When European settlers arrived on the North American content, they encountered indigenous inhabitants, whom we now call Native Americans, with cultures as diverse as might be expected given the breadth of the continent and the range of ecological conditions. Of these Native American cultures, Mystical Abyss especially celebrates the Iroquois, who are, despite the common appellation, not a single tribe but a League of distinct nations. This League, which has also been known as the Iroquois Confederacy, is generally thought to have been formed between 1450 and 1600 AD, for the purpose of creating a lasting alliance among the previously contentious Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. As Canasatego, leader of the Onondaga nation, commented in 1744 in an address to British colonists at the Treaty of Lancaster:
“. . . We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and Authority with our Neighboring Nations. We are a Powerfull confederacy, and by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power.”
A sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined the League during the 18th century.
Of particular interest, in the context of Mystical Abyss, is the fact that Iroquois clans were matrilineal. Women also had significant power within the society. For example, if a chief died, his successor was selected by the most senior woman of his lineage, in consultation with other women of the same clan.
Like the European settlers who came to dominate North America, the ancestors of most modern Japanese were relative latecomers to the territory they came to dominate. From 14,000 to 300 BC the Japanese archipelago was inhabited by hunter-gatherers known as the Jomon people, of whom genetic traces are most prominent in the Ainu and Okinawan populations, which continue to occupy the cultural and geographic margins of Japan. The ancestors of most modern Japanese arrived during the subsequent Yayoi period, when agriculture, most notably rice farming, superseded the previous hunter-gatherer society. The emergence of Shinto—not the state Shinto of the modern period but a less codified reverence for spirits in nature—is also associated with the Yayoi period.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Jomon people practiced ancestor worship and that clans were matrilineal. In the earliest accounts of Japan, written by travelers of the Chinese Wei dynasty in the 3rd century AD, Japan appears even to have been matriarchal: chronicles refer to Japan as the Queen Country, consisting of thirty tribal groups under the dominion of a Queen.
The Japanese origin myths retold in Mystical Abyss made their first literary appearance in the early eighth century (712 AD), but even in the Chinese chronicles of five hundred years earlier, the Queen was said to have been named Pimiko (Japanese “Himeko”), or “Sun Child.” Some scholars conjecture that the Jomon people also practiced an astronomical religion, although an Ainu legend claims that the ancestors of the Ainu “lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came.”
It is Director Yuriko Doi’s contention that the worship of Izanami and Izanagi very likely predates the solar cult and included a lunar element. This idea will be discussed in greater detail in a future article.
Many of the animated images you will see in Mystical Abyss are 21st century interpretations of designs found on Jomon pots, which are among the oldest ceramic artifacts in the world . In fact, the Jomon period is named for its pottery: the word Jomon means “cord marks” and refers to surface designs presumably created by wrapping cord around a stick and impressing the cord pattern onto wet clay. Over time, the designs on Jomon pottery became extremely ornate: Middle Jomon jars have fantastical coiled collars, and Late Jomon vessels often feature patterns of spirals or snakes. In addition to pots used for storage, the Jomon people produced figurative statuettes called dogu, many with huge insect eyes; such statuettes are presumed to have served some ritual purpose. Jomon-era masks, some with holes for the eyes and some without, have also been uncovered.
In later articles, I hope to be able to share images of the Jomon-inspired masks that Hideta Kitazawa is creating for the production. As a preview, here is a clay model for a mask, along with a photograph of the Jomon dogu that inspired the design.
For more information about Mystical Abyss, including ticketing information and a video snippet from a performance workshop, see the Mystical Abyss web page at http://www.theatreofyugen.org/?spec=41.