Once upon a time, before Japan became Japan, the lands were divided between many many clans. Wars were fought, and over time one of them, the Yamato clan, slowly rose to power.
The Yamato were known to be fierce and merciless. People said their king was a direct descendant of the Sun goddess, and blessed by heavenly light, he always emerged triumphant of all battles.
Wars after treaties, alliances after weddings, the clan spread its influence around. In the new territories, peasants humbly bowed their heads down before their new rulers. Most of the times, common people only shrugged, whispering:
– One chief or another, what difference will it make to us?
Yet, not all were ready to give up their lands so easily.
At the marches of the growing kingdom, by the Katsuragi mountains, the bold Yamato warriors shivered in fear. Surrounded by eerie mist, deep and everlasting, their troupes faced an enemy like they had never met.
Swift shadows in the forest, piercing shrieks in the night, creatures haunted the area. Sentinels, voice quivering, reported they had witnessed strange human-like silhouettes with long, long limbs, or maybe even tails, coming from nowhere.
Ferocious, tenacious, their invisible enemy harassed the Yamato. One had never come back from the river, another had disappeared from his bed without a sound. Often patrols would scatter to the four winds in sheer terror of what lurked around them.
Men got more and more nervous as days passed by:
– How can we fought a war without any battles? We are but soldiers: only a chaman could counter those demons!
Their chief tsked angrily and roused his men:
– They are no demons but only woodsmen in disguise, playing with your minds. Our conquest has been long overdue: this region must be taken! Today, we’ll force them out of hiding and beat them once and for all!
Grumbling, the warriors took their weapons, none of them happy with this mad command. But an order was an order and that far away from home, the men took comfort in keeping with one another.
The troup carefully entered the sinister mountain slides. Their hands tensed on their clubs and swords hilts, the foot soldiers kept throwing anxious look around, ready to fight – or flee.
Slowly, they crossed the forest, yet the creatures remained unheard and unseen. And soon, the ghostly trees grew scarce, slippery rocks and tricky crevasses taking their places.
The chief raised a hand and ordered:
– We’ll rest here a moment. No fire, and no noise, keep your eyes sharp.
The troup sighed in perfect unison as they settled down. It has started to rain and the bleak scenery was everything but homely.
Something white moved, a hundred feet away from them.
A soldier started and elbowed his companion: a woman was gracefully darting from rock to rock like a mountain goat, her long hair billowing madly behind her like a banner in a storm.
The chief followed the mesmerized gazes of his men, and jumped to his feet:
– You! Wait!
The woman froze and turned. She had a striking tanned face, yet her beautiful eyes were full of hatred. A strong distaste blurred her features as she frowned. Without answering, she started to run.
The commander barked:
– Do not let her run away!
All the warriors got up as one and chased after her, stumbling like toddlers over the wet ground.
The woman was fast, throwing from time to time mocking smiles at the men behind her. Soon, she had reached a rock shelter. She bowed at her pursuers, a wolfish smile on her lips. Then she disappeared, engulfed by darkness.
The warriors arrived panting at the cave’s mouth. And simply stood there, dancing on their feet, unsure. No one dared to cross the threshold: ahead of them was only pitch black dark, heavy and menacing.
Their chief snorted and yelled:
– You are all cowards! Bring up light and follow me!
And they entered the cave. And went down, down, down.
Inside, the air was milder yet still humid. The make-up torches casted a flickering glow upon smooth stone walls. All around the terrified troup, shadows moved as if they were alive beings. A clear laughter rang in the deep, feminine, entrancing.
A soft caress touched the men’s skins. One tried to scream, another to flee. But not a sound was heard, not a move done. In the low light, they realised they were now all covered in soft, glossy white threads.
Clicking steps echoed in the dark. And suddenly the creature appeared.
The woman had nothing human anymore. She had long, long pairs of limbs ended by claws, and her now wide mouth showed large ivory mandibles. On her face, shone eight eyes, red as the darkest blood.
– Here come my little trespassers. You think you’re brave, boys, fighting for your king? This lands are mine and mine alone.
Cocoon in silk, the warriors started to wiggle, in a mad attempt to escape the monster. But threads held strong and the more they struggled, the more their prison tightened.
The creature hissed and pounced. The chief was the closest to her, in an instant she had torn his head off.
A torch fell down. In a flash, the silk web caught fire.
The creature hissed as the men, freed from their bonds, started to screamed. Crazed by the blaze, disoriented by smoke, the monster pounced again. A frenzied soldier closed his eyes and raised his sword, striking blindly.
In a loud, wet noise, the woman’s head rolled to the ground. Instead of blood, the gaping wound freed hundred and hundred of writhing shadows.
None stopped to check if she was truly dead or not, nor lingered to take a closer look at those shadows. In total disarray, the men fled to the surface, disheveled and breathless. And without missing a beat, they pushed a big boulder, sealing the mouth’s cave forever.
Years and years passed in Katsuragi, and the Yamato clan finally successfully settled in the mountains.
But, behind closed doors, old soldiers, and their children, and their children’s children never stopped whispering about the people of the caves, those eerie beings that lurked below. Only waiting to take back what was once theirs.
Many tales and stories, under pretty words and strange monsters, underline real life events. It’s the case with today’s youkai, the tsuchigumo.
Tsuchigumo (“ground spider”) was a nickname given to people who refused to submit to the budding imperial power of the Yamato clan during Kofun/Asuka periods. Those rebels clans are thought to have lived in troglodytes habitats, like caves or earth mounds, which could explains how they gained that name which also means “those who live underground”.
Overtime, tsuchigumo came to be used literally, the renegades of old becoming human-like spiders, bloody and dangerous. Later tales depicts emperors (like Jimmu) and nobles (like Minamoto no Yorimitsu) slaying those beasts, a mythical way of stressing the victory of civilisation against chaos. State propaganda is definitively not a new thing!