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Orpheus and Izanagi: How Japan and Greece Overlap in Love and Death - by Joseph Manning

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When thinking of mythical overlap between cultures, Greece and Japan don’t exactly spring to mind and for a good reason – largely the two share very little in common with completely different gods, cultures and beliefs. However, each culture seems to have a myth that is peculiarly similar despite the large distance between the two nations. To the Greeks, it’s known as the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, to the Japanese, it’s known as the myth of Izanami and Izanagi.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, 1814 painting by Ary Scheffer
Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, 1814 painting by Ary Scheffer

Orpheus is a famous figure from Greek mythology. So much so that an independent religion, called Orphism, sprung forth from his popularity. Out of his many myths and legends, the one we’re concerned with today is the myth of him and his wife Eurydice. Varying somewhat depending on who’s telling it, the general myth begins with Eurydice dying shortly after being wed to Orpheus. Orpheus, overwhelmed by grief and refusing to accept the death of his beloved, goes to the underworld itself to get her back! Having somehow navigated the perils of the underworld, Orpheus goes to the king of the dead himself, Hades, and demands Eurydice be returned to him. At first, Hades is reluctant but, after a beautiful song played by Orpheus, which softens the hearts of even the most terrifying monsters of the underworld, Hades relents and allows Orpheus to have Eurydice back. Hades warns, however, that, when leaving with Eurydice, Orpheus must not look back on her until they are both out of the underworld. Otherwise, she will be pulled back and be trapped in the realm of the dead forever. Orpheus agrees but, as is typical of myth, things don’t go as is hoped. And so, while journeying out of the underworld, Orpheus worries Eurydice is not truly behind him and looks back to see if she’s there – sending her spirit hurtling back into the depths of the underworld forever and leaving Orpheus without his wife once again.

Izanami and Izanagi

Izanami and Izanagi creating Japan (Searching the Sea with the Tenkei, by Kabayashi Eitaku)

Izanami and Izanagi creating Japan (Searching the Sea with the Tenkei, by Kabayashi Eitaku)

This myth involves the Japanese god and goddess called Izanagi and Izanami respectively. These two gods were very powerful, creating the islands of Japan with just a sacred spear. Despite this, the myth begins with the death of the goddess Izanami as she gives birth to the god of fire, Kagu-Tsuchi. Her husband, Izanagi, becomes consumed by grief and, much like Orpheus, descends to Yomi (the Japanese underworld) to go get her back. Despite being extremely dark, Izanagi finds his wife soon enough. Sadly, she tells him she has already eaten food from the underworld and therefore cannot leave. Izanagi is not deterred, however, and promises to stay with his beloved wife until they figure out what to do. One night, while Izanami is sleeping, Izanagi grows frustrated by the darkness and decides to light his comb so he can see what’s around him. As the light shines on his wife, Izanagi is horrified to see her face as it has become monstrous following her death. Izanagi runs away in fear from his wife, sealing the door to the underworld behind him, thus cutting off the living from the dead forever. Understandably outraged, Izanami swears she will claim 1,000 living souls each day, with Izanagi promising to give life to 1,500 in return – thus creating the cycle of life and death in the world.

Although not exactly the same, the main concept is relatively consistent. A mythical husband travels to the underworld to fetch his wife after her untimely death, ultimately failing to bring her back to the living after looking at her and losing her for the second time. Two main theories exist as to why there’s such similarity. The first being that, despite the huge distance between them, it is possible that the Greek myth may have actually travelled to Japan in some form. We know that the myth was not found only in Greece: nearby civilisations, such as those in Mesopotamia to the east, have similar legends. Also, cultural interaction between Greece and China was not entirely unheard of and it is entirely possible that, with the spread of Buddhism across China and East Asia, other traditions and myths, such as the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, could have travelled as well – being interpreted then by countries, such as Japan, within their own culture and religion. This could also potentially explain another similarity, with the concept of Izanami being unable to leave due to eating from the underworld being found in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades.

‘Orpheus and Eurydike’ by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869
‘Orpheus and Eurydike’ by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869

Alternatively, those who feel that such a spread of the myth is too much of a stretch instead argue that the similarities express a universality amongst all cultures. The pain of losing a loved one is a fundamentally human experience. Therefore, it stands to reason that ideas of defying death and travelling to go get someone back who passed before their time could crop up in different places completely independently.

Whether these similarities were brought about by the power of word of mouth, carrying thoughts and ideas across whole continents, or brought about by a universality of the human condition, these two myths demonstrate how not only have pain and love been a part of human life for as long as human life has been around, but even the most unrelated cultures, such as the Japanese and the Greeks, aren’t so different after all. Whether you’re in ancient Japan or ancient Greece, the pain of losing the one you love makes travelling down to the depths of the underworld seem not so crazy after all. (Although if you ever do, maybe wait until you’re back home before you have a look at them.)

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