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Susanoo is one of the most famous deities in Japanese Shintoism. As the god of the sea and of storms, he had great importance for the island nation. Unlike most sea deities in other religions, however, Susanoo is quite a complex and morally ambiguous character. With a story that has many rises and falls, Susanoo has even left some physical artifacts and relics that are still preserved in Shinto temples across Japan today.
Who is Susanoo?
Susanoois often also called Kamususanoo or Susanoo-no-Mikoto, meaning The Great God Susanoo. A god of sea storms and the sea in general, he’s one of the first three kami gods to be born from the Creator god Izanagi after his wife Izanami was left in Yomi, the land of the dead. Sosanoo’s two other siblings were Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon. The sun and moon kami were born from Izanagi’s eyes while Susanoo was born from his father’s nose.
Susanoo is one the most revered deities in the Japanese Shinto religion but he’s also the one with the most violent temper. Susanoo is chaotic and quick to anger, but also ultimately an imperfect hero in Japanese mythology.
Trouble in Paradise
After the lone-father Izanagi gave birth to Susanoo, Amaterasu, and Tsukuyomi, he decided to put them at the top of the Shinto pantheon of kami deities.
- In Charge of Paradise
Of all of them, Susanoo was charged to be the guardian of the pantheon. However, it quickly became obvious that Susanoo was much too temperamental to “guard” anything. He frequently quarrelled with his siblings and created more trouble than he was worth. It wasn’t long before Izanagi decided to banish Susanoo and, to his credit, the storm kami accepted his banishment willingly.
Before leaving, however, Susanoo wanted to say goodbye to his sister Amaterasu and make amends with her, as they had fallen out. Amaterasu questioned Susanoo’s honesty, and the prideful kami proposed a contest to prove his sincerity.
- The Contest
The contest had nothing to do with honesty or sincerity. Each of the two kami had to take the other’s most revered object and use it to create new kami. Amaterasu took Susanoo’s first famous sword, the ten-span Totsuka-no-Tsurugi, and used it to create three female kami. Susanoo, on the other hand, used Amaterasu’s favorite necklace to create five male kami.
Before Susanoo could claim victory, Amaterasu stated that since the necklace was hers, the five male kami were also hers and that the three female kami were Susanoo’s since they were produced from his sword. By this logic, Amaterasu was the victor.
- Susanoo Is Finally Banished
Being quick to anger, Susanoo fell into a blind rage and started trashing everything around him. He destroyed Amaterasu’s rice field, flayed one of her horses, and then threw the poor animal at Amaterasu’s loom, killing one of his sister’s handmaidens. Izanagi quickly came down and enacted Susanoo’s banishment and, in her grief at the death of her horse, Amaterasu hid from the world, leaving it in complete darkness for a while.
Slaying the Dragon Orochi
Banished from heaven, Susanoo descended to the waters of the River Hi in the Izumo province. There, he heard a person weeping and he went in search of the origin of the sound. Eventually, he found an elderly couple and he asked them why they were crying.
The couple told Susanoo about an eight-headed dragon from the sea, Yamata-no-Orochi. The evil beast had already devoured seven of the couple’s eight daughters and he was soon going to come and eat their last daughter – Kushinada-hime.
Angered, Susanoo decided that he wouldn’t stand for this and he would confront the dragon. To protect Kushinada-hime, Susanoo turned her into a comb and put her in his hair. Meanwhile, Kushinada’s parents filled a tub with sake and left it outside their home for the dragon to drink.
When Orochi came later that night he drank the sake and fell asleep by the tub. Susanoo, wasting no time, jumped out, and sliced the beast into pieces with his sword.
As he split the dragon’s tail, however, his sword Totsuka-no-Tsurugi broke into something. Susanoo was puzzled, so he pushed his broken blade further into the monster’s flesh and discovered an unexpected treasure – the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, also known as the Grass-Cutter or the Heavenly Sword of Gathering Clouds.
The Next Stage of Susanoo’s Life
Thankful for the kami’s help, the elderly couple offered Kushinada’s hand in marriage to Susanoo. The storm kami accepted and Kushinada became Susanoo’s wife.
Not ready to move on with his life, however, Susanoo returned to his heavenly realm and gifted Amaterasu with the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sword in an attempt to make amends. The sun goddess accepted his penance and the two put their quarrels behind them. Later on, Amaterasu gave the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sword to her grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto together with her mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. From there, the blade eventually became a part of the Japanese Imperial Family’s official regalia and is now displayed at the Amaterasu shrine at Ise.
Seeing the newly-found peace between his children, Izanagi decided to present his stormy son with one last challenge – Susanoo was to take Izanagi’s place and guard the entrance to Yomi. Susanoo accepted and is to this day viewed as the guardian of Yomi’s gate which is presumed to be somewhere underwater near Japan’s shores.
This is also why violent sea storms are associated with the dead in Japanese culture – Susanoo is presumed to be battling the evil spirits trying to get out of the land of the dead.
Symbolism of Susanoo
Susanoo is very much a perfect representation of the sea raging around Japan’s shores – violent, dangerous, but also a beloved part of the country’s history and a protector against all external sources and invaders. He had his quarrels with his siblings and with the other kami but he’s ultimately an imperfect force for good.
The symbolism of the storm god slaying a giant serpent or dragon is also very traditional and can be found in other parts of the globe. Many other cultures also have similar myths – Thor and Jormungandr, Zeus and Typhon, Indra and Vritra, Yu the Great and Xiangliu, and many others.
Importance of Susanoo in Modern Culture
As many of Japan’s modern anime, manga, and video game series draw from Shinto mythology and tradition, it’s not surprising that Susanoo or many Susanno-inspired characters can be found in Japanese pop-culture.
- In the video game Final Fantasy XIV, Susanoo is one of the first primal bosses the player has to fight.
- In BlazBlue, Susanoo is the vessel of the character Yuki Terumi, a warrior wielding lighting powers.
- In the famous anime series Naruto, Susanoo is an avatar of the Sharingan ninja chakra.
- There’s also the old anime Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon which details the battle of Susanoo and Orochi.
Susanoo was the god of the sea and of storms.
Susanoo was born from his father, Izanagi, with no help from a female. He emerged from his father as he washed his nose.
Susanoo was not a demon but a kami or a god.
Susanoo killed the Orochi using sake.
Susanoo married Kushinada-hime.
Susanoo was ambiguous, demonstrating both good and bad tendencies at different times. However, he remains one of the most loved of all Japanese gods.
For an island nation like Japan, the sea and storms are important natural forces to reckon with. Susanoo’s association with these forces made him an important and powerful deity. He was highly revered and worshiped, despite his shortcomings and, at times, questionable decisions.