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Nihon Ryōiki

The Nihon Ryōiki is a collection of myths written around 800 by a Buddhist monk called Kyōkai. It is not often mentioned in the context of Shinto, despite its age, because it is normally described as a collection of Buddhist “setsuwa”, or exemplary tales. And, “obviously”, if it is a collection of Buddhist stories, it can’t be of any relevance to Shinto.

As I oh-so-subtly indicated by my use of scare quotes, I do not entirely agree. I have just read a selection of stories from it as part of another project, and it strikes me that there are elements there that appear to be connected to Shinto myths. There are, for example, two stories that involve snakes either having sex with women or wanting to marry them, which is also a motif that is found in Shinto myths. I suspect that a careful look at the text, in the context of the “Shinto” myths written down around the same period, might be quite illuminating. However, I would need a full edition for that, and it isn’t a top priority. Here, I just want to pick up a few interesting points from it.

The first is that it contains a kitsunë (fox) legend, probably the earliest one recorded in Japan. (Neither the Kojiki nor the Nihonshoki contain such legends, and there is not much else older than the Nihon Ryōiki that is likely to do so.) The legend goes as follows:

A man went out looking for a wife. He walked past a field where he saw a beautiful woman.

“What are you doing?” he asked her.

“I’m walking around looking for a husband,” she replied.

“Well, I’m looking for a wife,” he replied. “Do you want to marry me?”

“By all means.”

They went home and had sex, and she became pregnant, giving birth to a boy. At the same time, the household dog had a puppy, but that puppy always barked at the woman, baring his teeth and chasing her. She asked her husband to kill it, but he refused.

One day, she went to pound some rice with her feet in order to pay their taxes, and the puppy followed her into the workroom, chasing her around. As she was being chased, she reverted to her natural animal form, and hid on top of a chest.

Her husband came in and found her, and said,

“We have had a child together, so I can never forget you. Come back and sleep with me whenever you can.”

She did, and so that animal is called a “kitsunë”, because it came (“ki”) and slept (“në”) with him.

This happened in the reign of Kinmei Tennō, in the early sixth century, in Ōno county, in Mino Province. The descendants of the fox wife are the Kitsunë no Atai family.

For my money, this is one of the best versions of the “animal wife” motif I have read; there is no coercion, no betrayal, no broken promise, and no end to the relationship, even when it becomes clear that she is not human. I also suspect that this story has as much, or more, to do with the origins of Shinto as it does with Japanese Buddhism.

Another interesting thing about this collection is that the stories do not happen at vague places in the distant past (“A long, long time ago, in a place far away”, as Japanese fairy stories put it). Instead, they happen on particular dates, such as the 11th day of the 12th month 765, in a specified village in Japan. What is more, these dates are almost all within living memory at the time of likely composition, and in one case the author says that he actually went looking for an old man who featured in one of the stories to see if he could corroborate it. (He couldn’t find him, so “he must have been a Bodhisattva! It’s a miracle!”.) The kitsunë story is actually unusually vague about the time and place.

I would like to find time to read more of these stories some time in the future, but time is the hardest thing to find.

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