The following is a translation of an excerpt from “The Mythical Interpretations of Moto no ri” by Mieko Murakami.
Murakami Mieko 村上三恵子. 1987. “Moto no ri no shinwateki kaishaku.” In Koza Moto no ri no sekai 1: Moto no ri no ningengaku, 105–127.
On the author:
Born in 1924 in Tokyo. Graduated from the Education Department of Waseda University in 1964. Currently, works for the religious corporation 宝玉教社. Prominent articles include “Ryu to hebi ga shocho suru mono” (What dragons and serpents symbolize).
The Mythical Interpretations of “Moto no ri”
Upon comparing the world of “Moto no ri” and that of the Nihon shoki and Kojiki, the fundamental difference between them is that the imperial chronicles is a story of Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto procreating and giving birth to the nation of Japan. In comparison, “Moto no ri” is a story on the creation of human beings and the world (or the universe). To describe what “Moto no ri” is about in a few words, it is a story about how, when, where, and why human beings—possessors of special life and souls and their seeds—were created.
“Moto no ri” does not have any national boundaries. It tells of how human beings and the world in which human beings live were created, and the purpose of that creation. One can say it has the characteristics of a creation myth. This story contains an expression of God’s intention based on careful consideration. Myths tend to be profound. It is very unlikely to be able to fully put into intellectual terms. Here, symbols are utilized to express what cannot be expressed in words. Myths are predominantly symbolic in nature. Myths describe the beginning of the world, the birth of gods and their deeds, as well as the origins of festivals. Chinese constellations are called star/celestial mansions (星宿 xing xiu) and there are myths that explain why they have taken the shape that they have. As myths are oral traditions centered on the divine and they are composed in the same manner as fairy tales around a certain motif or theme.
The stage of “Moto no ri” is set in the ocean
The word “myth” often conjures ancient Greece. Greek civilization lived in harmony with nature and the ocean. On the other hand, the people of Yamato Province lived inland as a civilization based on agriculture. One would assume that in 1838 many ancient Japanese myths were preserved from the past. Yamato Province was a basin surrounded by mountains. The people of this region must have lived staring death in the face as they suffered from droughts, famines, and crop failures across several hundreds of years. The ocean must have been a place they must have longed after. They would be able to eat, if they only could go to the ocean. Yet many must have died without the means of relocating to the ocean.
In the world of myth, the ocean is often the stage where creation takes place. The word “ocean” derives from the Greek Oceanus (or Okeanos), the god of water. Oceanus was the father of the three thousand sea nymphs known as the Oceanids. Oceanus was the primordial sea, chaos, as well as the anima mundi, the source of all life that is expressed in Taoism as the Tao. On top of “ocean” we also have the word “sea” in English. On top of it being the source of life, it was also the place where the dead returned to. The sea not only cleanses and purifies all things, but it is also a place that has the power to destroy. The sea symbolizes immeasurable truth and wisdom, as well as fertility, immortality, and regularity. It is a bottomless abyss, a place where monsters live. It is also a symbol of collective unconsciousness. It can also be said to refer to a place that is elusive and unreachable.
When we consider the age when “Moto no ri” was brought into the world through revelation and the geographic environment of Yamato Province, it makes sense for the stage in which it is set to be the ocean, the place of longing for people from this area and that the creatures which appear in the story are associated with water. A divine character was given to each creature such as the kame (turtle), hebi (serpent), ryu (dragon), karei (flatfish), dojo (loaches), unagi (eel), shachi (orca), uo (fish) and so on and also possessed a precious role in the creation process. The only way to honestly accept this as actuality is to rely on faith. To the modern, scientific eye, one can only interpret its contents metaphorically and symbolically.
One of the main issues in Tenrikyo’s Doroumi koki is that various fish existed before Kami existed. Fish symbolize fertility and rebirth as well as being an expression of the male principle. It also is associated with water and the mother goddess. In Christianity fish are an expression of rebirth and resurrection; in China, they represent rebirth and abundance.
There is then the issue of who created these fish and how they were created. This order is reversed in other creation myths. Also, in Moto no ri, the sea and land can be finally distinguished from one another after the creation of human beings. The question then arises where the first human-like creatures lived until then. And what kind of creatures were they? I have many questions like these but I will leave them aside and would like to examine the contents of “Moto no ri” to the extent of my current understanding.
“Moto no ri” is a creation narrative. Human beings are a species that were created as God’s own children. This God of the Origin or God the Parent came up with the wish in the muddy ocean to see the Joyous Life and share in that joy. Then, among the many dojo (loaches) an uo (fish) and mi (serpent) were discerned and chosen to be the models of husband and wife. It is then described how God drew instruments with various workings, discerning their single-hearted nature and then placed into these models. Then God ate all the dojo in the muddy ocean and made them the seeds of human beings.
Dojo are often said to be servant of the Kami. In Iga-cho, Ayama-gun of Mie Prefecture, there are a species of dojo known as the Kamiyo 神代 dojo (a subspecies of Misgurnus anguillicaudatus?). The people who lived near the habitat of the kamiyo dojo believed they were the servant of the Kami and thus completely prohibited their capture. Later, the belief spread that if one prayed to these servants of the Kami when there was someone ill or another misfortune in the vicinity, there would be an instant miracle. Thus the people of the area competed to handle the dojo with care and respect and offered their prayers to them.
In other words, a rite called a Kami mukae (welcoming/greeting the deity) developed where dojo were scooped from the water in a cordial fashion, placed in bottle normally used to offer sake with water, offered in front of an altar with gohei, and prayers are offered for 17 days. When the period for prayers are over, a rite called Kami zukuri (?), the dojo are returned to where they were caught and gohei are placed at that spot. It is believed that any wish will be fulfilled when an entire family expresses their gratitude in prayer.
Among the dojo are varieties known as the ezo hotoke (Lefua nikkonis), hotoke dojo (Lefua echigonia) and fuku dojo (Noemacheilus barbatulus toni / Barbatula toni). It is rare to find fish with names such as hotoke (Buddha) and fuku (good luck/fortune) that are associated with Buddhist and Shinto deities. Yet they must be called so because they are believed to bring good fortune.
When one examines the life of dojo, one readily agrees that they are a fish that brings good fortune. Dojo have the distinctive trait of intestinal respiration. This intestinal respiration can be observed, for example, when dojo are placed in a barrel with water. The dojo repeats the action of swimming upward from the barrel bottom while wriggling its body before sinking. In this up-and-down movement the dojo inhales while rising and exhales while sinking. The dojo shows the peculiar trait of breathing with its intestines when there is not enough oxygen in the water. This ability of the dojo’s intestinal respiration has allowed it to live in places such as swamps and rivers that are far from the ocean. Dojo were then prized by humans for their precious nutrients and medicinal benefits. They are truly Kami of good fortune.