Izanami and Izanagi: Myth of the Japanese Creation Gods

The Japanese creation myth: a few theoretical aspects.

Japanese mythology, like the mythologies of many other peoples, knows nothing about a creation by fiat, but postulates the origin of things in spontaneous generation and their development by generative succession.

The explanation of the origin of the universe through creation is grand; the myths of spontaneous generation and transformation are soothing. The former is monotheistic, for everything is made to depend on the will and power of one almighty creator; the latter is hylozoistic, or pantheistic, for all existences are credited with vitality inherent in themselves.

It was this primitive Japanese conception of things which manifested itself in Shinto animism and, later on, harmonized well with Buddhist pantheism.

Of course, there was a certain unlikeness between Shinto animism and Buddhist pan-psychism. The former posited metamorphosis by chance, or by the arbitrary will of a deity, whereas the latter explained every change by the law of causation, both physical and moral, and denied any change through chance.

Yet this theoretical difference offered no grave obstacle to a harmony between the two conceptions and the mythologies that grew out of them; the arbitrary metamorphosis of the Shinto conception was modified by the Buddhist conception of causal transtormation, and the latter was simply extended in the popular mind by a looser idea of causation.

In the end the combination of these two conceptions made universal the belief that everything is endowed with an innate vitality, and changes within itself as well as through external circumstances. The application of this idea to all existences gives us the key-note to all Japanese myths and tales.

The Story of Izanami and Izanagi

In the beginning, as the ancient records of Shinto tell us, there was chaos, like an ocean of oil. Out of the primeval chaos grew something like the sprout of a reed. It proved to be a deity who was called the Eternal-Ruling-Lord (Kuninotokotachi-no-Mikoto), and together with him were generated two deities, called respectively the High-Producing-god and the Divine-Producing-goddess.

We are not explicitly told that these two were husband and wife, yet most probably they were so conceived. At any rate these three are regarded as the original triad in the generation of gods, men and things.

But almost nothing further is heard about them, except that some clans claimed descent from one or another of them and that the High-Producing-god sometimes appears behind the Sun-goddess, as it he were her noumenon or associate.

The primeval triad is followed by a series of gods and goddesses, who seem to be thought of as couples and were probably personifications of germinating powers, such as mud, vapour and seeds. All these are said to have ” hidden themselves,” i.e. died, but not after the fashion of human mortality.

After a succession of these spontaneous generations and disappearances, a couple appeared who were destined to generate many things and many important gods.

They were the “Male-who-invites” (Izanagi) and the “Female-who-invites” (Izanami) and we must learn more about them.

The two deities were sent down to the world by “command of the celestial deities” in order to bring forth things on earth. They descended from their home by the “Floating Bridge of Heaven.”

The male deity groped through space with his sword, and the drops of salt water dripping from the tip of the sword coagulated themselves into a little islet, called Ono-koro, i.e. “Self-coagulating.” Upon that they landed and were married, after they had gone round the islet in opposite directions and met at the farther side.

The first child born to them was a miscarried creature, like a jelly-fish, on account of a misdemeanour of the goddess during the wedding ceremony. That child was thrown into the water.

Thereafter they begot many things, or deities, such as the sea, the waterfalls, the wind, the wood, the mountain, the field, etc.

It was by the power of the Wind-god that the primeval haze was dispersed and things stood forth distinctly.

The death of Izanami

After the birth of these and many other deities, including the islands of the Japanese archipelago (and, according to one version, also the rulers of the universe, the sun, the moon and the storm), the birth of the gods of fire proved fatal to the goddess, Izanami. Her death was not unlike that of a human being from a fever, and it may be called the first instance of human mortality. After death she descended into Hades.

The death of the mother goddess is the beginning of the antithesis between life and death, and of other cycles of similar contrasts, like that of light and darkness, of order and atrocity, etc.

The goddess Izanami died and descended to the Japanese Underworld, Yomotsu-kuni (“the Land of Gloom”). Her husband Izanagi, like Orpheus, followed her to her subterranean abode.

The goddess asked him not to look at her. Yet, being eager to see her, the husband lighted a little torch and, in the darkness of the pit, beheld the ugly, decaying figure of the goddess.

She was angry at her husband’s disobedience and, wishing to punish him by imprisoning him too in the Land of Gloom, she pursued him as he fled.

Izanami called together all the furies (Shikomé, ” the ugly females”) and ghosts of the place, and they nearly caught him, but Izanami threw behind him the wild grapes and bamboo shoots that grew on his comb, and the furies stayed to eat the fruits.

After several narrow escapes and extraordinary experiences, the male deity succeeded in reaching the boundary between the Underworld and the terrestrial world.

The furies and ghosts no longer pursued him, but the female deity came as far as the pass into the world. There the husband lifted a large rock and blocked up the opening that led to the upper world. However, a few demonic entities managed to escape before Izanagi had manged to close the gap, among them being Fujin and Raijin.

Then said the goddess in furious anger: “Henceforth I shall cause to die every day one thousand of thy people in thy realm.”

The god answered: “Then I shall give birth to one thousand and five hundred every day.”

The two deities thus came to a final breach, and from that day the births and deaths in this world are kept at the proportion named.

Through this breach between the original couple who had generated all things in the world came the division of the world between life and death.

The birth of the lesser gods

When the male deity succeeded in escaping capture by the spirits of darkness and death, he purified himself, according to the ancient custom, in a stream. The pollutions occasioned by his contact with death in the Land of Gloom were washed away one by one. From these stains came out various spirits of evil and also spirits of protection against ill, the deities of rapids, of whirlpools, etc.

The last born were the Sun-goddess, the “Heaven-illuminating Deity” (Ama-terasu Ōmikami), out of the Izanami’s left eye. The Moon-god, the “Guardian of the Moonlight Night” (Tsuki-yo-mi), came out of the right eye. Finally, the the Storm-god, the “Swift-impetuous Deity ” (Susa-no-wo), was born out of Izanami’s nostrils.

Of the three, the Moon-god dwindled into insignificance and the two others now began their contest.

Atlas Mythica

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