Michiko Y. Aoki’s Ancient Myths and Early History of Japan
I did not read this entire book. The book covers roughly the beginning of civilization in Japan to the 8th century AD. It ends by exploring how various migration movements and cultural exchanges in the 8th century morphed Japanese culture, specifically how it changed from a matriarchal, decentralized, polyandry, fishing society to a patriarchal society with a centralized government that was strongly influenced by China and to a certain extent Korea. The majority of the book unfortunately is dry to the point of being unreadable. While it is certainly stuffed with facts about the comings and goings of various ruling families, it didn’t provide enough analysis to hold my attention.
However, the last chapter s myths, creed, and life style, which is my bread and butter. The creation myths, various folklore, and how that folklore began to change with the influence of China and the Iron Age was incredibly fascinating. Apparently these stories are given in more detail in the Harima Fudoki, which I intend to look up. Aoki is a little caught up with all these stories having a real-world parallel – such that they interpret the story of Izanagi and Izanami as two rival tribes. While I’m sure there are instances where this is true, I’m not fond of these kinds of interpretations because they tend to ignore the fact that the reason the stories stuck around is because they are good stories that resonate with people and reflect their culture, not because they were true events. Aoki also describes the courtship rituals, which were very loose and often resulted in casual sex and women with multiple husbands. I think this is additionally interesting because even though these kind of practices fell out of favor in the 8th century, those kind of relationships are still very prominent in the Heian period.
I’m not sure this was really worth the read, but I am very glad I skimmed forward to the last chapter, because it provided a bunch of great cultural insights.
In lieu of the short story of the week, I want to share some folklore instead. One of my favorite types of folklore is star lore. For many years the Greek zodiac was the only interpretation of the constellations I’d ever heard, so I was absolutely hooked when I learned that among the Sami the entire sky is one big story (you can read more about that and other Scandinavian star lore here).
This week, I’ve been looking at different interpretations of the Ursa Major constellation (known most commonly in the west as The Big Dipper). Among the Mi’kmaq of the Nova Scotia area, the constellation was a bear, running from three hunters. What I love most about this story is that it changes over the course of the seasons, including the bear dying in the winter and becoming a skeleton. You can read a fuller version of the story here. In that same link, you can also find a story told by Arab (more specifically Persian) people, who see the constellation as a coffin.