Did you know that not only was she originally a male named Amateru (“He who shines in Heaven”) but that the legend of her birth grew “over time” according to Japan-based religious scholar Larissa Taylor? The myth of Amaterasu’s birth is interesting and has changed significantly over time.It is really important to explore How the Legend Grew.
The myth of Amaterasu’s birth is interesting and has changed significantly over time. It is really important to explore how legends evolve, as it shows different perspectives and reasoning.
The Myth of Amaterus’s Birth: How the Legend Grew and What It Really Means:
Amaterasu (天照), the most important deity in Japanese mythology, is a sun goddess. She is revered for restoring light and order to the world after her brother’s misrule. We think of her as a supreme deity, but did you know that not only was she originally a male named Amateru (“He who shines in Heaven”) but that the legend of her birth grew “over time” according to Japan-based religious scholar Larissa Taylor?
In the Kojiki (古事記), Japan’s oldest extant chronicle, written in Japanese and compiled between 712 and 721 CE, Amaterasu is born when Izanagi (the god who created the islands of Japan) purifies.
The story begins with Amaterasu’s father, Izana-gami (日の世神), who becomes a god during a time of chaos when the gods were overthrown by Izanagi. Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, born of the union between Izana-gami and the goddess Iwa-hime (岩波娘), is so precious that her mother raises her with great care. But before Amaterasu reaches maturity, Iwa-hime is captured by a demon. Amaterasu becomes so upset that she cuts off her hair and retreats into a cave.
Amaterasu’s withdrawal plunges the world into darkness until the goddess Ame-no-kuni-nushi (天の国主神) convinces her to come out of the cave. She does, but still refuses to look at anything or anyone.
Izanagi hears of his daughter’s condition, so he joins the gods in an attempt to persuade Amaterasu to leave the cave. But when he finds her, she won’t even look at him or listen to his pleas.
Izanagi charges a young man named Okuni (雲泥), who is the god of woods and trees, to cut down the branches blocking Amaterasu’s path. The effort was successful and the goddess finally emerged from the cave. She is delighted to be back in the light, but she doesn’t know how to stay there.
As described in legend, it was then that Izanagi decided to leave and take his wife with him on a journey “to ask for rice to offer at the sacred Shinto shrine.
It is at this point that the legend of Amaterasu’s birth begins to change.
In the earliest known retelling from a 14th century CE collection called the Kojiki-den, Amaterasu is born during Izanagi and Izanami’s journey to obtain rice. According to this new story, she is not born of her mother alone but springs from both Izanagi and Izanami. And this time, she is not simply born when they purify but when they sleep together for three generations (a term depicting an unbroken line of descent or something that repeats over a long period). The story also adds that Amaterasu is born as a woman and not a man, although the Kojiki-den contains no mention of who her birth mother is.
As the historian Donald Shively writes, “the conception of Amaterasu as a goddess without a female consort or female parent exemplifies the tendency found in subsequent centuries to integrate some of the great deities into non-dualism.”
The Kojiki-den version of Amaterasu’s birth seems to be the most popular retelling of the tale. When it was written, Japan was already under Buddhist influence and people were beginning to see concepts such as “birth” and “origin” in terms of karma and reincarnation.
A 19th century painting depicts a story wherein Amaterasu’s divine parents Izanagi and Izanami are depicted as a turtle and snake respectively. The goddess Amaterasu is their daughter and the first deity born and created from the union between them.
From this perspective, birth was not seen as something that happened at one time in the past but as a continuous process rooted in the relationship among all living beings. And since Izanagi and Izanami were seen as parents of all gods, they could be said to have given birth to all deities, Amaterasu included.
What it all really means:
This retelling of Amaterasu’s story was a boon to Buddhism, telling people that all living beings were descended from the gods. Thus, people had to act in harmony with nature in order not to disrupt her sacred round of birth and rebirth.
Ame-no-mukuni-nushi (天の国主神) is the name of Amaterasu’s father, who was also known as the Shinto god Uke. He is described in texts as “the Deity of Heaven” or “Great God.” This other name probably refers to his role as a god of the sun, since he knew how long Izanagi and Izanami were going to be gone (and where they were going).
He is the god of the world below, a world called Heaven. His domain is traditionally at the root of all mountains. For this reason, he is known as Amaterasu-o-kami (天普覇).
Uke’s name also means “heaven’s umbrella,” which is why she was called Amaterasu no mikoto (天普照). The name also comes from the Sanskrit word for “protector,” amṛtaḥ or amṛtam, which was part of her name in a very old prayer that was chanted before whenever things began to rain.
Apart from the myths and legends, it’s clear that Amaterasu is one of the most important gods in Japanese lore. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without her, but the legend of her birth is a fascinating glimpse into how religions change over time and how cultures evolve.