Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Kojiki

The Kojiki: an Account of Ancient Matters, by Ō no Yasumaro

Here we have Japan's earliest chronicle, giving the descent of the Yamato dynasty.  It dates from the 8th century, and was written by a courtier at the request of the Empress Gemmei.  

The chronicle is in three parts, and roughly they are myth, legend, and history.  The first section deals with the creation of the world and with kami--translated here as 'spirits.'  These are the stories that became part of the Shinto religion.  (It's very much like Hesiod's Theogony, being a genealogy of divinities.)  The story of Amaterasu is found here, and the ancient beginnings of the Yamato line.

The second, legendary part sounds a lot like the first, except that we've mostly moved into the world of people by now.  It becomes a kingship chronicle, with interesting legends attached.  These kings, however, are too far back to be able to confirm much about their existence.  And the third part is more historical, though it still has the same style.  There are some neat stories, but also quite a lot of just plain genealogy.  There are also songs, which were written in Old Japanese in a special kind of Chinese writing.  Most of them have an instruction at the end that tells you how to sing it (if you know the rules).

Every royal character, and every kami, has 'mighty' in front of every noun, so that it gets very repetitive indeed.  These mighty ones also never just go anywhere--they make their majestic ways.  Grand epithets are everywhere.  And the end of every section gives the location of that person's mighty barrow.

I had forgotten that ancient Japanese monarchs had barrows!  So I had to go look those up again.  They are called kofun and are distinctively keyhole-shaped (from above), with the burial in the round part.

This translation puts all the names into English as well, translating the meanings of the names.  Indexes in the back list all personal and place names, and their meanings; it's extremely handy.  There is also an extensive glossary of terms.

The Kojiki is not at all difficult to read, and it's less than 200 pages long.  Not all of it makes a lot of sense to a modern American, but hey, that's what the glossaries are for; we're supposed to be learning new stuff here.  So if you're interested in very old Japanese literature, this is a good choice.


R.T. said...

Thank you for your clear and helpful posting. This sounds like a book that I would like to find and read. I really like your comment, "The chronicle is in three parts, and roughly they are myth, legend, and history"; it is often so hard to separate each of those three parts (e.g, does any myth exist without some aspects of the others; does legend exist without aspects of the others; does history exist without aspects of the others?).

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Cool! Have I said before how much I admire how widely you read and learn all sorts of things? It's awesome.