Amaterasu Hides Her Face

Iwato Yama, Gion Matsuri 1986Cart commemorating Amaterasu’s cave, Kyoto
(click picture for details)
Credit: Ganjin on Flickr, CC

Several recent Mythphile posts hinge on “return of the sun” mythology. Around the world, people have always told stories about night and winter. They attempt to answer a life-or-death question that had no answer before the science of astronomy: how do we know for certain that day and spring will return?

I was planning to recount several “return of the sun” myths from around the world. Yet now all the rest seem less pertinent than this one: the return of Amaterasu, Japan’s goddess of the sun.

Amtererasu’s tale begins with the previous generation of gods, when divine Izanagi tried to retrieve his beloved wife, Izanami, from the underworld after her untimely death. He was too late; she was already in death’s keeping. When Izanagi fled to the world above, he carried the stain of death. Only by ritual purification could he wash himself free of the dangerous taint.

When he rinsed his eyes, Amaterasu, shining goddess of the sun, sprang forth. Comforted by her light, Izanagi gave her his holy necklace, signifying rule of the sky. When Izanagi washed his nose clean of the stench of death, Susano-o was born, lord of the stormy sea. Susano-o was manly and heroic, a slayer of monsters. Yet he was also impetuous, proud of his virility and hot-tempered. As a young god, he defied his father, howled for his mother, and disrupted the peace of heaven and earth. Finally, Izanagi had had enough. If the boy wanted his mother so much, let him be banished to the underworld!

Before he departed, Susano-o decided to climb up to the Plain of Heaven one last time to take leave of his sister Amaterasu. But Suano-o’s violent spirit manifested in every step. Seas boiled where he walked. Vast earthquakes shook under his shoes. Hearing the commotion,¬†Amaterasu thought Susano-o was coming to cause trouble. She refused to believe he was visiting her simply to say goodbye. To vindicate himself, Susano-o challenged her to an unusual contest: each must bring forth new gods with the other’s divine emblem, and their issue would determine victory. Chewing on Susano-o’s sword, Amaterasu brought forth three fair goddesses. From Amaterasu’s rosary, Susano-o produced five strong gods. Susano-o claimed he had won, but Amaterasu countered that the five gods had arisen from her holy beads.

Hearing this, his August Impetuousness Susano-o flew into a rage, stomping up and down the Plain of Heaven. He spoiled fields and irrigation canals, defecated in the hall of the gods, killed one of Amaterasu’s attendants, and performed other bizarre and outrageous acts like tossing a flayed pony’s hide into the house where Amaterasu and her maidens wove the fabric of the universe. Divine chaos defiled holy order. Frightened and offended, Amaterasu hid herself in a cave and refused to come out. Darkness and fear descended upon the world, and crops withered.

Mourning Amaterasu’s departure, the gods assembled and devised a plan to lure her back. First, they created and hung a great mirror from a mountaintop outside Amaterasu’s cave. Ama-no-Uzume, goddess of dawn, spoke a powerful prayer, lit holy fires and arrayed herself in thin silken streamers. Then she began to dance. In the dark, she danced for light and for life, disrobing herself and causing all the gathered gods to laugh out loud as she performed lewd moves that defied heavenly decorum. Hearing the commotion, Amaterasu grew curious. Finally she forgot her fear and her offended pride and stepped forth to see what was happening.

Then for the first time Amaterasu beheld herself, her own face reflected in the mirror. Stunned, she stood fast while the gods hastily erected a magical barrier across the cave to keep her from retreating. Life and light returned. The goddess whose shining face gave order to all things had come to know herself, and so emerged from her cave.

For his part, Susano-o was banished once again. However, on the way to the underworld, he performed heroic deeds and wrested a magical sword from Orochi, an eight-headed monster which he slew. ¬†This sword Susano-o gave to Amaterasu and so became reconciled with her. The sword became one of the three symbols of Japan’s ruling family. So chaos and order were brought into harmony.

It’s a good story, but horrifying to see the natural forces that inspired it. When I saw the black sludge of water and destruction creeping from the sea over Honshu’s farms and cities, I was strongly reminded of Susano-o.

A myth cannot provide much comfort or guidance when the real world unleashes disasters we usually encounter only in fables. The plight of Japan is real and devastating. There are earthquake and tsunami survivors right now in desperate need of help, not stories.

Nonetheless, I also think of Ama-no-Uzume dancing before Amaterasu’s cave. We are going to need some mighty big mirrors, but maybe we can help a little.

LINK: Article on American and Japanese Red Cross efforts in quake area, and where to donate.

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