An interesting mythic parallel

So at the risk of sounding like a mad fangirl, I realize that writing a review of Star.Ships isn’t enough because I can envision myself having a continuing conversation with ideas in the book (and in other books cited by Gordon). There is that much to think about. I’m sure I won’t be the only one. Anyway, one of the main streams in the book riffs off Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies which proposes a “family tree” of myths explaining the non-random distribution of common themes. While I’ve been reading Star.Ships, I’ve had this thought in the back of my mind.

Perhaps synchronicitously, on Tuesday I chanced upon an interesting parallel in two disparate mythologies–Greek and Japanese–that I had never come across despite my love of mythology and my interest in both those mythologies specifically.

Roman statue of Baubo

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the myth of how Demeter’s grief while searching for her lost daughter, Kore/Persephone, led to the blighting of the land. A part of the myth I did not know, but which was celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, is an episode where Iambe (daughter of Pan), or in some versions Baubo, made Demeter laugh by telling bawdy jokes and revealing her genitals. Iambe gave her name to the poetic mode of iambic pentameter, which back in the day was considered very lowbrow. In the end, Kore spends part of the year with Demeter, and that season is fertile, while the part she spends in the underworld is winter.

Ame no Uzume

Meanwhile in Japanese myth, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was infuriated by the rude behavior of her trickster brother, Susanoo. In high dudgeon she retreated to a cave and sealed herself inside, so the world was without sunlight and consequently everything started dying. In order to lure her out, Ame no Uzume (“Heavenly Alarming Female”, a.k.a., “the Fearless One”, “the Great Persuader”–a kami after my own heart and particular favorite of mine) performed a bawdy dance among the assembled gods, revealing her genitals. They had devised a plan, hanging a mirror on a branch near the cave entrance. When Amaterasu heard the gods laughing, she rolled back the rock that sealed the cave entrance to see what was going on. In so doing she saw her own reflection in the mirror, and was so captivated that the other gods had time to permanently seal up the cave. Uzume’s dance is considered the origin of the sacred dance form kagura and she also appears as a bawdy stock character in kyogen comic theater. Uzume is revered in Shinto as a kami of “art and entertainment, marriage, joy, harmony and meditation”.

Ame no Uzume dancing

Now I’m not arguing that the original Laurasian mythology included a “female comic bawd cheers up depressed fertility goddess” mytheme. I mean, maybe it did, I have no idea. But you have to admit these two stories are remarkably similar. I’m not the only one to have made this connection, but if you do an internet search as I did, you’ll find that apparently not many people have made it, and there is a very regrettable tendency to all-one-goddess the various characters.


4 thoughts on “An interesting mythic parallel

  1. Have you read any of Claude Levi-Strauss’s late works on Japanese mythology? If not, you might like it–he does some really interesting work positioning the Japanese myths as an inflection point between Europe and Asia on the one hand and the Americas on the other (which seems to fit into some of the matter under discussion by Witzel and Gordon, though I haven’t read either Star.ships or Origins yet).

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    1. Interesting! No, I have not. Studying anthropology one gets to read a lot of Levi-Strauss, but not his work on Japanese mythology. I will have to check that out. I haven’t read Witzel’s work either (it’s still a tad on the spendy side, even used) but based on what Gordon says about it in Star.Ships, it seems like Japanese myth retains some interesting “Gondwanan” features. Thanks for the pointer!

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  2. There are several other Japanese/European mythic connections that have bugged me for years. One is the similarity of the story of Izanagi and Izanami to that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Another is the close correspondence of the Japanese tale of Urashima Tarō with the Irish story of Oisín and Niamh. And a third is the similarity of the story of how Okuninushi’s won Susano-o’s daughter Suseri-hime to the Welsh tale of Culhwch’s wooing of the giant Ysbaddaden’s daughter Olwen — both stories turning on the setting of impossible tasks for the hero to accomplish, with the final and most difficult task being that of cutting the giant’s hair and beard in the Welsh version or picking the lice out of Suysano-o’s hair in the Japanese. All of these appear to be part of an extensive underworld/otherworld tradition that also extends across Siberia, but their origins and the routes of transmission are obscure.

    (I should say, however, that I checked out Witzel’s ideas online a few months ago and wasn’t overly impressed. Although his division between northern and southern mythic types has some validity, his idea that “Laurasian” mythologies depend on “a single story line running from the creation of the world to its destruction” seems to reflect a post-ice age belief system that doesn’t match up with the idea of a spread between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago.)

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    1. I had noticed (and been baffled by) the striking parallels between Urashima Tarō and Oisín and Niamh too, but I never made the Culhwch-Okuninushi connection. How very interesting. I can’t help but think perhaps these parallels have something to do with the insularity of these opposite ends of Eurasia, but then I am suspicious of such geographical determinism.

      I haven’t read Witzel’s book and had mixed feelings based on review summaries of it. On the one hand I suspect there are a lot of over-generalizations in it, but on the other I think Gordon is right that someone has to start the ball rolling and be brave enough to be wrong about it (which could be said of Star.Ships too, for that matter).

      As for the spread of the putative Laurasian body of myths, as I understand it the diaspora of Sundaland peoples would have occurred ca. 14,000-12,000 years ago with the end of the ice age/beginning of the Mesolithic, and I thought Gordon was proposing that this was when the Laurasian storyline appeared. However, I could have misunderstood that and I don’t know how closely Gordon’s reconstruction of the timing matches what Witzel originally proposed.

      I am really enjoying your very thought provoking comments!


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