Stories behind the Story

Mystical Abyss portrays encounters among characters from ancient Japanese and Iroquois mythologies. Even audience members with no prior exposure to the stories behind Mystical Abyss will easily follow John O’Keefe’s engaging narrative as it unfolds not only in words but also in music, dance, and dazzling computer-graphic animation. This being said, both in the world of Japanese Noh theater and in sacred performance traditions across diverse cultures, it is typical for spectators to know the foundation stories in advance. In that spirit, I will tell them here—giving no hints as to how you will hear them transformed and see them intertwined in the production itself.

Native American storyteller, from Smithsonian

Sky Woman and the Turtle
In Iroquois mythology, the earth is borne on the back of a giant turtle. Originally, there was no North American continent. The turtle and other sea creatures lived in the ocean. Birds lived in the space below the clouds. Above the clouds was a sky world illuminated not by the sun, which did not yet exist, but by a great tree. In this heavenly domain lived the sky people, one of whom was Sky Woman.

Sky Woman married a powerful chief in the sky country and eventually became pregnant. In some versions of the story, the chief became enraged; in other versions, the chief had a dream, which he interpreted as a sign. He tore the great tree from its place to create an abyss in the sky country, and into the abyss he pushed his wife, who plunged through the clouds and toward the sea.

Sky Woman, by Ernie Smith

Birds and water animals saw the Sky Woman falling and knew she needed a solid place to land. Several tried to help but most failed until finally, one of them—a toad in some versions, a muskrat in another—brought up some mud from the sea and spread it on the back of a giant turtle, where it became a great continent. Fire Dragon (comet), who sometimes passed between the sky world and the space below the clouds, helped Sky Woman by providing the corn seeds and dried meat she would need in the world below.

Sky Woman created the sun, moon, and stars to cast light on the earth. In some tellings of the story, she also gave birth to a pair of gods, one responsible for those aspects of nature people find good and useful, the other for those aspects people consider troublesome or destructive.

Izanagi and Izanami
In Japanese mythology, Izanagi and Izanami were the male and female gods responsible for creating the land, specifically the Japanese islands. They married and begot not only islands but many gods representing natural phenomena. The last of these, the god of fire, scorched Izanami, causing her to die in childbirth.

Izanami and Izanagi

Izanagi was inconsolable after the death of his wife and journeyed to the underworld to try to retrieve her, but alas, he was too late. She had already eaten some soup in that world and was therefore unable to return. (Those conversant in Greek mythology will remember a similar incident in the story of Persephone, who cannot return permanently from the underworld because she has eaten six pomegranate seeds.) Nonetheless, Izanami asked Izanagi to wait and, above all, not to try to gaze upon her, but he lit a torch and beheld her in a hideous state of decomposition. In terror he fled, while his irate wife pursued him, attended by a troupe of female demons dubbed in one of my books “the ugly-girls-from-Hell.” Claiming humiliation, Izanami threatened to retaliate by killing one thousand people a day. Izanagi replied that then he would bring one thousand five hundred people per day to life.

Amaterasu and Susanoo
Izanagi wasted no time in putting his creative intentions into practice. While purifying himself after his visit to the underworld, he created Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from his right eye and the moon goddess from his left eye. From his nose, he created Susanoo, the storm god.

Izanagi entrusted the heavens to Amaterasu and the night to her sister, the moon goddess. He entrusted the seas to their brother Susanoo, but Susanoo claimed that what he really wished was to join his mother in the underworld. First, however, he wanted to take leave of Amaterasu, and on that occasion, the two of them engaged in a childbearing contest. (The importance of contests in classical Japanese culture would be difficult to overstate.) Susanoo won the contest. Exuberant and, according to the seminal Japanese text called the Kojiki, also literally drunk with victory, Susanoo lost all his decorum. He destroyed Amaterasu’s rice paddies and irrigation ditches and defecated in the halls where the first fruits of the harvest were celebrated. Finally, he dropped a skinned horse into Amaterasu’s sacred weaving hall, causing the death of one of her maidens. While initially inclined to excuse her brother’s indecencies, Amaterasu was shocked at her brother’s desecration of the weaving hall and retreated into a cave, causing all the earth and the heavens to fall into darkness.

Ama no Uzume dances on a drum

Night reigned, and of course the gods became increasingly impatient. They convened an assembly to discuss how to lure Amaterasu out of her hiding place. Ultimately they decided to mount an elaborate ritual entertainment. They uprooted a flowering tree, which they festooned with beads, and in the branches they hung a mirror and white and blue cloth. Then Ama no Uzume, the goddess of mirth, adorned with vines and leaves, began to sing, dance, and stamp on an overturned bucket. In her enthusiasm, she bared her breasts and pulled down her skirt, while all the gods—hundreds of them—laughed with delight.

Amaterasu, in her cave, wondered at the hilarity–how could hundreds of gods be laughing there in the gloom?–and the gods replied that they were rejoicing because they had found a deity superior to her! Catching a glimpse of her own image in the mirror and thinking this must be the other deity, Amaterasu emerged from the cave, and the other gods blocked the opening behind her. Sunlight returned, and Susanoo was fined and expelled for his transgressions.

The conflict between Amaterasu and Susanoo was considered, for hundreds of years, to explain the rivalry between the contending Yamato and Izumo clans and justify the preeminence of the Yamato. Amaterasu was believed to be not only the tutelary divinity but the direct ancestor of the Japanese imperial line. In addition, the story was considered to depict the origin of Japanese traditional dramatic arts and taiko drumming, which began with a goddess’ sacred antics on an overturned bucket.

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