Hotsuma-Tsutae The Book of Heaven (Chapters 9) [Contents] [Japanese] [French]

Sosanowo and the Eight-Forked Serpent of Izumo

Sosanowo, the youngest child of Isanagi and Isanami, had a wild and wanton nature. In an unnatural desire for his mother's affection, he had long been the bane of his parents' rule. His mother Isanami, sorely vexed over her son's acts of mischief, had built the Kumano Shrine (now the Kumano Grand Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture) in the hope of exorcising his unruly spirit. And there she prayed daily to the gods to achieve this end. One day, Sosanowo started a fire on the mountain of Mikumano, whereupon the mountain forest started to burn. To save the local villagers from harm, Isanami confined herself inside the Kumano Shrine and prayed to Kagutsuchi, the fire deity, to quell the fire. But, tragically, she herself became swept up in the raging flames and lost her life.
Thereafter Sosanowo, consumed with guilt that his misdeeds had caused his beloved mother's death, spent many days in inconsolate wandering.

Amateru had received urgent news from his grandfather Toyoke (Isanami's father) and had travelled up to stay at the Miyazu Palace. Knowing his end was approaching, Toyoke called Amateru and all the nobles to pass on the sacred decree of the deity Kunitokotachi: "The sovereign shall be the father of many generations". Then he commanded Sarutahiko to seal the entrance to his tomb and thereby passed into divinity.

One day, Sosanowo was representing his brother Amateru on a visit to the Asahi Shrine at Manaigahara (now the Hinumanai Shrine in Kyoto Prefecture), where Toyoke was revered as Asahikami (the Deity of the Morning Sun). Among the throng of people worshipping there, his eye fell on a beautiful maiden who captivated his heart. He asked her servants who she might be. They replied: "She is Princess Hayasuu, daughter of Akatsuchi, Lord of the Province of Hayami in Tsukisumi" (Hayasuu is now revered at the Hayasuihime Shrine in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu). On hearing this, Sosanowo immediately sent word to Akatsuchi to request her hand in marriage. But a gathering of nobles decided that, in view of his constant delinquency and wild behaviour, he could not be permitted to have his own palace, and the marriage proposal was rejected.

So now, to add to Sosanowo's innately selfish nature, he nursed the cruelly shattered dreams of a proud young noble. His acts of violence merely increased in scale, his rage now directed at the court of Amateru himself. He broke through the roof of the hall where ritual garments for the Niiname (Festival of New Fruits) were being woven, hurling a piebald horse through the opening. As fate would have it, the Princess Hanako, one of Amateru's consorts (now revered at the Wakasakura Shrine in Nara Prefecture), was also weaving inside the hall at the time. As she jumped up in surprise, she impaled herself on the weaving shuttle she held in her hand, and died.
Amateru, who had always treated his brother with an even hand, concealed his grief at the loss of his princess and his rage at Sosanowo's murderous act. Instead, he recited a song of rebuke:
Ame ga shita yawashite meguru hitsuki koso
harete akaruki tami no tara nari

("We are the very parents of the people, shining down brightly just as the sun and moon that cross the heavens and rule all below.")
But Sosanowo paid no heed to his brother's warning, and his delinquency merely worsened. The nobles were summoned, and after deliberation condemned him to a punishment of 1,000 degrees (mikidagare or "three-fold death", three times the normal death sentence).
Fortunately, however, his life was spared through the compassion of Amateru's chief consort Seoritsu, and his sentence was reduced to banishment.

Sosanowo, now stripped of the splendour and privilege of courtly life, was thus reduced to the rank of shitatami (commoner). As he wandered through a rough, uncompromising land in his misery, he disguised himself in a straw raincoat and sedge hat out of fear for his brother Amateru. As a common criminal, there was nowhere he could find respite, nowhere to sleep in comfort. He could but wander from village to village begging for food, to be met only by the cold eye of suspicion and foul curses for his misdeeds. As he dragged his feet in shame and crawled from door to door, at length he arrived at the house of a distant relative named Soshimori Tsurumeso, a bow-maker of Sahoko in the Land of Ne. He gave shelter to Sosanowo as a poor dependent.

The governor of this region was called Sada (today remembered at the Sada Shrine in Shimane Prefecture). One of his elder kinsmen, Ashinazuchi, had eight daughters by a woman called Tenitsuki, from Soo in Kyushu. Seven of these children had already been devoured by a terrible serpent before they could reach adulthood, causing much grief and sorrow to their parents.

At an eight-forked valley in the upper reaches of the Hikawa River (Shimane Prefecture), permanently shrouded in cloud and mists, an eight-forked serpent lay hidden in the woods of pine and nutmeg trees that grew on the ridges deep in the mountains. The seven daughters had already been delivered to it as sacrifices, and the serpent was lying in wait to devour the last. She was called Inada (now remembered at the Inada Shrine in Shimane Prefecture). As her parents pondered their daughter's horrible fate, they could but stroke her arms and legs and wail ceaselessly.

When Sosanowo heard this pitiful tale, the heat of his passion took him to the elder's palace, where he asked to hear more. Ashinazuchi and his wife then told him of the sorrow in their hearts. Sosanowo's own heart now burned with compassion for the unfortunate Inada, and he resolved to save her from her fate.

"Let me marry your daughter", he demanded of the couple. Having recovered from the shock of his sudden proposal, the parents asked: "But who are you?"
"I am Sosanowo, younger brother of the Lord Amateru", he replied, revealing his true identity for the first time. And so he became betrothed to the Princess Inada.
Inada had already been infected by the serpent's poison and was suffering under a high fever. Seeing this, Sosanowo took his sword and ripped the seams down the sides of her garments. This improved the circulation of air and her fever gradually abated.
That is why, to this very day, children's kimonos have slits along their sides.

Sosanowo now hid Inada inside the bow-maker's house, and instead dressed himself up in her clothes. With boxwood combs in his hair, he rode up alone to the eight-fold valley of the Hikawa River. There, he brewed eight quantities of rice liquor in the hollows of the mountains, and with these waited for the serpent to appear.
No sooner had he concealed himself than darkness fell all around, as if black clouds had filled the sky. Then thunder rang out, and a giant eight-headed serpent appeared. It drank down the eight tubs of liquor prepared by Sosanowo and fell into a deep sleep of drunkenness. Sosanowo now brandished his eight-hilted sword and cut the sleeping serpent into pieces. As he did so, he found a sword inside its tail. This was to become the famed Haha Murakumo sword of later legend.

After vanquishing the eight-forked serpent, Sosanowo was wed to the Princess Inada, and she gave birth to a boy named Oyahiko. These two happy events gave Sosanowo renewed confidence. He forgot the shame of his fall to common rank and hurried to tell his sister Shitateru (Wakahime), residing at Yasu (near the River Yasu in Shiga Prefecture; possibly the Mikami Shrine) to tell her his good tidings.

"I have produced an heir, the victory is mine!" he called on his arrival.
By this, he was referring to the oath he had sworn on his banishment from the court. He had begged Amateru to let him visit Yasu, home of his beloved sister Wakahime (who had taken the name of Shitateru following her betrothal to Omohikane), on his flight north to the Land of Ne. But she had refused to see him, for fear of his wild and violent disposition. As she pressed him hard to discover his true intentions, he had uttered a unilateral oath: "I will proceed to the Land of Ne, where I will take a wife and produce a child. If the child is a girl, I will be defiled. But if it is a boy, then I will be pure and correct. This is my oath."

And now, once more, Sosanowo came to report uninvited on his fulfilment of the oath. But in his sister's eyes, his countless intolerable acts were still impossible to condone.
"What, have you returned with your impure heart?", she countered. "Have you no shame? This eight-year disruption of the kingdom is all your own doing. The memory of it alone is abhorrent. Go back to whence you came."
Sosanowo was cut to the quick by his sister's unexpected rebuttal, and returned northwards with a heavy heart.

Some time later, Sosanowo and Inada bore a second child, a girl named Oyahime, and another named Tsumatsuhime, followed by a second boy named Kotoyaso. With all of these they lived together in concealment.

Soon after Sosanowo's banishment, the leaders of six hatare bands of rebels started to gather supporters all over the country, stirring up violent action in an attempt to overthrow Amateru's rule. They came attacking the court from all sides, like an avalanche.
As a result of their pillaging and plunder, the country became stirred up like a hornets' nest. The people were scattered and estranged from their land, and the fields were laid waste. The pit dwellings were burnt and left desolate. And the people were living in poverty and darkness.

After repeated deliberations by the nobles on this national crisis, a resolution was made to vanquish the hatare. Thanks to the valiant deeds of warriors like Kanasaki (the Master of Purification, later revered as the deity Sumiyoshi), Takemikazuchi (tutelary deity of the Kashima Grand Shrine), Futsunushi (deity of the Katori Grand Shrine), Kadamaro (deity of the Kada Shrine), Ifukinushi (deity of the Ifuki Shrine in Gifu Prefecture), Kumano-Kusuhi (revered at the Kumano Grand Shrine), and Tachikarawo (deity of the Tachikarawo Shrine in Gifu Prefecture), the hatare leaders were all caught and bound, and their insurrections quelled.
During this crisis, Amateru had quietly purified himself in the pure stream of a cascading waterfall, and had at length realized the kinds of magic with which the hatare could be defeated He had equipped his warriors with this magic, leading them to victory in the eight-year struggle against the rebels. Now the reign of Amateru knew peace once more, and rays of hope were beginning to shine.

But there was still no room for complacency. The root cause of those eight years of lawlessness lay wholly in the plotting of the governor of Ne and his cohorts. And they still remained at large, in hiding somewhere in the Land of Sahoko.
So now Amateru commanded Ifukinushi, son of his brother Tsukiyomi, to take an army to defeat them. Ifukinushi proudly accepted this weighty task and, accompanied by a host of 80 mounted warriors, set out first for Sahoko. There, at the Asahi Shrine where the Lord Toyoke was revered, they prayed for the success of their mission. Then they started on the road to Izumo.
As they proceeded, a man suddenly jumped out in front of Ifukinushi's horse. He had the appearance of a commoner, and had been waiting by the roadside for the host to pass. Casting aside his straw raincoat, his sedge hat, and his sword, he prostrated himself before the noble and started to murmur prayers, as if to himself. As he did, tears cascaded from his eyes.
This was none other than Ifukinushi's own uncle Sosanowo, whom he was now meeting for the first time in eight years under such abject and miserable circumstances.
Sosanowo had realized that his own haughty spirit had fuelled the hatare uprisings, and that all the ill that had befallen the kingdom was therefore attributable to himself. And as he did, he wept tears of shame.
As Sosanowo knelt in obeisance before his nephew, he sang a song to beg forgiveness of his kinsman. It went:
amo ni ochiru aga minokasa yu
shimu no miki michihi hasama de
arafuru osore

("I who fell from grace, now dressed in straw and sedge, do repent for disturbing the seat of my kin for 3,000 days.")
Sosanowo sang his song of blood and tears three times. Now Ifukinushi's heart was so moved by the sincerity of his uncle's emotion that he too started to shed tears of compassion.
Having watched as his uncle knelt in humility, Ifukinushi now dismounted his horse, offered Sosanowo a hand and helped him to his feet.
"To regain the trust of Amateru, you must do only good things from now on. Thus will you be pardoned. Start by helping us now. Join with us in defeating the local governors!"
Having thus reaffirmed and reinforced their ties of kinship, the whole host then proceeded to the Palace of Sada to stay the night. There, they held a council of war, and after hearing intelligence on the enemy, set out their strategy. The sovereign army, strengthened by the addition of Sosanowo, did battle against the local governors Shirahito and Kokumi, the roots of the hatare uprisings, and the remaining serpents. They completely annihilated their foes and won a famous victory.
When reports of their success reached Amateru, the court rejoiced at the triumphant news, sparking off scenes of wild celebration.

During the festivities, the soothsayer woman Uzume danced and sang while making music by plucking a bowstring. This gave Amateru the idea of making a six-stringed zither from mulberry wood and presenting it to his sister Wakahime. She played the zither in a six-tone system, naming the strings Kada, Fuki, Kanade, Mega, Ha, and Hire. She named the zither Yagumo-Uchi ("Defeat of the Eight Clouds"), as if the drunken serpent of Izumo had itself been bound by its six strings.
Another zither was called the Kadagaki (forerunner of the Japanese biwa). This was a portable three-stringed instrument. It was shaped like the leaf and flower of the arrowroot plant, in imitation of the eulalia vines striking the arrowroot that grew on the stockade around Isanagi's palace.
The five-stringed zither, meanwhile, made a sound that reverberated through the principal organs of the body, improving the circulation of blood. When this instrument was used to teach the Song of A and Wa (Awa no Uta), it improved people's ability to learn the song and therefore helped to popularize it.

The names of the six tones of the zither (Kada, Fuki, Kanade, Mega, Ha, and Hire) were also important strategies that led to safe victory in the battles against the hatare, Shirahito and Kokumi, and the serpents of Izumo. That is to say, the magic knowledge obtained by Amateru as he purified himself under the pure cascade became six useful weapons against the hatare. And the insurrections had been quelled and the nation returned to peace, thanks to the exploits of warriors bestowed these six weapons by Amateru.

Thereafter, Amateru commended Mochitaka (the imina or given name of Ifukinushi) for the great victory over Shirahito, Kokumi, and the others. For this, he bestowed upon him the county of Yamata (now Oyamada and the Iga region of Mie Prefecture) in reference to the eight-forked (yamata) serpent of Izumo. He also gave him the divine name of the deity Ibuki of Awa (now revered at the Awa Shrine in Oyamada).
At the same time, the nobles gathered to discuss Sosanowo's heartfelt "song of blood and tears". By virtue of his remorseful attitude, his former excesses were wiped clean and his crime completely pardoned. And in recognition of his part in defeating the hatare remnants at Yaetani (the eight-fold valley) in the upper reaches of the Hikawa River, Amateru bestowed on him the name of the Hikawa deity. He also gave him the Yaegaki banner (denoting appointment to Chief of the Sovereign Guard), saying "This shall be your land".

Sosanowo now made a procession to Amateru's palace for the first time in eight years, to express his joy and gratitude at being restored to favour as one of the sovereign's ministers.
These had been eight years of darkness and misery for Sosanowo, albeit brought upon himself by his own wrongdoing. But that memory could be erased in an instant by the majesty and repose of the court. This was the world into which he was born, where he had conversed with his departed parents Isanagi and Isanami, and shared youthful days with his esteemed brother Amateru, his beloved sister Wakahime and his brother Tsukiyomi. This was indeed the original scene of the "Court of High Heaven" to which he belonged. Time may have passed and people changed. But this return was enough to make his pulse race, his tears fall. How he now appreciated and revered the life to which he was born!

This time, Amateru exercised his own sovereign authority to bestow on Sosanowo, for his valiant defeat of the Izumo serpent and his help in the fight against Shirahito and Kokumi, a palace in a place called Suga, where all evils had been exorcised through purification. Here, Sosanowo was permitted to build his new residence. He named the palace Kushi-Inada (now the Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture) as a sincere expression of respect for his wife Inada. For she had continued to support him through his darkest days and had given him hope and grace.
The element "Kushi" in the name was supposed to honour the exquisite spirit of the sun embodied in the Lord Amateru. The name of the Province of Sahoko was changed, and a decree marking the creation of the Land of Izumo was issued throughout the nation.

Sosanowo ruled his Land of Izumo in the spirit of "Amenari-no-Michi" (the "Way of Heaven", a doctrine of spiritual government). And the people of his land once more lived in peace and affluence.

The construction of the new palace, imbued with lofty ideals and passion, took much longer to complete than expected. Before it could be finished, Inada once again conceived a child. Sosanowo's joy was beyond compare, for it signalled the birth of a bright new future for this Land of Izumo. He sang:
yakumo tatsu Isumo yaekaki
tsuma kome ni yaekaki tsukuru
sono yaekaki o

("Eight clouds rise up, the Protector of Izumo; to protect my wife, I'll make an eight-fold palisade, such an eight-fold palisade" - a play on the dual meaning of "Yaegaki", i.e. "Protector" and "eight-fold palisade")
Sosanowo later dedicated this song of celebration to his beloved sister Wakahime. She then composed music to accompany it on the Yagumo-Uchi zither she had been given by Amateru, and presented it to the Princess Inada. This became known as the Yagumo-Uchi zither song.
As if invited by the soft, graceful tones of the zither, a mystical spirit descended on the palace. And the Princess Inada gave birth to a boy, an heir to rule this newly created kingdom of Izumo. He was named Kushikine ("Boy of the Wondrous Spirit"), and was later known as Okuninushi, or "Great Lord of the Land". He was to rule his people with particular care (likened to the graceful tones of the zither), and people would come to him to seek his compassionate teaching. For this he also became known as Yashimashi-Nomi no Onamuchi (Great Gentle Noble of the Eight Islands). The name of the next child born to Sosanowo was Otoshi Kuramusubi. He was followed by another boy, Katsuragi Hikotonushi, and finally by a girl, Suserime. These brought the total of children born to Sosanowo and Inada to five boys and three girls.

Amateru later elevated Kushikine to the rank of Mononushi (or Omononushi, "Great Lord of Arms") and gave his daughter Takeko (the Princess Nakatsuhime, now revered at the Chikubushima Shrine in Shiga Prefecture) to him in marriage.
Kushikine and Takeko first produced a boy named Kushihiko (also known as Kotoshironushi, the deity Ebisu), followed by a girl called Takako (Takahime or Takateruhime), and finally another boy called Suteshino Takahikone.

Kushikine was blessed with a gentle nature from birth, and showed great skill in the government of the land. For this he won the trust and affection of his people. Even in years of heavy rains and damage from frost and typhoons, or in years of drought caused by rainless summers, there were always ample stores of grain to save the people from hunger, and the country knew peace and affluence.

One day, Kushikine was giving guidance on agriculture at Cape Sasa in the Land of Awa (the Sasaki Shrine in Gamo-gun, Shiga Prefecture), when he saw a boat coming across from the opposite shore of Lake Biwa, a mirror attached to its bow.
Onamuchi asked his men whose boat this might be. But none could answer. Then one of his number, named Kuyehiko (remembered at the Kuenbiko Shrine, part of the Ogami Shrine in Nara Prefecture), stepped forward and said:
"That is Sukuna-Hikona, one of the fifteen hundred sons of Kanmi-Musubi (the 6th Takami-Musubi), one so worthless that he slipped through the fingers of his teaching."

Onamuchi was moved by this explanation. He welcomed Sukuna-Hikona warmly and invited him to join his tour of the land. Together, they worked to develop rice-fields and provide food for the people. They taught the skills of sericulture and sewing to the womenfolk, and worked hard for the management of the land. They also cultivated medicinal herbs to cure the sick, and even devoted themselves to the treatment of sick birds and animals. On occasion, hearing reports of plagues of locusts, they would race to the location on horseback, however distant it may be. They would then drive away the locusts using the leaves of the blackberry lily to fan a medicinal plant called oshikusa, so protecting the people's food.

Onamuchi's first son Kushihiko grew up to be fine and noble. So much so that he was appointed to the post of Kotoshironushi, a deputy to his father's weighty position of Omononushi, and in this role served at the sovereign court. Onamuchi himself returned to his native Land of Izumo to give guidance on agriculture and manage the local government there. The high gable-ends of the haughty Kushi-Inada Palace towered high over the heads of his subjects as they came to pay tribute. And after a few years, Onamuchi's good guidance and the cooperation of the people were rewarded with a bountiful harvest. There was enough rice to produce 123,682 straw bags in offerings, and the storehouses were packed full with a surplus of unhulled rice.
Onamuchi carried bags of these unhulled rice seeds around the country and distributed them as aid to save the people from hunger, while also giving guidance in cultivation. He used a hammer to make sluices, embankments, and water conduits, and thus helped the people to develop agriculture. In this way, Onamuchi's "hammer" (tsuchi, a play on the words meaning "earth" and "cultivate") came to symbolize the production of rice as a "noble treasure" (ontakara = "from the noble rice-field").

There is a saying that "every tide has its ebb". Onamuchi and Sukuna-Hikona appeared at first sight to be sailing on a full wind in their government of the land. But who was to know what dark clouds of misfortune awaited them?

The Surrender of Izumo

Eventually, because of the undue wealth that Izumo now enjoyed, and because of his affable nature and great popularity, Ohonamuchi would be groundlessly branded as the source of all evil by the sovereign court, and banished to the far northern region of Tsugaru.

Sukuna-Hikona, meanwhile, would distance himself from Onamuchi and devote himself to mastering the Kadagaki zither in the Land of Awa (Shiga Prefecture). He rejected his former life of dedication and trust in the nation, and wandered aimlessly around the provinces, carrying his sorrow in his heart.
And as he drifted from place to place, there was always one song he would recite as he played his Kadagaki zither. This was the story of the Hina Festival from the days of the 4th heavenly sovereign, when men's hearts were pure and kindness shone all around. People had forgotten the story of the Hina Festival, but he spread it all over the country. Then, as he approached old age, he arrived at the shore of Lake Kada in the Land of Waka, and thence ascended to the eternally smiling Land of Hina of Ubichini and Subichini.

Even today, people remember the simple, fragile character of Sukuna-Hikona as the deity Awashima (i.e. the deity from the Land of Awa) at the Awashima Shrine in that place (Kada in Wakayama Prefecture).
And every year, on the 3rd day of the 3rd month, hina dolls brought from all over the country are offered to the shrine. Then the hina-nagashi (release of hina dolls) ritual is held in great splendour, in memory of Sukuna-Hikona.

- END -

(from the 9th aya of the Hotsuma-Tsutae, contemporary Japanese translation by Seiji Takabatake)

Hotsuma-Tsutae (National Archives, Tokyo)
Hotsuma-Tsutae (period translation by Waniko Yasutoshi, ca. 1779)

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