Long before modern science began to understand the processes that create our weather, people made up their own explanations. Many of these accounts were fantastic in nature, with evil or benevolent gods, monsters, and spirits controlling the elements. In this series, we’ll explore some of these ancient myths and share the science behind them. Weather + mythology = weather-ology!
Spirits are an important part of Japanese folklore and tradition. In the Shinto religion, everything in nature is believed to be a spirit, or kami. Waterfalls, thunder, rocks, grass, mountains, and more are all seen as spiritual beings.
In addition to such gentle spirits, there are also many evil spirits who seek to cause harm to people. Among these evil spirits are the yuki-onna, or snow women. Described as beautiful, pale women with red lips and black hair, yuki-onna are often clothed in white and float above the ground, leaving no footprints. They are inhumanly beautiful, and are experts at luring unsuspecting mortals into their chilly embrace.
A yuki-onna may attract a man to herself with her beauty, or trick a woman into coming near by asking for help with a crying child. Whatever the ruse, the human who makes contact with a yuki-onna will nearly always die instantly, frozen in place by her icy breath. Then, the yuki-onna can feed on the soul of her victim.
Travelers walking alone on a cold night must be especially wary of yuki-onna, though the spirits have also been known to invade homes, causing sleeping inhabitants to succumb to their frosty breath.
The legend of yuki-onna started because ancient people didn’t understand what severe cold does to the body. It was their way of explaining what happened to people who froze to death.
The truth isn’t nearly as exciting. When our bodies are exposed to the cold over an extended period of time, our core temperature drops, and the processes that allow our bodies to function gradually shut down. This condition is called hypothermia, and its effects range from painful and uncontrollable shivering, sometimes accompanied by sluggishness and confusion, all the way to death.
Hypothermia sets in when the core body temperature drops below 95° F. Over time, as the core temperature continues to drop, more and more processes shut down, including muscle control, memory, speech, and major organ functions. The rate of deterioration depends on a number of factors, including age, overall health, gender, amount of body fat, and even pure dumb luck.
There is no specific core temperature at which a person suffering from hypothermia will die, and modern medical breakthroughs have made it possible to revive many victims. To survive from a severe bout of hypothermia, the victim must be warmed up slowly, and have their heart rate and blood pressure closely monitored and controlled. The lowest recorded core temperature at which a person has ever survived is 55.4° F, when a 7-year-old Swedish girl was rescued from drowning in the cold of December, 2010.
Because such medical advancements didn’t exist in ancient Japan, most people who succumbed to the elements couldn’t be rescued. Without knowing the exact cause of death, their friends and family could only blame an evil spirit. And so, the myth of yuki-onna, the snow woman, was born.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.