Susano’o Slays Yamata-no-orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon: A Medicine Story from the Japanese Creation Myths
In my view, the Japanese myths got a bit murky at several points in history. I have a sneaking suspicion that the government sanctioned ‘organic’ assimilation of mythical characters with religious icons to justify some political agenda. The interesting result of it is that there are now several versions of the myths ‘frozen in time’ in regional folktales. The Chronicles of Susano’o, the younger brother of Amaterasu the sun goddess and Tsukuyomi the moon god, is no exception.
Unlike his luminous yet inconspicuous brother, audacious and bodacious but sometimes child-like Susano’o is a popular figure in Japanese art in general. He appears in old woodblock prints, Kabuki plays, modern novels and even comic books.
This is the story of how cleverly Susano’o defeated the eight-headed dragon with eight tails, Yamata-no-orochi (yamata meaning split into eight, orochi meaning a huge monstrous snake).
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After the reemergence of Amaterasu from the Cave of Heaven, Susano’o was cast out of the Upper World. Amaterasu, its ruler, had enough of her brother’s antics. Susano’o was never truly committed to being in the Upper World anyway, wanting instead to be with his mother in the Under World, the land of the dead.
When the Sun Goddess Hid in the Cave of Heaven: A Medicine Story from the Japanese Creation Myths
Just before Susano’o was banished to the Middle World, he acquired silk worms and five grains (rice, millet, wheat, azuki and soy beans). With those in his satchel, he landed on a mountain in Izumo, southwestern part of Japan by the Sea of Japan.
When he came upon a river, he saw a pair of chopsticks floating downstream. Seeing that, Susano’o decided to travel upstream in search of the local residents.
Eventually Susano’o came by an old man and a woman crying with their young daughter. Inquired by Susano’o, the old man began to tell his tale.
They were the resident gods of the land who had lived with eight daughters. Every year they were visited by Yamata-no-orochi from the north, who would take and eat one daughter. Orochi would soon return to devour their only remaining daughter, Princess Kushinada.
The dragon had blazing bloodshot eyes, eight heads and eight tails attached to an enormous body that spanned across eight mountains and eight valleys. On its back, birches, cypresses and moss grew. His underbelly was inflamed and oozing pus and blood.
Susano’o proposed to slay the dragon in return for Princess Kushinada’s hand in marriage. Surprised, the old man asked Susano’o who he was. Seeing as Susano’o was the brother of the great sun goddess, they readily agreed.
At that, Susano’o turned the princess into a fine toothed comb and fixed her into his hair.
Then Susano’o instructed for a hedge to be made encircling a large field, having eight separate gates built into it.
A vat of strong sake, filtered seven times, was to be placed on a stand underneath each of the eight gates.
Then Susano’o waited quietly, sheltered from view.
Suddenly, ominous air filled the space. Dark eerie clouds descended, lightening were seen and thunderclaps heard. Soon they were in the middle of a storm. They were rocked by huge tremors. Hills were crumbling in front of their eyes and trees were being mowed down making a tremendous sound.
Then they saw the monster, his breaths becoming windstorms.
For a while Orochi seemed to sniff the air. Lured by the sweet smell, Orochi began to drink the wine greedily, each head in its own vat. Soon he was drunk and asleep in the middle of the enclosure, snoring.
Susano’o approached the dragon cautiously making sure he was deep asleep. Then he cut off all the heads with his magical sword forged in Heaven. Next, to finish the dragon off, Susano’o began to cut off the tails. In the middle of doing so, the sword snapped against something hard. Susano’o was perplexed as his heavenly sword was supposed to cut through anything. There, lying within the flesh of the dragon’s tail, was a longsword shining brightly with swirling patterns on its blade.
(The sword is known as The Heavenly Cloud Sword, one of the three Japanese National Treasures alongside the magical mirror made by Ishikoridome, and the magical jade bead made by Tamano’oya when Amaterasu hid in the Cave of Heaven.)
After defeating Orochi, Susano’o married the princess and settled in Izumo. In joy, Susano’o composed a poem honouring his new wife and the land of Izumo, considered to be the first Waka (stylised Japanese poem) in recorded history.
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In one sense it is a typical story of a hero slaying a dragon to save a princess. It depicts a significant turning point -broken sword- in the hero’s life; a brash young god’s rite of passage to becoming a conquering hero, who attains enlightenment -shining sword- through it and blesses his people with peace, harvest and silk.
Susano’o’s true appeal, in my mind, is that he is inherently motivated by love and the pursuit of love. For example, he refuses his father when ordered to rule a dominion over the ocean, for his love of his mother. He is not afraid to tell his father he would rather journey to the Under World to see his mother.
Susano’o is willing to face up to an unknown monster of unmeasurable power in anticipation of love in matrimony. It’s so interesting to me that someone overtly extroverted should be deeply intuitive at the same time. He is only the second generation physical god (his grandparents were concepts of god in the field of chaos), therefore, his conscious will is not entirely separate from the superconscious. He is the will of God. As such, it does not take much for him to make a decision. That’s my guess. He rolls with it, with the love that stirs in him.
For me it’s significant that Susano’o wills to conquer the dragon with his betrothed -the comb attached to his head- united in higher consciousness. The chopsticks, a tool that only works well as a pair, is a significator of this point. Chopsticks are also seen as a symbol for domestic harmony. Susano’o, who is always ‘throwing his toys out the pram’ in the heavens, shows up to the Middle World every bit a capable ruler. He seems to come into his own power by the force of romantic love.
In my opinion, Susano’o conquers the dragon by love. He makes space -the hedged enclosure- for the dragon with numerous monstrous heads -untamed negative aspects of his nature- and all his long-standing hurts and pains as a result -trees and moss on his back and blood on the underbelly- to be honoured with an offering of sake on a stand, a gesture afforded to god. Susano’o skillfully directs the destructive energies by giving them appropriate channels and containing them via designated entryways, so they can be dealt with.
Though much has been written about Susano’o, I realise he is a complex summation of symbology that I cannot fully fathom at this point in time. For example, in this particular story, there are so many references to the number eight, down to the poem his sings. Number seven seems only to emphasise the number eight too, the seven lost sisters and sake that’s been filtered seven times are both precursors to the showdown.
The Chinese/Japanese character for eight looks like hands coming together in prayer: 八. The architectural style of the Shinto shrine (often dedicated to Susano’o or Amaterasu) is called the ‘Prayer Hands’ from the shape of the roof. I cannot dissociate the figure eight from the symbolism of the shrine: a place where you receive energies of god; a receptacle; a holy grail. Personally I see the Holy Grail as a spiritual principle that held together King Arthur’s Kingdom, without which the Kingdom inevitably collapsed. Is Susano’o pointing to love again?
One thing is clear, Susano’o is a free agent with many faces who is not restricted by an orbit like his older siblings. He is someone who is willing to journey to the Under World where putrid corpses live, the dark side of the collective unconscious. To me, he feel like a guru who leads by example; actions lead by the heart, from moment to moment.
So I read between the lines of Susano’o’s stories -the gap- for clues for my own potentiality. For this reason, I don’t mind the dubious track record of the Japanese myths. I consider it my good fortune of being handed an artistic license for my own unfoldment, in the story that is uniquely mine.
‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.’
— William Shakespeare