Dark Claws All about Sneasel

The demon weasel
On Sneasel's design and concept

Least weasel
A least weasel. Look at how tiny it is! Photo from Commons.

Sneasel's design is based on traits of various mustelids, in particular on weasels and martens. In many cultures, these animals are thought to possess supernatural powers, and their roles in myth are often linked to facts about their ecology and behavior. The Least Weasel, for example, is the smallest carnivorous mammal on Earth, being about as big as a human hand; however, their prey are often much larger than themselves - such as rabbits or hares, which can weigh five to ten times more than a weasel. They are able to take down such large prey with a swift, lethal bite to the back of the neck. This fact about their biology is probably the reason why, in some cultures, the weasel is seen as a brave animal. For example, Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - AD 79) wrote that a weasel can slay a basilisk; in Inuit folklore, great heroes would often take the shape of a weasel when on a quest. Other facts about weasels might form the basis of less reverential myths around them. For example, in English the word "weasel" can be used to refer to a sly person, a concept which is linked to the fact that weasels are able to burrow and slide into very small spaces by bending their long bodies.

Toriyama Sekien's illustration of the kamaitachi, published in the Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (1776).

For the purpose of the discussion of Sneasel's design and concept, we need to look into the folklore of Japan, as many Pokémon are based on supernatural creatures and concepts present in Japanese mythology and folklore. In Japan, weasels were considered to be yōkai - supernatural creatures or spirits, often akin to demons. They were thought to be shapeshifters and bringers of bad luck - the cry of a weasel was considered a horrible omen.

In addition to these legends, Sneasel's design and concept has its roots in the kamaitachi, a yōkai often described as a weasel riding a whirlwind; with long sickle-like claws, they'd cut people and leave deep gashes on their legs, but the wounds wouldn't hurt or bleed. Essentially, the idea of the kamaitachi explains the physiological phenomenon of getting mysterious injuries that have no logical explanation. Today, it is thought that this happens when dry skin receives a sudden shock, and as such tears off. Ever happened to you? (It has happened to me!)

Originally, in Japanese folklore, this phenomenon was referred to as kamaetachi ("attacking tachi", the tachi being a kind of Japanese sword) until 18th century scholar and artist Toriyama Sekien catalogued all species of Japanese demons in his Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (1776) and reimagined it as kamaitachi, a weasel monster, with itachi meaning weasel.

Ryūkansai's illustration of the Kamaitachi, published in the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari (1853).

The kamaitachi is said to ride cold mountain winds, a fact which is reflected in Sneasel's typing being Dark/Ice and in the fact that, in the Pokémon games, it is always found in mountains or icy caves. Some accounts tell that the kamaitachi would appear in groups of three: the first one would startle the unlucky victim, the second one would use that opportunity to slash them, and the third one would apply medication so that the wound would not bleed or cause pain. This legend might have influenced the concept of Sneasel's signature move Beat Up, as it is a team move that requires several attacking Pokémon to be successful. Sneasel's great speed might also be a reference to this mythical creature's abilities, as the kamaitachi was said to be so fast as to be completely invisible.

A marten on a tree. Photo from Commons.

I would like to point out that, even though the kamaitachi is most commonly thought to be related to weasels, the animal which Sneasel is closest to in terms of ecology would be the marten - a close relative of the weasel which is larger in size and has a more arboreal lifestyle, which goes well with how many of Sneasel's Pokédex descriptions mention it climbing trees with its claws. So, I was wondering why something that relates to the kamaitachi could also be so much like a marten, and so little like a weasel. Well, it turns out that there is a reason! In the aforementioned Gazu Hyakki Yagyō, there is an illustration of the kamaitachi which appears under the title of "鼬", which could be read as both itachi (weasel) or ten (marten). At the time, martens were thought to be weasels that had reached one hundred years of age and become yōkai; as such, there is not a clear delineation in Japanese folklore and culture between weasels and martens, and martens would be, by definition, very magical weasels. Mystery solved! This makes Sneasel both a weasel and a marten.

As such, it is no surprise that the Japanese folklore concerning martens often coincides with tales of weasels: they were considered to be shapeshifters and bringers of bad luck. There is, however, one legend that I would like to mention for the purposes of this discussion. In the Fukushima prefecture, martens were thought to be people who had died in avalanches in disguise. I wonder if this story came to play into the concept of Sneasel being an Ice-type.

Sneasel's design evolution

Sneasel in Gold and Silver
Sneasel as it appears in Pokémon Gold and Silver: on the left, the Japanese sprite, and on the right, the international sprite.

Sneasel's design underwent many changes through the years. Its first appearance, in the Japanese releases of Pokémon Gold and Silver, shows it as predominantly brown with light blue feathers and no gem on the chest! It was quite different from any later incarnation. This early design makes the feathers look more similar to icicles, which I can understand as a more visual explanation for where its Ice type comes from, and perhaps another reference to the aforementioned kamaitachi.

Sneasel official art
The official artwork of Sneasel from Pokémon Gold and Silver.

The strange thing about this design is that the official artwork that came with Pokémon Gold and Silver shows Sneasel as having a greyish body with pink feathers; it's a color scheme that is much closer to the current one, and leaves me wondering as to what happened between the making of the sprites for Gold and Silver and that artwork. Probably, the sprite uses an earlier design which Game Freak forgot to update. The sprite was changed in the international releases of Gold and Silver; however, the colors weren't fixed - they added back the gem on the chest and they changed the eye, making the pupil look more rounded. For some reason, they bothered to make these changes while still leaving the palette mismatched!

Sneasel in Crystal
Sneasel as it appears in Pokémon Crystal.

Anyway, with the release of Pokémon Crystal, Sneasel's sprite was fixed to match the artwork; the gems appearing reddish is a result of the palette limitations of the GameBoy Color - otherwise, it looks like what it's supposed to look like. Finally!

This was not the last of the major changes concerning Sneasel's design. Ever since, each appearance of Sneasel in the Pokémon games seems to show its body as being of a different color. In the third generation games Sneasel is sort of dark green, in the fourth generation it's blue, in the fifth generation it's sort of teal, and in the sixth it's dark blue. In the Pokédex, however, Sneasel is listed as being black. So...What color is Sneasel, anyway?!

Sneasel sprites, generations 3 to 6
A comparison of different Sneasel sprites, from generation 3 to 6.

I have a suspicion that the fact that Sneasel and a lot of other Pokémon that were originally portrayed as grey or black are no longer shown as such is a side effect of the Jynx controversy, but that's a whole other can of worms which I am not willing to open right now.

A male and a female Sneasel
A male and a female Sneasel, as they appear in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. The male is on the left, and the female is on the right.

Pokémon Diamond and Pearl added gender differences to some Pokémon. Sneasel is one of them: since that game, female Sneasel are shown to have a shorter ear feather than male Sneasel. ...Right. Because we needed that. This aside, I wanted to point out that, with this in mind, all previous portrayals of Sneasel would then retroactively show a male. Yeah, I know that it was something added later which doesn't have to make sense, but isn't it strange that Game Freak bends backwards so much to make evolutions that retroactively make sense with the previous games, and so we Pokémon that have to evolve by running around a fucking rock at night when the moon is in the last quarter and it is cloudy with a 5% chance of rainfall - and I'm exaggerating, but not that much - and then they go and make gender differences and retroactively break everything?

A shiny Sneasel
A shiny Sneasel, as it appears in Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver.

Each Pokémon species comes in an alternate color which is much rarer to find than the normal design. These forms are commonly referred to by the fandom as Shiny Pokémon, because they have a sparkling effect around them whenever they are seen in battle. In Sneasel's case, its shiny form is...pink. Pink? Yeah, pink. I think it looks...naked.

Next up, we'll delve a bit into the uncharted territory of speculation. Let's imagine! How do Sneasel live in the wild, what do they eat, what place do they occupy in the food chain? And how do they interact with humans?

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[4/6] Sneasel in nature