|Amaterasu, come out, come out, wherever you are! But the mythic Japanese sun-goddess, a protagonist in a bawdy Shinto narrative that mysteriously, but urgently, resonates for us living through our darkening spiritual and ecological crises of the 21st century, stays hidden inside her cave, her beauty, warmth and wisdom off-limits to her irresponsible brother, Susanoo, who has violated her temple and desecrated her resources... Sound familiar? In our time Mother Earth, peopled by so many warring factions, riven by competing visions of civilization, burdened by tribalisms and fundamentalisms of all stripes--Christian and Moslem, Jewish and Hindu--suffers daily. She groans in agony; she screams in outrage; she revolts against the indignities wrought upon her. It doesn't require much imagination to step back from our money-making pursuits and daily distractions to see our world for what it is or fast becoming: brutalized and scarred by human greed and exploitation. Our Mother, who art in Hell... Amaterasu, of course, is the female deity who, alone among the major religions currently practiced, embodies what is traditionally viewed as male: the sun. From a post-postmodernist, post-feminist perspective deep in the stream of human consciousness, her story offers us a picture of startling hope and potential for regeneration.
Earliest recorded versions of the myth of Amaterasu--whose name in Japanese means "she who shines in the heavens"--can be found in the Hijoki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712). Reputedly the divine ancestor of Japan's royal family, Amaterasu rules weaving and agriculture. In the myth, we find her weaving Penelope-like in her sanctuary when the storm god Susanoo violently intrudes and tosses a flayed horse across her loom. If that were not enough, he tramples the rice crops and defecates in her palace. We could say that Susanoo, the god of storms, the god of war, is the great exposer, he who goes crashing through walls, who stirs things up, who sees behind facades, who would pry into and invade the feminine mysteries. He is the masculine energy which would turn mystery into information, and information into power. But she will have none of it. Have we no sense of shame? Finely attuned to the proprieties, to the sanctity of the body, she of the artful dodge, rather than die of over-exposure (like the flayed horse), rather than be over-exposed to inspection and reduced to a thing, takes refuge inside a cave where others cannot follow. To remain real to herself, in other words, she must turn herself into a fantasy.
As sun-goddess, Amaterasu knows that having a body means being vulnerable to the suffering and pain of experience. Being vulnerable to the suffering and pain of experience, however, does not mean being powerless. Indeed, having reached her limits of patience and endurance over the destructive behavior of Susanoo, she displays her power by withdrawing into the cave in anger and grief, plunging the world into endless shadow (Fie on Plato, the Greek Ancient, who would have it that our entire existence is played out in that shadowy cave! The Shinto tale suggests otherwise.).
So darkness descends, night falls, crops wither, thieves rule, people despair, reminding us that for anyone who's lost sight of his or her Beloved (within or without), the sun indeed "sets," the light goes out in the world, and every day is a darkened, empty eternity. Or as William Blake put it: "For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." Thus with the sun-goddess closed up in her cave, a pall and bleakness settles across the land. Earth, covered as if by a shroud, is sapped of energy, deflated like an old balloon, flat as a musical note off-key. No Whitmanesque YAWP, no Ginsbergian HOWL can bring her back. We hear only the penetrating SCREAM which Earth in her misery emits, and we would weep at its sound. What we do to Earth, we do to ourselves.
Desperate for Amaterasu's light and warmth to be restored, the gods don't dally or tip-toe around. They devise a plan. A wild party is staged, and Uzume, the Goddess of Mirth, performs a dance (maybe it's a strip-tease, or a cancan) in front of the cave entrance. From deep inside her cave Amaterasu pricks up her ears. Peering out, she sees a mirror the gods have cleverly placed near the entrance. Her curiosity aroused, she is tricked into seeing an image of herself she has never before seen. And the reflection delights her! She perceives herself as if for the first time, in all her sensuous beauty and blazing glory. Poet Walt Whitman can describe the scene for us: "(I too) saw the reflection of the summer-sky in the water/ Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,/ Looked at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sun-lit water." The so-called narcissistic act, then, is the essential first-step to restoring the goddess to the community, and returning the sun to its proper place in the heavens.
Spellbound by the image she sees, Amaterasu begins to cross the threshold of the cave, the liminal space. She identifies first with her own image, which she sees reflected in the mirror, and the male and female gods, meanwhile, wait outside the entrance to block her return. For whenever we open up a secret and step into the forbidden zone, the myth tells us, something is lost, something changes forever. Yet at the same time, by this experience who we are, who we want to be, slowly reveals itself. When Amaterasu steps outside her cave, it's dawn all over again. She re-emerges to gradually identify with the rest of the world. She does this by mounting the throne high up in the sky and assuming her place in the heavens, shedding her democratic light equally upon all. Her return and revelation comes, the myth tells us, not by the diagnosis of possession, nor by the trauma of invasion, nor by the solemnity of grace. It comes by a ribald dance, lewd and impolite, performed by the goddess of Mirth whose sexy gyrations among the gods evokes joy and laughter and peeks the sun-goddess's curiosity until she reveals in all newness the splendor and beauty of her true self. Here the cover-up of the self meets the strip-tease of the other! Amaterasu emerges radiant and sublime, a heavenly body like Bottecelli's Venus that serves to renew the world. Her secret, what she has to give--her fecund, procreative, generative light-- is what is reflected off of OTHERS. For indeed she shines on behalf of all. That's her real secret, the revelation of which would restore us, each in our individual way, to the gifts that our own inner light and wisdom have to offer the larger community. How marvelous that a higher social vision arises from grounded erotic energy!
The Japanese Shinto myth of the sun-goddess Amaterasu charges us to find a new way out of our cave, a new way out of our crisis of fear, despair and depression. For as we know, something's rotten in the world: who among us is blameless? Where would we run to in order to escape the onus of experience and the transformation it brings, especially at a time like this? What we need to restore the sun-goddess in our lives is to envision a new dance with a new song. Not a talking-cure. Not a pharmacological one. Rather, an artful (read: well-woven) display (read: celebration) of nakedness (read: the amorous Body). Yes, Amaterasu must be enticed out of her cave to help us see. For by her light and warmth we may experience Earth once again as lover. Who would desecrate her body? Who violate her sanctity? Humankind's heart-ruled brain must set to work to help make a navigable road-atlas of the heart and spirit that is visible everywhere yet hidden from our sight.
From the human genome project probing on the organic level to the Hubble telescope searching in the outer reaches of space, human exploration of Nature's mysteries continues. The good Dr. Seuss, however, may have pointed us in the right direction when, in Whoville, Horton hears the smallest lad shouting out his YOPP, at which point all the citizens' voices could be heard and their City saved. A new song and dance of identity must be interwoven in our time, one which accounts for and respects all forms and varieties of otherness. The Amaterasu myth has all the right ingredients: violence and grief, darkness and despair, curiosity and pluck, light and rebirth. A story for our time. And the hero who saves the day doesn't kill anybody, she strips instead! Hollywood could have a field day! But why wait for Hollywood?
Time for us to be putting on our thinking caps and start thinking outside the cave. Remember, Mohandas Gandhi helped topple the once-invincible British Empire in part by spinning at his loom and stripping to a loincloth. Meanwhile, as the myth of Amaterasu would remind us, and as Andre Benjamin of the American hip-hop group OutKast sings: "When you feel you've done about the best you can/ Muthaf*ck the wagon, come join the band."