A Retelling of Shinto Myths 3: Susanoo and Orochi, The Eight-Headed Snake

Updated on August 3, 2017
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Japanophile Yong survived 10 solo trips to Japan. His visits now focus on discovering the country’s lesser known attractions.

Evil, many-headed snakes are great places to find legendary weapons. As Susanoo, God of Storms, discovers.
Evil, many-headed snakes are great places to find legendary weapons. As Susanoo, God of Storms, discovers.

Poor Susanoo. Nobody in the Heavenly Plains liked him. Nobody even wanted to be near him, for that matter. But was it his fault that as Tempest God, he was accompanied by a flurry of stormy destruction wherever he went? Was it his fault that his very name meant the Impetuous Male? A title not exactly easy to warm up to or to appreciate?

And that incident with the horse. Susanoo seriously had no clue at all why dear sis went into such a fit. It was no more than a little of rowdy fun between loving siblings …

But, nobody felt as he did, as always. Everybody insisted on overreacting. And so after dear sis grudgingly emerged from the cave, Susanoo was banished from the Heavenly Plains. In a foul mood, he wandered the earthly province of Izumo, doing his best not to wreak too much havoc on the local ecology with the storm clouds that still followed him. Before long, his wanderings brought him before an elderly couple crying in the wilderness. Thereafter, the two aged ones tearfully told Susanoo that seven of their eight daughters had been devoured by a monstrous eight-headed snake named Yamato-no-Orochi. They also bemoaned how their remaining daughter was also to soon suffer the same grisly fate.

“I could do something about this, you know,” Susanoo casually said after the elderly couple finished. “I’m the God of Storms. Even a hundred-headed serpent wouldn’t be a match for me. But for me to help you, you must promise me a reward. Let’s say, your remaining daughter. If I kill the snake, I get to have her as my wife.”

“You’re joking,” the elderly man gaped in disbelief. “You’re just someone who walked out of the forest claiming to be a god. You expect us to hand over our remaining daughter over a verbal claim?”

“Hey, nobody’s forcing you to. And I’m not asking for her hand now. We marry only after I slay the snake.”

“But you’re a god!” The elderly woman cried. “Shouldn’t you be doing rescues for free?”

“Lady, if you’re a goddess, would you do rescues for free? Now, do we have a deal or do we not?”

A lot of negotiation followed, with the elderly couple ultimately agreeing out of desperation. Pleased with the arrangement, Susanoo began to plan his next move. “How should I do this?” He mused while the elderly couple glared. “Zap it with lightning? Summon a massive flood to drown it? Wait, wait! I should rain flayed horses on its heads. Now that would be fun …”

He eventually decided his approach must combine magic, wit, and raw might. Only then would it befit his status as the mighty God of Storms. For a start, he transformed Kushinada-Hime, the remaining daughter, into a comb and hid her in his hair to keep her safe. (As Storm God, he had a glorious crown of dishevelled chaos at all times) Next, he told the elderly couple to brew enough sake to fill eight large tubs and to leave these tubs about the wilderness for Orochi to discover and devour. One tub for each head. With the elderly couple’s brewing skills being quite formidable, and everything else proceeding as intended, the great serpent quickly got drunk and fell into a deep slumber. With that, Susanoo crept to the serpent and effortlessly lopped off all of its heads with his massive sword. For good measure, he also diced up the serpent’s body. He had the notion the meat would make for some pretty umai serpent sashimi during his wedding.

Nan da yo, kore!” He exclaimed when his sword suddenly hit something hard in the Orochi’s tail. Checking his blade, he found a deep notch. Something within Orochi was steely enough to dent even his magical blade. The spine? Or perhaps some ore Orochi recently ate? No … Would you believe it? After slicing away the rest of the flesh, Susanoo found a magnificent sword embedded in Orochi’s tail. One look at the deadly blade, and Susanoo knew the sword had no equal in existence. Through godly presentiment, Susanoo also knew the sword was to live on forever in legends and myths, and after a few millennia, become the celebrated end weapon in a good many JRPG game franchises.

Danna,” Kushinada-Hime whispered worriedly in his hair as Susanoo marvelled at his discovery. “A sword in a dead snake. Is this an omen that you are going to be an abusive husband? Should I be worried and start looking for caves to hide in?”

“Nonsense, you silly girl.” Susanoo grinned. “This will ensure we live on forever in the hearts of mortals near and far. Think about it. Who else would find a legendary weapon this way? Everybody else just loots them from chests or fortresses.”

And so it was as the great God of Storms predicted. The sword in the snake, Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, also known as Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, became the most famous sword in Japanese history. Susanoo ultimately gave it to his sister Amaterasu, who in turn gifted it to the great Japanese warrior Yamato Takeru. Nowadays, the legendary blade is revered as one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan, its existence representing the divine connection the Japanese Royal Family enjoys with the Gods of Shinto. As Susanoo foresaw, the story behind its incredible discovery also continues to inspire endless animes, mangas, and games. And in recent years, enrich the Japanese economy through the sale of a great many thousand-yen tsurugi souvenirs.

Footnotes

  • Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (天叢雲剣) is the most well-known of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan. This is thanks to appearances in many animes, mangas, and games.
  • The name means the Sword of the Gathering of Clouds.
  • Its alternate name of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (草薙の剣) comes from the legend of how Yamato Takeru (日本武尊) used the sword to slice away grass in a burning field he was trapped in. Kusanagi literally means grass cutting in Japanese.
  • Currently, Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi is enshrined at Atsuta Shrine of Nagoya (熱田神宮). Like the other two regalia, it is never available for public viewing.
  • Some historians consider the story of Orochi to be a metaphor. The eight-headed serpent is said to be a flooding river with eight tributaries. An outsider assisted the natives of Izumo in damming the tributaries.
  • According to The Tale of the Heike, a collection of oral stories transcribed in 1371, the sword was lost at sea after the defeat of the Heike clan in the Battle of Dan-no-Ura. Emperor Antoku supposedly leaped into the sea with it.
  • Regardless of whether the sword was truly lost in battle, or whether it is at all magical, Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi lives on in the hearts of the Japanese. It is the nation’s most sacred armament.

Picture References

Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya City.
Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya City.
Artist's impression of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan.
Artist's impression of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan.
Yamato-no-Orochi artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series of games. Almost as famous as Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, Orochi appears in many games as a fearsome enemy.
Yamato-no-Orochi artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series of games. Almost as famous as Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, Orochi appears in many games as a fearsome enemy.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kuan Leong Yong

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      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        19 months ago from Singapore

        Thanks Anne. :)

      • Anne Harrison profile image

        Anne Harrison 

        19 months ago from Australia

        Love your telling of this tale!

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