The Story of Izanagi and Izanami: A Japanese Creation Myth
In Japanese mythology, Izanagi and Izanami were a divine couple, brother and sister, who had a principle role in creating the islands of Japan and from whom many important and elemental kami (gods) had their birth. Their story is told in the 8th century CE Japanese compendium of mythology, the Kojiki.
The Birth of Izanami and Izanagi
Before the formation of the world, when the land was formless like a jellyfish, the first deities came into being at Takamagahara, the High Plain of Heaven.
Beginning with three primal kami: Amenominakanushi, Takamimusubi and Kamimusubi, seven successive generations of gods and goddesses came into being, the seventh generation consisting of the male kami Izanagi (he who invites) and the female kami Izanami (she who invites).
Ama no Nuboko The Jewelled Spear
The older generations of kami assigned Izanagi and Izanami the task of bringing order and structure to the shapeless chaos that was the world. To help them to accomplish this, the couple were given the jewelled spear called Ama no Nuboko.
From the Heavenly Floating Bridge, Izanagi and Izanami peered down at the inchoate mass below, not knowing how to begin the work of creation. Finally, they tried stirring the chaos with the point of the spear. As the spear was lifted back up, a drop fell from it creating the island of Onogoro. Izanagi and Izanami decided to make their home there and built a palace called the Eight Measure Palace. In the very centre of the palace stood a pillar, the Heavenly August Pillar.
Hiruko the Unfortunate Leech Child
Established in their new home, Izanami and Izanagi decided it was time to start a family. They circled the Heavenly August Pillar, Izanagi turning to the left while Izanami moved to the right, so they met each other coming round. In spontaneous delight, Izanami exclaimed, “What a fine young man!” “What a fine young woman!” said Izanagi in response. He then complained that Izanami should have left it to him to take the initiative.
Uncertain of what to do next, the couple received some advice from two helpful wagtails. In due course, Izanami gave birth to a son, Hiruko, but the child was without limbs and boneless - a leech child. The baby was placed on a boat made of reeds and abandoned to float away to his melancholy fate. Izanami and Izanagi tried a second time but, once again, their offspring was unsatisfactory.
The Creation of the Islands of Japan
Crestfallen, Izanami and Izanagi returned to Heaven to ask the elder kami where they had gone wrong. The gods confirmed Izanagi’s suspicion that Izanami had done wrong in greeting her husband first. It was unnatural for the female partner to take the initiative and this was why their offspring had been misshapen. With this in mind, the couple returned to their palace to try again. This time, when they circled the pillar, Izanagi greeted his wife first and she responded appropriately.
Soon after, Izanami gave birth successively to the islands of Awaji, Shikoku, Oki Kyushu and Tsushima. Last of all, she was delivered of the largest island, Honshu. The couple gave the land they had brought into being the name of Oyashimakumi, meaning the Land of Eight Great Islands. Following this, Izanami brought forth the smaller outlying islands.
The Birth of Kagutsuchi the Fire Kami and the Death of Izanami
Having given birth to the land, Izanami began to give birth to the kami that would give it shape. In turn, she brought forth the kami of the sea, of the wind, of trees and mountains and other natural manifestations. In giving birth to the kami of fire, Kagutsuchi, she was burned to death, despite her husband’s attempts to save her. As Izanami died, further kami were born from her body. Death and sorrow had also entered the world.
Grief-stricken, Izanagi wept and from his tears emanated further kami. Enraged, he cut off the head of Kagutsuchi, whose birth had killed his wife. Further offspring were born from his bloody sword.
Izanagi's Journey to Yomi, the House of the Dead
After grieving for Izanami a long time, Izanagi became determined to bring her back and set off for Yomi, the Land of the Dead. Eventually, after a long and perilous journey, Izanagi came to a great mansion guarded at the front by fearsome demons. Creeping in through a back entrance, Izanagi found his wife and there was a joyful reunion. Izanagi begged Izanami to return to the world with him, but she sadly replied that this was not possible as she had taken food while in Yomi. At Izanagi’s entreaty, however, she agreed to go and ask the resident kami if she could possibly go back with him.
Before she went, Izanami asked her husband to promise not to go right inside the mansion. He agreed, but, after a whole day had passed and she did not return Izunami could wait no longer and went inside the mansion, looking for her, using a tooth of his comb as a torch.
Wandering within the mansion by the frail light of his torch, Izunagi was horrified to come across the body of his wife, now apparent as just a rotten decaying corpse to which a number of recently born thunder-kami were still attached. In revulsion and terror, Izanagi turned to flee pursued by the spurned corpse of his wife, the thunder kami along with many warriors, and the hag of the House of the Dead.
After fighting off his pursuers, Izanagi managed to imprison Izanami in the House of the Dead by rolling up a huge rock to block the way. The entrance to Yomi, covered by the rock, is said to be Ifuya Pass, at Izumo. Thenceforth, Izanami became known as Yomotsu-o-kami, Goddess of the Dead.