“Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch.” – W.C. Fields
Nobody likes the much maligned weasel. A person who can’t be trusted is called “weasely”. When a deceptively equivocating statement is made, “weasel words” are used. When a human manages to dishonestly extricate themselves from a situation in a slippery manner, they are said to have “weaseled out of it”. That’s an awful lot of metaphorical derision to heap on the unassuming little varmints of the genus Mustela. In point of fact, if it weren’t for weasels (they’ve been around for about four million years and are found everywhere except Australia and Antarctica) the world would likely have been overrun long ago by vermin (rodents being the preferred diet of the weasel). Oddly, weasels which are not themselves true vermin, both mythologically and popularly across many cultures, are regarded as nasty, cowardly, shifty, faithless, and murderous micro-monsters bent on raiding chicken coops in an orgy of henhouse homicide, sucking the yolk out of eggs without damaging the shell, and generally crying havoc about the barnyard. The small size and wiry physique of the weasel actually makes them a rodent killing machine (they can chase them down into their burrows), and a weasel well fed on mice has little interest in chicken (although some scholars argue that proximity and availability as humans encroach on their hunting grounds have something to do with increased chicken predation), except that chickens tend to attract rodents. They are also incredibly brave and ferocious, as weasalologists have watched birds of prey fall from the sky when they snatched up a weasel, and the weasel very reasonably not wanting to be dinner has gone right for their throat in midair. As Smithsonian Magazine author Richard Conniff observed, the brave weasel has “the metabolism of a hip-hop dancer on a caffeine bender.” In short, weasels are pretty much always hungry and looking for a fast meal, much like the average teenager or speed freak. Nonetheless, so much scorn has been unfairly heaped on the weasel that it is no surprise that the occasional exceptional Mustela gets ornery and starts looking for payback. I mean, weasels belong to the same taxonomic family as badgers and wolverines, but you don’t see anybody naming college sports teams after them. That’s got to sting a little bit. In different cultures, the retribution of the weasel often takes a culturally familiar form (a trickster in many Native American myths, a harbinger of bad luck in Greece, association with witches in Europe (almost wholly supplanted by cats who inherited all the occult associations once accorded to weasels) and medieval mythology included the incorrect assumption that they were venomous). In Japan, the Yōkai (supernatural apparition) weasel called the kamaitachi, having been dishonored, appears to have adopted the code of Bushido, forever seeking an honorable death in battle against its detractors. Originally an incorporeal figure of folklore associated with the wind called a kamaetachi (“attacking”), 18th Century Japanese folklorist and illustrator Toriyama Sekien (apparently a huge fan of obscure puns) rechristened it the kamaitachi (“sickle weasel”), and depicted them in his encyclopedic renderings of strange supernatural Yōkai. We of course claim that the kamaitachi is wantonly assaulting human beings for no reason whatsoever, but we have given weasels ample reason to be angry with us.
Kamaitachi. The weasel with the sickle, who flies about and cuts, scratches or tears people’s skin without reason. Upon this mythical creature is usually fastened the blame for any scratch or cut, the cause or origin of which cannot be stated or needs to be kept secret. The usual formula in such a case is: Kama itachi ni kirare ta—”cut by the weasel with the sickle.” This is often used when sandal straps break (Joly, 1908, p153).
Basically, the kamaitachi can’t catch a break. Even were he to treat his foes with the utmost respect, he would still be accused of such petty revenges as cutting the straps on sandals and used as a scapegoat when someone doesn’t want to admit how they got cut. This is frankly adding insult to injury. And why weasels would be carrying sickles in particular is never reported, except as a convenient similarity between the words kamae and kamai. Others have suggested that “sickle” is simply descriptive of the weasel’s sharp claws. There is also a bit of dispute over whether the kamaitachi is invisible, or just incredibly fast. His appearances (and in related folklore, it is sometimes a trio of weasels) are often associated, no doubt after the fact, with windy days and are frequently depicted at the center of a whirlwind. Clearly they are skilled martial artists that have mastered lightning fast attacks, but as with most of the weasel’s positive traits, no credit is given where credit is due.
The Kamaitachi or Sickle weasel, which from its haunts in rocky solitudes or abandoned buildings, or during its gyrations in the eddies of the whirlwind, employs its knife-like fore-claw with terrible effect upon persons who inadvertently cross its path, the cause of the mischief meanwhile being as invisible as a Boojum, so that the victim only learns that he has run foul of a Kamaitachi by the unaccountable appearance of a gaping wound upon some portion of his person (British Museum, 1886, p169).
Interestingly, this malevolent little weasel is not only credited with surreptitiously clawing the legs of unsuspecting country folk, but is credited with immediately applying a medicinal balm to the site of the attack to cure the pain, preventing the unsuspecting victim from noticing the wound until later. If this is not the behavior of an honorable samurai weasel, I don’t know what is.
The badger’s sphere of influence is occasionally invaded by the kama-itachi (sickle-imp), a nondescript demon which sometimes cuts tresses from women’s hair as they walk in unfrequented places, and often inflicts bleeding wounds on people’s legs and arms without any visible exercise of effort. The kama-itachi’s performances are vaguely connected with a sudden solution of atmospheric continuity, a whirlwind, or other aerial disturbance, and if a country bumpkin finds that he has unconsciously received a hurt, he has no hesitation in attributing it to the demoniacal sickle-carrier (Brinkley, 1901, p201-202).
Of course, those annoyingly rationalist 19th Century Europeans who encountered the Kamaitachi in Japan explain the angry depredations of the weasels by suggesting that everybody in Japan at the time wore badly made clogs (ironically, shoes would be made in Asia for all eternity thereafter), and that the ground is covered with lots of loose pebbles. That is a deeply unsatisfying explanation, as far as I’m concerned, essentially describing an entire culture as a three stooges episode.
Among the many ideal creatures with which the native imagination has populated earth and air is the kama-itachi, believed to be a kind of weasel, that, in the most wanton sport, or out of mere delight in malignity, cuts or tears the faces of people with the sickle which it is supposed to carry. This creature is not known to trouble any animal except man. Everyone knows that at times, in moments of excitement, cuts or scratches are received which are discovered only by the appearance of blood. In Japan, where the people universally wear clogs—often high, heavy blocks of wood, the thong of which is liable to break—and the ground is covered with loose pebbles or sharp stones, falls and cuts are very frequent. The one thought, to the exclusion of every other, in an instance of this kind, is about the failing thong or the outslipping support. The pedestrian, picking himself up, with probably a malediction on the thong or the clog-maker, finds, on cooling off, that his face is cut. Presto! “Kama itachi ni kirare-ta” (” cut by the sickle-weasel “). The invisible brute has passed and cut his victim on the check with his blade. I have myself known cases where no cut appeared and no blood flowed, yet the stumbler who broke his clog-string fell to cursing the kama-itachi for tripping him. This creature is also said to be present in whirlwinds. It is a most convenient scape-goat for people who go out at night when they ought to stay at home, and who get cuts and scratches which they do not care to account for truly. A case recently occurred in the port of Niigata, which illustrates both the mythical and scapegoat phases of this belief. A European doctor was called to see a native woman, who was said to be suffering from the kama-itachi. The patient was found lying down, with a severe clean cut, such as might have been caused by falling on some sharp substance; but to all questions as to how she got the wound, the only answer was, “Kama-itachi” (Griffis, 1903, p482-483).
Sadly, even in monstrosity, the weasel is slandered. We don’t like to admit that our species on average is pretty goofy and oblivious to the world around us, so it’s convenient to have an anthromorphized explanation for how we manage to mess ourselves up so efficiently, and as the weasel has already suffered millennia of character assassination (and perhaps jealousy about his speed, cunning, and bravery), he is forced to shoulder the blame even for our own clumsiness. This would whip even the most Zen-like mammal into a frenzy. Even the Bible gets in on the action, suggesting, “These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind, and the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.” Perhaps one day, the poor kamaitachi will have his honor restored, and will be celebrated for his pest control services to humanity, but we’re awfully uncharitable as a rule, so don’t put any money down on it. When other creatures exhibit traits that we wish more humans had, we tend to get resentful, but regardless of our disdain, the weasel steadfastly marches on. As John Benfield observed, “Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.”
Brinkley, F. 1841-1912. Japan, Its History, Arts, And Literature. [Library ed.] Boston: J. B. Millet Co., 1901.
British Museum. Dept. of Prints and Drawings. Descriptive And Historical Catalogue of a Collection of Japanese And Chinese Paintings In the British Museum.London: Longmans & co., 1886.
Griffis, William Elliot, 1843-1928. The Mikado’s Empire. 10th ed., with six supplementary chapters, including history to beginning of 1903. New York: Harper & brothers, 1903.
Joly, Henri L. Legend In Japanese Art: a Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folk-lore, Myths, Religious Symbolism, Illustrated In the Arts of Old Japan. London: J. Lane, 1908.