What are the myths about Japan

Nelly NAUMANN: The myths of ancient Japan. Translated and explained by Nelly Naumann. Munich: C. H. Beck 1996. 231 pp.

With this beautiful book, the renowned Japanologist Nelly Naumann, who taught in Freiburg until 1986, publishes an extract from the summa her life's work to research the religious ideas and mythology of prehistoric Japan. Since the beginning of the 1990s, it has been received mostly very positively by a specialist audience, declared "compulsory reading for Japanese studies and religious scholars" [1] and supplemented by a continuation volume in 1994, putting Naumann's work over The indigenous religion of Japan undoubtedly represents a permanent monument in the scientific study of the religions of Japan. [2] The present book is now based closely on those sections of the first volume of this work that deal with Japanese myths, [3] in order to make their basic features and characteristics accessible to a broader (specialist) audience interested in mythology and its interpretation . M. W. was the last time such an attempt was made in German in the sixties, when the Japanologist and Haguenauer student E. Dale Saunders in the context of a three-volume overview of the Myths of the Peoples presented an easily understandable and very popular summary of the mythical accounts of Japan, which reached a wide audience, but could hardly meet the scientific standards of the time. [4]

After a rather brief "introduction" (pp. 1-22), in which both conceptual questions ("What do we understand by myth?", Pp. 1-2) and the sources of Japanese mythology, primarily Kojiki ("Record of old events", 712) and Nihongi ("Annalen Japans", 720) will be presented (p. 3-15) and their historical research will be discussed (p. 15-22), Naumann divides her interpretive presentation of Japanese mythology into three large parts: The section "Theogony, Cosmogony, Cosmology "(p. 23-56) includes creation myth and beginning of the world as well as the work of the first parents Izanagi and Izanami. It ends with the cleaning of Izanagi, which became necessary after visiting the world of the dead, during which the so-called "three illustrious children" arise. In addition to the moon god Tsukuyomi, these are, as is well known, Susanoo and Amaterasu, the divine siblings, whose further fate will determine the "mythical world order", which Naumann examines in the central part of her book (pp. 57-129). The analysis is always preceded by a literal translation of the sources that is at the same time freed from unnecessary archaisms, and which in future will at least be on an equal footing with the relevant passages from the classical Florence of Florence Nihongi-Translation will have to be provided and this is often preferable for stylistic reasons.

With the argument between Amaterasu and her disobedient brother Susanoo, his "bad boyish pranks", the hiding of the sun goddess and the lure out of the rock cave, the penance of Susanoo, finally the rule of his son Ônamuchi (or Ôkuninushi) over the "central land of the reed fields" (of the earth), not only the dramaturgy of the mythical reports rushes from climax to climax, but also the interpretative skill of the author, who presents the results of some twenty years of research in a condensed form. Reference is made to these again and again in the course of the investigation. [5] After translating the relevant passages Kojiki and Nihongi the events or mythologemes contained therein are analyzed, even dissected, in order to "not" explain "the pure myth" (p. 21), in accordance with Naumann's plan, but rather to "understand" it "(p . 2), as formulated based on Franz Vonessen. [6] Impressive remains, for example, how Naumann emerged from the tangle of different strands of myths of very different origins, which were also superimposed by a layer of political and ideological interests in the construction of mythology in the 8th century - "the Japanese myths (owe) their recording of political intent "(P. 8)! -, working out the characteristics of the god Susanoo as a "weeping deity". [7] It harbors the ambivalence of a death-bringing as well as life-giving God of great power:

With his tears, with the water of death, Susa no wo had brought death to nature, but this nature must not remain forever in the rigidity of death, it must be revived. The water of death must necessarily be followed by the water of life. Saliva, nasal flow and tears of the god, whose negative, demonic powers have now been driven out, now become the water of life, which gives life back to nature. The eternal cycle from life to death, from death to life, is set in motion. (P. 93)
The author not only knows how to interpret the apparently contradicting character of the Susanoo coherently on the basis of the written sources, but also to show the presumably old age of the ideas preserved in this form: figurines, masks and plaques that date back to the 3rd millennium BC (the Middle Jômon period) can already be interpreted as schematic representations with "weeping faces", which Naumann citing Carl Hentze's studies on cult, religion and archeology of ancient China [8] with one in prehistoric times about China brings the widespread moon deity into context as far as the Middle East, "who has the water of life and is therefore generally life-giver" (p. 95). The snake, whose ability to shed its skin is to be seen as an obvious expression of regeneration, belongs in this context, which goes back far into prehistory and transcends the Japanese, even the East Asian cultural area.

Thus, through Nelly Naumann's sovereign interpretation, Japanese mythology can not only be linked to individual motifs from other mythologies, but also permanent results of Japanese research are made accessible and understandable to a broader readership in this book. This applies not only, as already mentioned above, to the work of the author herself, but, as in the final chapter of the middle part, for example, to Klaus Antoni's study on the myth of the "white rabbit by Inaba" (p. 114ff.) ]

In the third section (pp. 130-193) the "political myth" is then explained using the most important passages of Kojiki and Nihongi presented in translation and commented on. Ultimately, this is about the transition from "myth to pseudo-history" (p. 176ff.) And with the descent of the heavens Ninigi as well as the mandate of the sun goddess to lay the foundations of the legitimation for imperial rule, which is not only for the editors of the mythology in the 8th century were of utmost relevance - until the 20th century, these myths were known to be used whenever there was evidence of the Tennô "in his capacity as god" (kannagara) went. The first of these "human emperors" with divine ancestors takes on the stage with Kamu-Yamato Iwarebiko, posthumously called Jimmu Tennô, and immediately proves to be a successful general who not only subdues hostile groups during his conquest to the east, but also himself after the conquest of Yamato settles in Kashiwara and establishes the empire.

At the end of this part, Nelly Naumann once again outlines the various "red threads" that run through the mythical fabric and in turn represent different cultural traditions that have existed since the Yayoi period (approx. 300 BC - 300 AD) at the latest. shaped the prehistory and early history of Japan. It is not only a question of evaluating the mythical subjugation of insubordinate tribes as an indication of the cultural or ethnic heterogeneity of the inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago, which can be proven up to historical times, but - and this has always been one of the main concerns of the author - two strands of tradition that are likely to be of fundamentally different origins, to be dissected out of the mythical fabric harmonized on the basis of political interests. As Naumann can show, the "northern" tradition, which includes a. with the sky tree bears traits of Northeast Asian cosmology and is also likely to have brought influences of Siberian shamanism to Japan, a "southern" opposite, in which a. rice cultivation played a central role (also) in beliefs. These traditions are represented in mythology by two deities: the "northern" by Takamimusubi, who im Kojiki already appears in the context of creation, whereby this "only (forms) the prelude for his later intervention, whenever decisive events with regard to the descent and legitimation of the imperial house" (p. 192). The "southern" tradition is embodied by the sun goddess Amaterasu, which - at least according to Naumann's analysis - is not "the ... mythical tradition ... of the imperial family that is concerned with rule and legitimation" (p. 193) In view of later drafts of the origins of Japanese history and the dominant role of the sun goddess in it, this is probably not an insignificant insight. Naumann sums up:

The imperial family in particular had to be concerned with integrating the "southern" component, for which rice cultivation and the worship of the sun goddess were at the center, and thus consolidating its own power. Takamimusubi and the sun goddess, "northern" and "southern" tradition, are fused into one in the Heavenly Grandson [Ninigi, K. V.] (p. 193).
This finding has implications far beyond preoccupation with the mythology of ancient Japan. Because Nelly Naumann has once again pointed to the unmistakably powerful influence of the maritime Siberian cultures on early Japan, a direction that the ethnologist Ôbayashi Taryô (incidentally, under the reference to the work of the German Japanologist, which is extremely rare for Japanese standards) his Japanese colleagues strongly recommends, if there is to be further advances in knowledge in the field of Japanese ethnogenesis: "We may conclude that a prerequisite for further progress in research is that more scholars direct their attention to the north." [10]

The preoccupation with one's own ethnogenesis is not only a matter for experts in Japan, but also meets with widespread, general interest and is cultivated in a correspondingly prominent position in the media. Apart from archaeological findings, the mythological texts from Kojiki and Nihongi been used to decipher the political events of early Japanese history. Probably for reasons of space, we have refrained from going into the relevance of myths for the interpretation of ethnogenetic facts. For a new edition that would be desirable for the volume, this topic should definitely be taken into account in the bibliography, which unfortunately does not even contain the current, easily understandable overview Ôbayashis written in German. [11] In any case, the four-page selection of literature at the end of the book seems all too modest. It would be desirable if references to recent and groundbreaking research had been given here. Especially if, like Naumann, one justly and convincingly underpins the doctrine that "the Japanese myths (owe) their recording of political intent" (see above), one cannot avoid the study by Gary Ebersole published in 1989, for example. the function of the texts of Kojiki and Nihongi for political practice in 7th and 8th century Japan. [12]

The final chapter of the book, "Aftermath of Myth" (pp. 194-206), contains a concise and brilliantly written summary of the term "Shintô", which at the same time provides further evidence of how little separates Japanese mythology from political interests is, yes, obviously its real "strengths" unfolded here. For this reason, however, the question arises whether the work of religious studies by Mircea Eliade or Karl Kerény - authors to whom Naumann refers - is particularly suitable for interpreting Japanese mythology in particular. Eliade is particularly interested in the religious in an archaic time before all history; Not infrequently, features of a "backward-looking utopia" associated with the "sacred" and archaic have been identified in him. [13] It would therefore certainly be worthwhile to use other models of the interpretation of myths that link the mythical texts more closely to the historical conditions in which they were created. In its ambiguity, the term myth is very productive to this day. Finally, in the 20th century, the discourse on mythology multiplied to such an extent that "clear lines of development can only be identified with difficulty due to the numerous cross-references, even between authors of different origins". [14] The author seems to adopt the distinction between "real" and "false" myths from Kerény, and from Eliade the view that myth is "the story of what is itself in illo tempore the report about what the gods or the divine beings did at the beginning of time. "[15] Thus the author writes in her introduction:

Myths set a precedent as an ideal and guarantee for the continuation, a precedent not only for rite and cult, but, as Eliade emphasizes above all, a precedent for the modalities of reality in general. Eliade never tires of pointing out that the events reported in the real myth are all in illo tempore took place in a primeval time before time. What happened then determines everything that happens next, be it sacred acts, be it the essence of this world and of all things, including human existence. (P. 1f.)
Furthermore, the "real" myth is only revealed in the imagery:
... the rational concept, speculation, both are foreign objects in the language of myth. Wherever we encounter them in a mythical context, it can only be a matter of additions from a post-mythical period. The same applies to rational explanations of mythical episodes, the understanding of which the narrators and compilers of a later time had already lost. (P. 2)
This program is then implemented in a masterly manner by Nelly Naumann. Despite the work of purifying "rational concepts", removing layers of "a later time" in search of the "real" myth, which has repeatedly been crowned with impressive success, the associated efforts are occasionally expressed in complaints about corruption and the no longer understanding of those who were born afterwards. For example, Naumann writes B. on the "corruption" of the secretions of Susanoo, which are related to the life-giving water (the so-called green and white soft offerings, see above):
The precious fragments of an earlier myth, which reported about the divine origin and thus about the true nature of the "green" and the "white soft offerings", were probably no longer understood not only by the compilers. So they were further dismembered and corrupted, and thus the original connection between myth and rite was finally destroyed. It was far more important for those involved to report on the production of these offerings from hemp fibers and the bast of the paper mulberry tree as a privilege of a particular family. (P. 199)
The elementary, original unity of myth and rite, to which reference is made here, belongs to the teaching structure of Eliades. Due to her orientation towards Eliade, Naumann rightly points to the instrumental character of myths with regard to this relationship in the formation of the state cult:
One searches in vain for an original identity of rite and myth, for mutual complementation and illumination. The myth, however, becomes usedto provide valid precedent by simply adding a rite that has no mythical origin - such as tasting New Rice - to myth transposedbut without making it mythical justify; on the other hand, individual myths are used in order to find useful use as a kind of set piece in the consciously and deliberately designed ritual prayers. (P. 194f.)
In view of the obviously instrumental intentions of Japanese mythology, motivated by historical circumstances, it would only be a small step from here to postulate the limited application possibilities of Eliade's theory. Because Eliade had a much "more original" and "real" mythology in mind than the Japanese, because he was interested in the characteristics of the "religious", which for him was typically anchored almost exclusively in the "primitive and archaic societies". He explains:
For religious people in primitive and archaic societies, the eternal repetition of exemplary actions, the eternal encounter with the same mythical origin sanctified by the gods [in the ritual, K.V.] in no way results in a pessimistic view of life; on the contrary, only this "eternal return" to the sources of the sacred and real saves human existence from nothingness and death in his eyes. [16]
But isn't the longing for redemption from the "horrors of history" [17] hidden here in an ahistorical space of "pure religiosity"? Be that as it may - the mythology of ancient Japan offers comparatively little projection surface for such longings. But should one immediately state a "lack of any religious consciousness" based on these findings? Nelly Naumann's argumentation, which is perhaps too strongly tied to Eliade, needs to be differentiated at this point, as long as the terminology is not reflected further:
The primitiveness of the idea of ​​God, the lack of any religious consciousness, as they are expressed in the description of the first encounter between Buddhism and native gods, were for the compilers of the Nihongi apparently nothing strange - it was the familiar situation. One can conclude from this that the religious thought of Buddhism had not yet become the fixed intellectual property of the upper class represented by the compilers. For the degradation, even the infantility, which partly results from the mechanistic, success-oriented conception of God Nihongi speak, there were certainly several causes ...

We cannot expect that the compilers, based on such an intellectual disposition, were able to recognize and understand the original, but largely (,) if not completely forgotten, religious content of the traditional myths. (P. 11f.)

Exactly this work is now reserved for the author and in this form of "archeology" lies her merit. However, the evaluations of the findings made in the process seem, at least in part, less to be based on the object itself than on the interpretive framework in which it is clamped during the interpretation. In other words: If this mythology, i.e. the subject of interpretation, can (or must) only be interpreted in a language of deficiency, decay, "no longer", then that may say more about the interpretative context, So the mythology models from Eliade and Kerény as about Japanese mythology itself. Other things, in their full meaning, are only marginally in focus: Because the gesture that is often only noticeable between the lines, that of Japanese mythology the mentioned deficits assigns and seeks to remedy this to a certain extent "backwards", directed at the mythical and religious origins, at the same time obscures the view ahead. Formulated from the outset with political intent, mythology and its diverse uses also reveal their real value as an ideological and political instrument in the further course of Japanese history, especially in this area. Naumann goes into this briefly in the last chapter of her book when, for example, she refers to Kitabatake Chikafusa's (1293-1354) writing Jinnô shôtôki ("Book of the true God-Kaiser line of rule") and its lasting influence points to a movement "which found its end in the fascist-ultranational thinking of the thirties and forties of our century" (pp. 202f.). In this respect, Japanese mythology proves to be extremely modern, precisely because of its instrumental character. After all, according to a "Dialectic of Enlightenment" [18] diagnosed by Horkheimer and Adorno and Roland Barthes [19] recording the "Myths of Everyday Life" at the end of the 20th century, it is known that mythologies are not just a matter of the "primitive and archaic Societies "are. And isn't the longing for a human being who is completely united in the archaic primitive with the "essence of the religious" at the same time one of the strongest mythical ideas that (western) modernity has created of the "childhood of human beings" which has moved into the unreachable distance?

Klaus Vollmer, Hamburg


[1] According to Johannes Laube in his review The indigenous religion of Japan. Part 1, in: OE Vol. 33, No. 2 (1990), pp. 186-192; P. 186. Further reviews of this work in NOAG 149-150 (1991) [1993], pp. 191-194 and The Journal of Japanese Studies. Vol. 17, No. 2 (1991), pp. 358-361.

[2] Nelly NAUMANN: The indigenous religion of Japan. Part 1: Until the end of the Heian period. Leiden (inter alia): Brill 1988 (= Handbuch der Orientalistik, 5th department, 4th volume, 1st section, part 1) and this: The indigenous religion of Japan. Part 2: Syncretistic teachings and religious developments from the Kamakura to the beginning of the Edo period. Leiden (inter alia): Brill 1994 (= Handbuch der Orientalistik, 5th department, 4th volume, 1st section, part 2).

[3] Section II B and III (pp. 48-105) in NAUMANN 1988.

[4] E. D. SAUNDERS: "The Mythology of the Japanese", in: Pierre GRIMAL: Myths of the Peoples. Volume 2: Persians, Indians, Japanese, Chinese. Frankfurt a. M .: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1967 (23-40 thousand 1977), pp. 174-260. Saunders, however, also deals with the introduction of Buddhism and the "main characters of the Buddhist heavenly heaven in Japan" (p. 221ff.)

[5] The rather short bibliography contains 21 titles and all of the author's important, sometimes remote, publications.

[6] Franz VONESSEN: Myth and truth. Bultmann's "demythologizing" and the philosophy of mythology. 2nd edition Frankfurt: Klostermann 1972.

[7] Naumann first presented her interpretation of Jômon-era sculptures in 1977 ("On some religious ideas of the Jômon era", in: Journal of the German Oriental Society Vol. 127, pp. 398-425) and in 1979 then included in the interpretation the penance imposed on Susanoo in mythology ("To the original meaning of the harahe", in: Bonn Journal for Japanese Studies Vol. 1, pp. 169-190).

[8] Not only at this point does Naumann repeatedly refer to the following works by Carl HENTZE: Mythes et symboles lunaires (Anvers: De Sikkel 1932), Early Chinese bronzes and cult representations (Antwerp: De Sikkel 1937), Bronze device, cult buildings, religion in the oldest China of the Shang period (Antwerp: De Sikkel 1951), "The ritual of resuscitation through the" new skin "(Old China - Oceania - America)", in: Sinologica Vol. 6, No. 2 (1959), pp. 69-82, "Gods and Drinking Serpents", in: History of Religions Vol. 4, No. 2 (1965), pp. 179-208 and Finds in ancient China (Göttingen 1967).

[9] Klaus ANTONI: Inaba's white rabbit. From myth to fairy tale. Analysis of a Japanese "myth of eternal return" against the background of ancient Chinese and Circumpacific thinking. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag 1982 (= Munich East Asian Studies, Vol. 28).

[10] ÔBAYASHI Taryô: "The Ethnological Study of Japan's Ethnic Culture: A Historical Survey", in: Acta asiatica 61: 1-23 (1991); P. 11.

[11] ÔBAYASHI Taryô: "Current theories on the origin and origin of the Japanese people", in: NOAG 153: 5-24 (1993). This article is an abridged version of desbayashi 1991 in Acta asiatica published article and goes back to a lecture given at the University of Trier in 1994.

[12] Gary L. EBERSOLE: Ritual Poetry and the Politics of Death in Early Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989. On the importance of his research for future investigations, Ebersole writes: "The extant texts do not reveal a" primitive "or" prelogical mentality "in early Japan but rather an operative court rationality that, if Elias is correct, is similar to that found in all court societies. This rationality was one of the central principles that organized the perceptions of all members of the society, and it pervaded the public rhetoric and the thoroughgoing ritual nature of the daily life of the court. Few of the narratives found in the Kojiki or the Nihonshoki, or many poems in the Man'yôshû, can be understood without recognizing its influence. All future studies of these texts must consider the significance not only of the modes of textual production in early Japan but also of the textual practices of the court itself. "

[13] Ulrich IRION: "Religiosity without religion. Rudolf Otto, Rudolf Bultmann, Klaus Heinrich, Mircea Eliade", in: Peter KEMPER (ed.): Power of Myth - Impotence of Reason? Frankfurt a. M .: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1989 (Social Science Fischer; 6643). Pp. 289-309, pp. 302.

[14] Axel HORSTMANN: "Mythos, Mythologie", in: Joachim RITTER / Karlfried GRÜNDER (ed.): Historical dictionary of philosophy. Vol. 6. Basel (inter alia): Schwabe & Co. 1986. Sp. 281-318, Sp. 300.

[15] Mircea ELIADE: The sacred and the profane. On the essence of the religious. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp Verlag 1990 (= st 1751), p. 85.

[16] ELIADE 1990, pp. 94f.

[17] IRION 1989, p. 303.

[18] Max HORKHEIMER / Theodor W. ADORNO: Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments. Frankfurt a. M .: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1971.

[19] Roland BARTHES: Everyday Myths. 7th edition 27th thousand Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp 1982.