Translation: eight-span (i.e. giant) crow
Alternate names: sansokuu (three-legged crow), kin’u (golden crow)
Habitat: the sun
Appearance: Yatagarasu is a three-legged which inhabits the sun. It is found across East Asian folklore.
Origin: A three-legged crow has been used as a symbol of the sun since neolithic times in China. It may have originated as a personification of sunspots by ancient astronomers. In Japan, the crow has also been a symbol of the sun since ancient times, appearing in Japan’s earliest written works. It is a holy creature and a servant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The name Yatagarasu means “eight span crow.” One “span” was the length between the outstretched thumb and middle finger—roughly 18 centimeters—but this moniker is mainly just a poetic way to say “very large.” Originally Yatagarasu was depicted with two legs, but in the 930’s CE, the Chinese myth of the three-legged crow was merged into the story of Yatagarasu. Since then, Yatagarasu and the three-legged crow have been synonymous with each other.
The three-legged crow has long been used in religious and astrological symbolism across China and Japan, particularly among those involved with sun worship and onmyōdō. The three legs of the bird represent heaven, the earth, and humanity, while the crow itself represents the sun. This symbolizes that heaven, earth, and mankind all come from the same sun, and are like brothers to each other. They are also said to represent the three virtues of the gods: wisdom, benevolence, and valor. The three legs may also represent the three powerful clans of ancient Kumano—Ui, Suzuki, and Enomoto—who use a three-legged crow as their clan crest.
Legends: Yatagarasu is an important figure in the mythical history of Japanese. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi—today enshrined in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. As Yatagarasu, he led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, through the mountains to establish his country.
Jimmu’s clan originated in Kyushu, in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture. He and his brothers led an eastward migration from along the Seto Insland Sea, looking for a better homeland, and subduing the various tribes they encountered along the way. They suffered many hardships. When they reached Naniwa (present-day Osaka), Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse, leader of the expedition, was killed in battle. Jimmu realized that they had lost because they were fighting facing eastwards, fighting against the sun. He led his troops around the Kii peninsula, to Kumano (present-day Mie Prefecture), and began a westward push. His expedition became lost in the mountains of Kumano. Seeing this, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Takamimusubi, one of the creator gods, ordered Kamo Taketsunumi to act as a guide to Jimmu. Kamo Taketsunumi took the form of a giant crow, and flew to Jimmu’s side to show him the way. With Yatagarasu leading the way, Jimmu was able to navigate the mountains of Kumano and reach Yamato (in present-day Nara Prefecture), where he would found his capital and become Japan’s first emperor.
According to legend, Jimmu’s great-grandfather Ninigi was the grandson of Amaterasu. Thus, Jimmu, and the entire Japanese imperial line are the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Yatagarasu, as a guide to Jimmu, played a small roll with a very big impact on the future of the imperial dynasty.