Amaterasu (天照), Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大御神) or Ōhirume-no-muchi-no-kami (大日孁貴神), the “Great Goddess who lights up the Sky”, is the main Shinto kami, symbolising the sun and the light.
According to the Kojiki (古事記, Japan’s most ancient chronicle), she was born out of Izanagi‘s left eye and governed the Takamagahara (高天原, the “High Plain of Heaven”). The Nihon shoki (日本書紀, the “Chronicles of Japan”) mention that she was born from the union of Izanagi and Izanami. She opposed her brother Susanoo (須佐之男), the lord of Izumo. Her grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto (瓊瓊杵尊), descended to Earth and became the first ruler of Japan. According to the Kojiki, it was her great-great-grandson Jimmu tennō (神武天皇), who became the first emperor of Japan around 660 BC. Her main sanctuary is the Naikū (内宮, inner shrine) at Ise. She is the chief imperial kami and the personal divinity of the Japanese emperors.
Legend has it that Amaterasu-ōmikami took refuge in a cave to dissociate herself from the violent and irrational behaviour of her brother Susanoo-no-Mikoto. With the sun goddess shut away, the world was deprived of light. All the heavenly kami (天津神, amatsu-kami) gathered at the entrance to the cave to confer about how to persuade Amaterasu to leave her refuge. With everyone’s approval, a goddess called Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto (天宇受売命) began to dance on an overturned cask, holding a bamboo stalk, stamping her feet, and singing. As she danced, she began to undress, making the other gods and goddesses shriek with laughter. From the depth of her cave, Amaterasu could hear the commotion. Curious, she moved aside the boulder (天石戸別神 Ame no Iwa-to wake-no-Kami) she used to block the entrance, so she could see what was going on. At that moment, one kami handed her a mirror, in which – so she thought – she was beholding another sun goddess, while another stalwart kami prevented her from closing the cave again, drawing her outside. All the gods rejoiced as the sun illuminated the world once more.
This legend passed down by the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki, was later standardised by the publication of these two works in 712 and 720AD. Later on, Buddhist monks of the Shingon and the Kengon sects, in their attempt at syncretism, assimilated Amaterasu into the Great Sun Buddha Vairochana (also known as Vairocana or Mahāvairocana, in Jap. 大日如来 Dainichi Nyorai).
Amaterasu gave her grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto the imperial regalia, the mirror that had reflected her face, the jewels that had decorated the tree under which Uzume had danced, and the sword belonging to her brother Susanoo. The three regalia were handed down from generation to generation within the imperial family of Japan.
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
Shunsai Tomihasa (春斎 年昌), Amaterasu's Cave (click to enlarge; image credit)
Utagawa Toyokuni III, Amaterasu emerging into the light (click to enlarge; image credit)