Religious Beliefs

Who are some important female deities?

Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is the most important of the goddesses. Hundreds of shrines throughout Japan are dedicated to her. One of the most colorful goddesses is Ama no Uzume, the “terrible female of Heaven,” widely popular because of her identification with frivolity and dance. A kami described as both masculine and feminine is Inari. Because of her association with rice harvest, Inari is among the most important deities. Her messenger is the fox, and popular custom often refers to the fox itself as Inari. Bright reddish-orange or red torii gates, sometimes in great numbers, usually mark shrines dedicated to Inari. A pair of goddesses associated with the war kami Hachiman appear in a sculptural triad with him. One is called Nakatsu-hime, but the other remains to be identified. Seiryu Gongen was one of several goddesses adopted by Shinto in their role as protectors of Buddhist temples.

Two other “imported” goddesses with Buddhist connections are Zenmyo Nyoshin and Byakuko-shin. Stories tell of how a Korean monk fell in love with Zenmyo while he was studying in China. Byakuko was once an Indian Earth deity who became a Shinto kami through her associations with powers of nature. Goddesses like Kumano Fusumi Okami are often depicted round and full to suggest abundance. Goddess Tamayori-hime appears in a triad, flanked by two other goddesses, once worshipped as the “three protectresses of children.” Tamayori was the daughter of Watatsumi no Kami, kami of the oceans, and Japan’s first emperor’s mother. Benten (also called Benzaiten) is a goddess of Indian origin. Hindus know her as Sarasvati, consort of the god Brahma and patroness of culture. She plays the Japanese lute (called the biwa), as Sarasvati plays the stringed instrument known as the veena, and devotees beseech her for protection and for gifts of eloquence and knowledge. Numerous female kami have played important roles in Shinto life over the centuries, and some were frequently depicted in human form, but only a few remain significant in contemporary devotion.

A Shinto shrine side altar, showing the Fox, messengers of the kami Inari. Kyoto, Japan. (Photo courtesy of David Oughton.)


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