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Izanami: The Japanese Goddess of Creation and Death

Izanami, the japanese goddess of creation and death

Izanami, the female counterpart to the male deity Izanagi, is one of the most important goddesses in Japanese mythology. As a deity associated with both creation and death, Izanami has a complex and multifaceted role in the Shinto religion and Japan’s cultural history. Her tragic tale provides insight into ancient Japanese views on life, death, and the mysterious forces that connect the mortal realm and the afterlife.

The Mythological Origins of Izanami

In the Shinto belief system, Izanami was the sister and wife of the god Izanagi. Together with him, she gave birth to the islands of Japan and numerous other deities who went on to shape the natural world.

Izanami was born from chaos and nothingness along with her brother/husband Izanagi. The two deities were tasked by older gods with creating order and form in the primordial universe. To accomplish this, they were given a jeweled spear called Amenonuhoko. Standing on the heavenly bridge, Izanagi and Izanami dipped the spear into the ocean below. When the water dripped from the spear, it formed the first landmass—the island Onogoro.

Descending onto this island, Izanagi and Izanami erected a pillar called Amenomihashira and built a palace around it named Yashirodono. It was here that the two deities made their home and united in marriage. Their procreation brought forth the islands of Japan and numerous kami or deities embodying elements of the natural world.

Izanami’s Role as the Goddess of Creation

As the female deity of creativity and fertility, Izanami played a key role in populating the world and giving birth to the elements that shaped the land. Her main creative acts include:

The Marriage of Izanami and Izanagi

Izanami and Izanagi’s sacred marriage ritual served as the generative spark for creation. When they circled the pillar in opposite directions and met on the other side, their first offspring was Hiruko, the leech-child. Hiruko was an incomplete deity, so his parents cast him away.

Realizing their mistake, Izanami and Izanagi redid their ritual according to proper traditions. This time, their union brought forth the eight main islands of Japan: Awaji, Iyo (later Shikoku), Oki, Tsukushi (Kyūshū), Iki, Tsushima, Sado, and Yamato (Honshū).

The Creation of the Japanese Islands

Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan from the smallest ones like Awaji to the largest like Honshū. She and Izanagi were tasked with structuring the land into a habitable place. The creation of the islands established Japan as a land of divine origin.

The Birth of Various Deities

In addition to the islands, Izanami gave birth to a myriad of powerful gods and goddesses:

  • Ukemochi, goddess of food
  • Ogetsuhime, goddess of food, water, and happiness
  • Kaya-no-hime, goddess of grass and fields
  • Kagu-tsuchi, god of fire
  • Suijin, god of water
  • Kuraokami, god of rain and snow
  • Iwasaku, god of stone masonry
  • Narukami, god of thunder
  • Fujin, god of wind

Through these deities, Izanami and Izanagi populated the natural world and established the forces that shaped the land and allowed for civilization.

Izanami’s Role as the Goddess of Death

Izanami the Japanese Goddess of Creation and Death_Illustration1

While Izanami created life, her role ended in tragedy and she became associated with death and darkness. Her mythology explained much about Japan’s views surrounding mortality.

The Myth of Izanami’s Descent to the Underworld

When giving birth to the volatile fire god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanami suffered severe burns from his flames. She perished from her wounds and descened into Yomi-no-kuni, the underworld.

Izanagi mourned his wife and followed her to the dark realm of Yomi. But Izanami had already eaten the food of spirits, binding her to the underworld. She became the ruler of the dead.

Izanami as the Ruler of Yomi, the Land of the Dead

As the goddess of Yomi, the underworld, Izanami presided over the dead souls that entered her dark realm. She had the power to assign these spirits their fate. Izanami became a figure associated with death and fear, capable of curses and disease.

Yet her role was not purely malevolent. She provided care and guidance to dead souls and ensured they reached their proper place in the afterlife.

Rituals and Offerings to Honor Izanami and Console the Souls of the Dead

Izanami’s shrines were built outside of communities since she represented impurity and death. Followers attempted to appease her restless soul through offerings and rituals. She was honored during festivals like Obon, when it was believed ancestral spirits returned home. Rituals also aimed to console the souls of the recently deceased so they would not haunt the living.

Izanami ruled the underworld, but between her destructive potential and role as nurturer, she took on a nuanced position in Japan’s mythology and traditional views of the afterlife.

The Complex Duality of Izanami

Izanami’s mythology presents a complex duality between her roles as creator and destroyer.

Izanami’s Influence on the Concepts of Life and Death in Japanese Religion and Culture

Izanami’s tragic tale established important ideas surrounding death, impurity, and rebirth. Her story influenced rituals and customs related to death, funerals, and interacting with ancestral spirits. She represented the fine line between the living world and the world of the dead.

The Symbolism Associated with Izanami in Art and Literature

Izanami has been portrayed in various, sometimes conflicting ways—as a generative mother goddess, a fearsome deity of curses and disease, and a tragic romantic figure mourning her separation from Izanagi. Her dual nature left much room for artistic interpretation.

Izanami in Contemporary Culture

While no longer an actively worshipped deity, Izanami remains an iconic figure in Japanese media and popular culture. She appears in manga, anime, video games, and modern fiction. Her legend still resonates due to the universal themes of love, loss, and the afterlife.

Conclusion

Izanami’s mythic narrative provides insight into the ancient Japanese view of the endless dance between life and death. As a creator and destroyer, mother and ruler of the underworld, Izanami embodies the infinite cycles that govern existence itself. Her tragic romance and fall from grace is a tale that continues to fascinate.

Key Takeaways

Izanami the Japanese Goddess of Creation and Death_Illustration2

  • Along with Izanagi, Izanami created the islands of Japan and deities linked to nature
  • Her death after birthing the volatile fire god associated her with the underworld
  • Izanami presided over the dead in Yomi and influenced views of the afterlife
  • She had contrasting roles as both a generative mother and destructive goddess
  • Izanami remains an iconic figure in Japanese media and popular culture

FAQs

What is Izanami the goddess of?

Izanami is the goddess of creation and death. She created the islands of Japan but later ruled over the underworld realm of Yomi after dying in childbirth.

How did Izanami create Japan?

Izanami and Izanagi used their jeweled spear to stir the primordial chaos, with the dripping liquid forming the islands of Japan. Their creative acts populated the natural world.

How did Izanami die?

When giving birth to the volatile fire god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanami was severely burned and perished from her wounds, descending into the underworld Yomi.

What is Izanami’s role in the afterlife?

As the ruler of Yomi, Izanami presided over dead souls, assigning their fate in the afterlife. She represented death and darkness but also offered guidance to spirits.

Did Izanami give birth to Amaterasu? 

Izanami did give birth to Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe. According to the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, Amaterasu was born from the left eye of Izanagi, when he purified himself in a river after escaping from the underworld.

Why was Izanami important to Japanese culture?

Izanami shaped views of the afterlife and rituals concerning death and spirits. Her tragic legend resonated due to universal themes, leading to her appearance in Japanese art and popular media.

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