Amaterasu: The Sun Queen of Japanese Mythology
According to Japanese mythology, Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun. This is relatively unusual in itself, but more unique is the fact that Amaterasu is also the supreme ruler of Heaven.
Amaterasu’s father made her the ruler of Heaven because she was the brightest of his children. She also proved to be the most fit for the task, as she possessed a commitment to law and order that neither of her brothers could match.
Rule over Heaven and the other gods was not enough for Amaterasu, however. She also sent her descendants to rule over the earth, a position that is still recognized to this day.
Amaterasu continues to be one of the most prominent and powerful deities of the Shinto faith both because of her influence over the heavens and because of his influence over Japanese politics and history. While this influence is less direct in modern Japan, Amaterasu has shaped Japanese history and culture, for better and for worse, for over 1,500 years!
According to Japanese legends, Amaterasu was one of the “Three Precious Children” born to Izanagi, the creator god, after his wife’s death.
Izanagi and Izanami had given birth to the first generation of kami, the Shinto spirits often described as gods. Their final child together, Kagutsuchi, was a fire god and Izanami had been burned to death during his birth.
Bereft at the loss of his wife, Izanagi traveled to Yomi, the land of the dead, in an attempt to bring her back.
Izanami had already eaten the food of Yomi but she promised her husband that she would appeal for release. He grew impatient, however, and followed her into her underworld palace, seeing her decaying and rotten form.
Izanami was so enraged that she sent demons after him as he fled. When they failed, she attempted to catch Izanagi herself and he barely made it to the surface safely.
The encounter in Yomi had been so horrible that Izanagi felt the need to purify himself by bathing in a river.
As he washed his face, three new kami came from his body. Amaterasu was born of his left eye, Tsukuyomi came from his right eye, and Susanoo came from their father’s nose.
Izanagi was delighted with these children and declared that they were the most honored and glorious of all the kami. He decided that they would share the rulership of Takamagahara, or Heaven.
Amaterasu was the oldest and as the personified sun was the most radiant of the three, so she was put in command. Tsukuyomi, who was less bright than her, became her consort.
Their brother Susanoo was made the guardian of Heaven to channel his often violent nature.
The three siblings would not share the rule for long, however.
Amaterasu married her brother Tsukuyomi, the moon god, and he served as her consort. Their marriage was not particularly happy, however.
While Amaterasu valued the orderly and polite nature of Heaven, Tsukuyomi took this to an extreme.
On day Uke Mochi, the goddess of food, invited them to a feast. Amaterasu could not attend so she sent Tsukuyomi as her representative.
Tsukuyomi’s sense of propriety was offended when he saw how Uke Mochi prepared the food that her guests would eat. She spat fish, game, and rice out of her mouth and even out of other bodily orifices.
Tsukuyomi was so disgusted that he killed Uke Mochi. As a guest and a representative of Amaterasu, he had committed an even greater offense than the impolite display that had offended him.
Amaterasu declared that her brother was too evil to remain in Heaven. She banished him.
From that day on the moon followed the sun through the sky but could never catch her. Tsukuyomi and Amaterasu would never again share a place in Heaven.
Susanoo would be the next to leave Heaven.
His nature as the god of the unpredictable sea and violent storms had always been at odds with the orderly world of Heaven. Izanagi decided it was best for him to leave Heaven because of this.
He had not been exiled, so Susanoo was free to return to his sister’s palace to say goodbye to her. Because they had fought in the past, however, Amaterasu distrusted him and met him outside her walls in full armor.
Susanoo proposed a challenge to prove that he was sincere and peaceful. Each of them would chew on the other’s belongings and the greater result would prove the valid claim.
Amaterasu broke her brother’s sword into three pieces and chewed them up to create three goddesses. Susanoo chewed her jewels to create five gods.
The sun goddess had tricked her brother, however. She declared that the winner was the person who owned the item used in the creation of the gods, not the one who had actually brought them to life.
Because the five gods came from her beads, Amaterasu claimed them as her sons and proclaimed herself the winner. In fury, Susanoo raged through Heaven.
He destroyed Amaterasu’s fields, defecated in her palace, flayed her prized horse, and killed one of her servants. The sun goddess was so terrified that she hid in the Heavenly Rock Cave, plunging the world into frigid darkness.
The other kami punished and banished Susanoo, but Amaterasu still refused to emerge from hiding. Eventually Omoikane, the god of wisdom, devised a plan to lure her out of the cave.
Eight hundred kami gathered near the cave and feigned a loud celebration. When Amaterasu called out to see why they were dancing and cheering, they told her that another god had emerged who was even stronger and more radiant than she was.
When she peeked out of the cave, the kami held up a mirror. The light she saw made Amaterasu believe that another god had, in fact, appeared.
As she tried to get a better look, the gods grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the cave. They sealed the door before she could run back in, forcing Amaterasu to light the world again.
The time Amaterasu spent in the cave was the first winter and, while subsequent seasons would never be as dark and cold as when Amaterasu hid herself in the cave, each year she dimmed again.
Susanoo eventually earned redemption by killing a terrible dragon. In its tale, he found a remarkable sword, which he presented to his sister to atone for his crimes against her.
Amaterasu accepted the gift and forgave her brother as her own form of penance. Hiding in fear and denying light to the world had been against her nature and her duties, so both siblings earned redemption when they reconciled.
Susanoo, however, would still be unable to make a home in Heaven. Izanagi, who had taken on the role of protecting the living from the dead, asked his son to guard the passage between Ne-no-Kuni and Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni, the terrestrial world.
Heaven was then solely ruled by Amaterasu. She was the queen of all kami, the light of the world, and the undisputed ruler of the highest level of existence.
Six generations after Susanoo was sent to Ne-no-Kuni, one of his descendants traveled there with him.
Okuninushi’s brothers had grown envious that he had attracted the attention of a woman they all wanted to marry. The many kami, some sources say up to eighty, decided to kill their brother out of jealousy.
Okuninushi sought safety and aid from his ancestor. After many tests, Susanoo gave him greater power and declared him to be the rightful ruler over all of Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni.
Susanoo’s descendant, however, proved to be an effectual ruler. While he initially tried to gain control over the wild kami of the terrestrial world, he soon grew so involved in his romantic affairs that he largely ignored the needs of the land.
Amaterasu looked down on earth and decided that one of her own children should rule there instead of a kami from her violent brother’s line. Just as she was the queen of an orderly and lawful Heaven, one of her sons would bring order to the land.
She ordered Ame-no-Oshihomini, the first of the five gods who had been born from her beads, to go to Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni and restore order.
As Ame-no-Oshihomini approached the world, however, he saw that it was teeming with malevolent and dangerous kami. He refused to go any farther and told his mother to send someone else.
She sent another of her sons, Ame-no-Hohi. Ame-no-Hohi, however, abandoned his task and began to curry favor with Okuninushi instead of taming the unruly kami.
After three years without any word from him, Amaterasu sent the third son to Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni. Ame-no-Wakahiko not only sided with Okuninushi, but also married his daughter.
When the gods sent a pheasant to check on Ame-no-Wakahiko, he shot it with an arrow and threw its body back to Heaven. Infuriated, Amaterasu sent it back to him with a curse that killed him in his sleep.
After many years of this, the gods finally decided to send a pair of warrior kami, Futsunushi and Takemikazuchi, to command Okuninushi to leave. On the advice of his son, the ruler agreed to abdicate instead of going to war, with his only condition being that he be provided with a safe and comfortable palace.
With the terrestrial world now under her authority, Amaterasu prepared to send Ame-no-Oshihomini to rule it. Although he had declined to go in the first attempt, as her eldest son he was the rightful ruler.
Then Amaterasu no Okami ordered them, saying, ‘If that’s the case, then I will send down my child.’ While she was about to send him down, an august grandchild was born, called Amatsuhikohikohononinigi. Then she said, ‘I wish to send this august grandchild down instead.’
-Nihon Shoki, Scroll 2: The Age of the Gods
The birth of Ninigi provided Amaterasu with another rightful claimant to terrestrial power, and allowed his father to once again remain safe and comfortable in Heaven.
Ninigi was sent to earth as the first of Amaterasu’s descendants to rule over it. According to Japanese tradition, however, he would be far from the last.
When Ninigi descended to earth, he made his home on Mount Takachiho. He quickly set to work pacifying the last of Okuninushi’s kami and bringing law and order to the land.
According to some legends, Ninigi was accompanied by five gods who helped him bring order to Japan. These five helpers became the ancestors of Japan’s wealthiest noble families.
Ninigi lost his immortality to marry a beautiful kami and died after a long rule. He passed power on to his son, Hoori.
After over 500 years of rule, Hoori ascended as a god of grains and agriculture. His son Ugayafukiaezu eventually returned to his mother’s homeland among the sea dragons.
Ugayafukiaezu’s youngest son Hikohohodemi took the throne after him. Hikohohodemi would eventually come to be known as Jimmu and was considered to be Japan’s first Emperor.
Jimmu traveled throughout Japan, conquering and absorbing local tribes into his rule. By unifying the tribes he earned the title of tenno, or Emperor, and passed a unified land on to his own descendants.
Legend says that Emperor Jimmu took the throne in 660 BC. Tradition claims that the Japanese Imperial Family is descended in a direct line from this legendary figure and, thus, from the sun goddess Amaterasu.
They also say that the family inherited more than just a divine right to rule from their legendary ancestors.
When Ninigi left for the earth, his grandmother gave him three valuable items to prove his legitimacy and represent the virtues he would bring to the world. These are known as the Sanshu no Jingi or Mikusa no Kamudakara, the “Three Sacred Treasures.”
In English, these are usually referred to as the Imperial Regalia of Japan. The three treasures were:
- Kusanagi no Tsurugi, Grass-Curring Sword: The sword that Susanoo pulled out of the dragon and gave to Amaterasu as a peace offering represented valor.
- Yata no Kagami, The Eight Ta Mirror: This was the octagonal mirror the gods used to lure Amaterasu out of her cave. It can be said to symbolize wisdom or truth.
- Yasakani no Magatama, the Comma-Shaped Jewel: The jewel, which was actually a bead of a type that is common from prehistoric Japan, was said to have also been used in the gods’ plot to lure Amaterasu out of hiding. It represents prosperity.
Amazingly, the Japanese Imperial Family claims that these treasures are still passed on through their line. They are kept out of sight as sacred objects, but are briefly brought out of their shrines during coronations.
Historians generally agree that the sword and mirror are replicas of older artifacts. Japanese texts from the 9th century mention their replacement.
The magatama jewel, however, may be nearly as ancient as the Imperial Family claims. Magatama have been found from as early as 1000 BC and were used in ceremonies and religious rituals until roughly 600 AD.
Emperor Jimmu is the earliest legendary ruler of Japan, but his story is generally considered to be mythological in modern times. The first historically verified Emperor, however, began his rule in 509 AD.
Even this much later date means that Japan has the world’s oldest continuous monarchy and its ruling family, the Yamato dynasty, is the longest-reigning in history.
Today, the Yamato no longer profess literal descent from the sun goddess and their rule is almost entirely symbolic. They and their regalia, however, remain an important link to Japan’s past and its ancient belief in the divinity of their leaders.
While Amaterasu’s human descendants have maintained power for over 1,500 years, her involvement in the rule of the terrestrial world has not always been without controversy. Today, her direct influence in the legend of Empress Jingu is seen as an example of the dangers posed by belief in the divine mandate of imperial expansion.
Emperor Chuai is said to have reigned from 192-200 AD. Jingu was one of his two wives.
Several sources say that Jingu was possessed by a kami that told her husband of a rich land to the West that he was destined to conquer.
Chuai, however, did not believe his consort’s prophecy. He claimed that she was being deceitful.
The kami that had possessed Jingu was actually Amaterasu in a violent, vengeful aspect. For refusing to believe her, she struck Chuai with a curse that meant he died after only a couple of months, either of illness or in battle.
Knowing the identity of the kami that had spoken through her, Jingu was determined to follow the instructions she had been given. She hid the news of her husband’s death and told his troops that he had ordered her to lead them to the West.
Jingu led the army in a three-year war against the kingdoms of Korea. She returned to Japan victorious and gave birth to Chuai’s son, who she had miraculously carried throughout her entire campaign.
Her victory at the behest of the goddess was so astounding that the people declared her Empress. Instead of ruling as her son’s regent until he came of age, she ruled under her own authority for nine years.
Modern historians have no proof for the authenticity of Jingu’s reign. While other empresses have ruled Japan under male heirs can retake power, her supposed reign was before the historical record made it possible to accurately recount the reigns of the Emperors.
Despite the uncertainty over her reign, however, Jingu had a profound effect on later eras.
The story of Amaterasu’s divine command to subjugate the western “promised land” was taken as a mandate for imperial expansion in more recent Japanese history.
During the Meiji period, in the late 19th century, the story of Jingu became increasingly popular. Japanese leaders used it as a justification for their own invasions of Korea.
Japan annexed its western neighbor in 1910 and ruled Korea until 1945. During World War II, the same justification was used for invasions of China.
Under the pretense that these regions had been under Japanese rule in the ancient past by command of the sun goddess, Japan took complete control in the early 20th century.
The imperial rule in China and Korea during World War II was brutal. In addition to the suppression of local culture, Koreans and Chinese were subjected to atrocities and forced labor on a massive scale.
After World War II, Japan abandoned its efforts to expand its empire. The idea that Amaterasu had personally ordered the conquest of Korea in the past was repudiated and the legend of Jingu came to be seen as a dangerous example of how the past can be used to justify crimes in the present.
Although her role as the patroness of the Imperial Family has been diminished, Amaterasu still remains a prominent deity in the Shinto religion.
Her role is unique among the world’s major religions, both those practiced today and those of the past.
Amaterasu is one of the few sun goddesses known to exist in pantheistic beliefs anywhere in the world.
In nearly all cases, the sun is personified as a male deity. If a goddess is associated with solar powers it is usually at a specific time of day, usually dawn or dusk, but a male god remains in charge of the sun itself.
Goddesses are instead typically associated with the moon. It is less bright and important to daily life and most cultures recognized its cycles as mirrors to those of the tides and the female body.
One of the only other pantheons known to have a goddess of the sun and a god of the moon is the Norse. Historians generally believe, however, that their sun and moon deities were modelled on widespread archetypes and switched roles based on the gendering of their language.
Amaterasu, however, seems to have developed with the concept of a female sun deity in mind.
In addition, she was made the most powerful ruler of her pantheon. Although she had two brothers, she was given the position of the ruler of Heaven based on both her own divine attributes and the order of birth.
In a matrilineal culture, this could be easily understood but traditional Japanese culture is male-dominated. Even among her own descendants, the Imperial Family, power is passed only through the male line and women generally only rule for short periods until such an heir can be installed.
Historians have many theories for why Amaterasu is so unusual both in her own culture and in the broader context of world mythology.
Some have proposed that she was once paired with another sun deity who took precedence over her. This unknown god’s cult became less popular over time, so by the time the myths were written down he had been forgotten.
Others believe that ancient Japanese culture may have once been more matriarchal. The earliest rulers may have been queens and Amaterasu’s culture remained after the culture became patriarchal.
Another possible explanation is that the political structure of Japan always favored male rulers but the religious environment was more female-dominated. Powerful priestesses advanced a female deity that reflected their own influence over the political structure.
Yet another belief is that Amaterasu was the patron goddess of the Yamato dynasty before they took power in the early 6th century. Her position was elevated when they became Emperors, reversing the traditional explanation that her power legitimized their own.
Ultimately, however, no decisive historical evidence exists for any of these possible explanations. The question of why Japan recognizes one of the world’s only sun goddesses as their ruling deity may remain unanswered forever.
Amaterasu was one of the three favored children born to Izanagi, the creator god. Although she had two brothers, he declared that she would rule Heaven as both the first-born and the brightest of the children.
Both of her brothers, in fact, were exiled from Heaven for crimes against order and decency. Secure in her dominion over the kami, Amaterasu turned her sights to the earth.
After several failed attempts, Amaterasu was able to quell the evil kami who had overrun the world and install her grandson, Ninigi, as its ruler. A few generations later one of his descendants, Jimmu, subdued Japan’s tribes and became its first Emperor.
The Japanese tradition dates the rule of Amaterasu’s descendants to the 7th century BC. Historical records give a more recent date, the 6th century AD, but the Japanese Imperial Family is still the oldest monarchy in the world.
Modern belief in the Emperor’s divinity is less literal than it was in the past, but throughout its history, Japan has seen Amaterasu as the source for the family’s right to rule. This right has also been used to justify foreign conquest in the name of Amaterasu.
Although her position in Japan today is less political than it once was, Amaterasu remains an important figure. As one of the world’s only sun goddesses and supreme female deities, Amaterasu remains an important and unique link to Japan’s past.