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Amaterasu Omikami

goddess of daytime and the direct ancestor of the Japanese imperial family

Amaterasu as a beautiful woman
Amaterasu as a beautiful woman

According to the Shinto creation story, the two creator deities, Izanagi no Mikoto (The Male Who Invites) and Izanami no Mikoto (The Female Who Invites), descended from heaven and together produced the Japanese islands and surrounding seas. They then set about producing Kami (gods) to rule over those dominions. Their first child was Amaterasu, whose radiance was so bright that she was given reign over the daytime. Their next child, a son named Tsukiyomi no Mikoto (Moon), was designated as Amaterasu's consort, as well as ruler of the night world. Next came a "Leech Child," who was unfortunately so misshapen that Izanagi and Izanami regretfully put it in a boat and abandoned it to the winds. Their next child was Susano-O Mikoto (Storm), who was initially sent to rule the sea but then sent to rule Yami (the Underworld).

Amaterasu and Susano-O were rivals from the beginning, with each trying to prove their superiority over the other. Before departing for Yami, Susano-O stopped to bid his sister goodbye. Amaterasu was suspicious, but when Susano-O proposed a challenge to prove his sincerity, she accepted. Each of them took an object of the other's and from it birthed gods and goddesses. Amaterasu birthed three women from Susano-O's sword, while he birthed five men from her jeweled necklace. Claiming the gods were hers because they were born of her necklace and the goddesses were his, she decided that she had won the challenge, as his item produced women.

Susano-O initially took his "loss" well, but his acceptance proved short-lived. One day, out of sheer malciousness, he defiled Amaterasu's realm by destroying her rice fields, trampling flowers, killing one of her attendants, and hurling a flayed pony at her loom. When Amaterasu saw what had been done, she became so angry and depressed that she withdrew into a cave, plunging the world into darkness. The other 800 gods conferred on how to lure the sun goddess out. They collected cocks, whose crowing precedes the dawn, and hung a mirror and jewels on a sakaki tree in front of the cave. The goddess Amenouzume then began a dance on an upturned tub, partially disrobing herself, which so delighted the assembled gods that they roared with laughter. Amaterasu became curious how the gods could make merry while the world was plunged into darkness, and was told that outside the cave there was a deity more illustrious than she. She peeped out, saw her reflection in the mirror and heard the cocks crow, and was thus drawn out from the cave. The Kami then quickly threw a shimenawa, or sacred rope of rice straw, before the entrance to prevent her return to hiding.

Amaterasu emerging from the cave
Amaterasu emerging from the cave

Susano-O was punished for his misdeed by having his beard and moustache cut off, his fingernails and toenails torn out, and by being exiled from Heaven. He eventually ended up in Izumo, where he subsequently killed the Orochi Dragon, which had been terrorizing Izumo for generations. This deed reconciled him with most of the Kami, and the gift of the sword found in the dragon's tail to Amaterasu reconciled him with his sister.

Meanwhile, Amaterasu had ambitious plans for her first son by Susano-O, Ame no Oshi-ho-Mimi no Mikoto. After conferring with Tsukiyomi no Mikoto (her brother and husband), Ame no Oshi-ho-Mimi no Mikoto was sent to impose order on an unruly terrestrial world. This son decided that the earth was far too unruly, however, and returned to Heaven. Amaterasu next sent Ame no Hohi no Mikoto, another of her sons from Susano-O, but he never returned with any news. Now frustrated, the 800 Heavenly Kami sent Ame Wakahiko, a great warrior, to earth, armed with a divine bow and arrows. Rather than impose order, however, Ame Wakahiko decided to marry an earthly Kami, Shitateru-Hime. After eight years of hearing nothing from Ame Wakahiko, the Heavenly Kami sent down Nanaki, the sacred pheasant, to talk to Ame Wakahiko. When Ame Wakahiko saw Nanaki alighting on a tree branch, however, he promptly shot him with one of the arrows the gods had given him. After killing Nanaki, the arrow continued its flight until it landed at the feet of Amaterasu and Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, who angrily threw it back down to earth, where it struck Ame Wakahiko in the heart and killed him.

Ame no Oshi-ho-Mimi eventually had a son of his own, Ninigi no Mikoto, and it was this grandson of Amaterasu who succeeded in bringing order to the land. To help him accomplish this task, his grandmother gave him the Yata no Kagami (Eight-Handed Mirror) and the Yasakani no Magatama (Curved Jewel) which the other Kami had used to lure her out of the cave, as well as the Kusanagi no Tsurugi (Grass-Cutter) sword that had been given to her by Susano-O. Not long after accomplishing his mission, Ninigi no Mikoto married Kono-Hana-Sakuya-Hime (Princess Blossoming-Brilliantly-as-the-Flowers-of-Trees). the daughter of the deity Great-Mountain-Possessor. The couple had two sons, Ho-no-susori no Mikoto (who became the ancestor of Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan) and Hiko-hoho-demi.

The principal center of worship to Amaterasu is the Grand Shrine of Ise, where she is manifested in a mirror that is one of the three Imperial Treasures of Japan (the other two being a jeweled necklace and a sword).

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The Robinson Library >> Religion and Mythology >> Shintoism

This page was last updated on May 17, 2017.