Japanese tale #21 – The snake’s bride

snake bride.jpg

Once upon a time, in a peaceful countryside, lived Kenta, a farmer who had three daughters.

It was a simple man who loved his wife and children dearly. The whole family worked hard in their paddy-fields from sunrise to dusk. They plowed and planted, feet all day long paddling in soft mud, their backs bent and broken.

One evening, as Kenta was walking back from his fields alone, a silken hiss rang in the clear air:

– A man like you should not have so many worries.

Kenta stopped dead in his tracks. Along the rice fields, high grass whispered. And, slithering gracefully from the bushes, a striking snake appeared. It was an breathtaking animal, immense with smooth scales shining like dark jewels.

Its long fangs caught the sunset light. Shaking like a leaf, the farmer fell to his knees:

– Please my Lord, have mercy!

The serpent gave him a sharp smile:

– You’re not the one I am interested in. See, it has come to my ears you have delicious daughters in age to be wed.

Kenta became pale as death.

– No, I beseech you! Don’t take them from me! Joining your watery kingdom will be their death!

The snake sneered:

– I only ask for one. Think about all I have to offer: rain just when needed will bring bountiful harvests. Or maybe you’d prefer infinite thunder and raging storms?

Its eyes shone, merciless :

– Tomorrow, meet me at the Eastern pond. There, one of your girls we become my bride.

And, in a fluid motion, it disappeared in the dark.

The poor Kenta went back home with a heavy heart. He sat by the fireplace, and called his wife and his daughters with a shivering voice:

– My dears, something terrible happened out by the fields… The guardian of the pond came to me. He… He asks… to marry one of you.

He gulped, cold sweat on his face.

– I don’t want to see one of you drowned!

Kenta buried his face in his hands, sobbing. Yet, no cry or wail came.

The women of the house were looking at each others in a thoughtful silence. Then, under the bewildered sight of Kenta, they all started to whisper to each other.

His youngest daughter, brave and bold, rose from her seat:

– I’ll go Father.

The second daughter, sweet and loving, stood up and caught the youngest’s hand:

– You won’t leave without a proper dowry sis’. I’ll give you my favourite hairpin.

The oldest daughter, quiet and wise, joined her sisters and embraced them.

– And I’ll give you my sewing tools.

Their mother, who had been rummaging through things, came back with a smooth wooden trunk and a silken packet:

– Sweetheart, here are my wedding chest and bridal kimono. Their yours now.

Kenta could not understand why his women all seemed so unabashed by the doom looming over them. His wife caught his agitation and took his hand:

– Have no fear my love. There is still hope!

The morning after, the whole family marched to the pond. The oldest and second daughters were carrying the wedding chest wrapped in a dark blue fabric. The youngest daughter was radiant, all doll up in her mother’s kimono, her sister’s hairpin glittering in her dark hair.

As soon as the reached the water’s edge, the snake appeared, fearsome and powerful:

– How lucky I am to wed such a lovely young woman. Come girl, there’s no need to wait any longer.

The bride-to-be stood her ground, seemingly unafraid:

– My Lord, I am not very strong. See how my sisters had to joined their efforts to lift my wedding chest. How am I supposed to carry my dowry alone?

The serpent hissed impatiently:

– Fine I’ll take your chest myself!

And the snake started to coil around the trunk. It suddenly left out a cry:

– But, it stings!

The animal had no time to ponder. The three sisters had already leapt at him.

The oldest and second daughters hold him down on the chest. Under the blue fabric, the lid was spiked with countless needles which pierced the snake’s soft belly.

The youngest one took of her hairpin. And without a single hesitation, she thrust its sharp ends into the beast’s eye.

Soon, the serpent laid dead. Kenta and his family fell in each other’s arms.

And no one ever saw a monstrous snake in this countryside ever again.


Note:

Like in Western traditions, snakes can present a dark, chthonic side in Asia – probably because of the venomous nature of some species. Japan has several dangerous endemic species on its main islands, like the Mamushi and Yamakagashi (it’s also worth mentioning the Okinawan Habu from Ryukyu islands). Back in the days, those serpents, who love to nestle into bushes, were considered a real danger by farmers.

Yet snakes can be also be seen as holy animals. It’s especially true for white ones which are for example associated with the goddess Benzaiten.

Snakes share many characteristics with their cousins, the mighty dragons. They are all creatures associated with water – be it great rivers or serene ponds. In Japan, they are also linked to storms and rain. They can be good or bad, depending of the story, but they always present an underlying notion of fertility bringer.

Maybe because of those links with fertility rituals, snakes are often considered a feminine animal in Asia (as it can be seen in the traditional zodiac where snake sign is “yin”-female). In many tales, the snake character is a woman (Kiyohime, the Nure-onna etc).

The offering of a young girl to a dragon/snake as a recurrent motif in many legends all across the world. Those tales are probably memories of time where sacrifices (including drownings) were part of religious rituals. Today’s stories echoes with another, very famous in Japan, named Yamata-no-Orochi.

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]

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