The Unbeloved — Hiruko and Awashima

Hiruko 蛭子

In the Kojiki, Hiruko is the first kami born to Izanami and Izanagi. The first character in her name means “leech” and most scholars speculate that she was not fully formed.

In the Nihon Shoki, Hiruko is born second and the passage reads, “First was Awaji Island, next Hiruko was born. But Hiruko could not walk at the age of three and so she was placed in a boat made of Camphor tree and left to float away.”

Harsh punishment for failing to come to mommy.

Indeed, reading the story above, you might think this is a tale meant to excuse human callousness towards genetic diversity. Perhaps that was how it was originally meant to be interpreted. However,  in an unexpected and delightful twist of human history, later Japanese artists and writers found deep compassion for Hiruko, and in some shrines even today she is worshipped as a deity.

A Heian Era (circa 10th c.) tanka poet named Oe no Asatsuna wrote the following lines about Hiruko. “Such immense grief, these parents felt, to see legs still unformed enough to stand after three years.”

Although not mentioned in the original texts, Oe no Asatsuna considers the conflicting emotions of the parents who abandon their child.  This theme is picked up in later tales. In further embellishments, her deformation is viewed as a mark of the kami.

There were a number of “Hiruko Legends” that circulated during the 1600s. These legends can be found in all regions of Japan and revolve around what happened when Hiruko’s boat came ashore. In the Genpei Jōsuiki (an alternate telling of Heike Monogatari), Hiruko washes up on Settsu Province (no longer in existence, but was Osaka-area) and is worshipped as the kami with dominion over the sea. The kami of the sea is typically Ebisu. But stories fusing Ebisu and Hiruko into a single deity can be traced to the Muromachi Era (circa 14th c.).  In some cases, the kanji for Hiruko is even read as Ebisu.

In some stories, Ebisu is an old man fishing and he pulls Hiruko out. In these cases, the kanji for her name is alternately written 日る子 and she is the “child of the sun” of noble birth who is rescued by Ebisu.

Also in these kinds of stories, the child washed up from across the sea brings good fortune (think Momotaro in Japan, or Taliesin in Europe, or Moses in the Middle East — there were evidently a lot of babies floating around in the ancient world).

Moral: Don’t drop genetically diverse children into the sea. They might be different, but it’s a mark of the gods and they are going to make us all rich.

Awashima 淡島

Awashima is the second child born to Izanagi and Izanami. The child’s deficiency is not embellished upon, but rather the newlyweds state the children they’re making are not very good. The text goes on to simply say “Awashima was not counted among their children.”

Despite this, Awashima does have a few shrines and followers. The main shrine dedicated to Awashima is in Wakayama Prefecture. But her story has largely been re-purposed in a later retelling of a female kami with the same name. This version inspired a religious practice from the middle of the Meiji Era that is worth noting.

The retelling states that Awashima is the 6th child of Amaterasu who is wed to one of the three Shinto kami of the sea (Sumiyoshi sanjin). She becomes afflicted by leukorrhea (a rather generic term for vaginal discharge, but given the time period of the retelling (1600s-1800s), most likely an STD).

Due to her symptoms, she is exiled to an island (confusingly also called Awashima) in Kumano where she becomes a guardian kami for women, associated with childbirth and healing from vaginal illnesses.

Her exile n the story seems a little bizarre, but may be related to the very very old practice of Nagashi-bina  or “doll floating.” The word “nagashi” is used to wash something out/away, to describe flowing, or euphemistically, to abort a fetus or exile someone to an island such as in “shima nagashi.”

As early as the Heian era, women would use paper or straw dolls as holy objects and release them into the river to float away with their illnesses or dishonor/sins. In some cases, specifically to heal illnesses “below the obi (i.e. uterine/vaginal diseases).

In Tottori prefecture especially, these dolls were placed in the river on March 3 and are allegedly the origin of the current Hina-matsuri date (although the dolls associated with modern Hina-matsuri are generally wooden and decorative these days — and, I hope, are no longer trusted to ward off venereal disease).

In the days before antibiotics, STDs were a common and desperate affliction, particularly so from the 1500s onward until the discovery of penicillin in 1928 — hooray for sloppy scientists and ‘mold juice!’

In the mid-Edo Era, a movement associated with the above retelling cropped up called “Awashima Petitioners” (淡島願人) and was wildly successful at cheating Edo Era women out of trinkets and money (or, as some might say, ‘so…like all religions everywhere?’).

Monks would carry a portable shrine on their backs with a doll in it while chanting prayers to the kami of Awashima. They would offer to take women’s hair accessories (authentic tortoise shell being most likely to save you), money and other items as offerings to give to Awashima and pray on behalf of the women to either cure their illness or protect them from STDs. Although it is widely speculate that these ‘offerings’ were likely re-sold for the monks’ extra income.

For some fun STD trivia (to impress your friends!), syphilis first made an appearance in Japan in 1512 — likely another great achievement of Columbus’s. His success at spreading syphilis is unparalleled in human history!

Some scholars estimate that as many as 50% of the people in old Edo (Tokyo’s old name) were infected with syphilis. Admittedly, this seems absurdly high and is probably an overestimate. However, due to the stigma of STDs in Europe, death certificates often did not list syphilis or other such illnesses as the cause, and it’s impossible to get a good estimate for comparison.

But whatever the actual number, the visible and distressing signs of STDs in this time period were very real. This article on 16th century rhinoplasty to combat the telltale symptom of one’s nose falling off certainly paints a vivid picture.

I’d give up my tortoise shell comb too.


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