Oh Gods! The Life and Times Of Okuninushi

Okuninushi no Mikoto is essentially the Japanese god of civilization. Though he is the god of many other things, such as medicine, his most important role is that he is the “god of the country.” Through hard work and some quick thinking, the stories of Okuninushi tell of his efforts to unite the different gods under his rule. It was Okuninushi, not Amaterasu, who nurtured and created harmony among the gods living in Japan. This is why Okuninushi is one of the most important gods in all Japanese mythology.

If you haven’t been following our Oh Gods! series, you can find part 1 here and the beginning of Okuninushi’s tale here.

Please see the footnotes(*) at the bottom of this entry for further explanations.

 

The Wives of Okuninushi

After successfully running off his wicked brothers, Okuninushi decided he should try to settle down in Izumo with his new bride Suseri.

But what about Okuni’s first betrothal to Yagami?
Well, upon hearing that Okuni had returned from safe and sound from Yomi, Yagami decided it was time for the pair of them to finalize their marriage agreement, especially since she had just given birth to Okuni’s child.
She set out from her kingdom in Inaba and journeyed to Izumo. A local myth in Izumo says that Since it was a long and tiring trip, Yagami took a moment to refresh herself in an onsen before going to meet Okuni*. Unfortunately, just as Yagami was approaching Okuni’s home, she caught sight of Suseri. The moment she caught sight of Suseri, something went through Yagami and utterly scared the poor woman. Yagami then fled back to Inaba, leaving Okuni’s son in the branches of a nearby tree.

Small shrine to Princess Yagami just outside of Yunogawa Onsen in Izumo.

Despite his deep professed love for Suseri, Okuninushi was not very monogamous to her and would often flirt, marry, and even have children with other goddesses from nearby kingdoms. In addition to the Suseri the Kojiki mentions four other women Okuni married: Nunakawa, Takiribime, Kamayatate, and Toritori. We speculate that this reputation for “being popular with the ladies” as it were, is why many Izumo guide books today have built up Okuninushi as a god of marriage, despite no mythological records stating him as such.

 

Okuninushi and Sukunahikona

All in all, life was good for Okuninushi, but still he remembered that his father-in-law, Susano-o, had commanded Okuni to rule over Japan, and he knew better than to disobey Susano-o. However, there were many different gods who resided all over the country, and Okuninushi didn’t know how to go about conquering all these different kingdoms.

Big Things in Small Packages

Troubled by the weight of the task ahead, Okuni went to the seaside to think, comforted by the sound of the crashing waves. Then, quite suddenly, on the horizon appeared a very small and peculiar thing. Why, it was a small boat fashioned from a potato vine! Inside the little boat was a small god, hardly bigger than a thumb, wearing clothes fashioned out of moth wings. This small god approached Okuninushi, who was understandably perplexed.

“Hello,” Okuni said. “Who are you?”
But the little god did not respond.
Okuni tried asking him a few more times, but he was only met with silence.
Okuni took the little god to everyone he could think of, but no one knew who this moth-covered god was.
“Ah!” croaked a frog. “You should go to Kuebiko; he will surely know who this is.”
So, with his visitor in tow, Okuninushi went to visit Kuebiko. After taking a good long look at the mysterious tiny god, Kuebiko said,
“Why, isn’t that Sukunahikona? Why, yes, I’m sure that is the son of Kamimusuhi-sama!”
The little god smiled as Okuni’s jaw dropped, for Kamimusuhi was one of the oldest and most powerful of the Celestial Gods.

Fearing the potential wrath of such an important god like Kamimusuhi, Okuninushi personally took Sukunabikona across the bridge to the High Plane to see Kamimusuhi.
“Why yes, that’s my little Sukunahikona! Born right, from between my fingers, that one.” Kamimusuhi exclaimed,
“You mentioned you were contemplating how to unify the Reed Kingdom when you met my son, right Okuninushi?”
Okuni nodded, still rather intimidated.
“Oh, then Sukunahikona will help you. Despite his stature, he is very capable and very knowledgeable about many things. I’m sure he will be very useful to you.”

Okuninushi and Sukunahikona returned to the Reed Kingdom and together they two were able to bring the other gods under Okuni’s authority.*

Picture of Sukunahiko from Sukunahiko Shrine in Osaka.

 

Okuninushi and Omono-nushi

Okuni had come to think of his friend Sukunahiko as indispensable and spent much of their time together. However, one day, Sukunahiko had to take his leave of Okuni, which made him very sad. Okuni was once again riddled with doubt. There were still many kingdoms he did not control yet, and then there was the even greater challenge of ruling over the lands Okuni had joined under his reign.

Okuni returned to the seaside and began to deliberate on what he should do.

“Okuninushi.” A voice echoed. “You are not alone.”
And from the sea rose yet another mysterious god.
“Do not fret Okuninushi, for I am Omononushi, and I will help you rule over this vast land. If you enshrine me in the mountains of Yamato, I will be able to extend the reach of your power.”

“I don’t understand,” Okuni said. “Why are you helping me?”
“Because we are one and the same Okuni, for I am a part of your very soul.”**

Okuninushi was greatly comforted by Omononushi’s words and did as he instructed. Okuni buried Omononushi at the top of Mt. Miwa in the kingdom of Yamato, or as it is known by its modern name, Nara.

Mt. Miwa, Nara

 

Okuninushi and Amaterasu’s Demand

An untold amount of time had passed since Izanagi and Izanami had first created the islands of Japan, and for the most part it seems as though it had been more or less forgotten by the gods of the High Plane. Since Susano-o’s banishment, Amaterasu had been enjoying a peaceful life in the High Plane and had many children. One day however, Amaterasu decided that she wanted to give the Reed Kingdom to her child, Oshihomimi, but with Okuninushi governing such a large portion of it, she saw it was time to reinstate her claim to the Reed Kingdom.

Amaterasu’s Messengers

Amaterasu dispatched a number for messengers to enter into negotiations with Okuninushi, however, the first one ended up befriending Okuni and never returned to the High Plane, the second married one of Okuni’s daughters, and the third was accidentally mistaken for a bird and killed. Oops?

Very irritated and reaching the end of her patience, Amaterasu sent one last messenger, Takemikazuchi, who safely reached the Reed Kingdom and met with Okuninushi.

 

Kasuga taisha
Takemikazuchi is enshrined in Kasuga Shrine in Nara.

 

“The Divine Amaterasu seeks these lands that are indeed her birthright. She wishes to bestow these lands to her heir, Oshihomimi. What say you, Okuninushi?”
Takemikazuchi spoke with much more purpose and was far more direct that the last two messengers that had been sent from the High Plane. Okuninushi was beginning to get the sense that he wouldn’t be able to win this one over, as he had the others.

“Well,” Okuni said rubbing his beard. “I suppose if she insists I will not resist, however, you should ask my sons Kotoshiro-nushi and Takeminakata. Unfortunately, Kotoshiro is currently fishing and hunting in Miho.”
“Very well,” Takemikazuchi said. “I shall seek this Kotoshironushi.”
And with that took his leave of Okuni and set out for Miho.

In Miho, Kotoshironushi was happily fishing in a lake when Takemikazuchi appeared.
“I come on behalf of the Divine Amaterasu. She seeks to reclaim these lands for her heir. Will you oppose her claim?”
Kotoshiro was a very happy and content god and he easily relinquished his claims to the lands his father governed.

Satisfied, Takemikazuchi returned to Izumo. He then went to confront Okuni’s other son, Takeminakata, and again asked if he would oppose Amaterasu’s claim to Japan. Unlike his brother, Takeminakata was a very hot-tempered god and insisted on dueling Takemikazuchi.

“Very well.” Takemikazuchi replied and the two locked arms in combat.
Just as the fighting was getting underway, Takemikazuchi suddenly revealed his very singular ability to transform his arm in to a sword. Seeing another god’s arm turn into a sword terrified Takeminakata, and he immediately fled screaming that Takemikazuchi could take whatever he wanted.

“Well, that was a little embarrassing.” Said Okuni-nushi as Takeminakata ran all the way from Izumo never to return. Takeminakata ran almost clear across Japan until he finally took refuge in Suwa, of what is present day of Nagano.

Relinquishing Japan

 Victorious, Takemikazuchi approached Okuninushi again.
“Both your sons have relinquished their claims without conflict, can I count on you to do the same?”
“Oh, very well.” Okuninushi replied. “I have just one demand: I require a grand shrine so tall it reaches the High Plane itself.”

Takemikazuchi then returned to the High Plane and reported to Amaterasu. When he mentioned Okuni’s request, Amaterasu sighed and waved her hand.
“Fine, fine. Give him what he wants.”

 Okuni’s shrine was built and was named Izumo Oyashiro, commonly referred to as Izumo Taisha.

Entrance of Izumo Taisha

And so it was, that the gods of Izumo abdicated their country and Japan passed from the hands of Okuninushi to the children of Amaterasu, who descended to Japan in Miyazaki.

 Even though Okuninushi was no longer the supreme god of Japan, he is still considered the leader of all the Earthly Gods, who once a year, journey to his grand shrine in Izumo to discuss the fates of man.    

 

Footnotes:

* If you think this feels abrupt, we do too. Sadly the Kojiki simply cuts off here, offering no explanation of how Okuni and Sukunabikona were able to accomplish this task. Also Sukunabikona never speaks at all, which doesn’t help.

** Omononushi never actually said this in the Kojiki, but the connection between Okuninushi and Omononushi is very complicated. Depending on which text you choose to follow, they are either considered to be separate gods, or are essentially the same god. We decided to leave this line in because when we spoke to a priest in Miwa Shrine, Omononushi’s main shrine, he said that Omononushi was part of Okuni’s soul, and surely he understands the mythology of Omononushi better than we do.

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