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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.