History of Japan: Amaterasu

//History of Japan: Amaterasu

History of Japan: Amaterasu

By |2018-07-19T16:29:19+00:0010th February 2007|Categories: Article|Tags: , |0 Comments

Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712). The stories tell of the formation of the Japanese islands and the founding of human society. One of the most important stories in this set of tales is the story of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess who is still the most important deity in Japan and the (mythological) ancestor of the Imperial family.

A long, long time ago, there was the female deity known as Amaterasu. Her name meaning ‘shining heaven’ or ‘she who shines in the heavens’. One account says she was born from the god Izanagi when he used water to purify his left eye after a visit to the netherworld. Another says she was born after intercourse between Izanagi and Izanami (Nihon Shoki 720). She was the sun goddess, so bright and radiant, her parents assigned her to rule the High Celestial Plain (Takamagahara).

She had a younger brother, Susano-O, who was a storm deity and very mischievous.

As most brother and sister they rarely agreed on even the smallest thing, and so could never tolerate the presence of the other for very long. And yet, despite their many differences, there was a very close bond between them, which brought them together again and again.

Amaterasu was the Sun goddess. Her gentle beauty and warmth radiated life force and hope throughout the blessed land of Japan, and far beyond. Amaterasu was the one who showed the people their beauty and potential.

Susano-O was the Storm god. He was the one who released pent-up feelings, shaking things up if they became too stagnant. The people called upon him often when things needed to get moving again. Susano-O was also known affectionately as The Impetuous Male, because he loved to move quickly, creating chaos and noise wherever he went.

Now the elders tell us that one day, Susano-O went up to the heavenly realm to visit his sister. He was about to make the long journey to the underworld to be reunited with their long-dead mother, and he was a little afraid of making the trip. He had heard terrible tales of the horrors he would find there and wondered if he would be changed forever, or even if he would return at all. To strengthen himself for this journey, Susano-O decided to spend a season basking in his sister’s light and wisdom. He knew, better than anyone, that her light could be a soul-warming comfort. In his haste to see Amaterasu, Susano-O moved through the sky with a crackling thunder, shaking mountains and rivers and sending all living beings into hiding. The night seemed to fill with dancing furies as an inky velvet spread across the sky.

Even Amaterasu became frightened so she decided to take a few precautions when meeting him. She placed a quiver at her side and a bow in her hand as she stepped forward to greet him. “Why do you disturb the peace of our kingdom, Susano-O? Surely, you have more than enough activity in your own kingdom!” Amaterasu looked at Susano-O a little disdainfully through her bowstrings. She had not forgotten their last quarrel and hoped to hold him off with a strong facade.

This was not exactly the picture of love and devotion he was hoping to find. Susano-O replied in his most courtly manner, “O, radiant, fair sister, I wish you no harm. My only desire is your warm company, a glimpse of your lovely face, and a few pleasant words before I descend to the underworld to find our most esteemed mother.”

His answer pleased her, but Amaterasu knew her brother well and decided to ask for more proof of his good intentions. Susano-O then proposed that they should create children who would rule the blessed land wisely. He hoped Amaterasu would then realize that he had all of their best interests at heart. Perhaps she would allow him to stay for awhile, until he could pluck up enough courage to descend to the dark place below. Amaterasu agreed. She took her brother’s sword, broke it into three pieces, and after chewing the pieces for many days and nights, blew a light mist from her mouth, which gave birth to three goddesses who were more beautiful than any other goddesses then living… excepting Amaterasu herself, of course. Susano-O then asked his sister for the five jewels she was wearing, and after cracking them between his teeth, blew a light mist from his mouth and gave birth to five masculine deities who were more powerful than any other deities then living…excepting Susano-O himself, of course.

Although he had created the five gods from Amaterasu’s jewels, Susano-O was altogether too pleased with himself and began jumping around boasting of his omnipotence. When Ama reminded him that the gods had been created from her jewels, Susano-O became enraged. Why didn’t she appreciate him?! Losing all self-control, he released the wind and rain he held under his waving arms. He destroyed Amaterasu’s carefully tended rice fields, filled in her precious irrigation ditches, and even deposited mud and excrement in her temples!

This was just the kind of behavior Amaterasu had come to expect from her brother, but at first she made excuses for him. “Well, he just couldn’t help himself,” she thought. It was his nature to leap around causing chaos wherever he turned. Her sympathy for him had been aroused by his sad story of descending to the underworld. She could barely imagine what strength of will such a trip would require and thought that his misdeeds reflected his inner anguish. Surely, she should loan him some of her strength.

Unfortunately, Amaterasu’s pity only made things worse.

It was as if some inner demon drove Susano-O to worse and worse deeds, just to see how far he could push the radiant, oh so self-contained goddess.

Perhaps she would lose her temper and become just like him, a true sister at last! After all, how could she possibly like and understand him if she remained so distant, so superior all the time? He would knock her off her grand pedestal, once and for all!

Amaterasu, for her part, was beginning to lose patience with Susano-O, too. Resentment had taken residence in her heart. If only she could be rid of him once and for all! He was all bad, the devil himself… she could no longer remember his good points or their happy times together.

She asked the gods why such a troublesome brother had ever been sent to torment her… but no reassuring answer came to her.

One day, Amaterasu was weaving the god’s clothes in her sacred chamber, taking a momentary, peaceful respite from her worries. That’s when Susano-O decided to send a final message to his sister. Although he had tried to get Amaterasu to loosen up and shed her pretenses, she had always resisted him. Well, this should shake her up a little! Susano-O flayed a piebald horse, made a hole in the roof of the house, and threw the dead horse into her circle of weaving women. On the saddle of the dead horse, was a note that read “Things are not always as black and white as they seem.” This frightening event caused one of Amaterasu’s oldest friends to fall dead at her feet, and Amaterasu, worn out by all the recent tempests, could only think of running away. She ran as far as she could to a rocky cave in a quiet corner of Heaven and she blocked the entrance with a boulder. No more strife!

The world was left in darkness and no one could entice Amaterasu out again. Susano-O, in disgrace (some say, in despair) began the loooonng journey to the underworld alone. And Amaterasu sat a very, very long time in the cave, brooding over recent events. She began to feel that it was somehow all her fault. Perhaps she had failed her brother in some important way. Perhaps she lacked the ability to love. In her headlong flight to the cave, she had lost her ability to see clearly… her light was truly dimmed. But the darkness within the cave was nothing compared to the darkness outside the cave. The people had lost their radiant mother and sat huddled in their homes, listless and hopeless. Without her light in the kingdom, they could not see their own strength and so had lost the will to go on. The world began to wither and die.

When things had begun to look blacker than the very night itself, the eight hundred myriad of gods gathered together in the dry bed of a river to decide how to get Amaterasu back. They begged one of the gods to help them. Everyone knew Hoard-thoughts had good ideas if only he could be persuaded to tell. Well, even Hoard-thoughts was worried now and so he advised the gods to collect cocks that could be relied upon to crow just before dawn. And so, the cocks were collected. Next, he told the gods to hang a mirror with strands of jewels on the branches of a Sakaki tree, just at the entrance of Amaterasu’s cave. They did so, and then they decorated the tree with bright cloth banners. Everyone uttered ritual words. Next, a sister-goddess, Ama no Uzume, stepped forward with an idea all her own. She stripped herself naked and carefully dressed in various plants and bamboo leaves. Climbing onto a tub turned upside down at the entrance of the cave, she began to dance. Such a dance! She drummed her feet on the tub and swung her hips and generally got carried away by divine ecstasy. All the eight hundred myriad of gods roared with laughter and approval, hooting and hollering. By the light of a thousand torches, the cocks began crowing loudly in unison. Amaterasu, in her cave, was surprised. Even in her worst meetings with Susano-O, she had never before heard such a noise in her peaceable kingdom. What could she be missing? Finally, when she heard the laughter of the gods, she couldn’t resist peering outside the cave. Everyone sounded so happy without her! The gods, who wanted to take no more chances with their mother goddess, had made a little plan. They had asked the god of Force to hide near the entrance to the cave and to seize Amaterasu’s hand and drag her all the way out when she appeared, but, as it turned out, Force really wasn’t necessary after all. Catching a glimpse of something in the mirror hanging in front of her, just for a moment Amaterasu forgot her fear and pain and stood transfixed by a clear light.

Amaterasu was seeing herself for the first time in a very long time, and it gave her a stronger determination to carry on her duties in heaven. She immediately returned to her palace and vowed never again to be so frightened by any storm. Mirrors were hung in the doorways to her temples, so that all who passed in or out might look deeply into it. The elders say that the people of Japan, and the gods themselves, carried on their lives with renewed courage and joy.

Although Susano-O was in disgrace with all the other gods and goddesses, Amaterasu sent him, on the wings of her truest messengers, her love and very best wishes. She knew he was a part of what she had seen and felt when she emerged from the cave. As for Susano-O, he heard of Amaterasu’s return to Heaven while on his long journey to the deep.and was immeasurably glad. He knew they would meet again someday.

Myth retold by
Melissa Osborne
2007

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