Susanoo-no-Mikoto is the Japanese god of the sea and storms. A powerful and boisterous guardian kami, Susanoo’s moods are often as temperamental as his actions are chaotic. His fight with the dragon Orochi led to the creation of the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, one part of Japan’s sacred regalia.
The spellings and forms of Susanoo’s name are varied in both Japanese and English. In Japanese, his Kanji can appear as 建速須佐之男命 (Takehaya-Susanoo-no-Mikoto), 神須佐能袁命 (Kamususanoo), or simply as Susanoo: 素戔男尊、素戔嗚尊等、須佐乃袁尊, and 須佐能乎命. Each of these can be translated as "the Great God Susanoo." Because of his association with Kumano Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, he is also 熊野家都御子神 (Kumano Ketsumiko no Kami), the Great God/Caretaker of Kumano.
Historically his name has been the subject of multiple English translations due to the double o’s that appear at the end of his name; this large number of translations reflect a lack of standardized Romaji in the period after the Meiji Restoration (1868). Besides Susanoo, the most common spelling is Susan’o. Older translations of his name include Susano-o, Susa-no-O, Susano’o, and Susanowo.
Susanoo is a tumultuous deity at heart, and his chaotic moods and disheveled appearance are direct reflections of his status as the god of storms. The seas surrounding South Japan—where many of his shrines are located—reflect these attributes. Like many storm, wind, and sea kami who serve under him, Susanoo can be both benevolent and malevolent. Despite this seeming moral ambivalence, he remains one of Japanese mythology’s most celebrated heroes. In what is now his most famous feat, he fought and slew the fearsome eight-headed dragon, Yamata-no-Orochi, killing it with his famed ten-span sword, a Totsuka-no-Tsurugi.
As the son of Izanagi, he holds dominion over spirits of thunder, lighting, storms, winds, and the sea.
Imperial Regalia and Shrines
Susanoo wielded the famed sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the Grass-Cutter, also known as Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, the Heavenly Sword of Gathering Clouds. After drawing it from the corpse of Orochi, he gave it to his sister as a sign of penance. This blade eventually found its way to the Japanese Imperial Family and is now kept at Amaterasu’s shrine at Ise.
Susanoo’s own shrines are plentiful and popular. They include:
Kumano Taisha, his most important shrine, at Matsue, Shimane Prefecture;
Susa Shrine, dedicated to both him and his wife, at Izumo, Shimane Prefecture;
Yasaka Shrine, at Higashiyama, Kyoto Prefecture;
Tsushima Shrine, at Tsushima, Aichi Prefecture;
Hikawa Shrine, at Saitama, Saitama Prefecture;
Yaegaki Shrine, at Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.
Susanoo is the son of Izanagi, the ancestor of all kami, and is a sibling of both Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Tsukuyomi, the moon god. His family varies greatly depending from tale to tale, and as such he has many wives and children. Included in their number is Kushinada-hime, his first (and most prominent) wife who bore him five children: Kushiinada-hime, Inada-hime, Makami-furu-kushi’inada-hime, Yashimajinumi, and Okuninushi, the god of magic. Outside of his marriage, Susanoo has had countless consorts and children by other women and kami.
Susanoo is a very popular kami, and appears in many important Shinto myths.
Birth and Banishment
Izanagi fled from Yomi, where he had gone to retrieve his wife. After blocking the entrance to prevent her escape, Izanagi went to a nearby hot spring and cleansed himself of Yomi’s impurities. It was during this cleansing ritual that Izanagi inadvertently gave birth to three new and powerful kami: Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Tsukuyomi, the moon god, were born from his eyes, and Susanoo, the god of storms and seas, was born from his nose. Izanagi set these three gods at the head of the heavenly bureaucracy and selected Susanoo as its guardian.
It soon became apparent that Susanoo was too stormy to remain in the highly-ordered Heavens. Following this realization, Izanagi proceeded to banish his son, a sentence that Susanoo accepted. Before he left, however, Susanoo went to say goodbye to his sister Amaterasu, with whom he regularly quarreled.
Amaterasu was suspicious of his sincerity, and Susanoo challenged her to a contest to prove it. They would take the other’s object and see who could create the best kami. Amaterasu took his sword and created three women; from her necklace, Susanoo created five men. This proved a trick on her part: she claimed that because the necklace was hers, the men were hers. Meanwhile, the women she had produced from his sword were his. Thanks to her clever interpretation of the rules, Amaterasu won the contest.
Enraged by this result, Susanoo went on a destructive rampage. He destroyed his sister’s rice field before flaying one of her horses and hurling its body at her sacred loom. This thrown horse killed one of her handmaidens and caused Amaterasu to flee in grief. Susanoo was banished following his rampage, but without Amaterasu, the world remained dark and stormy.
Orochi and Penance
Then Susanoo no Mikoto descended from Heaven and proceeded to the head-waters of the River Hi, in the province of Idzumo [sic]. At this time he heard a sound of weeping at the head-waters of the river, and he went in search of the sound. -Kojiki, translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain
Following his fall from the Heavens, Susanoo landed in Izumo and was taken in by an elderly couple. He soon learned of their troubles - of their eight daughters, seven had been devoured by a terrible eight-headed dragon of the sea, Yamata-no-Orochi. Their eighth daughter, Kushinada-hime would soon be sacrificed as well. Susanoo would not stand for this, however, and sought to end the couple’s despair. As they prepared for Orochi’s coming, Susanoo turned Kushinada-hime into a comb and put her in his hair. Meanwhile, the elderly couple placed a tub of sake outside for the dragon to drink. When Orochi drank the sake and fell asleep, Susanoo cut him into pieces. As he split the dragon’s tail, he saw a sword, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, emerge.
Following these events, the grateful couple married Kushinada-hime to Susanoo. Now seeking to make amends with Amaterasu, the storm god presented her with Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi as a sign of his penance.
Once amends were made, Susanoo’s father Izanagi presented him with one final task: he must take Izanagi’s place as guardian of Yomi. Susanoo accepted the position, and to this day serves as the guardian of the gateway to the Land of the Dead. It is for this reason, in addition to their inherently violent nature, that storms are often associated with death in Japanese culture.
One of the most common tropes in mythology is that of storm gods fighting powerful serpents. In Greek mythology, this was Zeus and Typhon; in Norse tradition, it was Thor and Jormungandr; in Hindu tradition, conflict arose between Indra and Vrita. Closer to Japan, Yu the Great fought the dragon Xiangliu, a nine-headed serpent. Indeed, this trope is found in most religions of Eurasia, and has even found its way into modern Christian and Islamic tradition.
Susanoo and references to him appear regularly in popular culture, including:
In Naruto, where a susanoo is an avatar created by a ninja’s chakra, made incarnate to fight for them, a skill available only to wielders of the Sharingan;
In BlazBlue, where Susanoo is the true vessel of Yuki Terumi, a lightning-wielding warrior;
In Final Fantasy XIV, where Susanoo is the first primal available to fight;
In an old anime, translated as Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, which adapts the tale of Susanoo and Orochi.