The curious crocodile “wani” connection between the Watasumi sea god and Hooderi and Hoori brothers royal myth

COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Stenen_beelden_in_de_vorm_van_een_makara_op_de_Candi_Kalasan_TMnr_10015966 (1)

Above left: A 1st century B.C. Greco-Roman Egyptian chest depicting a king making an offering to a solar form of Sobek — from the Walters Art MuseumBaltimore. Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Above right: Stone makara sculptures at the Candi Kalasan, Indonesia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Wani 鰐 is a mythical sea-monster, translated as both “shark” and “crocodile” (as well as Kuma-wani 熊鰐 “bear (i.e., giant or strong)-shark/crocodile”* is mentioned in two ancient legends [note: Combined totems were common in the ancient world when merging two tribal clans (Frazer’s pp. 85-88, “Totemism” refers]. In one legend, the sea god Kotoshiro-nushi-no-kami transformed into an “8-fathom kuma-wani” and fathered Toyotama-hime, while another has a kuma-wani piloted the ships of Emperor Chūai and his Empress Jingū. The wani is pictured below: The wani crocodile, as depicted in the Wakansansaizue. The illustration is borrowed from Wild in Japan’s excellent article: The White Hare of Inaba and Crocodile vs. Sharks which looks at the wani in the White hare of Inaba story in the Okuninushi-Izumo myth cycle, giving evidence of the existence of estuarine crocodiles in Amami and the Okinawan island of Iriomote. Below we go on to explore the possible origins of Wani crocodile, and its connections with the triple Japanese Gods of the Sea, the Watasumi Sanjin and associated mythical themes, characters and symbols. The following text is from the Wikipedia article “Watasumi:

a legendary Japanese dragon and tutelary water deity. In Japanese mythology, Ōwatatsumi kami (大綿津見神?, “great deity of water god”) is another name for the sea deity Ryūjin 龍神; and the Watatsumi Sanjin (綿津見三神?, “Three Watatsumi gods”) ruling the upper, middle, and lower seas were created through the divine progenitor Izanagi’s ceremonial purifications after returning from Yomi “the underworld”.

The earliest written sources of Old Japanese diversely transcribe the sea kami 神 “god; deity; spirit” named Watatsumi. The ca. 712 CE Kojiki (tr. William George Aston 1896) writes it semantically as 海神 lit. “sea god”, and transcribes it phonetically with man’yōgana as Wata-tsu-mi 綿津見 lit. “cotton port see” in identifying Ōwatsumi kami and the Watatsumi Sanjin. The ca. 720 CE Nihongi (tr. Basil Hall Chamberlain 1919) also writes Watatsumi as 海神 “sea god”, along with 海童 “sea child” and 少童命 “small child lords” for the Watatsumi Sanjin. In the modern Japanese writing system, the name Watatsumi is usually written either in katakana as ワタツミ or in kanji phonetically 綿津見 or semantically 海神 “sea god”.

Note that in addition to reading 海神 as watatsumi, wata no kami, or unagami in native Japanese kun’yomi pronunciation, it is also read kaijin or kaishin in Sino-Japanese on’yomi (from Chinese haishen 海神 “sea god”). Watatsumi has an alternate pronunciation of Wadatsumi. The original Watatsumi meaning “tutelary deity of the sea” is semantically extended as a synecdoche or metaphor meaning “the sea; the ocean; the main”. The etymology of the sea god Watatsumi or Wadatsumi is uncertain. Marinus Willern de Visser (1913:137) notes consensus that wata is an Old Japanese word for “sea; ocean” and tsu is a possessive particle, but disagreement whether mi means “snake” or “lord; god”. “It is not impossible” he concludes, “that the old Japanese sea-gods were snakes or dragons.” Compare the Japanese rain god Kuraokami that was similarly described as a giant snake or a dragon. The comparative linguist Paul K. Benedict proposed (1990:236-7) that Japanese wata 海 “sea” derives from Proto-Austronesian *wacal “sea; open sea”. The Kojiki version of the Japanese creation myth honorifically refers to Watatsumi 海神 with the name Ōwatatsumi kami 大綿津見神 “Great Watatsumi god”. Compare this sea god with mountain god named Ohoyamatsumi 大山積. The world-creating siblings Izanagi and Izanami first give birth to the Japanese islands (kuniumi) and then to the gods (kamiumi ) . When they had finished giving birth to countries, they began afresh giving birth to Deities. So the name of the Deity they gave birth to was the Deity Great-Male-of-the-Great-Thing; next they gave birth to the Deity Rock-Earth-Prince; next they gave birth to the Deity Rock-Nest-Princess; next they gave birth to the Deity Great-Door-Sun-Youth; next they gave birth to the Deity Heavenly-Blowing-Male; next they gave birth to the Deity Great-House-Prince; next they gave birth to the Deity Youth-of-the-Wind-Breath-the-Great-Male; next they gave birth to the Sea-Deity, whose name is the Deity Great-Ocean-Possessor; next they gave birth to the Deity of the Water-Gates, whose name is the Deity Prince-of-Swift-Autumn; next they gave birth to his younger sister the Deity Princess-of-Swift-Autumn. (tr. Chamberlain 1919:28) Chamberlain (1919:30) explains mochi 持ち “having; taking; holding; grasping; owning” behind translating Ōwatsumi kami as “Deity Great-Ocean-Possessor”, “The interpretation of mochi, “possessor,” though not absolutely sure, has for it the weight both of authority and of likelihood.” A subsequent Kojiki passage describes Watatsumi’s daughter Otohime and her human husband Hoori living with the sea god. After Hoori lost his brother Hoderi’s fishhook, he went searching to the bottom of the sea, where he met and married the dragon goddess Otohime. They lived in the sea god’s underwater palace Ryūgū-jō for three years before Hoori became homesick. So he dwelt in that land for three years. Hereupon His Augustness Fire-Subside thought of what had gone before, and heaved one deep sigh. So Her Augustness Luxuriant-Jewel-Princess, hearing the sigh, informed her father, saying: “Though he has dwelt three years [with us], he had never sighed; but this night he heaved one deep sigh. What may be the cause of it?” The Great Deity her father asked his son-in-law saying: “This morning I heard my daughter speak, saying: ‘Though he has dwelt three years [with us], he had never sighed; but this night he heaved one deep sigh.’ What may the cause be? Moreover what was the cause of thy coming here?” Then [His Augustness Fire-Subside] told the Great Deity exactly how his elder brother had pressed him for the lost fish-hook. Thereupon the Sea-Deity summoned together all the fishes of the sea, great and small, and asked them, saying: “Is there perchance any fish that has taken this fish-hook?” So all the fishes replied: “Lately the tahi has complained of something sticking in its throat preventing it from eating; so it doubtless has taken [the hook].” On the throat of the tahi being thereupon examined, there was the fish-hook [in it]. Being forthwith taken, it was washed and respectfully presented to His Augustness Fire-Subside, whom the Deity Great-Ocean-Possessor then instructed. (tr. Chamberlain 1919:149) Watatsumi instructs Hoori how to deal with Hoderi, and chooses another mythic Japanese dragon, a wani “crocodile” or “shark”, to transport his daughter and son in law back to land(see also Sahimochi for detailed comparisons of the Kojiki and Nihongi accounts of the wani). Two Nihongi contexts refer to Watatsumi in legends about Emperor Keikō and Emperor Jimmu. First, the army of Emperor Keikō encounters Hashirimizu 馳水 “running waters” crossing from Sagami Province to Kazusa Province. The calamity is attributed to the Watatsumi 海神 “sea god” and placated through human sacrifice. Next he marched on to Sagami, whence he desired to proceed to Kadzusa. Looking over the sea, he spake with a loud voice, and said: “This is but a little sea: one might even jump over it.” But, when he came to the middle of the sea a storm suddenly arose, and the Prince’s ship was tossed about, so that he could not cross over. At this time there was a concubine in the Prince’s suite, named Oto-tachibana-hime. She was the daughter of Oshiyama no Sukune of the Hodzumi House. She addressed the Prince, saying: “This present uprising of the winds and rushing of the waves, so that the Prince’s ship is like to sink, must be due to the wishes of the God of the Sea. I pray thee let me go into the sea, and so let the person of thy mean handmaiden be given to redeem the life of the Prince’s Augustness.” Having finished speaking, she plunged into the billows. The storm forthwith ceased, and the ship was enabled to reach the shore. Therefore the people of that time called that sea Hashiri-midzu. (tr. Aston 1896:206) Second, the genealogy of Emperor Jimmu claims descent from the goddess Toyotama-hime, the daughter of Hori and Otohime, who is identified as the daughter of Watatsumi 海童. The Emperor Kami Yamato Ihare-biko’s personal name was Hiko-hoho-demi. He was the fourth child of Hiko-nagisa-takeu-gaya-fuki-ahezu no Mikoto. His mother’s name was Tamayori-hime, daughter of the Sea-God. From his birth, this Emperor was of clear intelligence and resolute will. (tr. Aston 1896:109-110) There is uncertainty whether Nihongi scribes wrote tsumi with dō 童 “child; boy” simply for pronunciation or for some semantic significance. The Three Watasumis: Watatsumi Sanjin When Izanagi’s sister-wife dies giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi, his destroying it creates various deities, including the water dragon Kuraokami. After Izanagi goes to the underworld in a futile attempt to bring Izanami back to life, he returns to the world and undergoes ritual purifications to cleanse himself of hellish filth. He creates 12 deities from his garments and belongings and 14 (including the 3 Watatsumis) from bathing himself. With the tsu 津 in these three dragon names being read as the genitive particle “of”, they rule different water depths in the sea, soko 底 “bottom; underneath”, naka 中 “middle; center”, and uwa 上 “above; top” (Kojiki) or uwa 表 “surface; top” (Nihongi). Chamberlain (1919:48) notes, “There is the usual doubt as to the signification to be assigned to the syllable tsu in the second, fourth and last of these names. If it really means, not “elder” but “possessor,” we should be obliged to translate by “the Bottom-Possessing-Male,” etc.” The earlier Kojiki version of the “Three Watatsumi Gods” calls them Wakatsumikami 綿津見神 “Wakatsumi gods”: Sokotsu Watatsumikami 底津, Nakatsu Watatsumikami 中津綿津見神, and Uwatsu Watatsumikami 上津綿津見神. Thereupon saying: “The water in the upper reach is [too] rapid; the water in the lower reach is [too] sluggish,” he went down and plunged in the middle reach; and, as he washed, there was first born the Wondrous-Deity-of-Eighty-Evils, and next the Wondrous-Deity-of-Great-Evils. These two Deities are the Deities that were born from the filth [he contracted] when he went to that polluted, hideous land. The names of the Deities that were next born to rectify those evils were: the Divine-Rectifying-Wondrous Deity, next the Great-Rectifying-Wondrous-Deity, next the Female-Deity-Idzu. The names of the Deities that were next born, as he bathed at the bottom of the water, were: the Deity Possessor-of-the-Ocean-Bottom, and next His Augustness Elder-Male-of-the-Bottom. The names of the Deities that were born as he bathed in the middle [of the water] were: the Deity Possessor-of-the-Ocean-Middle, and next His Augustness Elder-Male-of-the-Middle. The names of the Deities that were born as he bathed at the top of the water were the Deity Possessor-of-the-Ocean-Surface, and next His Augustness Elder-Male-of-the-Surface. These three Ocean-Possessing Deities are the Deities held in reverence as their ancestral Deities by the Chiefs of Adzumi. So the Chiefs of Adzumi are the descendants of His Augustness Utsushi-hi-gana-saku, a child of these Ocean-Possessing Deities. These three Deities His Augustness Elder-Male-of-the-Bottom, His Augustness Elder-Male-of-the-Middle, and His Augustness Elder-Male-of-the-Surface are the three Great Deities of the Inlet of Sumi. (tr. Chamberlain 1919:45-46) The later Nihongi version describes the “Three Watatsumi Gods” as Watatsumi Mikoto 少童命 “small child lords”: Sokotsu Watatsumi Mikoto 底津少童命, Nakatsu Watatsumi Mikoto 中津少童命, and Uwatsu Watatsumi Mikoto 表津少童命. These Watatsumis are paired with three O Mikoto 男命 “male lords”. Moreover, the Deities which were produced by his plunging down and washing in the bottom of the sea were called Soko-tsu-wata-tsu-mi no Mikoto and Sokotsutsu-wo no Mikoto. Moreover, when he plunged and washed in the mid-tide, there were Gods produced who were called Naka I tsu wata-dzu-mi no Mikoto, and next Naka-tsutsu-wo no Mikoto. Moreover, when he washed floating on the surface of the water, Gods were produced, who were called Uha-tsu-wata-dzu-mi no Mikoto and next Uhai-tsutsu-wo no Mikoto. There were in all nine Gods. The Gods Soko-tsutsu-wo no Mikoto, Naka-tsutsu-wo no Mikoto, and Soko-tsutsu-wo no Mikoto are the three great Gods of Suminoye. The Gods Soko-tsu-wata-dzu-mi no Mikoto, Naka-tsu-wata-dzu-mi no Mikoto, and Uha-tsu-wata-dzu-mi no Mikoto are the Gods worshipped by the Muraji of Adzumi. (tr. Aston 1896:27) Aston notes translations of “Bottom-sea-of-body”, “Middle-sea-god”, and “upper”. There are numerous Shinto shrines dedicated to the sea god Watatsumi. Some examples include the Ōwatatsumi jinja or Daikai jinja 大海神社 in Sumiyoshi-ku, Osaka (associated with the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine), the Watatsumi jinja 海神社 in Tarumi-ku, Kobe, and the Watatsumi jinja 綿都美神社 in Kokura Minami-ku, Kitakyūshū. Given the distribution of crocodiles in the Indian continent-to–ISEA region, it is possible that the Watatsumi deities originated in the ports of the Indo-Iranian or Indo-Sakka region, i.e. North-western coast or Bay of Bengal coastal areas (which would make sense of the reference to the Indian “cotton-ports”, from which came the goods (cotton and silks, stones and jewels) coveted by the Greek and Roman merchants  (see Voyage around the Erythaean Sea #56-57 ). The crocodile was the (totemic?) mount of the Indian-Iranian sea deity Varuna or Waruna. It has been said that the myths of Hoori and Hoderi, the Watatsumi sea deities and the Ryugu dragon are Korean in origin (Japanese Myths of Descent from Heaven and Their Korean Parallels), however, this seemingly makes nonsense of the idea of Toyotama-hime’s taking the form of the totem animal of her native land, the crocodile, since crocodiles are obviously non-native to Korea:

“…wani is a fundamental theme in the myth of the demigod brothers Hoori and Hoderi. The sea god Watatsumi or Ryūjin” summoned together all the crocodiles” (tr. Chamberlain 1919:150) and chose one to escort his pregnant daughter Toyotama-hime and her husband Hoori from the Ryūgū-jō palace back to land. Soon after their arrival, the beautiful Toyatama-hime made a bizarre request concerning her shapeshifting into a wani.

Then, when she was about to be delivered, she spoke to her husband [saying]: “Whenever a foreigner is about to be delivered, she takes the shape of her native land to be delivered.” — Wani (Dragon)

The very earliest etymology of the Watatsumi deity poses a perplexing problem, as its inclusion of the component characters for cotton-port 綿津 make no sense whatsoever, since China did not begin cotton production till around 1200s (according to a medieval manual on agriculture), and Japan around the 1500s … the Japanese first imported raw cotton and finished cotton goods from China (as well as from India) from the 15th century and also from India – (See Schlingloff’s Cotton-manufacture in Ancient India at pg 85 and A Short History of Japanese Textiles) Watatsumi was likely an Indian deity that had arrived directly from the India, or possibly via China, a Chinese text mentions that a Gupta king sent cotton stuffs to China in 6th c. AD, so the Chinese characters likely indicated the trading connection with India’s cotton ports (see Schlingloff’s Cotton-manufacture in Ancient India pg 6). However, a mere trading connection should not be sufficient for an Indian sea deity to be included in the royal ancestral genealogy, so that we suggest the likelihood of Indian-Iranian ancestral lineages being included here.  If we consider that the fact of the Korean peninsula’s first king of Kara, King Suro’s marriage to an Indian princess, and that many Indo-Scythian or Indo-Iranian elements are manifested in the tomb culture of Silla, Paekche and Gaya+ chiefdoms thus evidencing trading contacts with Indo-Iranian (perhaps Indo-Sakka or Indo-Bactrian) culture and alliances with people from the Indian subcontinent, then the mythical themes of crocodiles, naga-like dragons and sea-deities, princesses, and jewels, then the abovementioned tales begin to make a lot of sense. We also find names such as Vani, Wani as common tribal names in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in Goa and Maharashtra, India, Wain in Kashmir, while Kumaon and Kumaun (from which kuma-wani may have been derived) are found in the Himalayas. Wani is a historical characters a Paekche scholar who is recorded in Nihongi as having introduced writing to Japan in AD 284(see  “A History of Writing in Japan“) [+Note: Given that Gaya is a the name for the loose tribal confederacy of chiefdoms, and many location names in the related region include Gaya, it may well indicate that the Korean Gaya lineages were part or mostly Indo-Iranian in origin as well, and Gaya a reference to Gaya Maretan, the first mortal human (and ancestor) in Indo-Iranian(or Indo-Aryan) mythology; Similarly, King Suro’s name may have been a variant of सूर (sū́ra, “the sun”), or the Vedic Sanskrit सूर्य   surya  all derived from Proto-Indo-Iranian *súHr̥,  Source: Etymology, Wiktionary]. The Indian totemic symbolism and meaning of the crocodile as a mount of Varuna/Baruna as well as the Indo-European Ouranos have been suggested to have been derived from the god Sobek, one of the beings who emerged from the watery chaos at the world’s creation (see James Hewitt’s “The ruling races of prehistoric times in India, southwestern Asia, and southern Europe“). In Onmark Production’s Dragons article points to the source of the lore involving dragon kings at the bottom of the sea:

“The HACHIDAI RYUU-OU 八大竜王: EIGHT GREAT DRAGON KINGS IN BUDDHIST LORE, the Hachidai Ryuu-ou (Eight Great Dragon Kings) are mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (HOKEKYOU 法華経) and they appear sometimes in Japanese artwork. These eight are dragon kings said to live at the bottom of the sea, apparently in reference to the eight dragon kings, each with many followers, who assembled at Eagle Peak to hear the Lotus Sutra as expounded by the Historical Buddha. According to the Kairyuo Sutra (Sutra of the Dragon King of the Sea), dragons are often eaten by giant man-birds called Garudas, their natural enemy.”

While the above sutras appear to have been brought to Japan by via Chinese monastery sources, A. Berriedale Keith on Indian mythology) suggests an Indian subcontinental setting:

“In it Buddha settled the struggle between the Asuras and Gods and that between the Garudas and Dragons. Anyone who repeats it may become enlightened and get protection from all the eight departments of protectors, namely, Deavs, Nagas, Yaksas, Gandharvas, Asuras, Garudas, Kinnara, and Mahoraga”

We are further directed by C. M. Chen’s article Dragon-King Sutra Stanzas CW30_No.58 more specifically to the Zoroastrian lands encompassing Dahi, Balkh, northern Afghanistan, Margiana and Merv or Mouru (modern day Turkmenistan); Sogdiana (modern day Sugd in north-western Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan) as the originating region of the lore as the context of the battle between Asuras (cf. ahura Iranian) and deva/daeva gods (see Pre-Zoroastrian Mazda, Asura and Deva Worshippers: Religious Wars and Separation.

In the next article “Hoori (Hohodemi) vs. Hoderi(Hohoderi) – the quarreling brothers motif

, we will explore the origins of the Hoori and Hoderi myth and the origins of the universal twins or warring brothers myth.


Sources and references: Visser, Marinus Willern de. 1913. The Dragon in China and Japan. J. Müller. De Visser (p. 141) found strong similarities between Indonesian myths from the Kei Islands and Minahassa Peninsula and the Japanese Hoori-Hoderi myths. Sahimochi (The Encyclopedia of Shinto) on the “one-fathom wani” crocodile Voyage around the Erythaean Sea #56-57 Wani (Dragon) Japanese Myths of Descent from Heaven and Their Korean Parallels Onmark Productions’ Dragon article, see the section on Dragon lore from Japan as well as the section on the eight great dragon kings in Buddhist folklore

Seeley, Christopher, “A History of Writing in Japan” p. 6

J.G. Frazer’s pp. 85-88, “Totemism” refers

Schlingloff, D. Cotton-manufacture in Ancient India, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 17, No. 1, Mar., 1974 

Ed. note: This article was first published as Watasumi or Owatatasumi and the curious appearance of the crocodile “wani”


4 thoughts on “The curious crocodile “wani” connection between the Watasumi sea god and Hooderi and Hoori brothers royal myth

  1. wildinjapan says:

    Thanks for the link and recomendation.
    It looks like a lot of effort to examine possible origins of Japanese myths and linguistic sources. Keep up the good work!

  2. wildinjapan says:

    Hi, me again.
    Just to add another piece to the puzzle with this article I stumbled across yesterday:

    Man finds E. Asia’s oldest alligator fossil in Shimane

    MATSUE (Kyodo) — Shigenori Kawano, 32, found last summer what was later identified as East Asia’s oldest fossil of a giant alligator dating from around 20 million years ago, on Oki Island in the Sea of Japan.

    In mid-July, the researcher at Shimane Nature Museum of Mt. Sanbe, found a 30-centimeter rock on the coast of the island in Shimane Prefecture while examining local animals and plants.

    Kawano said that when he saw a part of a bone exposed on the surface of the rock, he instantly knew that it must be of a reptile.

    “The size was nothing compared with that of a turtle or a soft-shell turtle,” he said recalling the moment.

    After carefully studying the rock, he learned that the bone, which was 21 cm long and 18 cm high, was a fossil of the backbone of a giant alligator estimated to be as large as 7 meters long.

    Kawano said, “I spontaneously shouted, ‘I did it!'”

    The previous oldest fossil of a giant alligator was found on the Penghu Islands in Taiwan and is believed to date from about 10 million years ago.

    A native of Takeo, Saga Prefecture, Kawano was a second grader when he started collecting fossils.

    Taken by his father, who was a civil engineer, he collected fossils of snails and shark teeth not only in coastal areas and construction sites in Saga Prefecture but also in other parts of northern Kyushu and on Shikoku Island.

    Since his mother and younger brother were also engrossed in excavation, it has become a sort of “leisure activity for our family,” Kawano said.

    When his family went on an excavation trip to a remote island, all of the members got so absorbed in digging that they forgot that the tide was rising and were almost unable to return to the mainland.

    Kawano has made remarkable discoveries since he was a junior high school student.

    He found a bird bill from about 34 million years ago when he was a sophomore at junior high school and the bill is still a treasure for him.

    At Shimane University, which he chose to enter simply because he can go fishing and fossil hunting by bicycle, he studied paleontology for 10 years.

    After finishing his master’s thesis, Kawano found footprints of an alligator in Matsue, the capital of Shimane Prefecture, in 2005 and alligator teeth on Oki Island in 2008.

    He said the high rate of discovery must be a result of his 25 years of experience and research on what kind of fossils can be found in different soil types and how he can remove them without causing damage.

    “Fossils provide us information with which we can find out how animals have evolved,” Kawano said. “It is fun to unearth it (the information) well.”

    December 29, 2013(Mainichi Japan)

    • A big thanks for posting! Exciting news for possible connections, though we don’t know when the last alligator was sighted on Japanese shores, or if there were any surviving ones by the time the earliest settlers came. The wani symbol may have been only relic folktale brought by incoming migrants, but the possibility raised by surviving reptiles in Shimane now shouldn’t be discounted since that is the region from which the wani tale originate.

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