The Unique Animals that Appear in the Kojiki

Exploring the Kojiki

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Prof. Kikuko Hirafuji

Updated on Dec 03 2019

Kasugataisha shrine and deer, Nara City

     The protagonists of myths are of course deities and heroes. Nevertheless, there are many unique animals in Japanese mythology that are equally important.

     By reading through the tales of these animals, we are able to gain clues as to the kinds of animals the Japanese people of ancient times lived with, and the various emotions they harbored towards them. From there, it is also possible to think about the relationship between ancient Japanese people and nature.

     For example, there are numerous tales in mythology that feature deer. While there are deer that play an important role as messengers of the heavenly deities, there is a tale about a dreaming and flirtatious deer. There is also a deer that is reprimanded for eating rice seedlings, and thus swears not only to himself but on behalf of his descending kin never to destroy the rice fields again. Although in Japan today we don’t see deer here and there in our surroundings, they were no doubt very familiar animals to ancient Japanese people. They were also regarded as vermin that devastated crops. Perhaps the tale of the flirtatious deer was born out of knowing the ecology of deer and their habit of polygamy. 

     Meanwhile, there are also many tales in which serpents appear. There are some serpents like the Yamata no Orochi that emerge in a gigantic and terrifying appearance to bring fear and trouble to people, and there are other tales that depict gods appearing in the form of serpents. Furthermore, there are tales of marriages between humans and serpents. In the middle of the night, Prince Homuchiwake, the son of Emperor Suinin, secretly looks upon his first love that he married under the belief she was a beautiful woman. Startled to find her a serpent, he soon flees. Princess Yamatotobimomoso-hime, who was the daughter of Emperor Korei, asked for her husband who only appeared at nighttime, to reveal himself to her. Coming face to face with her husband the following morning on the condition that she wouldn’t be taken by surprise, the princess saw that he was a small and beautiful serpent. Angered by the fact that the princess had been unable to stop herself from crying out in alarm, her husband leaves. This husband was in fact the god of Mount Miwa. Tales of marriage between animals and humans that fail as a result of having witnessed one’s spouse’s true identity can be found not only in the myths and folklore of Japan, but also those of many other regions. Why are such tales told? The myths of animals present us with an endless array of mystery.

     Going forward, I would like to introduce various tales in Japanese mythology that feature animals. From a hare that became a godly prophet soon after healing from a severe injury having been stripped of its fur for tricking a wani (presumably a shark), to a crow that guides the descendants of Amaterasu, a gigantic serpent with eight heads and eight tails, and deer that served as messengers of the gods – let us engage with the mysteries surrounding these animals, and delve deeper into the world of Japanese mythology.



Mythology, Religious Study, History of Religion


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