Izanagi and Izanami: Creators of Japan
by Signe Jorgenson and Sara Opsteen
Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto are two of the primary kami found in ancient Shinto mythology. The divine siblings are the deities of the terrestrial creation myth, whereby the lands and all the creatures that inhabit them came into being. Specifically, they are honored as the originators of the islands of Japan. (Ono 4). While they star in the same creation story and both play essential parts in the generation of beings, they also have different roles and responsibilities. The myth focuses on the things they create together, but it also allows each of the kami to have an individual role in the mythology.
The names of these kami are probably derived from the old Japanese verb root, izanafu, meaning "to invite," an implicit reference to the mutual "invitations" that they extended to each other prior to the ritual acts of sacred intercourse by which they created the visible universe (Kojiki 18, note 8). The goddess Izanami's name is commonly translated from the Japanese as "The Female Who Invites." Alternately, however, her name has sometimes been rendered as "The Female Who Is Invited," in contrast to the name of Izanagi, which is always translated as "The Male Who Invites." In any case, by far the more prevalent rendering of Izanami's name is as "The Female Who Invites" (Kitagawa 143). We shall see shortly that the question of whether Izanami should have actively "invited," or waited modestly until being "invited by" her celestial mate, would have major consequences for the creation of the world.
The primordial deities in the sky who preceded the pair in existence ordered Izanagi and Izanami to go down to earth to make something useful of the vast terrestrial realm. But at that time there was still nothing down there to sustain them or even provide a platform for their creative mission. While standing on the floating bridge of heaven, the pair looked down upon the face of the earth and pondered whether or not a potential country was beneath them. Higher still above them, the primordial deities realized that there actually was no place for their emissaries to land, so they cast down to them a magnificent jeweled spear. Izanagi thrust the jewel-spear of heaven down into the ocean and stirred. With a "curdle-curdle" sound, he stirred up the brine of the ocean, and when he lifted the spear the brine coagulated and dripped off. It soon hardened and formed the island of Onogoro ("spontaneously-congealing") island in Japan. This mythical island, supposedly located somewhere off the northeastern coast of today's Shikoku, became Izanagi's and Izanami's home (Kojiki 20, note 5, and 22, note 5).
After settling down in Onogoro, Izanagi invited Izanami to describe how her body was formed. She said, "My body in its thriving grows, but there is one part that does not grow together." Izanagi replied, "My body in its thriving also grows, but there is one part that grows in excess. Therefore, would it not seem proper that I should introduce the part of my body in excess into the part of your body that does not grow together, and so procreate territories?" Izanami said, "It would be well" (Kojiki 20; Nihongi 14; see also Campbell 467).
Izanagi and Izanami proceeded to perform a marriage ritual in which they walked around a pillar, he moving to the left and she to the right. When they met on the other side, Izanami spoke first, saying: "Ah! What a fair and lovely youth!" To which Izanagi replied: "Ah! What a fair and lovely maiden!" Despite the gracious exchange of words, however, Izanagi was concerned about a perceived lapse in the appropriate etiquette. In the Nihongi version of the narrative, he said, "I am a man, and by right should have spoken first. How is it that on the contrary thou, a woman, shouldst have been the first to speak?" (Nihongi 13). Nevertheless, they then consummated their relationship. Soon after, Izanami gave birth to a loathsome leech child, which the disgusted parents sent off in a basket into the ocean.
Izanagi was convinced that their first child was not a success because of Izanami's breach of proper decorum. The divine couple conferred with the Heavenly Kami above, who performed divination and confirmed that this failure was indeed because Izanami had spoken first. The creator kami then had to return to the central pillar on the island of Onogoro and repeat the marriage ceremony. This time Izanagi began, saying, "Ah! What a fair and lovely maiden!" To which Izanami appropriately replied, "Ah! What a fair and lovely youth!" After this new exchange Izanagi and Izanami united once again and gave birth to a total of fourteen islands and thirty-five kami.
During the birthing of Kagu-Tsuchi-no-Kami, the fire god, Izanami was so badly burned that she took sick and eventually stopped moving. This was the first instance of death in the history of the universe. Izanagi was devastated by the tragic loss and exclaimed, "Oh! Thine Augustness my lovely younger sister! Oh! That I should have exchanged thee for this single child!" (Kojiki 33). With that he crept around her inert body, to her head resting against her august pillow, and to her feet, crying and weeping uncontrollably. The Crying-Weeping-Female Deity arose out of his tears. After this, he took his beloved Izanami and buried her. According to the Kojiki account, her grave was located on a mountain named Hiba, which lay at the boundary of the Land of Izumo and the Land of Hahaki (identity unknown). The Nihongi, however, identifies her final resting place as the village of Arima in Kumano (Kojiki 33; Nihongi 21).
Following this tragedy, Izanagi was in utter despair at the loss of his beloved wife and sister. Drawing his saber sword, named Heavenly or Majestic Point-Blade-Extended, he cut the head off of his child, Kagu-Tsuchi. From the blood that was clinging to the sword were born numerous deities associated with mountains, rocks, sharp snapping noises, and fire (Kojiki 35-7; Nihongi 23). Perhaps volcanoes, of which there are many in Japan, are intended.
Izanagi was desperate to find Izanami so he followed her into the land of Yomi-no-kuni, the region of death in the underworld. This is the world of ghosts, restless spirits, pollution, and darkness (Ono 102). Izanagi was desperate for Izanami's return and frantically searched for her. When he finally came across her in Yomi, he greeted her with excitement, saying, "Thine Augustness my lovely younger sister! The lands that I and thou made are not yet finished making; so come back" (Kojiki 38).
Izanami told him that she would like to go back to the upper world with him, but that since she had already "eaten the food of Yomi," her ability to return with him was uncertain. She asked for time to consult with the deities of the underworld, and made him promise not follow her or look upon her. For a long time Izanagi waited. (How long, the texts do not say, but in view of the character of mythical time, it may have been weeks or months.) Finally, when she still didn't come back, he lit his comb and went looking for her. Eventually, in one of the darkest regions of Yomi, the light of his blazing comb fell upon Izanami's decomposing body. At this juncture, both he and she experienced a tremendous shock. He turned to her and exclaimed, "Nay! I have come unawares to a hideous and polluted land." And she replied, "Why didst thou not observe that which I charged thee? Now I am put to shame" (Nihongi 24-5). Furious at this ultimate humiliation, Izanami starting chasing Izanagi through the vast corridors of the underworld.
Izanagi ran to escape from the cave and Izanami sent the eight Ugly Females of Yomi to destroy him. Izanagi, while in flight, tore off his black headdress and threw it on the ground toward his pursuers. When it touched the ground it immediately turned into a bunch of grapes that the females were able to feast upon. This delayed them somewhat, but when they finished eating they continued to chase Izanagi.
He then grabbed the many-toothed comb from his hair and threw it at them. It immediately transformed into bamboo spouts. Again, the Ugly Females of Yomi paused to consume them, and this gave Izanagi just enough time to widen the distance between him and them. He kept running, but again his pursuers closed in on him. According to the Nihongi version, Izanagi stopped the Ugly Females by urinating against a large tree, creating a river that kept them at bay (Nihongi 25). Before his pursuers could cross the river he reached the Even Pass of Yomi. It was here that Izanami herself finally caught up with him. Then Izanagi took an enormous boulder and blocked the path with it. After doing so he faced Izanami on the other side of the barrier and proclaimed the words of divorce (Nihongi 25).
According to the Kojiki rendition of the story, the number of Izanagi's pursuers included, in addition to the eight Thunder Deities, fifteen hundred Yomi warriors. In this version he found three peaches that were growing at the base of the cavern when he reached the Even Pass of Yomi. Picking these peaches, he hurled them at Izanami's cohorts, knocking them over. The warriors of Yomi fled back into the caves. Izanagi said to the peaches, "Like as ye have helped me, so must ye help all living people in the Central Land of Reed Plains [Japan] when they shall fall into troublous circumstances and be harassed" (Kojiki 40).
Whichever version of the story one follows, it conveys an uncanny quality that is almost unparalleled in world mythology. In the words of Lafcadio Hearn, a noted scholar of Shinto:
Feeling ashamed and polluted from what he had just passed through, Izanagi decided to purify himself. He said, "Having gone to Yomi! A hideous and filthy place, it is meet that I should cleanse my body from its pollutions" (Nihongi 26). "So I will perform the purification of my august person" (Kojiki 44). Izanagi then went to the plain of Ahagi at Tachibana and purified himself. When he was about to wash away the impurities he said, "The upper stream is too rapid and the lower stream is too sluggish. I will wash in the middle stream" (Nihongi 26). Through his purification, Izanagi created between nine and fourteen deities, depending on which source one consults.
Izanagi then cleansed his left eye, thereby producing the deity Amaterasu Omi-Kami. Following that, he washed his right eye and produced the deity Tsukiyomi no Mikoto. Finally, he washed his nose, creating the god Susano-o no Mikoto. (It is worth noting, however, that some versions of the creation represented Izanami and Izanagi as together generating Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi, and Susano-o. In these accounts, they did so before Izanami received her mortal wound in the process of giving birth to Kagu-Tsuchi. See the Nihongi 18-19.) In any case, each of these new deities was entrusted with a specific task. According to the Nihongi version, Izanagi commanded, "Do thou, Amaterasu no Oho-kami, rule the plain of High Heaven: do thou, Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, rule the eight-hundred-fold tides of the ocean plain: do thou, Susano-o no Mikoto, rule the world" (Nihongi 28). As goddess of the sun, it made eminent good sense for Amaterasu to be entrusted with the rule of the sky. Presumably Tsukiyomi, kami of the moon, received dominion over the ocean because of his connection with the pull of the tides. Somewhat more puzzling, however, was Susano-o's assignment of authority over the land. (This was a function that he was not destined to fulfill.) The account in the Kojiki assigns the roles somewhat differently: To Amaterasu, Izanagi said: "Do Thine Augustness rule the Plain-of-High-Heaven." His words to Tsukiyomi were: "Do Thine Augustness rule the Dominion of the Night." To Susano-o he said: "Do Thine Augustness rule the Sea-Plain" (Kojiki 50). The latter assignment is more consistent with Susano-o's generally recognized character as the god of the storms and of the sea.
After the purification process Izanagi was ecstatic. He rejoiced and said, "I, begetting child after child, have at my final begetting gotten three illustrious children" (Kojiki 50). There was a problem with one of the deities, Susano-o no Mikoto. He always sobbed out of despair. Izanagi asked him why he was continually crying. Susano-o told Izanagi that he missed his mother and wished to follow her into the land of Yomi. Izanagi became angry and said, "Go, even as thy heart bids thee," thus driving Susano-o away (Nihongi, 28).
At the conclusion of these events, Izanagi's divine task had finally been accomplished after much hard work. One version of the myth says that then he built himself an "abode of gloom" in Ahaji, where he was forever encompassed in silence as a hermit. Another account says that once Izanagi's task was completed he ascended into heaven and reported his mission. After doing so, he lived in a smaller palace of the sun, the equivalent of a prince's dwelling (Nihongi 34).
As we have seen above, there are several versions of this story. It is told in both the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), dated 712 C.E., and in the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), dated 720 C.E. The latter text often contains several variant accounts, so that in all we usually have between four and six versions of the creations myths. Probably these variances reflect different oral traditions that later were gathered together and congealed into the written texts we have today. Yet although the details of the creation story are slightly different in each version, the overall meaning of the story is reasonably consistent. Minor variations do not affect the overall significance of the outcome.
A brief analytic review of Izanagi's and Izanami's respective roles in the creation story leads to some interesting speculations. For example, one can speculate that these two divine ancestors of humankind parallel Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Bible. Both of these couples were the first to procreate sexually. Additionally, both were guilty of misconduct by consciously or unconsciously violating the proper order of things. Izanami broke the proper rules of decorum when she spoke out of turn in her marriage ritual. (Similarly, Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.) Izanagi offended against the principles of propriety when he looked back at Izanami after having promised not to do so. (Similarly, Adam ate the fruit that Eve brought to him, even though he knew that it had been proscribed by God.) These are just a few examples of how the deeds of Izanagi and Izanami relate to the corresponding actions of the First Pair in the biblical scriptures. Could it be that both traditions wanted to express that the flaws in creation had resulted from avoidable errors produced by the original prototypes of human existence? Were they both exploring the limits of moral responsibility within the scope of a divinely instituted natural order?
Interestingly (and unlike the Hebrew bible), the Japanese scriptures represent Izanagi as having been able to reproduce by himself. J.W.T. Mason suggests that this procreative activity was a vain effort to recover his deceased wife (53). This implies that, because Izanagi felt alone and sorrowful without Izanami, he created more offspring to keep himself occupied. One may see here signs of psychological meditation on the experience of bereavement and loss as sources of procreation and parental love. Does the desire for children derive partly from a wish to compensate for the inevitability of death?
Alternatively, these offspring may have given Izanagi hope that if Izanami could see his success she would be persuaded to return from Yomi to join him. It may also have been that procreation helped Izanagi to heal the sorrow that resulted from Izanami's death. With or without Izanami, Izanagi proved to be a great success and was able to produce important and influential deities, especially Amaterasu, Susano-o, and Tsukiyomi. The latter kami all became major deities who ruled over Japan.
By examining Izanami's role in the creation myth, one can come to many conclusions about what the myth may imply. For example, Izanami is declared responsible for the leech child. Her boldness -- the fact that she, the female kami, had the audacity to speak first during the ritual, before the male kami spoke -- yielded negative results. In order to produce a child free of defects, she was required to allow Izanagi to speak first. This suggests that females are somehow subordinate to males. Additionally, it implies that women ought to allow men to be in control. It also sets males up as being inherently more important than their female counterparts. (Note, however, that Amaterasu herself would later play a role that was by no means subordinate in her interactions with her fractious brother Susano-o. Shinto mythology evidently conveys psychologically mixed messages in this respect.)
Izanami is known as the kami of death, for obvious reasons. As Ian Reader says in Religion in Contemporary Japan, Izanami illustrates the confusion and commotion associated with death, especially "when it occurs outside the apparently natural order, suddenly, violently, or early, involving an abrupt rupture of the harmonious balance of the physical and spiritual. It can be a radical disruption of the flow of life, a threat to the existence and well-being of survivors" (Reader 43). Izanami's death left Izanagi distraught, and his turmoil represents the archetypal anguish of all human beings when confronted with the loss of a loved one.
Her death also affected Susano-o, who was at least symbolically and perhaps even literally her youngest son. So traumatized was this orphaned kami that he was unable to govern the earth (or the ocean), a task assigned to him by his departing father. Izanagi's and Susano-o's pain mirrors human grief. The Great Mother kami's death is complicated because it is startling and unexpected -- Izanami was never expected to die and be completely removed from the earth. This is, of course, a reflection of death as it occurs in human life. Death is often a surprise and frequently intrudes on life. It comes when it is least expected. Izanami's death shows that life is full of surprises and that the shape of human existence is continually changing. Indeed, it may not be too much to read this myth as an attempt to find an interpretive framework through which the early Japanese people sought to explain, and come to terms with, the necessity of death and bereavement.
Izanami's death also serves to illustrate the closeness that exists between human beings and the kami. Not only does Izanami die just as human beings die, but her body also decomposes as human bodies do. Reader says, "The closeness of humans and kami has invested kami with many human traits. They are not immune from the human pains of death and decay" (Reader 26). Again, this serves to show that the kami mirror human beings in many ways.
It may seem strange that Izanami is never allowed to return from Yomi, even briefly. Floyd Ross speculates that her return from Yomi may have been a part of the mythology in Japanese prehistoric times; but he also says that if it was ever a part of the story, it was lost before the myth was recorded (Ross 24). There is no real evidence to suggest that this story ever did, in fact, include Izanami's return; but the hypothesis is based on similar myths from other traditions. There is a well-known parallel in Greek mythology about a deity who dies and goes into the underworld, but is eventually able to return due to the redemptive power of love. This parallel is worth noting, especially because some scholars of mythology believe there may once have been a far-flung circumpolar culture that penetrated as far west as Northern Europe and as far east as North America (Campbell 464-5). Could it be that the similarities represent more than just circumstantial resemblances, but may actually point to cross-cultural influences that occurred in prehistoric times?
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (who represented the earth's fertility among other things). Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone. Demeter looked all over for Persephone but could not find her. Eventually she learned that her daughter was being held against her will in the land of the dead. Because Demeter was so distraught the earth underwent a drought, the year's crops failed, and the human population suffered greatly. Finally Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to the earth and Hades complied. However, he slipped Persephone a pomegranate seed before she left the underworld. Because she ate the pomegranate seed, Persephone was required to return to Hades for several months out of every year. (Note again the curious motif concerning the effects of eating the food of the underworld, even in miniscule amounts.) When Persephone would go back to the underworld every year Demeter would become distressed and, consequently, the earth would turn barren. Only on Persephone's return would Demeter allow the earth to flourish again. This was the Greek explanation not only for the changing of the seasons, but also for the possibility of life after death.
In Shinto, Izanami never assumed this redemptive role as a model of resurrection. Rather, she was permanently confined to Yomi. Though it might have been narratively and symbolically tempting to allow her to return from the underworld, as least on a temporary or partial basis, nothing like that happened. It is interesting that the Japanese mythology does not take this direction. Instead, Shinto expresses its hope and love of life in spite of death, but not in denial of death.
Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto are two of the most important kami in the Shinto religion. They play crucial roles in the rich creation mythology. While they work together as a pair, they also serve separate functions. Izanagi and Izanami are truly fascinating deities.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. New York: Viking Penguin, 1962. Campbell's English rendering of the cited passage from the Kojiki (page 467) supplements Basil Hall Chamberlain's prudishly obscure Latin translation.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1959.
Kitagawa, Joseph M. On Understading Japanese Religion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Kojiki: Record of Ancient Matters (c. 712 CE). Translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1981.
Mason, Joseph W.T. The Meaning of Shinto: The Primæval Foundation of Creative Spirit in Modern Japan. Port Washington, New York: Kennkat Press Inc., 1967.
Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697 (c. 720 CE). Translated by W.G. Aston. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1956.
Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: The Kami Way. Rutland, Vermont: Bridgeway Press, 1962.
Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.
Ross, Floyd Hiatt. Shinto: The Way of Japan. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1965.
Web Site Links
"Izanami, Izanagi, and the Birth of the Gods," from Ancient Japan: Shinto Creation Stories , by Richard Hooker. Available on line: http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/ANCJAPAN/CREAT.HTM.
Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters (complete), translated by B.H. Chamberlain. Available on line: http://www2.plala.or.jp/wani-san/kojiki.html.
Shinto Sacred Texts, by J.B. Hare. Available on line: http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/index.htm
Includes excerpts from the Nihongi.
Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto, from Basic Terms of Shinto. Available on line: http://www2.kokugakuin.ac.jp/ijcc/wp/bts/index.html
Japanese Myth Homepage, by Cycle's Square. Available on line: http://www.st.rim.or.jp/~cycle/myrefE.HTML.
Last updated: November 16, 2008
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