The August Ravages of His Impetuous-Male-Augustness

03 February 2014 Comments Off on The August Ravages of His Impetuous-Male-Augustness

to my first column of the year! Before we get down to the story proper, I want to note that the unsightly-looking word salad that desecrates (here I had intended to write “decorates” but was foiled by a Freudian slip, and I can’t bring myself to change it back) the top of this page is a real, honest-to-goodness chapter title from the Chamberlain translation of the Kojiki—a translation that I despise with fervent passion. Chamberlain, you see, has a penchant for “translating” names by breaking them down into their individual components and stringing together the literal meanings of every single element, which invariably creates an august garbled mess of august nonsense that is mentally (and augustly, no doubt) taxing to read. His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness here is Susano’o, whom my last column had left just after his creation from the netherworld-corrupted snot of He-who-invi… er, I mean Izanagi. I swear, I’m going to learn Japanese just so that I won’t have to deal with this translation (but at least it beats the papyrus of Ani, whose word is truth, which describes the desired afterlife of the Theban scribe Ani, whose word is truth, in excruciatingly repetitive detail, until you start itching to strangle that thrice-damned Ani, whose word is truth, and his entire family, whose words presumably are also truth).

I digress. In any case, by the command of Izanagi, the newly-created goddess Amaterasu is given domain of the day, her brother Tsukuyomi receives rule over the night (and is promptly forgotten), and the storm-god Susano-o gets the seas in his portfolio. Susano’o is not interested in divine governorship, however: he voices his desire to visit his deceased mother, Izanami, in the underworld (he does this in typical Susano’o fashion, by rampaging around in a godly temper tantrum that entices evil gods of every sort to join his company and creates countless disasters in his wake). Izanagi hears this, and is remarkably indifferent to his son’s plight: Sure, says he, if you aren’t going to do your appointed job, then I’ve no further use for you. He then expels his son from the heavens. (I’m really liking Izanagi’s approach to parenting.)

Before taking his leave, however, Susano’o seeks audience with his sister, who is rightfully doubtful about his intentions—who is to say that Susano’o isn’t after her throne? (Now here’s an interesting parallel with Greek myths, which also feature a sea-god who covets the position of a sky-god—I guess Amaterasu knows her comparative mythology.) They have a little god-creating ceremony to prove their benign intent, which ends with the victory of Susano’o (or at least so he convinces himself, because the act was in fact a gesture of goodwill rather than a creation contest).

Amaterasu then learns firsthand that letting Susano’o win contests is not a good thing to do, as the storm god’s idea of a victory celebration involves messing up rice plots, ruining irrigation channels and throwing his feces into his sister’s palace (here Amaterasu tries to defend her brother by claiming that the lumps of divine excrement are in fact not feces, but the semi-solid balls of vomit that Susano’o produces regularly during his bouts of drunkenness, and frankly I am not sure I could come up with a flimsier excuse). But even the sun goddess’s patience finally wears out when he shows up at her house and throws a flayed horse at her (I can just see him rushing into the place, bloody horse carcass slung over his shoulder, and yelling, “Think fast!” before chucking it), which startles her maidservants so much that a couple of them accidentally impale themselves on the spindles of their spinning-wheels. Amaterasu, rightly deciding that Japanese mythology is too crazy to be bothered with, then locks herself in her house, causing an eternal night to fall upon the heavens (because she’s, you know, the sun). Susano’o, for his part, finds himself on the fast track to earthly exile.

Down in the land of Japan, Susano’o quickly learns that his rampages can be directed to a higher purpose: two elderly land deities ask him to slay an eight-headed snake that ate seven of their daughters and now demands the last one—so mighty is this serpent, say they, that its body fills eight valleys and coils around eight hills, and they are powerless before it. Susano’o accepts the quest and in return demands the hand of their daughter in marriage, and the couple is more than happy to oblige (although knowing Susano’o’s track record, I’d just take my chances with the snake). Susano’o then transforms the girl into a comb (told you, should’ve gone for the snake), places her in his hair (I don’t think Susano’o really understands this “marriage” thing), and rides gallantly to do battle with the eight-forked snake.

Wait…no, he does not do that. He orders the couple to brew eight barrels of their strongest liquor, offers this to the snake, and saws off its heads one by one after the poor creature has drunk itself into a stupor. After hacking through the heads, he moves on to the tails (better to cut them all off, you can never be too sure with multi-headed serpents), and on the fourth tail he finds a sword, which he dedicates to his sister in order to buy his ticket back to the heavens.

This sword is one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, without which the reigning Emperor cannot be considered legitimate. It also gets lost all the time, but that’s a story for another column.