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Amaterasu emerging from the cave, Ama-no-Iwato, to which she once retreated (painted by Kunisada)

Amaterasu (天照), Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大神/天照大御神/天照皇大神), or Ōhirume-no-muchi-no-kami (大日孁貴神) is a deity of the Japanese myth cycle and also a major deity of the Shinto religion. She is seen as the goddess of the sun and mistress of Takamagahara, associated with fertility and agriculture (especially rice), weaving, light, the nation-state of Japan, and the universe.

The name Amaterasu is derived from Amateru and means "shining in heaven". The meaning of her whole name, Amaterasu-ōmikami, is "the great august kami (deity) who shines in the heaven".[N 1] According to the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki chronicles in Japanese mythology, the Emperors of Japan are considered to be direct descendants of Amaterasu.



Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大御神)

Records of the worship of Amaterasu are found from the c. 712 CE Kojiki and c. 720 CE Nihon Shoki, the oldest records of Japanese history. In Japanese mythology, Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, is the sister of Susanoo, the god of storms and the sea, and of Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon. It was written that Amaterasu had painted the landscape with her siblings while she created ancient Japan.[2] Amaterasu was said to have been created by the divine couple Izanagi and Izanami, who were themselves created by, or grew from, the originator of the Universe, Amenominakanushi.[3] All three deities were born from Izanagi when he was purifying himself upon entering Yomi, the underworld, after breaking the promise not to see dead Izanami and he was chased by her and Yakusan-no-ikaduchigami (八雷神), surrounding rotten Izanami. Amaterasu was born when Izanagi washed out his left eye, Tsukuyomi was born from the washing of the right eye, and Susanoo from the washing of the nose.

Amaterasu became the ruler of the sun and the heavens along with her brother, Tsukuyomi as the ruler of the night, and Susanoo as the ruler of the seas.[4] Originally, Amaterasu shared the sky with Tsukuyomi, her husband and brother until, out of disgust, he killed the goddess of food, Uke Mochi, when she pulled "food from her rectum, nose, and mouth".[5] This killing upset Amaterasu causing her to label Tsukuyomi an evil god and split away from him; separating night from day.

The texts also tell of a long-standing rivalry between Amaterasu and her other brother, Susanoo. Susanoo is said to have insulted Amaterasu, claiming she had no power over the higher realm.[6][full citation needed] When Izanagi ordered him to leave Heaven, he went to bid his sister goodbye. Amaterasu was suspicious, but when Susanoo proposed a challenge to prove his sincerity, she accepted. Each of them took an object belonging to the other and from it, birthed deities. Amaterasu birthed three female deities from Susanoo's sword while he birthed five male deities from her necklace. Claiming the gods were hers because they were born of her necklace, and the goddesses were his, she decided that she had won the challenge, as his item produced women. After Susanoo's defeat he went on a rampage destroying much of the heavenly and earthly realm, including Amaterasu's rice fields; he also hurled a flayed pony at her loom, and killed one of her beloved attendants in a fit of rage. Amaterasu, who was in fury and grief, hid inside the Ama-no-Iwato ("heavenly rock cave"), plunging the earth into darkness and chaos. Eventually, she was persuaded to leave the cave. Initially, Omoikane threw a party outside of the Ama-no-Iwato to lure Amaterasu out but it was not until the Goddess Ame-no-Uzume danced promiscuously outside of the cave that Amaterasu came out.[7][full citation needed] Susanoo was punished by being banished from heaven. Both later amended their conflict when Susanoo gave her the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sword as a reconciliation gift.

According to legend, Amaterasu, who was responsible from keeping balance and harmony within the earthly realm, bequeathed to her descendant Ninigi: the mirror, Yata no Kagami; the jewel, Yasakani no Magatama; and the sword, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. Collectively, the sacred mirror, jewel, and sword became the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.


Amanoiwato Shrine (天岩戸神社)

The Ise Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū) located in Ise, Mie Prefecture, Japan, houses the inner shrine, Naiku, dedicated to Amaterasu. Her sacred mirror, Yata no Kagami (八咫の鏡), an object given by Amaterasu to her grandson when he descend to Earth and became the first emperor, is said to be kept at this shrine as one of the Imperial regalia objects.[8] A ceremony known as Shikinen Sengū (式年遷宮祭) is held every twenty years at this shrine to honor the many deities enshrined, which is formed by 125 shrines altogether. At that time, new shrine buildings are built at a location adjacent to the site first. After the transfer of the object of worship, new clothing and treasure and offering food to the goddess the old buildings are taken apart.[8] The building materials taken apart are given to many other shrines and buildings to renovate.[8] This practice is a part of the Shinto faith and has been practiced since the year 690 CE, but is not only for Amaterasu but also for many other deities enshrined in Ise Shrine.[9] Additionally, from the late 7th century to the 14th century, an unmarried princess of the Imperial Family, called "Saiō" (斎王) or "itsuki no miko" (斎皇女), served as the sacred priestess of Amaterasu at the Ise Shrine upon every new dynasty.[10]

The Amanoiwato Shrine (天岩戸神社) in Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan is dedicated to Amaterasu and sits above the gorge containing Ama-no-Iwato.

The worship of Amaterasu to the exclusion of other kami has been described as "the cult of the sun."[11] This phrase may also refer to the early pre-archipelagoan worship of the sun.[11]

According to the Engishiki (延喜式) and Sandai Jitsuroku (三代実録) of the Heian period, the sun goddess had many shrines named, "Amateru" or "Amateru-mitama" shrines, which were mostly located in the Kinki area. However, there have also been records of a shrine on Tsushima Island, coined as either "Teruhi Gongen," or the "Shining Sun Deity" during medieval times. It was later found that such a shrine was meant for a male sun deity named Ameno-himitama.[10]

Amaterasu was also once worshiped at Hinokuma shrines. The Hinokuma shrines were used to worship the goddess by the Ama people in the Kii Provinces.Because the Ama people were believed to have been fishermen, researchers have conjectured that the goddess was also worshiped for a possible connection to the sea.[10]

Scholarly debatesEdit

Relation to female positions in early Japanese societyEdit

Because Amaterasu has the highest position among the Shinto deities, there has been debate on her influence and relation to women's positions in early Japanese society. Some scholars have argued that the goddess' presence and high stature within the kami system could suggest that early rulers in Japan were female.[12] Others have argued the goddess' presence implies strong influences female priests’ had in Japanese politics and religion.[12]

Historians and scholars of the Old Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent kingdom that once ruled most of the Ryukyu islands, have argued that there were ambiguous power relations between the high priestess and King.[13] They explain that the high priestess and other female religious officials, were considered to be integral figures amongst royal authority as women were a part of the high office.[13]

Goddess possibly a male deityEdit

There have been discussions concerning the goddess' gender due to her seemingly gender-less name (her name is the honorific form of amateru) along with historical discoveries and stories associating her with the sun god, Amateru.[14][10]

One such story illustrates an encounter between a priestess and Amaterasu in question. According to a medieval Tsûkai (痛悔) monk's diary, he explained a legend circulating among the Ise priests that essentially went as followed: "The Great God Amaterasu visited the high priestess Saiō ...every night, and united with her. The next morning, several scales, as from a snake or lizard, were left in her bed. No one but the priestess knew, however, what form this Amaterasu assumed for such visits."[10] Such a story also implied the possibility of Amaterasu being worshipped as a snake deity, in addition to her sun duties.[10] The same scholars later explain an old Japanese belief that female priests and shamans acted as wives of their worshipped male deities, to support their male Amaterasu argument.[10]

Other arguments supporting the existence of a male Amaterasu mentioned an Amateru figure being worshipped across Yamato during the early Yamato period, thereby insinuating that Amaterasu evolved from Amateru.[14] Matsumae Takeshi hypothesized that Amateru was originally worshipped by the Ise fishermen but by 5th or 6th century, the Imperial court made Amateru into an ancestral deity of the Imperial family and sent in their first Saiō as the deity's wife to cement the change.[10] From this, Amateru somehow became Amaterasu after several generations of successors.[10]

Some supporters have drawn from the strip-tease dance scene of the Amaterasu cave myth to an additional indication of the goddess' potential masculinity. Just as Ame-No-Uzume danced a "wild strip-tease routine"[15] to lure Amaterasu out of the Heavenly Rock Cave, maidens of the Sarume clan would perform the same "lewd" dance (now called, the kagura) to worship Amaterasu.[10]

Other scholars, such as Russel Kirkland, have disputed this theory by mentioning that even though an Amateru figure was worshipped across Yamato, and holds a seemingly gender-less name, there were no such written records of Amateru at Ise shrine—only Amaterasu.[14] He claims that the story of the first princess to establish the shrine of Amaterasu, Yamato-Hime, is fictitious and it is only a few hundred years after that date was there a mention of Amaterasu and a historical record of a Yamato princess serving Ise shrine in 457 CE.[14] He goes on to say that "outside the fabricated story of Yamto-hime, there is not a single passage anywhere in the Nihongi or Kojiki that names Amaterasu as the deity worshipped at Ise shrine."[14] The goddess was then absent from all records until reappearing in 672 CE, thereby insinuating that there were no Amaterasu or Amateru figures at Ise shrine until late seventh century.[14]

Such gender-confusion has also been viewed in earlier myths of the Chinese goddess, Nu Kwa.

Other worshipped formsEdit


Outside of being worshipped as a sun goddess, some have argued that Amaterasu was once related to snakes.[10] As mentioned in the "Goddess Possibly a Male Deity" section, there was a legend circulating among the Ise Priests that essentially described an encounter of Amaterasu sleeping with the Saiō every night in the form of a snake or lizard, evidenced by fallen scales in the priestess' bed.[10]


In general, some of these Amaterasu-dragon associations have been in reference to Japanese plays. One example has been within the Chikubushima tradition in which the dragon goddess, Benzaiten was the emanation of Amaterasu.[16] Following that, in the Japanese epic, Taiheki, one of the characters, Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞‎), made comparisons with Amaterasu and a dragon with the quote: “I have heard that the Sun Goddess of Ise … conceals her true being in the august image of Vairocana, and that she has appeared in this world in the guise of a dragon god of the blue ocean.”[16]

Another tradition of the Heavenly Cave story depicts Amaterasu as a "dragon-fox" (shinko or tatsugitsune) during her descent to the famed cave because it is a type of animal/kami that emits light from its entire body.[17]


Some scholars have argued that the deva and fox spirit, Dakiniten (derived from the Indian ḍākinī), is a manifestation of Amaterasu.[16] Bernard Faure explains that during the Buddhist enthronement ritual, the emperor (a symbol of Amaterasu) would unite with the Dakiniten and thus not only did the emperor become a fox, the Dakiniten (the fox) became a king—also known as the "Fox King" as mentioned in the Shintōshū.[16]

Other claims include Amaterasu and the divine fox as actually representing two different sources of royal power in which during a new enthronement, Amaterasu is the sun and thus the emperor gains the benign power, "spirit of rice" while the fox gives some sort of "substantial power" to sufficiently rule the world.[16] Such claims however have been questioned since it is unclear if the goddess actually represented a benign agricultural power.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ ama means "heaven"; tera is an inflectional form of teru, "to shine"; su is an honorific auxiliary verb that shows respect for the actor; then, amaterasu means "to shine in the heaven"; ō means "big" or "great"; mi is a prefix for noble and august beings.[1]


  1. ^ Akira Matsumura, ed. (1995). Daijirin (in Japanese) (2nd ed.). Sanseido Books. ISBN 978-4385139005.
  2. ^ Wallin, edited by Anne Buttimer, Luke (1999). Nature and Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. ISBN 9789401723923.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Watts Barton, David (January 24, 2017). "Amaterasu and the Gods of Ancient Japan". Innovation Design Co. Archived from the original on March 2, 2017. Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  4. ^ Cotterell, Arthur (2005). World Mythology. United Kingdom: Parragon Publishing. p. 195. ISBN 978-1-40544-767-6.
  5. ^ Roberts, Jeremy (2010). Japanese Mythology A To Z (PDF) (2nd ed.). New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 978-1604134353. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-11-19. Retrieved 2012-04-04.
  6. ^ Kumar, Samir (2015). "Amaterasu (mythology)". Salem Press Encyclopedia.
  7. ^ Ellwood Jr., Robert S. (December 1973). "Shinto and the Discovery of History of Japan". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 41 (4): 493–505. JSTOR 1461729.
  8. ^ a b c Ellwood, Robert S. (1968). "Harvest and Renewal at the Grand Shrine of Ise". Numen. 15 (3): 165–190. doi:10.2307/3269575. ISSN 0029-5973. JSTOR 3269575.
  9. ^ Cristina, Martinez-Fernandez; Naoko, Kubo; Antonella, Noya; Tamara, Weyman (2012-11-28). Demographic Change and Local Development Shrinkage, Regeneration and Social Dynamics: Shrinkage, Regeneration and Social Dynamics. OECD Publishing. ISBN 9789264180468.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Takeshi, Matsumae (1978). "Origin and Growth of the Worship of Amaterasu". Asian Folklore Studies. 37 (1): 1–11. doi:10.2307/1177580. JSTOR 1177580.
  11. ^ a b Wheeler, Post (1952). The Sacred Scriptures of the Japanese. New York: Henry Schuman. pp. 393–395. ISBN 978-1425487874.
  12. ^ a b Roberts, Jeremy, 1956- (2010). Japanese mythology A to Z (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 9781438128023. OCLC 540954273.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ a b Smits, Gregory (2000). "Ambiguous Boundaries: Redefining Royal Authority in the Kingdom of Ryukyu". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 60 (1): 89–123. doi:10.2307/2652701. JSTOR 2652701.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Kirkland, Russell (1997-01-01). "The Sun and the Throne". Numen. 44 (2): 109–152. doi:10.1163/1568527972629786. ISSN 0029-5973.
  15. ^ "Amaterasu". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 2019-03-28. Retrieved 2019-04-08.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Faure, Bernard (2015-12-31). Protectors and Predators: Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 2. University of Hawai'i Press. doi:10.21313/hawaii/9780824839314.001.0001. ISBN 9780824839314.
  17. ^ Breen, John; Teeuwen, Mark (2000). Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 9780824823634.