Amaterasu rites: Arousing or calling back the Spirit of the Regenerating Solar-Earth Mother, Rice Mother, or Rice Daughter?

Although Amaterasu is most associated with her identity as a sun and weaving goddess, she is also credited with inventing the cultivation of rice and wheat(source: Amaterasu). Her role as sun goddess is significant mainly for her impact on the fertility of the rice crop or harvest. Susanoo is depicted as a mischief-maker and the destroyer and defiler of her rice-fields, and as a deity who neglected his duties in the realm of the sea (as a weather/storm god), and who caused every sort of disturbance on the land, which Amaterasu had previously ruled with benevolence and wisdom.

If Amaterasu could be equated as a type of the Rice Mother, then Uzume might be a type of the Rice Daughter. For it is Uzume, who is “remembered largely for the role that she played in bringing Amaterasu out of a severe depression. The goddess Uzume played an important role in leading Amaterasu back to her heavenly responsibilities, insuring the fertility of the crops“(source: Amaterasu and Uzume).

Drawing a parallel with the Austronesian and Tibetan-Burman customary beliefs of an easily frightened or disturbed Rice Mother (see the ensuing excerpted paragraphs below), it is significant that the cause of that depression was her having been frightened by her sibling storm god Susanoo’s behavior in wreaking havoc with her rice-fields and in having defiled her weaving halls by throwing a horse (sacred sacrificial solar animal) into them.

To illustrate the role and meaning of Amaterasu as the Rice Mother of Japan, we turn to the comparisons made by J.G. Frazer in “The Golden Bough“:

“IF THE READER still feels any doubts as to the meaning of the harvest customs which have been practised within living memory by European peasants, these doubts may perhaps be dispelled by comparing the customs observed at the rice-harvest by the Malays and Dyaks of the East Indies. For these Eastern peoples have not, like our peasantry, advanced beyond the intellectual stage at which the customs originated; their theory and their practice are still in unison; for them the quaint rites which in Europe have long dwindled into mere fossils, the pastime of clowns and the puzzle of the learned, are still living realities of which they can render an intelligible and truthful account. Hence a study of their beliefs and usages concerning the rice may throw some light on the true meaning of the ritual of the corn in ancient Greece and modern Europe.

Now the whole of the ritual which the Malays and Dyaks observe in connexion with the rice is founded on the simple conception of the rice as animated by a soul like that which these people attribute to mankind. They explain the phenomena of reproduction, growth, decay, and death in the rice on the same principles on which they explain the corresponding phenomena in human beings. They imagine that in the fibres of the plant, as in the body of a man, there is a certain vital element, which is so far independent of the plant that it may for a time be completely separated from it without fatal effects, though if its absence be prolonged beyond certain limits the plant will wither and die. This vital yet separable element is what, for the want of a better word, we must call the soul of a plant, just as a similar vital and separable element is commonly supposed to constitute the soul of man; and on this theory or myth of the plant-soul is built the whole worship of the cereals, just as on the theory or myth of the human soul is built the whole worship of the dead,—a towering superstructure reared on a slender and precarious foundation.

Believing the rice to be animated by a soul like that of a man, the Indonesians naturally treat it with the deference and the consideration which they show to their fellows. Thus they behave towards the rice in bloom as they behave towards a pregnant woman; they abstain from firing guns or making loud noises in the field, lest they should so frighten the soul of the rice that it would miscarry and bear no grain; and for the same reason they will not talk of corpses or demons in the rice-fields. Moreover, they feed the blooming rice with foods of various kinds which are believed to be wholesome for women with child; but when the rice-ears are just beginning to form, they are looked upon as infants, and women go through the fields feeding them with rice-pap as if they were human babes. In such natural and obvious comparisons of the breeding plant to a breeding woman, and of the young grain to a young child, is to be sought the origin of the kindred Greek conception of the Corn-mother and the Corn-daughter, Demeter and Persephone. But if the timorous feminine soul of the rice can be frightened into a miscarriage even by loud noises, it is easy to imagine what her feelings must be at harvest, when people are under the sad necessity of cutting down the rice with the knife. At so critical a season every precaution must be used to render the necessary surgical operation of reaping as inconspicuous and as painless as possible. For that reason the reaping of the seed-rice is done with knives of a peculiar pattern, such that the blades are hidden in the reapers’ hands and do not frighten the rice-spirit till the very last moment, when her head is swept off almost before she is aware; and from a like delicate motive the reapers at work in the fields employ a special form of speech, which the rice-spirit cannot be expected to understand, so that she has no warning or inkling of what is going forward till the heads of rice are safely deposited in the basket.

Among the Indonesian peoples who thus personify the rice we may take the Kayans or Bahaus of Central Borneo as typical. In order to secure and detain the volatile soul of the rice the Kayans resort to a number of devices. Among the instruments employed for this purpose are a miniature ladder, a spatula, and a basket containing hooks, thorns, and cords. With the spatula the priestess strokes the soul of the rice down the little ladder into the basket, where it is naturally held fast by the hooks, the thorn, and the cord; and having thus captured and imprisoned the soul she conveys it into the rice-granary. Sometimes a bamboo box and a net are used for the same purpose. And in order to ensure a good harvest for the following year it is necessary not only to detain the soul of all the grains of rice which are safely stored in the granary, but also to attract and recover the soul of all the rice that has been lost through falling to the earth or being eaten by deer, apes, and pigs. For this purpose instruments of various sorts have been invented by the priests. One, for example, is a bamboo vessel provided with four hooks made from the wood of a fruit-tree, by means of which the absent rice-soul may be hooked and drawn back into the vessel, which is then hung up in the house. Sometimes two hands carved out of the wood of a fruit-tree are used for the same purpose. And every time that a Kayan housewife fetches rice from the granary for the use of her household, she must propitiate the souls of the rice in the granary, lest they should be angry at being robbed of their substance.

The same need of securing the soul of the rice, if the crop is to thrive, is keenly felt by the Karens of Burma. When a rice-field does not flourish, they suppose that the soul (kelah) of the rice is in some way detained from the rice. If the soul cannot be called back, the crop will fail. The following formula is used in recalling the kelah (soul) of the rice: “O come, rice-kelah, come! Come to the field. Come to the rice. With seed of each gender, come. Come from the river Kho, come from the river Kaw; from the place where they meet, come. Come from the West, come from the East. From the throat of the bird, from the maw of the ape, from the throat of the elephant. Come from the sources of rivers and their mouths. Come from the country of the Shan and Burman. From the distant kingdoms come. From all granaries come. O rice-kelah, come to the rice.”

The Corn-mother of our European peasants has her match in the Rice-mother of the Minangkabauers of Sumatra. The Minangkabauers definitely attribute a soul to rice, and will sometimes assert that rice pounded in the usual way tastes better than rice ground in a mill, because in the mill the body of the rice was so bruised and battered that the soul has fled from it. Like the Javanese they think that the rice is under the special guardianship of a female spirit called Saning Sari, who is conceived as so closely knit up with the plant that the rice often goes by her name, as with the Romans the corn might be called Ceres. In particular Saning Sari is represented by certain stalks or grains called indoea padi, that is, literally, “Mother of Rice,” a name that is often given to the guardian spirit herself. This so-called Mother of Rice is the occasion of a number of ceremonies observed at the planting and harvesting of the rice as well as during its preservation in the barn. When the seed of the rice is about to be sown in the nursery or bedding-out ground, where under the wet system of cultivation it is regularly allowed to sprout before being transplanted to the fields, the best grains are picked out to form the Rice-mother. These are then sown in the middle of the bed, and the common seed is planted round about them. The state of the Rice-mother is supposed to exert the greatest influence on the growth of the rice; if she droops or pines away, the harvest will be bad in consequence. The woman who sows the Rice-mother in the nursery lets her hair hang loose and afterwards bathes, as a means of ensuring an abundant harvest. When the time comes to transplant the rice from the nursery to the field, the Rice-mother receives a special place either in the middle or in a corner of the field, and a prayer or charm is uttered as follows: “Saning Sari, may a measure of rice come from a stalk of rice and a basketful from a root; may you be frightened neither by lightning nor by passers-by! Sunshine make you glad; with the storm may you be at peace; and may rain serve to wash your face!” While the rice is growing, the particular plant which was thus treated as the Rice-mother is lost sight of; but before harvest another Rice-mother is found. When the crop is ripe for cutting, the oldest woman of the family or a sorcerer goes out to look for her. The first stalks seen to bend under a passing breeze are the Rice-mother, and they are tied together but not cut until the first-fruits of the field have been carried home to serve as a festal meal for the family and their friends, nay even for the domestic animals; since it is Saning Sari’s pleasure that the beasts also should partake of her good gifts. After the meal has been eaten, the Rice-mother is fetched home by persons in gay attire, who carry her very carefully under an umbrella in a neatly worked bag to the barn, where a place in the middle is assigned to her. Every one believes that she takes care of the rice in the barn and even multiplies it not uncommonly.

When the Tomori of Central Celebes are about to plant the rice, they bury in the field some betel as an offering to the spirits who cause the rice to grow. The rice that is planted round this spot is the last to be reaped at harvest. At the commencement of the reaping the stalks of this patch of rice are tied together into a sheaf, which is called “the Mother of the Rice” (ineno pae), and offerings in the shape of rice, fowl’s liver, eggs, and other things are laid down before it. When all the rest of the rice in the field has been reaped, “the Mother of the Rice” is cut down and carried with due honour to the rice-barn, where it is laid on the floor, and all the other sheaves are piled upon it. The Tomori, we are told, regard the Mother of the Rice as a special offering made to the rice-spirit Omonga, who dwells in the moon. … On the other hand the Toradjas of Central Celebes, who also practice the custom of the Rice-mother at harvest, regard her as the actual mother of the whole harvest, and therefore keep her carefully, lest in her absence the garnered store of rice should all melt away and disappear.” 

Next, we seek to explore the possibility that Amaterasu may have also inherited the attributes of an Earth Mother as seen in India’s Mahravata festive rites. Japanese Miko shrine maidens continue today an ancient ceremonial tradition of presenting an offering of the first harvest of sacred rice during the Takara-No-Ichi ceremony at Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine in Osaka, Japan. The Takara-No-Ichi Shinto rice harvest ceremony dates back about 1800 years, and is held annually on October 17 with sacred rice that was planted. Watch a video of shrine maidens dancing for a good rice harvest of rice and vegetables.

In “The Cults of the Mother Goddesses in India“, we are minded to see that Uzume’s entertaining dance reminds us of the Mahavrata festival’s maidens dancing around the fire with their water pitchers to arouse the Earth Mother as well as of other Bacchic-style rites across many European and Mediterranean and Hellenic cultures:

“..the Earth Goddess, being the primary source of that Mana which fertilizes men and animals, and brings the fruits of the earth to harvest, naturally becomes periodically exhausted, and needs repose to recruit her energies. … 

In the Deccan, after the Naurātrī, or Nine Nights’ feast of the goddess in September-October, her temple is closed from the sacred 11th day of the month until the full-moon day, while the goddess rests and refreshes herself after the liberal distribution of Mana to her worshippers during her festival.[1] In the Deccan many people make a vow to live during the rest of the goddess in the country north of the river Godāvarī, this being regarded as the southern boundary, marking off Hindostan from the non-Aryan tribes of the south.[2]

Naturally after her periodical rest the Earth Mother needs to be aroused. This rite goes back to Vedic times, when, at the Mahāvrata festival, maidens carrying water pitchers used to dance round a fire and sing: “The cows smell pleasantly: here is sweet drink!

M. M. Underhill, The Indian Year, 14“The Phrygians, according to Plutarch, believed that their god slept in winter and waked in summer, and accordingly they celebrated with Bacchic rites the beginning and end of this period of rest” (Sir J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 3rd ed. Adonis, Attis, Osiris, ii. 41).”

We hear in  “Womb Mother and Great Mother of Mercy and Love” of Bon and Mongol cosmology, and Tibetan influences upon southwest China and East Asia” that in the region of Tibet:

“there exists a goddess who appears now as the tender “Great Mother of Mercy and Love” now as the ” Glorious Queen of Three Worlds” who rules all the world including China, Tibet, Shanshun and Li (Khotan). This goddess is honoured even more than her husband, since here power is linked with the earth, as a consequence of which she is called in Western Tibet the Earth-Mother.”

and of the Turk, Qhitan and Mongol goddess Umai:

““Umai was a female Deity associated with benevolent deities and spirits. She was considered to be a favourite wife of the Sky God, Tengri. Like Yer-Sub, Umai obeyed Tengri. If Yer-Sub ruled over all the living on land and water, Umai was the giver of special divine powers to mankind. Umai lived in the skies and radiated down to the Earth. Her rays penetrated man and dwelled in him like a spark until he died. This spark accounted for man’s vital energy and physical force, but it was not Kut (spirit). It was rather a divine power linking man to the heavens, sent by Tengri. Once the spark perished, death followed. Thus, everything spiritual and physical in our Universe was subject to two Goddesses, Yer-Sub and Umai. The Turks did not sacrifice domestic animals to the Goddess Umai, but dedicated carefully prepared dairy and meat dishes in solemn ceremonies. Umai protected the Turkish tribes and participated, together with Tengri and Yer-Sub, in the victory of their forces over an enemy. In the Orkhon Inscriptions honouring Tonyukuk we read: “Tengri, Umai and Sacred Yer-Sub, it should be known, gave (us) victory.” In the inscriptions there is also a comparison of the Khagan’s wife to Umai: “…Her majesty, my mother Katun, is comparable to Umai…This testifies to the reverence of this Goddess by the highest ruling classes, especially the representatives of divine authority on Earth, the Khagans.

After the disintegration of the ancient Turkic states and the migrations of the ancient populations of Eurasia, the Goddess Umai began to be considered only as a protector of pregnant women and small children, from malevolent earthly spirits. The reverence to Umai (Ymai, Mai) remained fresh in the memory of the Altai until recent times. Today, some Altai testify that when the Kut of a child reaches the Earth, he is weak and helpless, and therefore Umai descends with him from the heavens, and guards him even in the womb. This is necessary, for the malicious spirits penetrate the body and the womb of the pregnant woman, ruining the child and causing abortion. As delivery approaches, Umai helps the child arrive, entering sometimes in a struggle with a malicious spirit, who interferes with the delivery and pulls at the child…Bon is professed in Sikkim, to some extent in Bhutan, in the south-west of China (Sichuan and Yunnan) by the south Chinese minorities, the Miao, Lolo, Lisu and others, and also in Western Tibet”

 We see that the Chinese legacy of “Xiwang mu Queen Mother of the West, her wild dancing women and attendant rabbit pounding the elixir of immortality on the moon” is passed on to Japan and found in tombs of the Kofun period’s great tumulis. Dancing before Xiwangmu and her court are:

Jade Maidens [who]appear as long-sleeved dancers in the shamanic Songs of Chu and some Han poems. The Shuo wen jie zi  defines them as “invocators [zhu] …women who can perform services to the shapeless and make the spirits come down by dancing.”

“Han dynasty people placed bronze mirrors in burials as blessings for the dead and the living, inscribed with requests for longevity, prosperity, progeny, protection, and immortality. Taoists also used these mystic mirrors in ritual and meditation and transmissions of potency. One mirror depicting Xi Wangmu bears a poem on the transcendents:

The common people marched westward through various provinces, toward the Han capital. Many were barefoot and wild-haired (like their untamed goddess). People shouted and drummed and carried torches to the rooftops. Some crossed barrier gates and climbed over city walls by night, others rode swift carriages in relays “to pass on the message.” They gathered in village lanes and fields to make offerings. “They sang and danced in worship of the Queen Mother of the West.”

In Japan, we see a little of Xiwangmu in the early tombs and in bronze mirror designs laid in the great tumuli of the Kofun period, but not in the shrines or temples or paraded in the streets, but that is probably because Amaterasu had later subsumed all of her roles and functions.

Sources and readings:

Vestal virgins, virgin mothers and sacrifice

Frazer, J.G., “The Golden Bough

Amaterasu and Uzume

Xiwang mu Queen Mother of the West, her wild dancing women and rabbit pounding the elixir of immortality

 The Cult of the Mother Goddesses in India excerpt by Edwin Oliver James

M. M. Underhill, The Indian Year, 14. “The Phrygians, according to Plutarch, believed that their god slept in winter and waked in summer, and accordingly they celebrated with Bacchic rites the beginning and end of this period of rest”.

Sir J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, ii. 41.

Womb Mother and “Great Mother of Mercy and Love” of Bon and Mongol cosmology, and Tibetan influences upon southwest China and East Asia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s