At Balladeer’s Blog I often cover mythological pantheons that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. The Shinto pantheon of deities certainly falls into that category. I find them every bit as fascinating as the Graeco-Roman, Teutono-Norse or Egyptian gods and goddesses. Here’s a quick rundown of 10 of the most prominent figures in Shinto mythology.
These two parents of most of the rest of the deities in Shinto myth need to be mentioned in one listing. The two of them stirred the primordial juices here on Earth with a jeweled spear and created the Japanese islands. Their first coupling spawned either one slug-like creature or all of the monsters in Shinto mythology (accounts vary). Beginning with their second mating the woman, Izanami, began giving birth to various animals and humans as well as gods and goddesses. Their last-born child was Kagatsuchi, the god of fire, and the trauma of his flaming birth proved potent enough to kill even a goddess like Izanami. She became the goddess who ruled over Yomi, the land of the dead and, when she failed to trick Izanagi into bringing her back to the world of the living vowed to drag one thousand living souls down to the world of the dead with her every day. Izanagi countered this by causing one thousand five hundred new souls to be born each day.
The Shinto god of fire, also called Omasubi (“starter of fire”). As mentioned above, his flaming birth, like lava erupting from his mother Izanami’s womb, caused her departure to the land of the dead, where she became the ruler, like the slain god Osiris in Egyptian mythology. Kagatsuchi’s father, Izanagi, was so enraged at the havoc wreaked by this last-born son’s birth that he drew his celestial sword and sliced the new-born deity into bits and then scattered the pieces, with each piece becoming one of the many volcanoes of ancient Japan. Kagatsuchi was a greatly feared deity and rituals were held twice a year at the Emperor’s palace to honor and appease him.
The god who guards the floating bridge between the Earth and the heavenly realm of the gods, Takamagahara. He is depicted as a giant with a jeweled spear that once belonged to his father Izanagi and is considered the god of pathways and crossroads, both real and symbolic. He took his sentry duties so seriously that he once even tried to bar the way of the god Ninigi and his retinue when he was on his way down from Takamagahara to rule over the Earth. Sarutahiko was persuaded to allow Ninigi to continue his journey to Earth by Uzume, the goddess of the dance, who became his wife. A 2,000 year old shrine at Tsubaki still honors these two deities, who are said to be the ancestors of the clan of female Heian court dancers called the Sarume.
Also called Sengen-Sama, Konohana is the goddess of flowers and cherry blossoms and is the wife of the god Ninigi.Her father, the mountain god Ohoyama, offered Ninigi a choice between Konohana and his other daughter, Ihanaga, goddess of stone which endures for ages. If Ninigi had chosen Ihanaga all of their descendants would have had the fortitude and long life of stone but since he instead chose Konohana all of their descendants were doomed to have the fragility and short lives of flowers. This condemned humanity to its current state of vulnerability to the elements, disease, etc and to its comparatively short life span. As Sengen-Sama she is also considered the goddess of Mount Fuji.
The Shinto god of war. As Emperor Ojin he was born to the Empress Jingo, who was said to be carrying the child within her womb for three years while she finished successfully conducting her late husband’s war against the three kingdoms of Korea. (This is an interesting parallel to the birth of the Vietnamese god Thach Sanh, who was also said to be gestating for three years) Hachiman was seen not just as a god of offensive war but also as the protector of children and of the general prosperity that was thought to come from military strength. He was also regarded as the god of spies since as Emperor he would often pose as a commoner to discover what was really going on in the country.
The moon god and ruler of the night. In the Nihongi he is the son of both Izanami and Izanagi. In the Kojiki he is said to have been born from Izanagi’s right eye. A prominent myth about him says that once he was being entertained by Ukemochi, the goddess of agrarian foods like beans, millet, wheat, soybeans and even cows and silkworms. He was enjoying the foods that she supplied for him in plenty until he noticed that they sprang from her vomit, her genitals and her anus (similar to the Corn Woman myth in Native American mythology). Outraged at this, Tsukiyomi slew her, scattering her remains across the Earth and from those remains crops and cattle continued to spring. This violent act of Tsukiyomi deeply offended his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, who told Tsukiyomi to remove himself from her sight, and that is why the sun and moon rise and set separately.
The goddess of dancing, a skill that served her in good stead in two major Shinto myths. When the sun goddess Amaterasu had hidden herself away in a cave, Uzume danced naked as part of the plot concocted by the god of wisdom Omoigane to lure Amaterasu back out into the world. In the other major myth Uzume is part of the retinue of the god Ninigi when Amaterasu sends him down to rule over the Earth. Their descent was blocked by Sarutahiko, the god who guards Ukihashi, the floating bridge between Takamagahara and the Earth. This god was taking his duties so seriously he was even barring the way of Ninigi’s divine entourage until Uzume charmed him by dancing topless. Sarutahiko fell in love with Uzume and she agreed to marry him in exchange for his vow of fealty to Ninigi. Uzume’s dances were also said to have the power to raise the dead in some myths.
The Shinto rice god. His wife was the goddess Ukemochi and when she was slain by the moon god he married Mitama, the goddess of agriculture. Inari is said to often roam the rice fields of Earth, sometimes in the form of a fox, his familiar animal. This connection between the rice god and foxes is said to come from the way foxes often prey on birds and vermin who try feeding on the rice crops being raised for human consumption. Inari is usually depicted in the company of a fox or two and is carrying a sack which contains an inexhaustible supply of rice. Every home contained a shrine to Inari.
The storm god in Shinto mythology. He is appropriately depicted as an impetuous, ill-tempered god and was often at odds with his sister the sun goddess. In the Nihongi he is the son of both Izanagi and Izanami but in the Kojiki he is born from Izanagi’s nose as a sneeze. At one point he was seriously over-stepping his power (accounts vary as to what caused his intense anger), causing it to storm continuously day and night, prompting the sun goddess Amaterasu to withdraw to a cave. When the other gods succeeded in luring Amaterasu out of hiding they stripped Susanowo of much of his godly power and exiled him to Earth, where he had various adventures, including slaying an eight-tailed dragon, leading a successful war against Korea, causing forests to grow from hairs plucked from his beard, curing a plague and fathering a whole extended family of deities in Izumo (a family which included Okuninushi, the god of medicine).
This sun goddess was the chief deity of the Shinto pantheon. In the Nihongi she is the daughter of both Izanagi and Izanami but in the Kojiki she springs from Izanagi’s right eye.During one of the conflicts with her brother Susanowo she withdrew to a cave in protest of the storm god’s incessant belligerance. Since this deprived the world of the light and warmth it needed to survive Omoigane, the god of wisdom, devised a plan to lure Amaterasu back to her rightful place as the supreme deity. He had the one-eyed smith god Amatsumara forge a large mirror and place it outside the cave Amaterasu was hiding in. The goddess Uzume danced magnificently before it, prompting cries of appreciation from all the other assembled deities. Amaterasu, curious about all this commotion from inside her cavern hiding place, asked what was going on. Omoigane shrewdly claimed they had found a deity even more illustrious than Amaterasu herself. This prompted her to peek out of the cave, and, catching sight of her own reflection in Amatsumara’s mirror, was so entranced by its beauty that she ventured out of the cave. Tajikara, the god of physical strength, seized her and prevented her from fleeing back into the cavern while the god of magic sealed off the mouth of the cave with a straw (or in some myths rainbow-hued) rope, thus preventing the sun goddess from ever withdrawing into it again. Much later Amaterasu sent her grandson Ninigi to the Earth to assume control of the world from the descendants of Susanowo in Izumo.
Source books: The Kojiki, The Nihongi, Hotsuma Tsutae, World Mythology, Tales From Japan, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Gods and Myths, Myths And Legends Of Japan.
By Ed Wozniak,