The jorōgumo, part beautiful woman, part spider, is one of the most memorable yokai from Japanese folklore. This article covers everything you need to know to keep from getting caught in her web!
1. The Meaning Behind the Jorōgumo‘s Name
Hiragana: じょろうぐも, which in English, is pronounced Jorogumo.
Kanji: 絡新婦 ( meaning Entangling Bride) or 女郎蜘蛛 (meaning Woman-Spider)
Also, Japanese entomologists refer to the (non-yokai) spider using katakana instead of hiragana: ジョロウグモ
2. The Origins of the Jorōgumo
Jorōgumo, or Jorō spider, is actually the colloquial name for a real spider species Nephila clavata ( in English, golden-orb weavers). The spiders are very large, with females of the species growing up to 2.5 cm in body length (not including their legs) and weaving webs large enough to reach between two tree trunks. The spider’s habitat is everywhere in Japan, aside from Hokkaido. The Jorogumo’s diet consists mainly of insects, but occasionally they grow so big that they can also catch and eat small birds (which makes them already scary enough without being yokai, in my opinion >-<).
Because of their large size, and the meaning of their name, the Joro spiders became associated with supernatural events. The legend says that a Jorogumo which lives for 400 years becomes a yokai, with supernatural powers and a taste for human flesh.
3. The Appearance of the Jorogumo
The Jorogumo as yokai are giant spiders (about the size of a person, think Aragog from Harry Potter) which are able to shapeshift into beautiful young women. They are also represented in ukiyo-e as having the upper body of a woman along with the legs of a spider. In Toriyama Seiken’s depiction in the Gazu Hyakki Yagyō, the Jorogumo is portrayed as a woman with the legs of a spider protruding from her back, each of which can control another smaller, fire breathing, spider. Once they have become a yokai, the Jorogumo prefers to eat humans, especially young men.
A similar half-human, half-spider yokai is the Tsuchigumo, which is also based on a real spider species, a kind of tarantula. However the Tsuchigumo can be either male or female.
4. The Jorogumo‘s Legends
Two collections of folklore from the Edo Era mention the shapeshifting Jorogumo .
The Tonoigusa Legend
The first recording of the Jorogumo is in the Tonoigusa (宿直草). The story “Things That Ought to be Pondered, Even in Urgent Times” (“Kifunaru Toki mo, Shian Aru Beki Koto”, 急なるときも、思案あるべき事) describes a young samurai who encounters a beautiful young woman (19 or 20 years of age), carrying a child in her arms. The woman, pointing at the samurai, tells the child, “Him there surely is your father. Go forth, and be embraced” (“arenaru ha tete ni temashimasu zo. Ikikite idakare yo”, あれなるは父にてましますぞ。行きて抱かれよ). However, the samurai realises the woman is not what she seems, and attacks her, slashing her with his blade, whereupon she escapes to the attic of a house. The next morning, in the attic, all they find is the corpse of a giant joro spider, one or two shaku long (about 0.3-0.6 meters), along with the bodies of the victims it had already murdered and eaten.
The Taihei Hyakumonogatari Legend
The second mention of the joro spider as a yokai is in the Taihei Hyakumonogatari (太平百物語), in the story “How Magoroku Was Deceived by a Jorōgumo” (“Magoroku Jorōgumo ni Taburakasareshi Koto”,孫六女郎蜘にたぶらかされし事) . The story takes place in Takada, Sakushu (now Okayama Prefecture).
As the story goes, Magokoru was resting in his veranda, when, just as he was about to fall asleep, a matronly woman of around 50 years of age appeared before him. She told him that her daughter liked with Magokuro, and asked him to visit her estate. There her daughter, a 16 year old girl confessed her love to him and asked him to marry her. As Magoroku was already married, he refused her. However, the girl insisted, saying that although Magoroku had almost killed her mother two days ago, still her love had stayed true, and thus he could not reject her feelings.
Confused by her words, Magoroku escaped the woman’s estate, which vanished as he ran away. He found himself lying back on his veranda, as if having just woken from a dream. His wife told him that he had been sleeping there the entire time.
However, as Magoroku looked up, above him in the eaves, a small joro spider was weaving a web. Seeing the spider, he remembered an event from two days before. At that time, he had chased a spider from his home. He had indeed almost killed it, leaving him to wonder about the identity of that mother and daughter…
The Mistress of Jōren Falls
The Jorogumo is often associated with the locations of waterfalls. In particular, the Jōren Falls of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, have many legends about a spider-woman who is mistress of the waterfall.
The original legend says that as a man rested by the Joren falls, he felt a sticky web clinging to his leg. He pulled the spider web off his leg and stuck it to a tree stump instead. The Jorogumo then dragged the stump into the water and beneath the falls.
After this event, the villagers avoided the falls. However, a woodcutter who was unaware of the story tried to cut trees in the area. He dropped his axe into the pool below the falls. When he tried to get his axe back, a woman appeared and gave it back to him, telling him he must never tell anyone about what he saw. Unfortunately, he soon forgot her words, and one day, after drinking too much, he spoke of his adventure. After he fell asleep that night, his body was pulled outside by an invisible string. The next day, the villagers found his corpse, floating in the water below the Joren falls.
A second version of the legend says that the woodcutter fell in love with a woman he met by the falls. He went to see her every day, but his body grew weaker with every visit. The oshō (Buddhist Priest) of a local temples suspected that he was enchanted by the Jorogumo who was the mistress of the falls. On the man’s next visit, the oshō accompanied him to chant sutras. When a spider thread wrapped around the woodcutter, the oshō let out a great shout, and the thread vanished. Despite knowing that the woman he loved was a Jorogumo, the woodcutter persisted, asking the local tengu of the local mountain for permission to marry her. The tengu refused, so the woodcutter ran to the Joren falls, where he was entangled in spider silk and pulled beneath the water, gone forever.
The Ghost Spider of the Kashikoi Abyss
Here is a neat gif I found animating the Jorogumo’s legend, it’s originally from the YouTube channel Overly Sarcastic Productions!
At the Kashikobuchi ravine, in Sendai, people tell a surprisingly similar legend about woodcutters using tree stumps as decoys to avoid being pulled into the water by a Jorogumo. However, in this legend, once the log is pulled into the water, a voice can be heard saying “Kashikoi, kashikoi.” or “Clever, clever”. Since the name “Kashikobuchi” literally translates to “Clever Abyss”, some people speculate that this legend is the origin of the ravine’s title. The Jorogumo in Kashikobuchi is worshipped as a preventer of waterborne disasters, with shrines, torii and monuments in the area engraved with the words “Myōhō Kumo no Rei” (妙法蜘蛛之霊), meaning Spider’s Ghost (well, sort of, it’s an approximate translation by my husband) .
Another legend from the Kashikobuchi area says that a man named Genbe met a beautiful woman, who was actually a shapeshifted eel that lived at the bottom of the Kashikobuchi ravine. She was going to be attacked by the Jorogumo, so she asked Genbe to help her defend herself. Genbe agreed, but on the night of the attack he was too afraid to go out, staying hidden in his house instead. The defenseless eel lost her battle with the Jorogumo, and Genbe died of insanity. (The moral of the story being: you should always help eels?)
5. The Jorogumo in Modern Media
The Joro spider appears in many Japanese based anime and games. Although not specifically mentioned as a Jorogumo, creatures which are half-spider, half-woman and eat human flesh, also appear in western TV series and books.
- Yokai watch
- Kakuriyo no Yadomeshi
- Rosario + Vampire
- Ayakashi: Ghost Guild
- Diablo 3
- Pathfinder (3rd Bestiary)
- The Evil Within
- Dark Souls
- Magic Dreams by Ilona Andrews,
- Tattoo by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki,
- The Spider by Hanss Heinz Ewers
- The Dr. Who episode “The Runaway Bride” (featuring a giant, half-woman spider who is intent on eating one of the characters)
- Escape the Night
- Hellboy: Sword of Storms (Hellboy visits Japan and battles a giant, green fire breathing spider-woman)
To learn more about different types of yokai, check out my database, here!
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