nagoya triplet (2): atsuta shrine
Nagoya’s Atsuta-jingu (熱田神宮) is one of the most ancient imperial shrines in Japan, established during the reign of Emperor Keikō (71-130 CE). The shrine was originally built to house the Kusanagi no Tsurugi, a legendary sword originally discovered by the gods inside the body of a serpent. Though the Kusanagi has mythological origins, there is apparently an actual historical object that takes residence at Atsuta-jingu. Since the Kusanagi is one of the three sacred imperial treasures of Japan, however, it is hidden from everyone’s eyes except those of the emperor and a few elect Shinto priests. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the legends surrounding the Kusanagi:
The history of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi extends into legend. According to Kojiki, the Japanese god Susanoo encountered a grieving family of kunitsukami (“gods of the land”) headed by Ashinazuchi (足名椎) in Izumo province. When Susanoo inquired of Ashinazuchi, he told him that his family was being ravaged by the fearsome Yamata-no-Orochi, an eight-headed serpent of Koshi, who consumed seven of the family’s eight daughters and that the creature was coming for his final daughter, Kushinada-hime (奇稲田姫). Susanoo investigated the creature, and after an abortive encounter he returned with a plan to defeat it. In return, he asked for Kushinada-hime’s hand in marriage, which was agreed. Transforming her temporarily into a comb (one interpreter reads this section as “using a comb he turns into [masquerades as] Kushinada-hime”) to have her company during battle, he detailed his plan into steps.
He instructed the preparation of eight vats of sake (rice wine) to be put on individual platforms positioned behind a fence with eight gates. The monster took the bait and put one of its heads through each gate. With this distraction, Susanoo attacked and slew the beast (with his sword Worochi no Ara-masa). He chopped off each head and then proceeded to the tails. In the fourth tail, he discovered a great sword inside the body of the serpent which he called Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, which he presented to the goddess, Amaterasu to settle an old grievance.
Generations later, in the reign of the Twelfth Emperor, Keikō, Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi was given to the great warrior, Yamato Takeru as part of a pair of gifts given by his aunt, Yamato-hime the Shrine Maiden of Ise Shrine, to protect her nephew in times of peril.
These gifts came in handy when Yamato Takeru was lured onto an open grassland during a hunting expedition by a treacherous warlord. The lord had fiery arrows to ignite the grass and trap Yamato Takeru in the field so that he would burn to death. He also killed the warrior’s horse to prevent his escape. Desperately, Yamato Takeru used the Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi to cut back the grass and remove fuel from the fire, but in doing so, he discovered that the sword enabled him to control the wind and cause it to move in the direction of his swing. Taking advantage of this magic, Yamato Takeru used his other gift, fire strikers, to enlarge the fire in the direction of the lord and his men, and he used the winds controlled by the sword to sweep the blaze toward them. In triumph, Yamato Takeru renamed the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (lit. “Grasscutter Sword”) to commemorate his narrow escape and victory. Eventually, Yamato Takeru married and later fell in battle with a monster, after ignoring his wife’s advice to take the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi with him.
Unfortunately, the most famous building at Atsuta-jingu — the haiden, or ‘prayer hall’ — was being rebuilt at the time of my visit, so all I was able to see was a giant white protective tarp with an image of the haiden printed on it. Not quite the same thing at all. It’s a funny thing to visit a site while its most salient feature is under wraps, but there was more than enough texture around the shrine grounds to make the trip well worth it.
Filed under: history, Japan, religion, travel | 4 Comments
Tags: Atsuta Shrine, Atsuta-jingu, 熱田神宮, 草薙の剣, imperial object, imperial regalia, Japanese legend, Japanese myth, Kusanagi, Kusanagi no Tsurugi, monster, mythology, Nagoya, sacred sword, serpent, Shinto, Susanoo, sword, the gods, Yamato Takeru, 名古屋