Myth Reading Group 23 March: In Ghostly Japan

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 23 March 2023, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Spring Term is Japanese Myth.

Monochrome illustration of two women in traditional Japanese dress walking in a field. They hold hands, and the woman in the left of the picture carries a lantern.
The Peony Lantern, illustration from Lafcadio Hearn, In Ghostly Japan (

Continuing our readings of Japanese myth, this week we will look into some of the work of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a Greek-British writer who travelled from the US to Japan and finally settled there towards the end of the nineteenth century. Hearn (later known as Koizumi Yakumo after marrying in Japan and obtaining citizenship), explores the supernatural, strange “ghosts” of Japanese culture through a series of essays, stories, poems and fairy tales. In the story of the Peony Lantern, taken from the collection In Ghostly Japan (1899), the ghosts of two women appear as ambivalent, deceitful beings, and harmful to mortals who interact with them. In another “ghost” story from the same collection, the story of the Tengu, a bird-like spirit grants a wish to a priest with disappointing results.


  1. A Passional Karma/Ghosts in the Romance of the Peony-Lantern
  2. Story of a Tengu

Further reading:

  1. Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904)
  2. “The Many Lives of Lafcadio Hearn”, Andrei Codrescu, The Paris Review, 2019
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Open Seminar: Kami and Japanese creation myth

The Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies and the Centre for Myth Studies at University of Essex present an Open Seminar:

Professor Megumi Yama

Kyoto University of Advanced Science

The concept of kami and Japanese creation myth

Thursday 9 March, 5.30 – 7.00 pm

University of Essex, Colchester campus, Room 5A.120

All Welcome

Photograph of a torii (traditional Japanese gate) in front of steps leading upwards, enclosed by trees.
The Kami of Wisdom, Kuehiko Shrine, Nara (Photo: Megumi Yama)

The Centre for Myth Studies, and the Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, are delighted to welcome Professor Megumi Yama. This will be the first in-person event hosted by the Centre for Myth Studies since February 2020, so it would be wonderful to see as many of you as can attend.

Although the Japanese word kami is usually translated into English with terms such as deity, god, or spirit, none of these words precisely captures its full meaning. What makes this concept more ambiguous and chaotic is that, due to the syncretization of Japanese religions, the same word kami is used both for god and goddess in Buddhism and the numerous spirits in Shintō. In fact, the ambiguous nature of kami itself is considered to be not only unique in religious and cultural meaning, but also noteworthy in terms of its deep embeddedness in the Japanese psyche. Many Japanese accept the concept of kami without even being conscious of its historical religious basis. We can find these kami in the Kojiki, the oldest Japanese creation myth. In the very beginning, before the appearance of the ‘First Parents’ who created the world, many generations of invisible kami float in and out of ‘being’ one after another. They gradually take kami form, moving from intangible to tangible, from invisible to visible, from abstract to concrete. Although each embodies a separate kami, ultimately, they show orientation as a whole. I would like to argue that through exploring this orientation in a connection of seemingly fragmented images, an important theme may emerge. Such a concept may finally lead to the Buddhist idea of jinen – a state in which everything flows spontaneously, just as it is. If time permits, I would also like to touch on some motifs from the animated film “Your Name” by Makoto Shinkai, which I hope will be helpful for understanding the concept of kami in Japan.

Megumi Yama, Ph.D. is a professor of depth psychology and clinical psychology at Kyoto University of Advanced Science. She is also engaged in clinical work as a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist. She has written many articles and books, including translations, both in English and Japanese.  Her books include To the Depth of Words (Seishinshobo, 2003), The Creation of “Black”: A Painter who never Stopped Painting Siberia—the Depth of Creative Activity and his Work of Art (Tomishobo, 2016), Haruki Murakami: Novel as Method—a Decent into the Depths of Memory (Shin-yo-sha, 2019), and A Psychotherapeutic Reading of the Japanese Animated Film “Your Name”: The Power of Invisible Imagery (Shin-yo-sha, 2022).

Though this is primarily an in-person event, attendance is also possible by Zoom. Please register your place at:

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Myth Reading Group 23 February: My Lord Bag of Rice

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 23 February 2023, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Spring Term is Japanese Myth.

Katsukawa Shuntei, The Warrior Fujiwara Hidesato Battling the Giant Centipede, ca. 1818 (via Curious Ordinary)

This week we take a break from the Kojiki and Nihongi to discuss the 14th-century Japanese folktale about the 10th-century warrior Fujiwara no Hidesato’s exploits in killing a gigantic centipede that lived on Mount Mikami in Shiga Prefecture and was terrorising the region around Lake Biwa.  In addition to the enormous centipede, we shall encounter a metamorphosing snake, a dragon king, an underwater palace, and sundry magical gifts, including the eponymous bag of rice, to provide plenty of sustenance for the mythological imagination.


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Myth Reading Group 9 February: Susanowo

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 9 February 2023, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Spring Term is Japanese Myth.

A man with dramatically flowing hair and robes wields a sword at the head of a great serpent, crashing in the sea.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Susanoo no Mikoto kills the Eight-headed Serpent, woodblock print triptych, 1887 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Last term we encountered the Japanese deity Susanowo in his dealings with the sun goddess Amaterasu. At the end of the tale, Susanowo is expelled from the High Plain of Heaven in punishment for his destructive behaviour.

This week’s text picks up his story as told in the Nihonshoki (‘Chronicles of Japan’, also called Nihongi, completed 720 CE). Here, Susanowo demonstrates his ‘culture-hero’ status as he defeats the ‘eight-forked serpent’ Yamata-no-Orochi. The section here concludes with Susanowo’s descendant Ōnamuji (or Ōkuninushi) completing the creation of the world alongside the diminutive Sukunabikona.

Susanowo’s full name is given as Take-paya-susa-nö-wo-nö-mikötö, and can be translated ‘Valiant intrepid raging male lord’ or ‘Reckless Rushing Raging Man’. This edition transliterates his name as ‘Sosa no wo no Mikoto’. The extract begins with Susanowo announcing that he must return for ever to the Nether Land in obedience to the assembled deities…


Further reading:

  • The full text of Aston’s translation of Nihongi can be found as a scanned book at Internet Archive, or as plain text at Wikisource.
  • The version of the story as told in the Kojiki (in Basil Hall Chamberlain’s 1919 translation) can be found at Sacred Texts.
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Myth Reading Group 26 January: Izanami & Izanagi

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 26 January 2023, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is posted in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Spring Term is Japanese Myth.

Izanami, from Noragami # 36 (2014), by Adachitoka

The story of the deities Izanami [She Who Invites] and Izanagi [He Who Invites] is told in two eighth-century works, the Kojiki [Records of Ancient Matters] and the Nihongi [Chronicles of Japan]. The two works differ in certain details, but the fundamental account remains the same. The text for the Myth Reading Group is taken from the translation by Basil Chamberlain of the former. It concerns the events that follow on from the death of Izanami after she gives birth to Kagutsuchi [Incarnation of Fire; Homasubi [Fire Producer] in the Nihongi].     



Further reading:

The closing paragraphs from Leon Burnett’s ‘Orphic Reflections’, in which he compares the Japanese katabasis to the Orpheus–Eurydice myth. ‘Orphic Reflections’ was a talk given at a Glasfryn Seminar in 2016. The full text can be read at the Glasfryn Project website.

Crucial to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the moment when Orpheus looks back on his return from the Underworld and loses his wife. Could this moment, however, be a case of wishful thinking or even wilful distortion? After all, transformation is the soul of myth. Instead of an unquestioning acceptance of the canonical version, then, I propose that we should at least entertain the possibility that Orpheus lost Eurydice because he didn’t look back. His journey had been so full of wonder, so full of strange sights and creatures, three-headed dogs and the like, that this poor mortal, a mere human albeit a poet and therefore especially responsive (too responsive?) to nature, living and dead, nature morte as the French say, still life, that he simply forgot why he had ventured into Hades.

In Orphic literature, Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, is regarded ambivalently (“For thine the task according to thy will,/ Life to produce, and all that lives to kill” in Thomas Taylor’s translation of The Initiations of Orpheus). She has even been considered the mother of the Furies, and with good reason, for she has the power to cause oblivion. Theognis, in one of his poems, refers to her as “Persephone who impairs the mind of mortals and brings them forgetfulness”. Orpheus, then, in unfamiliar surroundings simply forgot about Eurydice and mythmakers have attempted ever since Virgil composed his Georgics to cover the traces of this lapse by asserting the opposite, namely that she was too much in his mind and so he looked back. In support of a reversal of the canonical account, one may cite instances elsewhere in mythology of how a true state of affairs is expressed – or suppressed – by a statement to the contrary. The Furies, for example, are referred to as the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones.

Another approach to the issue is to look at a parallel story in Japanese mythology of the descent into the underworld by a husband (Izanagi) in quest of his dead wife (Izanami). In this story, despite the bewildering paraphernalia of the supernatural, there are certain details that ring true. It is so dark in Yomi (the Japanese equivalent of Hades) that Izanagi is unable to see his wife clearly as he implores her to come back with him to the world of the living. She informs him that she will seek permission to return (for, like Persephone, she has eaten the food of the underworld) and forbids him to look at her. After waiting a long time for a response, Izanagi, carrying a burning torch and disregarding the prohibition against setting his eyes on her, seeks out the sleeping Izanami, but he is horrified to find a decomposing corpse and flees without stopping, as we may safely conjecture, to look back at his wife. Izanami had been awakened, however, and sends the hags of Yomi in pursuit of him. Izanagi barely manages to reach the mouth of the cave that leads out into the everyday world and to roll a massive boulder across the opening before his wife arrives at the other side of the rock, threatening him with dire consequences. They have a slanging match, but Izanagi escapes safely, while Izanami remains with the dead.

This simplified (and severely curtailed) account of the unsuccessful recovery of a beloved spouse offers an ur-scenario that has at least as much credibility as the one embodied in the tradition that presents Orpheus as having lost Eurydice by virtue of his failure to obey an injunction not to look back, a tradition which may be traced to Roman times, and is not encountered before the poetry of Virgil and Ovid. Indeed, in one earlier Greek version, the name of Orpheus’ wife was not Eurydice, meaning “wide justice”, first used by Moschus in the second century before the Christian era, but Agriope, which may be translated as “fierce watcher”. Combine this aspect of the Eurydice figure with the frenzied homicide of the Thracian Maenads and you have a composite female threat to Orpheus that is on a par with the pursuit of Izanagi by the menacing Izanami and her horde of hags.

Details of the darkness of the underworld and the decomposition of the dead body in the Japanese version are more plausible in the circumstances and they lend a sense of realism to the story being told, but, to revert to an earlier comparison, it may be that our western sensibilities prefer to have the bitter-sweet romances of Tristan and Isolde, of Romeo and Juliet, and of Orpheus and Eurydice to counterbalance the current craze for rampant vampires. In choosing not to look back to darker times, we are thus able to accommodate a poignant image that is more to our liking, a nymph for the new millennium, and not return empty handed as Orpheus did.

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Myth Reading Group 15 December: Medusa

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 15 December 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Painting: oil on panel. Depicting a head, seemingly decapitated, lying on the ground. For hair, the head has a writhing mass of snakes.
Anonymous, Flemish School, Head of Medusa (c. 1600). Formerly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Uffizi.

Beyond all others famed for beauty, her hair the most wonderful of all her charms (Ovid), Medusa is transformed by Athena into the dread Gorgon depicted in literature and art. The English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after viewing a painting of the Head of Medusa in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, composed a short lyric, in which the horror and the beauty of the mythological figure are juxtaposed. 


Further reading:

Decapitated head lies on rocky ground, the eyes open in horror. A great many snakes, in shades of tan and green, writhe around the head.
Peter Paul Rubens, Head of Medusa (c. 1617-18). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
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Myth Reading Group 1 December: Amaterasu

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 1 December 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Stylised Japanese woodblock print illustrating Amaterasu emerging from a cave. The assembled gods are outside, and an ornate mirror is set up on the right of the picture.
Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), ‘Origin of Iwato Kagura Dance’ (triptych, woodblock print, 1856) [Public domain]

Amaterasu (Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kamï: ‘Heaven-illuminating great deity’) is a heavenly goddess associated with the sun. Her story is told in two Japanese texts of the eighth century CE: Kojiki (‘The Record of Ancient Things’) and Nihonshoki (‘The Chronicles of Japan’). The tale relates Amaterasu’s encounter with her belligerent brother, Susanowo (Take-Paya-susa-nö-wo-nö-mikötö: ‘Valiant intrepid raging male lord’), who has associations with the sea, storms, the underworld, and can be regarded as both trickster and culture hero. Susanowo’s raging leads to Amaterasu shutting herself away in a cave, thus depriving the world of the light of the sun.

Modern versions and interpretations of the myth suggest that Amaterasu only emerges from the cave when she recognises her own beauty. But is this an over-interpretation of the ancient tale?


  • Kojiki, trans. Donald L. Philippi (Princeton University Press & University of Tokyo Press, 1969): Chapters 14-17

Supplementary reading:

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Myth Reading Group 17 November: Cupid and Psyche

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 17 November 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Plaster sculpture showing two nude figures. The woman is Psyche, with butterfly wings, reclining, her arms reaching up to embrace the head of the other figure, Cupid, who leans to embrace her. Cupid's wings stand out from his back as his face turns to meet Psyche's.
Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche (plaster, 1794). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain)

In this session we shall look at Apuleius’ rendering of the tale of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ from his The Golden Ass (2nd century CE). Jealous that the princess Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty more than she, the goddess Venus sends her son Cupid, the god of love, to punish Psyche by making her fall in love with the most miserable and insignificant man on earth. But the plan misfires when Cupid himself falls in love with Psyche. In keeping with this term’s theme of ‘Beauty’, we shall focus on three sections in the tale where beauty plays a key role.


The whole text (from Book IV, section 28 to Book VI, section 24 [just over 30 pages: pp. 62-92]) is eminently readable for those who are keen and have the time.

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Myth Reading Group 3 November: Helen of Troy

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 3 November 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

Helen and Menelaus: Menelaus intends to strike Helen; captivated by her beauty, he drops his sword. A flying Eros and Aphrodite (on the left) watch the scene. Detail of an Attic red-figure krater c. 450–440 BC (Paris, Louvre).

According to Euripides, the real Helen never went to Troy; a ghostly copy replaced her, and the actual Helen was sent to Egypt. This is Seferis’ starting point in “Helen” wherein Helen meets Teucer, son of King Telamon and Ajax’s brother, in Egypt. After Troy, Teucer stops in Egypt on his way to Cyprus to find a new homeland. While Seferis is preoccupied with the futility of war through Helen, another Greek poet, Ritsos, reimagines Helen long after the war of Troy, trapped in a house with her servants, old, just before death, through a dramatic monologue.



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Myth Reading Group 20 October: The Hidden I

The Myth Reading Group will meet on ‘Zoom’ on Thursday 20 October 2022, 5:30-6:30 pm (UK time). The link to join is in the comments for this post. All are welcome.

The theme for the Autumn Term is ‘Beauty’.

The Lydian king, Candaules, had arranged for his general, Gyges, to view his wife, Nyssia, as she undressed. The furious queen offered Gyges the choice of being executed or murdering her husband. Gyges chose the latter, and went on to marry her.Etty here subverts the language of neo-classical history painting. Instead of improving themes, Etty uses it for an erotic subject of voyeurism and vengeance. He emphasises colour and texture rather than outline, and treats physical beauty as the object of lust and deception. His picture typified the Romantic challenge to moral and pictorial conventions.
William Etty (1787-1849), Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed (exhibited 1830). Tate.

“Observation will not do, appreciation is required”, writes George Santayana in The Sense of Beauty (1896). In The Hidden I: A Myth Revised (1990), Frederic Raphael explores this proposition by taking, and revising for the modern reader, the account (in the Histories of Herodotus) of how King Candaules of Lydia desired to share the sight of his wife, “the most beautiful of all women”, in all her nakedness, with his bodyguard, Gyges, and its unforeseen consequences.

Two extracts from Raphael’s short novel for discussion at the next session of the Myth Reading Group retell the episode of the central moment and its eventual outcome.



Variants on the myth of Gyges:

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