The Legend of Amaterasu

Iwato kagura no kigen (岩戸神楽之起顕) – Origin of Music and Dance at the Rock Door signed by Shunsai Toshimasa (春斎年昌); Dated Meiji 20 (1887)

I’ll begin by saying that I love a good legend, myth, or fairy tale. And perhaps some of the most interesting tales emerge from ancient Japan. Therefore, I’ve chosen to present a Japanese piece for this project – not only for the Ukiyo-e style (which is a marvelous process that includes carving wood blocks and transferring ink to paper via these wooden patterns) but for the entertainment and stories behind these pieces.

This particular piece – Origin of Music and Dance at the Rock Door – is about the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, a Japanese myth of humility, perserverence, the triumph of good over evil, and the infectious power of laughter on even the most distraught of souls.

The Legend of Amaterasu

As retold by the author

Amaterasu Ō-mikami was the first daughter of the two creationist deities, the god Izanagi and goddess Izanamino.  The pair had formed every piece of the land of the Earth, from the mountains rising into the sky to the waters of the oceans stirring around the land. Once the Earth had been formed, Izanagi and Izanamino wished to create life to frolic upon their creation. They gave birth to Amaterasu, whose radiance and beauty did nothing but bring utter joy to her parent’s life. She was placed in the sky for all to see, and now protects the day in the form of the sun. Amaterasu had two siblings who were born soon after, the god of the moon – Tsuki-yomi, a peaceful and composed child who was a fraction as bright as his sister – and the god of the seas – Susano-O, a boy with an awful temperament whom  was prone to violence. Susano’s rage and love of wreaking havoc upon the ocean eventually led him to be demoted to God of the underworld, but that is a story for another day.

One day, whilst weaving on her loom, Amaterasu befell a horrid attack by her brother. Infuriated by how beautiful and beloved she was, Susano-O killed the girl’s mare and tossed it into her weaving room, ruining all the looms and projects she had created. It is said that Susano’s rage was so great that he killed one of the attendant girls in the room and attacked Amaterasu herself, causing the gentle goddess to flee her palace. Amaterasu sought refuge in a cave within the mountains, refusing to shine her light and joy upon the world anymore. Slowly, the Earth began to wither and die, causing demons to crawl from the underworld and wreak their own chaos upon the people, plants, and animals upon its surface.

Knowing the world was in quite a dire state, the Gods and Goddesses assembled outside the cave and attempted to lure Amaterasu out to shine her light on the Earth once more. After a useless string of begging and pleading, Uzume – the Goddess of laughter – created a clever plan. She placed a large mirror facing Amaterasu’s cave against a nearby rock, hung jewels from the trees, and began to dance around, urging the other Gods and Goddesses to do the same. Their festivities were so intriguing to the sun Goddess that she couldn’t help but to ask what was happening outside, to which Uzume replied “We have found a new and much better sun goddess!” This caused Amaterasu to peek out of the cave to see what the ruckus was about; and when she did, Amaterasu caught sight of her own reflection in the mirror. Hypnotized by her own beauty, she left the cave – which was quickly sealed off with a giant rock to prevent her from hiding away once again – and soon found herself immersed in the amusement of her friends and family.

Unable to continue frowning for her misfortune, Amaterasu let her light shine upon the Earth once more. And just as quickly as they came, the demons and disease set upon the land receded to the Underworld with Susano-O, and the Earth was bathed in sunlight once more.






3 thoughts on “The Legend of Amaterasu

  1. Jenny,

    I loved that you too appreciate paintings that tell a traditional story, and I am glad you took the time to tell us that story in your own words. In my Color Design class, we did a section on Japanese art, and at first glance… I didn’t get it. Then, we were asked to pick several Japanese prints and develop a color palette for them, indicating roughly the percentage of each color. That was such a fascinating, informative exercise! I learned that those artists kept their palette to only a handful of colors and were very mindful of pleasing collaborations between pastels and blacks. (Although the painting you presented was very brilliant with contrasting colors.) After that particular lesson in color, I became very much a fan of this type of art, its initial simplicity but really complexity, as most of these told a story, and I hope to resurrect that in some way with some added Americanism.

    I hope that you take the time, or maybe already have, do an exploration of Japanese art from the past. There is much to be appreciated!


  2. All of the required elements appear to be present in your presentation. You were clear as to why you were drawn to this piece and why you thought it was amazing. I would have enjoyed learning more about your physical attractions to the details in the piece. Providing the background story was very interesting since I did not know anything about the background. I would have liked to know more about the wood and ink process that created this piece.

  3. This piece definitely has an interesting background. The story is pretty elaborate and I enjoyed reading it. I do wish there were a little more info on the process of transferring the ink to paper from the wooden blocks, only because it sounds like an interesting process. However, I dont think your blog is lacking in information, it is just my own curiosity that leas me to want to know more about that particular thing.

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