Table of Contents
Just like Zeus and Hera in Greek mythology, Odin and Frigg in Norse myths, and Osiris and Isis in Egypt, Izanagi and Izanami are the Father and Mother deities of Japanese Shintoism. They are the gods that created the islands of Japan as well as all the other kami gods, spirits, as well as the Japanese royal bloodlines.
Just like Shintoism itself, however, Izanami and Izanagi are far from stereotypical one-dimensional “creation myth” deities. Their story is a mix of tragedy, triumph, horror, life, and death, and perfectly showcases the morally ambiguous nature of the deities in Shintoism.
Who are Izanami and Izanagi?
Izanami’s and Izanagi’s names translate to She Who Invites (Izanami) and He Who Invites (Izanagi). As the creator deities of Shintoism, that is fitting but the pair are not actually the first kami or Gods To Come Into Existence.
- The Creation of the Universe
According to the Shinto myth about the creation of the Universe, all of existence was once empty and chaotic darkness, with only a few floating particles of light in it. Eventually, the floating lights were attracted to each other and started forming Takamagahara, or the Plain of High Heaven. After that, the remaining darkness and shadow also coalesced below Takamagahara and formed the Earth.
- The Kami are Born
Meanwhile, in Takamagahara, the first kami started to be born from the light. They were both genderless and dual-gendered and were called Kunitokotachi and Ame-no-Minakanushi. The pair quickly started procreating and created seven generations of other genderless deities.
The eighth generation, however, included a male and a female kami – the brother and sister pair Izanagi and Izanami. When their parents and grandparents saw the pair, they decided that Izanagi and Izanami were the perfect kami to shape and populate the Earth below Takamagahara.
And so, the two divine siblings descended down to the misshapen rock that was the Earth at the time, and got to work.
- The Creation of the World
Izanagi and Izanami weren’t given many tools when they were sent to Earth. All that their ancestral kami gave them was the jeweled spear Ame-no-Nuhoko. The two kami made good use of it, however. Izanagi used it to churn up the darkness on the Earth’s surface and create the seas and oceans. When he lifted the spear from the seas, the several drops of wet soil that dripped from it formed the first island of Japan. The two kami then descended from the sky and made their home on it.
Once on solid ground, the pair knew they had to marry and start procreating in order to create more islands and patches of land.
- Izanami and Izanagi Marry
The first marriage ritual they came up with was simple – they would walk in opposite directions around a pillar, greet each other, and proceed with intercourse. As they circled the pillar, Izanami was the one to first greet her brother as she exclaimed What a fine young man!
After the now-married pair were done consummating their marriage, their first child was born. It was born without bones, however, and the two kami had to put him in a basket and push him into the sea. They tried again but their second child was also born deformed.
- Redoing the Marriage Ritual
Crestfallen and confused, the two begged their ancestral kami for help. The kami told them that the reason for the deformities of their children was simple – Izanami and Izanagi had performed the marriage ritual incorrectly, as it was the man who had to first greet the woman. Apparently, incest was not considered as a possible cause of the problem.
The divine duo redid their marriage ritual by circling the pillar but this time Izanagi first greeted his sister by telling her What a fine young woman!
Their next attempt at procreation was much more successful and Izanami’s children were born well and healthy. The pair got down to business and started birthing both the islands/continents of the Earth as well as the kami gods who populated them.
That is, until one fatal birth.
Izanami and Izanagi in the Land of the Dead
Kagu-tsuchi, Kagutsuchi, or Hinokagatsuchi is the Shinto kami of fire and a son of Izanami and Izanagi. He’s also the kami whose birth caused Izanami’s death. The fire kami was not at fault, of course, as it was an unfortunate death at childbirth. Izanagi was upset at the death of his beloved wife. He killed the newborn child in anger, but from this death more deities were born.
Meanwhile, Izanami was buried on Mt. Hiba. However, Izanagi would not accept her death and decided to find her.
Devastated, Izanagi decided to go to Yomi, the Shinto land of the dead, and try to bring his wife back. The kami wondered the shadowy realm until he found his mate in the land of the dead, but he could only make out her form in the darkness. He asked Izanami to come back to the land of the living with him, but she told him that she had already eaten from the fruits of the shadowy realm and that he would have to wait for her until she had asked permission to leave.
Izanagi waited for his wife but his patience was running dry. He waited for as long as he could but he eventually decided to light a fire so he could see his wife.
He was revolted by what he saw. Izanami’s flesh had started decaying and had maggots crawling through it. To make matters worse, just as Izanagi looked at her, she gave birth to more of Izanagi’s children, with the two kami of thunder and wind, Raijin and Fujin respectively, being birthed from their mother’s rotting corpse.
Horrified beyond words, Izanagi turned away from his wife and started running toward the exit of Yomi. Izanami called out to her husband and begged him to wait for her, but he couldn’t stop. Furious that her husband had left her, Izanami ordered Raijin and Fujin to chase him and to wreak havoc upon the earth in her name.
Izanagi managed to get out of Yomi before his sons could catch up to him and blocked the exit with a giant rock. He then went to a nearby spring to try and cleanse himself in a purifying ritual.
Raijin and Fujin managed to get out of Yomi despite Izanagi’s blocking of the exit. Unable to locate him, however, the two simply started roaming the earth, creating thunderstorms and cyclones in their wake.
Meanwhile, Izanagi managed to cleanse himself in the spring and also gave birth to three more kami gods himself – the sun goddess Amaterasu, the moon god Tsukuyomi, and the god of sea storms Susanoo.
With Izanagi alone in the land of the living and creating more kami and humans by himself, he became the Shinto god of Creation. Meanwhile, literally left to rot in Yomi, Izanami became the goddess of death. Still furious at her husband, Izanami vowed to kill 1,000 humans every day. To counteract that, Izanagi vowed to create 1,500 humans every day.
Symbolism of Izanami and Izanagi
Given their dark tale, Izanami and Izanagi symbolize several important concepts.
First and foremost, they are the creator deities in Shintoism. All islands and continents, all other Earthly gods, and all people come from their flesh. It’s even said that the Emperors of Japan are direct descendants of these two kami.
It is interesting to note, however, that the Shinto creation myth specifically points out that Izanagi and Izanami are not the first gods to come into existence. In fact, they are the eighth generation of kami to be born in Takamagahara Plain of High Heaven with all their ancestors still living in the heavenly realm.
This is important because it shows that even the Father and Mother gods of Shintoism aren’t the first or the strongest gods. This underlines an important theme in Shintoism – the gods or kami of this religion aren’t Allpowerful or Omnipotent. There are many rules in Shintoism that allow humans to control even the most powerful kami such as Raijin, Fujin, and the other children of Izanami and Izanagi.
This shouldn’t detract from the divine pair’s obvious power, of course – if you can give birth to a continent you definitely deserve respect.
- Patriarchal Family Dynamic
Another small but curious symbolism of their story lies in the initial mismanaged wedding ritual. According to it, if the soon-to-be-wife speaks first during the wedding, the couple’s children will be born deformed. If the man speaks first, however, everything will be fine. This does inform the traditional patriarchal family dynamic in Japan.
The two kami’s tragic story in Yomi is their final major piece of symbolism. Izanagi can’t muster enough patience to trust his wife and he dooms them to a tragic fate. Meanwhile, Izanami suffers as she performs the duty she was given by her ancestors – giving birth. Even dead and in the Underworld, she still has to continue giving birth to more and more kami, themselves born deformed.
- Life and Death
The two gods also symbolize life and death.The quarrel of the two gods inevitably led to the very cycle of life and death that all humans have to go through.
Paralles with Other Myths
Izanagi’s quest to retrieve his beloved from the Underworld has parallels with Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, Persephone isn’t allowed to leave the Underworld because she had eaten a few pomegranate seeds given to her by Hades. Izanami faces the same situation, as she says she cannot leave the Underworld due to having eaten some fruit.
Another parallel can be found in the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus. Orpheus goes into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice, who had been untimely killed by snake bite. Hades, the god of the Underworld, allowes Eurydice to leave, after much convincing. However, he instructs Orpheus not to look back until the pair had made their way out of the Underworld. Due to his impatience, Orpheus turns back at the last moment, to make sure that Eurydice is following him out of the Underworld. She is taken back into the Underworld forever.
This is similar to Izanami beseeching Izanagi to remain patient until she’s ready to leave the Undworld. However, due to his impatience, she has to remain in the Underworld forever.
Importance of Izanami and Izanagi in Modern Culture
As the Father and Mother deities of Shintoism, it’s not surprising that Izanagi and Izanami have found their way into quite a few pieces of popular culture.
Both are featured in the famous anime series Naruto, as well as the video game series Persona. Izanagi also has a whole RPG game named after him while Izanami is also featured in the anime series Noragami, the video game series Digital Devil Story, and has a character named after her in the PC MMORPG game Smite.
Izanami and Izanagi are two of the most important gods in the Japanese pantheon. Not only did these primordial gods give birth to several other gods and Kami, and make the earth suitable for living, but they also created the islands of Japan. As such, they’re at the very heart of Japanese mythology.