Amaterasu-The Sun Goddess You’ve Never Heard Of But Really Need To Know About Part I
Okay. If any of you out there are anime fans, take a seat and hold on tight. I’m about to blow your minds. Ever wondered where anime got all of its crazy, unique, and interesting ideas? What if I told you that most everything in anime reflects not just the culture but also the ancient belief systems of Japan? Sit tight, anime fanatics. You’re about to gain a deeper understanding of all of those awesome stories you love.
Amaterasu’s themes are the sun, tradition, unity, blessings, community, and kinship. Her symbols are a mirror, gold, and yellow items. Amaterasu is unique among Goddesses. She is one of the few women to personify the sun. She rules over cultural unity, kinship, and blessings. It is Amaterasu’s sun that nudges the greenery to reach toward her light, just as her gentle energy prods us toward re-establishing harmony in all our relationships.
Japan has a unique culture. Its impact on the world, at large, is underrated. The Shinto religion is so ingrained in the Japanese culture that even if an individual doesn’t claim a religious affiliation, they still hold the concepts of purity, harmony, family respect, and subordination of the individual before the group in high regard.
We will not get too far into the historical details of the Japanese people. It is a long tale and one that would be impossible to cover in one article. I will say that one reason for Japan’s unique characteristics is because the islands were never subject to foreign political control.
Even though China and Korea influenced them, they were still free to select the ideas and ideals which appealed to them. These, they molded the way they wanted and, for our purposes, the Japanese people were free to continue with their indigenous cultural practices. This allowed them to create a unique approach to government, religion, and the arts.
Some of Japan’s contributions include the oldest known pottery vessels in the world. They are known as Jomon, which is also the name of Japan’s first historical period following the Paleolithic Age. Haniwas, detailed terracotta figurines, were deposited at tombs from about 250-710 CE.
These were one of the first examples of Japanese sculpture and stood over a meter in height. The name “haniwa” means “clay ring,” but they sculpted these into animals, people, fishing boats, and even houses.
Another interesting contribution that the ancient Japanese gave to the world is the first novel, The Tale of Genji. The story is a fictitious but detailed look into the aristocratic world of Heian Japan. It’s composed of several prose poems outlining the life of Genji, a suave, handsome, sensitive, and talented courtier who is an excellent lover and loyal friend.
The novel was written over a thousand years ago by a widowed woman who lived during the Heian period and was one of a kind. We don’t know the author’s true name, but scholars have dubbed her “Murasaki Shikibu” after the novel’s dominant female character and her father’s position.
What’s fascinating about Murasaki is that she was extremely well educated, above and beyond a woman of her station. She knew Chinese, which was a male spoken language, and had a firm grasp on both Chinese and Japanese poetry of the time.
Japan also gave us distinctive art and once housed the largest wooden structures anywhere in the world.
The Shinto Religion
Shinto means “way of the gods” and is the oldest religion in Japan. It doesn’t have a founder or prophets. There are no ancient texts telling one how to be Shinto. No Shinto bible.
The result is that the definition of being Shinto is flexible and has allowed for the religion to last thousands of years. It’s so interwoven in Japanese culture, and it’s become inseparable as an independent body of thinking.
Ancient Japanese peoples were indigenous and held most of the same beliefs that people around the rest of the world did. They held animistic beliefs and worshiped their ancestors. Shamans were the bridge between the spirit world and the living world.
They wove these elements into Shinto, which began during the period of the Yayoi (300BCE-300CE). This is when the actual “religion” was recognized. Like most early cultures, they gave certain geographical elements divine properties.
The sun goddess herself, Amaterasu is a good example of this as is her brother, the wind god, Susanoo. Fun fact-Mt Fuji gets its name from this practice. “Fuchi” means the god of the volcano in Ainu.
In Shinto, Kami encapsulates gods, deities, natural phenomena, spirits, essences, ancestors, and supernatural powers. These are the “good” powers. They’re worshiped and appealed to for aid a little like the Loa in Voodoo.
Except, Kami are attracted by purity-both the physical kind and the spiritual kind and they’re repelled by the lack of it, especially disharmony. They’re particularly associated with nature and are believed to be present at sites such as waterfalls, mountains, trees, etc.
The amount of Kami out there is up for debate. There’s a number, eight million, but I don’t believe this adds in the Shinto gods, ancestors, etc.
For example, every family has its own ancestral Kami, and there are different kami living in places of natural beauty, certain animals, meteorological phenomena. There are nationally known kami and kami that are localized to small rural communities.
Another fascinating fact about the kami is that each is said to have four Mitama (spirits or natures) within them. The nature of the Kami you come across can change depending on the circumstances.
The Arimatama is the Kami’s wild or rough nature, the Nigimatima is gentle and supports life, the Kushimatima is wondrous, and the Sakimatima is nurturing. This distinction suggests that Kami can be capable of both good and bad.
While the kami are good and visible, the Oni are absolutely 100 percent not. These are the “evil” spirits, the demons if you will, of Shinto. They’re not inherently evil, just the opposing force of the kami.
They’re said to be mostly invisible, and some being described as giants with horns and three eyes. The good news about the Oni is that their power is temporary.
They’re usually powerful and are depicted as either pink, red, or blue-grey in color. Fun fact-the Oni aren’t thought to be Japanese in origin. It’s believed that the concept of them originated in China from Buddhism.
Ghosts in Shinto are known as Obake and require rituals to be sent away. Also, some animal spirits can possess humans, especially the fox. These require the exorcism of a priest.
As with many other ancient religions, the Shinto gods represent important astrological, geographical, and meteorological phenomena which are ever present and considered to affect daily life. These gods or Ujigami, were associated with specific ancient clans or Uji.
Any of this sound familiar? It should! Anime is chock-full of the terms above. Stay tuned next week for the Shinto creation myth and tales of Amateratsu and her adventures!