The Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki
Daughter of Izanagi
Amaterasu (pronounced ah-mah-te-RAH-soo), goddess of the sun and of fertility, is one of the most important figures in Japanese mythology and in the Shinto religion. Her name literally means “shining in heaven .” According to legend, she is the first ancestor of the imperial, or royal, family of Japan.
Daughter of the creator god Izanagi (pronounced ee-zah-NAH-gee), Amaterasu taught humans to plant rice and weave cloth. In one story, her brother, Susano-ö, angered the goddess by interfering with her activities. He destroyed rice fields, spread filth in her sacred buildings, and dropped a skinned horse through the roof of the weavers' hall. Furious at Susano-ö's actions, Amaterasu went into a cave and locked the entrance. Her withdrawal plunged the earth into darkness and prevented the rice from growing.
To lure the sun goddess out, the other gods gathered outside the cave with various sacred objects, including a mirror and some jewels. A young goddess began dancing, causing the others to burst into laughter. Wondering how they could make merry in her absence, Amaterasu peeked out to see what was amusing them. Those outside the cave told Amaterasu of another goddess more brilliant than she. Curious, Amaterasu looked and saw her reflection in the mirror. The image of her own brilliance so astonished her that she stepped out of the cave. One of the gods hung a rope across the cave door to prevent her from returning to it and depriving the world of her light.
Amaterasu in Context
Amaterasu is a central figure in the Shinto religion, which was once the official religion of Japan. Although no firm dates have been established, it is possible that Shinto was developing in Japan at around the same time the ancient Romans developed their own mythology, circa 300 bce. The first written accounts that document details of Shinto are the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, both written in the early 700s ce.
Many followers of Shinto considered Amaterasu to be the most important god of all, since the sun was critical to the growth of crops such as rice. The story of Amaterasu's retreat into the cave—followed by her return to bring light to the world—mirrors the cycle of the agricultural season, in which crops cannot grow during the winter, but return during the summer months.
Japan's earliest emperors were believed to be descended directly from Amaterasu, which supposedly supported their right to rule. The mirror that drew Amaterasu out of the cave is supposedly housed in her shrine at Ise, and is considered one of Japan's three imperial (royal) treasures—along with jewels and a sword—that are symbols of this right to rule. The presence of hundreds of bronze mirrors in tombs across Japan indicate their religious importance to the Japanese people; early peoples believed that the mirror reflected the spirit of the person who looked into it.
Key Themes and Symbols
As a sun goddess, Amaterasu is closely associated with light and the sun. She is almost always pictured giving off rays of light. Amaterasu is also closely associated with love and compassion. Another important symbol associated with Amaterasu, taken from the myth, is the mirror, which represents wisdom.
Amaterasu in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
As one of the central figures in the Shinto religion, Amaterasu was a popular subject in Japanese art through the first half of the twentieth century. After World War II, Shinto was no longer the official state religion, and Shinto influences were not as strong in Japanese art and literature after that time. Amaterasu sometimes appears in Japanese animated films and comics and served as the main character for the 2006 video game Okami by Capcom. In the game, the player controls Amaterasu, embodied as a white wolf carrying a mirror on its back, in an effort to bring light and color back to the world.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The term “sun worshipper” today usually refers to someone who enjoys tanning or spending time outdoors in sunny areas such as the beach. Overwhelming medical evidence shows that such behavior puts a person at a much greater risk of developing skin cancer. Skin cancer is currently the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer, with about one million cases reported each year in the United States.
If ancient cultures had the same medical information we do today, do you think sun gods such as Amaterasu would remain as important and well-regarded in their belief systems? Why or why not?