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The Land of the Dead – International Motifs in the Oldest Work of Japanese Literature

Danijela Vasić

Résumés

Il existe dans le Kojiki (712), la plus ancienne œuvre littéraire du Japon, une abondance de motifs que l’on peut retrouver dans les cultures de nombreux peuples dans le monde entier. Cet article traite des motifs internationaux tissés dans deux mythes du premier tome, formant une image poétique du Pays des morts, la partie souterraine d’une structure cosmique tripartite. Sont abordés, entre autres, le motif largement connu de Perséphone, le motif orphique ou encore le motif de la fuite du Pays des morts.

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Texte intégral

1The Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) is the oldest extant work of Japanese literature. It was written in 712AD with an aim to show the Imperial family’s legitimacy to the people and prove the Emperor’s divine origin. Court scientist Oo no Yasumaro edited the Kojiki on the basis of a rich oral tradition, ancient myths, tales, legends and songs, in addition to the Japanese Emperors’ genealogies. The Kojiki consists of three volumes. The first volume describes the creation of the world and Japan’s origins; the second volume includes the period from the legendary Emperor Jimmu to the Emperor Ojin (according to tradition, from 600 BC to AD 310); whereas the third presents the time from the Emperor Nintoku to the Empress Suiko (from 313 to 628). Apart from treating the Japanese people’s original cultural heritage, this rich work is also of vital interest to many students thanks to its numerous international motifs. Such universal themes and motifs prove interesting for comparative and typological study, and are found in the cultures of people worldwide, which certainly had no contact with ancient Japan, in particular Serbian folk tradition.

  • 1  Chinese reading of the Japanese word kami no michi, meaning “the way of the gods.”

2The worldview represented in the Kojiki is founded on the ancient polytheistic religion, Shinto,1 which is integrated into Japanese culture. This autochthonous animist religion primarily rests on the belief that every segment of nature contains a kami, i.e. a god, that is, a spirit. That also means that the gods of the Japanese pantheon (the Kojiki presents them as genealogically related anthropomorphic characters) in fact personify the concrete natural elements, various human activities and imaginary concepts. The phenomenon personified by a kami is visible in its own name. We can find progenitors among the gods in question – the demiurges, cultural heroes, and tricksters, who have an inherent capacity of alternatively creating and disorganizing.

  • 2  Cf. Meletinski, E.M., Poetika mita (Мелетинский, Е. М., Поэтика мифа, 1976), Belgrade, 1986, p. 21 (...)
  • 3  In Japan eight is a holy number denoting multitude, prosperity and fortune, and is constantly pres (...)
  • 4  It is common in mythological systems to refer to “earth, the abode of men, placed between the ‘upp (...)

3The kami live in heaven, on earth and also inhabit the underworld. That implies that ancient Japanese thought is characterized by the trichotomic structural scheme of the universe,2 with the celestial, earthly and underworldly spheres. The celestial sphere is represented by the Plain of High Heaven. It generates the celestial gods who number eight million in total.3 They are presided by the supreme deity of the Japanese pantheon, the Great Sun Goddess Amaterasu. The central sphere is imagined as Middle Earth overgrown with reeds.4 It is inhabited by earthly gods, mostly arrogant and disobedient rulers, who later vest their authority in celestial gods, more precisely, to the descendant of the sun goddess, from whom all later Japanese emperors derive. The third cosmic level – the netherworld, is embodied as the Land of Night, for which some of the celestial gods leave.

4The first kami are single, i.e. they have no match for themselves, and they symbolize every step in the process of cosmic evolution. After them, divine couples originate, including the primeval couple of gods – demiurges, Izanaki and Izanami, and the process of insular and divine creation continues through their sexual congress. Having given birth to the last in the series of gods – the god of fire, Izanami falls gravely ill and dies. The Kojiki presents that as her departure for the Land of Night (Yomi no Kuni), i.e. the underworld of the dead. Before the goddess Izanami, single demiurgical gods would disappear after fulfilling their cosmogonal role, but they subsequently remained in heaven. Izanami is the first said to have died and gone to the world of the dead.

  • 5  Kojiki, Jodai kayo, The Collected Works of Classic Japanese Literature, Vol. I, ed. Asao Hagivara (...)

5The god Izanaki cannot reconcile himself to the death of his beloved and departs after her. On reaching the gates of her palace, he calls to her to come back to complete the earth they were creating, but the goddess reprimands him for not coming earlier, for she has already tasted the food of the dead. However, she does promise him to talk to the god of night and asks him not to watch her. When he becomes bored waiting, Izanaki chips off a tooth from the end of the sacred comb, tucked at the queue on the left side of his head and lights a flame. Then he enters the palace and sees a dismal sight: maggots creeping over her corpse and eight gods of thunder on her body. Disgusted by the sight, he runs away. Izanami first sends hags to pursue him. Izanaki stalls them by throwing a vine wreath from his hair, which immediately grows into wild grapes which they eat. Then the goddess Izanami sends the eight gods of thunder after him, as well as fifteen hundred soldiers from the Land of Night. Brandishing his divine sword behind him, Izanaki arrives at Hira hill on the very border of the Land of Night. There he finds a peach tree, picks three fruits and throws them at his pursuers, thus stopping them. After that, the goddess Izanami herself takes up the pursuit. Izanaki blocks her way up Hira hill with a huge rock, they confront each other, and pronounce the formula of divorce. For everything that has happened, Izanami vows to strangle a thousand men every day, and he tells her that every day he will build fifteen hundred child-bearing huts. That is the very reason for a thousand deaths and fifteen hundred births a day. In that way the goddess Izanami becomes the Great Goddess of the Land of Night.5

6This brief survey of the narrative line offers us an insight according to which the Kojiki has an abundance of similarities to the familiar myths of neighboring cultures of Southeast Asian countries, but also to the traditions of the peoples living in distant regions without any contact with ancient Japan. They primarily include the developed ideas and motifs of the underworld of the dead.

  • 6  The god Ookuninushi (the god-creator of Earth) is the supreme god in one of the three complex myth (...)

7However, the myth of the gods Izanaki and Izanami is not the only one that mentions the world of the dead. The son of the goddess Izanami – the god of storm and natural forces, Take Haya Susanoo, later becomes the principal chthonic deity. The god Ookuninushi6 arrives in his realm, one of the cultural heroes – tricksters in the Kojiki.

  • 7  Kodjiki 92, pp. 92-113.

8Ookuninushi is a servant to his eighty wanton brothers who humiliate him all the time and even kill on two occasions, but his mother succeeds in reviving him. In order to preserve him, she sends him to the Underworld of Hard Sand (Ne no Katasu), to the god Susanoo. There Ookuninushi falls in love with Susanoo’s daughter Suseribime, and accordingly Susanoo puts him to a test with various labors. The first night he sends him to sleep in a cave with snakes, and the next night to the cave with wasps and centipedes. The hero manages to survive with the help of magic scarves that he received from Suseribime. Subsequently Susanoo releases a swishing arrow into the field, and Ookuninushi saves himself from the fire by solving the magic riddle asked by a mouse, and brings back Susanoo’s arrow. Finally Ookuninushi steals Susanoo’s symbols of sacral power (the sword of life, bow and arrow of life and a jewel-studded heavenly lyre) and runs away with the goddess Suseribime. Susanoo chases them all the way to Hira hill on the border of the Land of the Dead, then stops, shouting out instructions of how to defeat his brothers and begin creating the earth.7 In that way, Ookuninushi, the celestial god who was initially a victim of his wanton brothers, becomes the first celestial god who also passed through the nether-worldly sphere, to rule the earthly afterwards.

9The plot of both myths is set in the land of the dead, a place with miraculous flora and fauna. The first myth makes mention of the bamboo into which Izanaki’s comb turns in the blink of an eye. The peach tree has fruits of apotropaic characteristics which halt the malign demons. In the other myth Susanoo sets fire to the field and sends Ookuninushi there, where he is assisted by mice in solving the required tasks and thus saves himself. The inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are anthropomorphic characters who live in palaces, move around, feed, clash mutually and obey the commands of their supreme deity. In other words, they continue doing what they did in the “upper” world.

10Despite these similarities, the image of the land of the dead in the mythological story of the gods Izanaki and Izanami differs considerably from the image of the land of the dead in which Ookuninushi arrives. In the story of the god Ookuninushi, the idea of the land of the dead parallels the idea of the Plain of High Heaven, but also the idea of the Middle Earth grown in reed, from which a conclusion may be drawn that in ancient Japanese consciousness all three spheres (celestial, earthly and underworldly) resemble one another. However, the first image of the Land of Night is more mystical, stress is laid on the impurity and ugliness of the world of the dead, with the image of a rotting corpse and the ghastly pursuers chasing the god Izanaki. Although the characters of underworldly deities are not developed, we can assume by the aspect of Izanami’s body and by the pursuers she sends to chase her husband that those inhabitants are the horrible demons of chthonic character. Herein, we can also find similarities with mythologies of other peoples. The Land of the Dead is an embodiment of the impure and sinful, and the hags – ugly women from the Land of Night resemble, for example, Greek goddesses of revenge – the Erinyes, or the Roman Furies.

  • 8  Veselin Čajkanović (1881–1946) – Serbian classical scholar, religious history scholar, Greek and L (...)
  • 9  Cf. Čajkanović, Veselin, Stara srpska religija i mitologija (Ancient Serbian Religion and Mytholog (...)
  • 10  Ibid., p. 87.

11The idea of the underground world of the dead is also the most widespread in cultures worldwide. The first Serbian historian of religion, Veselin Čajkanović,8 writes that the belief that the deceased live underground is quite logical from the viewpoint of primitive man because it is most natural to seek the dead where they were buried.9 However, unlike some other traditions, the Kojiki does not contain the idea of judgment day, nor does it contain the eschatological myths of punishment or reward after death. According to Čajkanović, the older phase of religion did not offer an idea of retribution and punishment in the other world, and it came on much later.10

  • 11  Cf. Čajkanović, Veselin, Studije iz srpske religije i folklora 1925-1942 (Studies in Serbian Relig (...)
  • 12  Stefanović–Karadžić, Vuk, Srpske narodne pripovjetke (Serbian Folk Stories), Belgrade, 1985 (herea (...)
  • 13  This and the following two stories in: Čajkanović, Veselin, Srpske narodne pripovetke (Serbian Fol (...)

12Čajkanović also talks about the descent into the netherworld, i.e. departure for the other world (katavasis), as being a motif undoubtedly belonging to the epic inventory of many peoples.11 Unlike other mythologies, Sumerian for example, which extensively treat the descent of the goddess Innana to the netherworld, Kojiki doesneith(.1/a> wi the oth thatugh thich the (.1/a> ThimfaupPrlie-boy w: everya cadoorhat the dero madiscer hafter heroing thf a toori, ansu is inund in the cuory scupe fiGder nowerse wel tcWep>

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  • 11<7span>  Cf. Čm>Seajkanović, VeSSRFem>, p. 87106
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  • 6<30span>  Cf. Čm>Seajkanović, VeSNPem>. nor t,owep. 595 ff

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  • 4<31span>  Ibid.>
  • 4<32span>  Ibid., p.40p. 87149

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  • 1137span>  Cf. Čm>SeMorfogija, p. 87.6 ff

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  • 4<38span>  Cf. Čm>SeHioriesja i kiesjeniambj, p. 87518

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  • 1139span>  Ibajkanović, VeSNPem>. nor t,owep. 595Althlrories inced bya torm the icoclectedns

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  • 7<43span>  IbHioriesja i kiesjeniambj, p. 87519

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    _, Stara srpska religija i mitologija, Belgrade, SKZ, BIGZ, Prosveta, Partenon, 1994.

    _, Studije iz srpske religije i folklora (1910–1924), Belgrade, SKZ, BIGZ, Prosveta, Partenon, 1994.

    _, Studije iz srpske religije i folklora (1925−1942), Belgrade, SKZ, BIGZ, Prosveta, Partenon, 1994.

    Ćorović, Vladimir, Sveti Sava u narodnom predanju, Belgrade, Izdanje Zadužbine Radojice J. Đurića, 1927.

    Elijade, Mirča and Kuliano, Joan, Vodič kroz svetske religije, Belgrade, Narodna knjiga, 1996.

    Filipović–Radulaški, Tatjana, Formalističko i strukturalističko tumačenje bajke, Belgrade, SANU, 1997.

    Kembel, Džozef, Heroj sa hiljadu lica, Novi Sad, Stylos, 2004.

    Kojiki, Jodai kayo, Sabrana dela japanske klasične književnosti, volume I, ed. Asao Hagivara et al., Tokyo, Shogakukan, 1992.

    Meletinski, E. M., Poetika mita, Belgrade, Nolit, 1976.

    Milošević–Đorđević, Nada, Od bajke do izreke, Belgrade, Društvo za srpski jezik i književnost Srbije, 2000.

    Prop, Vladimir J., Historijski korijeni bajke, Sarajevo, Svjetlost, 1990.

    _, Morfologija bajke, Belgrade, Prosveta, 1982.

    _, Stefanović–Karadžić, Vuk, Srpske narodne pripovjetke, Belgrade, Prosveta, Nolit, 1985.

    Veselovski, Aleksandar N., Istorijska poetika: Poetika sižea, Belgrade, Zepter Book World, 2005.

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Notes

1  Chinese reading of the Japanese word kami no michi, meaning “the way of the gods.”

2  Cf. Meletinski, E.M., Poetika mita (Мелетинский, Е. М., Поэтика мифа, 1976), Belgrade, 1986, p. 210.

3  In Japan eight is a holy number denoting multitude, prosperity and fortune, and is constantly present throughout the work. Eight million in fact means a numberless host.

4  It is common in mythological systems to refer to “earth, the abode of men, placed between the ‘upper’ and the ‘lower’ worlds, as the middle world, middle earth.” Cf. Poetika mita, p. 218.

5  Kojiki, Jodai kayo, The Collected Works of Classic Japanese Literature, Vol. I, ed. Asao Hagivara et al., Tokyo, 1992 (hereafter: Kojiki 92), pp. 64-68.

6  The god Ookuninushi (the god-creator of Earth) is the supreme god in one of the three complex mythological systems on the territory of today’s Japan, in the one based in Izumo. Later on, the god Ookuninushi becomes the main obstacle to the goddess Amaterasu’s successors in their taking over the power over the earthly sphere.

7  Kodjiki 92, pp. 92-113.

8  Veselin Čajkanović (1881–1946) – Serbian classical scholar, religious history scholar, Greek and Latin translator, and professor of comparative history of religion. He wrote several books, while numerous studies and articles remained scattered in various publications. His texts were published mainly in Serbian, Latin and German.

9  Cf. Čajkanović, Veselin, Stara srpska religija i mitologija (Ancient Serbian Religion and Mythology), Belgrade, SKZ, BIGZ, Prosveta, Partenon, 1994, p. 85.

10  Ibid., p. 87.

11  Cf. Čajkanović, Veselin, Studije iz srpske religije i folklora 1925-1942 (Studies in Serbian Religion and Folklore 1925-1942), Belgrade, 1994 (hereafter: Čajkanović, SSRF), pp. 515-518.

12  Stefanović–Karadžić, Vuk, Srpske narodne pripovjetke (Serbian Folk Stories), Belgrade, 1985 (hereafter: Vuk, SNP 85), p. 167.

13  This and the following two stories in: Čajkanović, Veselin, Srpske narodne pripovetke (Serbian Folk Stories), Belgrade, 1999 (hereafter: Čajkanović, SNP), pp. 26, 37 and 56.

14  I.e. Sveti Sava (cca 1175–1235) – the first arhibishop of Serbian Orthodox Church, diplomat, writer, law giver and founder of several important medieval monasteries. He is considered to be one of the most important figures of Serbian history and he is canonized and venerated by Serbian Orthodox Church. Serbian people celebrates him as the patron saint of education and medicine.

15  E.g. “Saint Sava, the Cat and the River Sava” in: Ćorović, Vladimir, Sveti Sava u narodnom predanju (Saint Sava in Folk Tradition), Belgrade, 1927, II-4, p. 47.

16  Child-bearing huts, ubuya, were built so that childbirth, in view of its impure nature, might be performed in isolation, which is a widespread custom with the Siberian Tungus as well as the remote parts of the Japanese archipelago.

17  Cf. Čajkanović, SSRF, p. 106.

18  Ibid.

19  Cf. Kembel, Džozef, Heroj sa hiljadu lica (Campbell, J., The Hero With the Thousand Faces, 1949), Novi Sad, 2004, pp. 183-185.

20  Veselovski, Aleksandar N., Istorijska poetika (Веселовский, А. Н., Историческая поэтикa, 1940), Belgrade, 2005, p. 605.

21  Poetika mita, p. 197.

22  Filipović–Radulaški, Tatjana, Formalističko i strukturalističko tumačenje bajke (Formalist and Structuralist Interpretation of the Folktale), Belgrade, 1997, p. 37.

23  Prop, Vladimir J., Morfologija bajke (Пропп, В. Ј., Морфология (волшебной) сказки, 1928), Belgrade, 1982, str. 62−65.

24  Heroj sa hiljadu lica, pp. 177−185.

25  Ibid.

26  Elijade, Mirča and Kuliano, Joan, Vodič kroz svetske religije (A Guide to World Religions), Belgrade, 1996, p. 260.

27  Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787–1864) – Serbian linguist and major reformer of the Serbian language. As one of the leading European philologists of his time, Karadžić reformed the Serbian literary language and standardized the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet by following strict phonemic principles using the German model. In addition to his linguistic reforms, Karadžić also made great contributions to folk literature, with peasant culture as the foundation. He collected several volumes of folk prose and poetry and he published the first dictionary of vernacular Serbian. Karadžić also translated the New Testament into Serbian.

28  Vuk, SNP 85 and Čajkanović, SNP.

29  Under the influence of Christianity, the traditional Serbian stylisation of the magic escape sometimes does not attribute magic powers and objects to the hero. Thus in legendary stories and traditions, instead of the hero, metamorphoses are performed through supernatural agency, i.e. God. For example, lightning from the sky burns the pursuing sorceress (Vuk, SNP 85: “The Devil’s Fantasy and God’s Power”, p. 138); the dewberry and the large body of water hinder pursuit (Sveti Sava u narodnom predanju: “Sveti Savo i Sveti Pavo” [“Saint Savo and Saint Pavo”], pp. 44 and 45; “Saint Sava, the Cat and the River Sava”, p. 48; “Saint Savo and Saint Pavo”, p 45). Besides, metamorphosis is occasionally the pivotal segment in traditions. There we most often deal with the one-way metamorphosis, without a possibility of assuming the original form. Such a metamorphosis usually has an etiological or cosmological function. For example, Saint Elias flees from his godchild, and when he smacks him with his rod, he turns into a lion. The saint then ties the lion to the earth’s pivot so that he might stand there until Judgement Day. – Čajkanović, SNP: “Saint Elias’ Godchild”, p. 363.

30  Cf. Čajkanović, SNP, notes, p. 595 ff.

31  Ibid., 21, pp. 77−79.

32  Ibid., 40, p. 149.

33  Čajkanović, SNP, “The Son and the Devil’s Trade”, p. 94, Vuk, SNP 85: “The Devil and His Apprentice”, p. 88.

34  Cf. Prop, Vladimir J., Historijski korijeni bajke (Пропп, В. Ј., Исторические корни волшебној сказки,1946), Sarajevo, 1990, p. 524.

35  Cf. Čajkanović, Veselin, Studije iz srpske religije i folklora (1910–1924), Belgrade, 1994.

36  Heroj sa hiljadu lica, p. 179.

37  Cf. Morfologija bajke, p. 86 ff.

38  Cf. Historijski korijeni bajke, p. 518.

39  Čajkanović, SNP, notes, p. 595. All stories cited are from this collection.

40  Čajkanović, SSRF, p. 461.

41  Čajkanović, Veselin, Rečnik srpskih narodnih verovanja o biljkama (A Dictionary of Serbian Popular Plant-Related Beliefs), Belgrade, 1994, p. 56.

42  Sveti Sava u narodnom predanju: “Savina mala” (Sava’s Quarter”), p. 187.

43  Historijski korijeni bajke, p. 519.

44  A vestige of Chinese belief, according to which three is a holy number.

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Référence électronique

Danijela Vasić, « The Land of the Dead – International Motifs in the Oldest Work of Japanese Literature », TRANS- [En ligne], 9 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 février 2010, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/trans/393 ; DOI : 10.4000/trans.393

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Auteur

Danijela Vasić

Danijela Vasić was born in Belgrade in 1966, and earned her B.A. and M.A. from the Group of Japanese Language and Literature of the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. She works as an assistant in the Japanese Group at the Oriental Department. Her fields of interest include the poetics of ancient Japanese literature and its comparative contexts in other peoples, primarily in Serbian. She has published several studies and papers in scientific and professional journals, as well as the book The Sun and the Sword – Japanese Myths in the Kojiki, Belgrade, Rad, 2008. She also translates literary texts from Japanese into Serbian. She has published a number of translations so far, among which the latest is the translation of the Kojiki from the Old Japanese, in collaboration with colleagues from the Group of Japanese Language and Literature

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