Meoto* Iwa (夫婦岩), the Husband-and-Wife Couple or the Wedded Rocks, are a couple of small rocky stacks in the sea off Futami, Mie, Japan. They are joined by a shimenawa (a heavy rope of rice straw) and are considered sacred by worshippers at the neighbouring Futami Okitama Shrine (Futami Okitama Jinja(二見興玉神社). According to local lore and Shinto beliefs, the rocks represent the union of the creator kami, Izanagi and Izanami. Although the above Meioto Iwa rocks are the most famous ones, there are many other meioto iwa rocks to be found elsewhere in the Japanese landscape, see More Unfamiliar Glimpses of Japan’s page on “Meioto iwa on husband and wife rocks“.
Such iconography and the idea of a Creator-Couple or Cosmic Couple are rampant throughout the ancient prehistoric world, and particularly widespread among the tribes of the Austro-Asiatics, the ISEA-Austronesians as well as the Polynesians.
Stephen Oppenheimer writes about the mythical belief at p. 321of his book “Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia”:
The story of creation with Sky Father locked in close and dark sexual union with Mother Earth, is found in a band stretching from NZ to Greece. The locked-couple picture is seen at its fullest in a little understood string of islands, the Lesser Sundas of eastern Indonesia. And in the surviving megalithic societies of Sulawesi, Maluku and the Nusa Tenggara, a concept of Father Sky and Mother Earth, who were previously locked in a tight embrace remains central to cultural beliefs. According to the Mappurondo faith of the Torajas of Sulawesi, Heaven, as in other megalithic groups of the archipelago, is called Langi; Mother Earth is Padang or Pngkapadang. These names are cognate with Rangia and Papa of the Maoris. Langi appears as a sky god further west among the Donggo of Sumbawa, but this time as the primary god of a trinity that includes a water god Oi and a wind god Wango. In the mountainous island of Flores there are myths telling of Mother Earth and Father Sky who were previously bound together by a sacred vine. The vine was chewed up by a dog. As a result the lovers flew apart and were permanently separated. Accordingly to the people in Western Flores, the proof of this is seen in the behaviour of the bamboo, which bends towards the earth as if it is still pushed down by the weight of the sky on his over. Throughout this region the ideas of the duality of godheads and the duality of their sex are explicit in the architecture and arrangement of houses. In the highlands of Flores each village has two sets of shrines, one phallic and the other box-like to represent the two sexes. Menhirs and dolmens also take in the respective gender symbolism in this area.
Also it is just interesting to note that just as are found in the highlands of Flores phallic and box-like couple shrines, such paired shrines can also be found in highlands of Nagano in Japan.
What does the heavenly rope vine symbolize and what is its origin? Below we explore some possible ideas and explanations for the celestial ladder twine.
The straw rope tying the husband and wife together is a visual metaphor recalling the myth from Flores Island (an island arc extending east from Java island of Indonesia). As mentioned in the excerpt from “Eden in the East” above, a rope twine used to tie the Sky Father and Earth Mother together until a dog chewed up the vine, causing the two to fly apart, a mythical explanation for the separation of Sky and Earth.
In Ayahuasca, shamanism, and curanderismo in the Andes, Steve Mizrach examines the concept of a otherworldly “soul vine”, a concept that seems to have diffused to the Americas from the Altai-Siberia or Mongolia. In Brazil, there is a term ayahuasca that comes from the Quechua, meaning literally “the vine of souls,” — it is also called “the visionary vine” or the “vine of death.” The folk term refers to the botanical species of liana known as Banisteriopsis Caapi , which is also known as Yage among the Indians of Brazil. The Andean shaman uses Yage, “the vine of souls,” to contact the dead as well as to divine the location of water.
Mizrach draws a connection between the vine as a connector between the Underworld with passages of water [perhaps similar to the proverbial River of the Dead or River Styx?]:
“The ancestors’ spirits residing within the huacas are thought to guard underground water. Perhaps one of the “ceremonial” uses of the lines are for the shaman to travel during his “spirit journey,” guiding him like a magnet to the places of the dead where he can bargain for water. Indeed, during their “soul flights,” shamans typically report that they are “guided” on their journey by “spirit paths” that lead them to the appropriate destination. One of the ayllus’ main responsibilities are water rights, and they maintain this role through their link to the ancestors who guard the water for their descendants. (Lamadrid 1993.) This may not be a (meta)physical journey, per se, but the shaman at least uses the lines as a symbolic , imaginal path for the journey to the places of the dead.”
The yage is used to help the shamans achieve shamanic flight and to ascend the heavens up the Milky Way as well.
“In their visions, the “vine of souls” stretches out to become a milky serpent, becoming the Milky Way, “the road of souls” which they use as a rope to climb into the heavens. But are such beliefs found among the indigenous peoples of the Andes?
Schultes reports that indigenous shamans using Yage in the Andes claim to feel a “rushing wind” pushing upwards which then they realizes is the torrent of “water” forcing them up the Milky Way. (Schultes 1992.) After ascending the Milky Way, they are then able to talk with those ancestors who were also able to ascend to the “celestial Paradise.” As a mortal, however, the shaman cannot remain, but while in his ‘spirit body’ he may ask questions of the heavenly beings, who may know antidotes for sorcery he has not otherwise been able to counteract. There seems to be the mythic belief that rainbows and the Milky Way are diurnally related phenomena. A shaman trapped in the underworld may not be able to return unless he can find the “rope” of the Milky Way.”
The Ladder-to-Heaven documents a ladder made of reed or vine among the South American tribes (the Nivalke, the Mataco, the Tupi, Sikuani and the Chorote). For eg., the Chorote of Gran Chaco identify
“a hummingbird named Sen as the hero of the primeval ascent. In the early days of the world Sen began shooting arrows one after the other until he had a long chain extending from heaven to earth. Shortly thereafter, a spider came along and spun a web alongside the arrow chain thereby creating a rope-like structure reaching to heaven. It was along this rope that Sen and the other Chorote heroes, as birds, ascended to heaven…
“Suddenly, from up there, where the stars come out, a ladder descended. It was made from the same kind of reeds that the Indians used for the shafts of their arrows.
Suddenly a ladder made of reeds appeared; it reached from the sky down to the ground.”16
The Shipaya also envisaged the ladder-to-heaven as composed of reeds.”
In Myth in History: Mythological Essays, Peter Metevelis (p. 255) tabulates the countries that possess:
- a myth of ropeway access to the Upperworld as including Iceland, India, China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Melanesia, North and South America, and Polynesia;
- a myth of a vine to sky rope as including Indonesia, Philippines and North and South America
In the case of the Japan Iwato myth, the straw vine appears as a boundary marker that marks off where the entrance to the Underworld or Heavenly River is, and it is used to quickly fence off the entrance after Amaterasu emerges from the Iwato cavern thus preventing the Japanese sun goddess from returning to the Underworld. This myth is said to be closest to the myth found in the Indo-Iranian Vedic literature — of Usas, the Dawn woman and heralder of the rising sun, who is hidden in a cave on an island in the middle of the Rasa stream at the end of the world, according to Michael Witzel in his Vala and Iwato The Myth of the Hidden Sun in India, Japan and beyond.
This idea of a rope-ladder is also found among the Australian aborigines, the Tungus shamans of Manchuria who refer to the celestial rope as a “road” to heaven. Close by in Central Asia, the Tibetans have a myth that closely resembles Japanese heaven-and-earth cosmology:
The earliest version of the legends of Tibet’s first king dates to the fourteenth century, but elements of the story are found in songs of a divine being from the sky onto the sacred protective mountain of the Yarlung Valley tribe. This was King Nyatri Tsenpo, who descended from the summit of Mount Yar-lha-sham-po to be greeted by twelve tribal chieftains or sages. They acclaimed him as teir king and gave him his name, “Neck-Enthroned Mighty One,” by hoisting him onto a palanquin supported on their necks. In some versions of the narrative, the mountain is represented as a ladder–a tree trunk with seven or nine notches cut into it, each representing a level of the heaven worlds. According to legend, the first king and his six descendants, known as the “Seven Heavenly Thrones,” returned each night to their divine home in the sky. Upon death, they were said to have returned permanently to the heavens, having no need for earthly tombs. Their travel to heaven worlds was by means of the mu rope or “sky-cord” attached to the crown of the head. This is the Tibetan version of the primordial connecting rope or ladder between earth and heaven common to many shamanic myths. A Mongolian source of the same legend states: “When it was time to transmigrate , they dissolved upwards, starting from the feet, and, by the road of light called Rope-of-Holiness which came out of their head, they left by becoming a rainbow in the sky. Their corpse was thus made an onggon (saint, ancestor and burial mound) in the country of the gods.” Mortality finally came to the kings of Tibetwhen the sixth successor after Nyatri Tsenpo, brandishing his sword in battle, accidentally severed his mu rope–another example, like the relationship between waking and dream, where material and immaterial intersect without losing their individual properties. Thereafter, the kings were buried in earthly tombs.
The ancient mu rope signifiying the connection betwen earth and heaven maintains its presence in numerous Tibetan folk and religious practices. The rainbow-colored wings attached to the headdress of spirit mediums (lha-pa) represent, according to Bellezza’s practitioner interviewees, the link between the medium and the possessing deities as well as the belief that after death, superior spirit-mediums dwell in the palaces of the mountain gods. In popular rituals of birth and marriage the primordial bond between heaven and earth is expressed in the form of a multicolored string attached to the crown of the head… As Tucci notes, “The connection between heaven and earth is a primeval article of faith for the Tibetan.”
— Dreamworlds of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism: The Third Place by Angela Sumegi
There are many other variants of this ladder to heaven that Peter Metevelis identifies, including spider spun webs (Nicobar, Micronesia, Polynesia, Africa, North and South America), iron chain from heaven (Greece, Korea); Heavenly being’s hair (Germany, Australia), Earth’s navel-string (Indo-China and Mongol-Turk). The strong similarities of many points of mythology between Mongol myths and Japanese ones are compared and highlighted at Shamanic connections 4) Mongolians.
From South Asia to East Asia, however, the most closely related ideas to the rope or vine-ladder-to-heaven are those of the Churning Rope and Churning Rod and its role in the Ocean of Milk and the production of the Elixir of Immortality Indian tale, as well as the East Asian Cosmic Pillar and the Dancing Cosmic Couple around it, viz. Izanagi and Izanami as well as the Miao Cosmic Couple and Pillar article for more on this.
* Meoto suggests Indo-European influences from the Black Sea area, if not migrating lineages from the area, as it recalls Maeotis, the body of water mentioned in the Pseudo-Hymn Seneca, Oedipus:
“… the fierce lands of the Zalaces have felt it, and those wandering tribes whom neighbouring Boreas smites, and the nations which Maeotis‘ cold water washes, and they [i.e. the Skythians] on whom the Arcadian constellation looks down from the zenith and the wagons twain.” — Seneca, Oedipus 401 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.)
Lake Maeotis was the ancient name for the Sea of Azov, the body of water which was connected to the northwestern corner of the Euxine (Black Sea); also called the Maeotian Lake or Maeotic Lake by the ancient Greeks; approximately 14,000 square miles (36,260 square kilometers) in area.
The Wikipedia article Maeotae states that the best attested tribe among the Maeotae was the Sindi, and that there are speculations among scholars that the Maeotes and the Sindes may have been Indo-Aryans, connected with the Mitanni rulers of Assyria one millennium before Herodotus.
Among Russian scientists, archeologists, historians and ethnographers in the Soviet period however, it was concluded that Maeotae is one of the names of the tribes called норода Adyghe people (Circassians). In the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (in the article Adyghe people) they are described thus:
«The Kuban tribes (Adyghe people) are usually referred to by the ancient writers under the collective name Maeotae».
In Russia in 1998 published a book with the title “Maeotae, the ancestors of the Adyghe (Circassians)”
Last but not least, we return to the cradle of all mankind, Africa. Whether the celestial rope as a heavenly ladder, road or path to and from heaven, originated from Africa or is found there as a result of back migrations, we do not know … but African sacred traditions of the Dinkas speak of heavenly path or rope that men once traversed freely to and from heaven to converse with the gods, but which collapsed or was destroyed in primeval times as a result of an accident, after which Heaven has been separated from Earth.
For further reading, see The Ladder to Heaven which has many more examples of ropes or ladders connecting earth to heaven.