Amaterasu – imperial goddess of the sun

Summer is in full swing, bringing with it the promise of long, bright days under the shining sun. This all-powerful celestial body has long been linked with kingship: Louis XIV of France, for example, famously chose the sun as his emblem and became known as the ‘Sun King’. In the oldest surviving books written in Japan, too, the Kojiki (‘The Record of Ancient Matters’, compiled in AD 712) and the Nihonshoki (‘The Chronicles of Japan’, completed in 720), this connection between the sun and its deity, Amaterasu (‘Heaven-Shining’), and the imperial line was made clear, deliberately emphasising the divine authority of generations of rulers. It is from this goddess that the legendary first emperor Jinmu descended, and three objects associated with myths surrounding Amaterasu – a bronze mirror, strand of jewels, and sword – make up the imperial regalia of Japan.

Image: Minneapolis Institute of Art/Public Domain.

According to the Kojiki, Amaterasu was born from her father Izanagi’s left eye after the death of his sister and wife Izanami. From his right eye came another celestial deity, Tsukuyomi, god of the moon and night, and from his nose Susanowo, god of violent natural forces.

Later, when Susanowo sought refuge in the High Plain of Heaven (Amaterasu’s domain), he destroyed her rice fields and befouled her weaving hall. The affronted Amaterasu hid herself in a cave, taking the light of the sun with her. Other gods schemed to bring her back and hung a bronze mirror and jewel strand nearby. Ame-no-Uzume, goddess of dance and joy, then made the gods laugh by performing a provocative dance. As Joshua Frydman writes: ‘Surprised that anyone has reason to laugh while she is in hiding, Amaterasu peers out of the cave. Immediately the mirror catches her reflection, shining brilliantly. Enamoured with the mirror and the jewel strand, the sun goddess moves away from the entrance to the Heavenly Rock Cave. As soon as she does, the other gods close it behind her with a sacred rope, forcing her to stay in the world. Amaterasu’s return brings back the light of the sun. The mirror and the jewel strand, now both imbued with her sacred power, became two of the Three Imperial Regalia.’

The third of the regalia is the ‘Grass Cutter’ sword. As Susanowo killed the eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi, he retrieved this blade from one of the monster’s tails and then gave it to Amaterasu as an apology.

The bronze mirror is said to be held in the Shinto Ise Shrine in the Mie Prefecture, the main centre of Amaterasu’s worship, served by a high priestess from the imperial family from the 7th to 18th century. Though that custom has ended, the Inner Shrine, which is devoted to the goddess, is still periodically rebuilt (most recently in 2013), continuing a longstanding tradition.

Further reading
The Japanese Myths: a guide to gods, heroes and spirits by Joshua Frydman is published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500252314; price £14.99).