八咫烏 Yatagarasu – The Three-Legged Crow of Japanese Mythology – With Photos and Haiku

Crow at Imperial Palace Gardens, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Sydney Solis

Crows and ravens have always been a part of my personal mythology. In the Mythic Yoga Retreats I held in Colorado, we made masks and shields and wands. Mine always contained a crow.

Yatagarasu Crow by Sydney Solis
Picture of Yatagarasu, 3-legged Crow, spotted at night driving back to Osaka from Wakayama. Photo by Sydney Solis

Maybe because I spent 38 years in Colorado and loved the Native American reverence for nature and the earth.

Their mythology is so rich, and the North West Native Americans have their trickster Raven and its many wonderful stories, including Raven Brings the Light, (a similar motif to Japan’s Amaterasu) I made into a Storytime Yoga Kids Yoga Story Kit to celebrate the winter solstice.

Living in Japan I loved the sound of the crows, be it enclosed in the womb of Meiji Shrine’s glorious woods, the crows’ caws crowding Osaka’s skyline or in a distant lone cry from a street light or Shinto shrine, crows awakened me to something deep within.

I recall mornings from our Nagaranishi home and wrote this haiku  —


first, the sound of crows 
then, the train clattering by—
morning light rises 


Torii gate and Yatagarasu symbol at entrance to Kumano Hongu Shrine and Kumano Kodo. Photo by Sydney Solis
Torii gate and Yatagarasu symbol at entrance to Kumano Hongu Shrine and Kumano Kodo. Photo by Sydney Solis

It was while walking the Kumano Kodo that my Sensei Nakamura-San first told me about the three-legged crow 八咫烏 Yatagarasu that is mythologically important to Japan and Shinto

Yatagarasu at the visitor center near Kumano Hongu Taisha entrance to the Kumano Kodo.
Yatagarasu scupture at the visitor center near Kumano Hongu Taisha entrance to the Kumano Kodo. Photo by Sydney Solis

Images of Yatagarasu were everywhere when we arrived at the entrance of Kumano Hongu Taisha Shinto Shrine, where we began this first leg of the journey.

Crows are associated with the sun and first appeared as a messenger of Amaterasu and are considered divine intervention. .

Yatagarasu means “eight-span crow,” and legend has it that it guided a man named Jimmu, who was a direct ancestor of Amaterasu, when he was lost on what would become the Kumano Kodo.

Yatagarasu at Kumano Hongu Shrine by Sydney Solis
Yatagarasu sculpture at Kumano Hongu where we began our pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo. Photo by Sydney Solis

Yatagarasu led him through the Kii Mountains to the Yamato Plain, or modern-day Nara, and Jimmu became the first emperor of Japan.

Japan was then known as its native Yamato before it became Nihon, land of the rising sun.

Being guided by is similar to the legend about Kūkai when he founded the Inukai Mountain Hohonen Temple in Nara

He encountered a red-faced hunter whose two dogs, one white and one black, led him to the location where he established the temple. The dogs are rendered in sculptures at the Nijokariba Akira Shrine on the site

A man prays at Kumano Hongu next to Yatagarasu. Photo by Sydney Solis
A man prays at Kumano Hongu next to Yatagarasu. Photo by Sydney Solis

A rather nice origin story for a country, considering what I learned in American school about our country’s origin was Manifest Destiny and white men murdering Native Peoples and buffalo and stealing land. Heavy sigh.

I like making pilgrimages to places like Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine instead!

Kamigamo Jinja in Kyoto claims its founding kami was none other than yatagarasu, the three-legged crow of Kojiki mythology, explains John Dougill, whom I know from Writers in Kyoto and runs the fabulous Green Shinto website.

y goshuin with Yatagarasu stamp from 御縣彦社 Miagarahikosya shrine, in 熊野那智大社 Kumano nachi taisya by sydney solis
My goshuin with Yatagarasu stamp from 御縣彦社 Miagarahikosya shrine in 熊野那智大社 Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Indeed, he continues, the Crow Clan is a common feature of shamanic cultures, based on the shaman’s flight into the spirit world and an acknowledgement of the animal nature of humans – an instinctual understanding of evolution, you might say.

For me personally, the myth resonates with the inner vision – the third eye – three legs on a crow – that intuitive light of the spirit that guides us where it is birthed from that singular solar sun.

Same thing with Kukai’s duality dogs – one black and one white – that unity of opposites guide us to that singular space of inner real estate and spiritual union  that’s waiting for us to find it.

Specialty drinks with Yatagarasu symbol on label in roadside souvenir shop returning from the Kumano Kodo.
Specialty drinks with Yatagarasu symbol on label in roadside souvenir shop returning from the Kumano Kodo. Photo by Sydney Solis

Crow lives on inside me. Now as Yatagarasu, the universe sends divine guidance in these modern, troubled times whose caw takes me to that primordial place of transcendence to find my way back to the sun, back to singularity, home, and the peace of no-mind, just pure bliss of knowing one’s unity with nature, awareness and being.

Yatagarasu sculpture at Miagarahikosya shrine in 熊野那智大社 Kumano Nachi Taisha. Photo by Sydney Solis
Yatagarasu sculpture at Miagarahikosya shrine in 熊野那智大社 Kumano Nachi Taisha. Photo by Sydney Solis.

One thought on “八咫烏 Yatagarasu – The Three-Legged Crow of Japanese Mythology – With Photos and Haiku

  1. Pingback: Walking the Kumano Kodō – 熊野本宮大社 Kumano Hongū Taisha – | Sydney In Osaka

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