Oh Gods! Amaterasu, Susano-o and Ama no Iwato

Today in our Japanese mythology series we will cover one of the most important myths in Japanese mythology, Ama no Iwato. In this myth we see the complicated relationship between Amaterasu and her younger brother Susano-o, god of the sea. If you have not read the first part of our Japanese mythology series I strongly recommend you do! Don’t worry, we will wait for you.

Susano-o a Tempest of a Child

After purifying himself, Izanagi charged each of his children, Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi, and Susano-o with a special task. He told Amaterasu he wanted her to govern the High Plane, Tsukiyomi was told to guard to world of the night, and the youngest Susano-o was told to govern the seas.

Amaterasu was right at home in the High Plane, and everyone loved her brilliance. Susano-o however, was a turbulent child and did not obey his father’s commands. He often threw tantrums, which was not at all in line with how the other gods in the High Plane conducted themselves. He raged and kicked and screamed even into his young adulthood. And what was it that made our little god fuss about so much the heavens shook? He wanted his mommy. No matter how much Izanagi would tell Susano-o that it was impossible for him to see his mother Izanami, he was inconsolable.

We will overlook that Izanagi created Susano-o and his siblings alone in the ocean…Izanami was not seemingly involved.

 

Amaterasu and Susano-o: Sibling Tensions

As Suano-o grew, so did his temper. To the other gods, Susano-o was a loose cannon often making trouble for those around him. He never let go of wanting to see his mother either. Susano-o bothered his father so much about this, that Izanagi finally banished him from the High Plane! Ever the arrogant and stubborn person he was, Susano-o declared that he would go to Yomi to be with Izanami.

As he stormed out of the High Plane he decided to see his sister Amaterasu one last time. Even though he was going to see his sister on peaceable terms, the mountains of fields of the High Plane shook violently with each step. With all this noise, not to mention Susano-o’s reputation for violence, Amaterasu instead assumed that he was coming to kill her and destroy her palace!

Susano’s Test

After pleading with her for some time, Amaterasu agreed to give him a chance to prove his intentions were not malicious. She declared that they would need to test Susano-o’s purity through a ritual called ukei (誓約). Amaterasu took her brother’s sword, ate it, and then blew a long trail of mist from her mouth. Susano-o, likewise, took some of the jewels which decorated his sister’s hair and gown, and repeated the same process. Let us take this time to remember how easy it was for their parents to create gods, because that is exactly what this strange process did. From the mist created by Susano-o’s breath, three goddesses were born, and from Amaterasu, five gods were born. Amaterasu decreed that because Susano-o gave birth to all daughters, that he was indeed pure and that he had “won” the ukei.

blue haired statue of Susano-o
Blue haired version of Susano-o in the Shoreikan of Izumo Taisha

Why are daughters pure? How frequent is this ritual? Why eat these things? Is this some strange metaphor for incest? I’m afraid I cannot help you find answers to these questions. The Kojiki is very good at generating questions, not answers. In fact, this story is about to get really weird…

 

Ama no Iwato [天の岩戸]

Upon winning the ukei, Susano-o for some reason, went completely manic. Amaterasu’s first instinct turned out to be correct in the end because Susano-o immediately, destroyed the irrigation to her rice paddies, got massively drunk and defecated in her hallway.

I think we are starting to get a very clear understanding of why the other gods were not fond of Susano-o.

Amaterasu, most graciously, forgave her brother’s actions though it was not long before she would regret doing so. To further harass his sister, Susano-o skinned a horse and threw its skin and chopped carcass into her weaving room, terrifying her weavers and hand maids so much they killed themselves.

Now, I think anyone in their right mind would be terrified if their sibling committed such an atrocity, purely for the enjoyment of nettling and because it was their nature to behave in this fashion. So, rightfully, Amaterasu went into hiding in a cave.

amaterasu_appearing_from_the_cave
Famous Generals of Japan/Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Wikipedia)

Returning Light to the World

Now Amaterasu is a very important goddess, as she is the embodiment of the sun. When she went into hiding, it engulfed both the High Plane and the Reed Kingdom in darkness. The other gods did their best to try and coax her out of hiding but none of their efforts were successful. Then, finally, one god devised a scheme he was sure would get Amaterasu to come out. He ordered the finest craftsmen to make a beautiful iron mirror and an enormous magatama gem. These items he planned to use as offerings for the ceremony that would soon take place.

amaterasu emerges from ama no iwato as the
Iwato Kagura no Kigen / Utagawa Kunisada (Wikipedia)

The goddess, Ama no Uzume [天の宇受売] then appeared and began to take off all her clothes and began to do an extremely odd dance. Her dance soon attracted the attention of the other gods, who thought her dancing very funny. All the gods began to laugh as Ama no Uzume continued her dancing.

In her cave, Amaterasu heard their laughter. She became rather miffed that they were able to find merriment, as her absence had removed light from the world. Her curiosity peeked, Amaterasu slowly approached the mouth of the cave and stuck her neck out to get a look. She noticed her reflection in mirror and marveled at herself. This caused her to linger at the mouth of the cave just long enough for the two other gods to quickly grab her hands, and pull her out of the cave. The gods then quickly sealed the cave with a boulder so she could not retreat again.

In this way, Light was restored to the world.

Coming next time,

Susano-o’s  story continues…

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