ARTICLE

What Do Myths Tell Us?

Exploring the Kojiki

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Prof. Kikuko Hirafuji

Updated on Feb 18 2020

The fantastic Takachiho-Kyo surrounded by a sea of clouds (Miyazaki)

     Myths are fantastic tales filled with deities and animals that take otherworldly forms and possess superhuman powers. Sarutahiko, the deity of guidance, has an unbelievably long nose, red mouth and buttocks, and sparkly eyes, while Sukunahikona, a deity associated with hot springs, is small enough to slip and fall through one’s fingers.

     How did such mysterious tales come to be? People have considered several reasons for this since long ago, but one of the most common ideas states that myths are symbolic expressions of the natural world and ethical principles. We can interpret the myth of Amaterasu fearing Susa-no-O’s violence and hiding in the Amano-Iwato (Heavenly Cave) as a great storm blocking out the sun or as a solar eclipse. Another theory argues that historical events inspired the creation of myths. Many people today interpret the tale of Amaterasu asking Ōkuninushi to relinquish the earthly realm of Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni and her emissary Takemikazuchi using force to achieve this task as a myth that describes the history of the Yamato court battling with and conquering neighboring kingdoms.

     However, no one really knows for sure which theory is true. Any number of interpretations may be possible, and in many cases, mystery begets mystery.

     One such mystery is why similar myths exist in areas that are geographically isolated from each other. Did people spread these myths to other places in spite of the great distances, or is everything just a coincidence? Research into the human mind developed in the twentieth century, and with it came the idea that the human mind gives birth to myths. Assumptions were also presented that, on the subconscious level, people shared certain aspects that went beyond the individual. This way of thinking has made similarities between myths in faraway places, as well as similarities between individual dreams and myths, seem plausible.

     Serpent-like monsters such as the Yamata-no-Orochi appear in myths all over the world and play the role of antagonist to the heroes that vanquish them. Why serpents? Since even small children these days shriek in terror when they see a snake for the first time in their lives, we can see that the fear of snakes exists in all of us as the lingering sense of danger our distant ancestors felt for these animals while they were hunting and gathering. Thus, the existence of heroes who slay serpents can be explained by the history and ecology of the human race.

     In essence, the mystery of myths is also the mystery of humankind. Further research on the human race may be the key to unlocking the mystery of myths.

 

Kikuko Hirafuji

Research

Mythology, Religious Study, History of Religion

Papers

Translation Issues in Kojiki: God, Deity, or Spirit?(2016/01/01)

“Deities in Japanese popular culture”(2014/06/01)

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