Hi all, how’s everything going? Hope things are well over there!
Let’s begin today’s post by addressing the elephant in the room.
The title does sound like an enigmatic phrase on one of those funky Japanese t-shirts… or perhaps a rock band from Tokyo.
English is my second language after all.
Have you ever heard a Japanese person say “You drink a lot! Like a giant snake (uwabami)!” (よく飲むねえ。ウワバミだ。）
This is a rather archaic expression that you often come across in rakugo, but it is still used to playfully describe a person who drinks a lot.
In fact, my sister’s nickname was “Uwabami” when she was at university.
She was (possibly still is) a heavy drinker…
Recently, this expression made me wonder what its origin would be.
When did Japanese people start believing that large snakes drink a lot of alcohol?
The answer lies in the books “Kojiki” (古事記) and “Nihon Shoki” (日本書紀) that recorded our foundation myths.
They are like Genesis in the bible, but there are two books written from different perspectives.
I am sure there are many theories, but I learned at high school that Kojiki was written to educate the commoners about our beginning while Nihon Shoki acted more like an official document for the government.
According to these books, our first recorded giant snake was called Yamata no Orochi (やまたのおろち 八岐大蛇). This monster had eight heads and eight tails. As you can see in the pictures, he could’ve been more like a dragon.
Once a year, this rogue snake appeared and demanded the eight daughters of earthly deities called “Foot-Stroking-Elder”(アシナヅチ 足名椎命) and “Hand-Stroking Elder” (テナヅチ 手名椎命).
Their eight daughters were eaten, one by one, every year.
Now there was only one daughter left.
Then comes our hero Susanoo no Mikoto (スサノオノミコト 須佐之男命).
He was a god who had been kicked out of Heaven for tricking his sister Ameterasu-Ōmikami (天照大御神 あまてらすおおみかみ), the sun goddess of Japan.
Susanoo had an excellent idea!
He decided to take a lot of alcohol for the giant serpent (who probably should’ve dealt with his alcohol issues before too late) to get him drunk before slaying this monster.
His plan worked, and the last daughter of the couple with the unfortunate names survived.
Inside one of the eight tails was a sword called “Kusanagi no Tsurugi” (草薙の剣), which became one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan along with Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡) mirror and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉) jewel.
So there you go…
The Japanese expression “Uwabami” (giant snake) comes from the Yamata no Orochi story.
That’s all, really.
Hope you enjoyed it!
Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年, Japanese, *1839, †1892), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons