There is often a similarity in myths produced by different cultures, and since we just got an eclipse today, here’s a little comparison between the Japanese and Greek Sun goddesses, Amaterasu and Demeter.

The Japanese and Greek myths

The two myths about the disappearance of the sun present in the classical Greek and Japanese tradition present quite similar aspects. The Greek myth of Demeter tells that the goddess, furious with Hades after he kidnapped her daughter Persephone, hid herself thus bringing winter to earth. Only thanks to the intervention of minor gods and Zeus her anger was appeased, and she was allowed to spend part of the year with her daughter, which led to the creation of the alternation of seasons. The Japanese myth has it that Amaterasu, angry at her brother’s reckless actions, decided to hide in a cave, plunging the earth into cold and darkness. The other deities managed to induce her to come out, bringing back the sunshine to humanity and the opportunity to benefit from good harvests.

Three themes will be addressed:

  1. Anger of Mother Earth, unleashed by violence by a male “infernal” deity.
  2. Sun that hides and sinks the earth in darkness and cold, bringing chaos to the cosmos.
  3. Patron of the crops, as order (cosmos) that wins over chaos.

Given the epithets of the two goddesses, these themes are not isolated in a specific part of the myths, but are complementary. Consequently, the two myths will be analyzed and compared focusing on the most evident theme in each part of the myth. Although there are multiple versions of these myths, the ones followed are the myth of Amaterasu told in the Kojiki, one of the main reference books for the Shinto religion, and the myth of Demeter handed down in the Homeric Hymns, which focuses in particular on the allegory of the four seasons.

Anger of Mother Earth

Demeter and Amaterasu, apart from the traditional reading of being the deities of agriculture and the sun, can be considered as the embodiment of Mother Earth. They are a reference to a world in harmony with nature, that places them in the uranic dimension from which all earthy things generated. Specifically, they need to be the brilliant stars that favor the cultivation of wheat and rice, as they are the initiators of these cultivations

The violence of the male gender on the female world represents one of the fundamental archetypes that characterize the causes and analogies that trigger the inauspicious ‘anger’ of Demeter and Amaterasu. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was a young girl, simple and obedient to her mother whom she never left. One day, however, while she was playing with her friends under the supervision of Demeter, running in a valley near Enna, in Sicily, Persephone got lost and despite asking for help, no one could hear her; suddenly the earth opened under her feet, and from the chasm that formed came a chariot drawn by four pitch-black horses. It was the chariot of the dark god of the Underworld, Hades. He fell in love with Persephone and decided to carry her to the Underworld. Here Hades made Persephone his bride, making her eat some pomegranate grains, symbol of marriage, by deceit; an eternal law of Destiny established that whoever ate some grains of this fruit in her husband’s house could not stay away from it for a lot of time. Demeter’s desperation when she discovered that her daughter had disappeared turned into anger against Hades.

Amaterasu’s mildness and nobility of soul are offended after going through a series of actions inflicted by her brother and partner Susanoo. The intemperances of Susanoo culminating in two deplorable acts sound like real attacks to the peace and beauty of the celestial world where Amaterasu belongs. In an attempt to establish a truce, Susanoo convinced Amaterasu to generate children with him. Out of joy for having convinced his sister of his good faith, as it is his nature to misbehave, Susanoo broke the embankments and obstructed the canals of the rice fields Amaterasu took care of. Then, as if to manifest a further surplus of non-containable energy, he defecated in the room where Amaterasu observed the rites of the sacred libation. Instead of doing away with bad deeds, he accentuated them and, while Amaterasu, acting as a high priestess, presided over the weaving of the royal sacred garments in the hall of ceremonial vestments, he pierced the roof of the building and threw inside a badly skinned a celestial horse. It was this last move that causes the death of one of the weavers and induced Amaterasu to hide.

Just as Hades is the lord of the Underworld, one of the epithets of Susanoo referred to in the Kojiki is that of infernal divinity, which is given to him right after being banished from heaven by the other gods, after having unleashed his sister’s anger. The fact that Amaterasu initially forgave her brother and, instead of fighting him, decided to hide, can be seen as a sign of weakness, especially as opposed to Demeter’s stubbornness in wandering in search of her daughter and playing the offended divinity. In fact, that of Amaterasu must be interpreted as magnanimity, and it is one of the main differences between the two deities: in the Japanese pantheon, Amaterasu is the divinity of the sun, one if not the most important, the one from which the Japanese imperial lineage descends, and her role as protector of the weaving and cultivation of rice is a metaphor to indicate how she holds the power to bring order to the chaos of the universe. In the myth, Amaterasu is therefore at the top of the divine hierarchy, personification of the emperor, who is not the one who fights in person, but commands by delegating power to others who have the task of defending him. Demeter appears more at the mercy of events, and especially her brother Zeus, father of the gods, against whom she directs her anger after discovering that he had agreed to give Persephone in marriage to Hades. Here then she does the only thing she could by refusing to return to Olympus, choosing to wander the earth, well aware of the value and the consequences of her decision.

Disappearance of the sun

This leads to the discussion of the second theme, and the most important in the context of the sky myth, the ruling deities of a cosmic order who hide the sun for a long period of time, throwing the divine and terrestrial world into chaos.

Susanoo’s brutality induced Amaterasu to take refuge in a cave, taking the sun with her, thus depriving humans of its beneficial splendor, subjecting the earth to a state of infertile darkness. In the throes of darkness and despair, the gods of the sky established an assembly in the dry bed of a river in an attempt to bring the sun goddess out of her cave. For this, ritual objects were prepared, including an iron mirror and a long string of jewels, while the goddess Ama no Uzume, patroness of the arts, twisted her garments, adorning herself with sacred leaves and, overturning a bucket in front of the celestial rocky cavern, thundered her feet on it and began her dance in a state of divine possession. Her aim was to lure Amaterasu out of the cave to restore light to the world, in a story that has decidedly shamanic traits, especially in relation to the almost ritual dance and the ecstasy that pervaded the scene, characterized by a licentious attitude of Ama no Uzume. Amaterasu, intrigued, decided to leave the cave enticed by the voice of Ama no Uzume, who tried to lure her by telling her that all that fun and happiness were due to the presence of a divinity far superior.

Distrustful, Amaterasu peeked outside and saw her reflection in the mirror held up by two gods, who made her lean forward so that Amaterasu was able to fully see herself in the mirror. The goddess was enchanted and while she lingered in front of the mirror, the deities grabbed her hand and pulled her completely out of the cave, closing its entrance. The dance in question as narrated in the Kojiki appears as the representation of an ancient kagura. The role of Ama no Uzume is thus intertwined with that of Amaterasu, and she is consequently ancestor of the sacred dancers, first of all the miko, shaman and goddess of dawn at the same time.

In the same way Demeter, embittered, after having abandoned the assembly of the gods, began to wander among humans until she arrived, in the guise of an ordinary mortal, in Eleusis, where she found hospitality in the house of King Celeus. At the palace, she was welcomed by Iambe, the king’s handmaid and a minor deity, who, seeing the sadness of the newcomer, decided to express herself in jokes and banters aimed at amusing and dissolving the tension of Demeter. In this episode there is a similarity with the Japanese myth: the jokes of Iambe, as well as the dance of Ama no Uzume, are the means to bring the world out of darkness, restoring freedom and the joy of living, respectively, to Amaterasu and Demeter. Both episodes have a mystical character of rite, aimed at thanking the divinities of the sun and of the harvest: the gods encamped at the cave where Amaterasu hides carry propitiatory objects such as the mirror, considered a symbol of the sun since it’s able to reflect light, as well as Iambe’s jokes can be interpreted as a symbolic archetype of the ritual jokes that characterized the Demetrian cults. The episode of lambe is also presented as the mythical origin of the iambo, a poetic genre in which the female universe was populated by women with extremely licentious attitudes.

The misogyny of the iambic poets represented the response to the provocations of the female community, who dared to challenge male authority, signaling its own existence on a social level through laughter and ritual obscenity. Similarly, the kagura dance of Ama no Uzume is performed on certain holidays, by masked actors and in damask silk robes, to the sound of the flute and the drum, around shinto shrines. This makes it clear that for both cultures it was important to attract the attention of the deities to win them over especially in conjunction with events such as sowing and harvesting, moments when the sun returned after the long winter cold, or in conjunction with the solstices, to metaphorically “invite” the sun to shine on the earth. Thanks to these rites, the deities should be satisfied and willing to maintain the cosmic order and benevolently protect their presiding elements.

Patrons of crops

The theme of the sun returning after a long time is therefore inextricably linked to life on earth, where the seasons alternate and where human beings plan their life in accordance with this annual cycle.

While the idea of ​​the sun dying and being reborn is also evident in the Japanese myth, the Greek myth is more closely linked to agriculture and the importance of cyclicality in nature. To punish the Olympic gods responsible for the abduction of Persephone, Demeter made sure that the soil did not let seeds germinate, generating famines and thus preventing the gods from receiving sacrifices from humans, threatening the whole of humanity with extinction. Vainly prayed by Zeus, who sent all the gods one after the other to make her desist from her terrible purpose and return to Olympus, Demeter replied that she would never return to the gods and that she would never let a blade of grass grow again if she had not seen her daughter again. Zeus was thus forced to ask his brother Hades to return Persephone, to which he agreed on the condition that Demeter’s daughter would return for a third of the year to the Underworld; then, for the rest of the year, with the reappearance of Persephone in the spring, the natural world would have awakened to new flowering.

Demeter was thus able to see her daughter, but as she hugged her again, she discovered that Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds, which would have forced her to leave her mother for a few months a year. Zeus, after having succeeded in bringing Demeter back to Olympus, promised to give her, among the immortal gods, whatever privilege she chose, and confirmed that her daughter, for a third of the year would remain in the Underworld, for two thirds with her mother and with the other immortals. That is, the period in which Persephone assumes the role of lady of the Underworld the earth would be dark and sterile as during her search by her mother and corresponds to winter, while when Persephone is on earth with her mother the sun returns, along with the abundance of crops. Similarly, the fact that Amaterasu hides in the cave has correspondence in winter and her exit with spring.

The modality of intervention of the two goddesses is however decidedly different and depends both on the element that they mainly preside over, and on the culture in which the two myths are told. Amaterasu is the deity who gave rice to humans, as well as the one who invented sericulture and the loom. However she is basically the goddess of the sun and her taking refuge takes the sun away from humans, the consequences of this behavior bringing cold and famine. Demeter has in this sense a more active role than Amaterasu, as a proper agricultural deity who intervenes directly with her powers on her own element. Amaterasu sees her rice fields destroyed by Susanoo’s reckless acts, hence all the hard work in preparing them was wasted and her authority was in question: returning on Amaterasu’s analogy with the Japanese imperial family, if the emperor is not able to provide for the country, he may lose respect and the right to reign, just as the goddess, once both the rice fields and the weaving room are lost, is no longer able to maintain the order of things and she loses her essence of light by taking refuge in the darkness of the cave. It is her very absence that plunges the world into darkness and chaos, causing famines, rather than the use of a power separate from her own essence, as is the case with Demeter, who refuses to return to preside over the harvests until her daughter will be returned.

Final thoughts

Life on Earth strictly depends on the light and heat that the Sun sends us every day. It is therefore not surprising to find similar analogies in different cultures and in their myths and traditions, especially in those linked to the sky and to natural events that recur with cyclicality. 

Amaterasu and Demeter are two solar deities, who are offended in their essence of Mother Earth and creators and maintainers of a cosmic order that goes hand in hand with the cyclicality and natural rhythms of human life, and the cause of this offense will lead them to leave the Uranian world to find refuge respectively in the cave and on earth, until they are found and brought back to their dimension thanks to the intervention of other gods and sacred rituals.

This behaviour denies the sun and related activities such as agriculture, and is how the ancients interpreted the changing of the seasons, where the sun ”dies” or ”hides” during the winter and then reappears in spring and brings the world back to life. The narrative structure of the two myths is similar and the attributes of the two goddesses are similar, although they are placed in different positions in the spiritual hierarchy of their respective pantheons, a fact that brings the greatest differences between Amaterasu and Demeter to the discussion of the themes addressed. This is a reflection of the culture in which the myths are inserted, the Japanese one where Amaterasu is also the personification and generator of the imperial lineage, and the Greek one where Demeter assumes more human attributes of a mother in search of her daughter. Therefore, while still interpreting Amaterasu and Demeter as superior beings to be inspired by, we can also recognize all those attitudes and imperfections that characterize the human race and makes gods being perceived more akin to human beings.


Cover pictures:

TI.A, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons & Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons