It’s nice to know crows aren’t always a harbinger of death. And that they get some credit for tidying up afterwards.

In between images of the Japanese football team and anime girls groping each other (sigh), I found that three-legged crow Yatagarasu is a divine messenger in Shinto mythology. Next to Buddhism, Shinto is the main religion of Japan, and centres around powerful spirits (kami) who can be represented by anything from trees to rain, or anything that fills someone with awe. The most important kami is the sun goddess Amaterasu, and Yatagarasu was her faithful envoy.

As a result, his image is emblazoned on the tallest sacred gate (torii) in Japan in Oyunohara, and he even has his own fire festival at the end of August, complete with rows of flaming bamboo, a portable shrine, dancing and fireworks. But why would a crow be a messenger of the sun? And more to the point, why on earth does he have three legs?

Well, the charcoal-black feathers give a clue to his sun association, and it’s not due to some unfortunate celestial flash-fire. Instead, he was believed to be the dark spots on the solar surface, and in Chinese mythology there’s also a bright-red, three-legged crow named Sanzuniao who comes from the sun. This probably inspired the three-legged part, because even The Kojiki tome of Japanese mythology doesn’t mention it. So what are they for? (And before you start sniggering, no, crows don’t work like that.)

After prodding some Shinto priests about him, Professor John Dougill of Kyoto’s Ryukoku University found three possible explanations: that there was one leg for each clan in the Kumano region, to which Yatagarasu’s tale is linked, or that each leg represented the Taoist trio of heaven, earth and mankind. Alternatively, there was one for the three virtues of wisdom (chi), benevolence (jin) and valour (yuu). Either way, they were symbolic rather than practical, as Yatagarasu’s aid was advisory rather than action-packed. Regardless, he still helped create the first imperial dynasty in Japanese legend.

A mortal man named Jimmu, who was a direct descendant of Amaterasu, led an army from Kumano but was attacked and became lost in hostile territory. His celestial ancestor sent Yatagarasu down to guide him, and the crow helped him and his remaining men through the Kii Mountains to the Yamato Plain, or modern-day Nara. Here, Jimmu was able to conquer the area and become the first ever emperor of Japan. It’s probably worth mentioning that crows are also considered symbols of rebirth and renaissance thanks to their post-battle cleaning services.

Guiding someone or something important to an end goal explains why Yatagarasu is the Japanese football team logo, but I’m too scared to find out why those anime girls came up.


What? A sacred three-legged crow

Where? Presumably in the sun, but he visits Japan and possibly China

How big? His name “Yatagarasu”  means “eight-span”, and has been interpreted as “eight-foot long” as well as “of eight heads”. So he could be the size of a lion, normal crow-size, or normal crow-size with eight heads.

Probable motto: I found my way to Earth from the Sun. I’m sure I can guide you over some hills.


Just to prove I’m not fibbing (about the mythology, obviously!)

Chamberlain, Basil Hall. 1919. The Kojiki. [Translated from Japanese].

Crows“. No date. Traditional Kyoto.

Dougill, John. 2011. “Yatagarasu (the three-legged crow)“. Green Shinto.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Jimmu“.

Kumano Hongo Taisha“. No date. Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau.

Lam, Joyce. 2015. “Go on a torii gate tour“. Timeout.

Miera, Stephanie. 2016. “Yatagarasu (three-legged crow)“. Samurai Tours: adventures in discovering traditional Japan.

Oyunohara“. No date. JNTO: Official tourism website of Japan.

Shinto“. No date.

Shinto shrines and Japanese people“. No date. Jinja Honcho, Association of Shinto Shrines.

Three-legged crows: the World Heritage Site of Kumano, land of life“. No date. Into Japan: the official guide.

Yata Fire Festival“. 2017.

Featured Image Credit: Shan Ahmed