In this day and age, it would be fair to say that most people hate spiders, although fans of the ever-amazing Spider-Man will beg to differ. The very sight of these eight-legged arachnids makes women (and some men) scream in terror, followed by the inevitable shouting of “Kill it! Kill it!” And while some spiders are dangerous to humans, most of them are fairly harmless and are actually quite helpful in that they feed on pests and harmful insects. In Japan, however, spiders are viewed, at best, with suspicion or, at worst, with fear. And in this country, some spiders are believed to possess supernatural powers. One of these is the golden orb-weaver (Nephila clavata), which is found all over Japan (with the exception of Hokkaido) and can grow large enough to capture and feed on small birds. The Japanese, however, have given the arachnid another name: Jorōgumo, the Whore Spider. This shapeshifting monster lures young men into her parlor with promises of love and passionate sex, and those men are never seen again.
The Jorōgumo is thought to be one of many different kinds of yōkai, a term that can be applied to a very wide variety of monsters, ghouls, goblins, demons, and spirits that are found in the folklore and mythology of Japan. According to Japanese legend, the Jorōgumo is a golden orb-weaver that has survived long enough to reach four hundred years of age. At this point, the spider gains supernatural powers, human intelligence, grows to huge proportions, and becomes hungry enough to view humans as food. Attaining great age and gaining magical powers as a result is a common theme in yōkai lore, and the Jorōgumo is only one example. According to legend, the spider-woman is believed to nest in dense forests, dark caves, or abandoned houses in busy towns (Meyer 42). These places give her the seclusion she needs, while still giving her access to her preferred prey. The name jorōgumo itself can have a couple of different meanings, which depends on how the kanji is written. It was originally written as “女郎蜘蛛”, which means “whore spider”. However, those characters were modified and added to fairly recently to read as “絡新婦”, which changes the meaning to “entangling bride”. This was done to take away the sexual connotations and make it sound more appropriate. But in spite of those sexual connotations, the original name gives a very accurate description of the creature’s modus operandi.
Pinning down exactly what the Jorōgumo looks like is a difficult task, since she is both a shapeshifter and a deceiver. While in her natural form, she has a fairly large body, a large legspan, and her body is covered in bright, beautiful colors. However, the Whore Spider prefers to spend most of her time in the form of a gorgeous young woman (Meyer 42). But she can still manifest some spiderlike traits in her human form, such as fangs (or fanged mandibles), clawed fingers, and multiple long legs extending from her back. She may also exhibit such traits when she attacks her prey or when provoked into defending herself. It might not be out of the question for the Jorōgumo to transform herself into a gigantic, monstrous variation of her natural form if she becomes angry enough.
The Jorōgumo is said to be both cunning and intelligent, a patient predator that is as skilled in the ways of deception as she is in seduction. She leads a solitary and reclusive life, staying well away from others of her kind both before and after her transformation into a yōkai (Meyer 42). In her natural form, she feeds on insects and small birds. But in human form, however, the Whore Spider seeks out young men as her prey. When she has spotted a man that she wants, she invites him back to her place with promises of good food, drinks, and a night of passionate lovemaking. Once the man has arrived at her home, she quickly immobilizes him with her webbing and then incapacitates him with her venomous bite. The Jorōgumo’s venom is deadly, but it kills very slowly, presumably by liquefying her victim’s insides. This allows the monster to savor her victim’s agony as he grows weaker and weaker over a period of days, before finally dying in excruciating pain (Meyer 42). Afterwards, the Jorōgumo begins to feed on the corpse, sucking out the now-liquefied organs and the tissues through her hollow fangs, much like her lesser kin would do.
In some stories (which seem to date back to the Edo Period), the Jorōgumo is portrayed in much the same way as the description above states. She uses her beauty and her other feminine attributes (i.e. her cleavage and her luscious legs) to entice the man that she desires into an abandoned, secluded shack. Once he has entered the shack, she begins to play the biwa (a type of Japanese lute). The Jorōgumo is very skilled in the use of this instrument, although nobody knows for sure exactly where those skills came from. This either lulls the man to sleep or causes him to completely lower his guard. The Jorōgumo then seizes the opportunity to bind the man from head to toe in her webbing, while toying with the notion of saving him for later. She may also appear to a young man as a young woman with a baby in her arms (which most often turns out to be the spider-woman’s eggsack), claiming that the baby is his child (“Jorōgumo”, Wikipedia). The monster must’ve learned this trick from human women, since it never fails to shock any man and throws him completely off his guard. This leaves her victim completely vulnerable to attack, and she then commences with her attack.
Alternatively, the Jorōgumo may take the appealing form of a beautiful woman in order to ask a samurai to marry her (“Jorōgumo”, Wikipedia). It would not be unreasonable for the Jorōgumo to have sex with her prey before she kills him, just for the sheer enjoyment of the act. Seduction is just one of many weapons in her arsenal, after all. And the amazing thing is that the Whore Spider can maintain her charade for years, even right in the middle of a modern-day city or a town (although a town might be more comfortable for her). And unbeknownst to the people who walk by her house and interact with her on a daily basis, the bones of her victims just continue to pile up inside and around her house (Meyer 42). And the thing is, nobody actually suspects her of such atrocities. Only the skulls of her victims bear any kind of testimony to the horrors that she has committed, and death has forever silenced them.
The Jorōgumo has a variety of supernatural powers at her command, which are the result of a mere spider’s transformation into a yōkai. As stated earlier, the Whore Spider is a shapeshifter that can take the form of an exceedingly beautiful woman, a seemingly ordinary spider, a half woman, half spider creature, and a huge spider-monster. She is possessed of unnatural strength, speed, and agility, all of which are necessary while she’s hunting and for self-defense. Furthermore, she retains her spider abilities in her human form. She is able to adhere to and climb sheer surfaces (i.e. walls and ceilings), which enables her to hide on shadowy ceilings and in trees. She has the ability to spin webs that are incredibly strong and very sticky, which are nigh-impossible to break, cut, or escape from (although fire may weaken the sticky threads enough to break free from them). The Jorōgumo’s bite is deadly, carrying a potent venom that incapacitates her prey and kills them very slowly over a period of days. She is completely immune to all kinds of poisons. In addition, she can project magical illusions and is able to control her lesser kin and make them do anything that she desires. This includes using Japanese fire-breathing spiders to burn down the houses of anyone who has grown suspicious of her and her activities (Meyer 42).
Many stories have been written and told of the Jorōgumo, and very few of them end well. One of the most famous of these tales is that of the Jorōgumo of Jōren Falls, which takes place in Izu, Shizuoka. One day, according to the legend, a man was relaxing at the foot of the waterfall. Suddenly, his feet were seized by a great number of sticky white threads! Thinking quickly, the man severed the threads and tied them to a nearby tree stump. The stump was suddenly yanked out of the ground and was pulled into the water. Then the man heard a voice, which said “How clever, how clever” (which is found in a variant of the story from Kashikobuchi, Sendai). More than a little frightened, the man quickly ran back home.
After hearing about the incident at Jōren Falls, the villagers became frightened and decided that it might be best if everyone just stayed away from the waterfall from that point on. One day, a woodcutter from a neighboring village came to the woods around the waterfall to ply his trade, completely unaware of the legend. The man began to cut down a tree within the vicinity of the water, but then the axe slipped out of his grip! It flew through the air, and finally landed in the deep pool at the base of the waterfall. Panicking, the man dove in after his axe! He searched and searched for as long as he could hold his breath, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. The man dragged himself out of the pool, wondering what to do. What good was a woodcutter without his axe?
As the woodcutter started to turn away from the pool, a gorgeous woman appeared with the axe in her hands. The woman approached the woodcutter and handed the axe to him. In return, the mysterious woman told the man that he could never tell anyone about her (another common theme in yōkai lore). Thankful, the woodcutter promised that he would never tell another soul about having seen her that day. With that, the beautiful stranger disappeared.
Initially, the woodcutter kept his promise. Soon after the encounter, however, the man began to feel anxious about what he had seen that day. However, he still kept it to himself, out of fear of what might happen if he didn’t. One day, the woodcutter had become drunk on saké, loosening his tongue and weakening his inhibitions. He couldn’t take it anymore, and the woodcutter finally broke down and told everyone that he was with all about his encounter with the gorgeous stranger. Afterwards, the man felt greatly relieved. A sense of lethargy overtook his mind and his body, and the woodcutter fell into a deep sleep. He would never reawaken (“Jorōgumo”, Wikipedia; LeBlond 2013).
In another version of the story, the woodcutter actually falls in love with the mysterious beauty, and he began visiting the Jōren Falls every day so that he could spend time with her. But as time went by, the woodcutter grew weaker and weaker from each visit (the two were undoubtedly making love). A monk from a nearby temple took notice of this, suspecting that the Jorōgumo had ensnared the man, envenomating the woodcutter with her bite while they made love. To be sure, the monk and the woodcutter went down to the falls together to investigate. Once there, the monk pulled out a scroll inscribed with Buddhist scriptures, and he began to read.
As the monk read his sūtra, strands of webbing appeared from the pool and attempted to ensnare the woodcutter! But the monk shouted his sūtras, and the silken threads disappeared. The woodcutter now knew that the woman was a Jorōgumo (there’s more than one of these creatures), but he still loved her. The woodcutter turned to a Tengu (a powerful birdlike demon) for help. Although the Tengu was the master of the mountain’s yōkai, the bird-demon forbade their love. The woodcutter, however, couldn’t bear the thought of throwing away his feelings for the Jorōgumo. While running back to the waterfall, he was caught in the creature’s webbing and was pulled into the pool to be with his beloved forever. The woodcutter was never seen again after that (“Jorōgumo”, Wikipedia; LeBlond 2013).
Another story about the Jorōgumo can be found in Richard Freeman’s exhaustive work, The Great Yokai Encyclopaedia (CFZ Press, 2010). Once, a traveling samurai decided to spend the night at an old shrine. He spread his bedding out on the floor, put his swords aside, and laid himself down to sleep. Later that night, the samurai awoke with a start to find a gorgeous woman with a baby in her arms. The mysterious beauty held out the baby towards the warrior, and she insisted that he was the child’s father. The samurai wasn’t even remotely convinced of the lady’s claims, having never met or even seen her before. He suspected that she was some sort of supernatural being that was trying to deceive him, and decided to wait for an opportunity to strike. The woman began moving closer, still holding out her baby. Suddenly, in the flash of a moment, the samurai drew his katana and cut the woman! The woman gave out a shriek, and quickly scaled the wall and hid herself amongst the shadows on the ceiling. Now wide awake, the samurai decided to sit down and wait for dawn. Several hours later, as the sun began to shine, the samurai looked up at the ceiling and saw the corpse of a gigantic spider, lying dead in its own web. The monster was surrounded by the desiccated corpses of its previous victims. On the floor lay a small stone idol, which had been disguised as a baby by the spider-woman’s power of illusion. If the samurai had struck the idol, it would’ve shattered his sword. Needless to say, the samurai left the shrine in a hurry (Freeman 140).
As dangerous as she is, the Jorōgumo has a couple of weaknesses. No matter what form she takes, a mirror (or any other reflective surface) will reveal her true form: a monstrous spider. Once her true nature is known, the Jorōgumo will most likely attack in order to keep her true identity a secret. It’s probably best to make a hasty retreat at this point, unless one is armed and thus prepared for this sort of situation. She may also be vulnerable to Buddhist scriptures and sūtras, as seen in the previous story. Such scriptures may have power over her and could thus be used to send her away. It’s probably best to get a Buddhist priest for such purposes. But other than these two vulnerabilities, one must use common sense and rely on instinct when confronting the Jorōgumo in her human form.
Killing the Jorōgumo isn’t particularly difficult. As seen in the tale of the samurai and the spider-woman, it is made fairly clear that the Whore Spider can be harmed by cold, sharpened steel. One may assume that bullets may also work against this creature as well. But the best way to permanently rid oneself of one of these monsters (or any other supernatural beast, for that matter) is through the use of decapitation, and then burning the corpse to ashes afterwards. These two methods are pretty much foolproof, and should always be a part of any monster hunter’s back-up plan.
One doesn’t hear too much about the Jorōgumo anymore these days, unless one reads books about yōkai, plays video games, or watches anime (this blogger does all three!). It could be that, like most monsters, people simply don’t believe in her anymore. But people haven’t completely forgotten about the Whore Spider. Anyone who does a little digging (or reads the Wikipedia page) will find a great deal of information about the monster’s portrayal in popular culture. The Jorōgumo has appeared in literature, movies, television, video games, and roleplaying games in one form or another. The Whore Spider has made appearances in a number of short stories, such as “The Spider” (1919) by Hanns Heinz Ewers, Illona Andrews’ “Magic Dreams” (2012), and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s Shisei (“The Tattooer”, 1910). Surprisingly, she has made only a few appearances in movies and television, namely in the fantastic movie Hellboy: Sword of Storms (2006), Grimm (S1/Ep11, “Tarantella”), the awesome anime Rosario + Vampire (S2/Ep01, “New Term and a Vampire”), the anime/manga xxxHolic, and the anime series Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation (2013) (which Wikipedia gave as Hyperdimension Neptunia: Monstrous Rising, so really not sure what’s accurate and what isn’t here). However, the Whore Spider’s strongest impact has been made in the video game and roleplaying game industries. The Jorōgumo (or something based off of her) can be found in the Clover Studio/Capcom action-adventure game Ōkami (2006), the character Juri Han in Super Street Fighter IV (2010), the computer game Diablo III (2012) in the form of Cydaea, the Maiden of Lust, and in the Pathfinder RPG’s Bestiary 3 (2012), which is a great read.
But despite her portrayal in television, literature, and video games, one must remember that the Jorōgumo was once considered to be very real to the people of Japan, and one must respect their beliefs and traditions. But does the Jorōgumo really exist? One must remember that the deep forests and the dark caves of Japan have remained largely unexplored, and that dozens of people go missing each year. While many of these disappearances can be explained away as accidents or suicides (especially in the regions around Mount Fuji and the Aokigahara Forest), there are still a number of disappearances that remain unexplained. Could some of those people have fallen victim to the wiles of the Jorōgumo? One is inclined to think so, and only a fool would deny the possibility. And who knows? Maybe the Jorōgumo is waiting for a man to fall for her right now. And little does he know that, once he accepts her invitation into her home, he will never be seen again by his family or his friends. Such is the fate of those men who fall for the seductive charms of the Whore Spider.
I couldn’t have done this without the help of my good friends Matthew Meyer and Richard Freeman, who allowed me to use their books in my research. Without their help, this would have been a very short entry. Thank you so much, you two! I'm so lucky to have great friends like you, and I hope that this does you proud!
Freeman, Richard. The Great Yokai Encyclopaedia: The A-Z of Japanese Monsters. Bideford, North Devon: CFZ Press, 2010.
Meyer, Matthew. The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons: A Field Guide to Japanese Yokai. N.P. Self-Published, 2012.
LeBlond, Gerard. “Before Spider-Man; There Was Jorogumo, and She Didn’t Play Nice.” The Daily Orbit. April 30, 2013. Accessed on January 7, 2016. <http://thedailyorbit.com/before-spider-man-there-was-jorogumo-and-she-didnt-play-nice/>
“Jorōgumo”. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Last updated November 25, 2015. Accessed on January 7, 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jor%C5%8Dgumo>