The following is a translation of an excerpt of Taryo Obayashi’s “Moto no ri” Through the Lens of Comparative Mythology.
World giant myths and humans beings
I would like to save my comments on this for later. What I would like to mention now that in a certain sense, these myths in which human beings are composed of various elements are in a way a reverse of and thus somehow related to world giant myths.
To give a simple explanation of what these world giant myths are, these are myths in which the various parts of a giant become mountains, rivers, humans, and so on.
A representative example is the Chinese myth of a giant named Pangu 盤古. This myth is thought to have originated in southern China, but it goes on to describe how after Pangu died, his breath became the wind; his voice became thunder; his left eye became the Sun; his right eye became the Moon; his arms and legs became the four nautical directions: north, south, east and west; the five parts of the body became five mountains; his blood became rivers, his muscles and veins became the land; his skin and flesh became the soil; his hair and beard became the stars; the hair on his skin became grass and trees; his teeth and bone became the four jewels; his sweat became the rain and water in marshes; and the bugs that were on his body—I assume these to be insects such as fleas and lice—were transformed by the wind to become the common people.
Similar stories are also widespread in places such as northern Europe and India. This theme of a world giant dying and having his sections of his body becoming a variety of things is also connected with the theme of how the first human beings were composed of variety of elements throughout the world.
Myths and Moto hajimari no hanashi (Tenrikyo Story of Creation)
Here, I would like to indicate that there are elements in the Tenrikyo story of creation, Moto hajimari no hanashi, which are connected with these world giant myths.
On the concept of “denaoshi”
Upon reading the story in Moto hajimari no hanashi, I feel that the concept of “denaoshi” (passing away for rebirth) has great importance. Human beings passed away for rebirth three times in the creation process.
However, one can say this is not so much of a unique concept when one looks at Southeast Asian creation myths. Even in the Toraja myth mentioned earlier, the models of human beings are made and remade three times. Even in the ancient myths of Japan, the first to be born to Izanagi and Izanami was the Leech Child (hiruko), the creature that lives in rivers and sucks blood. When this Leech Child did not learn to stand by the age of three, it was placed on a reed boat and allowed to be washed away. At the next birth Awashima was born, which was also placed on a reed boat to be washed away. At the third birth, the island of Awajishima was born, finally leading to the birthing of the Japanese nation. Even in the ancient Japanese myths, there we see the phenomena of second and third tries. This concept of multiple tries or chances is quite widespread among myths of the world.
Aquatic animals as the materials of human beings
Further, as for myths where human beings are created from aquatic animals, there are other examples apart from Moto hajimari no hanashi. There are examples from Okinawa that has been transmitted to the present of how in the beginning aquatic animals are born in unsuccessful births. In a myth from Taramajima, a brother and sister—another example of a brother and sister who marry and become the ancestors of the human race—a clam is first born between them before human beings are. A myth from Hateruma, also has a brother and sister marrying and the sister gives birth to a fish before giving birth to human beings. In the case of Ishigakijima, after a god named Aman create the islands of Okinawa, he has human beings descend from heaven. First, a hermit crab is born before a man and woman is born from a hole in the ground. In other words, we see aquatic creatures such as a clam, fish, and hermit crab notably appearing in these myths. Further, there is the Ami tribe in Taiwan that has a myth where a brother and sister survive a great flood to drift ashore and have an incestuous marriage. First, a snake was born between them, then, a frog. Human beings were born after this, giving us another example of aquatic animals being born first. This gives us a distinctive area of distribution of these types of myths that ranges from Japan, Okinawa, and Taiwan.
As we see in Moto hajimari no hanashi, fish appear quite prominently and aquatic animals play a significant role. In this sense, it can be thought that it is possible that the Tenrikyo myth of creation has inherited elements from mythical traditions in the region.
The development of the human embryo and Moto hajimari no hanashi
On this theme of unsuccessful childbirths where it is repeated several times, there are examples where such births are repeated over several generations in which evolution takes place. There is an example of the myth of the Mendalam Kayan on the island of Borneo. According to their myth, at the beginning of the world, a hilt of a sword and a shuttle of a loom married and gave birth to a child without any arms or legs. The children of the second and third generation are of the same condition, but the children are able to sit beginning in the fourth generation, and the fifth generation marks the appearance of human beings as we see in the present, which reveals the concept of humans evolving.
The aspect we ought to give our attention to is that the idea that an embryo repeats human evolutionary history during its growth and development of (which can be called a pre-modern version of recapitulation theory) can be seen in these myths from Indonesia. According to the beliefs of the Minangkabau of Sumatra, an embryo begins to develop after the male and female sexual fluids mix together for 40 days. In its first stage, the embryo does not have a human form, but is a red, round cluster of matter. After 20 days, although the embryo takes on a human form, it is still lacking arms and legs. At this stage, the embryo is composed of four colors: yellow, black, white, and red. It is said that these four colors represent four characteristics—two each—that have been inherited from its mother and father. When the embryo continues its growth until its sixth month, god endows the embryo/fetus with a spirit. It is at this point in time when the fetus is considered to be alive. Thus the evolution which took place from the beginning of the world over several generations is reflected in the growth and development of the human embryo/fetus.
This brings to mind the possibility that the part of the Koki narrative in which the human body grows five bu taller at each birth reflects the ideas of the populace of how the human embryo/fetus develops in the womb to some degree. I believe that this one thematic element potentially brings up a number of fascinating issues. However, it is unfortunate that modern medicine spread quickly in Japan and to my knowledge, there has been no research on how the common people in Japan thought about the process of how the human embryo/fetus developed in the womb. This is especially so when it comes to how people Yamato region of Japan thought of this matter. When this becomes clear, one wonders this will shed light on the significance of human beings passed away for rebirth three times in the process of growing in size. I also would like to emphasize the reality that Oyasama was a woman who went through childbirth. I believe that there is a possibility that the manner in which women living in Yamato at the time thought on sequence the fetus developed in the womb was a foundation for Moto hajimari no hanashi.
Two pivotal stages that merit attention
Finally, I would like to spend some time contemplating on the theme of the “muddy ocean.” A “muddy ocean” can be thought to express a chaotic, formless state. I believe that the fundamental stance that is consistent throughout Moto hajimari no hanashi as a creation myth is that the order that is the cosmos was born from the chaos of the muddy ocean. That is, the idea of formlessness becoming order, and chaos becoming cosmos is a fundamental concept. Yet since this is a concept that is often found in creation myths around the world, this aspect alone is not distinctively remarkable. Nevertheless, I believe that attention must be given to how the conversion from formlessness to order occurred with two pivotal stages: the creation or growth of human beings and the separation of land and sea.
When human beings were created and were originally born the height of five bu, they grew equally and eventually reached the height of eight sun. It was at this stage when the muddy ocean began to form highs and lows. When human beings grew to the height of one shaku and eight sun, the land and sea were at a stage that they were distinguishable from one another. When human beings reached five shaku, the land and sea separated, heaven and earth were determined, and the Sun and Moon appeared in the skies as they do today. Humans left the ocean to live and land, and spread throughout the world, eventually to the state where we are at present. I feel that attention ought to be placed to how the separation of the land and sea is described before that of heaven and earth, the Sun and Moon.
Back to the myth of Pangu, it can be broadly divided into two narratives. The first is how the world was born from the various parts of Pangu’s body. The other narrative describes Pangu’s life. According to the “Three Five Historic Records” (Sanwu Liji 三五歷紀) from the third century C.E., Pangu was born out of a chaotic state. In the span of 18,000 years, heaven and earth were created. The pure and clear matter became heaven and the muddied and dark matter became the earth. Pangu then changes 九変 and is described as a being that is coarser than heaven and superior to the earth. With each day, heaven became one jo higher, the earth one jo thicker, and Pangu grew one jo in height. After the passing of 18,000 years, heaven became quite high, the earth became quite deep, and Pangu’s height grew in accordance with the height of heaven and the depth of the earth.
When we compare the myth involving Pangu and Moto hajimari no hanashi, they both share the theme where the growth of primordial beings and accompanies the consolidation of the order of the cosmos. Yet there are two differences between them. The first difference is that in comparison with the giant Pangu, there is a clear difference in Moto hajimari no hanashi in how the tiny primordial humans gradually grow to the size of ordinary human beings. The other difference is that in the Pangu myth, the order of the cosmos is established through the separation of heaven and earth which occurs due to Pangu’s growth. In Moto hajimari no hanashi, the separation of land and sea is more significant than the separation of heaven and earth. One gets the sense reading Moto hajimari no hanashi that there is nothing to compare with heaven and earth. It is the theme of land and sea that is significant, and one can think of this as a very distinctive feature. Another corresponding feature is that great value is placed on how aquatic animals are the materials to make the first primordial humans. Further, Moto hajimari no hanashi as a whole represents a worldview of a people who engaged in wet-rice agriculture and grew rice in wet rice paddies. Further, the fact that emphasis placed on fish may have reveal some connection with the ocean. The issue becomes how to see Moto hajimari no hanashi as a myth from inland Yamato has a connection with the ocean. Namely, there is no clue on how to see the appearance of sea animals such as the karei (flatfish) and shachi (orc).
In any case, I wonder if the various themes that Moto hajimari no hanashi contain cannot be placed among the popular beliefs in Yamato during the late Edo and early Meiji period. To the best of my knowledge, I know of no other story that matches Moto hajimari no hanashi in its narrative structure. I cannot help but assume that the religious significance of this myth comes from how various popular concepts and beliefs have been organized and systematized in its present form.