October Mythology Special: Jorogumo/Tsuchigumo and Indigenous History

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Japan Powered recounts one story about a curious thing that happened to a logger out in the forest: “One day a logger was going about his work. Since logging is an exhausting business, seeing as how this was Edo period Japan and the chainsaw hadn’t been invented yet, the man decides to take a short break. He hears the crash of a waterfall nearby, and decides that sitting on the stream bank and watching the waterfall would be a pleasant way to spend his lunch break. However, no sooner has the man settled himself and unpacked his food than a strange something attaches itself to his foot! Puzzled, the man pulls the sticky substance off. He sees that it is something like spider silk. He sticks the stuff to a nearby log. A moment later, the log goes zipping across the stream bank, only to disappear beneath the churning waters of the waterfall. Not a little spooked, our logger decides it’s best to take his lunch break elsewhere and he beats a hasty retreat back into the woods.”

The writer attributes this strange happening to the Jorogumo, or a certain spider youkai commonly found in Japan who is known to take up residence in caves or forests. Jorogumo roughly translates into “entangling bride” or even “whore spider” because of the kinds of victims it targets: young men. Appearing as both spiders and young, beautiful women, these powerful shapeshifters are thought to originate from the orb weaver spider which can be found all over Japan except for in Hokkaido. Once the spider reaches 400 years of age, much like other animal youkai in Japan, it gains magical abilities like shapeshifting. They are also known to spin silk threads strong enough to capture grown men and possess a strong but slow-acting venom that drains the strength of their victim day by day.

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Jorogumo are the largest of the spider youkai and are often pictured controlling other, lesser spiders such as fire breathing ones which they can send to burn the house down of any who start to question their motives. Some of these smaller spiders could be classified as Tsuchigumo, or “ground spiders”. These spiders have similar origins to the Jorogumo in that they are said to be long-lived purse-web spiders that can be found around much of the world, only gaining magical abilities after hundreds of years. They are powerful shapeshifters and illusion masters, tricking many people to their death through their cunning and powerful venom. However, the origins of the Tsuchigumo may go much much deeper into the past of Japan’s relationship with its indigenous residents.

In an essay at the back of issue #9 (or volume two) of Wayward, translator and Japanese scholar Zack Davisson goes fairly in depth about what he called “The Secret History of the Dirt Spiders”. This history goes back to before the time with Japan was settled (or invaded by–however you look at it) by the people that we now think of as Japanese. Before this time, there were several distinct tribes of native, indigenous populations. We know of the Ainu to the north who still survive in Hokkaido. On Kyushu there were the now-extinct Kumaso (bear people), to the South were the Ryukuan or ethnic Okinawans, and on the mainland were the Tsuchigomori “known only as those who hide in the ground”. Davisson makes a good point that the history is a little sketchy here considering the kind of tampering done to archeological evidence and written accounts of history, so some of these facts and legends were hard to piece together, but I think he does a good job of exploring it thoroughly.

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Sometime in the Yayoi period (300 BC to AD 300), people sailed across the Sea of Japan to the mainland from China and the Korean peninsula, displacing and driving off the native populations to the islands north and south. These people called themselves the Yamato and raised their own Emperor, declaring him divine in the name of their religion. Books were written, and genealogy was drawn showing the Emperor as the direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. These books were then used to demonize all those who failed to follow the Emperor’s rule, and the first mention of the tsuchigomori can be found in these books.

Tsuchigomori (those who hide in the ground) was then switched to the more derogatory tsuchigumo (dirt spider) at some point. But what Davisson notes as strange was that they weren’t originally thought of as spiders, but instead people with long, glowing tails that they used to push rocks around. This makes more sense when we realize that there aren’t actually any native species of large spider in Japan, so there really was not any reference for them to draw from. Eventually this descriptor spread to encompass all those who were not under the control of the Emperor, becoming demonized as monsters. They only started to become described as spiders in 14th century as the Yamato came into their full power and trade with China introduced some large, exotic spider species to Japan. Soon tales of brave samurai outsmarting this dirt spider monsters were all over Japan, burying the history of the indigenous peoples deeper down into the folklore.

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We can find reference to the Jorogumo and the Tsuchigumo all over Japanese media including anime, video games, manga, and even bleeding into Western comics. The comic I mentioned above, Wayward, was written by Jim Zub and published by Image Comics. It draws a lot from both Japanese and Western mythology, including the legends of these two spider youkai. Zub uses the long-hidden past of the tsuchigumo as a motivational force that drives the spider youkai and their Jorogumo leader to try and gain control of some powerful children and challenge the established youkai clans for more power. Zub frames it as a narrative of revenge for past wrongs committed against these spiders, creating a metaphor for the wiping out of the actual tsuchigomori people. I highly suggest checking this series out if you’re into mythology.

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Another place the Jorogumo legend pops up is in XXXHolic chapter 46 and a little bit earlier when Watanuki gets his eye stolen by a spider. The spider then gives the eye as an offering to its leader, Jorogumo or the “Matron of Spiders” as Kodansha translates it. Watanuki must then not only try and rescue his eye but also the Zashiki Warashi who went after it for him. In this chapter we see that the Jorogumo can spin webs capable of entangling not only the Zashiki Warashi but also Watanuki. Her character design reflects the older translation of her name, putting her into a fairly sexy looking slip and fishnet stockings and gloves. We never see if she has a spider form, but I think it’s probably implied and she admits that the smaller spiders around her are “followers of hers”. CLAMP seems to like modernizing these characters and legends to a degree, but I think they still managed to keep to the important parts of the legend: an alluring woman-spider shapeshifter who lures men in with her cunning and traps them in her webs.

Other notable entries:

  • Kamaji from Spirited Away (I didn’t talk about him more because there is not much besides his appearance to link him to the legend).
  • Tsuchigumo appeared in Inuyasha as a minion with loyalty to Orochidayu.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~


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