Amaterasu (Amaterasu- ō -Mikami, Heaven Shining Great Deity)Amaterasu, the shinto goddess of the sun, is the most important divinity in the Shinto pantheon, or collection of gods. She is held to be the ancestor of the emperor and is the most revered person of heaven. But she is not all-powerful, and, in fact, the stories that describe her make her seem very human—though, of course, on a godly scale.
According to the Shinto creation myth, Amaterasu was born when Izanagi returned from his unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife, Izanami (next time Izanagi and Izanami), from Yomi, the land of the dead. Amaterasu emerged from one of his eyes. At the same time, a sister, the moon goddess Tsukiyomi (who is male in some tales) and a brother, Susano-Wo, were also born.
Izanagi gave Amaterasu his sacred beads (Yasakani no Magatama) and told her she would rule over heaven. He then told Susano-Wo that he would rule over the seas. But Susano-Wo was jealous of his sister. He told his father that he would leave and go to Yomi to join his mother, Izanami. This made Izanagi very angry. He ordered Susano-Wo out of his sight.
Susano-Wo went to see his sister Amaterasu to say good-bye, but Amaterasu suspected a trick and kept her bow and arrows with her. Susano-Wo assured her he meant no harm. He protested that he did not want to take her rule away.
But he soon showed his jealousy. He suggested a contest to see who was more powerful. Whoever
could create more gods would be the winner, he said. Amaterasu began by breaking her brother’s sword into three pieces and eating it. When she spit out the pieces, a mist formed in the air. Three goddesses formed from the mist.
Susano-Wo was unimpressed. He took his sister’s beads and cracked them with his teeth. Five male gods appeared.
“I have won,” he told Amaterasu.
“No,” she answered. “The gods came from my jewels. I am the winner, since your poor sword produced only three gods, and they were all female.”
Susano-Wo rampaged across the earth, claiming that he was the victor of the competition. He flooded rice fields and caused great destruction. He even defiled the temple where the rice harvest was to be held by defecating in it. Finally, he took a pony and skinned it alive, then hurled the beast into a sacred hall where Amaterasu was weaving with her attendants. One of the maidens fainted dead at the sight. Amaterasu fled to a dark cave, leaving the earth in darkness. She refused to come out. The world threatened to wither away in perpetual darkness, ruled by evildoers whose deeds were cloaked in the night.
Finally, the earth’s good gods decided to trick Amaterasu into emerging. They set Yata no Kagami, made by Ama-Tsu-Mara and Ishi-Kori-dome, in front of her cave, along with the cock that crows before the dawn. Then they asked the goddess Uzume to dance for them in front of the cave. Uzume began slowly, but quickly found her rhythm. The somewhat plump goddess grew so happy that she threw off all her clothes, dancing wildly—which made all of the others laugh very hard.
Amaterasu heard the laughter and wondered what was going on. When she came to the mouth of the cave to investigate, she saw her reflection in the Mirror. Curious, she asked who the beautiful goddess was. The other gods told her it was her replacement. Her own beauty entranced her, and she emerged slowly to examine the image. The world once more was bathed in sunlight.
Tajikawa quickly blocked the entrance to the cave so she could not return. With the return of light, the world regained its balance. Evil once more was put in its place.
Susano-Wo, meanwhile, was punished by the other gods. His beard and moustache were cut off. His fingernails were ripped away, and he was fined and banished from heaven. He wandered the earth and had several adventures. Finally, he slew an eight-headed serpent. When it died, a sword fell from its tail. Repenting of his feud with his sister, he sent the sword as a sign that he was submitting to her rule. The sword is called Ama no Murakumo no Tsuguri.
Emerging from the shadows, Amaterasu showed people how to grow rice and wheat, weave, and cultivate silkworms. Some say that she and her attendants wove and continue to weave the cloth of the universe. Amaterasu later asked her son, Ame-No-Oshido-Mimi, to rule the earth. After he turned her down, she sent her grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto. Japan’s emperors trace their ancestry directly to Ninigi and, thus, to Amaterasu.
Many scholars point out that the fact that the most important divinity is female is very significant.
Some say this shows that women played an important role in early Japanese societies. The myth may present evidence that early Japanese rulers were female. Or it may mean that women priests or shamans played an important political as well as religious role. In any event, the myth of Amaterasu contrasts greatly with many Western myths, in which females play subservient roles.
Amaterasu’s full name is “Amaterasu-O-Mi-Kami,” which might be literally translated as “the important being who makes heaven shine.” She is also known as Amaterasu Omikami and Omikami (“illustrious goddess”).
Amaterasu remains a very popular figure in Japan. Her shrine at Ise is the most popular and important in the country. Those visiting Ise at the time of the harvest festival remember the imperial family in their prayers, thanking the goddess for her protection and blessings.