Think of Japan, and specific images will come to mind: Mt. Fuji, red tori gates, geisha under parasols. You may even be familiar with the meoto iwa, the wedded rocks off the coast of Ise.
Being familiar with them wouldn’t be a surprise. The rocks commemorate the marriage of the deities believed to have created Japan––Izanagi-no-Mikoto (He-Who-Invites) and Izanami-no-Mikoto (She-Who-Invites).
Their story, first described in the Kojiki, or Record of Ancient Matters, is vaguely similar to Adam and Eve’s. The heavenly gods created a single man and woman and sent them to a vast, sea-covered world, charging them with “curdling” the drifting lands upon it. They handed them a jewel-covered spear, and Izanagi and Izanami dipped it into the water, stirring the massive cauldron until salt water that dripped off the spear formed the original islands of Japan.
If this story sounds vaguely sexual, it’s intended that way. Izanagi and Izanami’s union, far from the modesty of Adam and Eve before the forbidden fruit, were quick to have intercourse, and that act is so important to the story that it has never been reformed, despite all of the moral and religious changes Japan has gone through since 712CE.
One translator offers the following passage:
They descended onto this island from Heaven, and erected the pillar Ama-no-Mihashira and built a large palace.
Then, he asked his younger-sister Izanami-no-Mikoto, “How is your body formed?” and she answered, “My body has already formed, but has one insufficient region.”
So Izanaki-no-Mikoto said, “My body has already formed, and has one surplus region, and so I would like to insert your insufficient region with my surplus region, and give birth to the soil. How about bearing?” and Izanami-no-Mikoto answered, “That’s good.”
So Izanaki-no-Mikoto said, “If so, let us meet and have conjugal intercourse after going around this heavenly-pillar.”
They promised so, and he said at once, “Thou, go around from the right and meet me. I will go around from the left and meet you.”
When they went around and met, Izanami-no-Mikoto said first, “Oh, what a splendid man!” and next, Izanaki-no-Mikoto said, “Oh, what a splendid woman!”
But after finishing saying so each, he said to his younger-sister, “It is not good that woman spoke first.”
Now here we are given the first transgression, and like Eve, this mythology lays blame Izanami. The two have their first child, Hiruko the Leech-Child, and he is so deformed that they send him down the river in a raft (he also symbolizes an island which Japan had long considered its territory, but not part of Japan). Then, they try to have another child, but this one is also deformed, and they repeat the process.
In heartache, they go to the heavenly bodies who created them and ask for the reason for their ill luck. The gods inform them that Izanami should not have spoken first, and have them redo their wedding vows, with Izanagi speaking first. In this, it is ordained that Izanami, and all women, should fall behind their husband.
The next time they have intercourse, they gave birth to Awaji, then Shikoku, and the rest of the Great Eight Islands, and then, still more, until Izanagi gave birth to a total of fourteen islands and seventeen deities. (Strong woman!) However, the last child, the incarnation of fire, burned Izanami, and she fell ill soon after and died.
Izanagi was so destroyed by this news that he killed the child immediately by beheading him, and from the Fire Deity’s blood still more deities were born.
So far, the story has focused on the creation of Japan, and the god and goddess that first made the islands of Japan. So why write about Izanami at all for Monster Mondays?
Well, her story doesn’t end there.
Izanagi, after killing their last child, was determined to see his wife again, and take her from the underworld Yomi. He traveled into the depths of the dark caves looking for her. However, by the time he found her, Izanami lamented that it was too late: she had already eaten the foods of the underworld, and could not return.
Izanagi refused to accept this, and coerced Izanami into trying. She agreed, on the condition that he allow her to walk behind him (sound familiar?) until they crossed the barrier. She made him swear to not look back over his shoulder.
I’m sure you can guess what happens from here.
Izanami, fully transformed into a rotting corpse by the foods of the underworld, is outraged when Izanagi breaks his promise. She takes after him, intending to pull him into the underworld with her. But Izanagi is is faster. He exits the cave and places a boulder in front, blocking Izanami’s escape.
In a rage, Izanami sends ghoul women and demons after Izanagi, swearing that she will kill five hundred souls in the living world a day until he is caught. Izanagi counters that he will create a thousand new lives a day in return.
And so death and petulance come into the world by the very mother who created it. Izanami’s story is a tragic one, and yet her story is echoed in archetypes across the world: the ruined mother, the rotting beauty. In some sense, she also shows the replaced lover (Izanagi later remarries) and even the harsh feelings of divorce. Her story arc begins with her as virgin goddess, and ends with her a decomposing monster. How far one can fall.
What other mythologies did this story remind you of? Perhaps some of you were reminded of the story of Orpheus going to retrieve his wife from Hades?