them as I run across.  Hereby shall we know whether it or my tribe is the larger.’  Upon my speaking thus, they were deceived and lay down in a row, and I trod on them and counted them as I came across, and was just about to get on land, when I said: ‘You have been deceived by me.’  As soon as I had finished speaking, the crocodile who lay the last of all seized me and stripped off all my clothing.  As I was weeping and lamenting for this reason, the eighty Deities who went by before [thee] commanded and exhorted me, saying: ‘Bathe in the salt water, and lie down exposed to the wind.’  So, on my doing as they had instructed me, my whole body was hurt.”  Thereupon the Deity Great-Name-Possessor instructed the hare, saying: “Go quickly now to the river-mouth, wash thy body with the fresh water, then take the pollen of the sedges [growing] at the river-mouth, spread it about, and roll about upon it, whereupon thy body will certainly be restored to its original state.”  So [the hare] did as it was instructed, and its body became as it had been originally.  This was the White Hare of Inaba.  It is now called the Hare Deity.  So the hare said to the Deity Great-Name-Possessor: “These eighty Deities shall certainly not get the Princess of Yakami.  Though thou bearest the bag, Thine Augustness shall obtain her.”

From the Kojiki, translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain


This myth is the basis for a children’s story The White Hare of Inaba.

The story is a goldfield for mythology and folklore enthusiasts; but since Wild in Japan is primarily a wildlife blog, let’s just stick to the two animals mentioned in the tale.

The hare in question would have to be a Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus), or Nihon nousagi (日本野兎), one of only two species of leporid – the other being the Amami rabbit – living in Japan.  Japanese hares will grow white fur in winter in snowy climes, but it seems likely that the white in the story is probably symbolic – both the fox messengers of the god Inari and the snake messengers of the Suwa Shrine are also white.

Popular versions of the story hold that the hare was washed from the mainland to the Oki Islands during a storm.  Curiously, there is a sub-species of the Japanese hare found only on the Oki Islands (Lepus brachyurus okiensis), and the islands were also used for exile.  (Does the hare in the tale represent an exile from the mainland?)

More enigmatic is the crocodile mentioned in Chamberlain’s translation.  The Kojiki uses the word “wani”, written as (和邇) for its phonetic value – the ideograms do not actually indicate what it is.  However, the homophone wani (鰐) is also the Japanese generic name for crocodiles and alligators.

Crocodile, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue.

While fossil records show that crocodiles (Toyotamaphimeia and several others) lived in Japan in the distant past and, apparently, vagrant estuarine crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) have been reported as far north as the Sea of Japan, the crocodile seems an unlikely candidate.  The other crocodilian species found in northeast Asia is the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), but since alligators don’t tolerate salt water well, it is extremely unlikely that any found their way into Japanese seas in numbers sufficient to be included in Japanese folklore.  (Caveat: fossil evidence indicates this species was extant in Japan during the Pliocene)

A late 19th century account of a crocodile being captured in Amami. Apparently it was then eaten.

A more detailed depiction of the crocodile in Amami. Experts believe this to be a vagrant estuarine crocodile. Some claim that there may have even been a tiny population on Iriomote Island, Okinawa. Both illustrations taken from “Nanto Zatsuwa”.

But don’t discount the crocodile completely – Chamberlain himself believed the creature in question to be a kind of dragon, for which “crocodile” was the more accurate rendering.  Other sources claim that the story may have its origins in the Indonesian islands and Malaysian peninsula, featuring a mouse deer or a monkey deceiving  crocodiles.

(How James Bond would have done it)

Others have suggested whales or sea snakes.  I would be so bold as to suggest the possibility of wani being the semi-legendary sage Wani (王仁) and his fellow Confucian scholars, or perhaps the family with the name Wani.  I found one other site which also suggested the latter.

Many versions of The White Hare of Inaba, however, have the hare crossing over on a barrage of sharks.  The Japanese words for shark are same (鮫) as a generic term; and fuka (鱶), which is used in the Kansai for large sharks.  The old word wanizame (鰐鮫) is also used to describe vicious sharks.  Furthermore, in the Izumo area the dialectal word for shark is “wani”.  And if that isn’t enough, I discovered that three species of shark found in or around Japanese waters have “wani” in their name – the smalltooth sand tiger (Odontaspis ferox) or owanizame (大鰐鮫), the sand tiger shark or grey nurse (Carcharias taurus), known locally as shirowani (白鰐), and the crocodile shark (Pseudocarcharias kamoharai), which is known as mizuwani (水鰐).

Shark, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. Definitely not Jaws…

In this battle between the crocodile and the shark, it looks like the shark is the winner.

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