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How the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Withdrew From the World

Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.

Amaterasu, Sun Goddess or Kami of Japan.

Amaterasu, Sun Goddess or Kami of Japan.

The Japanese Myth of the Goddess Amaterasu

The Goddess Amaterasu is a very important deity or kami in the Shinto religion. She is not only the Sun Goddess but is also worshipped as the ancestor of the Japanese Royal Family.

The Kojiki—an ancient compendium of Japanese myths—tells the story of how, in the beginning, unsettled family relations drove the great goddess to abandon the world.

The Birth of the Sun, Moon and Underworld Gods

In Japanese mythology, Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto were the primordial parents of many of the kami and natural phenomena of Japan.

Izanami, the universal mother, unfortunately, died giving birth to the Fire Deity, Kagutsuchi-no-Kami.

Grief-stricken, her husband Izanagi followed his wife down to Yomi-no-Kuni, or the Underworld. Confronted by a horrific vision of his wife as a maggot-infested corpse, Izanagi fled Yomi, pursued by his offended wife and a legion of demons.

Once he had safely escaped his pursuers, Izanagi realised that he felt defiled by his visit to Yomi and what he saw in the Land of the Dead. He decided to perform the Shinto ritual of Misogi purification.

Reaching the water of Ahaki-Hara, Izanagi began throwing off of him all the clothes and various accoutrements he had been wearing when he entered Yomi. Once he had shed them all, Izanagi entered the water and began rinsing the uncleanness from his body.

The New Gods Emerge

From each stage of this process of purification, various new kami emerged. When Izanagi rinsed his eyes and his nose in the water, the most important emerged. When he washed his left eye, the great kami Amaterasu Ohomikami appeared. When he rinsed his right eye, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto emerged. Finally, when Izanagi rinsed his nose, Takehaya-Susanowo-no-Mikoto came into being.

These last three deities pleased Izanagi more than any who had appeared previously.

Handing his daughter Amataerasu his beaded necklace, the Magatama, he gave her the rule of Heaven as the Sun. To his eldest son, Tsukuyomi, he gave sovereignty over the night as the Moon. To the last child, Susano-Wo Izanagi gave the rule of the Ocean.

The Rebellion and Exile of Susano-Wo

All three of the new kami set off for their new kingdoms.

By day, Amaterasu blazed forth in the Heavens as the sun, while Tsukuyomi ruled over the Night as the moon.

Susano-Wo, however, did not rule over the Ocean as he had been told, but instead simply wept and wailed continuously. All the while his beard grew and eventually reached down to his waist. Because of Susano-Wo's neglect to rule, evil spirits proliferated and turmoil ensued.

Izanagi called Susano-Wo to him and asked why he persisted in this endless weeping and wailing instead of carrying out his duty as ruler of the seas. Susano-Wo replied that he wished he were with his mother, Izanami, in Yomi, the Land of the Dead.

In anger, Izanagi condemned him to exile.

Susanowo, Kami of the Ocean.

Susanowo, Kami of the Ocean.

Susano-Wo Visits His Sister Amaterasu Has a Contest

Indignant at his banishment, Susano-Wo decided to ascend to Heaven and speak to his sister Amaterasu about the situation. At his approach, the earth shook in a mighty quake. Feeling this, Amaterasu was concerned and decided that her brother's visit meant trouble.

Immediately, Amaterasu arrayed herself as a warrior, tying up her hair into two great bunches on either side of her head. Taking the Magatama, the great beaded necklace that her father had given her she wound it round her hair and wreath and around her arms.

Then arming herself with a bow and quivers full of arrows, Amaterasu brandished the bow and took up a challenging stance to await her brother's arrival. When she stamped her feet into the earth they sunk down as far as each thigh, but she kicked the earth away like light snow.

She called out a challenge to her brother, asking why he was approaching her domain. Susano-Wo replied calmly that he had been banished by their father and had come up to discuss the matter with her. Still mistrustful, Amaterasu demanded proof that Susano-Wo's intentions were honest and friendly.

At Susano-Wo's suggestion, the two kami engaged in a contest, so that Susano-Wo could prove his worth. Standing on opposite sides of the Ame-no-Yasukaha, the river that bordered the Plain of High Heaven, the deities began the contest.

Taking hold of Susano-Wo's sword, Totsuka-no-Tsurugi, Amaterasu broke it into three pieces, sprinkled water from the Heavenly Well upon it and crunched it up. She then breathed out three new female kami.

In his turn, Susano-Wo took lengths of beads from Magatama, the sacred necklace which Amaterasu had wound around her, mixed them with heavenly water, crunched and breathed out a whole series of male kami.

Amaterasu claimed the victory; it was by crunching her Magatama, that Susano-Wo had brought forth male deities, whereas it was with his sword that she had generated female kami. To her, this proved that she was the winner as it was her divine object that had generated male children.

Susano-Wo countered that the fact his sword had brought forth girl kami was proof of his purity and he claimed the victory.

Susano-Wo's Behaviour Deteriorates and Amaterasu Withdraws

Despite his claim to have proved himself pure and good in his intentions, Susano-Wo's victory seemed to go entirely to his head and encouraged behaviour which was far from pure and good.

He knocked down the divisions of his sister's paddy fields, blocked up the irrigation ditches with sand and not content with that, threw his excrement around Amaterasu's divine palace!

With admirable sisterly restraint, Amaterasu tried to make excuses for his atrocious behaviour. Perhaps Susano-Wo had destroyed her paddy fields because he thought dividing them up for growing rice was a poor use of land. Clearly, her little brother had daubed her palace with excrement as an unfortunate side-effect of over-indulgence in sake . . .

Unfortunately, Susano-Wo's attitude was not improved by this conciliatory approach and, instead, his behaviour only got worse.

The final straw came one day when Amaterasu was in her weaving hall, making clothes with her weaving maiden. A large hole suddenly appeared in the roof of the hall and through it tumbled one of the dappled horses of the Plain of Heaven, dead and skinned. The Heavenly Weaving Maiden was so shocked and distressed by this terrible sight, that she struck herself in the genitals with her shuttle and died of the injury.

These horrors were too much for Amaterasu: she withdrew into a rock cavern and closed herself inside, and the whole of Heaven and Earth was plunged into darkness and chaos.


The Kami Plan to Lure Amaterasu Out of Her Cavern

All the many kami were naturally thrown into consternation by the withdrawal of the Sun Goddess.

In their myriads, they assembled in the dry river bed of Ame-no-Yasukaha on the Plain of Heaven. At their request, Omohikane, a wise kami, set about devising a plan.

The plan that Omohikane came up with involved a variety of props, including an evergreen Sakake tree.The uprooted Sakake tree was placed outside the cavern in which Amaterasu had concealed herself. On the tree were hung a new Magatama necklace, a large mirror, and a blue cloth and a white cloth. These things were reverently offered to Amaterasu by Futodama-no-Mikoto, while another kami, Ame-no-Koyane-no-Mikoto intoned prayers. Meanwhile, a third kami, Ame-no-Tadikarawo-no-Kami concealed himself behind the other side of the cavern door in readiness.

When these pious coaxings elicited no response, the goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto took a new approach. She rolled up her sleeves, wreathed her head with the masaki plant, accessorised further with a sheaf of bamboo leaves and thus equipped brought her foot down hard on an upturned bucket with a clang.

As if possessed, Ame-no-Uzume commenced a comically indecent dance, loosening the string of her skirt to expose herself. The other kami all laughed uproariously at this.

Puzzled by the unexpected burst of laughter, Amaterasu opened the door of the cavern and asked, “What are you all laughing at?”

The other kami replied cheerfully that they were happy because they had found another goddess brighter and more beautiful than she. They then held up the mirror, so that Amaterasu looked upon her own face. Even more puzzled and intrigued, Amaterasu emerged still further from her cave. At that moment, Ame-no-Tadikarawo, who had been waiting behind the door, grasped the goddess' arm and drew her forwards, while Futodama-no-Mikoto sealed the cavern behind her with sacred rope and told her that she could not go back inside.

Thus the rays of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu were restored to the Plain of Heaven and to earth and cosmic order was restored.

Susano-Wo was severely punished for his outrageous acts against his sister. His beard was shaved off, his nails were cut, he was fined and banished from the Plain of Heaven.

Amaterasu Appearing from the Cave by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1882

Amaterasu Appearing from the Cave by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1882


© 2013 SarahLMaguire


SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 11, 2014:

Thanks, that's very helpful! Always good to expand ones sources of usable images. :)

Carolyn Emerick on January 11, 2014:

Yeah, just search appropriate keywords, There are at least two books with Japanese myth illustrations I came across. When you click on the title, and it gives you the list of file types, right at the top the HTML one should say "with images" or 'no images." So you can tell right there without wasting your time scrolling the entire book. Makes it a little faster.

When I find some gems on there, I upload them to Wikimedia and try to use a few appropriate tags so other people can find and use them. I've got a lot of myth/fairy tale type stuff in my uploads there, feel free to use any of them -

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 10, 2014:

Oh, that's a great tip - I've mostly been relying on Wikimedia, but logically if the images are on Gutenberg they must be copyright free!

Carolyn Emerick on January 10, 2014:

I've found some awesome ones on Project Gutenberg. It's just time consuming though, you have to soft through books to get them. There were some really nice Japanese ones in a couple books on there.

SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on January 09, 2014:

Thanks :) Japanese myths are fascinating to explore. It's a lot harder to source good pictures though than with Greek myths.

Carolyn Emerick on January 09, 2014:

A friend of mine is interested in Japanese Kami myths and I didn't know what Kami meant, so thank you! Upvoted, shared on hubpages and elsewhere :-)