Far East Genesis

23 December 2013 Comments Off on Far East Genesis

tor gods that appear unbegotten from a shapeless void — and, like many other genesis myths, it all goes downhill from there. The first gods, you see, were not very intent on creating the rest of the universe (I don’t believe that they were very intent on anything at all, given how they went AWOL almost immediately after manifesting into being) and so passed the job down to the runts of their litter — the last-born of the first gods, a couple named Izanami and Izanagi, who were handed a purportedly magical spear and told to get to work. This week’s column will follow their misadventures.

The first of their many tribulations was to figure out how to get into this “world creation” business — the couple were then at around a pre-apple Adam and Eve level of innocence, and clearly not cut out for the task. Through trial and error, however, they manage to fish out an island with their spear, erect a pillar on it and come up with a ritual to bear children, which they learn from a pair of birds (as the existence of the Bennu-bird should tell you, birds predate gods). They perform the bird-ritual, and out comes their first child, a boneless monstrosity that they promptly throw out upon the ocean in a reed raft, where the pharaoh’s daughter finds him and…wait, wrong myth. Anyway, that’ll teach you to trust birds with your genesis rituals. Their second creation is an exceptionally ugly island, which they also dismiss, and, noticing that something’s amiss, they ascend back to the heavens for advice.

The problem, as it turns out, was that the goddess Izanami spoke first during the ritual, which was apparently blasphemous and against the natural order of things (misogyny, too, apparently predates gods). And sure enough, when they repeat the process with a reversed order of speaking, Izanami successfully gives birth to eight islands, which are certainly sane and reasonable sorts of objects for a goddess to beget. Pleased by their success, the couple subsequently go on a god-creating spree that is cut short by the conception of the fire-god Kagutsuchi — carrying the elemental embodiment of fire apparently isn’t good for anyone, gods included, and Izanami is burnt to death on the spot. Izanagi immediately intervenes to save his last child from feeling lifelong guilt over the event, by promptly cutting him into eight pieces — these eight pieces then become volcano-gods, whom I assume can combine back into Mecha-Kagutsuchi.  During her death, Izanami’s vomit, urine and feces also become gods, and I don’t want to know what these would combine back into.

Izanagi is not very happy with the state of affairs, and decides that it’s time to descend to the underworld and get his wife back (because that worked so well for Orpheus, right?). He performs remarkably well on the descent part, but soon notices that Izanami has consumed the food of the dead and is therefore currently busy being a maggot-ridden corpse, upon which he does something of a double take and bails right out while being chased by Izanami’s demonic underlings (at this point I can’t help but hear Yakety Sax in the background). He then seals up the entrance to the underworld for good measure, and Izanami, now trapped and understandably angry beyond measure, tells her husband that she will drag a thousand men to the underworld in revenge for his betrayal. Izanagi shouts back that he’ll just create fifteen hundred more each morn in return, and it is to him that we owe both our mortality and our overpopulation. Thanks a bunch, Izanagi.

Izanagi then washes his face in order to rid himself of the otherworldly taint, and like everything the couple ever do, this ends up creating more gods. From his left eye emerges Amaterasu, the sun-goddess and the ancestor of the Japanese imperial line, while the rather subdued moon-god Tsukuyomi, whose only claim to fame is killing the goddess Ukemochi (as the goddess of food, Ukemochi could create food from any part of her body, which unsettled Tsukuyomi to the point of murderous rage once she started vomiting fish and deer for a banquet), is created from his right. And from his nose comes the storm-god Susano’o, who deserves a column in his own right. Equipped with all the sensibility and patience of a hook-lipped rhinoceros (he even has the same way of marking his territory — one of the reasons that Susano’o got kicked out of the heavens was the whole defecating-into-irrigation-channels business), the storm-god would be right at home in the Greek pantheon, and his placement in Japanese mythology creates an awful lot of entertainment.

But that’s a story for another column.