The Great Serpent of Ashina. A God of the land, it dwells in Ashina’s deep valleys. A colossal beast, it is quite possibly the largest living thing in Sekiro – the only being of comparable size is the Divine Dragon. It is quite possible the snake is bigger. Despite writing a lot about Sekiro on this blog I have never written about the Great Serpent in any great capacity. Well, let’s go some way towards rectifying that. The initial thrust of this post was an attempt to figure out if the serpent was modelled on any particular snake. This led to a few interesting furrows.
Turns out, I am not the best person to figure out what type of a snake the Great Serpent is. I am not an expert in snake identification. I mean, I can tell the difference between an anaconda and a black mamba, a black mamba and boomslang and a boomslang and a cotton mouth but finding a specific type? Not a skill I possess. So, with that in mind I headed off to the vast reserves of Sekiro artwork on Pivix and set about finding pictures of the Great Serpent in the hope I could find the Japanese name for the snake and work back from there. This proved to be successful. Turns out it would have been far quicker and easy just to go the Sekiro artbook I own, but I got to look at some cool art and that’s neat.
The Great Serpent in Japanese is ぬしの白蛇（はくじゃ・しろへび ― hakuja・shirohebi）which looks like white snake. There is the character for white, and the character for snake. The ぬし（nushi） translates as master and can double up as guardian spirit. In addition, a ぬしis a creature that is one of long life, great power and has control over an area. The の (no) links the two nouns. The Great Serpent is both a white snake and a long-lived guardian of Ashina – everything checks out so far. But, in an attempt to get a more exact picture I ran 白蛇 through a Japanese dictionary. This revealed that 白蛇 is in fact the name of a snake that inhabits Japan. Specifically, an Albino Rat Snake, a variant of the Japanese Rat Snake. The albino variant is located in a place named Iwakuni. In Iwakuni, the albino snakes are revered as messengers of deities and the snakes themselves are considered guardians of mountains and rivers. Not too far from our colossal serpent in Ashina.
Turns out, in Japan snakes in general, not just the Albino Rat Snakes are revered as either messengers of deities or deities themselves. Or were revered. As cultures evolve things tend to shift, and in modern day Japan snakes do not have the same universal reverence they had at one point. But there was a time when snakes were held in the highest regard. There are some areas where the reverence holds though. Snakes were regarded as guardians, protectors and killing snakes was though to bring with it great consequences (divine punishment and the like) and as such was avoided. There are even mentions of Giant Snakes that protected places. Mt. Akagunayama is referenced as one of those places. It appears the Great Serpent of Ashina has its origins in these beliefs.
With this newfound knowledge I took to Japanese Wikipedia, hoping that something else of interest would pop up. I got something. In Sekiro, there is a shrine near the back of Ashina Castle that in the English translation of the game is called the Great Serpent Shrine. In the Japanese artbook it is 白蛇の社（はくじゃ・はくじゃのじゃ）essentially Shrine of the White Snake, Shrine Dedicated to the White Snake – that sort of thing. The God of the land has a shrine in its honour – that checks out. The Japanese Wikipedia article for the Albino White snake has two links to two real life shrines that feature the characters 白蛇. One is a dead link, 白蛇神社（しろへびじんじゃ ― shirohebijinja）. There is also an active link 蛇窪神社（へびくぼじんじゃ ― hebikubojinja）. I ran the dead link through google and it turns out that in Iwakuni, there is a shrine that is dedicated to the Albino Rat Snake. It is a real place, with imagery of albino rat snakes and actual albino rat snakes on the temple grounds. Well, there are pictures of the snakes at the shrine, so they were at the temple at some point. Perhaps they are still there. The live link is a shrine in Tokyo, again with Albino snake imagery. There are a few shrines around Japan dedicated to snakes, owing to their divine status. A neat parallel between the game and real life.
Now we have talked about divine nature, let’s talk about the sin of taking life. Specifically, the killing of the Giant Serpent. It is in Sekiro’s hands whether or not the serpent dies. If Sekiro does decide to do the deed, he does it by plummeting from a great hight, plunging the Kusabimaru into the serpents’ skull, dragging the blade through bone and skin until the great beast passes from this world to the next.
This method of killing a giant snake is not unique to Sekiro. In Japanese art, there are a few representations of a giant snake meeting its maker via a sword being plunged into its skull. Two such pictures, both by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi both show a warrior killing a snake in this manner. The first picture sees a fellow named Chusenko Teitokuson doing the deed, and the second one, titled Wada Heita Tanenaga Killing a Giant Snake present a similar scene.
It is not always a sword. In another picture by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (either he really liked warriors, or he really disliked snakes) the slightly wordy title Ogata Shuma Hiroyuki (Jiraiya) with a Heavy Gun Overcoming a Huge Snake Which Tried to Eat His Friends, the Magic Toads gets the point across. Seeing the parallels between the game and Japanese artwork is pretty cool.
This is one of those posts I love researching and writing. I get to return once again to a game I love, dive into a topic that interests me and have a lot of fun with the subsequent write up.
Notes and Asides:
I got the urge to write this post, but I did not have a lot to go on. After looking around for information and doing some research I came across an academic paper on Snakes and Japanese Beliefs. It can be downloaded and read here. Written by Kiyoshi Sasaki, Yoshinori Sasaki and Stanley F Fox it is essentially the foundation of this post. It also helped me to learn a lot of new things – namely, just how revered snakes were in Japanese religion. And there is a bunch of stuff there that could easily turn into another post. A massive thank to those three persons for writing a wonderful paper.
I did not provide this above because I did not want to bog down the post too much, and I have touched on some of it in previous posts but here are a few more examples of the Great Serpents divinity and reverence. Sacrifices are offered up to it. The organs of the snake are enshrined in temples. The snake is combined with Buddhist imagery throughout Ashina’s temples. Two specialist warriors, the Snake Eyes protect both paths to the Great Serpent. It occurs to me all of this is actually pretty cool. It is not often a God is alive as it is revered.
Oh, and I realised I never did give a concrete answer to what type of snake the Great Serpent is. I still could not with any confidence. The head looks wider than a rat snakes head. I have heard that it looks a like a pit viper before, but I have nothing more than that. In Japan, there are a few species of snake that are pit vipers, the foremost being the Mamushi, a venomous species that requires medical attention if bit. Maybe the Great Serpent is based on the Mamushi. Maybe its not. There is a chance From Software just made a standard looking snake. That could have happened. Would make for a less interesting answer, but it is a possibility. Hopefully a herpetologist stops by here with some time and a kind heart to answer such questions.