|Other names||Yamamba, Yamanba, Onibaba|
|Book(s)||Gazu Hyakki Yagyō|
Yama-uba (山姥, Yama-uba) is a yōkai that looks like an old woman, usually a hideous one and her kimono is filthy and tattered.
Yamauba are the old hags and witches of the Japanese mountains and forests. A kind of kijo, yama uba were once human, but were corrupted and transformed into monsters. They usually appear as kind old ladies. Some sport horns or fangs, but most often they look just like ordinary elderly women, with no sign of their evil nature until they attack.
Yamauba live alone in huts by the road, occasionally offering shelter, food, and a place to sleep for the night to weary travelers. Late at night when their guests are fast asleep, they transform into their true shape – an ugly, old, demonic witch –and try to catch and eat their guests, often using powerful magic. Stories of encounters with yamauba have been passed along and spread by those few travelers lucky enough to escape with their lives, and are frequently told as bedtime stories to disobedient children.
Sometimes yamauba are created when young women accused of crimes or wicked deeds flee into the wilderness and live out their lives in exile, transforming gradually over many years as they grow older. In some cases, though, their origin can be explained by an old custom from times of famine or economic hardship. When it became impossible to feed everyone in the family, often times families had to make a hard choice: remove one family member so that the rest can survive. Often this was the newly born or the elderly. Some families led their senile mothers deep into the woods and left them there to die. These abandoned old women, either out of rage or desperation, transformed into horrible monsters who feed on humans and practice black magic.
In one Noh drama, translated as, Yamauba, Dame of the Mountain, Komparu Zenchiku states the following:
- Yamauba is the fairy of the mountains, which have been under her care since the world began. She decks them with snow in winter, with blossoms in spring ... She has grown very old. Wild white hair hangs down her shoulders; her face is very thin. There was a courtesan of the Capital who made a dance representing the wanderings of Yamauba. It had such success that people called this courtesan Yamauba though her real name was Hyakuma.
The play takes place one evening as Hyakuma is traveling to visit the Zenko Temple in Shinano, when she accepts the hospitality of a woman who turns out to be none other than the real Yamauba, herself.
Steve Berman's short story, “A Troll on a Mountain with a Girl” features Yamauba.
Lafcadio Hearn, writing primarily for a Western audience, tells a tale like this:
- Then [they] saw the Yama-Uba,—the "Mountain Nurse." Legend says she catches little children and nurses them for awhile, and then devours them. The Yama-Uba did not clutch at us, because her hands were occupied with a nice little boy, whom she was just going to eat. The child had been made wonderfully pretty to heighten the effect. The spectre, hovering in the air above a tomb at some distance ... had no eyes; its long hair hung loose; its white robe floated light as smoke. I thought of a statement in a composition by one of my pupils about ghosts: "Their greatest peculiarity is that they have no feet." Then I jumped again, for the thing, quite soundlessly, but very swiftly, made through the air at me.
In popular culture
- Jynx from the media franchise Pokémon is said to be a reference to Yama-uba, with the same golden-white hair, red kimono, and prominent mouth. The dark skin could be attributed to the tendency in Noh theater to play the Yama-uba character in blackface. Jynx's unusual Ice/Psychic type may reference Yama-uba's typical location in icy mountains, as well as her supernatural powers and her consideration by some to be a spirit affecting the weather, namely winter weather. Also, Yama-uba is known to seduce her victims by dancing, which is often referenced by Jynx's Pokedex entries within Pokemon games