The Myth of Izanami

The Frye is proud to present Hanako O'Leary: Izanami (November 11, 2023–January 28, 2024), the first solo museum presentation of O’Leary’s work. The exhibition marks the culmination of the artist’s multiyear series of ceramic vessels and masks named for Izanami, the Shinto goddess of creation and death. The artist has revived and reinterpreted Izanami’s legacy, and shared this retelling in the talk “Creation: Hanako O’Leary and the Myth of Izanami” at the Frye Art Museum on November 18, 2023. 

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According to legend, a long, long time ago, at the beginning of time, the universe created Izanami and Izanagi, translated to mean ‘She Who Invites’ and ‘He Who Invites.’ They were the divine personification of the feminine and masculine.  

In order to build a home for themselves, Izanami instructed Izanagi to take his jeweled scepter and stir up the primordial goo of the cosmos. Izanagi followed Izanami's instructions and stirred. The primordial oceans frothed with bubbles. Out of the foam emerged the Japanese islands. 

Once the couple created a home, next they decided to create a family. So in the traditional mortal way, Izanami and Izanagi came together to procreate. Together they created many gods and goddesses, and for a while everything was new and thriving and Izanami was excited to create this new land full of life. 

But after years and years and years of happy, sunny life, eventually Izanami grew tired of looking after the plants and the animals and all the new things that needed her attention to grow. She knew there was more to her than just existing on the surface with the birds and the flowers and wanted to create something new. She wanted something that would add contrast and challenge and value and depth to the bright and youthful worlds that were so easy.  

She decided to create a mountain bigger than any that has ever existed. When the day came to give birth to this new God, her body opened up and from it was delivered dirt and stone in a brilliant burst of lava. As this new God of Fire was born, Izanami's body burnt up and her transformation into the Goddess of Death was initiated. Her soul was sent down into the underworld and she became the first living being ever to experience death. 

Meanwhile Izanagi became the first being to experience loss. Stricken with grief, he went looking for Izanami in the underworld. Deep down under the earth he ventured, and he found his way into Yomi, the land of darkness, a place where life ends and death begins, and gets ready to be reborn again. 

The land of Yomi was dark and warm. The walls were wet and smelled of salty decay. Into the darkness he called for Izanami, “Izanami, where are you? I don't like this whole death thing. I need you to come back and be with me. There's so much to do in the land of the living and I don't know how to do anything without you. Izanami, are you there? Do you hear me?” 

Very faintly, he heard a voice in the distance. “Izanagi, is that you? Wow, how long has it been? How is everybody? It's so nice of you to pop in unannounced like this and say hi, but I can't go back right now. I've already eaten the food of this land and become one with it. I know all this is scary and change is really hard, but I'm excited for this new realm I'm building and I can't leave right now. Death is my new journey.” 

Izanagi, being the Divine Masculine, could not accept no for an answer. “Izanami. Izanami! You can't possibly be serious. You made a promise to be mine forever, and this is really triggering for my abandonment issues. I'm not leaving here without you.” 

Izanami, being the Divine Feminine, was still learning how to maintain her boundaries. “Okay, Izanagi, please, please don't get so upset. Let me see what I can do. You're really not supposed to be here unannounced, and you have the potential to cause a lot of harm. But I'm going to check, and maybe we can, you know, like, rebalance the scales of the cosmos for you. There's always room for compromise, right? While I look into it, it's really important that you sit still and wait for me. I'll be back as soon as I can, but in the meantime, please don't touch anything. Don't move anything. And no matter what you do, please, please, please do not turn on the lights.” 

Izanagi sighed and rolled his eyes, “Sure babe, you do you. I'll be right here. But don't take too long because there's also like zero service down here. I don't know why you think it's so great.” 

And with that, Izanami went off to people-please her way out of this conflict while Izanagi sat around waiting for his wife to de-escalate his triggered nervous system. 

Eventually, his phone died. He had nothing left to occupy his mind. He started getting anxious. He was hungry. He's uncomfortable. So he thought to himself, “This is ridiculous. Things should not take this long. I know Izanami thinks she knows what she's doing because I guess, like, this whole realm was her concept, and she kind of built and invented and discovered this place. But her Divine Feminine temperament is not cut out for leadership or negotiation or time management. I mean, look at this place. There's nothing here. I don't get it. It's time for me to step in as a Divine Masculine and exercise my superior skills of making shit happen.” 

Izanagi stood up and removed a comb from his hair, and with a snap of his fingers he set it on fire, holding it in front of him as a torch. Suddenly, the world around him was illuminated. 

He could see that indeed he stood in the Land of the Dead. 

All around him was death, blood, flesh, and gore in a continuous cycle of change as he moved the flame around he saw next to him lay the body of Izanami. No longer was Izanami his youthful lover, but a dead body deep in the throes of decay, her flesh saggy and wrinkled and pale. Within her corpse, he saw the seven gods of thunder and lightning eternally feeding off her wound. 

No longer in the mood to make shit happen, Izanagi slowly started backing away, and as if to sense his sudden change in moods, Izanami's undead body slowly became reanimated. She sat up with the serpents still writhing within her and looked at Izanagi. “Izanagi, what have you done? I asked you so many times. Don't turn on the lights!” 

Izanagi answered as he continued to slowly back away, “Oof, wow, I'm so sorry babe, but you were just taking a really long time. But, you know, it's OK because I'm actually really glad you gave me this time to, you know, sit and like, reflect and you know, like, just do the work. And actually, it turns out you were right the whole time. We need to be on our own journey right now, You know, you have your journey—queen of the undead—you’ve got those snake things to take care of, and I have mine, you know, as the glorious patriarch of the Japanese pantheon. We need to spend some time apart, I think. Yeah, I think this is a good time right now to initiate one of those—you know, what the kids are calling those, ‘no contact phases’. Let's do that.” 

So Izanagi turned and started running towards the exit. Izanami, seeing her lover for the coward that he really is, finally found the strength to demand some accountability. “Izanagi, you've disrespected my memory and disturbed the peace of this land that is so precious to me. I demand that you stay here and put in the work to repair this mess.” 

Izanami gathered her new underworld friends, known in historical texts only as the Hell Hags, and quickly began to catch up to Izanagi. But Izanagi had access to undisclosed privileges that allowed him to dodge their grasps, and he was able to step out of the underworld with just enough time to roll the boulder over the exit, blocking her from him. 

“Izanami,” he lamented as he leaned on the boulder, “I just want you to know that it’s not you, it's me. It was really fun while it lasted, though. And I'll never forget you, you're an incredible woman.” 

After a minute, Izanami replied, “You know, that's really funny because you say that, because it actually is you. You have no idea the disrespect and harm you unleash on this land. You're free to go, go live your life as you please because so will I. From this day forward, every day, I will take 1,000 lives from this realm that we created together, to serve this new one that I'm building.” 

Izanagi, in a flustered rage answered, “Wow, Izanami, wow. Really? Is that really how you’re going to end this? I'm so sorry you're upset, but maybe I wouldn't have to block you if you weren't so crazy and, like, low-key, really clingy. You know what? Take this. Take as many souls as you need. I don't need them. I'm the eternal God. I'm the eternal golden pretty boy. I am the God of life. I have all of creation on my side and history will forever be written to support me. With my endless resources, I can create 1,500 souls every day to replace the ones you take and to replace you. The world will forever be ashamed of your unpleasantness, your difficultness, your ugliness, and this like new icky realm that you're building, and eternally grateful for my gracious victory.” 

After a very long silence Izanami finally replied, “Izanagi, my people and I have built this sacred land and history within us that will live on for eternity. And while you refuse to understand or respect it, it terrifies you when we choose to exercise our powers in ways that do not serve you or your identity or you getting ahead. And because you cannot exist without us, you insist our power is yours to control. I cannot stop you from centering yourself in this story, but know that I am also a God, and I will also continue to live and be loved and enjoy an extraordinary existence without you. So good luck. Goodbye. See ya.” 

And after that the two walked separate ways, and never looked back. 

According to the ancient text, feeling polluted by all the rejection and negative energy, Izanagi went to the ocean and washed his body, cleaning himself from the filth of the underworld. As he washed himself, he began to weep beautiful, sensitive, manly tears, and from his tears was born the sun goddess Amaterasu, who would bear him many grandchildren. They would grow up to begin the imperial bloodline of Japan and keep him company and honor him as the first father of Japan and eternal patriarch of the Shinto pantheon. 

So in the Kojiki*, the story of Izanami ends at the boulder. Izanagi plays this role as father to new gods and is an active character in many stories following this one, while Izanami is never mentioned again. 

But in any story, when a character breaks free from the role that they are supposed to play and begins to embody who they actually want to be, that's when the story gets interesting.


*Early Japanese chronicle of myths and legends concerning the formation of the Japanese archipelago, Shinto deities, and the origin of the Japanese imperial line. 


This story is excerpted from an artist talk also encompassing O'Leary's practice and inspiration for the exhibition. Watch the full talk in the video of the program below.