The Japanese mythology of Okami: who is the wolf Goddess?

Okami really was a unique game; it drew you into an epic Legend of Zelda like quest through a world of Japanese myth, rendered in a stunning visual style to make all the inhabitants look like they jumped straight out of a traditional water painting. But it’s not just the game that’s wonderful; it’s the fascinating use of Japanese myth which makes it a brilliant experience. This week we look who Amaterasu really was, why was she associated with wolves, and what was the inspiration behind our canine protagonist. If you’re not all that familiar with the game, then that’s fine, as we’ll learn a little bit about Shintoism and Japanese fairy tale.

Amaterasu

Amaterasu_cave_edit2

Amaterasu is the most central figure of the Shinto religion. The Sun is always a really important part of any religious mythology and Amaterasu is one of the only examples of a female being given the exulted role of sun deity.

It is from her divine lineage that the Emporors of ancient Japan used to support their claim of divinity and divine right to the throne. However, although there are a number of myths surrounding her, none of them have anything to do with a wolf. Which brings us onto the next question…

Why is Amaterasu a wolf?

The real question should be ‘what excuse did the game makers use to portray the Shinto sun Goddess as a wolf?’ Well, traditionally Amaterasu does not have anything to do with wolves, and though a sacred animal, wolves are not the most prominent creature in Japanese mythology. The reasoning (or rather excuse) that they used to make Amaterasu a wolf is explained in this Quora article:

Amaterasu is called Amaterasu-ōmikami(天照大神) which means the Great God(dess) Who Shines A Light From the Heavens. The 大神 part can be read a ōkami (oh-kami), which is the same reading as the word for wolf, . It’s believed that the reading for the kanji does come from the word 大神 which means ‘great god(dess)’

This gave the creators the perfect wordplay to justify making the sun Goddess a wolf. The real reason they made her a wolf is because they wanted to use a wolf as part of game play and because there are a few interesting myths surrounding dogs in Japan, and a wolf is a more powerful form of a dog. Most of Ammy’s wolfish traits are inspired by the Japanese fairytale ‘The Old Man who made Withered Trees to Flower’, a story the creators would have grown up with the same way we grew up with Sleeping Beauty.

Mr Orange and The Man who made the Withered Trees to Flower

okami.jpgI spoke about this story briefly in a previous article about being too nice in fairytales. Mr Orange’s dance and the importance of Ammy’s ability to make cherry blossoms bloom all come from this Japanese fairytale. It centers around an old man who owns a dog called Shiro (maybe this influenced the name Shiranui?) because: ‘Shiro means “white”, and he was called so because of his color. He was a real Japanese dog, and very like a small wolf in appearance.’ I think we can see that Shiro is more the influence behind our four legged friend than the sun goddess Amaterasu.

In this myth, the old couple who own Shiro have a very jealous neighbor. One day, Shiro digs under a yenoki tree and finds  a heap of valuable coins (like how Ammy can tig up treasure in the game). The old couple are overjoyed, but the scheming neighbor is jealous. The old neighbour asks the old man to borrow his dog, and because the old man has all the spine of a jelly fish and would rather lend his dog to an abuser than cause a fuss and grow a backbone, he acquiescences. Of course, when Shiro digs up a pile of refuse instead of gold

Mr Orange
This old man was your neglectful owner in the original myth, Okami.

(symbolising the state of the neighbor’s soul), the neighbour loses it and kills the dog and buries him beneath his yenoki tree. When the old man finds out, he asks for the neighbour’s yenoki tree and proceeds to cut it down to make a mortar. The mortar produces eternal rice cakes and again the neighbour borrows it and it doesn’t work, thought his time the elderly neighbour chops up the mortar and makes firewood.

This time, the old man asks for the ashes of the firewood, and he scatters them on his own yenoki tree. Surprisingly, it causes it to burst into full bloom and the old man gains a talent for it.

He is eventually called in by a Daimo (an earl) and is tasked with making his withered tree bloom. He acquiences and is rewarded. The neighbour tries the same but is humiliated and justly punished.

Clearly, this is the inspiration behind Amaterasu and her two most basic spells from the paint brush; the sun comes from Amaterasu’s connection with the Shinto Goddess; meanwhile, her ability to make the ccherry blossoms bloom comes from the fairytale of Shiro the dog and the old man. But Amaterasu isn’t the only character loosely based on Shinto mythology.

Next time, we’ll look at the other central figure of this game: Susanoo. We’ll explore the mythology behind the eight headed dragon, as well as Kushi and her magic sake. If you haven’t read it already, in part one we looked at the secret sparrow kingdom and the moon people, you can check it out by following this link.

okami

 

The Japanese mythology of Okami (part 1)

Okami was an absolutely brilliant game. It had a very traditional Japanese feel, and took you on an adventure through a land of asian fairy tales full of blooming cherry blossoms, Dragon kings and bunny princesses. However, to us Westerners who grew up with the fairy tales told by Brothers Grimm,Hans Christian Anderson and (more to the point) Disney, some of the references were baffling in this game. Well be baffled no more, as I’m going to explain the mythology behind the game. Continue reading The Japanese mythology of Okami (part 1)

THE HONEST MAN- THERE’S BEING NICE AND THERE’S WINNING DARWIN AWARDS

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING GOOD AND NICE

There’s truth to the idea that it takes more intellectual energy to be successfully deceptive than to be senselessly sincere.

It’s also true that there’s a difference between being ‘good’ and ‘nice’. Being ‘good’- standing up for what’s right in the face of adversity- is laudable. Being relentlessly ‘nice’ – tolerating bad behaviour for fear of being ‘mean’ or  ‘starting trouble’- is not; it’s intellectual and moral cowardice that should never be rewarded. Unfortunately, in fairy tales, it often is.

It’s a delicate balancing act to walk the line between being ‘nice’ and being ‘a doormat’ or ‘a complete moron’, and so often in fairy tales not only do the leads fail to walk this tightrope; they fall, crash and drag the beams that held up the tightrope down on everyone else in the vicinity. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DARWIN AWARDS

In Little Snow White, the titular heroine falls for the same assassination ploy not once, not twice, but THREE times in the original. Three. With her lemming- like skills of self preservation and her prince’s questionable behaviour around women in coffins, I worry about their future children. Here’s hoping that seven fairies come along and bless their kids with something more useful than ‘song’ and ‘music’ this time, otherwise the kingdom’s future leadership is in trouble.

If we had a facepalm for every time Snow White's stupidity imperllied her, this still wouldn't cover it
If we had a facepalm for every time Snow White imperilled herself, this still wouldn’t cover it

THE MAN WHO MADE THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS BLOOM OR THE RSPCA’S MOST WANTED

It’s not only women who are susceptible to the trope of ‘passive niceness’. Things only gets worse in the Japanese tale, ‘The Man who made the cherry blossoms bloom’; the old man knows his neighbour abuses his dog at every chance he gets, but he lends his dog to the neighbour anyway because he is ‘a kind man’.

His neighbour beats the dog to death. But is the old man deemed to be guilty of ‘criminal neglect?’ No, his only crime is ‘kindness’, so why should the old man learn anything from his actions? All he needs to do is keep on letting his neighbour walk over him and defile his pet’s memory over and over again until magical karma solves everything.

If Mr Orange was like the old man from the original myth, Ammy, you'd be making those Cherry-blossoms bloom with your ashes instead of your paint brush
If Mr Orange was like the old man from the original myth, Ammy would be making those Cherry-blossoms bloom with her ashes instead of her paint brush

FINALLY! A FAIRY TALE THAT AGREES WITH ME

The examples above are stories where being ‘nice’ means being relentlessly stupid or passive, which isn’t a good message for adulthood. It may work for getting kids not to bicker with each other or talk back, but it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.

However, there is a brilliant antidote to this message- and that antidote can be found in the little known Iraqi tale of ‘The Honest Man’.

DELICIOUSLY ACERBIC

This tale is subversive right from the word ‘go.’ From its opening paragraph it begins:

There was once an honest man, upon whom fortune never smiled. His wife deceived him, his sons robbed him, and when his beard was white he found himself without either money or honour.’

We have the similar set up to your Cinderellas, your Princess Hases (a fairy tale I’ll look at in another post)… your poor good person being relentlessly abused by the people around him.

He then goes and asks his friend at the local suq what needs to be done about it- and his friend advises him to go on a pilgrimage to pray at the tomb of a holy man. This introduction of a potential supernatural moral guardian, a sort of ‘fairy godmother’ or  ‘divine parent’ if you will, would usually mean that magic will make the world right without him having to do anything.

On his pilgrimage, the honest man meets various creatures who tell him their tales of woe and he promises to pray for them. His most notable encounter is with a talking lion with a massive headache. When he meets the prophet, the prophet tells him how to solve all the problems of the various people he encountered. Simple enough. But when he gets to the lion’s dilemma things get dark:

“His case is also easy,’ answered the Imam.”All that he has to do is is to eat the head of a fool, and he will instantly be cured.”

Uh oh. I can see where this is going. Things get even darker when the honest man finally asks the Imam to help him with his own problem :

“Go in peace,” said the saint [probably with an evil smile] “I have already told thee that which is necessary to end thy troubles.” [emphasis mine]

Whoa! What kind of saint is this man?

After this point, the honest man travels back home and helps everyone he met on the way. Each time, he’s rewarded with a vast amount of riches, but each time he refuses to take the reward for some senseless reason.

Finally, he encounters the lion and tells him what the prophet told him. You can guess what happened next.

chow time
“Thanks for all your help, chump.”

Needless to say, this was the end of his streak of bad luck.

MORAL

After reading this story, I was pretty surprised by the ending . After all, in any other fairy tale the honest man would be the hero. Why wasn’t he here?

The point of this tale is not to discourage people from being kind and honest; in fact, every time the honest man helps someone, karma rewards him  with worldly wealth. He’s offered a big sum of money for helping the brothers and he finds an expensive pearl after helping the fish. Clearly, his kindness is rewarded.

But the honest man’s problem isn’t compassion; his problem is that he’s too stupid to make the most of his situation. He complains that ‘fortune never smiled’ on him, but the truth is it does but his own stupidity causes all his blessings to be undone.

It is arguably laudable that he rejected the brothers’ inheritance, because it didn’t belong to him. However, it got ridiculous when he threw the pearl the fish spat out back into the lake. The pearl belonged to no one and throwing it back into the lake was of no use to anybody. He was offered good fortune but he tossed it away like trash because he was too stupid to seize the opportunity.

The honest man was given every opportunity to change his fortune. However, each time he proved to be the undoing of every gift fate threw at him; he was so stupid, so incapable of changing that in the end, the lion did provide him with the only way that could end his woes.

The moral is ‘being nice is good, but don’t be a moron’. And that’s a moral we can all get behind.

Source:

‘The Honest Man’, Folktales of Iraq, Edited and Translated by E.S. Stevens, Dover Publications, Inc

Other Sources:

Little Snow White, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain

Cinderella, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Public Domain

‘The Story Of Princess Hase’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki, Bibliobazaar

‘The Story Of The Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Flower’, Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki