One barrier to understanding ancient texts, especially mythological texts, is that they come from a society that we cannot possibly reach back to and interact with except through these texts and what we know from anthropological/archaeological inference. The Kojiki is no exception
A lot of people are charmed and entranced when they first read the Japanese creation story in the Kojiki, how the kami Tamaka-no-Hara formed jellyfish like in the heavens, how Izanami and Izanagi, the first inhabitants of the new-created earth, splashed continents and islands onto the earth like a Jackson Polluck painting, but when they read what happens next, they are shocked.
Basically, after a hilariously frank passage in which Izanami and Izanagi discuss their genitalia and how to fit them together, they devise a courship ritual where they will walk around a pillar and greet each other on the other side. Izanami (the female kami of the two) speaks first, to which her husband Izanagi responds, “It is not right for a woman to speak first”. They consumate their love and a grotesque kami child is born to them, a punishment from the powers that bee for allowing Izanami to speak first in the ritual.
This strikes many as a blatently misogynistic stroke, but hear me out. Socieites write about their ideas only in terms that they understand. For example, when Shinto legends want to talk about the creation of the world, so they talk about the islands of Japan as if they were talking about the whole world. Likewise, when they want to talk about the interplay of the two natural energies (usually referred to with the Chinese terms Yin and Yang), they do so through the primary building block of their society, marriage and gender.
Izanami represents the Yin energy, dark,mellow, and earthy, while Izanagi represents the Yang energy, light, heavenly, and active. Logically, Izanagi should take the initiative in this situation, but when Izanami took it, things wer ethrown out of balance. These energies need not be gendered, because we live in a society where we acknowledge (to some degree) a specturm of genders (non binary, genderqueer, agender, ect.), ideas which would be for the most part foreign to the Japanese of the time. At least in the way that we understand them today. Ancient Japanese cultures may have had third genders similar to the cultures of the indigenous Americans (I don’t know for sure, I haven’t studied it), but by the time this legend was written down Japan had already established something of a patriarchy, so that’s why the gender language. Many ancient societies had the family or extended family unit as the basic unit of society, and those systems were exclusively based on gender and who-marries whom, so that’s what they used to describe these concepts.
(and yes I am aware that this image is from Naruto)
This means that this story has been used to justify misogyny and patriarchy, just like the thing about the Japanese islands was used to justify Imperialism, when Shinto in actuality works for the benefit of the ENTIRE WORLD as well as acknowledging fully the divine feminine. Hell, a couple chapters later in the Kojiki Ame-no-Uzume (a manifestation of the divine feminine) basically saves the world from destruction with her skill at dancing, and consequently one of the most beautiful and sacred practices at Shinto shrines (the sacred Kagura dance) is a privilege reserved only for women.
I think that we need to take a different look at thist story than before; the interpretation of myths varies widely depending on the interpreter and I think the story of Izanami and Izanagi is far more profound than we have realized. I see it as a tense jostling of love gone wrong, of misunderstanding and miscommunication resulting in deadly and tragic consequences; Izanami held up in her underworld prison and Izanagi severely tainted both by his contact with yomi and his sin of betraying his wife’s word, and Izanagi’s invention of the ritual bath (misogi) can be seen as our first attempt at trying to make sense of the mess we’ve created with our faults.
The incredible arc of the first book of the Kojiki, from the wonder of the creation to the brutal separation of Izanami and Izanagi, to the triumphant splendor of Amaterasu’s return from the cave, makes for a turbulently emotional and ultimately sublime progression through our attempts to understand and purify ourselves. If we understand the historical context, we can see through the perceived misogyny and nationalism that have tainted this text for so long and begin to understand its universality and its power.
That morning light, which brings warmth and life is Amaterasu, the benevolent Goddess of the sun. Universally, she is adored.
Less so are her brothers, namely Susano, bringer of storms, whose jealousy of his sister’s popularity drove him to burn her golden rice fields and scatter the sacred looms of her people. Grief stricken at the destruction, Amaterasu sealed herself inside a deep cavern. Her people suffered and the realm fell into crushing darkness.
Like his sister, Amaterasu, Susano was born to rule, but he was tempestuous, with a flaring anger, wicked tongue, and a penchant for destruction. Their father, Izanagi, would have none of it and decreed that Susano live in the Underworld. His mood dark at this news, Susano committed heinous acts of vandalism and murder. Acts that sent Amaterasu into shameful hiding.
At a river side, Susano ventured upon an elderly couple, weeping and cradling their young daughter. Eight children, they’d had once, but now only one remained; seven devoured by the eight-headed serpent. Susano was resolved. To atone for his crimes, to prove his father wrong, to better himself, Susano would slay this beast.
One by one, he chopped the eight necks, until only the wriggling tail remained. Sweeping his blade split the reptilian hide, leaving notches in his blade but revealing a brilliant sword inside: the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.
To his sister, he gave the blade. An act of atonement, but not an apology. His true nature would never change, but his intention could.