The following is a translation of an excerpt from “The Mythical Interpretations of Moto no ri” by Mieko Murakami.
The eight directions and God’s servants
In “Moto no ri,” God’s servants appear from the eight directions, that is: east, west, south, north, northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. One gains the impression of “Moto no ri” as a profound teaching when one considers the meaning of each direction and the roles each of God’s servants are assigned with. A shachi (orca) is drawn from the northwest, a kame (turtle) from the southeast, an unagi (eel) from the east, a karei (flatfish) from the southwest, a kurogutsuna (black snake) from the west, and a fugu (globe-fish) from the northeast.
According to Jito 字統, an authority on Chinese characters, the latent meaning of northwest (inui 乾) is: “A flag fluttering high. From the image of a fluttering flag, it began to take on the meaning of sound health, strength and vitality. According to Kanji no kigen (Origin of kanji), “The basic meaning of inui is 乾乾然として and robust health. It refers to something that is bent or crooked tightens up and becomes stiff and erect.” The impression one gets from these meanings is a general lack of willingness to compromise and rigidity, characteristics that are mainly incompatible with flexibility, pleasantness, or charm. A shachi was placed in the direction that contains such symbolism. The shachi or orca is a symbol of masculine function, and as the phrase shacchoko-baru (or shachi(ho)kobaru, to become stiff, formal, rigid to in a show of authority)1 gives the impression of the motion of rolling back, to swaggeringly throw one’s head back or to be poised in a dignified manner.
Shachi, also known as sakamata, is also a sea creature of the Delphinidae family and Odontoceti (toothed whale) suborder. Its large dorsal fin is said to contain enough force that can kill other whales. According to whalers and others who encounter orcas in their natural habitat call them “the greatest killers of the sea.” Orcas are violent and ferocious by nature, and are feared by all sea animals. In Alaska, where orcas prey on walrus, they do not directly attack adults with tusks. Orcas are called the thugs of nature as they hurl themselves from the water to attack the adult walruses and kill the calves that slide off the backs of the adults. A look in a dictionary of images and symbols gives reference to Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (“The Frenzy of Orlando”), where the orca is a representation of sea monster that eats human beings.
Next, we have the kame or turtle of the southeast (tatsumi). The southeast is considered the direction best to receive the blessings of the Sun; it is a direction shining with light. In house physiognomy (feng shui), placing an entrance in the southeast is said to increase the prosperity of a home. However, this also potentially creates the drawback of having a home where there is too much coming and going of people that creates a restless home. I cannot help but feel that it makes a good deal of sense for the symbol of the immoveable turtle was placed in this direction.
The turtle has been observed to be the longest living animal, thought to live between 150 and 200 years. It can last long periods without food and its endurance is considered absolute. It is estimated that shelled turtles appeared on earth nearly 250 million years ago. It is said that they have changed very little in shape since then. Turtles are the oldest order of reptiles, and it may not be an exaggeration to claim that if these turtles had not come to live on land, birds, mammals, and therefore humans would not have evolved. When amphibians evolved into turtles, the ability to move swiftly was sacrificed and compensated with a life in a protective shell that is among the animal world’s best defense mechanisms. Turtles characterized for their quiet and docile nature, they are known for being non-combative, which along with how its life is lived in its shell may have resulted in the survival of its order into the present over 200 million years. Even when other animals are not able to survive without food, the turtle staves off hunger and survives on dew. From this, the turtle has been an emblem of steadiness, of slow but sure progress, a shield that protects a king, thus invulnerability. In the Greek Orthodox Church, the turtle is an icon that expresses “diligence” for its will to conquer adversity and make endless effort. The turtle acquired the characteristic perseverance and this symbol has been taken and utilized in various myths, folktales, and popular beliefs.
The turtle is an active participant in myths involving the creation of the earth from each part of the world. In Central Asia, there are myths on how the creator god of the earth transforms into a sea turtle and supports the world floating on water. According to a myth of the Buryat-Mongols, the gods (God?) built the world on the belly of a giant turtle that appeared out of the water. Myths with similar content can also be found in ancient India and among Native American cultures. Myths where a sea turtle represents the earth can be found from Asia to North America.
In ancient Indian scriptures (Vedas?), one finds a cosmic turtle accompanied by a cosmic serpent. A picture depicting this appears on the cover of the second issue of the periodical G-TEN. Truly, this is what is called “the cosmic turtle and cosmic serpent.” This picture is a representation of the beginning of the world where a turtle sleeping in the midst of limitless darkness and silence is stirred awakened by a serpent that wraps itself around the turtle.
In Japan, Yayoi Period one finds images of turtles that look like Trionychidae (suppon) appearing on bronze vessels along with people threshing grain, suggesting that human beings had a deep relationship with these creatures after the development of rice paddy agriculture. In the Kojiki, it is noted that Emperor Jinmu meets a local chieftain along the way on his eastern expedition (migration) who fished while riding the shell of a turtle. Further, there is the tale thought to be the prototype for the legend of Urashima Taro that appears in Tango no kuni fudoki itsubun. When this tale appears in the Nihon ryoiki and Konjaku monogatari, it has developed into a tale on transmigration or one on showing appreciation to animals. This tale comes from China. It is surmised that its semantic content is on beliefs in the other world, “Tokoyo no kuni” (i.e., the netherworld). It is for this reason that the turtle is an emissary and spiritual being that communicates between this world and the other world.
In Southeast Asia, the turtle is tied with initiation rituals. Clans that have the turtle as a totem fish for turtles as a coming-of-age ceremony. Also, in the I Ching, in contrast to the northwest that symbolizes heaven, masculinity and manifested consciousness, the southeast symbolizes wind, femininity, the freedom of latent consciousness, warmth and flexibility.
In “Moto no ri,” in the second stage of creation after the uo and mi are chosen to become the models of husband and wife, the turtle appears as the opposite of the orca. Here, the turtle and mi are the models of woman, and since Kunisazuchi-no-Mikoto is the sacred name bestowed on the name of this instrument, the turtle clearly expresses the female principle.
I gain the impression that the female principle is quite strong throughout “Moto no ri” as a whole, especially considering how Izanami-no-Mikoto conceives the same number of children on her own after Izanagi-no-Mikoto withdraws from physical life.
Further, the process in which the orca and turtle is respectively “put into” (shikomu) the uo, the model of husband and mi, the model of wife, gives the sense of what is very likely a reproductive process. This shikomu refers to “union” and “integration,” an indirect creation in common with other animals. This is in direct contrast to creation in Genesis, where creation is direct, inorganic and proceeds through the process of “division.”
Kame can be translated into English as “tortoise” and “turtle.” “Tortoise” originates from Greek and symbolizes femininity and water. In contrast to “turtle,” it mainly refers to kame that live on land. “Turtle” is a generic term that refers to sea turtles.
In Egypt, the turtle was a sign that measured the floods of the Nile. In China, the turtle was honored as one of the four sacred animals along with the dragon, phoenix, and kirin (dragon-horse). In Native American legend, a Cosmic Tree is said to grow from a turtle shell. In the Kojiki, there is the tale of Yamasachi-hiko and Toyotama-hime where the turtle is a servant of the ocean kami.
The turtle also represents fertility of the land. It represents the sexual organs of both sexes: possessing a round body that conjures the body of a woman and the head of a phallus. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, the turtle represented fertility, precaution and anticipation. When combined with the signs of a crab and crocodile, it was a premonition of the Nile inundation and reaching fertility.
In ancient Greece, the three goddesses of beauty had the role of guiding fertility through the cave of winter. The turtle was a sacred animal of Hermes, and was also offered (sacrificed?) to Apollo and Aphrodite. There are times when Aphrodite is depicted standing on a turtle. Also, by representing the phallus, it was offered to the god Pan. Among the particular attributes of a turtle is its ability to incubate/hatch eggs with its nose. There also times when it is identified with Cancer in the twelve signs of the zodiac and represents the chaos that contains the hope of rebirth. Truly, one readily agrees that the turtle played a large role in creation.
Opposite of the southeast (tatsumi) that best receives the blessings of the Sun is the direction northeast (ushitora). It is also known as the “demon’s gate” (kimon). When I examined the origin of the character for ushitora (艮 gèn), I found it has the meaning of following 人のに従う. In bronzeware (jinwhen) script, one can compare this character with the character for “see” (見). The two characters are direct opposites of each other when it comes to the placement of the human symbol. In other words, the character for ushitora, the eye is facing left while the body is facing right in the opposite direction. Between directions of right and left, right is considered superior in both eastern and western cultures. In contrast to the right, which symbolizes honor, good fortune, justice, correctness, fairness, normalcy and superiority; “left” represents misfortune, abnormality, corruption, malice, inferiority and injustice.
Thus, in contrast to the southeast where all animals receive the blessings of the Sun, the direction of the northeast is where the spirits of the dead go to avoid the Sun. Thus the demon’s gate is the place where evils spirits gather, and it is disliked for being the place filled with dead spirits and the source of curses. In feng shui, it is said that a home cannot prosper when one builds an entrance in the northeast. There are also times when the home will not be blessed with a child or even when a child is born, the child will be sick and weakly, with the misfortune of having endless hardships. Thus, there are many people who avoid building a home with an entrance facing the northeast.
These beliefs were first tied to beliefs in the other world and the direction of northeast came to be disliked with the influence of onmyodo (Yin-Yang cosmology). Currently, even in this country, in the corner of the Tohoku region there was a place known as Hinowakamiya that was set aside as a place that no one was supposed to enter. Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei was built in the northwest of Kyoto, the capital at the time as a temple to protect the state. The temple Kan’eiji is located in the northeast of Edo Palace. As a temple to protect Shogun’s family that resided in Edo Palace, it was built and given the highest rank. The significance of building a temple was related to transforming evil into good. It was believed that evil was annihilated by making offerings and prayers to Buddhist deities.
In “Moto no ri,” the fugu appears in this directions associated with evil and misfortune. When one thinks of the fugu, along with its distinctive cute appearance, one would readily associate it with “poison.” The poison in the fugu is called tetrodotoxin, and is lethal even in small quantities. There must have been the belief that the fugu, with its deadly poison, was able to sweep away the evils found in the demon’s gate. Truly, the fugu plays a large role in its appropriate place in the demon’s gate of the northeast.
In “Moto no ri,” we have a dragon in the north. Now, what does this direction represent?
North symbolizes, the cold, darkness, the realm of the dead, winter, old age, the Devil, heathens and mystery. In China, is represents Yin, the opposite of Yang. In India and Egypt, the north represents light, day and masculine power. By representing darkness, it is told in western civilizations that the Sun does not shine from the north. The North Star is above the earth’s axis, and being the end of the universe, it is considered to be the realm that rules the dead in many popular traditions. It is said that when a mother gives birth with her head pointing north, the newborn will be blessed with good fortune as he or she is born facing south, the direction farthest from death.
A dragon, a creature with great spiritual power was chosen to as the animal for the north. There is no conclusive evidence of how and when this imaginary creature appeared in the world. There are several theories of how dragons came to be a part of the human consciousness. One is that people who saw a snake or crocodile exaggerated or lied about what they saw. Another is that they were imagined after the bones of dinosaurs were discovered. Still another theory is that embellishments were intentionally added to descriptions of a snake for some utilitarian purpose. It is said this purpose was to symbolize evil, fear or the superior power of nature to people in a concrete manner.
In any case, the image of the dragon was incorporated throughout the ancient world along with other imagery. It first appeared in ancient Babylon and spread to India, China, Korea and Japan. It has also been said to have spread from Greece to all the cultures throughout Europe.
The dragon as it appears in the Tanakh (Old Testament) is similar to other images of dragons in myths from the ancient Middle East and it symbolizes water, the ocean and rivers. It is translated as “sea monster” in the King James Bible. In the western world, the dragon was a representation of evil.
In the east, the dragon was a protector of Buddhism, provided rain on a timely basis, which led to the abundant production of grain. In China, it was believed that the dragon was all-knowing and all-seeing. If the emperor ruled the nation in a favorable manner, the dragon would aid in providing wind and rain and bless the nation with abundant fish and grain. Even in Japan, the dragon is revered as the kami Ryujin that presides over water.
Now, what image does the direction “south” have?
It symbolizes the Sun and fire. It also symbolizes heat, desert, and hell, along with summer, the place where lions, lionesses, and adders live (Isaiah 30:6). In Christianity, south symbolizes ghostly light. The southern walls of churches are decorated with images of protectors of the faith, martyrs, and saints. In a correspondence relationship, it represents youth and the upper body. The south is bright, cruel and capricious. It is also said that a beautiful moon only appears fleetingly in the south, a place where swallows fly to and play at. It symbolizes the midsummer Sun, fire, youth, summer, and heat—all pointing to the male principle. In China, it is the direction of the phoenix. In Judaism, it is the direction of a winged lion. However, in Egypt and India, south represents night and the female principle.
A giant serpent is placed in this direction, a serpent with 12 heads and three tails. (I will discuss the numbers 12 and 3 in a later section.) At first glance, the serpent and dragon that are placed south and north may seem incompatible with one another, I would conclude that they coexist while maintaining a balance; it is such a balance that holds much mystery. For instance, the north is cold and filled with moisture. The south is hot and saturated with fire and heat. Human beings are able to live when a balance is maintained. One can readily agree that the serpent and dragon that possess the qualities of fire and water play an important role indeed.
The animal that appears the east is the unagi (eel). What kind of meaning does this direction symbolize?
The Japanese word for “east,” “higashi,” refers to facing the sun (hi-mugashi). Just as the Greek origin of the word “dawn” suggests, it symbolizes the rising sun, the morning sun, hope, and youth. It is the direction where the altars of churches face. In China, the east was represented by a green dragon.
East also represents sunrise. It symbolizes the appearance of Christ, the light of the world. Fortune-tellers face the east when they divine the future. This expresses the belief that since it is the direction that is filled with God’s majesty, correct judgments can be made. It is also the direction where the rain dwells. Since the earth is round, “east” and “west” are relative terms. For instance, it has become standard for Asia, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Eastern U.S. to be referred as the “East.” In terms of the body, the east is the right or favored half while the left or inauspicious half that represents death.
Matthew 2:1 describes the Three Wise Men of the East coming to a manger in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Christ. Here, the east is considered a place known for its wisdom.
The eel appears in this direction where light shines. Eels are slippery and difficult to handle. It is born with a toughness that allows it to survive in freshwater and sea water. Eels know how to hide in the mud and it demonstrates much dynamism and vigorousness in its natural habitat. In the west there is the proverb, “As nimble as an eel in a sandbag,” symbolizing something that is difficult grasp as well as a person’s wrongful intent.
The giant eel of Pohnpei in Micronesia is said to grow over a meter in length. The giant eel does not move even when humans approach it. There is an old tale from the southern island of how a prince, longing after a princess from another island, transforms himself into a giant eel to go to her. The imposing disposition of the giant eel that does not run and hide is truly befitting of this story about a prince transformed. In the story, the prince, in the form of an eel grows up to 2.3 meters in the swamp but is unable to return back to his former self. He chases the terrified princess, crawling and wriggling on the ground. This sad story demonstrates the vitality of the eel in its natural habitat.
There are places in Japan where the eating of eel is prohibited since it is considered a servant of the Kami. For instance, in the Ishibara area of Kasukawa in Kurokawa-gun, Miyagi Prefecture, the eel is not eaten since it believed to be the servant of “Unnan-sama.” “Unnan-sama” appears to be a Kami of water worshiped at many small shrines in the Tohoku region. In Haga-gun, Tochigi Prefecture, it is said that since the icon on the ema (votive tablets) of Hoshinomiya Shrine is an eel, it is believed that one will be struck blind as punishment for eating eel, and it would not be eaten by dutiful families. The parishioners of Mishima Shrine in Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto City are prohibited from eating eel since it is the servant of the kami enshrined there and it is a common practice to offer ema with an eel inscribed on them. There is also a traditional belief in Tochigi Prefecture that the eel should not be eaten as it is an animal held dear by “Akiba-sama” and that the Bodhisattva Kokuzo (Akasagarbha) will punish those whoever ate eel. According to a belief from Hinase-cho in Wake-gun, Okayama Prefecture, eel cannot be eaten and will incur the punishment since in the past, the Bodhisattva Kokuzo rode a crab while holding an eel as a staff. There are many areas where the belief that the eel is a servant of the Bodhisattva Kokuzo, and there is the Misayama Festival in Amatsuko Minato-machi, Awa-gun, Chiba Prefecture and Suwa-gun, Nagano Prefecture where eels are released to pray for the health of children.
The southwest (hitsuji-saru) symbolizes softness, and the karei that appears in this direction is a fish that is flat and fluttery in appearance. Karei is written with the following kanji: 鰈. The right radical is also part of kanji such as cho (蝶 butterfly), shaberu (喋る speak) and cho (諜 espionage). This radical contains the connotation of thinness. The karei has been placed in an appropriate location to represent wind/breathing and speaking.
The west is the direction where the sun sets. It marks the end of daylight, the conclusion of rationality, death and the completion of life. The world after sunset is a world of darkness and night. If one were to take this momentarily in an affirmative manner, it symbolizes nocturne, a world of creative force and a place where the imagination soars. Taken in a negative manner, darkness represents chaos and disorder.
A black snake appears in this direction. A snake is an ominous creature, and the images and symbols it represents are many. It may be sufficient here to consider that the protection the snake symbolizes is ominous but at the same time has great spiritual force. In the age of the Tanakh, there were many people who lost their lives to snakes. Therefore it was the long-sought desire for those in leadership positions to save people from snakes. One means to do so was to seek rescue by worshiping snakes. For instance, Moses made a snake out of bronze and placed in on a pole (Numbers 21:9). People who looked upon it prayed for protection.
- The Shinmeikai kokugo jiten describes shachihokobaru as the act of tensing up in order to hold others at bay, avoid relinquishing authority or making a mistake (ほかの人を寄せつけまい、自分の権威を侵されまい、絶対失敗しまいなどと緊張して堅くなる, p. 561) ↩