Friday, 2 January 2015

Creation Mythology: Japan

 

The Ainu were the oldest inhabitants of Japan and, while they were once widespread, they now only inhabit a small area of the country – mostly on Hokkaido and the Kurile Islands.  The myths of the Ainu differ from those of the southern Japanese islands. 
According to the Ainu creation myth, the universe is made up of six skies and six worlds.  At the top one would find Kamui the Great God, with the lesser gods below him, and demons could be found in the lowest levels. 

 
Kamui the Great God and the Water Wagtail

Ainu Creation
In the beginning the universe was a slimy ooze on the back of a giant trout.  Nothing could live here.  In the dark fog of the lower skies were the demons.  In the high skies, where the stars shone and the clouds drifted, were the lower gods.  In the highest skies, surrounded by mighty metal walls and a single iron gate, was Kamui the Great God and his servants.
Kamui made the world a great round ocean which sat atop the back of a giant trout.  This giant trough sucks in the ocean and spits it back out, creating the tides.  His every movement brings an earthquake.

One day Kamui looked down upon this watery world he had created and decided that something more should be done.  So he sent down a water wagtail to do the work. 
 
 

Water Wagtail (Restrike Etching) by Winifred Austen
The wagtail arrived and was confronted with a mess.  He was unsure how he should proceed.  After much deliberation, the wagtail fluttered his wings, dragging mud and sand from the waters.  He tramped it down with his feet and tail, creating dry land.  Soon islands began to emerge from the ocean.  Even today, the wagtail is still at work, beating the ground with his tail. The world that Kamui and the water wagtail had created was so beautiful that the animals that lived in the sky begged Kamui to allow them to live there.  Apart from these sky animals who were given permission to live on the beautiful world, Kamui created other beings.  The first people were the Ainu.  Their bodies were made of earth, their hair of chickenweed, and their spines made of willow sticks.  Then Kamui sent the Divine Man, Aioina, to teach the people how to hunt and cook.

The Japanese or Shinto creation myth is contained within two important sources: the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, commissioned by Emperor Gemmyo and written by O no Yasumuro in 712, and the Nihongi, or Chronicles of Japan, which dates to 720 and was also written by O no Yasumuuro.  Both sources were influenced by Chinese beliefs and reflect the animistic Shinto religion.  The Kojiki and Nihongi provide a three-tiered cosmology: Heaven, the World, and the Underworld.  Izanami and Izanagi, the central figures of the following creation myth, are considered by many to personify the Chinese yin and yang.

According to the Kojiki, there was only chaos at the beginning of time.  Upon the separation of Heaven and Earth the Three High Deities created Izanami, meaning Female who Inspires, and Izanagi, meaning Male who Invites.  These were the first ancestors who would be the makers and the basis of all creation.  Entering the light, Izanagi washed his eyes, releasing the sun and the moon, and bathed in the primordial sea, releasing the gods of the earth and sky.

The creation myth described in the Nihongi is more complex than the myth contained within the Kojiki.


Izanagi and Izanami Shape the World

 
In the chaos which was before the beginning, three distinguish and invisible deities emerged on the Plain of Heaven.  They were Ame-No-Minaka-Nushi-No-Kami, Taka-Mi-Musubi-No-Kami, and Kami-Musubi-No-Kami.  After them came many other generations of gods, and the last of them were Izanagi and Izanami, who were brother and sister.
At this point the earth was young and without form – nothing more than a bed of reeds afloat on the primordial ocean.  Izanagi and Izanami were chosen by the other gods to give this floating world a shape and they were given a magical jewelled spear to aid them in their task.
Izanagi and Izanami by LazyYukki
Izanagi and Izanami took this magical jewelled spear and, upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven, they dipped it into the ocean and began to stir.  The water began to congeal and crystals began to form.  When the two lifted the spear out of the water, droplets of brine dripped from the spear and transformed into the first dry land, known as Onokoro, meaning naturally coagulated.
Descending to Onokoro, Izanagi and Izanami joined to become husband and wife.  Here they created the other islands of Japan and brought forth the gods who would rule the natural world.  From the womb of Izanami came the god of wind, the god of mountains, the god of trees, and many other divine beings.  Sadly the birth of Hi-Nu-Kagu-Tsuchi, the god of fire, was too much for Izanami.  His passage into the world was so fiery that he burned her body and she died.
Izanami descended into the underworld of the dead, Yomi, while Izanagi remained above, mourning the loss of his sister and wife.  He wept so much that his tears transformed into the goddess Moaning-river.  When his tears ran dry, Izanagi decided to travel to Yomi to bring back Izanami.  At the entrance of Yomi Izanami told Izanagi that she could not return, for she had already consumed the food of the underworld.  She begged Izanagi not to enter the underworld of the dead and to not look at her in this place, but Izanagi would not listen.  When he looked upon his wife he was horrified, for she revealed herself as a rotting, decomposing and worm-eaten corpse, watched over by the Eight Thunders which had emerged from her body when she died.
Izanami by Noxypia*
Humiliated that her husband should see her thusly, Izanami sent the demons of the underworld after Izanagi.  Izanagi fled, chased by the Hags of Hell, the Eight Thunders, and the Soldiers of Hell.  Somehow he managed to reach the gates to the upper world.  Here he plucked three peaches which he three at the demons soldiers, and this enabled him to make his escape.
Back in the upper world, Izanagi threw himself into the ocean to cleanse himself of the underworld.  He washed his left eye, and Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, emerged.  Izanagi sent her to the Plain of Heaven.  He washed his right eye and Tsuki-Yumi, god of the moon, emerged.  Izanagi sent him to the Kingdom of Night.  Then he washed his nose and Susano-Wo, god of storms, emerged, who Izanagi gave to the Plain of the Seas.
And so Izanagi lived on in the realm of the living, while Izanami became a goddess of the dead.  From then until time reaches its end, the two have agreed to remain forever apart.

Some versions of this myth have a distinct Chinese influence.  It is, however, distinctly Japanese due to its focus on formality a taboos within relationships between men and women.  It also forms the basis of the relationship between the emperor and Amaterasu

Izanami and Izanagi Shape the World: Version 2
 
Izanagi and Izanami by lady-voldything
In the beginning, Heaven and Earth, the In (yin) and Yo (yang) were one.  There was only the egg-like chaos which held the seeds of creation.  The pure parts of the mass were Heaven, while the heavier parts of the mass were Earth, so Heaven rose while the islands of the Earth began to form.  Between the pure Heaven and the heavier Earth a strange plantlike form evolved into a great god and he was followed by two other gods, all formed by the will of Heaven.  After this, six kami, or deities, formed, and then came Izanami and Izanagi.
Amaterasu by JessiBeans
These two wandered the Earth and pushed the great jewelled spear of Heaven into the sea and began to stir.  As they lifted the great jewelled spear from the water, the liquid which had collected at the tip of the spear formed the island Onogoro-jima, meaning Spontaneously Conceived Island.  Izanami and Izanagi descended onto the island and built a land where Onogoro-jima was its central pillar.
Now Izanami and Izanagi wished to marry and came up with a plan where each would travel in opposite directions around the axle of the world which was the central pillar until they met again.  When they met, Izanami said, ‘What a beautiful youth I have met.’  Yet Izanagi objected to having not been the first to speak and so the process began again.  This time, upon their meeting, Izanagi said, ‘What a beautiful maiden I have met.’  Izanagi wanted to know how Izanami’s body was and she told him that a part of her was empty; a part which was the very basis of her feminity.  Izanagi said that a part of his body was excessive and was the very basis of his masculinity.  They both thought that their masculine and feminine parts might be joined and that this might make procreation possible.  And so they became one as man and wife. 
 From their union came islands and they had soon created the Great Eight Island Country (Japan), along with Amaterasu, or Ohohiro-me-no muchi, the sun goddess and queen of the universe.  Amaterasu was so radiant that Izanami and Izanagi sent her to Heaven where she could rule.  Then they brought the moon god, who would be their daughter’s consort, into being.  Some of their children were dangerous, especially the Impetuous One who was the god of fire.  The first they exiled to Yomi, the underworld, and the second burned his mother to death, although she first brought Midzuhano-me, the water goddess, and Haniyama-hime, the earth goddess into being.
Distraught by the loss of his wife, Izanagi went to Yomi to search for her.  But he was too late and she had already eaten the food of the underworld.  While Izanami ordered her husband not to look upon her, Izanagi lit a torch and saw that his wife was decomposing.
Izanami pursues Izanagi from the land of the dead.
Angered by Izanagi’s disregard of her wished, Izanami and the Ugly Females of Yomi, who were the Furies, chased Izanagi back to the land’s entrance.  While Izanagi had escaped, he was plagued by bad luck for he had been to the land of the dead.  After cleansing himself in the sacred water of the sea, Izanagi hid himself away on a faraway island for the rest of his days, while Izanami became queen of the underworld.





While the myth of Izanami and Izanagi is the main creation myth of the Japanese people, there are other myths for every new territory discovered to explain outstanding features in the landscape, such as the hills, rocks, trees, and freshwaters.  Sometimes these new territories were said to be formed as a refuge for gods or great heroes.  The island of Enoshima was said to be created as a reward for the sea goddess Benten, who stopped a dragon from devouring all of the children.  Other myths involve

Benten Goddess of the Sea
legendary people creating new landforms with unusual methods.  For example, Omi-tsu-mi, the ruler of Izumo used a rope to enlarge his land.  Izamo was situated on a narrow strip of land which was separated from Japan by a mountain range.  Omi-tsu-mi tied one end of rope to a mountain and the other to islands within the Sea of Japan.  His people pulled the rope and managed to pull off chunks of land from the islands and attached them to the coast of Izumo.

That’s all for today.  Next time we will look at the creation mythology of India.

 

 

Useful Resources
Hamlyn History: Myths Retold by Diana Ferguson
Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia by David Adams Leeming
Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky by TamraAndrews
Japanese Mythology A to Z by Jeremy Roberts