Yama Oba

Yama Oba – The Mountain Crone; Old Woman of the Mountains

Yama Oba means “Old Mountain Woman.” Depending on the version of her myth, she is a benevolent spirit, a cannibal ogress, a Demon, or some or all of the above. She’s sometimes classified as a witch, but whether or not that’s intended positively or negatively depends on the myth and the beholder’s perspective.

Yama Oba is a master herbalist. She knows all the plants on her mountains. A renowned healer, she also knows a thing or two about poison. According to more malicious folk tales, Yama Oba sometimes manifests as a sweet old lady proffering invigorating health potions. Really they’re the equivalent of date-rape drugs, intended to immobilize the victim to make it easier for her to accomplish her nefarious goals.

Yama Oba—like Baba Yaga, whom she sometimes resembles—is a dangerous initiatrix simultaneously celebrated and defamed by generations of gruesome stories.

Mountains are revered as sacred places in Shinto (and other) cosmology. Yama Oba was originally a mountain goddess, albeit a fierce, not always sympathetic, one.

• Yama Oba may be the name of one goddess.

• Yama Oba may refer to a species of mountain spirits.

• There may be one great Yama Oba who presides over a host of local Yama Obas.

Yama Oba, the Mountain Mother, lives in caves or little huts in deeply forested mountains. She may be old, but she’s fertile. Yama Oba gives birth to various spirits, possibly Tengu. Although she can be harmful and is a favourite subject of horror stories, Yama Oba also sometimes bestows blessings and good fortune. She is the mother or foster-mother of folk hero Kintaro and the subject of some famous Noh dramas, including those titled Yama-uba and Yamamba. Legends about Yama Oba date back to at least the Heian era (794–1185 CE).


Yama Uba; Yamamba; Yamauba; Yamaoba




Yama Oba is usually described as an old hag with long, disheveled hair but she’s a shape-shifter. She may appear in the guise of a much younger woman, too. According to folklore, her hair transforms into snakes when she wishes. She may have a hidden mouth on top of her head—the better to eat people with.


Among the many artists inspired to create portraits of Yama Oba are Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro, Hokkei Totoya, and Toriyama Sekien.






  • Baba Yaga
  • Kybele
  • Medusa
  • Tengu
  • Yokai


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.