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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > February, 2006 - Izanagi and Izanami
by Ross Robertson

Izanagi and Izanami by Ross Robertson

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The Brother and his Sister stood uncertainly contemplating a dilemma. Standing on the Floating Bridge, peering downward, they could go no further, as there was no solid place on which to stand. "How in the world are we supposed to bring order into Creation, if we ourselves have no place to stand?," they wondered. Eventually, the Old Ones who had originally assigned them this task came to their aid. A bejeweled spear was delivered into their possession.

Taking the formidable weapon in hand, He Who Invites thrust the tip of the spear into the ocean below, and stirred. When he withdrew the shaft, its tip was dripping with the warm salty water. The droplets fell back into the ocean, and began to crystallize, eventually forming an island. Smiling, She Who Invites looked lovingly into her brother's eyes. He returned her gaze, and simply said "Home." And so together they stepped into the First World.

After some time living in the new land, the Brother asked his Sister how things were with her. She replied "All is well. I am happy and my body is alive. Yet there is an emptiness inside and part of me will not grow together." He said to her, "It is the same with me, except there is one part of my body which grows more than the rest. Why don't we put these parts together, my prominence into your hollow, that we may again give life?" The Sister agreed, and so they made ready to perform their union ceremony.

Each of them circled around a pillar in opposite directions. The Sister went around to the right, and the Brother went around to the left. Meeting one another on the opposite side, Izanami greeted her Brother, complimenting him warmly. Izanagi embraced his Sister, and likewise praised her beauty.

Sadly, this first union of male and female produced a monstrous offspring in the form of a hideous leech-like creature. Disgusted, the Husband and Wife sent the child into the sea. Suspecting that there had been an error in their love-making, they consulted the deities, who confirmed that Izanami's initiative had been out of order. Returning to the sacred pillar, the ceremony was repeated, this time with the Brother speaking first, saying "Ah, what a fair and lovely maiden." Izanami, now in her turn, replied "Ah, what a fair and lovely youth." This time, their intercourse proved fruitful indeed, and the world was multiplied.

Yet again their happiness was cut short. After many offspring, Izanami died while giving birth to a Fire-Child. Enraged, Izanagi cut off the head of the child, and his tears and the blood of the infant gave rise to yet more beings. With great remorse the Brother/Husband buried his Sister/Wife. Thus did death come into the world.

Unable to bear the pain of separation, Izanagi journeyed to the underworld to retrieve his beloved bride. At last he came upon her, but the in the darkness could not see her face. "Ah, my Sister!" he exclaimed, "We are not done with our creation, please return to me!" Izanami longed to be reunited, but explained that she had eaten the food of the place of death, and could never return. Even so, she bade him wait while she petitioned the infernal deities.

A long time passed, and Izanagi could not contain his impatience. Lighting a fire with which to guide his way, he eventually came upon Izanami's rotting corpse, filled with maggots and surrounded by demons. Horrified, he cried out. Izanami was equally shocked, ashamed to be seen in that form, but also enraged that her Brother did not keep his word and wait for her as promised. She chased after him angrily, and he fled the world of darkness.

The lovers part company, forever separated by the stone that seals the exit to the Underworld. Divorced both by decree and by circumstance, the task of creation must carry on without benefit of Divine Intercourse. The legends tell more tales, mostly of the subsequent exploits and offspring of Izanagi, but the rift between the primordial Male and Female is never healed.

Mythical Interpretation

Analysis of any mythical structure is an ongoing process, never definitive. Nevertheless, key features can be identified and explored. In the case of Izanagi and Izanami, we will look at the creation of the world, the union of male and female, and the necessity of cosmic order.

The story of Izanami and Izanagi represents balanced creation occurring. Male and Female principles operate jointly and in accord, but each with its particular part to play. In the first act of creation, the Male and Female pair serve as the conduit for Heaven to unite with the formless world below. The divine phallic spear is inserted into the amniotic void, and form arises. Although Izanagi is represented as wielding the spear, it has clearly been given to both brother and sister, and it is their joint task to create the world. Their combined efforts appear quite successful in this first episode of creation. In this phase, the pair is operating in a primarily male, or yang capacity.

Once in the world of form, the mythical siblings are able to discover their complementary physical properties. But before they can combine in sexual union as we understand it, they must first encircle a sacred pillar. This pillar is reminiscent of the Spear of Heaven. This time, however, rather than actively wielding the Male Force, they encompass its perimeter by their ritual dance. Now the pair jointly acts in a yin, or feminine capacity.

Both the Spear (Amenonuhoko) and the Pillar (Amenomihashira) may be understood to represent the Axis Mundi. The primordial ocean and the encircling nuptial gesture represent the Primal Womb. Thus, Izanagi and Izanami are facilitators of the Masculine and Feminine, even as they themselves are emblems of the same. Once the cosmic forces are conjoined in divine intercourse, the couple may then recapitulate these forces, but closer to a human scale.

The First Error occurs because of Izanami's hasty greeting during their first nuptial ceremony. While it is tempting to interpret this as a sexist tale where women must keep their place, mythical understanding of Masculine and Feminine forces are not to be imposed on the biologically male and female. The Feminine is always understood to be a receptive agent, and in her enthusiasm, Izanami became momentarily yang. Nevertheless, it is equally true that Izanagi failed to be true to his nature, by not asserting his initiative soon enough. The lapse is not one of violence or mischief, for each partner is genuinely eager to be joined with the other. Rather, it is a ritual misstep, but sufficient to pollute their union. It is particularly poignant that these great creator deities can suffer from an awkward lack of experience when it comes to proper courtship.

In the second marriage episode, all goes well, and healthy offspring result. Male and Female are rightly balanced. They move in accord with one another.

Izanami's tragic death in childbirth is more difficult to interpret. Here we see the results of the Second Error. That she gives birth to fire is significant. Fire is not only an elemental phenomenon, but is also understood to represent knowledge, technology, and culture. In many myths worldwide, the introduction of fire into human affairs is seen as a mixed blessing, and often accompanied by misfortune. One variant of the Izanagi/Izanami tale holds that the elder brother recognized the absence of Fire in the world, and insisted on conceiving it in his sister. It may be that this over-assertiveness upset the right balance of things, signifying and imbalance of yang. Of course, it may also be that the myth is simply conveying a fundamental truth -- that pain is a natural part of the creative process, and that death is inevitable.

The events that take place in the underworld establish the final symmetry of the cycle. If Izanami is to blame for the First Error, it is Izanagi who fails in recovering his beloved from the land of the dead. Here is the Third Error. We will never know if Izanami's petition to the dark lords would have been successful. The attempt is aborted because Izanagi cannot abide passively while the matter is in Izanami's hands. Here again, the Male qualities of action and initiative are out of balance, being instead intrusive and mistrustful. Up to this time, the lovers had been eager for a reunion, but now they each are horrified and disgusted by the other, and an apparently permanent rift results.

Izanami takes her place in the realm of death and darkness; Inzanagi returns to the land of light and life. Although producing more progeny on his own, he remains bereft, and eventually retires from the world of manifestation. The children of Izanagi and Izanami now become the central characters in the ongoing universal drama. In this way, the cycle concludes with a kind of balance restored, albeit via a symmetry that assumes some degree of perpetual loneliness and misery.

Izanami and Izanagi in Aikido

What can we derive from this strange story to benefit our aikido practice? Reportedly the tale was important, even central, to O-Sensei's understanding of aikido, so we would do well not to dismiss it out of hand. O-Sensei's brand of mysticism may be far out of reach for most of us, but we might still ask if there are practical lessons to be intuited from peering into the Founder's world-view.

First, the names of these creator deities mean "He Who Invites," and "She Who Invites." This is reminiscent of our terms in aikido (at least in many styles) of uke and tori. "Uke" is derived from the verb "to receive, to accept." "Tori" is similarly "to take, catch hold of." In both cases we have complementary opposites who are nevertheless described by nearly identical terms. In all cases, there is the implication of receptivity.

Izanagi and Izanami are the primordial Male and Female. They are the personification of Yin and Yang. Different, but equal. Opposite, but complimentary. In aikido, uke is the one who initiates the encounter, and receives (invites) the technique. Tori receives the initiative, and returns the compliment.

The erotic element is key. Izanami has a part of her "which does not grow together," while Izanagi has a part that "grows to excess." Remember that "aiki" is about proper joining. The pieces have to fit. When the Brother and Sister deities come together in the right way, Takemusu Aiki (creative or generative power) is the result. When the joining is out of order, there may be monstrous consequences.

In aikido, we likewise must be aware of openings and lines of resistance. We must make openings to accommodate an incoming force. We extend our own force into any safe opening. So long as the shapes continue to match one another, aikido emerges spontaneously and organically. By learning to identify each element of yin and yang and responding with the right fit, the system remains in balance. Creativity and life sustaining activity emanates from the interaction.

Another important element of the myth is the central axis, at first manifested as a spear, later as a pillar. The heroes are unable to complete their task until first connecting with this axis which unites the upper and lower worlds. Only then can creation occur. In practical terms, this relates to our posture, as it is very difficult to move and turn effectively with a broken axis.

But more importantly, this axis is the essence of ikkyo, the fundamental technique underlying all others. It defines the line of gravity, and establishes the basis for dimensionality and spatial order. When the pair of lovers first seize the spear, they are establishing the vertical dimension. When they circumscribe the pillar, they establish the horizontal dimension. In their ritual act, we also see harmonious creation described in circular motion. Further, the axis is shared, not dominated by either of the partners.

O-Sensei asserted that aikido is a creative and life-giving force, different from all other budo. Yet we know from practice and from the myth of Izanami and Izanagi that this is not always easy, even when the partners mean to cooperate. In practice, we know that errors emerge when we are too passive or too aggressive. In the creation myth, the original sin seems to be a lack of patience. Whether Male or Female, disaster comes whenever we cannot wait our turn. In aikido we know that we must not only do the right things, we must do them in the right order. This is true for both uke and tori. Doing the right thing at the wrong time will disrupt the natural progression of the encounter.

In this way, the myth establishes order in space (by insertion of an axis implying dimension) and time (by asserting a ritual sequence that must be followed). Matter and energy may then participate in the creative dance. In aikido, we learn to develop our awareness of spatial relationships and proper timing, and the geometries of matter and energy are allowed to balance and fit one another.

The myth ends tragically. The Lovers -- Brother and Sister, Husband and Wife -- become enemies. The clear implication is that they are forever estranged, and that pain and alienation are our inheritance. Yet I suspect that O-Sensei believed that the emergence of aikido is the inevitable continuation of the cosmic drama. Through aikido, enemies may become lovers.

That aikido is a martial art is a given. It is necessary that we begin in the world of violence, destruction, death, and defeat. Yet aikido is also proclaimed to be a new kind of martial art (or else a return to the primal origin of budo). Aikido is an art of protection, not of conquest. The hard discipline of aikido teaches us to correct ourselves rather than control others.

Much of our practice is wandering around in a dark and terrifying place, looking for life, looking for the beautiful face of our beloved. Much of our practice is filled with the certainty of our mortality, at once shameful and outrageous. Our partners may be disgusting or infuriating. We may run as if in a nightmare, desperate to find the way out. And yet the way out is the way of separation.

Still, there are times when we meet and all the elements come together. Perhaps both partners join in mutual affinity, or perhaps just one has accidentally stepped into the divine secret. But we know those moments in practice where heaven and earth are one. No longer dancing, but moved by the dance.

In this martial art there is joy, beauty, and infinite conciliation. In this art we meet as brothers and sisters. For all the necessary seriousness and discipline, it is the moments of sexiness and fun that make it real. At these times we reunite Izanami and Izanagi. By the look in their eyes and the smiles on their faces, you know when they meet and remember.

He Who Invites, and She Who Invites...

What is it that you are inviting?

To what are you invited?

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Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas and only occasionally gets to use his anthropology degree.

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