The Tale of Izanami and Izanagi

"Izanami and Izanagi Creating the Japanese Islands" Kobayashi Eitaku mid 1880s Japan | Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The story of Izanagi and Izanami is the creation myth of the Shinto religion that is told in the Nihonshoki, Kojiki, and Kogoshui, which are “collections of oral myths” written during the eighth and ninth centuries C.E.1 The myth begins with “something light and transparent” rising up from a sea of “boundless, shapeless” chaos and becoming the Plain of High Heaven.2

"Carved and painted Gateway at Nikko" Felice Beato Nikko, Japan 1863-1868
Carved and painted Gateway at Nikko | Felice Beato – Nikko, Japan | 1863-1868

Then the Three Creating Deities spring forth from the Plain: Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Mikoto, Takami-Musubi-no-Mikoto, and Kammi-Misubi-no-Mikoto.3 Meanwhile, the sea of chaos had become the earth, but the land floated “resembling oil” on the water. Then, the gods Umashi-Ashi-Kahibi-Hikoji-no-Mikoto and Ame-no-Tokotachi-no-Mikoto spring forth from the land. After this, many other gods were born until one day, a pair of gods named Izanagi and Izanami were given a spear decorated with jewels by the other gods and told to create solid land, as these gods did not have anything to do.3

Izanagi and Izanami then stood on Ama-no-hashidate, the “bridge or stairway of heaven.”5 They were initially confused as to how they were supposed to create solid land until Izanagi proposed that they stick the spear into the water and stir it around. Izanagi then stuck the spear into water, hit something, and noticed that the substance that dripped from the spear when he took it out became the island of Onogoro.6 Izanami  and Izanagi then built a home on Onogoro and conducted a marriage ritual that involved them circling around a pillar, Izanami traveling in one direction and Izanagi traveling in the other direction. The first time they did this, Izanami was the first to greet Izanagi when they met.7 Despite Izanagi’s belief that Izanami should not have spoken first, they conceived a child.8

Unfortunately, their first child, the god Hiruko, was born deformed and boneless, so Izanagi and Izanami put Hiruko in a boat and abandoned him to the sea. Izanami then gave birth to the island of Awa, but the couple were still unhappy with their children, so they decided to ask the other gods what to do.9 The other gods told the couple that Izanagi was supposed to greet Izanami during their marriage ritual, not the other way around. Izanagi and Izanami then performed the marriage ritual correctly and from that point forward were pleased with their children, who included the “eight principal islands of Japan.”10

Izanami and Izanagi then gave birth to many other gods. Unfortunately, their happiness would not last. While Izanami was giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi, she suffered painful burns and, despite Izanagi’s attempts to save her life, died from her burns.11 Izanagi was devastated by his wife’s death and, in his rage, decapitated Kagutsuchi with his sword. Many deities were spawned from Kagutsuchi’s blood and corpse.12

Heartbroken and desperate to see his wife again, Izanagi decided to go down into Yomi-tsu-kuni, the underworld, and bring Izanami back to life. Unfortunately, Izanami was unable to leave the underworld as she had already eaten its food.13 Izanami decided to appeal to the gods of the underworld to allow her to return to life, but she made Izanagi promise to wait for her and told him not to try to see her or “look inside the castle” of the underworld until she came back. Izanagi agreed, but he quickly became anxious to see Izanami. Eventually the wait proved too much for Izanagi, so he lit part of a comb that he had with him on fire and attempted to see Izanami.14 However, he soon found out firsthand why Izanami did not want him to see her. Izanami’s body was rotting away and “eight Thunder-Deities” were “dwelling there” within her body. The very sight of it caused Izanagi to flee in fear, which along with the fact that he broke his promise, angered Izanami.15 She swore to make him “suffer for his perfidy” and ordered “an army of female demons to chase him out of the underworld.”16 During Izanagi’s escape, he threw his stick down, which created the two gods of the road, and pushed a boulder into the entrance of the underworld so that he could safely get away.17 Afterwards, while bathing in the river Woto in order to clean “the impurities of the underworld” off of him, multiple other gods were created when he took off his clothes and washed various parts of his body. This is why followers of Shintoism purify themselves before entering shrines.17 Izanami and Izanagi are commemorated in the “wedded rocks of Meotoiwa.” The “wedded rocks of Meotoiwa” are a pair of rocks representing Izanagi and Izanami that are linked by a  “sacred long rope” representing their marriage.17

  1. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified December 06, 2012, http://www.ancient.eu /Izanami_and_Izanagi/.
  2. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth,” in Reading about the World, Volume 1, trans. Yachiro Isobe, n.d.
  3. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  4. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  5. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  6. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  7. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  8. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  9. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  10. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  11. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  12. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  13. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  14. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  15. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  16. Genji Shibukawa, “Japanese Creation Myth.”
  17. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  18. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  19. Mark Cartwright, “Izanami and Izanagi,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
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25 Comments

  • The dramatic love story of Izanami and Izanagi is one I am all too familiar with due to the fact I took a Japanese class in my high school and got to study abroad in Tokyo over one of my summers too! This article perfectly captured all of the important details and made all of it easy to digest which I found perfect as this story is a wild ride from start to finish; It still does make me feel bad knowing that what caused all of this was because he lost his wife during child birth and then killed his child because of it.

  • I never would have expected this story to be the origins of the Shinto religion. It is rather interesting how gods spawn form these two gods. It is also unexpected how this is the origin story of the island of Japan. Shinto is a very old religion and I am surprised how the Japanese are able to sustain such a close connection to their past.

  • Nice article. The creation story of the Shinto religion is quite extraordinary and creative. It shows you how great their minds were, and how well flushed out their religious beliefs were. It is such a sad story that involved death and mourning by the two gods. It is sad that Izanagi just wanted to see his wife again and bring her back with him, but when he looked at her he found her to be much different than what she was before. It shows how much he grieved and missed his wife.

  • Wow, this is a very fascinating article and one that I have never heard of before. The tale of Izanami and Izanagi is sad due to the fact that Izanami dies while giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi. This ultimately led to many conflicts between Izanami and Izanagi. The promise made by Izanagi, which was to wait for his wife was broken, causing Izanami to swear to make him suffer. Overall, a very interesting topic selection. Good work.

  • This dramatic love story is so exciting and dramatic. The article is well written and well informed in the tales of this story. It breaks my heart to find out how he lost his wife in childbirth and then killed the child out of heartbreak and anger. And how he ran away when he saw that his wife was literally rotting away in the underworld. I understand him though, because if I had seen that then yes I would have run away as well.

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