Mar 28, 2015

The Age of the Gods: The Legendary History of Japan


Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave

Japanese mythology is collectively chronicled in the Kojiki, the oldest historical record written in Japan in 712 AD, and in the Nihon Shoki written in 720. As was common practice before the age of script, these tales were passed on through oral traditions—the Teiki and Kuji, among others—for generations before they were ever recorded. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki comprise the creation mythology of the Japanese and the Shinto religion, describing the formation of the heavens and the earth, the islands of Japan, and the creation of mankind.


Postscript of The Age of Gods, chapters from The Chronicles of Japan, 1286 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Kojiki commences with the Kamiyo, or Age of the Gods, an age which begins with a lifeless, silent universe. Sounds began to indicate the movement of particles throughout the vast, formless space. This movement resulted in light, which remained at the top of the universe. A cloud of particles beneath then formed Heaven, and the particles that could not rise created the Earth.
Three Deities then began the process of creation. Two “essences” also formed, Passive and Active, and became the ancestors of everything.

The next stage provides an account of the kami, or gods, known as the Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods. In total, there are 12 deities chronicled during this time period.

Izanagi and Izanami were the last generation of kami and the pair said to have created the Japanese islands, fourteen in all. According to mythology, they were tasked with making, consolidating, and giving “birth to this drifting land.” Looking down on the earth from a golden bridge in heaven, they dipped their jeweled spear—which they received from the gods before them—into the sea and the island of Onogo was formed (original names of some of the islands included Lovely-Princess, Prince-Good-Boiled-Rice, Brave-Good-Youth, Luxuriant-Sun-Youth, and Great-Lamato, the Luxuriant-Island-of-the-Dragonfly).
 
They descended upon the island and created a home there. On this island was located a great pillar, the August Pillar. In order to procreate, they parted and walked around the pillar, Izanagi from one direction and Izanami from the other. They met in the middle and there wooed one another, Izanami saying “Oh, what a comely young man,” to which Izanagi replied, “How delightfully, I have met a lovely maiden.” But the gods were not pleased that Izanami, being a woman, was the first to speak, and they cursed the couples’ offspring.
Hiroku, their first child, was said to have been hideous and cast out, and the subsequent children were also corrupted. The gods then explained the curse to Izanagi and Izanami, who subsequently took another trip around the pillar, this time Izanagi being the first to speak. The curse was lifted and the couple bore many offspring. 

Izanagi and Izanami. Painting by Kobayashi Eitaku, c. 1885. (Wikipedia)
First to be born were the Oyashimakuni, or the Land of Eight Great Islands, and then the six minor islands followed. Once this task was completed, the couple went on to create numerous kami (spirits or divine beings worshipped in Shintu).

The last kami born to the gods was Kagutsuchi, the fire god. He is said to have burnt his mother so severely during his arrival that she died as he slipped into the Land of Yomi, or the Japanese Hell.
 
Izanagi’s tears at Izanami’s death were the source of yet other deities. Izanagi, so angered at the sight of his infant son, took his sword and beheaded him. The blood that collected on this sword thus formed eight martial kami, and eight kami of mountain and iron were formed from the blood pooling from Kagutsuchi’s limbs.



The Land of Yomi and Enma, the King of Hell. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Fever, 1883. (Wikimedia Commons)

Izanagi followed his beloved to the underworld to rescue her, but he found nothing was left of her but a rotting, living corpse. He ran away in fear, and she is said to have cursed his retreat. “Every day I shall kill one thousand people in the lands we created,” to which he replied, “Every day I shall create one thousand five hundred people.”

The fire god was the father of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the Moon Goddess, and the God of Force, or Impetuous Male.
 
The Sun Goddess and the Impetuous Male carried on with creation by biting off parts of the jewels and swords they wore and blowing them away. This is how numerous other gods and goddesses were born, as well as the heads of clans and the rest of mankind. In fact, the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu (660 BCE), was considered a descendant of the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Historically, the nation’s emperors were generally considered to be descendants of the kami, or gods.



Detail of Emperor Jinmu - Stories from “Nihonki” (Chronicles of Japan), by Ginko Adachi. Woodblock print depicting legendary first emperor Jimmu (Wikimedia Commons)

Day and night are attributed to Tsukiyumi, the moon god, and Amaterasu, the sun goddess, as the constant bickering between the two led to an irreparable fight. They decided they could no longer look at each other and parted ways. At one point Amaterasu is said to have hidden in a cave, thus causing a constant darkness to fall over the earth. The other gods, in fear of the darkness, had to lure her out with a mirror.

What is most interesting about the Kamiyonanayo, or the Seven Generations, is that the last five of the seven are male deities betrothed to female deities whom are also their sisters; Izanami was the younger sister of Izanagi. Of course, incestuous relations and intermarriages among royalty were not considered novel in many western European countries, but this was not historically the case in Japanese culture.

Featured image: Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave (Wikimedia Commons)

Sources and Further Reading:


By E.C. Rammel
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