Snakes in Japanese Mythology

Snakes in Japanese mythology typically represent renewal, protection, and dual nature, deeply intertwined with the nation's cultural beliefs, folklore, and symbolism.

Key points

  • Snakes in Japanese mythology are revered as sacred beings, embodying themes of renewal, fertility, and the duality of nature as both protectors and omens of disaster.
  • The myth of Yamata no Orochi highlights snakes' significance in tales of heroism and moral triumph, while the Tsuchinoko represents the whimsical and mysterious aspects of folklore.
  • As symbols of both auspiciousness and malevolence, snakes occupy a complex space in Japanese culture, influencing art, literature, and religious practices.

My journey drawing snakes in Japanese mythology

In my work as a wildlife artist, I draw animals.

Snakes have always caught my eye. Their forms, complex and simple all at once, challenged me. This challenge wasn't just about getting their shapes right on paper. It was deeper. I started looking at snakes through the eyes of different cultures. It made my work mean more.

I found stories, like in Japan, where snakes were both feared and revered. These stories changed how I saw them. They weren't just subjects to be drawn. They had meaning. My sketchbook began to tell these stories, blending the lines and colors with the tales of gods and monsters. This wasn't just art. It was a way to connect, to show something deeper than just the scales and fangs.

This journey wasn't just about drawing. It was about learning, understanding. Each culture had its own view of snakes, and each view shaped my hand differently. My drawings became more than just images. They were a bridge. A bridge between what we see and what we believe. And in this, my work found its true purpose. Not just to depict, but to reveal.

An overview of Snakes in Japanese mythology

In Japanese mythology, snakes occupy a revered and complex position, embodying the dual forces of life and death, renewal and destruction.

These creatures are woven into the fabric of Japanese beliefs, serving as symbols of wisdom, protection, and spiritual significance. Through tales of gods, heroes, and mythical beings, snakes navigate the realms between the sacred and the profane, illustrating the intricate relationship between humans and the natural world.

Snakes hold a significant place in Japanese mythology, intertwining with beliefs, folklore, and cultural symbolism.

Here's an overview of their roles and representations:

  1. Creation Myths and Shinto Religion: In Japanese mythology, snakes are often associated with water, fertility, and renewal. They are considered sacred in the Shinto religion, embodying the nature spirits or kami. One notable example is the dragon-like serpent Yamata no Orochi, a fearsome creature defeated by the storm god Susanoo, which is a tale that highlights themes of heroism and the triumph of good over evil.
  2. Protectors and Deities: Snakes are sometimes viewed as protectors and deities themselves. For instance, the white snake is considered a messenger of the deity Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows: water, words, speech, eloquence, music, and by extension, knowledge. Benzaiten's shrines often feature ponds or bodies of water where sacred snakes are kept and venerated.
  3. Symbolism of Renewal and Transformation: Due to their shedding skin, snakes symbolize renewal, regeneration, and immortality. This aspect makes them figures of healing and medicinal powers in some myths, where they are revered as guardians of sacred places and sources of miraculous cures.
  4. Dual Nature – Auspicious and Ominous: While snakes can be auspicious, bringing luck and wealth, they also have a darker side in Japanese folklore. They can be omens of disaster, embodying curses or malice. This dual nature reflects the complex relationship between humans and the natural world in Japanese culture, where creatures can have both benevolent and malevolent aspects.
  5. Tsuchinoko: Among mythical creatures in Japanese folklore, the Tsuchinoko is a snake-like being with a distinct appearance and behaviors. Described as a fat snake with a wide body and the ability to jump, it has become a popular subject of modern cryptid hunters in Japan. It embodies the whimsical and mysterious side of Japanese folklore, where mythical creatures often blend the line between reality and myth.
  6. Literature and Art: Snakes appear in various works of Japanese literature and art, symbolizing themes of love, betrayal, protection, and spiritual guidance. They are depicted in a range of contexts, from ancient texts and scrolls to modern manga and anime, showcasing their enduring presence in Japanese culture.

Japanese attitudes towards snakes are complex and multifaceted, reflecting a blend of fear, respect, and veneration that is characteristic of the country's rich tapestry of myths and beliefs.

Uwambi

The idea of Uwabami fascinated me deeply.

Here were creatures that wove together fear, respect, and the mystical in a way that only Japanese folklore could. The term “giant snake” sparked my imagination, prompting visions of serpents that were more than just animals—they were symbols, carrying stories heavy with meaning.

This blend of the literal and metaphorical intrigued me, urging me to explore how such beings could be represented in my work, not just as creatures of scale and fang, but as embodiments of a culture's complex relationship with the natural and supernatural world.

The mythological significance and folk tales

  1. Giant Serpents: In folklore, Uwabami are depicted as massive snakes, sometimes with supernatural abilities. They are capable of swallowing whole animals, humans, and even buildings, according to some stories. These tales likely originated as exaggerated interpretations of real encounters with large snakes, such as pythons, which are not native to Japan but might have been known through cultural exchanges.
  2. Symbolism and Allegory: Beyond their fearsome qualities, Uwabami also carry deeper symbolic meanings. They can represent natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, embodying the destructive power of nature. Additionally, they sometimes symbolize human vices, such as greed and gluttony, serving as cautionary figures in moral tales.
  3. Uwabami and Sake: Interestingly, “Uwabami” is also a colloquial term for a heavy drinker, likening the capacity of these mythical serpents to swallow large quantities to someone who can consume vast amounts of sake. This usage reflects the creature's integration into everyday language and highlights the cultural practice of using mythological elements to describe human behaviors and traits.

Cultural representations of Uwambi

  1. Art and Literature: Uwabami are depicted in various forms of Japanese art, including woodblock prints, paintings, and sculptures. They often appear in dramatic scenes, engaging with heroes or terrorizing villages, capturing the imagination with their scale and mystery. In literature, they are subjects of both horror and fascination, featured in stories that range from thrilling adventures to moral lessons.
  2. Modern Media: The legacy of Uwabami continues in contemporary Japanese media, where they inspire characters and creatures in manga, anime, and video games. These modern interpretations sometimes stay true to the traditional depictions of giant, menacing snakes, while at other times they are reimagined with fantastical elements, showcasing the adaptability of folklore in new contexts.
  3. Festivals and Ceremonies: In some regions of Japan, festivals and ceremonies may include references to Uwabami or serpent deities, reflecting their continued cultural significance. These events can serve to appease or honor these creatures, embodying the complex relationship between humans and the mythological world.