The Goddess Chronicle

  • Natsuo Kirino, translated by Rebecca Copeland
  • Canongate
  • 314 pp.

This enthralling tale of love, death and sisterhood is a retelling of the Japanese creation myth.

In the beginning, there was great chaos, and the people wandered the land, confused, directionless, lost. And then, the great storytellers came to impart light where there was darkness: Sumerians on baked clay tablets, Egyptians on papyrus, Chinese on bone and shell, Homer, Ovid, the Old Testament. From Ecclesiastes 1:9 comes this, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Those early stories sought to explain the unexplainable: the human condition, the existence of evil, why good so rarely thrives, why wickedness and injustice so frequently prevail. Death.

As to whom to blame for that inescapable fate, Judeo-Christian culture would have us cherchez la femme.Woman, too, bears the blame in the Shinto creation myth of Japan. Millennia later, Natsuo Kirino tells the woman’s side of the story in The Goddess Chronicle.

Immediately, the author captivates with her description of life on seemingly idyllic Umihebi, an island of white sand beaches, tropical flowers, crystal waters and dramatic cliffs. Very quickly, though, it becomes apparent that existence on the island is a desperate fight for survival. Crops do not grow there, so the islanders must forage from the sea for sustenance, forcing the men to leave on long and dangerous fishing voyages while the women comb the beaches for seaweed. This harsh and stunted existence has created a twisted society ruled by ancient rituals and taboos. When the population becomes too large, old people are “rounded up and locked in a hut on the beach where they’d be left to starve to death.” Illegitimate children must also be killed. Whole families are declared cursed, making their survival even more precarious.

Namima, the narrator, comes from a family whose duty is to provide the priestesses of the island.  Her older sister, Kamikuu, whose “skin was creamy white, her eyes round, and her features perfectly formed,” will be the next Oracle, replacing her grandmother when she dies. Namima, yin to Kamikuu’s yang, is smaller, darker and less beautiful, recognizing at an early age that “the gaze others turned on Kamikuu was not quite the same one as they turned on me.”

Lured by the love of Mahito, the handsome son of a woman who is supposed to bear female children but brings a curse upon on her family by having son after son, Namima begins to break taboos. When Kamikuu ascends to her position as the island’s Oracle, Namima discovers that she is destined to become the Priestess of Darkness, “the impure one,” separated from the rest of the islanders to tend to the dead. By this time, she is pregnant with Mahito’s child, and they escape the island. She gives birth to their daughter during their long sea voyage toward freedom, but Mahito murders Namima just as they are within sight of Yamato (ancient Japan).

Namima enters the Underworld, where she meets Izanami, the goddess who gave birth to the islands of Yamato. She had been “the archetypal desiring female” and her consort Izanaki, “the desiring male.” Their purpose was to give birth to the land and its deities of nature, such as water, wind and trees. But their first baby “had no bones and was limp and squashy” so they put it “in a boat of reeds and floated it out to sea.” They asked the gods in the Plain of High Heaven why their baby had been deformed, and were told that Izanami had erred in speaking first during a courting ritual. “I was a woman, and women were not to speak first,” she explains to Namima. Her transgression caused death to be introduced to the world.

After Izanami died in childbirth, a grief-stricken Izanaki followed her into the Underworld. Disobeying her instructions, he saw her decaying body and fled in horror. Before entrapping Izanami in the Underworld by rolling a boulder across its entrance, Izanaki said, “I hereby declare our divorce.” Izanami vowed to kill 1,000 people every day, to which Izanaki responded that he would ensure 1,500 were born daily. Each woman who Izanaki impregnates is tracked down and killed by Izanami.

Namima sees a parallel between her story and Izanami’s:  Both women are betrayed by the men they love, leading them to an eternity of bitter sorrow and destructive vengeance.

In telling Namima’s story, the author reworks the ancient tale of Izanami and Izanaki into one of female solidarity and determined strength. When Izanaki suggests that Izanami challenge her fate by freeing the spirits who are trapped in the Underworld, she scoffs, “Izanaki, you are naïve ... It is my lot, my choice to accept all of the world’s defilement.” She understands what Izanaki willfully does not, that without death there can be no life. While Izanaki turns himself into a human for love, Izanami can afford no such luxury. As the goddess of the Underworld, she bears the fate of the human race upon her shoulders, for death is what makes us human. Without death, there can be no love.

While the narrative includes much repetition, which might annoy the more attentive reader, it serves to immerse us in a world and mythology very different from our own. And yet, in the end, not so different. For the Western tradition also abounds in stories of female transgressions that bring death and destruction: Eve, Delilah, Typhoid Mary, Tokyo Rose. Natsuo Kirino eloquently reveals that far from being the weaker sex, women shoulder responsibilities that men are not strong enough to bear.

Alice Stephens is a frequent contributor to the Independent.

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