The Mysterious Kamisama of Japanese Mythology

A quick guide to the main players in the Japanese mythical pantheon (who also appear in the YA Science Fantasy series “Sword, Mirror, Jewel”).

                                                        Izanagi and Izanami

The ancient text known as the Kojiki tells us that the creator gods (or Kami), the male Izanagi and the female Izanami, stood upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven and looked down at the primal chaos beneath. With the sacred artifact known as the Heavenly Jeweled Spear, they reached down and stirred the formless matter below, dividing the mass into solid land and liquid ocean. This land was the first appearance of ancient Japan.

At first, the land was uninhabited, and so Izanagi and Izanami descended from heaven to make it their new home. There follows a charming story about their first attempt at what we would call married life. They caused a tree to form in the middle of the land, and play-acted a meeting as if they were strangers. Izanami walked around the tree one way, and Izanagi the other; when they met, Izanami declared – “How wonderful! Oh look, I’ve met such a handsome person!” or words to that effect.

Izanagi, however, was not impressed. He had wanted to speak first, because he thought the male had seniority. And so, the great span of Japanese mythology, legend and culture began with …a marital argument.

The two started their married life, but their first children – Hiruko and Awashima – were sickly and inferior to the Gods. They were both put into small boats and sent out into the sea; Hiruko eventually became the god Ebisu, and Awashima was transformed into one of Japan’s islands. Izanagi declared that the children were unhealthy because Izanami had broken etiquette by speaking first. He commanded his consort to walk around the tree again – and this time he spoke first, greeting Izanami and complementing her on her beauty. Thus was etiquette satisfied – and the female got to know who was boss.

Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to a large number of healthy children; some of these became the eight classical islands of Japan – Awaji, Iki, Kyushu, Oki, Sado, Shikoku, Tsushima and Yamato (in classical times, Hokkaido and Okinawa were not part of Japan). Others became the Eight Million Kami, who populate the mountains, lakes, rivers, hills, forests, every physical part of the country.

Tragedy struck when Izanami died giving birth to Kagutsuchi – the god of fire. In anger, Izanagi drew his sword and immediately slew Kagutsuchi, and Izanami was carried to the dark spaces beneath the world … the first occupant of Yoni, the land of the dead.

Izanagi was consumed with grief, and could not bear life without Izanami. He decided to undertake a journey into the spirit world to recover his wife. Rural folklore names the location of the entrance to the underworld as Mt. Hiba, at the border of what used to be called Izuno and Hoki, near the modern town of Higashi-Izumo in Shimane prefecture. This was the first story of transgression; a God had decided that the rules of life and death did not apply to him. And the result?

Izanagi followed her there through the catacombs of the underworld and found her surrounded by darkness. When Izanami realized that her lover had come looking for her, she pleaded with him not to look; but he couldn’t obey. He created a light to lead her out of the tunnels, and was immediately horrified by her hideously decomposed appearance. He fled – and his disobediance and desertion which enraged Izanami. She chased him through the underworld, but by a combination of cunning and brute force, Izanagi escaped.

We can see already lessons being taught here regarding the human condition, the cycle of death-rebirth-fertility, and parallels to the universal archetype of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here, Izanagi suffers loss. To banish that loss and to recover his love, he risks a journey into the underworld. But there are laws that cannot be broken; even a God, once dead, cannot return to the world and put everything back the way it used to be. This is perhaps the first attempt of Japanese civilization to come to terms with fertility, the laws of nature, the frailty of human life, and the finality of death.

                                          Amaterasu – Omikami, the Sun Goddess

Izanagi felt the need to purify himself after escaping from Yomi and his ordeals in the underworld. He washed his face, and from his right eye came forth Amaterasu-Omikami, goddess of the sun; from his left came Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, god of the moon; and from his nose came Susanoo-no-Mikoto, god of storms and the sea.

Amaterasu Omikami is one of the few global examples where the avatar of the sun is female. She is also the legendary ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family, as recorded in the Kojiki, and the grandmother of the first Emperor, Jimmu (Shinto belief gives Amaterasu as being the grandmother, but the Kojiki names four generations – so let’s just say that the Emperor was a descendant of the sun-goddess).

The heavenly order was shattered by a huge and seemingly irreconcilable argument between Amaterasu and her mischievous, delinquent brother. Susanoo thought Amaterasu had cheated him at a game of cards, and so in a fit of rage he threw a dead, flayed pony into her house. Amaterasu was inside the house sewing with a group of other goddesses, and Susanoo’s act of childish vandalism broke up the party and killed one of the goddesses. Amaterasu, shocked and disgusted by Susanoo’s actions, decided to cut herself off from all of her family. She left Heaven altogether, and hid herself in a cave.

The world was plunged into darkness; crops, animals, and the early humans were faced with extinction. The pantheon of Eight Million Kami proceeded to the cave, and begged Amaterasu to return, but she refused and would not open the rock door of the cave to admit any visitors or negotiators.

Finally, one of the Kami came forward to propose a bizarre and unlikely plan. This was Ame-no-Uzume, named in the Kojiki as the Heavenly-Alarming-Female, and subsequently known as the Goddess of Merriment. She said the best thing to do, when faced with catastrophe and possible extinction, is – to throw a party.

After having persuaded the legions of Kami to help her, she ordered a special mirror and a necklace studded with gorgeous jewels to be constructed. One version of the story, quoted in Myths and Legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis, describes the mirror as being made of “stars welded together”. That’s how awesome this myth is.

The party commenced, with the Eight Million Kami twanging away on the yamatogoto, a musical instrument made of six hunting bows lashed together. Ame-no-Uzume stood above the crowd and performed a dance so lewd and so provocative that the assembled Kami began to roar with laughter.

Amaterasu, inside the cave, tried to ignore the commotion until she could no longer contain her curiosity. She opened the rock door slightly to see what was happening – and was immediately transfixed by her own solar glory, in the mirror that the gods had placed in front of the door.

While, she stood there, dazed, one of the senior Kami – Ame-no-Tajikarawo-no-Mikoto – pulled her out of the cave and into the crowd, and quickly sealed the cave opening. Amaterasu found herself in the middle of the dancing, laughing Kami, who pleaded with her to restore light to the world. She agreed; and the Sun Goddess returned to her rightful place – the center of the sky.

This myth is just awesome on so many levels.

The shimenawa – the straw ropes decorated with lightning-bolt paper streamers called shide, used to demarcate sacred ground – are believed to originate in the ropes used to seal the cave, preventing Amaterasu from hiding again.

Ama-no-Uzume became a major Kami in the Shinto pantheon, and is credited with founding the Sarume Order of sacred festival dancers, and creating the ceremonial form of dance known as Kagura. In fact, some scholars regard Ama-no-Uzume as Japan’s strongest link to its roots in shamanistic possession and ecstatic dancing.

Having said that, it seems extraordinary that modern Japan has such a hostile attitude to exhibitions of public dancing. Tokyo’s police enforce archaic rules (dating back to just after WWII) that ban dancing in clubs after midnight – at the same time as the Government has introduced hip-hop dance classes in all state elementary schools. What gives?

                                           Susanoo-no-Mikoto the Storm God

As punishment for his taunting of the Sun Goddess, the Eight Million Kami commanded Susanoo to leave Heaven. He descended to Earth, assumed human form, and for an unknown number of years walked the earth as a mortal. His travels eventually brought him to a remote village, and a community living in grief and fear (also in Shimane prefecture).

When he enquired into the cause of the distress, one family told him that a monstrous, eight-headed serpent called Yamata no Orochi was terrorizing the mountain communities. It demanded human sacrifice, and had eaten all of the family’s daughters but one – the maiden who became known as Princess Kushi-inada. Susanoo, smitten by the maiden’s beauty, volunteered to kill the beast in return for her hand in marriage (as heroes are wont to do).

Susanoo did indeed slay the monster, but through stealth rather than divine power. He laid out eight giant casks of sake – one for each head – and waited in hiding for the Orochi to appear. The monster gorged itself on the alcohol until it lost consciousness, and didn’t resist when Susanoo severed each of its heads and disemboweled it. In the monster’s tail, he found a sword – and claimed it for his own. He named it Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven), and this, in time, was later named Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which roughly means Grass-Cutting Sword. He presented it to Amaterasu to apologize for his previous behavior and to ask for an end to their feud. His wish was granted, and Susanoo returned to heaven.

This sword, together with the mirror and jewel from the above legends, became the three Imperial Regalia of Japan that are still kept under conditions of supreme secrecy today (and give the trilogy its title).

                                       The Kami in Western Fiction

The Kami and the Sanshi no Jinigu have been used many times in western video games such as Ookami, but surprisingly little in western fiction. One exception is sequential art AKA graphic storytelling AKA comic books.

Marvel Comics have a long tradition of using figures from classical mythology as characters in the comic books. The first and most famous is Thor, Norse god of thunder and co-founder of The Avengers. They followed this with Hercules and the Greek pantheon, and have since gone on to Egyptian, Aztec, Oceanic – and Japanese. The Kami AKA the Amatsu-Kami have turned up as characters in Marvel Comics, specifically the Thor and Hercules comic books. The characters so far featured have been described by the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe as thus;

Izanagi, God of the Sky

Izanami, Goddess of the Earth

Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun

Tsukiyomi, God of the Moon

Susanoo, God of the Sea and Storms

Ame-no-Mi-Kumari, Goddess of Water

Kaminari, Goddess of Thunder and Lightning (an original creation of Marvel Comics)

Inari, God of Rice

Bishamon, God of War

Ebisu, God of Fortune

Ho-Ti, God of Happiness

Amatsu-Mikaboshi (a minor deity that Marvel Comics transform into a ‘God of Evil’).

Over in DC Comics, Susanoo-no-Mikoto has been a recurring character in the cosmology of the Vertigo imprint, specifically the Sandman and Lucifer books, written by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey respectively.

There is an interesting interpretation of Susanoo in the Season of Mists story arc in the Sandman series, written by Neil Gaiman and with art by Kelley Jones, George Pratt, Dan Vozzo, Todd Klein, and Dave McKean (among others).

To make a brief synopsis of the storyline, the Sandman (Morpheus, the King of Dreams) basically inherits the domain of Hell, after Lucifer turns his back on it and abdicates his position as Lord of the Underworld. Morpheus, not wishing to be saddled with such responsibility, decides to call an auction, with the keys to Hell going to the highest bidder. The participants in the auction are the demons themselves who want to make it a republic, the Lords of Order, the Lords of Chaos, and representatives from Norse, Egyptian and Japanese mythology, which exist as separate realities adjacent to the DC universe. Susanoo is the Japanese delegate.

Now I wouldn’t dream of telling you what happens at the end of the auction (it’s not what you’d expect!) but I will describe Susanoo’s key scene. In a private audience with the lord of dreams, he tells Morpheus his intentions for Hell. He states that the Gods of Nippon have adapted to changing ideas of religion and belief, and that they are expanding. They are assimilating other pantheons, other gods and other altars (he refers to Japanese businessmen buying up American and European icons, such as Marilyn Monroe memorabilia and paintings by Picasso and Van Gogh) and declares that the Kami wish to do the same with Hell – buy it up, and turn it into a model of Japanese efficiency.

This seems hilarious in hindsight, considering this was written in 1989/1990 – the era when sharp-suited Japanese executives were buying up land in California and Australia’s Gold Coast, and it looked as if the Japanese mega-corporations would take over the world. The next twenty-plus years saw the crash of Japan’s bubble economy and a prolonged recession that the nation has only recently shaken off. If there were a sequel to Season of Mists, how would Susanoo be portrayed now? As a down-sized, burnt-out homeless salaryman, living in a cardboard box somewhere in the underworld, dreaming of his glory days of smiling hostesses, endless banquets and bottomless expense accounts?

In general, through his mischievous behavior Susanoo fulfills the role of the trickster God, in the same company as Loki, Pan, Coyote, Ananzi and many others. For some time Susanoo wandered Japan as a god trapped in human form, interacting with others and intervening in human affairs when necessary. This is an intriguing concept that has been used as a plot device in western fiction over the years, most recently with Jehovah in Kevin Smith’s Dogma and with the sea goddess Calypso in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

The Mighty Thor is now a key character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – in a future Phase 5 or 6, will Ken Watanabe make his MCU debut as their version of Susanoo?

“Sword, Mirror, Jewel” is an action packed blending of ancient mythology and cutting-edge science … and it’s available here!



About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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