Benevolent, Malevolent

Yamanba (山姥)

The lovely lounger depicted to the left is Yamanba (also called  Onibaba, Kijo, Yama-onna, or Yama-hime). She is a yokai that lives deep in the mountains. She has a raging apetite and in most stories, eats everything the victim has before eating the victim him/herself. She is also occasionally depicted as appearing as a helpful field hand to villagers who give her sake and the money she spends is considered particularly lucky.

Her true form is as a tall old woman, 2-3 meters (around 7-9 feet) with gleaming eyes, a wide mouth split from ear to ear, and long messy white hair. In many stories she has fangs and horns in her true form as well. She either wears rags or is naked from the waste up. She can run so fast it seems she is flying.

But she also has some transformative powers and may appear as a beautiful young woman pretending to operate an inn for weary travelers. Or perhaps, a gentle old woman offering a place in her home for the night to lost people in the mountains. However, once the traveller is asleep, she gobbles them down with a bari bari bari sound. (I misheard that noise to be ‘pari‘ the first time, and my husband said, “No, no, no, are you stupid? Pari pari pari sounds like she’s eating potato chips, bari bari bari is the sound for eating people.”)

Some scholars have compared her to the witches appearing in European folk tales, like Hansel and Gretel, and theorize that like in Europe, elderly people went to the forest to die (or were forced to go) during famines which gave rise to the image of hungry elderly people in the woods.

This is certainly plausible, but I suspect an additional piece of the puzzle may be the indigenous sacred mountain belief-systems clashed with Buddhism when it arrived in Japan. A number of traditionally benevolent characters were demonized at that time and in such folk tales the monk or priest is depicted as the new hero of the day, vanquishing the indigenous religion’s holy-figures-turned-monsters (see The Three Talismans). Very much like vampires can’t touch crosses, churches are somehow sanctuaries from evil, etc… in European tales after the introduction of Christianity.

Most scholars believe Yamanba’s origin was as a Miko (female religious figure) for mountain kami (gods or spirits) who storytellers later made into a yokai.

In some regions, there’s a day called “Yamanba’s laundry day.” On this day, people shouldn’t use water or wash clothing. In Northern Kyushu, this day is Dec. 13th or 20th, at the end of the year. It is still believed that it will certainly rain on this day. It was likely the ancient purification day for the Miko of the mountain kami.

In the collection of stories, “Tales from Tono” (遠野物語), the people who become Yamanbas are women who have been chosen to be the mountain kami’s wife (a previous religious practice), women kidnapped by mountain villagers, or crazy women who ran off to the mountains. In the sacred mountain belief-systems, there were also traditions of a selected woman being exiled to the mountains following village festivals and women going to the mountains to give birth.

The latter tradition was likely because female mountain kami were originally associated with fertility and childbirth. This fits very well with the oldest stories of Yamanba in which she is the mother of the boy hero Kintaro. In some versions she dreams of a red dragon and awakes to find herself pregnant (virgin birth!). Or in other versions she finds Kintaro as a baby and cares for him. Children that Yamanba finds and raises are thought to gain supernatural powers (Feel free to abandon your kids in the woods!).  There are numerous other stories that relate to Yamanba and fertility as well.

In an old legend from Nagano, two mountain kami brothers see a woman in childbirth pains when they go out hunting. The older brother, Ohoyamatsumi no mikoto, helps her and she gives birth to 78,000 children (!) and he is blessed with hunting success. This is just an example. These sorts of tales of someone helping Yamanba or a mountain kami give birth and then being blessed with good fortune were told all over Japan.

In another story from Nagano, a female mountain kami gives birth to 75 children at once. In a tale from Tokushima, a mountain kami woman’s skin is touched only once by a man and she becomes instantly pregnant with nearly 80,000 children (!). In Miyazaki, there’s a mountain goddess who gives birth to 1,200 children, and in Kochi and Tokushima there’s a princess who marries a mountain kami and gives birth to either 404 children or 99,000 children in one go.

Anyways, you get the picture. There was a lot of emphasis on fertility in those days.

The abundance of stories of female fertility kami with parallel themes to Yamanba’s early stories are viewed as fairly strong evidence that her origins lie in sacred-mountain belief systems.

Furthering her qualities as a fertility kami, her corpse often becomes many valuable things. For example, in the story of Yamanba and the Cattleman, Yamanba’s corpse becomes medicine or money and the cattleman becomes very wealthy. Or in other tales, Yamanba’s excrement or breast milk becomes silk cloth (nishiki), valuable threads, or items with mysterious powers.

Similar Shinto Gods appear in the Kojiki, such as Princess Ohogetsu, who spews food from her nose, mouth, and butt. From her corpse comes silkworms, rice paddies or chestnuts. Before Izanami’s death from giving birth to the fire god, her body waste became kami for gold ore, clay, water, and food. As in Izanami’s case (who is attributed with bringing death into the world), these goddesses associated with maternity and fertility are usually shafted at the end of their stories. The construction of “The Three Talismans” is likely based on the chase scene from the Kojiki when Izanami chases Izanagi from Yomi, the land of the dead.

That’s it for background on Yamanba. The following three tales are probably her most famous stories. The fourth story is from a radio show I listen to, and the fifth one is a TV show I found on YouTube that is probably going to be the best 15 minutes of your life.

Yamanba and the Cattleman

The Wife Who Doesn’t Eat

The Three Talismans

The Story of Yamanba (Japanese radio show with subtitles)

Yamanba (it’s pretty classy)

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