The following is a translation of an excerpt of Taryo Obayashi’s “Moto no ri Through the Lens of Comparative Mythology.”
Human creation through the efforts a few members of both sexes
Another point to draw our attention to with Moto hajimari no hanashi is that Kami of both sexes, male and female, cooperated and engaged in the creation process. This element is quite universal among the Japanese. Even in the “nation birthing” myths, Izanagi and Izanami procreated and gave birth to the Japanese nation and other Kami. Although it may be an obvious choice to have male and female deities to create together, this is not such an obvious notion on a worldwide scale. This brings me to Female Power and Male Dominance, an intriguing work published in 1961 by the American anthropologist Peggy Sanday.
In this work, Sanday selected and compared creation myths from 39 representative ethnicities from around the world.
Looking at her results, there are two examples in which the creator of the world and human beings had no sex—that is, neither designated as male or female. There were six examples of myths where the creator or first human ancestor was a female. There were six examples where the creators or the first human ancestors were a human couple. There were nine examples in which a male was the first human ancestor or “cultural hero” (A cultural hero is a figure that introduces an aspect of culture such as use of fire or agriculture to humanity). There were three examples which an animal was either the creator god or ancestor of human beings. Finally, there are 13 examples of in which a supreme god such as the God in Judeo-Christianity created the world or humanity.
It appears that it is common to conceive of this supreme god as a male god. In any case, as Peggy Sanday’s research reveals, the idea of a couple cooperating in the creation process or humanity beginning as the children of a divine couple is not as common. In the case of the Judeo-Christianity, the creator god creates all of creation. The creator of human beings is cast as God the Father, a male creator god.
Further, the fascinating aspect of Sanday’s research is that her examples of couple creation come from Samoa in Polynesia, Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, Alor Island in East Indonesia, the Omaha Indians of North America, and Jivaro Indians of South America, revealing that the couple-type creation myth is (evenly) distributed in the cultures surrounding the Pacific Ocean. As Sanday’s examples are limited, it is difficult to make a definitive statement that this is a distinctive characteristic of cultures in the Pacific Rim. While there is a necessity to comb through more examples, it is nevertheless certain that this couple-type creation myth is not so common worldwide. It is possible to place Japan’s creation myths as being distinctive compared to those of the world, in terms of that it can be seen as being part of this area of distribution.
For instance, according to the creation myth of the Alor Islanders in East Indonesia, a brother and a sister descended from heaven. While there are accounts that do not mention that they descended from heaven, they became the ancestors of humanity. Thus, it shares an element with the myth of Izanagi and Izanami as well with Tenchi hajime no koto in this sense.
On the other hand, even in examples where a male and female cooperate in the creation process, they do not always have to be the sole participants in creation. For instance, there is the Toraja tribe who populate in the interior of the island Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) that is shaped like a starfish. According to the myth of the Barei Toraja, in the beginning, there were no humans on earth. A male god of the heavens, Irai, and a female god of the earth, Indara, together made the decision to create human beings. The two male and female deities cooperate as they make human beings. However, unlike the myths we have in Japan, they did not procreate and give birth to creation but they delegated the task to a deity named Ikonbengi. Then, Ikonbengi made two models of human beings, that is, models of man and woman out of stone. While a different account describes that the models were made from wood, these models were placed at the road that connects heaven with the earth where the gods passed through. The models were then appraised by each of the gods, who concluded that the calves of the two models were not round enough and Ikonbengi made another pair. This time, the gods said the bellies of the models were too fat. Ikobengi then went to work for a third time, taking a portion from the man’s body and transferring it to the woman’s body—which suggests the myth is explaining this was how a woman got her breasts. When the model of man and woman were made in this way, the gods were satisfied with the result. However, when Irai, the god of the heavens, went to get the breath (air) of eternal life from his home in heaven, due to the creators’ inattention, the models were struck by ordinary wind and thus came to life breathing this wind (instead of the breath of eternal life).
What is fascinating about this myth is that there is a figure who assists in the creation process after a male and female deity embark on it. There is also the part of the myth in which the models are made, not once, but a total of three times. That the creation occurred in threes is a very important point, and I will return to talk about this later.
Human beings being created from a variety of materials
There is a similar myth from the Palau Islands in Micronesia. Culturally and linguistically, Palau and Micronesia itself is closely related to the cultures of Indonesia. According to the myths of the Palau Islanders, in the beginning, a brother and sister kneaded clay with blood from a variety of animals and created many human beings. It is said that the character of a human being is determined by the animal blood that was mixed in the clay that created that individual’s ancestor. Examples include how people with the blood of the rat are thieves, those with the blood of the snake are cowardly, those with the blood of the rooster in their veins are brave, and so on. Thus we have another example of a myth where a brother and sister, namely, male and female deities initiate creation.
Myths that contain the theme of human beings being created from a variety of materials are fairly widespread.
For instance, there is a region called Balagansk near Lake Baikal in Siberia. There, the Buryat Mongols have a myth in which three gods cooperate to create the first pair of human beings. Human muscle was made from red clay, bones were made from stone, and blood was made from water.
Also, in the Altay Mountains, Turkic nomadic myth. The creator god, named Ulgan, created the first human beings with muscle from earth and bones from stone.
What is most fascinating is that such ideas also exist in the Japanese archipelago. According to the myths of the Ainu in Hokkaido, the gods used the willow tree as the backbone, kneaded soil to make the torso, and hair from chickweed (hakobe) when they created human beings. It is then said that our backs become bent when we age because the willow tree that is our backbone bends as the years pass by. It is also said that there is a custom of making a tutelary god out of a willow tree when a child is born to protect his or her lifetime.
In this way, there the idea that human beings were made from a variety of materials can be found in many areas of the world. A most fascinating example of such a type of myth comes from the Java in Indonesia. As there are still areas in Java that adhere to animist religion, I assume the following myth is from the Badui tribe. According to this myth, when the creator god made heaven, the Sun, the Moon, and the earth, human beings—a man—was made from clay. The creator god then supposed that the man would be troubled by himself, and decided to make a woman. Yet the clay had run out since it was all used to make the man. Then, the creator god mixed a number of elements to make woman: the roundness of the moon; the sinuosity of the snake; the manner how the ivy coils; the swaying movement of the grass; the slender shape of wheat; the fragrance of the flower; the lightness of a tree leaf; the gaze of the deer; the comfort and pleasantness of the sunshine; swiftness of the wind; the tears of a cloud; the delicacy of 綿毛; the flightiness of a little bird; the sweetness of honey; the vanity of a peacock; the slim hips of a swallow; the beauty of a diamond; and the cry of the turtledove. The creator god then presents the woman as the man’s wife.
The myth continues in the following fashion: although the creator god made woman for man in this manner, the man goes back to the creator god to refuse her, saying that the woman is a nuisance for talking to him all the time. The creator god then takes the woman away. The myth then goes on to describe how the man returns to say that he is lonely by himself and asks for the woman back. Such myths have been dramatized in several fascinating ways.
In any case, myths in which human beings are created from a variety of elements are widespread.
The single noteworthy aspect of Moto hajimari no hanashi that we ought to focus our attention upon is that all the materials are fish or other aquatic creatures such as snakes. This is its fascinating aspect, that aquatic creatures are the seeds.