Hiromi Itō & Jeffrey Angles: “Birthing the World,” from The Kojiki

Author note: The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) is the oldest chronicle ever produced in Japan, compiled in the years 711-12 CE by the court noble Ō no Yasumaro at the request of the Empress Genmei, who reigned 707 to 715 CE. It begins with the creation of the world, describing the actions of the gods and goddesses as they create the earth and society, then it connects these myths to the earliest history of the Japanese nation. Among the most important of these stories is the tale of Izanami and Izanagi, the first gods to descend to earth.  After giving birth to countless things, the goddess Izanami dies and goes to the underworld, but her bereaved partner Izanagi follows her there, much like Orpheus followed Eurydice into Hades in Greek mythology.  In the following retelling, the prominent Japanese feminist poet Hiromi Ito and her collaborator/translator, the bilingual poet Jeffrey Angles, retell the famous Izanami and Izanagi myth in a way that follows the Kojiki closely; however, they ascribe motivations to actions never completely explained in the original while also expanding on a handful of suggestive details in the plot.  The original ends with an explanation of why people are born and die; however, Ito and Angles see the tale as something more—a complicated, archetypal family drama that describes not only the world’s first primordial passions, jealousies, enmities, and disappointments, but also the ways those complicated tangles of feelings shape the world.  

 

            At the beginning of the world, the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami, who were both brother and sister, husband and wife, stood in the High Field of Heaven and used their jeweled spears to stir the primordial swirl of water below. As they pulled their spears back up, drops of salty water fell from them and congealed to became islands, and thus the earth was formed.

            The couple descended to earth and began to propagate.

            The couple had sex, and Izanami gave birth.

            Izanami gave birth to a malformed lump that was set adrift on the water.

            The couple had sex, and once again, Izanami gave birth.

            Izanami gave birth to an ugly island.

            The couple had sex, and once again, Izanami gave birth.

            Izanami gave birth to an island filled with beauty.

            And the couple kept having sex, and Izanami kept giving birth.

            Izanami gave birth to another island.

            Izanami gave birth to another island.

            Izanami gave birth to a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh and an eighth island.

            Izanami continued to have sex with Izanagi and gave birth over and over, the islands flowing from her loins like rain flowing from heaven.

            And when the land was done, the couple had sex and Izanami gave birth to the gods.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of great matters.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of rocky terrain.

            Izanami gave birth to the goddess whose home stood upon a great rock.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of entrances.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of thatch.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of rooves.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of wind.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of the sea.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of estuaries.

            Izanami gave birth to the goddess of river mouths.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of foam upon the sea and the goddess of foam upon the waves.

            Izanami gave birth to the god of the watershed of heaven and the goddess of the watershed of earth.

            Izanami continued to have sex with Izanagi and gave birth over and over, the gods and goddesses flowing from her loins like rain flowing from heaven.

            And when these gods were born, Izanami gave birth to the god of fire, who was so hot that he burned her vagina, which swelled and blistered and turned black from the flame.

            Izanami fell terribly ill, but even so, she continued to give birth.

            Izanami vomited. Her vomit became the god and goddess of metal ore.

            Izanami defecated. Her shit became the god and goddess of clay.

            Izanami pissed. Her urine became the god and goddess of gushing water and growth.

            Izanami was still creating when death claimed her, and she sank into Yomi, the dark realm that lies beyond the veil of this world.

            Distraught by the death of his beloved wife and sister, Izanagi wailed. You who’ve given birth to fourteen islands, to thirty-five gods and goddesses, how awful that you should die while this monstrous child lives!

            And after crawling around her corpse, pulling his hair, and gnashing his teeth, Izanagi buried her on top of a mountain between two provinces, so she could rest halfway between heaven and earth, between one land and another.

            Still, Izanagi was not content. Izanagi withdrew his sword and sliced off the head of his own son, the fire god, who had caused his wife so much suffering.

            Still, Izanagi was not content. Izanagi decided to do what no god nor mortal had ever done before. He decided to travel to Yomi to bring her back.

            Izanagi walked across provinces.

            Izanagi walked across rivers and streams.

            Izanagi walked across mountains and fields.

            Izanagi walked across plains covered in evergreens.

            Izanagi walked and walked until he reached the gently sloping road leading to Yomi.

            Izanagi walked down the gently sloping road, deeper and deeper, lower and lower, until he came to a great hall. There, he found the door that forms the boundary between this world and the next.

            From the opposite side of the door, Izanami heard her beloved husband and brother calling out to her.

            Dearest wife! Dearest sister! Please come back. You haven’t finished giving birth.

            You’ve given birth to many islands, many gods, and many goddesses, but there’s still a lot to do. Come! Come back with me!

            Izanami appeared at the door and spoke.

            Dearest husband! Dearest brother! I can’t believe it! Here you are, asking me to return so I can give birth again. Seeing you, I remember!

            I remember what it feels to have sex and give birth!

            I remember what it is to give birth and give birth and give birth some more.

            But then her voice grew dark. You’re too late. I’ve eaten here in this dark land. The food from this place taints everyone and holds us captive.

            Izanagi became despondent.

            Dearest wife! Dearest sister! Is that true? You can’t return?

            Izanami responded.

            Dearest husband! Dearest brother! Let me speak to the gods here, but whatever you do, don’t look at me in the meantime. Promise me.

            Izanagi promised.

            And upon hearing his vow, Izanami retreated beyond the door.

            Izanagi waited for Izanami to return.

            Izanagi waited and waited.

            Izanagi waited and waited and waited.

            Izanagi thought about the promise he had made.

            Izanagi waited and waited and waited and waited.

            Izanagi began to think his promise had been a mistake.

            What was she doing? Who was she with?

            Izanagi’s irritation and frustration grew until he could wait no more.

            Izanagi grew so impatient that he pulled out the great wooden comb he wore in his hair, lit it on fire, and opened the forbidden door.

            And there she was.

            Izanami.

            But not his Izanami.

            Her body had turned into a horrible, horrifying, heaving mass of maggots.

            And as if that wasn’t enough, eight gods of thunder were filling her, penetrating her, and taking what was left of her rotten, decomposing corpse.

            Her head was filled with great thunderbolts. She moaned in ecstasy.

            Her breast was filled with fiery thunderbolts. She moaned in ecstasy.

            Her belly was filled with black thunderbolts. She moaned in ecstasy.

            Her vagina was filled with jagged thunderbolts. She moaned in ecstasy.

            Her left hand was filled with young thunderbolts. She moaned in ecstasy.

            Her right hand was filled with earth-striking thunderbolts. She moaned in growing ecstasy.

            Her left leg was filled with thunderbolts that would split most peoples’ eardrums. She moaned in growing, mounting ecstasy.

            Her right leg was filled with thunderbolts that would knock most people to the ground. She moaned in growing, mounting, overwhelming ecstasy.

            Thunderbolts rushed through her, filling her, penetrating her, taking her rotten, decomposing, moaning corpse.

            At the sight of the eight gods of thunder penetrating her, Izanagi recoiled in horror.

            You’re not my wife! You’re not my sister! You’re not the venerable ancestor of all of the islands, gods, and goddesses!

            Izanami shouted back.

            Don’t you recognize me, my husband and brother? I’m the same Izanami you’ve loved for all these years. I’m the same Izanami that had sex with you over and over again, who suffered the pains of childbirth to create all the islands, gods, and goddesses that populate the earth. Now that I’m taking what little love I can find here in this dark world, are you really going to abandon me?

            Izanagi grew frightened and fled.

            Izanami pursued him and shouted.

            I gave birth to the world! And still you shame me!

            You shame me before the gods of Yomi!

            You shame me before all of the islands and gods and goddesses I created!

            You shame me before the world I created!

            I curse you. I curse the islands I gave birth to!

            I curse the gods and mortals that walk their surface!

            I curse the world beneath your feet!

            As Izanagi fled, Izanami summoned several foul-looking women from the land of Yomi and sent them chasing after him.

            As Izanagi fled, he pulled a grapevine that he had used to tie up his hair, and he threw it to the ground. From it emerged an entire vineyard. Some of the women who were hungry for earthly delights paused to pull the grapes from the vines to eat.

            As Izanagi fled, he shouted.

            Take that, you dirty, dirty, old, wrinkled wench!

            Your birthing days are over!

            You’ll never give birth again!

            You’ll never give birth again even if you try!

            All you’ll ever do is bleed!

            But still, Izanami continued to pursue him with the foul-looking women.

            As Izanagi fled, he pulled the bamboo comb that held the bundles of hair by his temples in place, and he threw it to the ground. From it emerged an entire grove of bamboo. Some of the foul-looking women who were hungry for earthly delights paused to pull up the bamboo shoots to eat.

            As Izanagi fled, he shouted.

            Take that, you foul-smelling wench!

            Your breath stinks!

            Your spit stinks!

            Your blood stinks!

            Your hair stinks!

            Your vagina stinks!

            Everything about you stinks!

            But still, Izanami continued to pursue him with the foul-looking women. This time, however, she was joined by her eight partners—the gods of thunder—and their armies.

            As Izanagi fled up the slope from Yomi, he grabbed three peaches from the trees growing there. Placing his faith in this fruit, known since the beginning of the time to ward off demons, Izanagi threw them, shouting at Izanami the whole time.

            Your hair has fallen out!

            Your teeth have fallen out!

            Your breasts are shriveled up!

            Your vagina is so loose it’s a wonder your uterus doesn’t fall right out!

            The peaches embedded themselves in her rotting corpse. All of the other gods and armies ran away except for Izanami. But still she continued to pursue him.

            Izanami grew closer.

            Izanami grew closer and closer.

            Izanami grew so close that Izanagi could smell the stench of her rotten flesh, the stench of her breath, the stench of her hair, the stench of her spit, the stench of her blood, the stench of her hair, and most of all, the stench of her vagina.

            Not knowing what else to do, he rolled a giant boulder to block the path out of Yomi into the mortal world. The boulder was so large that not even one thousand of the strongest men could possibly move it. In fact, the boulder is so large that it still sits there today, in exactly the same place between the two realms of existence.

            From the opposite sides of the boulder, the two shouted at one another.

            Izanagi shouted to Izanami, your beauty is gone!

            You’re nothing but a horrifying corpse!

            You’re nothing but rotten flesh!

            You’ll never give birth again!

            You’re of no use to me or the world any longer!

            Izanami shouted back at Izanagi, who are you to talk?

            Your cock is useless!

            Your cock won’t stand up!

            Your cock is the most pathetic, shriveled up thing in the world!

            Your cock will never produce anything ever again!

            Your cock has lost all its procreative power!

            Your cock is useless to me!

            Izanagi recoiled. Was this really happening?

            Izanami continued to shout.

            Your chest is the flattest one in the world!

            Your beard is the patchiest one in the world!

            Your eyes are the yellowest, cloudiest ones in the world!

            Your mouth is the most foul-smelling one in the world!

            Your cock is the most shriveled, miniscule, miserable, and powerless one in the world!

            Your cock will never create a thing! Ever!

            I know how to make you pay.

            Every day, I’ll reach from out from beyond the grave and strangle one thousand miserable mortals from your land.

            I’ll keep this up until all mortals have perished at my hands.

            I’ll keep this up until the very end of time itself.

            Horrified, Izanagi responded in the only way he could think of.

            You say that every day, you’ll reach out and strangle one thousand mortals.

            Well then, I’ll take on your sex.

            Every day, I’ll give birth to one and a half thousand people.

            I’ll keep this up until mortals spread to the ends of the earth you’ve created.

            I’ll keep this up until the very end of time itself.

            And with this, Izanami left the boulder at the boundary between worlds and walked to a stream to purify himself.

            And so it began.

            This is the reason that every day, a large number of mortals die.

            And this is the reason that every day, an even larger number of mortals is born into the world to replace them.

            Just as Izanagi had predicted, mortals continued to be born.

            And just as Izanagi had predicted, those mortals spread to the very ends of the earth.