Yamata no Orochi (the eight-headed monster serpent) (ヤマタノオロチ)

Yamata no Orochi is a legendary creature that appears in Japanese myth. "八岐大蛇" are Chinese characters which refer to Yamata no Orochi in the "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan). In the "Kojiki" (The Records of Ancient Matters), Yamata no Orochi was written in this way: "八俣遠呂智".

There are various accounts of Yamata no Orochi.

There is an opinion that the letter 'o' in 'Orochi' means peak, 'ro' is a suffix, and 'chi' refers to supernatural power or a creature with the miraculous power. It would be natural, however, for 'chi' to mean a serpent because of these examples 'mizuchi,' is a kind of an archaic word for a serpent, and 'yamakagachi,' meant a tiger keelback in ancient times.

It is said that the serpent had eight heads and eight tails; its eyes were as red as Chinese lantern plants; its back was covered with moss and trees; the belly was sore with blood; it was so huge that it could be spread over eight valleys and eight peaks.

Myth

Susanoo (Deity in Japanese Mythology), who was driven away from Takamanohara (plain of high heaven), descended on Torikami (the present Torikami Okuizumo-cho), up the Hikawa River (Hii-kawa river) in Izumo Province. Since he saw some chopsticks floating down from the upper reaches of the river, he thought that there was somebody upriver and went up and found an old couple who were crying. They were Ashinazuchi, the son of Oyamatsumi, and Tenazuchi. They had eight daughters, but every year Yamata no Orochi came from Koshi, and ate their daughters. It was around the time for Orochi to come that year, and they were crying because Kushinadahime, their youngest daughter who was left behind, would be eaten if they did not do anything.

Susanoo agreed to destroy Yamata no Orochi on the condition that he would take Kushinadahime as his wife. Susanoo changed Kushinadahime into a comb in order to protect her, and put it into his hair. He told Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi to brew some strong sake (yashio-ori-no-sake a high-quality sake brewed several times), build eight gates with fences, and to put a pail filled with the sake at each gate. While he was preparing and waiting, Yamata no Orochi came. Orochi began to drink the sake with his eight heads putting them into each pail of sake. After Orochi got drunk and slept there, Susanoo took Totsuka no tsurugi (a sword) and cut Orochi into pieces.

When he cut the tail, the edge of the blade got chipped. When he tore open the tail, he found a long sword in it. Wondering about it, he presented the sword to Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess). This sword was called the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword, later known as Kusanagi no Tsurugi.

Susanoo, after destroying Yamata no Orochi, went to Suga in Izumo Province to look for a place to build a palace, and he said, 'When I came here, I felt refreshed,' then he built a palace there. That is why the place is called Suga. When the palace was completed, clouds rose.
So, he composed the following poem: 'I am trying to build a palace in Izumo to take a new wife, and the multifold fences look like overlapping clouds.'
Susanoo called for Ashinazuchi, and appointed him as head of the palace.

Interpretation

Myths in kiki (the Kojiki and Nihonshoki) contain a similar plot represented by a myth about Andromeda, in which the god of animals is killed by the god of human beings. Orochi represents the dragon god that controls water, while Kushinadahime represents rice fields. In short, to kidnap a girl every year symbolizes the flooding of a river, and to destroy it means to improve the river. Kidnap of a girl by the monster serpent also represents a virgin offered up as a sacrificial victim to the god, which also means that people abolished the uncivilized manners.

There is also another opinion about a prototype of this myth; Izumo Province was actually in a state of war with Koshi Province in those days, and "Izumo no kuni fudoki" (the topography of Izumo Province) states that 'eight mouths in Koshi' were suppressed in the tale of the place-name concerning Mori village, Ou county. To identify Koshi (高志) as Koshi (越) is based on the names and place-names such as "Koshi (高志)" and "Kuzuryu" (nine-head dragon) (for example, Fukui Prefecture Koshi High School, Kuzuryu-gawa river, and so on).

Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword is said to be a symbol of the ancient ironmaking culture in Izumo Province. Therefore Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword was made of iron. Totsuka no Tsurugi (The Sword Ten Hands Long) was nicked when the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword hit it so, it is conjectured that Totsuka no Tsurugi was made of bronze. Ironmaking was the leading-edge technology in those days, so the fact that the swords made of iron, the crystallization of the latest technology, 'was presented to Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess)' can be said to be an interesting episode to surmise the relationship between Izumo and Yamato at that time.

There is a view that the belly of Orochi being sore with blood is a symbol of a muddy river by iron sand (or mineral pollution). A lot of charcoal was needed to do the traditional Japanese tatara steel making method, so some people claim that it is a symbol of flooding as a result of too much deforestation at the upper reaches of a river.

Later, the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword in the Imperial court was lost with the Emperor Antoku, who entered the water, so "Heike Monogatari" (The tale of the Heike) tells that Yamata no Orochi became the Emperor Antoku and came to take back the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword.
(There are various opinions about the place where the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword was kept in later days. See also Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi Sword.)

Several lines of a sandbar called 'urokojo sasu' (sandbars that look like scales) were made after a flood at Hii-kawa river in Shimane Prefecture, and they remind us of the scales of a serpent. There is an opinion that this was an image of the monster serpent.

There is also a view that rivers such as the Hino River, Hii-gawa River, Inashi-gawa River, Gono-gawa River, Hakuta-gawa River, etc. from the system of Mt. Sentsu (also known as Mt. Torikami (鳥髪, or 鳥上) located between Shimane and Tottori Prefectures and their tributaries were likened to a monster serpent with eight heads, and these rivers are called a group of Orochi rivers.

壇君正記,' an old record written on the Korean Peninsula, pointed out that Yamata no Orochi was described as a metaphor of the Korean King in those days. In other words, Yamata no Orochi was a powerful foreign enemy of ancient Japan, and it can be said to have been invented by the Yamato race, who tried to prove the appropriateness of their behavior, hiding the fact that they offered a person as a hostage to him and gave their fealty to the country, exaggerating how bad the monster was. It states that the reason why he bit the girl to death was that ancient Japan, that paid homage to Korea, did not give him an answer to the question about Japanese independence, so the girl was killed as a warning to others.

According to 'The Old History of Korea,' historical materials discovered on the Korean Peninsula in recent years, before Kushinada, the eighth princess, l was killed, Susanoo visited Korea as a messenger and said that Japan would become a subject of the Korean dynasty again. In order to demonstrate loyalty, he dedicated poisoned sake; Susanoo made him drink it and killed him with the poison, he then returned to ancient Japan with Kushinadahime. It states that the Korean dynasty waged war to avenge his death caused by Susanoo, but was defeated, and it ceded the Kaya region to ancient Japan as compensation. However, each of the historical materials discovered on the Korean Peninsula, mentioned above, are generally treated as a forgeries in the study of history because the bibliography which was required to compile the book is not reliable and is indistinct.