Amaterasu and the Virtue of Art

Costume Sketch for Amaterasu, by Risa Dye

It stands to reason that, once agriculture was established in Japan in the Yayoi period, the populace would revere the sun, guarantor of an abundant harvest, and be threatened by storms, which could destroy the rice crop and wreak havoc on man-made structures.  Indeed, although the story of Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess) and Susanoo (the Storm God) is usually interpreted as an allegory of the conflict between two clans, the Kojiki describes the depradations of the storm god literally as:

  • Wrecking the divisions of the rice fields laid out by Amaterasu
  • Filling the irrigation ditches
  • Strewing excrement in the hall used for tasting the first fruits of the harvest, and
  • Damaging the roof of a building in which Amaterasu and her maidens were weaving

(In addition, a maiden dies from the introduction of a weaving shuttle into her genitals, suggesting another reading of Susanoo’s ultimate infraction.)

In Mystical Abyss, the damage wrought by Susanoo is amplified to cosmic proportions.  He destroys everything on earth:

Susanoo Destroys Everything on Earth, by Koya Takahashi

Mythology instructs by means of metaphors and magnifications, but all of us are well acquainted with examples of devastation occurring on a more limited scale.  Every year in different parts of the world, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes—not to speak of war and other varieties of organized or random violence–destroy lives and livelihoods.  Under these circumstances, I am always impressed by how easily journalists find intrepid individuals who have “lost everything” and yet stand bravely before a camera, a day or a week after the fact, and vow to “rebuild.”  I am one of those who, faced with calamity, would be tempted to crawl into a hole–to face my emotions and gather my thoughts very far from the nearest camera.   In her distress, Amaterasu does what I would want to do:  she hides for a while. 

Amaterasu Goes into Hiding, by Koya Takahashi

The idea of taking time for melancholy, especially to grieve, is by now well accepted in most circles, but as anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one knows, it is seldom possible to take that restorative time, because most of us have others who depend upon our care, and in Amaterasu’s case, everyone else suffers because her absence leaves the world in darkness.  Finally, her fellow gods contrive a plan to help her and themselves.  They stage a show, as described here, and hearing their laughter, the goddess peers out of her cave, where she sees the reflection of her own face in a mirror hanging from a tree.  

Mystical Abyss varies the classical story by having the sacred dance performed by the daughter of a Native American medicine man.

Practitioners of Japanese performing arts, from Noh to Taiko, cite the story of Amaterasu’s retreat and reemergence as evidence for the ceremonial origins of their chosen art forms.   The tale is also of central importance in the Shinto religion:  because Amaterasu is tricked out of her cave by her own image, as seen in a mirror, that sacred object—ostensibly the same mirror in which Amaterasu saw herself—is ensconced in the most sacred shrine of the Ise Grand Shrine complex.  Think about the implication:  a high priest or priestess looking upon this holy object would see not the features of some divine Other, but his or her own reflection.   Incidentally, the mirrors that were imported to Japan from the Asian mainland during the Yayoi period were not made of glass and fitted in a frame, but were round and made of bronze.  The following photograph shows the non-reflective side of a mirror unearthed from a tomb of the Kofun period.  Notice how much it resembles a mandala:

An Ancient Bronze Mirror

Even for those who do not practice Shinto or Japanese performing arts, the story of Amaterasu is a powerful fable.  Art beckons the goddess out of hiding so she can see her own face in the mirror.  The virtue of art lies in its power to help us see ourselves.

Stylized Image of Amaterasu, by Koya Takahashi

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