The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 15 (October 2012)

The Sword in the Tail: Susanō, Yamato-takeru, and the Embedded Sword Theme in Ancient Japan

C. Scott Littleton

Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA

© 2012 by C. Scott Littleton. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2012 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract: This paper examines two Japanese legends and compares their motifs with Arthurian legend.

§1.  In a series of papers presented at recent meetings of the Western States Folklore Society, Dr. Linda A. Malcor and I have explored examples of the embedded sword theme in a variety of traditions, from West African to ancient Scandinavia, medieval Europe, the South Russian Steppes, Transcaucasia, Classical Greece, and, most recently, ancient Anatolia.1 In each of these case studies we have compared the sword (or swords) in question to the most famous embedded sword of them all: the one that young Arthur pulled from a stone and thereby established his right to the kingship of Britain—that is, the first Excalibur.2

§2.  This paper is concerned with yet another Excalibur-like embedded sword that plays a prominent role in the mythology of a land far removed from those just mentioned: ancient Japan—only in this instance the magical blade was discovered embedded in the tail of a dragon rather than in, under, beside, or on top of a stone or embedded in a tree or a pile of brush. The relevant Japanese narratives—as we shall see, there are two successive (and, for the most part, wholly distinct) narratives involving the same sword—are both contained in the Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Matters," compiled by Ōno Susumu in 712 CE, and the slightly later Nihonshoki, or "Chronicles of Japan" (720 CE).3

Susanō and Yamata no Orochi

§3.  The story begins after Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, was picked by her father, Izanagi no Mikoto, the Japanese "Adam," to succeed him as the divine sovereign. All went well until Amaterasu's recalcitrant brother, Susanō, the "Raging Male," challenged her right to rule the cosmos (Kojiki 1.14–17; Nihonshoki 1.29–30). In order to settle the controversy, they performed a grand divination in which each deity magically spat out offspring: Amaterasu from pieces of Susanō's initial sword and Susanō from his sister's magatama, or fertility jewel. The god produced more children, but Amatarasu's brood contained more males, so she was adjudged the winner by the assembled gods. However, Susanō refused to accept defeat and "raged with victory." He stamped down the dikes between the divine rice paddies and eventually threw a piebald horse into the divine weaving hut, thereby killing one of Amaterasu's handmaidens. At that point, Amaterasu decided to wash her hands of her brother's antics and withdrew into Ama no Iwato, or "The Cave of Darkness" (Kojiki 1.17; Nihonshoki 1.37–41). After she was tricked into reemerging from the cave, her fellow deities insisted that Susanō be banished from Heaven (Kojiki 1.19; Nihonshoki 1.51).

§4.  He arrived on Earth near the headwaters of the Hi River in what is now the northern part of the Island of Kyushu. After noticing a pair of chopsticks floating downstream, Susanō decided to head in the opposite direction and soon found a beautiful young maiden and her parents weeping by the side of the stream. When he inquired as to the reason for their sadness, he learned that the girl, Kusa-Nada-hime, or "Rice Paddy Princess," would soon become an offering to a ravenous, eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon called Yamata no Orochi, literally "Eight-Tailed Dragon," who was terrorizing the region.4

§5.  The god identified himself and asked the girl's parents to bring him a large tub. He filled it with sake, turned Kusa-nada-Hime into a comb, which he inserted into his hair, and told her parents to hide. When the dragon finally appeared, all of his eight heads immediately began drinking the sake and the creature soon became dead drunk, at which point Susanō easily slew him. When he hacked open one of Yamato no Orochi's tails, he discovered a wondrous, magical sword (Kojiki 1.19.20; Nihonshoki 1:51–52), which he named Mura-kumo no Tsurugi, or "Assembled Clouds Sword."5 After sending the sword up to his divine sister as a peace offering (Kojiki 1.19.21), Susanō restored Kusa-nada-Hime to human form, married her, and took up residence in a palace at Suga, near the site of the Izumo Taisha Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, the second most sacred Shinto shrine after the grand shrine of Amaterasu at Ise in Mie Prefecture.

§6.  Two generations later, when Amaterasu sent her grandson, Honinigi, to claim the Reed Plain on her behalf (Kojiki 1.38–39; Nihonshoki 2.1–3), he brought with him three talismans of divine sovereignty: the Mirror, in which Amaterasu thought she saw another Sun Goddess and was tricked into leaving the Cave of Darkness; the divine Magatama, that is, a fertility jewel similar to the one Susanō had chewed up during the aforementioned grand divination; and last but far from least, the Mura-Kumo sword.6

Yamato-takeru and the Kusanagi Sword

§7.  Although it wasn't used by Honinigi's great-grandson, Jimmu Tennō, in his march of conquest from the Island of Kyushu along the north coast of the Inland Sea to Yamato, where he became the first emperor (Kojiki 2.47–52; Nihonshoki 3), several generations after Jimmu's time the wondrous sword from the dragon's tail once again played a major part in Japanese mythology, this time in the saga of Yamato-takeru (Kojiki 2.77–88; Nihonshoki 7.18–40; see also Littleton 1995), Japan's greatest epic hero.

§8.  Originally named Ousu, he was the younger of twin sons born to the Emperor Keikō, and proved his warlike prowess early on when, in a fit of rage, he slew his older brother Ōusu. Fearing for both his life and his throne, his father dispatched him first to Izumo and then to Kumaso, in what is now Kumamoto Prefecture, to put down rebellions, hoping that his recalcitrant son would not come back alive. But the young prince was victorious in each campaign, as much by guile as by his military prowess. Indeed, during the Kumaso campaign, he disguised himself as a maid servant and managed to gain entrance to the palace where the Lord of Kumaso was hosting a drinking party (Kojiki 2.80.1–16; Nihonshoki 7.18–19). Once the Lord and his guests were thoroughly drunk, Ousu shed his female garments, drew his sword, and mortally wounded the rebel chieftain.7 On his deathbed, Lord Kumaso showed his profound respect for his slayer by renaming him Yamato-takeru, literally the "Brave One of Yamato," and from that point on, it was his only name (Kojiki 2.80.15; Nihonshoki 7.19).

§9.  When Yamato-takeru returned to the court in triumph, Keikō feared his son more than ever. So this time he sent him on an even more perilous mission: to subdue the Emeshi, who were almost certainly Ainu, in the vicinity of what is today Tokyo Bay.8 However, before he set out, his aunt, Yamato-no-hime, the "Princess of Yamato," who was also the high priestess of Amaterasu at the Ise Shrine and the guardian of the Mura-Kumo sword, gave the weapon to her nephew, along with some amulets, to help him in his quest (Kojiki 2.82.6; Nihonshoki 7.23).

§10.  Armed with this magical, Excalibur-like sword, Yamato-takeru gained a series of important victories, one of which came close to fulfilling his father's fondest wish. In the course of a battle at Sagami, in what is now Kanagawa Prefecture, his enemy set fire to the open grassland on which it was being fought. As his opponent had managed to kill Yamato-takeru's horse, he had no means of escaping what appeared to be certain death. But at this critical juncture, the sword magically wielded itself in front of the hero and mowed down the grass that was fueling the fire. It was this episode that prompted Yamato-takeru to rechristen it Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the "Grass-Mower Sword" (Kojiki 2.83; Nihonshoki 7.23), the name it still bears in Japanese literature. Once the fire stopped burning in his direction, the prince used one of the magical amulets his aunt had given him to start a blaze burning in the opposite direction, that is, toward his enemy, and he won the battle handily.

§11.  After the grass-burning episode, Yamato-takeru married Miyazu-hime, a princess with whom he had fallen in love during an earlier expedition (Kojiki 2:85; Nihonshoki 7.29). For a time they lived together happily, but the hero had one last task to perform: to defeat a monster that lived on a nearby mountain. Ignoring his wife's pleas to take Kusanagi no Tsurugi with him, he left the sword in her care, claiming that he could vanquish the creature with his bare hands. That he did, but at a great cost. Soon after his final battle he fell victim to a fatal illness contracted in the course of the struggle. His followers carried the dying hero on a litter to the coast, near the modern city of Otsu, where, like all good Japanese warriors, ancient or modern, he died after writing a death poem (Kojiki 2.86; Nihonshoki 7.29). Shortly thereafter, his soul turned into a beautiful white bird, which flew off to Yamato. And when his tomb was opened, it was empty.

Some Parallels

§12.  As the late Taryo Ōbayashi and Atsuhiko Yoshida (1981) have pointed out, there are a number of clear-cut parallels between Yamato-takeru and several Western sword-heroes, including the adult Arthur, who received the second Excalibur from a close kinswoman, the Lady of the Lake, and the Ossetic hero Batraz, who, with the help of his aunt, the seeress Satana, received a magical blade from the divine smith Kurdalagon (e.g., Dumézil 1930, 61–63). Indeed, the parallel between Batraz and Yamato-takeru in this respect is especially close, as the latter also received his magical from his aunt, Yamato-no-Hime. To this list we can add Theseus, whose mother, Aethra, showed him the stone under which his father Aegeus had hidden his sword. Thus, I submit, the High Priestess of Ise is a counterpart of the Lady of the Lake, Satana, and Aethra. All four women are sword bestowers, and three of them, in addition to being close kinswomen, also possess magical powers.

§13.  In this connection, I should point out that, vis-à-vis the Arthurian tradition in particular, Mura Kumo/Kusanagi is equivalent to both Excaliburs: the one the young Arthur pulled from a stone and the one he received as an adult from the Lady of the Lake (Littleton and Malcor 2000, 154ff, 181ff). Indeed, there is a curious inversion between the two sword sagas: Arthur received successively two magical swords, while the Kusanagi sword was pulled from an embedded location by one hero and later bestowed by a woman on another.

§14.  In any case, there are also close parallels between Yamato-takeru and two of the Indo-European sword-heroes when it comes to their respective death scenes. Arthur, Batraz, and the Japanese hero were carried to the seashore on litters and died after giving up their magical swords.9 And both Arthur and Yamato-takeru gave up their magical swords to women, respectively, the same kinswoman that initially bestowed it and a beloved wife. Morerover, in all three cases an emphasis is placed on the way the hero journeys to the afterworld: by barge to a magical afterword, that is, Avalon, in the case of Arthur; as a spirit rising from the grave, in the case of Batraz (Dumézil 1930, 69); and as a giant white bird flying toward his homeland in the case of Yamato-takeru (Kojiki 2:88; Nihonshoki 7.31).

§15.  To be sure, unlike Arthur and Batraz, neither Theseus nor Yamato-takeru asked that their swords be thrown into the sea as they lay dying, although elements of that motif can in fact also be found in East Asia. In an eighth century CE Tang Dynasty tale, the hero Wu Tzu-hsü threw his magical sword into the Yangtze River. As it entered the water, a prodigious event occurred. Not only did a hand grasp the Chinese hero's sword, à la the Morte D'Arthur, but the water became extremely turbulent and dragons raced back and forth. This, of course, closely parallels what happened when Batraz's sword entered the water; it suddenly turned blood red and stormy (Mair 1983, 141).

Some Trans-Eurasian Connections

§16.  The parallels I have just noted among the Indo-European and East Asian sword-heroes discussed in this paper do not appear to be fortuitous. Some years ago, the eminent Japanese archaeologist Egami Namio (1964) proposed a still controversial theory that prehistoric Japan was conquered in the late fourth century CE by mounted warriors from the Asian mainland, that is, by what he called the kiba minzoku, or "horse-rider nation." Thus, according to Egami, Honinigi did not float down from Heaven, but rather his historical prototype invaded Japan from Korea, securing a beachhead on the southernmost Island of Kyushu, which, several generations later, his descendant, the prototype of Jimmu Tenno, marched eastward and founded the kingdom of Yamato (Ledyard 1975; Yoshida 1962, 1974, 1977).

§17.  That these horse-riders were either far-flung North Iranian cousins of the ancient Scythians or, perhaps more likely, Altaic speakers who had been strongly influenced by one or more such communities (Littleton 1995, 263), is strongly indicated by the parallels between the myth of the three sacred objects sent to earth by Amaterasu and Herodotus' account of the Scythian origin myth in Book IV of the History, in which three fiery golden objects, a cup, a battle-ax, and a yoked plow, fell from the sky, and were eventually gathered up by Kolaxaïs, the youngest son of the primeval being Targitaos (cf. Littleton 1982, 10). According to Yoshida (1979; see also Ōbayashi and Yoshida 1981), these three sacred Scythian talismans are functional equivalents to the three previously mentioned Japanese talismans: the Mirror, the Sword, and the Jewel. Drawing on the famous tripartite Indo-European ideological suggested by the late Georges Dumézil,10 Yoshida suggests that the cup and the mirror are both reflections of divine sovereignty, that is, of Dumézil's "first function." The cup is a sacred, priestly vessel, and it was the mirror that convinced Amaterasu to reassert her sovereignty as the Sun Goddess, while the battle-ax and sword obviously reflect military prowess and belong to the "second function," and the yoked-plow and the Magatama are intimately connected with fertility, respectively, of plants and of human beings, that is, the "third function." In light of these close functional parallels, with Yoshida, I strongly suspect that the horse-riders also introduced the sword-hero complex to Japan, including both the embedded and the bestowed sacred sword myths.

§18.  Although there is as yet no clear archaeological evidence for the presence of North Iranian speakers in prehistoric Japan, we can place them on the western border of China around the beginning of the Common Era, as an Alanic tribe called the Wo-sun, whose name derives from Oss, as in "Ossetians," paid tribute to the Han Emperor (Littleton 1995, 263; Vernadsky 1943, 82–84). And in the Samguk Yusa, the foundation myth of the ancient Korean Kingdom of Silla, there is also an account of three sacred objects descending from the sky, which reinforces the theory that the prototype of Honinigi and his I-E-type, mounted war-band, the prototype of the historical Samurai order, almost certainly passed through Korea en route to Japan ca. 400 CE.

The "Metalled Man"

§19.  Although it is not directly related to either the Susanō or Yamato-takeru stories, there is yet another motif unique to the Ossetic Nart sagas and ancient Japanese mythology and folklore that reinforces this posited connection between Japan and the ancient North Iranians. This is the motif of the "Metalled Man." At Satana's urging, the infant Batraz is encased in metal by Kurdalagon and thus rendered invulnerable (Dumézil 1930, 54; Littleton 1995, 271). A close parallel can be seen in the Japanese legend of Tetsu-jin, or "Iron Man," a morally ambivalent, semi-trickster—like Batraz, if not Yamato-takeru—who is also encased in iron and thus rendered invulnerable, save for his eyes (Ōbayashi 1975).11 Again, the similarities are too specific to be explained by recourse to independent invention.

Some Celestial Implications

§20.  The presence of sacred, embedded swords among the North Iranian steppe peoples is very ancient. As far back as the middle of the first millennium BCE, Herodotus (4.59–62) tells us that the Scythians worshipped swords thrust into piles of brush atop stone altars, and according to Ammianus Marcellinus (31.4.22), who wrote in the fourth century CE, their eastern cousins, the Alans, habitually thrust swords into the earth and worshipped them as symbols of "the god Mars." Moreover, as Linda Malcor has demonstrated, there are some ancient Hittite reflexes here as well. She also points out that the concept of the embedded sacred sword seems to have originated in Transcaucasia in 2160 BCE as a reaction to a celestial event known as "Northshift" (Malcor 2008; Barber and Barber 2004, 196ff). Dr. Malcor has already described this event in some detail in her paper, so there is no need for me to rehearse it here.12 However, what is important for my purposes is that the event in question was observed in the constellation Libra, a constellation associated with the Dragon—or at least the dragon's tail—in Chinese astrology. And so, as the embedded sword tale migrated eastward, along with the secret of forging iron weapons, its location shifted from a stone to the dragon's tail. This, of course, neatly explains why Susanō discovered the prototype of Kusanagi no Tsurugi in Yamata no Orochi's tail rather than in a stone or under a rock.

§21.  In sum, thanks to a celestial event witnessed in Transcaucasia in the late third millennium BCE, both the embedded and received sword traditions, plus those concerning the heroes that wield them and the "magic ladies" who bestow them, have managed to traverse the Old World, from West Africa to Japan. Thus, Susanō and Yamato-takeru have as much right to the label "Arthurian-type sword-hero" as Lancelot, Batraz, Theseus, Beowulf, Odin, and the Yoruba god Ogun, plus, of course, the callow youth who famously surprised his elders by pulling a magical sword from an anvil embedded in a stone.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented on Friday, April 11, 2008, at the Annual Meeting of the Western States Folklore Society, Davis, CA. [Back]

2. In addition to the Arthurian "Sword in the Stone" story, these include Lancelot's retrieval of his second sword from atop a stone altar; the god Ogun's sword in Yoruban mythology (Littleton and Malcor 2004) in what is today Nigeria; Odin and the sword in the Branstock (Littleton and Malcor 2006), the magical sword Beowulf discovered in Grendel's mother's sea-cave (Littleton 2007), and the embedded sword in the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, all of which come from ancient Scandinavia (Malcor 2007); Theseus's recovery of his father's sword from under a rock in classical Greek myth (Littleton 2007); and the Hittite Sword God (Malcor 2008). [Back]

3. The most consistent and straight-forward account of this and other aspects of Japanese mythology is contained in the Kojiki, which appears to be based on wholly indigenous sources. The Nihonshioki, although complied less than a decade after Ōno Susumu completed the Kojiki, draws on a variety of slightly different texts (e.g., there are multiple versions of almost every story) and is far more influenced by ancient Chinese mythology (see Philippi 1968, 15–18). In this paper I reply primarily on the Kojki versions of the events in question. The linear citations come from the English translations, respectively, by Donald Philippi and W. G. Aston and are not present in the original texts. [Back]

4. The creature is also sometimes called Koshi Yamata no Orochi, after a region in Southwest Honshu in what is now Shimane Prefecture. [Back]

5. Like the Chinese Cloud Dragon (Barber and Barber 2004, 240; Blust 2000; Newman 1979, 110–115), Yamata no Orochi is clearly a rain-bringer, hence the original name of the sword: "Assembled Clouds." But the Japanese dragon is also clearly an "other," a ravenous enemy that demands a constant stream of victims (Kusa-nada-Hime's seven sisters had already been sacrificed to the beast by the time Susanō arrived on the scene; Kojiki 1.19.8). In this aspect, he shares much in common with Western (or at least Indo-European) dragons, like Python, the Theban dragon slain by Cadmus, Fafnir, the Hittite dragon Illyuyankas, the unnamed dragon slain by Beowulf, and the monstrous, three-headed Vedic serpent Vritra, just as his slayer does with figures such as Apollo, the aforementioned Cadmus and Beowulf, Siegfried, the Anatolian prototype of St. George, and the ancient Indic war god Indra. Indeed, the story of the Indra's slaying of the multi-headed monster presents a great many parallels to the story of Susanō and Yamato no Orochi, although Indra doesn't discover a weapon in Vritra's tail (Littleton 1981, 273–274).

In short, the Yamata no Orchi myth is atypical among East Asian dragon stories, and the possibility that the Indo-European elements of this dragon-slaying story diffused eastward across Eurasia seems very probable. Indeed, as we shall see, it may be possible to connect Yamata no Orochi to the constellation Draco, as well as to the more benevolent Dragon in the Chinese calendar of the twelve beasts. [Back]

6. A sacred replica of the sword, together with replicas of the other two divine objects, is still presented to each new Japanese emperor at his enthronement. [Back]

7. In a way, this episode recalls Susanō's getting Yamata no Orochi drunk before killing him, and as we shall soon see, it was shortly afterward that Yamato-takeru gained possession of the wondrous sword. [Back]

8. As late as the end of the twelfth century of the Common Era there appears to have been a significant number Ainu in this region. Indeed, in 1185, the first Shōgun, Yoritomo (Hall 1970, 87), was given the formal title "Generalissimo [Shogun] in Charge of the Eastern Barbarians [the Emeshi, or Ainu]." Ironically, this title lasted until 1867, centuries after the Ainu had totally disappeared from the Island of Honshu, let alone the Kanto region. [Back]

9. For the parallels between the death scenes of Arthur and Batraz, please see Grisward (1969) and Littleton and Malcor (2000, xxv–xxvi, 66–71). [Back]

10. For an in-depth discussion and assessment of Dumézil's tripartite model, see Littleton (1982). [Back]

11. Variations of this motif also crop up in the stories of Achilles, who, as an infant, is dipped by his mother in the River Styx and thereby rendered invulnerable, save for the ankle by which she held him, and Siegfried, who bathes in Fafnir's blood and also becomes invulnerable to weapons except for the spot on his shoulder where a laurel leaf lands. But neither of these figures is encased in iron, which leads me to believe that the basic motif here is extremely ancient and predates the spread of ferrous technology from Northeast Anatolia/Transcaucasia in the late second millennium BCE. [Back]

12. I would like to express my thanks to my colleague, Linda A. Malcor, for her valuable input here. [Back]

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