Amaterasu (天照), Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大神 or 天照大御神, Japanese: “Great Divinity Illuminating Heaven”) or Ōhiru-menomuchi-no-kami (大日孁貴神) is in Japanese mythology a sun goddess and perhaps the most important Shinto deity (神 kami). Her name, Amaterasu, means literally “(that which) illuminates Heaven.” Her myths are the most important of the indigenous Japanese faith, Shinto, “the way of the gods,” a set of ancient beliefs and observances which have remained comparatively unchanged over the past millennium, despite the importation of Confucianism and Buddhism.
Amaterasu is seen as the highest manifestation of Kunitokotachi, the unseen, transcendent yet immanent, spirit of the universe. Amaterasu was born from the left eye of Izanagi, as he purified himself in a river, and went on to become the ruler of the Higher Celestial Plane (Takamagahara), the abode of all the kami (gods). Her triumph over the storm god, Susano-O, secured her place as ruler of the world. The Kojiki, compiled in the fifth century as a means of legitimizing the rule of the Imperial family of Japan, gave an account of their ancestral descent from a great-grandson of Amaterasu. Worship of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, has survived for thousands of years in Japan as part of the Shinto faith. Amaterasu is credited with inventing the cultivation of rice and wheat, the use of silkworms, and weaving with a loom. Her most important shrine, the Grand Shrine of Ise, is in Ise, Mie, in western Honshū.
Background of Amaterasu
The idea of the sun as a goddess, instead of as a god, is rare and it may be a survival from the most archaic stage of world mythology. Amaterasu was seen as the highest manifestation of Kunitokotachi, the unseen, transcendent yet immanent, spirit of the universe. Her myths are the most important of the indigenous Japanese faith, Shinto, “the way of the gods,” a set of ancient beliefs and observances which have remained comparatively unchanged over the past millennium, despite the importation of Confucianism and Buddhism. Ancient Japanese texts record several myths concerning the origin of Amaterasu.
According to The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀)
Main article: Nihon Shoki
(The book is also called the Nihongi (日本紀))
The Nihongi, an eighth-century collation of many ancient Japanese myths and legends, contains two stories explaining the origins of Amaterasu. One recounts how two creator deities, Izanagi no Mikoto (“The Male Who Invites”) and Izanami no Mikoto (“The Female Who Invites”), first descended from heaven and together produced the various islands of Japan, the mountains, rivers, and surrounding seas. They then undertook their greatest work of all, to generate the high Kami (god) that would rule over all these dominions. First they procreated Amaterasu Omikami, whose radiance shone through the six directions (north, south, east, west, above, and below). The divine parents were so delighted with this child that they immediately sent her up to heaven to rule over all she could survey. Next, Izanami and Izanagi created Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, the Moon Kami, whom they set in heaven to rule together with Amaterasu as her celestial consort. The third child generated by the creator gods was a “Leech Child,” which, however, appeared so misshapen that they regretfully put it in a boat and abandoned it to the winds. Their fourth child was Susano-O no Mikoto, the Storm Kami, to whom they initially gave dominion over the seas but later sent down to rule in Yomi, the underworld (Nihongi 18-19). According to this myth, Amaterasu’s primacy in the birth order reflected an unquestionable moral and spiritual superiority over her siblings.
Another version myth in the Nihongi names Izanagi alone as the divine progenitor. According to this narrative, Izanagi wished to create a deity who would be worthy to rule the visible universe. After deliberating, he took a white-copper mirror in his left hand and from it produced Amaterasu Omikami. Then he took another such mirror in his right hand and produced Tsukiyomi no Mikoto. After this, Izanagi turned his head and looked askance, from which action Susano-O emerged into being (Nihongi 20).
According to the Kojiki or Furukotofumi (古事記)
Main article: Kojiki
A third, more somber, version of Sun Goddess’s origin occurs in the Kojiki (712 C.E.), the oldest extant source of Japanese mythology. While Izanagi and Izanami were producing the islands of Japan and the entire natural universe, everything seemed to be going well, when suddenly Izanami gave birth to Kagu-Tsuchi (“Fire Child”), who singed her womb on coming out. Grievously wounded, Izanami sickened and died. Deeply distraught, Izanagi descended to Yomi (the underworld) in hopes of bringing back his beloved wife. He found her and talked to her, but discovered that her flesh was rotting and being eaten by maggots. Horrified, Izanagi fled, and barely escaped with his life. On emerging into the upper world, he felt impure and decided to bathe himself. As he was bathing, he first washed his left eye and gave birth to the great goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Then he washed his right eye and produced Tsukiyomi no Mikoto. Finally, Izanagi washed his nose, and Susano-O no Mikoto came forth (Kojiki 46; Nihongi 28).
Difference in Kojiki and Nihongi (Nihonshoki)
The story from the Kojiki, in which Amaterasu was born from Izaniagi’s left eye after he failed to retrieve Izanami from underworld, is much better known than that of the Nihonshoki, where Izanagi and a still-living Izanami decided to create a supreme deity to reign over the world, and gave birth to Amaterasu.
The episode in which Amaterasu sent her grandson to Awara-Nakatsukuni (Japan) is also different in two texts. In the Kojiki, Amaterasu commanded her son and other gods to pacify Japan, while in the main article of Nihonshoki it was Takamimusubi-no-Kami who took control of the event and sent his maternal grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto to Japan and the role of Amaterasu is ambiguous. In both cases, Nihonshoki records a version similar to the Kojiki episode as “aru-fumi,” an alternative episode.
Amaterasu and Susano-O
Susano-O was a mischief maker, playing wicked pranks and constantly upsetting his elder sister. Moreover, he appeared unable to accept the tragic death of his mother. His constant weeping and wailing caused the forests to wither on the mountains and the rivers and streams to dry up (Kojiki 51). Finally, his father Izanagi ordered him to leave the terrestrial realm and go down to Yomi. Before his departure, however, Susano-o decided to visit his sister one last time. As he approached, he made a great deal of noise, shaking the mountains and rivers. On meeting Amaterasu, he told her that he meant no harm, he just wanted to say good-bye before going to the realm where their mother Izanami was. Susano-O proposed that as a seal of their friendship they should produce offspring, which they did, she by chewing and spitting out pieces of the sword he gave her, and he by doing the same with her jewels. This act created various gods and goddesses including Ame no Oshi-ho-Mimi no Mikoto (Truly-I-Conquer-Swiftness-Heaven-of-Great-August-Person), who later became the ancestor of the Japanese imperial line (Kojiki, 54).
Susanoo neglected his duties in the realm of the sea, and caused every sort of disturbance on the land, which Amaterasu had previously ruled with benevolence and wisdom. Susanoo ignored his sister’s pleas and destroyed rice-fields, uprooted trees, and even leveled sacred buildings. As a final provocation, he broke a hole in the roof of the hall where Amaterasu was sitting and watching other deities weaving heavenly garments, and threw in the body of a dead horse. The goddesses who were weaving were so shocked that many were injured and some died. Amaterasu withdrew, either out of embarrassment or out of fear, into a deep cavern in the center of the earth, the Rock Cave (Ama-no-Iwato), and refused to come out, causing darkness to fall upon the world.
The other 800 gods begged her to come out, to no avail. Then they collected roosters, whose crowing precedes the dawn, and hung an eight-handed mirror (Yata no Kagami) and jewels on a sakaki tree in front of the cave. The goddess Ama-no-Uzume began to dance on an an upturned tub, partially disrobing herself, which so delighted the assembled gods that they roared with laughter. They laughed so loudly that Amaterasu became curious. As Amaterasu opened the door slowly and softly to peek outside, the cocks saw her light and began to crow. The Magatama jewels glittered, and the mirror hanging on the tree reflected her light. She saw her own reflection and thought to herself that there must be someone or something equal to herself illuminating the world. As she opened the door a little wider, the deity Ama no Tajikara-wo no Kami, who was waiting behind the door, pulled Amaterasu out of the cave and quickly threw a shimenawa, or sacred rope of rice straw, before the entrance to prevent her return to hiding. (Kojiki 65; Nihongi 49).
Amaterasu agreed to remain in the visible world and never again to withdraw. To punish Susano-O, the gods cut off his beard and moustache, tore out his fingernails and toenails, and kicked him out of heaven. Chastened, he landed in the region of Izumo where he conquered the Orochi Dragon, who had been pillaging the region of Izumo for a long time. When the victorious Storm God found in the monster’s tail a marvelous sword, Kusanagi no Tsurugi (meaning “Grass-Cutter”), he gave it to Amaterasu as a propitiatory offering to make amends for his misdeeds.
Ancestry of the Japanese Imperial Lineage
The Kojiki, compiled in the fifth century as a means of legitimizing the rule of the Imperial family of Japan, gave the following account of their ancestral descent from Amaterasu:
Amaterasu conferred with Takami-Musubi no Mikoto (High-August-Growth, one of the Three Primordial Gods) and decided to send her first son by Susano-O, Ame no Oshi-ho-Mimi no Mikoto, to impose order on the unruly terrestrial world. After standing for a time on the Floating Bridge of Heaven and surveying the world below, he decided that the earth was far too unruly, and reascended (Kojiki 112). Amaterasu and Takami-Musubi then sent another of her sons and the great warrior Kami, Ame Wakahiko to earth, but both forgot all about heaven.
Soon after these events, Amaterasu’s son, Ame no Oshi-ho-Mimi, had a son of his own named Ninigi no Mikoto. This young Kami was also the grandson of Takami-Musubi, and thus was doubly endowned with supreme divine power. Amaterasu sent him to earth, entrusting him with the Three Sacred Regalia, consisting of the Yata no Kagami (the Eight-Handed Mirror) and the Yasakani no Magatama (the Curved Jewel), which had been used to lure her out of the Rock Cave, and the sword, Kusanagi no Tsurugi, that had been given to her by Susano-O after he conquered the Orochi Dragon. When bestowing the mirror, Amaterasu said to Ninigi, “Regard this mirror exactly as if it were our august spirit, and reverence as if reverencing us” (Kojiki 130). Ninigi descended to earth and at once set about taming the unruly world. Not long after, Ninigi married Kono-Hana-Sakuya-Hime (Princess Blossoming-Brilliantly-as-the-Flowers-of-Trees), the daughter of the deity Great-Mountain-Possessor. They had two sons, Ho-no-susori no Mikoto and Hiko-hoho-demi; the former became the ancestor of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan.
Worship of Amaterasu
Worship of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, has survived for thousands of years in Japan as part of the Shinto faith. Amaterasu is credited with inventing the cultivation of rice and wheat, the use of silkworms, and weaving with a loom.
Her most important shrine, the Grand Shrine of Ise, is in Ise, Mie, in western Honshū. The cult of Amaterasu came to Isé in approximately the fourth century C.E., during the reing of Emperor Suinin. Following a longstanding Shinto tradition, the Inner Shrine at Isé has been rebuilt every twenty years since the 690s, so that it is continually pure and new. When each new shrine is built, the previous site is retained alongside it. In the shrine Amaterasu is represented as a mirror, one of the three Japanese imperial regalia. Visitors worship outside the southern gate; only priests and members of the imperial family are permitted to enter the innermost sanctum. It is customary for Shinto believers to make a pilgrimage to the shrine at least once in a lifetime.
Amaterasu is celebrated every July 17 with street processions all over the country. Festivities on December 21, the winter solstice, celebrate her coming out of the cave.
Until forced to recant in the terms of surrender at the end of World War II, the Japanese royal family claimed descent from Amaterasu, and the emperor was officially considered divine.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia