What would you do if you were dead and your husband killed you on a boat, trying to escape from a village who would not agree to your forbidden love story? What if your husband would return to the village to marry your sister?
In the beginning, there was great chaos, and the people wandered the land, confused, directionless, lost. And then, the great storytellers came to impart light where there was darkness: Sumerians on baked clay tablets, Egyptians on papyrus, Chinese on bone and shell, Homer, Ovid, the Old Testament. From Ecclesiastes 1:9 comes this, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Those early stories sought to explain the unexplainable: the human condition, the existence of evil, why good so rarely thrives, why wickedness and injustice so frequently prevail. Death.
As to whom to blame for that inescapable fate, Judeo-Christian culture would have us cherchez la femme.Woman, too, bears the blame in the Shinto creation myth of Japan. Millennia later, Natsuo Kirino tells the woman’s side of the story in The Goddess Chronicle.
They are born of the same mother but they are separated when Kamikuu comes of age – as she is destined to become the next Oracle (priestess). She is fed different food, she is brought up separately from Namima, she even lives at a top of a hill overseeing the ocean. Her food is brought to her by Namima in a basket. She does not know what it is, but it smells delicious and even though there is a famine going through the village, any leftovers from the Oracle food must be thrown over the cliff into the water.
A boy called Mahito meets Namima one day, begging for the left-over food to be sent to his mother – who had been isolated from the main villagers until she gave birth to a girl to end the curse (they needed to have a back-up oracle).
Namima falls in love with him and over the years, their meetings become more and more passionate until she lays with him as a woman does with a man. She gets pregnant and just when she was about to make the fact known, her grandma dies, leaving Kamikuu as the next in line for the Oracle and automatically dooming Namima to be the keeper of the dead, a servant of the Goddess of Darkness, never to be seen again by mortal eyes.
Namima cannot accept her destiny so she escapes from the island along with her new husband and she gives birth on the float before reaching the new island.
When she was sleeping, her husband strangles her and dumps her overboard.
I must say – this is the point where the story actually begins – as Namima is delivered to serve in the underworld to a cruel and bitter Goddess of Darkness, Izanami, who hated her cheating husband, Izanaki, and took revenge by killing 1500 men on earth every day and all the women that he laid with.
Trapped in the realm of the restless dead, Namima learns the origins of her world (and thus the origins of her suffering) from Izanami and from a dead storyteller charged while living with memorizing early Japanese myth—Hieda no Are. (Are is a historical figure from whose recitations from memory the Kojiki is thought to have been assembled. In The Goddess Chronicle, Are appears as a woman, but her gender is one of the many details contested in contemporary study of the Kojiki. Her presence in Kirino’s text as a woman is quite purposeful, and feels consistent with the novel’s devotion to the figure of the woman as originary).
Here, in the midst of The Goddess Chronicle’s most beautifully described setting, Izanami’s palace of the dead—an infinite tomb, both ceilings and walls extending infinitely into darkness—the novel delves fully into its source text, turning completely toward the telling of epic myth. Are’s telling of the origin story includes fascinating mythic explanations for minor traditions and customs, as well as proverb-like summations: “The sword is born from fire, and the right to fire is controlled by the sword.” In the realm of the dead, the novel is at its engrossing best: a creation myth of stunning clarity told to those whom creation has betrayed.
Namima beggs the goddess to allow her to return to Earth to see what has happened with her loved ones and the goddess agrees on the condition that she returns as an animal. She chooses a wasp as it has good strength and can fly over large distances. She embarks on a wonderful journey and when she was nearing her death again in the wasp body, she reaches the island where she finds out that her beloved husband loved her sister all along and getting on with her was just a plot to produce a baby (lucky it was a girl) – to restore his family from shame so he could marry the Oracle. Mad with hate, Namima stings him in the forehead causing him to go into shock and die in his new wife’s arms. Namima dies and goes back to the underworld.
The Goddess Chronicle is an extraordinary re-telling of one small piece of a body of myth often overlooked in the West. The myths and rituals described in the Kojiki are part of the inspiration for Shinto as it is practiced—by millions of people—in modern Japan today. Kirino’s novel serves as a fascinating, approachable introduction to an ancient body of myth, thought, and ritual. Anyone curious about the history and traditions of the world’s tenth largest country would be wise to investigate it.
About the Author
Natsuo Kirino, born in Japan in 1951, is one of the few writers of crime fiction whose work goes far beyond the conventions of the genre.
Besides winning the highest award for crime fiction in Japan, the Great Mystery Writers Award, Kirino has won the Naoki Prize, a prestigious literary award, with Soft Cheeks.
His books have been published in 16 countries and several of them have been brought to the big screen. Out is his first novel in Spain. She has been dubbed by critics in the United States and the Japanese Queen of Crime.