The Legend of the Twin Pines, and Jo and Uba – the Happy Married Couple (尉と媼 Jō-to-Uba)

The Takasago happy married couple

Jotomba, the Takasago happy married couple Photo source: The Takasago Shrine

The Takasago Legend is recounted in the Daruma Museum web article, “Meoto Fufu (couple) and Enmusubi“:

“This legend is one of the oldest in Japanese mythology. An old couple – his name is Joo (尉) and hers is Uba (媼) known together as Jotomba – are said to appear from the mist at Lake Takasago. The old man and his wife are usually portrayed talking happily together with a pine tree in the background. Signifying, as they do, a couple living in perfect harmony until they grow old together, they have long been a symbol of the happiness of family life. The story is portrayed in a famous Noo play “Takasago no Uta”

At Takasago Shrine there is a very old pine tree, the trunk of which is bifurcated (相生の松); in it dwells the spirit of the Maiden of Takasago who was seen once by the son of Izanagi who fell in love and wedded her. Both lived to a very great age, dying at the same hour on the same day, and since then their spirits abide in the tree, but on moonlight nights they return to human shape to revisit the scene of their earthly felicity and pursue their work of gathering pine needles.

His pine tree is also called “The Pine of Sumi-no-e” (住吉の松) and hers is the Takasago pine (高砂の松). The old woman is using a broom to sweep away trouble and he carries a rake to rake in good fortune. In Japanese this is also a play of words with “One Hundred Years” (haku > sweeping the floor) and “until 99 years” (kujuku made > kumade, meaning a rake).

In Japan, at wedding ceremonies, the Takasago song is recited and Takasago figures are put on a special “Island Shelf” called called Shimadai (島台) together with auspicious Pine-Bamboo-Plum and Crane with Turtle decorations placed in the wedding room and presented to the bridal couple. Depictions of the Takasago figures can be made from lacquer, ceramics, wood carvings and textiles and are to invoke a long and fruitful married life for the newlyweds. These figurines are also given as presents for a wedding aniversary of 25 or 50 or more years. For the diamond wedding aniversary of 60 years, some communities also give Takasago Dolls to the happy couple….

Takasago city is located in Hyogo prefecture in Western Japan. It is situated on the Seto Inland Sea approximately 40 kilometers west of Kobe. …

“Takasago is well known as the birthplace of classical song “Yookyoku Takasago”, which is a famous wedding song throughout Japan, and thus the town was declared as “The Bridal City Takasago” in 1988.”

The story recounted by the Noh play of the shrine, however, focuses on the story of the twin pines.

“A priest from the Kyushu Aso Shrine arrives at Takasago. The spring weather is pleasant and the pine trees are beautiful. In the distance he hears a bell toll. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites a poem from the Kokin Wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), a collection of waka poetry. The poem describes Takasago and Sumioe wedded pines (相生の松 aioi no matsu), paired pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. He explains that these wedded pines are a symbol of the marital relationship. The priest says that all relationships, indeed all life, falls short of the ideal expressed in the poem.

At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the Takasago and Sumioe pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail, at which point the “From Takasago, sailing over the bay…” chant is recited.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the Takasago Shrine in Takasago city, Hyogo, the shrine legend surrounded a pair of trees called Jō (尉 “old man”) and Uba (姥 “old woman”) – bearing the legend, “We kami reside in these trees to show the world the way of marital virtue” 「我神霊をこの木に宿し世に夫婦の道を示さん.  the aioi no matsu twin pines were already in existence within the shrine grounds at its founding.

The twin pine couple, at the heart of the plot of a traditional Noh play, is considered to be a very auspicious story as it features a loving and long-married couple. The play was formerly known as Aioi(相生) or Twin Pines (相生松 Aioi Matsu).

During the play a singer chants, “From Takasago, sailing over the bay, sailing over the bay, the moon goes out with the tide, past the silhouette of Awaji Island, far over the sea to Naruo, arriving at Suminoe, arriving at Suminoe”,[note 1] referencing several places in what are now Hyōgo and Osaka Prefectures. This is considered a classic Noh chant, taken from a classical poem signifying harmony between husband and wife.

Furthermore, the shrine history is entwined with founding legends of Japan:

“When the Empress Jinguu returned in triumph from Korea, her ship stopped at Takasago port. She built a large shrine to maintain control of the country. According to the shrine’s story, when the Empress Jingu returned in triumph from Korea, her ship stopped at Takasago port. She built large shrine to maintain control of the country. It was dedicated to “Onamuchi-no-Mikoto”, one of the ancient gods, at the shrine’s foundation. At that time the Aioi Pines sprouted. In 972 this shrine was also dedicated to “Susano-no-Mikoto” and “Kushinadahime-no-Mikoto”, who were ancient gods as well as married couple. After that these three deities became the main Gods of Takasago Shrine.”

Thus we can surmise that the happy married couple folklore existed by late 10th c. (the inclusion of the twin pines tradition could have been a nod to indigenous earlier folk or village guardian deities), and was regarded as important enough to be included alongside of the three main gods venerated by the shrine.

This legend is the likely the source of the jo-to-uba stones (see photos of jo-to-uba couple stones of Gunma prefecture and Izu peninsula at the Dosojin page, Onmark Productions website), or possibly a conflation of legends behind the dosojin stones seen all over the countryside of Japan.

One of the many Dosojin couple stones (or Dotomba stones), Asao ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa Photo: Japanese Mythology

One of the ubiquitous Dosojin couple stones (or Dotomba stones) of the Kanto area, Asao ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa Photo: Japanese Mythology

Besides the Jo and Uba couple who are more like an ancestral guardian deity than a primordial pair-cosmic couple, other local legendary sources of a cosmic primordial couple exist in Japan as well, see Ainu legend of the demiurge, cosmic creation and first human coupleThe most secret Primordial Pair: Kamuro-gi and Kamuro-mi; and Izanami and Izanagi.

It is nevertheless also possible and likely that the happy couple legend or stone tradition arrived from ancient continental sources, since they tend to be placed as crossroad or byroad markers suggesting their protective value to travelers. On the continent, couple or primordial pair myths too existed, eg. the Nuwa legend of the brother-and-sister primordial pair; the Miao cosmic coupleThe embracing Sky Father and Mother Earth and the Heavenly Ropevine. The Do-to-Uba and Dosojin couple are more reminiscent of the other not-so-much Primordial or Cosmic Couple, as a genealogical or ancestral lineage couple, such as the Ashinazuchi ancestral couple. In many of the Mongol, and ruling Ashina clan genealogies, a key ancestral couple is featured either in passing or central to some genealogical tale (see “Cultural heroes and agricultural gods in elderly garb“). Twin tree legends or sacred tree spirits or pair deities with significance for marriage and couple fertility are even more common around the world, see The Marriage (“Lianli” or Entwined) Tree of the Forbidden City (China), Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Goddard’s The Golden Bough, p. 163 and

Sources and further reading:

“相生松と尉と姥 [Twin pines jō and uba]”. 高砂神社 [Takasago Shrine]. Retrieved 2013-07-13

Meoto Fufu and Enmusubi“, Gabi Greve, Daruma Museum

Dosojin, Onmark Productions

Manjusri – Origins, Role and Significance

Mañjuśrī crossing the sea. Japan

Mañjuśrī crossing the sea. Japan (Open source:  WikimediaCommons)

Mañjuśrī (Skt: मञ्जुश्री) or Monju in Japanese, is a bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom (Skt. prajñā) in Mahāyāna Buddhism. In Esoteric Buddhism he is also taken as a meditational deity. The Sanskrit name Mañjuśrī can be translated as “Gentle Glory”,”Soft Glory” (Powers 1995), “Wondrous Auspiciousness” (Geibel 2001), and so forth. Mañjuśrī is also known by the fuller Sanskrit name of Mañjuśrīkumārabhūta., literally “Mañjuśrī, Still a Youth” or less literally “Prince Mañjuśrī”. The article below from the Western Buddhist Review focuses on the significance of Manjusri and traces the development of the cult surrounding the Bodhisattva. See also my earlier article “Monju-Manjushri’s teaching of the Lotus Sutra and conversion of the Dragon King’s daughter, and the inhabitants of the Dragon King’s Palace“; Manjushri ( on the legend (with 3 versions) of Manjushri’s connection with Swayambhu Stupa in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal; and Paul M. Harrison’s “Manjusri and the Cult of Celestial Bodhisattvas“. Manjusri is especially associated with Mt Wutai in Sichuan China, being one of the eight Indian bodhisattvas who, according to tradition, have settled in China, and the study of the subject helps illuminate our understanding of Sino-Indian relations in the past(A history of Sino-Indian Relations: 1st c. A.D. to 7th c. A.D. at p. 180 by Yukteshwar Kuma ). The cult in China is traced back to the 4th c. and received Chinese imperial support in the 5th c.


PART 3. THE CULT OF MAÑJU’SRII (Western Buddhist Review)1

THE PRESENT ARTICLE examines the question of whether Mañju’srii gained sufficient popularity for it to be possible to speak of a ‘cult of Mañju’srii’. 2 The second article in the series illustrated his role and importance in Mahaayaana literature as one of the major Bodhisattvas. 3 However, texts are often normative, that is, they tend to portray what their composers would like to be the case, rather than what is the case. Thus the question of what real religious significance Mañju’srii had in the lives of practising Buddhists in the period covered by the composition of the literature in which he features is separate from the question of his importance in that literature. It is not that texts cannot help in the assessment of what the actual religious situation was at a given time or place. It is rather that they cannot be taken at face value. As with any other form of historical evidence their significance has to be assessed. The sources for an attempt at discovering where and when Mañju’srii’s popularity grew in India and Central Asia are, at best, fragmentary. There are the records of the travels of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, in particular those of Hsüan-tsang (journeyed 629-645 CE). There is also evidence from surviving iconographic representations of Mañju’srii and other Bodhisattvas in the form of sculptures and murals. There is more substantial evidence for his significance in China, particularly in the form of documents preserved in the Taish< canon. following the pattern of the geographical spread of Buddhism, I shall consider, in turn, material from india, Central Asia and China.

Manjusri Kumara Bodhisattva sculture belonging to the Pala Dynasty (Open source photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Manjusri Kumara Bodhisattva sculture belonging to the Pala Dynasty (Open source photo: Wikimedia Commons)


IN HIS STUDY The Indian Buddhist Iconography, Benoytosh Bhattacharyya reports that no image of Mañju’srii has been found from Gandhaara or Mathuraa. 4 Lamotte adds that there is no trace of him either at Amaraavatii or Naagaarjunako.n.da. 5Hsüan-tsang mentions only one image of Mañju’srii in the record of his pilgrimage and David Snellgrove comments that in India there is no identifiable image of Mañju’srii, possibly before the sixth century. 6 Evidence such as this leads Paul Williams to state that ‘the iconography of Mañju’srii is a relatively late development’. 7 However, though not inaccurate, such a statement may be misleading. It is true that Mañju’srii’s appearance iconographically is later than his appearance in suutras. Yet the evidence, both from the records of the Chinese pilgrims and from surviving images, indicates that his iconographic depiction is not especially late in relation to that of other Bodhisattvas. Hsüan-tsang notes many images of Maitreya and Avalokite’svara. Taaraa, however, is mentioned by him only twice, and the single reference to Mañju’srii is of a shrine dedicated to him at Mathuraa. 8 Shrines of other Bodhisattvas are referred to without being named. Hsüan-tsang, though a Mahaayaanist of the Yogaacaara school, is particularly interested in sites and legends related to episodes in the life or previous lives of ‘Saakyamuni and in the lives of his major disciples. He records these in detail. Snellgrove suggests that the reason for the lack of reference to images of Mañju’srii and other Bodhisattvas by Hsüan-tsang is that such figures were not fully distinguished iconographically at that time. He argue that commonly accepted iconographic differentiation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is likely to occur much later than the appearance of the suutras that can be seen as reflecting their popularity in particular circles. Such an account of the evidence from Hsüan-tsang’s diaries is supported by the iconographic evidence that does survive. In addition to Gandhaara and Mathuraa, Mañju’srii is unknown at Ajantaa, where work on the caves continued into the seventh century. He is found, however, in Ellora (7th-10th century), along with Taaraa, Avalokite’svara, Maitreya and Sarasvatii (cave 10), as well as in the monastic ruins of Ratnagiri in Orissa (6th-12th century). Snellgrove points to a period of some five hundred years from the beginning of the second century CE where images cannot be firmly classified as either non-Mahaayaanist or Mahaayaanist. Whereas the early cave temples and sculptures at Karla, Bhaja and Bedsa are clearly non-Mahaayaanist and the images from Naalanda and Ratnagiri are Mahaayaanist, the works at Ajantaa (where scenes primarily relate to the former lives of ‘Saakyamuni) and Naasik, which fall into the middle period, cannot be clearly identified one way or the other. Images of Maitreya, as the Buddha-to-be, would be acceptable to both traditions as would those of Avalokite’svara, according to Snellgrove. 9 So, up to and possibly including the end of the sixth century, only the following Buddha and Bodhisattva images are individually distinguished: ‘Saakyamuni, in various poses as either Buddha or Bodhisattva; Diipa.nkara, the Buddha before whom ‘Saakyamuni vowed to become a Buddha; Maitreya; and Avalokite’svara. is still represented as a Identifiable images of Mañju’srii and Taaraa appear towards the end of the period – a period that begins with the appearance of the earliest images and which is probably approximately contemporary with the earliest Perfection of Wisdom sËtras. So Mañju’srii’s appearance as a distinctive iconographic form, although relatively late if considered in relation to his description as the Bodhisattva of wisdom in suutras, is not late if contrasted with the emergence of the iconographic forms of other Mahaayaana Bodhisattva figures. Excepting Avalokite’svara, he and Taaraa are the first to appear. This evidence also raises a number of issues concerning the origins and growth of the Mahaayaana in India. It calls into doubt the model that proposes a sharp distinction between the Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana, with the Mahaayaana tradition becoming increasingly predominant in the early centuries of the Christian era. 10 The Yogaacaarin Hsüan-tsang’s great interest in stories of ‘Saakyamuni and the Arhats suggests he was rooted in a general pre-Mahaayaana Indian tradition. 11 He recounts traditions he hears as being current throughout India, which further suggests that this was the case generally for Buddhists in India of his time whether they were Mahaayaanist or not. 12 There was no separate Mahaayaana Vinaya. 13According to Fa-hsien (c. 400 CE) Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana monks lived together in some monasteries. The iconographic evidence reviewed gives weight to the suggestion that there was no very sharp division between Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana in practice. Iconographically there appears nothing specifically Mahaayaanist until even as late as the sixth century and work on epigraphic evidence by G. Schopenxiv indicates that inscriptions containing distinctively Mahaayaana formulae are not found in India until the fourth or fifth centuries. The Mahaayaana may well have been a minority pursuit in India for a number of centuries into the Christian period. Questions about possible Indian origins and significance of a cult of Mañju’srii thus raise wider and more complex issues of the overall position of the Mahaayaana in the early centuries of the Christian era. To conclude, it would seem that a cult of Mañju’srii could not have been of much size in India before the seventh century, even allowing for the time it would take for a cult to iconographically define a figure so that it could then become manifest in history{rewrite}. There is no suggestion of any particular place becoming a focus for devotion to Mañju’srii. The predominant cults were fundamentally non-Mahaayaanist: those of ‘Saakyamuni and Maitreya. Evidence for the later Indian period is hard to assess since from the seventh century onwards there are no surviving wall-paintings such as we have for parts of Central Asia and China. 15Evidence from these latter places may help us assess whether a cult of Mañju’srii could have been imported from outside India.


THE CENTRAL ASIAN evidence comes from the cities stretching along the Silk Route between north-west India and western China. From the beginning of the first century CE, the political situation in India and China was such that the two cultures were in immediate contact. The empire, based in Bactria (in present day northern Afghanistan), covered much of central Asia as well as the whole of north India. In China, the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) dominated most of China, including the Silk Route’s eastern end. The resultant political stability allowed the flow of goods and ideas from India into Central Asia. Buddhism, in both Mahaayaana and non-Mahaayaana forms, became established in the wealthy Sino-Indian mercantile communities that arose there along the trade routes. It was from these communities that Buddhism spread to China. Later, with the demise of the Ku.saa.nas and the Later Han, these trade centres became city states in their own right. In the present context there are three areas of interest: Khotan, on the southern branch of the Silk Route, as it skirts the Takla Makan desert; Kucha and Turfan, on the northern branch; and Tun-huang at its eastern end. 16

In Khotan the Mahaayaana seems to have taken root, perhaps more so than anywhere else along the Silk Route. Some 7th-10th century Buddhist literature in Khotanese survives, as well as some Tibetan documents that concern Khotan. This literary material suggests that the cult of ‘Saakyamuni remained central and that Maitreya was the most important among the Bodhisattvas. There is no evidence that Mañju’srii was at all prominent though he is mentioned in some legendary accounts of the founding of monasteries. 17 As with Indian suutra material, one has to treat the evidence of literary material with caution as regards how it reflects what was actually occurring. Yet the basic picture it presents is not contradicted by the accounts of Fa-hsien and Hsüan-tsang, who both visited Khotan, or by the minimal archaeological remains in the area.

In the areas of Kucha and Turfan, 18 on the northern part of the silk route, there are a number of different sites. The literary remains here are fragmentary, but there are some very impressive surviving murals in cave temples. There are many depictions of ‘Saakyamuni, particularly scenes of him preaching, surrounded by monks and lay disciples. Maitreya and possibly Avalokite’svara are present, but there is no sign of a highly developed Mahaayaana, again corroborating Hsüan-tsang’s report. Once more, there is no indication of Mañju’srii having any prominence.

Mañju’srii is more in evidence at Tun-huang, where there survives a large collection of murals spanning a period from the fourth century CE to at least the tenth century. Mañju’srii, with Maitreya, is the most popular Bodhisattva depicted.19 However, the figure of ‘Saakyamuni still predominates. Mañju’srii is most commonly shown together with Vimalakiirti in scenes from the Vimalakiirtinirde’sa. This particular image, linked as it is with the narrative of the Vimalakiirtinirde’sa, does not indicate any cult of Mañju’srii. Though he has a prominent and significant role in this scripture, in the end Mañju’srii is bettered by the householder Vimalakiirti. Towards the close of the T’ang period (618-906 CE) representations of Mañju’srii appear that could be the objects of devotion. In these he is usually depicted on a lion throne, and often paired with Samantabhadra, who has an elephant throne. A blockprint and a recently discovered mural portray Mañju’srii on his own, seated on a lion and surrounded by radiant clouds.

Overall, the fragmentary evidence suggests a picture of Central Asian Buddhism that is little different from that of India: the Mahaayaana not having a high profile; and within the Mahaayaana, Mañju’srii not especially prominent, except in Tun-huang, where until the Tibetan invasions in the late eighth century the Chinese influence was strong. 20 The earliest paintings were the work of Chinese artists and may be said to represent an early phase of Chinese Buddhism.


A NUMBER OF SUUTRAS that contain the name of Mañju’srii in their titles or in which he plays a prominent role were translated into Chinese in the second and third centuries CE. Lokak.sema, working in the latter half of the second century, translated the ‘Suura.mgamasamaadhi Suutra (now lost), the Ajaata’satrukauk.rtyavinodana Suutra (T. 626) and part of the Avata.msaka Suutra (T. 280). The Vimalakiirtinirde’sa (T. 474), perhaps more popular in China than in India, was translated in the first half of the third century by Tche K’ien. Other third century translations featuring Mañju’srii include that of the Mañju’ Suutra by Nie Tao-tchen and’s translations of the Saddharmapu.n.dariika Suutra (T. 263) and the Mañju’sriibuddhak.setragu.navyuuha Suutra (T. 318). In the course of her research on the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa, 21 the French scholar Marcelle Lalou drew up two lists of suutras translated into Chinese between the late Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and the twelfth century (1127 CE). The lists were compiled on the basis of whether their titles contained on the one hand the name Mañju’srii or, on the other hand, the name Avalokite’svara. 22 She discovered that before 557 CE (the end of the Liang dynasty) there were seventeen suutras whose titles contained the name Mañju’srii, but just two with the name Avalokite’svara. After 557 CE the totals for the two lists become more even, though that of the ‘Mañju’srii’ list stays in the lead. Lalou was responding here to the work of Jean Przyluski. Przyluski had suggested that in the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa the sections where Mañju’srii has a central place pre-date those where Avalokite’svara is important. 23 Lalou’s count of names in the titles of translated suutras seemed to suggest that the same relative importance of the two Bodhisattvas was to be seen in early Chinese Buddhism. Lalou pursued her investigation of the significance of Mañju’srii in China by examining current archaeological evidence. She found that in the seventh to eighth century inscriptions of the Lung-men caves Mañju’srii is not mentioned at all. Avalokite’svara, on the other hand, is named in eighty inscriptions. Neither is Mañju’srii mentioned at Che-kou-sseu, where the inscriptions span the period from 531-867 CE. The same is true for the late sixth century inscriptions at Tsien-po-shan. 24 On the basis of this evidence Lalou concluded that ‘the cult of Mañju’srii was little practiced in Chinese Buddhism during the period that these caves were excavated’. 25 She argued that the reason for the predominance of suutras concerning Mañju’srii being translated into Chinese during this period is to be accounted for by the cult of Mañju’srii having precedence in India over that of Avalokite’svara, and those suutras thus having sufficient authority in the eyes of the Chinese Buddhists to be translated. This model would square with Przyluski’s analysis of the roles of Mañju’srii and Avalokite’svara in the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa. Yet as we have seen, the Indian iconographic (as distinct from textual) evidence suggests that figures of Avalokite’svara were earlier, and in this period more numerous, than those of Mañju’srii. More recent research has shown that Lalou is also wrong in her conclusions concerning a cult of Mañju’srii in China. The work of Paul Demiéville, Etienne Lamotte, and Raoul Birnbaum shows that Mañju’srii became a very significant figure in Chinese Buddhism during the T’ang dynasty (618-906 CE). 26 By the end of the eighth century Mañju’srii’s cult, centred on a five-peaked mountain complex called Wu-t’ai shan (‘Mountain of Five Terraces’), was one of the most important in China.


WU-T’AI SHAN LIES in the province of Shansi in north-eastern China. Here, during the fifth century or perhaps even earlier, a cult of Mañju’srii became established. The mountain was seen as the earthly abode of Mañju’srii. Reports of his presence there, as revealed in numerous stories of his miraculous appearances, spread beyond the confines of China so that by the mid-T’ang period it had become an international pilgrimage centre.

Wu-t’ai shan possessed a number of features that made it eminently suitable as a dwelling for Mañju’srii. Its flat-topped peaks were five in number, 27 it had a lake near its base, and it was thought to be a residence of immortals. Though not especially high, the tallest peak being a little less than ten thousand feet, it was renowned for its cool rivers, fragrant herbs and natural sights. 28 It would be an ideal setting for Mañju’srii and the five hundred .r.sis of Mt. Gandhamaadana in the Mañju’ Suutra. 29

An important source of evidence for the cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan is the large body of anecdotes concerning his miraculous appearances there. The Taish< canon preserves three ‘wu-t’ai shan chronicles’ that contain many such stories. 30another important document, also in the taish< canon, is the ‘notes on the tradition of the avata.msaka suutra’ by fa-tsang, the third patriarch of the hua-yen tradition. 31in japanese, the diary of ennin, a monk who made a pilgrimage to wu-t’ai shan from japan in 840, is a further source of such accounts. 32 in this literature mañju’srii is recorded as appearing in a number of forms: as a beggar, child, or old man; as a glowing cloud, or globe of shining light.

One of the earliest these stories, and also one which rapidly became of the most famous, concerns the kashmiri monk buddhapalita who visited wu-t’ai shan in 676 ce hoping to see mañju’srii. arriving at the mountain he prostrates himself on the ground and makes a supplication to mañju’srii. on rising he sees an old man coming towards him. the old man asks whether he has brought the with him. only this scripture can help remove the evil committed by the buddhists of china. buddhapalita confesses that he has not brought this text with him, to which the old man replies that if he wants to meet mañju’srii he will have to return to india to get it. then he will surely see mañju’srii. happy in his heart, buddhapalita bows his head in respect. when he looks up, the old man has disappeared! after returning to india, buddhapalita arrived back at wu-t’ai shan with the text of the dhaara.nii in 689 ce. he met mañju’srii (again) who showed him the mountain and its secrets. 33

One of the most important of the stories of the appearances and visions of mañju’srii preserved in the ‘wu-t’ai shan chronicles’ of the taish< canon deals with the experieces of a monk called tao-i. his visions were compelling enough to lead to the building of the golden pavilion monastery (chin-ko ssu), one of the principal monasteries to be erected on wu-t’ai shan.

Tao-i, a Ch’an monk, arrived at Wu-t’ai shan in 736 CE. He had travelled with another monk, and on arrival they stayed at Ch’ing-liang ssu, a monastery on the central peak of the mountain complex. Raoul Birnbaum summarises the story of Tao-i’s experiences when he sets off alone on foot hoping to meet Mañju’srii. The events are of enough interest and influence to give, at some length, part of Birnbaum’s summary:

‘[Dharmaraajaa Tao-i] was convinced that he had become a monk in the age of the end of the Dharma; only at this mountain would there be the possibility of seeing the sacred manifestation of the Bodhisattva. He reflected that he had experienced no difficulties in travelling to these sacred precincts, and attributed his good fortune to the gracious protective forces of the Bodhisattva.

Thinking such thoughts, he suddenly saw on the path before him an aged monk riding upon a white elephant. After mutual salutations, the monk spoke, indicating that he was aware of Tao-i’s origins and worthiness. After remarking on the numinous nature of the mountain precincts, the old monk suggested that Tao-i return the following dawn, for at that time he would he would gain a vision of Mañju’srii. As Tao-i thanked him and took his leave, the elephant vanished like the wind, leaving behind a fragrance of incense in the air.

The next day at dawn he set out alone from Ch’ing-liang ssu towards the western peak. Ascending the peak in a cold wind, he had visions of various objects-a glowing light, an unusual stuupa. Continuing onwards, he again encountered the old monk riding an elephant. The monk urged him to continue, and Tao-i went on, in the midst of this wild terrain suddenly coming upon an assembly of monks eating at a place of worship. Gazing with wonder, he continued on, retaining in his mind the focused wish to see the true form of Mañju’srii. A few paces further, he suddenly saw a youth, about 13 or 14 years old, who identified himself as Perceives Unity. He said: ‘O monk, you are at the Golden Pavilion Monastery’. Tao-i followed the youth some two or three hundred paces to the northeast, over a golden bridge to the monastery buildings, all of which were made of gold.

As he was led through the various sections of the monastery by the youth, all these sections filled with objects made of gold, Tao-i encountered once again the aged monk who had been riding the white elephant. At this point he realized that the old man was in fact Mañju’srii’. 34 Not surprisingly, Tao-i is overwhelmed. Recovering himself, he and Mañju’srii talk: Mañju’srii enquires about the state of the Dharma in the region that Tao-i comes from; Tao-i asks about the esssence of the Dharma. Food is then provided for Tao-i, and when he has eaten Perceives Unity gives him a tour of the monastery. Later, taking his leave of Mañju’srii, he walks away from the monastery. After a hundred paces he turns around: it has disappeared.

Tao-i reported his experience to the emperor, Hsüan-tsung, who, it seems, was struck enough by the story to fund the initial construction of an actual Golden Pavilion monastery on the site. The building was finally completed by the end of the eighth century, in large part through the efforts of the Indian monk Amoghavajra, who obtained a further grant from the emperor Tai-tsung in 766 CE. 35

The Japanese monk Ennin made his pilgrimage to Wu-t’ai shan in 840 CE. He stayed for two months and his diaries describe the experiences he had there. On a number of occasions, on days when the sky was otherwise completely clear, he and others saw brighly coloured luminous clouds. On one occasion he had the following experience:

‘Early in the night, in the sky above a ridge across a valley east of the [southern] terrace, we saw that there was a holy lamp. The group of us [ten monks] saw it together and worshipped it. The light of the lamp at first was as about as large as an alms bowl, but later it gradually grew as large as a small house. The crowd was greatly moved and with loud voices chanted the name of the Great Holy One [Mañju’srii]. There was another lamp which appeared closer to the valley. It, too, at first was like a straw rain hat [in size] but later grew gradually larger. The two lights, when seen from a distance, were about a hundred feet apart and blazed brightly. Just at midnight they died out and became invisible’. 36

Ennin also describes some of the monastic establishments and shrines on the mountain, including a famous image of Mañju’srii at the monastery of Ta Hua-yen:

‘The figure riding on a lion fills the five-bay hall. The lion is supernatural. Its body is majestic, and it seems to be walking, and vapours come from its mouth. We looked at it for quite a while, and it looked just as if it were moving’. 37

According to the monk in charge of the shrine, the image had been successfully cast only on the seventh attempt. Previous attempts had failed, with the sculpture cracking. Concluding there was something wrong with his work, the sculptor had prayed to Mañju’srii to show him how he should be represented. Ennin recounts the story:

‘When he finished making this prayer, he opened his eyes and saw the Bodhisattva Mañju’srii riding on a gold-colored lion right before him. After a little while [Mañju’srii] mounted on a cloud of five colors and flew away up into space. The master, having been able to gaze on [Mañju’srii’s] true appearance, rejoiced, [but also] wept bitterly, knowing then that what he had made had been incorrect’. 38

This story is significant also since it describes an image of Mañju’srii with its origins in Wu-t’ai shan that seems to have become a standard in China. Mañju’srii rides on a lion, appearing within radiant clouds. There is an early tenth century mural of him in cave 220 at Tun-huang, which was hidden until 1975, where he is depicted in this way. There are two similar tenth century blockprints, one also from Tun-huang, the other discovered in 1954 inside a Chinese statue of ‘Saakyamuni in Kyoto. In these blockprints Mañju’srii holds a discussion wand (the ju-i, also a staff of authority) rather than a sword, and is accompanied by two attendants, one of whom is a Chinese youth whose hands are held together in salutation. The other is dressed in Central Asian clothing and holds a rein attached to the lion’s neck.

As well as the corpus of anecdotes describing Mañju’srii’s miraculous appearances at Wu-t’ai shan, there are Suutra passages that associate him with the mountain. Paul Demiéville 39 has drawn attention to the association of Mañju’srii with Mt. Ch’ing-liang in Buddhabhadra’s translation of the Avata.msaka Suutra in the first quarter of the fifth century (418-420 CE). It is described as his residence and is the north-easterly mountain in a list of eight mountains placed at the eight points of the compass. Ch’ing-liang shan was an alternative name for Wu-t’ai shan. The same identification between Mañju’srii and Ch’ing-liang shan is found in the translation of the Avata.msaka Suutra made by ‘Sik.saananda in the closing years of the seventh century (695-699 CE). However, Lamotte has shown that the assertion is an interpolation of the translators and not in the original. He suggests that the interpolation was the work of ‘Sik.saananda, made at a time when the Hua-yen school, 40 centred on the Avata.msaka Suutra, had become popular, and that he altered the equivalent passage in the earlier translation of Buddhabhadra. 41Nevertheless, in combination with the documents concerning Buddhapalita’s visit in 676 CE, it demonstrates that in China, by the end of the seventh century, Wu-t’ai shan was firmly considered to be the residence of Mañju’srii.

This material also suggests that the increasing popularity of the Avatsa.msaka Suutra may have been one of the factors that promoted a cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan. Mañju’srii has a prominent role in the Avata.msaka Suutra, especially in the final section, the Ga.n.davyuuha, where he functions as the spiritual friend (kalyaa.namitra) of the merchant’s son Sudhana, talking to him and advising him in an immediate and practical way. To have Mañju’srii actually resident in China would be quite a coup! It would put China firmly on the Buddhist map. As Birnbaum put it, ‘By this event, China was transformed-in terms of Buddhist cosmology-from a distant borderland of Jambudviipa into a land blessed with authentic teachings’. 42

The influence of the Hua-yen tradition with respect to the cult of Mañju’srii is underlined by an examination of Fa-tsang’s Notes on the Tradition of the Avata.msaka Suutra. In a section of this document Fa-tsang (643-712 CE) gives an account of the history of Wu-t’ai shan. 43 He says that the Emperor Hiao-wen Hong (towards the latter part of the fifth century) built a monastery there. If this is the case it is probably the first Buddhist building on the mountain. He also refers to an episode in this period{when?} of a prince who searched for Mañju’srii on Wu-t’ai shan, burning his own body as an offering. And he states that during the time of Pei Ts’i (550-577 CE) there were more than two hundred monasteries (sa.nghaaraama) on the mountain, and that Mañju’srii was said to be always preaching the Avata.msaka Suutra there. The figure for the number of monasteries is likely to be an exaggeration: in the Wu-t’ai shan chronicle, the Kuang Ch’ing-liang chuan, written in 1060 CE, seventy two establishments worthy of note are listed (though there could well have been a decline after the T’ang period). However, the Avata.msaka Suutra is not the only scripture to link Mañju’srii and Wu-t’ai shan. Another work, ‘The Suutra on the Dhaara.nii of Mañju’srii’s Precious Treasury of the Dharma’ 44, translated into Chinese by Bodhiruci in 710 CE, contains a prophecy connecting him with the mountain. In this suutra the Bodhisattva Vajraguhyaka asks ‘Saakyamuni to elaborate on what will happen when his Dharma has disappeared from Jambudviipa. ‘Saakyamuni answers,

‘After I have passed away, in this Jambudviipa, in the north-east quarter there is a country named Mahaa Ciina. In the centre of this country there is a mountain named Five Peaks. The youth Mañju’srii will roam about and dwell there, expounding on the Dharma at the centre of the mountain for the sake of sentient beings. Countless devas, naagas, spirits, raak.sasas, ki.mnaras, mahoragas and other creatures human and not human encircle him, reverently making worship offerings’. 45

It is not possible to ascertain whether this is an interpolation into an Indian original since no Sanskrit version survives and the work has no known Tibetan translation. However, as with the corresponding material in the Chinese translations of the Avata.msaka Suutra, the passage indicates that by the beginning of the eighth century some Chinese saw Mañju’srii as not only resident at Wu-t’ai shan, but as teaching and being worshipped there. 46 Suutra passages such as these can also be seen as giving scriptural authority for Mañju’srii’s presence at Wu-t’ai shan. If, as is likely, they are interpolations, they are a means of providing legitimacy for an existing held belief that Wu-t’ai shan was the residence of Mañju’srii, a belief that the anecdotes indicate as already having some considerable momentum.

There is a further factor that may have been significant in reinforcing the cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan. Belief in his presence there coincided with the belief that the age of the termination of the Dharma had been entered. At such a time ignorance, suffering, strife, and wrong teachings increase, whereas occasions for making spiritual progress decrease and become harder to obtain. In such times, Wu-t’ai shan, as the residence of Mañju’srii, could provide a rare if not unique possibility of having direct contact with an enlightened being. This feeling that Wu-t’ai shan represented a special opportunity in a time when the Dharma was in decline is seen in the diaries of pilgrims such as Ennin and in the Wu-t’ai shan chronicles. In the Suutra translated by Bodhiruci, cited above, ‘Saakyamuni says that when Mañju’srii dwells in China, in the period when the Dharma is no longer present, he will have a special teaching appropriate for that time. 47

During the late T’ang period the cult of Mañju’srii reached its height at Wu-t’ai shan. That Mañju’srii resided in China became a belief of the whole Mahaayaana Buddhist world. I-tsing, travelling in India in the late seventh century, wrote,

‘… the people of India said in praise [of China], ‘The wise Mañju’srii is at present in Ping Chou, where the people are greatly blessed by his presence. We ought, therefore, to respect and admire that country’. 48

Further evidence of this belief is found in the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa. Speaking of China (mahaaciina), one verse declares,

‘And in this land there presently dwells, in the form of a youth, the Bodhisattva Mañ, of great self-possession [and] of great splendour’. 49

Though this stanza is found in the surviving Sanskrit, it is not in the Chinese translation. This is significant insofar as it means that, in this case, the link between Mañju’srii and China cannot be a Chinese interpolation.

By the late seventh century Wu-t’ai shan had become an international centre of pilgrimage. As we have seen, Buddhapaalita travelled there from Kashmir in 676 CE. In the eighth century, Vimalamitra, whose Tantric teaching had an important influence on early Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have visited, 50 and Ennin made his pilgrimage from Japan in 840 CE. 51 At Tun-huang, in cave 61, there is a huge mural that depicts the various sights of Wu-t’ai shan in the tenth century: the landscape with its buildings, temples and pilgrims. 52 Later literature attests to Mañju’srii’s continuing residence at Wu-t’ai shan: a biography of Padmasambhava, probably dating from the fourteenth century, describes him going to Wu-t’ai shan to learn the secrets of astrology from Mañju’srii; 53 and the Nepalese accounts of Mañju’srii’s creation of the Kathmandu valley and subsequent establishment of Buddhism there describe him as coming from Wu-t’ai shan (pañca’, accompanied by a number of disciples. 54 As a pilgrimage centre it continued to be important through to modern times. The famous monk and teacher Hsü-yün’s thousand mile pilgrimage to Wu-t’ai shan in the late nineteenth century took three years to complete: every three paces he stopped to make a full prostration on the ground. 55



IF ONE FIGURE had to be selected as being central to the promotion of the cult of Mañju’srii in China it would be that of the Indian tantric teacher Amoghavajra (705-774). Amoghavajra’s biography reveals the international nature of Mahaayaana (and tantric) Buddhism in the eighth century. Born into a merchant family in north-west India (possibly Samarkand), at the age of twelve he was travelling with his uncle in Java. There he met the tantric teacher Vajrabodhi (671-741) whose disciple he became and whom he accompanied to China. After Vajrabodhi’s death, he went back to South East Asia and studied the tantra further in ‘Srii La.nka with Naagabodhi. In 746 he returned to China where he remained until his death some twenty eight years later. 56 Raoul Birnbaum assesses Amoghavajra’s significance in the following terms,

‘ moghavajra was one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of Chinese Buddhism: charismatic speaker and passionate teacher, tireless translator and effective writer, ritual master and magican, advisor and preceptor to three emperors, builder of major temples, transmitter and consolidator of tantric teachings in China’. 57

Amoghavajra is perhaps best known for his part in the introduction of the Yoga Tantras into China. Building on the work of ‘Subhaakarasi.mha (637-735) and others (especially that of I-hsing), he translated an abridged version of the basic Yoga Tantra, the Sarvatathaatgatatattvasa.mgraha, where for the first time tantric methods-the use of mantras, mudraas, ma.ndalas etc.-are enlisted to help achieve enlightenment, rather than as a means of gaining secondary and material ends. A remarkable collection of Chinese documents show that another of Amoghavajra’s concerns was the promotion of the cult of Mañju’srii. These documents, which are preserved in the Taish< canon (t. 2120), consist in a collection of amoghavajra’s writings made in the late eighth century by the monk yüan-chao, a disciple of amoghavajra. they contain letters to two emperors (accompanied in some cases by their response) as well as his will and death-bed instructions. this material forms the basis for raoul birnbaum’s fascinating account of amoghavajra in his studies on the mysteries of mañju’srii. i shall give a brief summary of his findings. As we have seen, it was Amoghavajra who was responsible for finishing the construction of golden pavilion monastery (chin-ko ssu) by obtaining a grant from the emperor tai-tsung in 766 ce. it appears that amoghavajra, through the patronage of the emperor, was able transform mañju’srii from being the bodhisattva resident at wu-t’ai shan to also being, remarkably, a national protector. in 770 ce he successfully requested the emperor tai-tsung to promulgate an edict making mañju’srii the main deity in all the monastic refectories in china, replacing the arhat pi.n.dola. 58 in the letter of request, he says of mañju’srii that, ‘at present he guards on [wu-]t’ai shan’. this emphasis on the protective role of mañju’srii is reflected some eight months later when a temple for the worship of mañju’srii is built, at the suggestion of amoghavajra, at t’ai-yüan, the ancestral home of the t’ang emperors. finally, in 772 ce, tai-tsung takes the extraordinary step of issuing an edict, again at the request of amoghavajra, for the establishment of special shrines to mañju’srii in the grounds of every buddhist monastery in china. in each of these shrines, monks were employed to recite suutras that would have the effect of protecting the nation. in the capital, where amoghavajra’s translation and teaching activity was centred, the mañju’srii shrine was named ‘pavilion of the great holy mañju’srii to protect the nation’. There is not the space to discuss in any detail Amoghavajra’s motives in promoting mañju’srii in this way. one could easily see his actions cynically, in terms of gaining power and prestige, either for himself or for the buddhist establishment. birnbaum, however, suggests that amoghavajra saw the t’ang emperors as potential universal kings (cakravartin), figures who could, through their position, promote the dharma and thereby alleviate suffering. since mañju’srii dwelt at wu-t’ai shan, it would seem clear to many that he had a special link with china. he would, therefore, be an obvious candidate for the role of national protector. 59 Another element among the factors that allowed this expansion of status is the incorporation of mañju’srii into tantric ritual in china. it was, notably, a dhaara.nii that mañju’srii requested buddhapaalita to bring back from india when he visited wu-t’ai shan in 676ce. by the late eighth century the chen-yen school, which systematised the tantric teachings from india, had become well established. its rituals could be performed for the direct soteriological goal of enlightenment. they could also be performed for lixsecondary ends, including that of protection (from ill weather, famine, sickness etc.). there survive chinese tantric ritual manuals from this period that describe the procedures for invoking the protective power of mañju’srii. 60 To summarise, there was by the end of the seventh century a well established cult of Mañju’srii at Wu-t’ai shan, which was already attracting pilgrims such as Buddhapaalita from abroad. A few years later, new translations of suutras revealed that the Buddha himself had prophesied that Mañju’srii would dwell in China at Wu-t’ai shan. It is hard to estimate how long a cult with such a momentum would have taken to develop. If we accept the reports of Fa-tsang, a cult of Mañju’srii was established at Wu-t’ai shan perhaps during the fifth century or even earlier. Texts such as the Mañju’ Suutra and the Avata.msaka Suutra, 61which could well have promoted the early phase of the cult, were translated into Chinese as early as the third century. The negative findings at other sites reported by Lalou need not be troublesome. Textual evidence points to the existence in early Mahaayaana of competing cults centred on different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas linked with specific suutras and meditative absorptions. Such groups are likely to become associated with particular geographic locations. Thus a Bodhisattva or Buddha might well be eminent in one particular place or region yet not necessarily so elsewhere. A fuller account of Mañju’srii’s role in China in the early and T’ang period is beyond the scope of the present discussion, though he was not the only figure of significance. In the earliest suutras translated into Chinese it is Amitaabha and not Mañju’srii who appears as an object of devotion. 62 However, recent research based on archaeological evidence suggests that a cult of Maitreya developed in China before that of Amitaabha or any other Buddha or Bodhisattva, apart from ‘Saakyamuni. The study of surviving images shows a large shift between the sixth and seventh centuries. In the sixth century there are fifty images of ‘Saakyamuni, thirty five of Maitreya, but only nine of Amitaabha. In the second half of the seventh century, in contrast, there are twenty images of ‘Saakyamuni and Maitreya, but one hundred and forty four of Amitaabha and Avalokite’svara. 63 It seems unlikely, therefore, that any significant cult of Amitaabha developed in China much before the seventh century. In conclusion, the locus for the origins of a cult of Mañju’srii is to be found in China rather than India or Central Asia. His figuring in the murals of Tun-huang can be seen as reflecting a Chinese rather than Central Asian popularity. In India, nothing equivalent to the cult at Wu-t’ai shan developed. In any case, by the late seventh century China was the accepted dwelling place of Mañju’srii throughout the Buddhist world.

Anthony Tribe is currently teaching at the University of Missoula.

© copyright retained by the author



The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley
Mañju’sriibuddhak.setragu.navyuuha Suutra
Melanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, Brussels
Mañju’ Suutra
Taish canon


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  1. This is the third (and final) article on the Origins, Role and Significance of the Bodhisattva Mañju’srii. For the first two parts see Western Buddhist Review Volume 2 (soon available).The present essay has grown considerably since it was originally written some years ago (1987 – 8) as part of a first degree dissertation. The conclusions are not significantly different, though recently published work has enabled a more vivid picture to emerge, particularly in relation to the role of Mañju’srii in Chinese Buddhism. In what follows there is no research contribution on my part. My basic intention in writing also has not changed, namely, to give an account of material that bears on the question of a possible ‘cult of Mañju’srii’, adding comment when appropriate. However, I have been aware, sometimes acutely, that in dealing with this material I have certain short-comings. Firstly, I am not a historian, yet the present subject centres on the assessment of historical data. I hope that my lack of formal training in the problems and methods of historical analysis has not produced any major error of judgement. Secondly, Chinese Buddhism is not my field. As a result I hope those whose field it is will forgive me for any omission of detail or perspective. Also, I have not used the Hanyu pinyin system of transliteration of Chinese characters as adopted by the Beijing government. The scholarly works that I consulted used earlier systems and I have adopted (nearly always) the most recent of those. Finally, though written from the perspective of the scholar, I hope that the material is of some interest to contemporary saadhakas of that ever-young Bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañju’srii.
  2. Though the word ‘cult’ can have negative overtones in contemporary usage, its primary sense implies devotion to a person or thing without indicating anything more about the nature of that devotion. In the present context I use the word simply to indicate a substantial following at a particular place or time.
  3. See note 1, above, for details of the first two articles in the series.
  4. Bhattacharyya, 1958, 100.
  5. Lamotte, 1960, 4.
  6. Snellgrove, 1987, 314.
  7. Williams, 1989, 240.
  8. See Beal , 1884, I. 180. For the following account I have also relied on David Snellgrove’s Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987, 312 – 7).
  9. Snellgrove 1987, 313.
  10. The sort of view I am thinking of can be found in the work of Lamotte (e.g. 1984, 90 Р94) who sees the Mahaayaana as essentially a lay-inspired break-away movement. However, more recent research suggests that the early Mahaayaana was a monastically based, non-unitary phenomenon embedded in non-Mahaayaana traditions. Its formation did not involve schism of the Sa.mgha (sa.mghabheda) and doctrinally it did not possess any views that were not prefigured by the non-Mahaayaana. See Williams (1989, 1 Р33) for a r̩sum̩ of this work.
  11. ibid. 312.
  12. It should be remembered that Hsüan-tsang’s account is of what he saw and how things were explained to him. It cannot necessarily be taken as a straightforwardly objective account.
  13. ibid. 305 for I-tsing’s late seventh century account.
  14. Schopen, 1979, 1 – 19.
  15. During the later period of Indian Buddhism (7th to 12th century CE), which becomes increasingly dominated by the Tantra, Mañju’srii continues to be an important figure in the texts. He is well represented in the different categories of Tantra. A number of rituals and ma.n.dalas are centred on him in the large Kriyaa Tantra work, the Mañju’sriimuulakalpa. In the [Mañju’srii] Naamasa.mgiiti, which enumerates the ‘Names’ of Mañju’srii as non-dual Knowledge or Awareness and was classified as a Yoga Tantra, he is described as “The Knowledge-Being Mañju’srii, the Knowledge-Body of all the Tathaagatas” (sarvatathaagatajñaanakaayasya mañju’sriijñaanasattvaasya … naamasa.mgiiti.h Davidson, 1983, 61). Some indication of the enormous influence of the Naamasa.mgiiti is seen in the fact that in the bsTan-‘gyur, the collection of Sanskrit commentaries and other secondary texts translated into Tibetan, 129 works are classified as being related to the Naamasa.mgiiti, ranging from substantial commentaries to shorter saadhanas and offering rituals. In the Yogottara Tantras (the Father division of the Anuttara Tantras) Mañju’srii, under the name of Mañjuvajra, is one of the two central deities of the Guhyasamaaja Tantra. The Tibetan historian Taaranaatha (born 1575) describes an incident in the life of Candragomin that involves a statue of Mañju’srii. It occurs at the time of Candragomin’s debate with the Maadhyamika Candrakiirti at Naalandaa. Before the debate starts they enter the gates of Naalandaa in ceremonious procession. The story is that the statue of Mañju’srii, which Candragomin and Candrakiirti follow, each to one side, turns its head towards Candragomin as if to favour him (according to Taaranaatha, Candragomin wins the debate). If this Candragomin is the 7th century grammarian, then the story could indicate that Mañju’srii had considerable importance at that time, at least at Naalandaa. But Taaranaatha has almost certainly conflated the 7th century Candragomin with a later (possibly 8th century) tantric Candragomin, the author of a number of commentaries including one on the Naamasa.mgiiti. Bu ston also tells the story that once, when Candragomin chanted a praise of Mañ the head of a statue of the latter bent down to listen (Obermiller, 1986, 132 – 3). Enjoyable though they are, these stories are not able to be historically placed with any reliablility.
  16. See Snellgrove’s, section ‘Traces of Buddhism in Central Asia’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987, 324 – 762). Von Hinüber, 1984, also gives a good short account of Cental Asian Buddhism. For a discussion of the artistic remains, mostly discovered during this century, see Bussagli, 1979.
  17. Snellgrove, 1987, 331 – 43.
  18. ibid. 343 – 9.
  19. ibid. 349 – 50.
  20. ibid. 356.
  21. The Mañju’sriimuulakalpa (“The Root Ordinance Concerning Mañju’srii”), a voluminous work subsequently classified as a Kriyaa Tantra, survives in Sanskrit, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translation. See ‘Saastri (ed.), 1920 – 5.
  22. Lalou, 1930, 11 (using the Nanjio catalogue).
  23. Przyluski, 1923, 301 – 68.
  24. Lalou relied on Mission archeologique dans le Chine septentrionale, Chavannes, E. Paris, 1913.
  25. “Le culte de Mañju’srii etait peu pratiqué dans le bouddhisme chinois à l’époque où ces grottes ont été aménagées.” op. cit. p.12.
  26. See Demiéville, 1952; Lamotte, 1960; Birnbaum, 1983. Roaul Birnbaum’s excellent monograph on Mañju’srii in T’ang China, Studies on the Mysteries of Mañju’srii, builds on the work of Demiéville and Lamotte, particularly in relation to the role of Amoghavajra (705 – 774 CE) in promoting the cult of Mañju’srii in China.
  27. pañca’sikha. ‘Five-crested’ or ‘five-peaked’. Mañju’srii has a number of affiliations with this term. He is associated in the Mañju’ Suutra with Mt. Gandhamaadana (‘The mountain which intoxicates with its perfumes’), one of a chain of five mountain peaks in the western Himalayas. It is also an epithet (closely linked with pañcaciira), possibly descriptive of how Mañju’srii wears his hair; and finally, Pañca’sikha is the name of a gandharva who shares a number of qualities with Mañju’srii. For further discussion of Mañju’srii’s association with the term pañca’sikha, see p. 16 – 19 of the first article in this series (‘Mañju’srii: Origins, Role, and Significance (Part 1 – Origins)’. The Order Journal 2, 1989, p.15 – 26).
  28. For an evocative description of a journey to Wu-t’ai shan in the early 1930’s see John Blofeld, 1972, 114 – 155. Raoul Birnbaum suggests that Wu-t’ai shan was the first mountain in China to be associated with a Buddha or Bodhisattva, and that the establishment of sacred Buddhist mountains signifies an important step in the development of a distinctively Chinese form of Buddhism (Birnbaum, 1983, p.10). As well as Wu-t’ai shan, three other mountains became sacred to Buddhists in China: O-mei in the west, sacred to Samantabhadra; Chiu-hua in the south; and P’u-t’o, a mountain island off the Chekiang coast in the east, sacred to Kuan-yin (Avalokite’svara). P’u-t’o was identified with Avalokite’svara’s mountain of Potalaka, which is often located in the south of India. André Migot (1954, 29 – 40) descibes a visit to O-mei in 1947. Mary Mullikin & Anna Hotchikis (1973) give an illustrated account of their pilgrimage in 1935 – 6 of the nine sacred mountains-five Taoist and four Buddhist-of China. See Dudjom Rinpoche (1991, I, plate facing p.596) for a photograph of contemporary Wu-t’ai shan.
  29. The Mañju’ Suutra, translated into Chinese in the third century, describes Mañju’srii as living in the Himaalayas and converting five hundred sages ( to Buddhism. For the benefit of beings he performs a, and his remains are taken to the summit of Mt. Gandhamaadana. It is stated that those who are devoted to Mañju’srii will surely see him, either in a vision or in a dream. The Mañju’ Suutra is discussed in the two previous articles on Mañju’srii: see The Order Journal 2, 1989, p.19; The Order Journal 3, 1990, p.16.
  30. T. 2098 – 2100. T. 2099 is the Kuang Ch’ing-liang chuan, written in 1060 CE by Yen-i.
  31. T. 2073. Part of Fa-tsang’s Notes on the Tradition of the Avata.msaka Suutra has been translated into French by Lamotte (1960, pp. 55 – 60).
  32. This has been translated into English by Edwin Reischauer (1955).
  33. In recounting this story I have relied mainly on Lamotte (1960, 86 – 88) who translates (into French) a preface attached to the Chinese translation of the (T. 967) made in 689 CE. The preface gives the story of Buddhapalita visits to Wu-t’ai shan. It is also the subject of the twelfth chapter of the Wu-t’ai shan chronicle, the Kuang Ch’ing-liang chuan (T. 2099) (see Birnbaum, 1983, 104, note 6).
  34. Birnbuam, 1983, 14 – 5.
  35. See Birnbaum, 1983, 30.
  36. Reischauer, 1955, 260, cited in Birnbaum, 1983, 18. In the summer of 1937 John Blofeld witnessed a very similar event, again on the southernmost peak. Staying just below the peak at the highest temple, Blofeld and a number of other pilgrims were roused from sleep shortly after midnight by a monk who, lantern in hand, entered their sleeping quarters with a cry of “The Bodhisattva has appeared!”. They hurriedly dressed and climbed the hundred feet to a tower built on the very top of the peak that had a window looking out into empty space. Blofeld describes what happens.

    As each one entered the little room and came face to face with the window beyond, he gave a shout of surprise, as though all our hours of talk had not sufficiently prepared us for what we now saw. There in the great open spaces beyond the window, apparently not more than one or two hundred yards away, innumerable balls of fire floated majestically past. We could not judge their size, for nobody knew how far away they were, but they appeared like the fluffy woollen balls that babies play with seen close up. They seemed to be moving at the stately pace of a large, well-fed fish aimlessly cleaving its way through the water; but, of course, their actual pace could not be determind without a knowledge of the intervening distance. Where they came from, what they were, and where they went after fading from sight in the West, nobody could tell. Fluffy balls of orange-coloured fire, moving through space, unhurried and majestic-truly a fitting manifestation of divinity! (Blofeld, 1959, 149 – 50)

  37. Reischauer, 1955, 232, cited in Birnbaum, 1983, 18.
  38. Reischauer, 1955, 232 – 3, cited in Birnbaum, 1983, 18.
  39. Demiéville, 1952, 372.
  40. Hua-yen (‘Flower-garland’) is in fact the term the Chinese used to translate Avata.msaka.
  41. See Lamotte, 1960, 60f.
  42. Birnbaum, 1983, 12.
  43. Fa-tsang also worked with ‘Sik.saananda, the translator of the Avata.msaka Suutra containing the interpolations connecting Mañju’srii and Wu-t’ai shan. We should, therefore, perhaps treat his claims with caution. See Lamotte (1960, 55 – 60).
  44. Wen-shu shih-li fa pao-tsang t’o-lo-ni ching (T. XX, 1185A/1185B) which Lamotte retranslates into Sanskrit as Mañju’sriidharmaratnagarbhadhaara.nii Suutra (Lamotte, 1960, 85).
  45. Quoted from Birmbaum, 1983, 11.
  46. There are reasons for doubting whether this passage ever had a Sanskrit original. Bodhiruci was not only affiliated to the expanding Hua-yen tradition, which would give him a motive for promoting Mañju’srii, but he was also involved in ‘Sik.saananda’s translation of the Avata.msaka Suutra. He may have been party to the interpolation of the identification of Wu-t’ai shan with Mañju’srii that is found there.
  47. Birnbaum, 1983, 12.
  48. Takakusu, 1896, 169.
  49. bodhisattvo mahaadhiiro mañ mahaadyuti.h / tasmin de’se tu saak.saad vai ti.s.thate // (MmK 36.568). Cited by Lamotte, 1960, 85 (my translation).
  50. Vimalamitra is said to have gone to China and to Wu-t’ai shan after his thirteen years in Tibet (Dudjom Rinpoche, 1991, I, 555). According to the Tibetan historian Bu ston, the seventh century Tibetan king, Srong-brtsan sgam-po also visited Wu-t’ai shan where he founded 108 monasteries (Obermiller, 1931 – 2, II, 184). Paul Demiéville is sceptical about the historical reliability of this account (Demiéville, 1952, 188, note 1).
  51. Lamotte, 1960, 89.
  52. This mural has been studied by Ernesta Marchand (1976).
  53. Mañju’srii is associated with astrology in the (pre mid-eighth century) Indian text, the Mañju’sriinaamasa.mgiiti. Verse 103 descibes him as “glorious, possessing the circle of the lunar mansions” (‘sriimaan nak.satrama.n.dala.h) (See Davidson, 1981; Wayman, 1985, for two translations of the Naamasa.mgiiti). It was in China, however, that this association seems to have been elaborated and Mañju’srii seen freeing one from the negative influences of the planets (see Birnbaum, 1983, 92ff). The story of Padmasambhava’s visit to Mañju’srii reveals an ambiguity of feeling towards the use of astrology within a Buddhist context. The following account is adapted from the translation of Padmasa.mbhava’s biography edited by Evans-Wentz (see Evans-Wentz, 1954, 134 – 6).Padma’s next great guru was the Bodhisattva Mañju’srii, residing on the Five-Peaked Mountain, near the Siitaasara river, in the Shanshi Province of China. Mañju’srii’s origin, like that of Padmasa.mbhava, was supernormal:The Buddha once went to China to teach the Dharma, but instead of listening to him the people cursed him. So he returned to G.rdhrakuu.ta, in India. Considering it to be useless to explain the higher truths to the Chinese, he decided to have introduced into China the conditional truths, along with astrology. Accordingly, the Buddha, while at G.rdhrakuu.ta, emitted from the crown of his head a golden yellow light-ray which fell upona tree growing near a stuupa, one of the five stuupas, each of which was on one of the peaks of the Five-Peaked Mountain. From the tree grew a goitre-like excresence, whence there sprang a lotus blossom. And from this lotus blossom Mañju’srii was born, holding in his right hand the sword of wisdom and in his left hand a blue lotus blossom, and supporting the book of [the perfection of] wisdom; and the people spoke of him as having been born without a father and mother. From Mañju’srii’s head there issued a golden tortoise. The tortoise entered the Siitasara river, and from a bubble there came forth two white tortoises, male and female, which gave birth to five sorts of tortoises.At about this time the Lord Buddha emitted from the crown of his head a white light-ray which fell upon the goddess of Victory. The goddess went to Mañju’srii; and he, taking in his hand the golden tortoise, said, ‘This is the great golden tortoise’. Then he instructed and initiated the goddess in seven astrological systems.When these astrological teachings, known as the teachings which issued from the head of the most holy Mañju’srii, had spread all over the world, the people gave so much attention to them that the Dharma of the Lord Buddha was neglected. So Mañju’srii placed all the texts containing the teachings in a charmed copper box and hid it in a rock on the eastern side of the Five-Peaked Mountain. Deprived thus of astrological guidance, mankind suffered dire misfortunes: diseases, shortness of life, poverty, barrenness of cattle, and famine. Upon learning of these misfortunes, Avalokite’svara went to Padmasa.mbhava and said, ‘I have renovated the world thrice; and, thinking that all beings were happy, returned to Potaala. But, now, when I look down, I behold so much suffering that I weep’. And Avalokite’svara added, ‘Assume the guise of Brahmaa; and, for the good of the creatures of the world, go and recover these hidden treasures [of texts]’.Having assumed the guise of Brahmaa, Padma went to Mañju’srii and said, ‘Although not really part of the Dharma of the Lord Buddha, astrology is, nevertheless, of vast benefit to worldly creatures. Therefore, I beg you to take out the hidden texts and instruct me in them’. And Mañju’srii took out the hidden texts and instructed and initiated Padma in all of them.
  54. This legend is found in the Sanskrit Svaya.mbhuu A summary is found in Mitra (1981, 249 – 258). See also my Mañju’srii pt.1: Origins, p. 21 – 2 for some comments on this material. The Svaya.mbhuu also contains an account of an (Indian?) monk, Dharma’sriimitra who is described as wanting to learn the meaning of the twelve vowels of the Mañju’sriinaamasa.mgiiti. In his quest for an answer he starts on the long and dangerous journey to China to ask Mañju’srii himself their meaning. On his way he passes through Nepal and meets Mañju’srii in the Kathmandu valley. Mañju’srii answers his queries and Dharma’sriimitra is saved the trouble of his journey to China (see Mitra, 1981, 255). The story, while recognising Mañju’srii’s abode in China, can be read as suggesting that Mañju’srii is also available in the Kathmandu valley itself, thereby giving status to Buddhism in Nepal in the same way that the Wu-t’ai shan legends did to Buddhism in China. It has been pointed out to me that the story could also be interpreted as an act of kindness on the part of Mañju’srii towards those who were not able to make the long and dangerous journey to China to see him. An equivalent of this sort of account is the tradition that for those too old or ill to climb the many steps to the great Svaya.mbhuu stuupa, circumambulating the Kathesimbhu stuupa in central Kathmandu (a large but scaled-down replica of Svaya.mbhuu), produces the same merit.
  55. Welch, 1967, p.307; Luk, 1988, 14f.
  56. I have taken these biographical details from Birnbaum (1983, 25). The early part of his biography is less than certain. Lamotte’s account (1960, 89) differs slightly. Both Birnbaum and Lamotte rely on Chou Yi-liang’s ‘Tantrism in China’ (1944 – 5), which I have not been able to consult. This study contains an annotated translation of the standard Chinese biography of Amoghavajra and a discussion of its problems.
  57. Birnbaum, 1983, 25.
  58. For material on the Arhat Pi.n.dola, see Strong (1979 – 80).
  59. Birnbaum also points out that from another perspective it could be said that Mañju’srii himself was promoting his cult, since for the Buddhist world of that time it was indisputable that he was appearing again and again to visitors to Wu-t’ai shan (Birnbaum, 1983, 36).
  60. See Birnbaum, 1983, 68 – 90.
  61. The Avata.msaka Suutra was partially translated into Chinese in the second and third centuries by Lokak.sema (T. 280), Tche K’ien (T. 281), and (T. 283, 285, 288, 291, 292).
  62. A corpus of eleven texts translated were in the second century CE. These have been the focus of analysis by Paul Harrison. See Harrison, 1987, 79 – 80. These findings give further weight to the view that, at least textually, Mañju’srii’s role as an object of devotion is subsequent to and dependent upon such a role being adopted by Buddha figures such as Amitaabha.
  63. I take these figures from Williams (1989, 258) who cites Weinstein (1987) and Tsukamoto (1985). Significantly, the increase in the images of Amitaabha and Avalokite’svara ocur during the lives of the first three Chinese patriarchs of the Pure Land tradition, T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o and Shan-tao.

Kumano’s Indian gods and tales, and the Japanized view of the Other World(s)


Kumano no honji emaki = The Legend of the Origin of Kumano, Shrine, Handscrolls, scroll 2; ink, color, and gold on paper ; 31.3 cm. Source: Digital Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Spencer Collection

Kumano no honji emaki (Picture Scroll of The Legend of the Origin of Kumano, Shrine), Handscrolls, scroll 2 scene 1; ink, color, and gold on paper ; 31.3 cm. Source: NYPL Digital Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Spencer Collection

The Kumano-no-Honji handscrolls are a set of three. The handscrolls belong to a genre of illustrated religious literature that describes the Buddhist origins of local Japanese deities (kami). The scroll recounts the genesis of the gods as Indian Buddhist royalty who experience treachery and persecution, fly to Japan, and apotheose as the deities of the Kumano Shrines.

Since prehistoric times until the present, the Kumano area has been regarded as a sacred, mystical abode of the gods and a place for miraculous healing. To read more about prehistoric nature worship and pre-medieval Kumano, see Descent of deities in the land of Kumano 

Reconstruction of a pilgrim procession

Reconstruction of a pilgrim procession

In the 11th century the Grand Shrines of Kumano Sanzan became a pilgrimage destination for the imperial family and aristocrats. By the late 15th century, the majority of pilgrims to Kumano were commoners. The Kumano Shrines are located in the Kii mountain range south of Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. Three main shrines, are connected by a pilgrimage route, Shinto indigenous beliefs linked the Kumano region with the origin of the Japanese people. Buddhist missionaries later imagined the area of the shrines as the earthly paradise of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara (Kannon in Japanese), incorporating Buddhist beliefs and tales of Indian origin into the local religious landscape.

One of the most famous paths of the Heian period - the pilgrimage path leads from Yoshino, south of the ancient Nara capital, through Ōmine to Kumano. Source: Onmark Productions

One of the most famous paths from the Heian period – the pilgrimage path leads from Yoshino, south of the ancient Nara capital, through Ōmine to Kumano. Source: Onmark Productions

The Kumano Shrines were unusual in cultivating, rather than excluding, female pilgrims. Addressed to a largely female audience, this illustrated tale was one of the visual media used by Kumano nuns in their itinerant preaching to attract funds and pilgrimages to their shrines. According to Alison Tokita, the bikuni had a key role in disseminating the Buddhist oral tales and traditions: “Japan’s oral narrative performance practices, no longer extant, were often the preserve of itinerant women entertainers in the medieval era”. The handscroll ends by praising the miraculous benefits of pilgrimage. The calligraphic text translates: “If you once travel there, you will be protected from all afflicting boils and painful disasters. The ten evils and the five sins will vanish when you once set foot on that holy site. And peace, in this world and in the next, is guaranteed to whomever makes pilgrimage there.”

“Kumano bikuni, or the nuns of Kumano, were the female counterpart of etoki hoshi. Very little is known of their origins, but it may be assumed that these nuns, like most professionals with religious names, started their activities at a religious center. As their name suggests they were probably associated with the three sacred mountains of Kumano,  one of the most important centers of popular religion during the middle ages. In spite of the geographical isolation and the difficulty of the roads, Kumano attracted pilgrims in all walks of life, from the Emperor on down; a popular saying at the time likened the swarms to “ants on pilgrimage to Kumano” (ari no Kumano mairi)… and Tendai shodo priests from the Agui center in Kyoto included in their proselytizing texts their version of the origins of the divinities at Kumano.17 Much of this popularity was unquestionably due to the active missionary campaigns which the three shrines of Kumano had conducted at least as far back as the middle Heian period. Agents from these shrines toured the whole country seeking donations, and Kumano bikuni were no doubt among them…” (source: Barbara Ruch’s “Japan in the Muromachi Age“)

Seigantoji and Nachi falls. The great Kumano Sanzan complex also includes two Buddhist temples, Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji

Seigantoji and Nachi falls. The great Kumano Sanzan complex also includes two Buddhist temples, Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji

The following passage excerpt throws a great deal of light upon Medieval Japanese thought and worldviews, it is taken from Kazuhiko Komatsu’s chapter “The image of India in the Popular Literature of Japanese Medieval Period: with Special Reference to Pictorial Expressions in Otogizoshi Tales” from the book compilation of essays, “East Asian Literatures: Japanese, Chinese and Korean : an Interface with India

…Otogizoshi-tales flourished in Japan during the medieval period. India was known to Medieval Japan as the place where Buddhism and its originator, Shaka (Lord Buddha). As a result, proper nouns like India (Tenjiku) and names of places were found mostly in the Buddhist context.

The first story to be introduced in the is paper is called ‘ Kumano-no-Honji’. This is a story that traces the origin of the Gods in Kishu (presently Wakayama Prefecture in Japan) from India (Tenjiku) to Japan. The worship of Kumano Sanzan (Three Sacred Shrines of Kumano) was started in the imperial family of Kyoto and the nobilities after the mid-Heian Era and spread in the masses during the medieval period. Situated in the Kii Peninsula that lies to the South of Kyoto, the three shrines of Kumano Honsha, Kumano Shinha and Kumano Nachi Taisha were worshipped since olden times. They were not considered as one set right from the beginning, but were grouped up in course of time. They were worshipped and with the syncretism of Budhdism and Shintoism, the Gods from Kumano Sanzan were also provided with a Buddhist explanation.
‘Kumano-no-Honji’ is a story that has been created considering the confluence of Shintoism and Buddhism. “Honji” is a concept devised by Japanese Buddhists that explained the correlaton between Buddha and Japanese Gods (Kami). Japanese Gods (Kami) that existed in the soil of Japan before Buddhism arrived were considered to be reincarnations of Lord Buddha who came to salvage the masses. Thus, the explanation stressed that Kami was Buddha and Buddha was a reincarnation of Kami. However, following the popularization of the concept, ‘Honji’ was considered to be “A story that depicts how a human being, after undergoing various difficulties, was able to become Buddha due to the divine protection of Kami and Buddha”. Thus, ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ means “The story that explains how the Kumano Gods became Gods”.

There have been indications that ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ was originally written by propagators of the Kumano thought in order to spread the Kumano thought of worship. However, it became more of a fairy tale that had a germ of popular amusement in it, thus separating it from a religious context in the process of popularization. Thus, ‘Kumano-no-Honji’ is the story of the Gods of Kumano. However, the scene of the story is set at Magadha, a kingdom in central Tenjiku (India) and the characters are also Indian people. A brief outline of the story is given below:

Zenzai, the King of Magadha, situated in central India, had 1000 wives, but was not blessed by a son. Senko, a queen who lived in the Gosui palace, prayed to Goddesss Kannon-Bosatsu (Avalokiteshwara) in order to be blessed by the king’s affection. The Buddhist Goddess of mercy blessed her, and she conceived a baby on receiving the King’s affection. The King was overjoyed as he was able to have the long cherished Prince, but the other queens were jealous of Senko. They cast a charm on Queen Senko and brought an astrologer who gave a false prediction that the “child in Queen Senko’s womb will bring about the fall of the empire”. These plans failed , but the thousand queens disguised into witches and attached the King’s Gosui Palace, and the King left Queen Senko. The queens called the knights, forged a false royal order, and took Queen Senko into the deep forests of the mountain for execution. The Queen delivered a son just before being executed, who grew on the milk of his dead mother, protected by animals of the jungle.

When the prince was three years old, the Queen’s elder brother Chiken, who was a priest, entered the jungle and found out the prince. He took him to a monastery at the foothills of the mountain, educated him and planned a meeting of the father and son when the prince became seven years old. Soon the Queen was also brought to life by the magical powers of the priest; the lot of the queens was disclosed and all of them were punished. King Zenzai, along with Queen Senko, the prince, priest Chiken, and the retainers, decided to travel to Japan, rode on a vehicle that flew in the sky, reached Kumano in Japan and became the Gods of Kumano. The king is beleied to be the reincarnation of Amida Nyorai (Lord Amitabha), the Queen that of Kannon-Bosatsu (Goddess Avaokiteshwara) and priest Chiken of Yakushi-Nyorai (Bahasajhyaguru). It is said that Amida-Nyorai is worshipped as the Honji at the shrine of Kumano ongu, Kannon-Bosatsu at Kumano Shinu and Yakushi-Nyorai at Nachigu.

The brief outline of the story mentioned above shows that if the sentence “Zenzai, the king of Magadha stayed in central India…,” is not found at the beginning, it is hard to distinguish that the story takes place in India and the characters are people of India. It can also be mistaken as a story that has the Chinese or Japanese royal family as its main characters. This is because the actual story does not have any elements that would make the presence of ‘India’ felt in it.

What would be the situation if the illustrations that accompany this story are considered? Let us see the depiction of Tenjiku (India)given in ‘Kumano-no-Honji Emaki’ (The Picture Scroll of Kuma-no-Honji) which is preserved in the Kumata Shinto shrine.

Picture 1

Picture 1-A The Palace of King Zenzai, Kumano-no-Honji


Picture 1-A (shown above) shows the scene when the queens, disguised as witches, are annoying the King who has come to stay at the Gosui Palace where Queen Senko lived. King Zenzai and Queen Senko are surprised at the appearance of the witches. And Picture 1-B and Picture 1-C are the same scenes from another text of Kuma-no-Honji.

Their apparel of Picture 1 seems to be a mixture of Japanese and foreign (Chinese or Korean style) clothes. The palace architecture too, can be called as Japanese except for the use of red color paint that can be seen in one portion. This color can be called as an effort to distinguish the palace from the Japanese Palace. Picture 2 shows the scene when Queen Senko is taken away by the knights for decapitation. The weapon of the soldiers have somewhat foreign shapes, but their appearance is more or less similar to Japanese soldiers.

In other words, it can be said that India’s image depicted in these pictures is more of a mixture of Japanese and Chinese imagination of India. If we consider this as reality, then that would mean that the medieval Japanese were not able ot form a concrete image of India. It was an image that was neither Chinese nor Japanese – and of course completely different from reality –an image of country that medieval Japanese called as ‘India’.
The Concept of ‘The Other World’ in Japan

Here, I would like to deliberate from a different perspective on the pictorial depiction of the foreign style palace architecture and costumes. The image of India seen in the aforesaid story of ‘ Kumano-no-Honji’ seems to originate from a blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture and clothing. However, this blending does not stop at the image of India only, but continues further a a broader image that was common in the depiction of ‘The Other World’ by medieval Japanese.

The ‘Other World’ means a world that is on the other side of the everyday world of living beings. Beyond the day-today world, the Japanese have been imagining a world where Gods and goblins live. For example, they believed that there was a world above the sky that differed from the human world. At the same time, there existed worlds in the mountains, under water, on the other side of the sea, underground and even after death, a country (kingdom) of the dead existed for them. These worlds were even depicted in paintings throughout.

The ‘Picture Scroll of Amewakahiko Monogatari’ depicts one of Otogizoshi-tales that deals with royal palaces in the heavens. Amewakahiko was the son of the King of the world above the skies and the story is as follows.

Amewakahiko goes to the human world in the form of a snake and asks a princess to marry him, after which he changes into a beautiful youth and appears in front of her. Both of them do spend the married life together, but Amewakahiko soon goes back to the skies. The princess who loves her husband follows him to the celestial world, goes through various tests that his father gives and finally there is a reunion.

When we have a look at the illustration that depicts the royal palace of the celestial world, the architecture is of Chinese style (Picture 3), and the King in the Palace (Amewakahiko’s Father) is shown as a scary demon (Picture 4).
I would like to deliberate slightly on the point that the royal palace of the celestial world is ‘Chinese -styled’. It seems that when it came to depiction of a world without human beings, the medieval Japanese were not able to imagine it independent of the image of Chines, which was a country that had a lot of cultural interaction with Japan since ancient times.

The ‘Picture Scroll of Oeyama Shuten-Doji’ is a piece that depicts the royal palace in deep mountains (Oeyama). The king of this palace is also a demon as in the earlier story. The story is as follows:

In the deep recesses of Oeyama, situated in northwest of Kyoto, a group of demons had their palace and a demon called Shuten-Doji was their chief . These demons would frequently appear in the capital of Kyoto and attack princesses and women of the royal families. The Emperor sends a general called Minamotono Raiko, who completely exterminates the menace of demons and is welcomed back to the capital after his triumph. The Picture 5-A and Picture 5-B are the same scenes from another text of ‘Picture Scroll of Oeyama Shuten-Doji’. The palace in either text is Chinese- styled.

‘Momotaro’, another famous Japanese fairy tale also has a similar scene of extermination of demons, which had a castle similar to that of Shuten Doji.

The works that depict Water World (World of Dragon King) include picture scrolls of ‘Urashima Myojin (Urashima Taro’) (Picture 6, Picture 7), ‘Tawarano Tota’ (Picture 8, Picture 9), and ‘Hikohohodemino Mikoto’ (Picture 10). The story of ‘Urashima Myojin’ is given below:

Urashima, a fisherman who saves a turtle, is guided to the Dragon Kingdom by the turtle. He marries and settles there, but is reminded of his hometown after enjoying for some time and begs to return to his hometown to spend some time. He is given a small treasure chest as a souvenir and is told that he should not open it. When Urashima returns to his hometown he finds out that a few centuries have passed and the world has changed. A sad Urashima opens the treasure chest. As soon as he does this, a cloud of smoke arises from the chest and Urashima turns into an old man.

If we see the pictorial depiction of the Dragon Palace that is described in this story, it is identical to that of ‘Amewakahiko’s Story’ or to Oeyama Shuten-Doji’, i.e. Chinese styled architecture and the residents of the palaces are people who are wearing Chinese style clothes. ‘Tawarano Tota’ is again a story of the hero saving the serpent (An Apparition from the Dragon World) and in turn being taken to the Dragon world, there he experiences the warm hospitality of the Dragon King and returns laden with gifts. However, the image of the palace in this story is still centered on the Chinese image.

And what would be the world after death? Somehow, Japan has many pictures of Hell that depict the world after death. The enshrined deity of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto is supposed to have existed in reality. ‘The Charm of Kitano Tenjin’, a tale that describes the origin of this shrine says that Sugawarano Michizane was enshrined in this shrine as God in order to pacify his revengeful ghost. The smae story has an illustration depicting the Emperor suffering in Hell as he died of Michizane’s curse. The Master of Hell is God Yama, and his palace too is depicted as a Chinese-styled one (Picture 11, Picture 12).

There is a distinct similarity in all these pictorial depictions and the illustrations provided in the story of ‘Kumano-no-Honji’. India, for the medieval Japanese, was a distant country–a different world altogether almost like the Celestial World or the Water World.

The Image of India found in ‘Shaka-no-Honji’

I will introduce another piece from the genre of fairy tales. It is a story called ‘Shaka-no-Honji’. there are numerous works in Japan that include anecdotes about Shaka (Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, also known as Shakuson or Shakyamuni) and references to His biography that is known as ‘ Butsuden’ in Japan. These tales were already popular in the masses in India, Chines, Korea and Japan, and were even converted into illustrated stories. The Buddhist biographical scriptures that the ancient Japanese used were mainly those written in Chinese and even they were introduced as illustrated biographies. ‘Eingakyo( (Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect) is one of the most famous ancient works that was imported to Japan in the Nara Period (8th century AD).

Butsuden assumed significance among the believers of Buddhism as is mentioned in the first volumes of Konjau-Monogatarishu and Shiju-Hyaku-Innenshu, Setsuwa collections of medieval Japanese literature. Otogizoshi-Tales, which are a form of popular literature, were influenced by this trend and ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ Otogizoshi-Tales in a single-novel form, was created. A brief outline of the story of ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ is given below:

King Jobon, who lived in a castle named Kabira in India, did not have a son even at the age of 50. He got a prediction made about the way to obtain a son. As per the prediction, he invited Maya Bunin from the heaven to be his queen. She conceived the child in her sleep, and the baby was born. Buddha had come riding on a white elephant and entered the womb from the right side of her stomach.

However, the mother died seven days after the birth of the baby and it was brought up by its aunt. At the age of seven, when the child saw a small bird bring up a chick, he got to know that he did not have a mother and felt a strong urge to become a priest and attain Buddhahood. On hearing this, the King invited 500 astrologers to predict the Prince’s future, out of which 499 predicted that he would become a king, except for one who predicted that he would become a priest shunning all pleasures and strive for the salvation of all living creatures. The King still tried to persuade the prince and built a beautiful garden — Garden of Four Seasons –that would in full bloom throughout the year.

But when the Prince was enjoying his life in the garden, he met an old person who became ill and died as the time passed. The Prince was deeply moved on seeing the cremation of the old man who ultimately turned into bones and ashes. He visited a monk and felt futility of the human world after discussion with him. He told his father about his intentions to renounce the worldly pleasures. The King tried to persuade him by marrying him to the famous beautiful princess called Yashudara, who was his minster’s daughter. However, the minster put forth a condition that whoever wanted to marry his daughter had to piere seven iron targets by his arrow. Many suitors participated in the competition amongst which King Jobon’s nephew, Debadata, pierced five targets, but as the Prince’s arrow went through all seven, he got the beautiful princess in marriage. But as the Prince still had a very strong aspiration for Buddhahood, the Princess was unhappy. When the King promised the Prince that he would allow him to enter priesthood only when he got a son, he pointed at the Princess’ stomach and she conceived a child. At the age of 19, the Prince headed toward Mount Dantoku, leaving his palace behind. He met a saint (Saint Ararakarara), became a monk and continued penance for 12 years under his guidance.

After that, he was given the Lotus Sutra and was told to go back and preach it at the foothills of Mount Kaya in the kingdom of Magadha. He became Shaka Muni at the age of 30 years. Devils started disturbing his penitence over there. After attaining Buddhahood, he met Shudatsu the millionaire who built the Gion Monastery for him. At the age of 80, his forehead showed a ray of light. He told his disciples that the time for his Nirvana had arrived and attained Nirvana in the night.

As the story of Shaka-no-Honji’ is the biography of Lord Buddha, many Japanese know that the story is based on an Indian background. However, the understanding of the contents was done through a filter of ‘ Japanese Culture’. In other words, the story was adapted in such a way that if the names of characters and places are changed in to Japanese names, it would become a story of a Japanese Prince who is in search of Truth and Realization.

The outline of this story of ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ is based upon Buddhist Scriptures from China. A similar outline can be seen in Buddha’s biography depicted in the wall paintings at Dunhuang in China. In that sense, ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ can be called as the Japanese versions of Buddha’s biography from China. The Castle of Kabira is Kailavastu in Nepal, King Joubon is Shuddhodhan, his Queen Maya Bujin is Goddess Maya, Buddha’s wife Yashudara Yashodhara and Debadata is Devadatta. The names have been quite similar to the original Sanskrit names as they were assigned Chinese characters considering their meaning and pronunciation.

Let us see the pictorial depiction of Shaka and his Royal Palace as depicted in ‘Shaka-no-Honji’ which is preserved in Kotohira Shinto shrine. At a glance we can understand that the depiction is almost similar to those images of ‘The Other World’ that we have seen so far, i.e. Chinese styled palaces with people wearing Chinese styled clothing (Picture 13, Picture 14). The story of ‘Shaka-no-Honju’ is an important piece of knowledge for the Buddhists and was passed on through various mediums. For example, the ‘Depiction of Buddha’s Nirvana’, a painting that depicts the scene of Buddha’s death, was painted as wall paintings in temples and also used as hanging scrolls. Even the ‘Painting of Eight Scenes’ that depicts eight major scenes selected from Buddha’s life was often drawn.
In spite of this, Buddha’s story and India’s image were already depicted in China in the Chinese manner. They were adapted in such a way that it suited the Japanese context and were depicted in an increasingly Japanized manner.

These concepts were visualized on the basis of the Cosmology of the Japanese people of those days, that is ‘ The Other World’. Nothing could really broaden the image of India more than that of being a far off land where Buddhism was born. Thus the images of ‘The other World’ and India found in the fairy tales were drawn with the help of images of China, the sole neighbouring country whose reliable knowledge was available.

Thus I would like to put forth some simple conclusions through this paper. Medieval Japanese painters, who were asked to draw illustrations for fairy tales, particularly those having India as their background, tried to depict buildings, hair styles and costumes of characters with reference to the paintings drawn on the ‘Other World’. Moreover they tried to evolve an image that was all much more India, or rather all the more unworldly, there is an impression that they must have visited temples and referred to Chinese traditional paintings, Buddhist paintings or illustrations from Buddha’s biography.

However, no matter how hard they tried to give it an Indian look to emphasize the exotic features , they could not come out of the impressions of the famous Chinese style paintings (including Korean style as well). Moreover, if you see the chronology of illustrated fairy tale stories with India in it – perhaps that would be because Modern Japan had closed its doors for outsiders – it seems that the imagination about India gradually turned into Japanese style images with the passage of time. It was not until the modern times when a lot of information about India reached Japan that there was change in the Japanese image of India. It started from a change in the name – ‘Tenjiku’ became ‘Indo ‘ (India). It seems that until that time, India’s image visualized by the Japanese people could not shake itself off from the eclectic image that was a blend of the Chinese and the Japanese style images.”


Further reading:

Kumano Sanzan

Communing with nature in Kumano’s land of ancient gods (Japan Times, Jan 11, 2014)

TOKITA, Alison, “Performance and Text: Gender Identity and the Kumano Faith“, Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 16, March 2008

Ikumi Kaminishi. Explaining Pictures: Buddhist Propaganda and Etoki Storytelling in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. x + 284 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2697-0. Reviewed by Monika Dix here

For those interested in Heavenly Hiking: Exploring Japan’s abode of the gods via the Kumano Kodo by Daniel Allen

Map of Kii Peninsula. Source. Higashi-Kishu IT Community, 'The variety of Kumano Kodo,' in Kumano Kodo "Ise-ji route": What is Kumano Kodo, 2004, online:

Map of Kii Peninsula. Source. Higashi-Kishu IT Community, ‘The variety of Kumano Kodo,’ in Kumano Kodo “Ise-ji route”: What is Kumano Kodo, 2004, online:


Cloudsoul, chinkonsai, soul-binding, soul-summoning and soul-shaking practices – origins and theories

Emperor  the Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the emperor. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period (710-784) when the court-ceremonials were designed

The Raifuku (outer robe) of the ceremonial court costume of the Emperor Komei(r. 1846-1866). Cloud-mountain peak motif seen across the middle. This ceremonial court costume originates in the Nara-period (710-784) Imperial Collections of Japan  Source: Japanese Symbols of Government

From our previous post “Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud“, we traced the use of the cloud motif and symbolism in conjunction with deities or divinities, ancestors, sages and heroes to their early use both in art and in concepts in genealogies and myths of the peoples of the Northeast Eurasia or Far East.

From Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority” by David T. Bialock, comes an understanding of the origin of the “chinkon” and tama “cloudsoul” concept and the rites, and the purpose behind it and the cosmological framework that surrounded it:

Although Nihon shoki’s entry on Temmu’s rite is regarded as the earliest extant mention of the chinkon (spirit pacification), the graphs glossed as “mitama-furi” in the text are actually shokon, also read tama-yobai (“soul-summoning”). The conventional chinkon reading of the passage together with its vernacular gloss “mitama-furi” probably dates from a commentarial tradition transmitted by the Urabe lineage. Thus, according to a secret kun-reading given in the twenty-first scroll of the Shaku nihongi, the graphs were intended to be read “mitama-furi,” a ritual elsewhere represented in Shaku nihongi by the graphs chinkonsia. This eading of the graphs, now well established, was also argued for by Ban Nobutomo in his classic study Chinkon den, where he noted that the phrase “should be recorded as , but one can surmise that it was written in conformance with the usual Chinese practice.”51
… turn to some descriptions of the chinkon rite in the law codes and their commentaries, which have been the basis for most attempts to construct its ancient ritual function. These include the Taiho Code o 701 (extant only fragmentarily in the later Yoro Code), the Ryo no shuge (selected in 833), and the Ryo no guge (selected prior to 868). According to the Taiho Code , the chinkonsai was held in midwinter in the Eleventh Month on a tora no hi (days o f the tiger), and followed by the daijosai on a u no hi (day of the rabbit), a period that coincided with the winter solstice. In Chinese yin-yang five agents thought, both of these days were identified with the agent wood (the beginning of the cycle), which corresponded to the direction east and the season spring. Both the month and days were a time when the positive yang pneumas were believed to mount upward and all things were held to be in a state of movement. It was thus an ideal time for intiating activities such as royal accessions. 52
turning to some actual definitions of the chinkon rite, we find the following explanation in the Ryo no gige under the heading chinkon: “The graph means to pacify. A person’s yang spirit (yoki) is called soul (tama). The tama moves about, meaning one summons back the tama that wanders about in a state of separation and pacifies it inside the body (literally “bowels”.] Therefore it is named “chinkon” (to pacify the soul), another definition from the Ryo no shuge contains some additional details: A person’s yang spirit is called ‘kon’ it moves about. A person’s yin spirit is called ‘haku’ it is white. Therefore one calls back the white soul wandering about in a state of separation and causes it to be pacified inside the bowels. Therefore it is called chinkon.
The exact source for the ideas contained in these descriptions remains uncertain, but the language recalls ancient Chinese ideas about the fate of the soul after death. According to the Li ji: the yang qi of the “cloudsoul” (hun) rises up to the sky (tian) after death, whereas the yin or dark elements associated with the body or “whitesoul” (po) return to the earth. 55 Another passage in the Li Ji , on the rites of mourning , speaks of summoning back the cloudsoul and returning it to the body (po)56. It was under the influence of such commentaries, according to Watanabe Katsuyoshi, that modern scholars developed the idea of a “soul that wanders about in separation from its body” and interpreted chinkon as a rite primarily aimed at preventing such separation by placating the “tama” and thereby obviating the illness and death that were held to result from such separation57.
The yin-yang five agents principles and the related concept of “qi” which informed the ritual setting (temporal and geomantic) of the chinkonsai and the descriptive language of the law doctors, were fundamental, of course to Chinese philosophical thought. In Daoism, the induction of qi into the body and its proper regulation became one of the basic practices for achieving longevity, a central concern of later Daoist literature, as in Xiang’er’s commentary on the Daodejing, which also functioned as a guide to the enlightened ruler.58 thus in Bokenkamp’s paraphrase of one Xiang’er passage “the pneumas of morning and evening should be caused to descend into the human body , where they should be mixed with the body’s own pneumas so that they are evenly distributed throughout.” On the other hand, this time citing directly from the Xiang’er “When the heart produced ill-omened and evil conduct, the Dao departs, leaving the sack (belly) empty. Once it is empty, deviance enters, killing the person.”60 As these citations make clear, the principle of balacning and harmonizeing qu was of paramoutn importanecce; deviancce” (xie) on the other hand, arose from a a failure ot achieve a proper balacne or mixing o pnemas resulting in illlness and death. … The emphasis in the Xiang’er passage on the belly, for example, recalls what Watanabe characterizes as the peculiar language of the law commentaries where the aim of the rite was to draw the erring “tama” back into the “bowel“.  A related notion found in the Chuxue ji, a Tang period encyclopedia compiled at the order of Emperor Xuangzong (r. 712-756), states that on the winter solstice the yang qi is restored to the belly and hot things placed in qi are easily digested.61 If this Daoist medical advice offers a parallel to the ideas of the law doctors in their attempts to describe the chinkon rite, recipes for the production of immortality elixirs provide a suggestive context for understanding the relationship between the medicinal herb and Temmu’s spirit-summoning rite. An entry from scroll seventy-seven on “elixirs” in Yunqi qiqian (Seven Lots from the Satchel of the Clouds), an encyclopedia of older Daoist texts and extracts compiled under the Northern Song, describes a life-extending elixir called lingwan that allows one to “pacify the cloud souls, coagulate the white souls, and fly off into the seventy-four directions,” and in another passage “to sport about on the Five Mountain Peaks.” Not least interesting here is the combination of graphs chinkon, “pacify the cloud souls”) the same two graphs that are used for the Japanese chinkon or “mitama-furi” rite.  Another entry from the Inner Transmission of the Purple Sun Master (Ziyang zhenren neichuan, 399), collected in scroll 106 of the Yunji qiqian, relates that the consumption of zhu over a period of five years–the same medicinal herb ingested by Temmu–produces a glow in the body, gives one a vision that can see right through to the five viscera, and enables one to become an immortal.

By now it should be evident that Temmu’s ingestion of the herb hakuchi cannot be fully accounted for by a straitforward medical reading. The calendrical and yin-yang principles that informed its consumption and the accompanying shokon rite belonged to the same sphere of symbolic activity that would soon be housed in the Yin-Yang bureau and Medical bureau and as the following notice from Jito’s chronicle makes clear: “The Yin-yang Doctors, the priest (shoshi) Hozo and Doki, received twenty of ryo of silver.”64 The date of this third reference to Hozo, just prior to the establishment of the official Yin-Yang Bureau, indicates that he was one of than important group of technical experts who mediated the cultural assemblage transmitted from  the continent. Although the ingestion of the herb zhu (hakuchi) and its efficacy as both a medicinal and immortality elixir are well documented in Daoist lore and herbals the practice seems to have especially flourished in the period of the Southern dynasties (420-589) when Tao Hongjing composed his herbal and Daoist works.65  It can be assumed that Hozo, a Paekche immigrant would have been knowledgeable about this tradition–its influence having reached the Korean kingdom–as well as conversant with practices from Tao honjing’s region that were outside the written transmission.66  In the early Tang work Qianjinyaogang (Essential Prescriptions Worth a hundred Weight in Gold), composed by the Daoist master and physician Sun Simiao (d. 682) sometimes between 650 and 658. Predating the Tang medical reforms , this text transmitted a tradition very close to the earlier Southern dynasties ‘ tradition and contained detailed discussions on the preparation of zhu and its capacity to harmonize in accord with yin-yang five agents principles.67

The cosmological theory of resonance, much of which is recorded in the Gogyo taigi that reached Japan no later than the end of the seventh century invests Temmu’s ingestion of the elixir and the shokon rite with its reliopolitical significance. Held in the Eleventh Month on a a tora no hi (day of the tiger), the rite’s timing corresponded to the agent wood and the direction east. In Daoist medical lore pertaining to the five viscera, the cloudsoul (kon) resided in the liver (kan), which was identified with the element wood and controlled the eyes, hair, nail, and muscles. The liver was also known as the Office of the General, the faculty responsible for wise counsel; and its element wood was identified with “virtue” (jin) that actifies the myriad things making its analogous to the ruler.68 According to another text cited in Gogyo taigi, The lineage of Thearchs (DIXI pu), “Heaven and earth first arose, then generated the Heavenly Thearch (tenno) who rules through the virtue wood,” a formulation that derives from the symbolism of the hexagram zhen, identified variously with lightning, the dragon and the dark springs. The Yijing states that the thearch and myriad things arise from zhen, with zhen identified with the direction east.69 Although these correspondences add weight to the medical aim of this  hybrid rite, they do so by locating Temmu at the center of a radiating cosmological order, which gains additional significance because the rite took place at a critical juncture when the tenno was being newly adopted as a title of authority.70

The belief of musubi – binding the soul to keep it from wandering off (see also The symbolism of knots and Frazer on the separable external soul)

During the Chinkonsai,

“The chief officiant counts eight times from one to ten, knotting the yufu each time. By tying knots in this symbol of the emperor’s life span, the officiant keeps his tama from slipping away. the eight times and eight knots refer to the eight musubi (binding) tama of deities.
As one can see by these examples, the mitamashizume or chinkon-sai was a ritual means to fix the emperor’s tama so that it would not leave his body. the ancient Japanese greatly feared wandering tama and made the utmost efforts to affix them. A similar ceremony is still being carried out secretly each year at the Isonokami shrine (Renri City, Nara prefecture). This ritual may have to do partly with the Kyujiki, a text which gives much more importance to the Mononobe clan whose ancestral deity is enshrined at Isonokami, than the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.
Such tamafuri and tamashizume rituals were often popularly called iki-bon, the Bon of living spirits. the Buddhist Urabon festival of late summer, however, a festival primarily concerned with the souls of the dead, has now superseded in importance this ceremony for the souls of the living.”

Source: Rethinking Japan Vol 1.: Literature, Visual Arts & Linguistics (by Adriana Boscaro, Franco Gatti, Massimo Raveri)

The Taoist concept of soul summoning may have been transmitted via Korean immigrants, or directly by Chinese immigrants, or both.

A celestial being on a cloud motif seen on a bronze bell of the Korean kingdom Silla. c. 833  Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

A celestial being on a cloud motif seen on an ancient bronze bell of the Korean kingdom Silla. c. 833 Photo source: Imperial Japanese Commission to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: Japanese Temples and their Treasures (The Shimbi Shoin 1915) Wikimedia Commons


Chinkon rituals of “shaking the soul”

From Ze’ev Erlich’s Torifune and tama furi:

TAMA FURI/ Furitama-no-Gyo
Tama(soul) Furi (shake) basic meaning is the self Chin-kon and relates directly to the furube-no-kamu-waza of Chinkon Saho.
Furitama ( Soul Shaking)
1. Stand with your legs apart about shoulder width .
2. Place your hands together with the right hand over the left. Leave space between them big enough for an imaginary ping pong ball.
3. Place your hands in that position in front of your stomach and 0shake them vigorously up and down.
4. While shaking them concentrate and repeat the words: Harae-do-no-Okami – an invocation to the kami of the place of harai.
The Object Furitama-no-gyo
The purpose of shaking the soul is to generate awareness of it within yourself. Kon, (the soul), in Shinto, is one of the four important elements along with Mei (life), Rei (spirit) and Ki (which means Spirit in its causal aspect – Ki is a kind of energy source). Kon is the most important of the four since human beings can also be described as Waketama (separated individual souls), which is another way of saying “children of the kami”.

In Chinese art, an ancient cloud “meander” motif is related to the Hun and Po concepts of the afterlife. The cloud is a commonly seen design and when repeated in a pattern symbolizes never-ending fortune.

Clouds, sometimes referred to as “auspicious clouds” (xiangyun 祥云), represent the heavens and also “good luck” because the Chinese word for cloud (yun 云) is pronounced the same as yun (运) meaning “luck” or “fortune”. Auspicious clouds may be seen on coins and charms or amulets.

The cloud motif or form often resembles the auspicious shape of the lingzhi “fungus of immortality”. These are concepts that are related to thunder and the ability to call down rain, and also closely related to dragon and star symbolism.  (Source: The Hidden or Implied Meaning of Chinese Charm Symbols)


Theories on the Taoist concepts of Hun and Po souls

Chinese Taoist or daoist texts

Hun controls yang spirits in the body,
Po controls yin spirits in the body,
all are made of qi.
Hun is responsible for all formless consciousness,
including the three treasures: jing, qi and shen.
Po is responsible for all tangible consciousness,
including the seven apertures: two eyes, two ears, two nose holes, mouth.
Therefore, we call them 3-Hun and 7-Po.

Master Hu continues with an elaboration of these dynamics; and ends by pointing out that, like all of cyclic existence, the relationship between Hun and Po is a seemingly “endless cycle,” which is transcended “only by the achieved,” i.e. by the Immortals (in their transcendence of all duality):

He Yin-Yang’s Framework For Understanding Hun & Po

Another way of understanding Hun and Po is as an expression of Yin and Yang. As Twicken points out, the Yin-Yang framework is the foundational model of Chinese metaphysics. In other words: it is in understanding how Yin and Yang relate to one another (as mutually-arising and inter-dependent) that we can understand how — from a Taoist perspective — all pairs of opposites “dance” together, as not-two and not-one: appearing without actually “existing” as permanent, fixed “entities.”

In this way of viewing things, Po is associated with Yin. It is the more dense or physical of the two “spirits,” and is known also as the “corporeal soul,” since it returns to earth — dissolving into gross elements — at time of the time of the death of the body.

Hun, on the other hand, is associated with Yang, since it is the more light or subtle of the two “spirits.” It’s known also as the “ethereal soul,” and at the time of death leaves body to merge into more subtle realms of existence.

In the process of Taoist cultivation, the practitioner seeks to harmonize the Hun and Po, in a way which gradually allows the Po (the more dense) aspects to more and more fully support the Hun (the more subtle) aspects. The outcome of this kind of refinement process is the manifestation of a way-of-being and way-of-perceiving known by Taoist practitioners as “Heaven on Earth.”

Staying & Moving In The Mahamudra Tradition

In the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition (associated primarily with the Kagyu lineage), a distinction is drawn between the “staying” and the “moving” aspects of mind.

The “staying” aspect of mind refers more-or-less to what is sometimes also called the “witnessing” capacity. It is the perspective from which the arising and dissolving of various phenomena (thoughts, sensations, perceptions) is observed. It is the aspect of mind which has the capacity to remain (and is quite naturally) “continuously present,” and unaffected by the “objects” or “events” that arise within it.

The “moving” aspect of mind refers to the various appearances which — like waves on an ocean — arise and dissolve. These are the “objects” and “events” that seem (at least initially) to have a space/time duration: an arising, an abiding, and a dissolution. As such, they seem to undergo change or transformation — in opposition to the “staying” aspect of mind, which is unchanging.

A Mahamudra practitioner trains, first, in the capacity to toggle back and forth between these two (“staying” and “moving”) perspectives (known also as the “mind-perspective” and the “event-perspective”). And then, eventually, to experience them as simultaneously-arising and indistinguishable (i.e. nondual) — in the way that waves and ocean, as water, actually are mutually-arising and indistinguishable.

Taoism Meets Mahamudra, For A Cup Of Tea

The resolution of the moving/staying polarity, I would suggest, is basically equivalent (or at least opens the way for) the transcending of what Master Hu refers to as the tangible-consciousness/formless-consciousness polarity; and the absorption of the more densely-vibrating Po into the more subtle Hun.

Or, to put it another way: the corporeal Po “serves” the ethereal Hun — in Taoist cultivation — to the extent that mind’s appearances become self-aware, i.e. conscious of their source & destination in/as the Hun — like waves becoming conscious of their essential nature as water.

Source: Hun and Po

Hun (ChinesepinyinhúnWade–Gileshun; literally: “cloud-soul”) and po (ChinesepinyinWade–Gilesp’o; literally: “white-soul”) are types of souls in Chinese philosophy and traditional religion. Within this ancient soul dualism tradition, every living human has both a hunspiritual, ethereal, yang soul which leaves the body after death, and also a po corporeal, substantive, yin soul which remains with the corpse of the deceased. Some controversy exists over the number of souls in a person; for instance, one of the traditions within Daoism proposes a soul structure of sanhunqipo 三魂七魄; that is, “three hun and seven po“. The historian Yü Ying-shih describes hun and po as “two pivotal concepts that have been, and remain today, the key to understanding Chinese views of the human soul and the afterlife.”[1]

The Chinese characters 魂 and 魄 for hun and po typify the most common character classification of “radical-phonetic” or “phono-semantic” graphs, which combine a “radical” or “signific” (recurring graphic elements that roughly provide semantic information) with a “phonetic” (suggesting ancient pronunciation). Hun  (or 䰟) and po  have the “ghost radical” gui  “ghost; devil” and phonetics of yun  “cloud; cloudy” and bai  “white; clear; pure”.

Besides the common meaning of “a soul”, po 魄 was a variant Chinese character for po  “a lunar phase” and po  “dregs”. The Shujing “Book of History” used po 魄 as a graphic variant for po 霸 “dark aspect of the moon” – this character usually means ba 霸 “overlord; hegemon”. For example, “On the third month, when (the growth phase, 生魄) of the moon began to wane, the duke of Chow [i.e., Duke of Zhou] commenced the foundations, and proceeded to build the new great city of Lǒ” (tr. Legge 1865:434). The Zhuangzi “[Writings of] Master Zhuang” wrote zaopo 糟粕 (lit. “rotten dregs”) “worthless; unwanted; waste matter” with a po 魄 variant. A wheelwright sees Duke Huan of Qi with books by dead sages and says, “what you are reading there is nothing but the [糟魄] chaff and dregs of the men of old!” (tr. Watson 1968:152).

In the history of Chinese writing, characters for po 魄/霸 “lunar brightness” appeared before those for hun 魂 “soul; spirit”. The spiritual hun 魂 and po 魄 “dual souls” are first recorded in Warring States period (475–221 BCE) Seal Script characters. The lunar po 魄 or 霸 “moon’s brightness” appears in both Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 BCE) Bronzeware script and Oracle bone script, but not in Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BCE) oracle inscriptions. The earliest form of this “lunar brightness” character was found on a (ca. 11th century BCE) Zhou oracle bone inscription (Yü 1987:370).


The po soul’s etymology is better understood than the hun soul’s. Schuessler (2007:290, 417) reconstructs hun 魂 “‘spiritual soul’ which makes a human personality” and po 魄 “vegetative or animal soul … which accounts for growth and physiological functions” as Middle Chinese γuən and pʰak from Old Chinese *wûn and *phrâk.

The (ca. 80 CE) Baihu Tang 白虎堂 gave pseudo-etymologies for hun and po through Chinese character puns. It explains hun 魂 with zhuan 傳 “deliver; pass on; impart; spread” and yun 芸 “rue (used to keep insects out of books); to weed”, and po 魄 withpo 迫 ” compel; force; coerce; urgent” and bai 白 “white; bright”.

What do the words hun and [po] mean? Hun expresses the idea of continuous propagation ([zhuan] 傳), unresting flight; it is the qi of the Lesser Yang, working in man in an external direction, and it governs the nature (or the instincts, [xing] 性). [Po] expresses the idea of a continuous pressing urge ([po] 迫) on man; it is the [qi] of the Lesser Yin, and works in him, governing the emotions ([qing] 情). Hun is connected with the idea of weeding ([yun] 芸), for with the instincts the evil weeds (in man’s nature) are removed. [Po] is connected with the idea of brightening ([bai] 白), for with the emotions the interior (of the personality) is governed. (tr. Needham and Lu 1974:87)

Etymologically, Schuessler says  魄 “animal soul” “is the same word as”  霸 “a lunar phase“. He cites the Zuozhuan (534 BCE, see below) using the lunar jishengpo 既生魄 to mean “With the first development of a fetus grows the vegetative soul”.

, the soul responsible for growth, is the same as  the waxing and waning of the moon”. The meaning ‘soul’ has probably been transferred from the moon since men must have been aware of lunar phases long before they had developed theories on the soul. This is supported by the etymology ‘bright’, and by the inverted word order which can only have originated with meteorological expressions … The association with the moon explains perhaps why the  soul is classified as Yin … in spite of the etymology ‘bright’ (which should be Yang), hun’s Yang classificiation may be due to the association with clouds and by extension sky, even though the word invokes ‘dark’. ‘Soul’ and ‘moon’ are related in other cultures, by cognation or convergence, as in Tibeto-Burman and Proto-Lolo–Burmese *s/ʼ-la “moon; soul; spirit”, Written Tibetan cognates bla “soul” and zla “moon”, and Proto-Miao–Yao *bla “spirit; soul; moon”. (2007:417)

Lunar associations of po are evident in the Classical Chinese terms chanpo 蟾魄 “the moon” (with “toad; toad in the moon; moon”) and haopo 皓魄 “moon; moonlight” (with “white; bright; luminous”).

The semantics of po 魄 “white soul” probably originated with 霸 “lunar whiteness”. Zhou bronze inscriptions commonly recorded lunar phases with the terms jishengpo 既生魄 “after the brightness has grown” and jisipo 既死魄 “after the brightness has died”, which Schuessler explains as “second quarter of the lunar month” and “last quarter of the lunar month”. Chinese scholars have variously interpreted these two terms as lunar quarters or fixed days, and (Shaughnessy 1992:136–145) Wang Guowei‘s lunar-quarter analysis the most likely. Thus, jishengpo is from the 7th/8th to the 14th/15th days of the lunar month and jisipo is from the 23rd/24th to the end of the month. Yü (1987:370) translates them as “after the birth of the crescent” and “after the death of the crescent”. Etymologically, lunar and spiritual po <pʰak < *phrâk 魄 are cognate with bai < bɐk < *brâk 白 “white” (Matisoff 1980, Yü 1981, Carr 1985). According to Hu Shih (1946:30), po etymologically means “white, whiteness, and bright light”; “The primitive Chinese seem to have regarded the changing phases of the moon as periodic birth and death of its [po], its ‘white light’ or soul.” Yü (1981:83) says this ancient association between the po soul and the “growing light of the new moon is of tremendous importance to our understanding of certain myths related to the seventh day of the months.” Two celebrated examples in Chinese mythology are Xi Wangmu and Emperor Wu meeting on the seventh day of the first lunar month and The Princess and the Cowherd or Qixi Festival held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

The etymology of hun < γuən < *wûn 魂 is comparatively less certain. Hu (1946:31) said, “The word hun is etymologically the same as the word yun, meaning “clouds.” The clouds float about and seem more free and more active than the cold, white-lighted portion of the growing and waning moon.” Schuessler cites two possibilities.

Since  is the ‘bright’ soul, hún is the ‘dark’ soul and therefore cognate to yún 雲 ‘cloud’ [Carr 1985:62], perhaps in the sense of ‘shadowy’ because some believe that the hún soul will live after death in a world of shadows [Eberhard 1967:17]. (2007:290)

Both Chinese hun and po are translatable as English “soul” or “spirit“, and both are basic components in “soul” compounds. In the following examples, all Chinese-English translation equivalents are from DeFrancis (2003).

  • hunpo 魂魄 “soul; psyche”
  • linghun 靈魂 “soul; spirit”
  • hunling 魂靈 “(colloquial) soul; ghost”
  • yinhun 陰魂 “soul; spirit; apparition”
  • sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “soul; three finer spirits and several baser instincts that motivate a human being”
  • xinpo 心魄 “soul”

Hunpo and linghun are the most frequently used among these “soul” words.

Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, eminent historians of science and technology in China, (1974:88) define hun and po in modern terms. “Peering as far as one can into these ancient psycho-physiological ideas, one gains the impression that the distinction was something like that between what we would call motor and sensory activity on the one hand, and also voluntary as against vegetative processes on the other.”

Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein (2008:521) cautions about hun and po translations: “Although the term “souls” is often used to refer to them, they are better seen as two types of vital entities, the source of life in every individual. The hun is Yang, luminous, and volatile, while the po is Yin, somber, and heavy.”


Based on Zuozhuan usages of hun and po in four historical contexts, Yü (1987:370) extrapolates that po was the original name for a human soul, and the dualistic conception of hun and po “began to gain currency in the middle of the sixth century” BCE.

Two earlier 6th century contexts used the po soul alone. Both describe Tian 天 “heaven; god” duo 奪 “seizing; taking away” a person’s po, which resulted in a loss of mental faculties. In 593 BCE (Duke Xuan 15th year, tr. Legge 1872:329), after Zhao Tong 趙同 behaved inappropriately at the Zhou court, an observer predicted: “In less than ten years [Zhao Tong] will be sure to meet with great calamity. Heaven has taken his [魄] wits away from him.” In 543 BCE (Duke Xiang 29th year, tr. Legge 1872:551), Boyou 伯有 from Zheng (state) acted irrationally, which an official interpreted as: “Heaven is destroying [Boyou], and has taken away his [魄] reason.” Boyou’s political enemies subsequently arranged to take away his hereditary position and assassinate him.

Two later 6th century Zuozhuan contexts used po together with the hun soul. In 534 BCE (Duke Zhao 7th year, tr. Legge 1872:618), the ghost of Boyou 伯有 (above) was seeking revenge on his murderers, and terrifying the people of Zheng. The philosopher and statesman Zi Chan, realizing that Boyou’s loss of hereditary office had caused his spirit to be deprived of sacrifices, reinstated his son to the family position, and the ghost disappeared. When a friend asked Zi Chan to explain ghosts, he gave what Yu (1972:372) calls “the locus classicus on the subject of the human soul in the Chinese tradition.”

When a man is born, (we see) in his first movements what is called the [魄] animal soul. [既生魄] After this has been produced, it is developed into what is called the [魂] spirit. By the use of things the subtle elements are multiplied, and the [魂魄] soul and spirit become strong. They go on in this way, growing in etherealness and brightness, till they become (thoroughly) spiritual and intelligent. When an ordinary man or woman dies a violent death, the [魂魄] soul and spirit are still able to keep hanging about men in the shape of an evil apparition; how much more might this be expected in the case of [Boyou]. … Belonging to a family which had held for three generations the handle of government, his use of things had been extensive, the subtle essences which he had imbibed had been many. His clan also was a great one, and his connexions [sic] were distinguished. Is it not entirely reasonable that, having died a violent death, he should be a [鬼] ghost?

Compare the translation of Needham and Lu (1974:86), who interpret this as an early Chinese discourse on embryology.

When a foetus begins to develop, it is (due to) the [po]. (When this soul has given it a form) then comes the Yang part, called hun. The essences ([qing] 情) of many things (wu 物) then give strength to these (two souls), and so they acquire the vitality, animation and good cheer (shuang 爽) of these essences. Thus eventually there arises spirituality and intelligence (shen ming 神明).”

In 516 BCE (Duke Zhao 20th year, tr. Legge 1872:708), the Duke of Song (state) and a guest named Shusun 叔孫 were both seen weeping during a supposedly joyful gathering. Yue Qi 樂祁, a Song court official, said: “This year both our ruler and [Shusun] are likely to die. I have heard that joy in the midst of grief and grief in the midst of joy are signs of a loss of [xin 心] mind. The essential vigor and brightness of the mind is what we call the [hun] and the [po]. When these leave it, how can the man continue long?” Hun and po souls, explains Yu (1987:371), “are regarded as the very essence of the mind, the source of knowledge and intelligence. Death is thought to follow inevitably when the hun and the p’o leave the body. We have reason to believe that around this time the idea of hun was still relatively new.”

Silk painting found in the (168 BCE) tomb of Lady Dai at Mawangdui, interpreted (Yü 1987:367) as depicting her hun soul ascending to heaven and her family performing the zhaohun“summoning the soul” ritual below.

Soon after death, it was believed that a person’s hun and po could be temporarily reunited through a ritual called the fu 復 “recall; return”, zhaohun 招魂 “summon the hun soul”, or zhaohun fupo 招魂復魄 “to summon the hun-soul to reunite with the po-soul”. The earliest known account of this ritual is found in the (3rd century BCE) Chu Ci poems Zhaohun 招魂 “Summons of the Soul” and Dazhao 大招 “The Great Summons” (Csikszentmihalyi 2006:140–141). For example, Wu/Shaman Yang 巫陽 summons a man’s soul in Zhaohun.

O soul, come back! Why have you left your old abode and sped to the earth’s far corners, deserting the place of your delight to meet all those things of evil omen?

O soul, come back! In the east you cannot abide. There are giants there a thousand fathoms tall, who seek only for souls to catch, and ten suns that come out together, melting metal, dissolving stone …
O soul, come back! In the south you cannot stay. There the people have tattooed faces and blackened teeth, they sacrifice flesh of men, and pound their bones to paste …
O soul, come back! For the west holds many perils: The Moving Sands stretch on for a hundred leagues. You will be swept into the Thunder’s Chasm and dashed in pieces, unable to help yourself …
O soul, come back! In the north you may not stay. There the layered ice rises high, and the snowflakes fly for a hundred leagues and more…
O soul, come back! Climb not to heaven above. For tigers and leopards guard the gates, with jaws ever ready to rend up mortal men …

O soul, come back! Go not down to the Land of Darkness, where the Earth God lies, nine-coiled, with dreadful horns on his forehead, and a great humped back and bloody thumbs, pursuing men, swift-footed … (tr. Hawkes 1985:244–5)

Hu (1946:31–32) proposed, “The idea of a hun may have been a contribution from the southern peoples” (who originated zhaohun rituals) and then spread to the north sometime during the sixth century BCE. Calling this southern hypothesis “quite possible”, Yu (1987:373) cites the Chuci (associated with the southern state of Chu) demonstrating “there can be little doubt that in the southern tradition the hun was regarded as a more active and vital soul than the p’o. The Chuci uses hun 65 times and po 5 times (4 in hunpo, which the Chuci uses interchangeably with hun, Brashier 1996:131). [On the other hand, it has been shown that that cloud symbolism and the cloudsoul hun has been a staple belief of all the northeast Asians and Central Asians since prehistoric times which suggests a much earlier northern provenance with the tumuli-building peoples.]

The identification of the yin-yang principle with the hun and po souls evidently occurred in the late fourth and early third centuries BCE (Yü 1987:374), and by “the second century at the latest, the Chinese dualistic conception of soul had reached its definitive formulation.” The Liji (11, tr. Legge 1885:444) compounds hun and po with qi “breath; life force” and xing “form; shape; body” in hunqi 魂氣 and xingpo 形魄. “The [魂氣] intelligent spirit returns to heaven the [形魄] body and the animal soul return to the earth; and hence arose the idea of seeking (for the deceased) in sacrifice in the unseen darkness and in the bright region above.” Compare this modern translation (Yü 1987:374), “The breath-soul (hun-ch’I 魂氣) returns to heaven; the bodily soul (hsing-p’o 形魄) returns to earth. Therefore, in sacrificial-offering one should seek the meaning in the yin-yang 陰陽 principle.” Yü summarizes hun/po dualism.

Ancient Chinese generally believed that the individual human life consists of a bodily part as well as a spiritual part. The physical body relies for its existence on food and drink produced by the earth. The spirit depends for its existence on the invisible life force called ch’i, which comes into the body from heaven. In other words, breathing and eating are the two basic activities by which a man continually maintains his life. But the body and the spirit are each governed by a soul, namely, the p’o and the hun. It is for this reason that they are referred to in the passage just quoted above as the bodily-soul (hsing-p’o) and the breath-soul (hun-ch’i) respectively. (Yü 1987:376)

Loewe (1979:9) explains with a candle metaphor; the physical xing is the “wick and substance of a candle”, the spiritual po and hun are the “force that keeps the candle alight” and “light that emanates from the candle”.

The Yin po and Yang hun were correlated with Chinese spiritual and medical beliefs. Hun 魂 is associated with shen 神 “spirit; god” and po 魄with gui 鬼 “ghost; demon; devil” (Carr 1985:62). The (ca. 1st century BCE) Lingshu Jing medical text spiritually applies Wu Xing “Five Phase” theory to the Zang-fu “organs”, associating the hun soul with liver (Chinese medicine) and blood, and the po soul with lung (Chinese medicine) and breath.

The liver stores the blood, and the blood houses the hun. When the vital energies of the liver are depleted, this results in fear; when repleted, this results in anger. … The lungs store the breath, and the breath houses the po. When the vital energies of the lungs are depleted, then the nose becomes blocked and useless, and so there is diminished breath; when they are repleted, there is panting, a full chest, and one must elevate the head to breathe. (tr. Brashier 1996:141)

The Lingshu (Brashier 1996:142) also records that the hun and po souls taking flight can cause restless dreaming, and eye disorders can scatter the souls causing mental confusion. Han medical texts reveal that hun and po departing from the body does not necessarily cause death but rather distress and sickness. Brashier (1996:145–6) parallels the translation of hun and po, “If one were to put an English word to them, they are our “wits”, our ability to demarcate clearly, and like the English concept of “wits,” they can be scared out of us or can dissipate in old age.”

Jade burial suits were believed to delay the bodily po soul’s decomposition.

During the Han Dynasty, the belief in hun and po remained prominent, although there was a great diversity of different, sometimes contradictory, beliefs about the afterlife (Hansen 2000:119; Csikszentmihalyi 2006:116–117, 140–142). Han burial customs provided nourishment and comfort for the po with the placement of grave goods, including food, commodities, and even money within the tomb of the deceased (Hansen 2000:119). Chinese jade was believed to delay the decomposition of a body. Pieces of jade were commonly placed in bodily orifices, or rarely crafted into jade burial suits.

Generations of sinologists have repeatedly asserted that Han-era people commonly believed the heavenly hun and earthly po souls separated at death, but recent scholarship and archeology suggest that hunpo dualism was more an academic theory than a popular faith. Anna Seidel analyzed funerary texts discovered in Han tombs, which mention not only po souls but also hun remaining with entombed corpses, and wrote (1982:107), “Indeed, a clear separation of a p’o, appeased with the wealth included in the tomb, from a hun departed to heavenly realms is not possible.” Seidel later (1987:227) called for reappraising Han abstract notions of hun and po, which “do not seem to have had as wide a currency as we assumed up to now.” Pu Muzhou surveyed usages of the words hun and po on Han Dynasty bei 碑 “stele” erected at graves and shrines, and concluded (1993:216, tr. Brashier 1996126), “The thinking of ordinary people seems to have been quite hazy on the matter of what distinguished the hun from the po.” These stele texts contrasted souls between a corporeal hun or hunpo at the cemetery and a spiritual shen at the family shrine. Kenneth Brashier (1996:158) reexamined the evidence for hunpodualism and relegated it “to the realm of scholasticism rather than general beliefs on death.” Brashier (1996:136–137) cited several Han sources (grave deeds, Houhanshu, and Jiaoshi Yilin) attesting beliefs that “the hun remains in the grave instead of flying up to heaven”, and suggested it “was sealed into the grave to prevent its escape.” Another Han text, the Fengsu Tongyi says, “The vital energy of the hun of a dead person floats away; therefore a mask is made in order to retain it.”

The divisible and wandering hun and po soul concepts in Daoism 

Hun 魂 and po 魄 spiritual concepts were important in several Daoist traditions. For instance (Baldrian-Hussein 2008:522), “Since the volatile hun is fond of wandering and leaving the body during sleep, techniques were devised to restrain it, one of which entailed a method of staying constantly awake.”

The sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “three hun and seven po” were anthropomorphized and visualized. Ge Hong‘s (ca. 320 CE) Baopuzi frequently mentions the hun and po “ethereal and gross souls”. The “Genii” Chapter argues that these dual souls cause illness and death.

All men, wise or foolish, know that their bodies contain ethereal as well as gross breaths, and that when some of them quit the body, illness ensues; when they all leave him, a man dies. In the former case, the magicians have amulets for restraining them; in the latter case,The Rites [i.e., Yili] provide ceremonials for summoning them back. These breaths are most intimately bound up with us, for they are born when we are, but over a whole lifetime probably nobody actually hears or sees them. Would one conclude that they do not exist because they are neither seen nor heard? (2, tr. Ware 1966:49–50)

This “magicians” translates fangshi 方士 “doctor; diviner’ magician”. Both fangshi and daoshi 道士 “Daoist priests” developed methods and rituals to summon hun and po back into a person’s body. The “Gold and Cinnabar” chapter records a Daoist alchemical reanimation pill that can return the hun and po souls to a recent corpse: Taiyi zhaohunpo dan fa 太乙招魂魄丹法 “The Great One’s Elixir Method for Summoning Souls”.

In T’ai-i’s elixir for Summoning Gross and Ethereal Breaths the five minerals [i.e., cinnabarrealgararsenolitemalachite, and magnetite] are used and sealed with Six-One lute as in the Nine-crucible cinnabars. It is particularly effective for raising those who have died of a stroke. In cases where the corpse has been dead less than four days, force open the corpse’s mouth and insert a pill of this elixir and one of sulphur, washing them down its gullet with water. The corpse will immediately come to life. In every case the resurrected remark that they have seen a messenger with a baton of authority summoning them. (4, tr. Ware 1966:87)

For visualizing the ten souls, the Baopuzi “Truth on Earth” chapter recommends taking dayao 大藥 “great medicines” and practicing a fenxing 分形 “divide/multiply the body” multilocation technique.

My teacher used to say that to preserve Unity was to practice jointly Bright Mirror, and that on becoming successful in the mirror procedure a man would be able to multiply his body to several dozen all with the same dress and facial expression. My teacher also used to say that you should take the great medicines diligently if you wished to enjoy Fullness of Life, and that you should use metal solutions and a multiplication of your person if you wished to communicate with the gods. By multiplying the body, the three Hun and the seven Po are automatically seen within the body, and in addition it becomes possible to meet and visit the powers of heaven and the deities of earth and to have all the gods of the mountains and rivers in one’s service. (18, tr. Ware 1966:306)

The Daoist Shangqing School has several meditation techniques for visualizing the hun and po. In Shangqing Neidan “Internal Alchemy”, Baldrian-Hussein says,

the po plays a particularly somber role as it represents the passions that dominate the hun. This causes the vital force to decay, especially during sexual activity, and eventually leads to death. The inner alchemical practice seeks to concentrate the vital forces within the body by reversing the respective roles of hun and po, so that the hun (Yang) controls the po (Yin). (2008:533)

Number of souls

The number of human “souls” has been a long-standing source of controversy among Chinese religious traditions. Stevan Harrell (1979:521) concludes, “Almost every number from one to a dozen has at one time or another been proposed as the correct one.” The most commonly believed numbers of “souls” in a person are one, two, three, and ten.

One “soul” or linghun 靈魂 is the simplest idea.[2] Harrell gives a fieldwork example.

When rural Taiwanese perform ancestral sacrifices at home, they naturally think of the ling-hun in the tablet; when they take offerings to the cemetery, they think of it in the grave; and when they go on shamanistic trips, they think of it in the yin world. Because the contexts are separate, there is little conflict and little need for abstract reasoning about a nonexistent problem. (1979:523)

Two “souls” is a common folk belief, and reinforced by yin-yang theory. These paired souls can be called hun and Three “souls” comes from widespread beliefs that the soul of a dead person can exist in the multiple locations. The missionary Justus Doolittle recorded that Chinese people in Fuzhou

believe each person has three distinct souls while living. These souls separate at the death of the adult to whom they belong. One resides in the ancestral tablet erected to his memory, if the head of a family; another lurks in the coffin or the grave, and the third departs to the infernal regions to undergo its merited punishment. (1865 II:401–2)

Ten “souls” of sanhunqipo 三魂七魄 “three hun and seven po” is not only Daoist; “Some authorities would maintain that the three-seven “soul” is basic to all Chinese religion” (Harrell 1979:522). During the Later Han period, Daoists fixed the number of hun souls at three and the number of po souls at seven. A newly deceased person may return (回魂) to his home at some nights, sometimes one week (頭七) after his death and the seven po would disappear one by one every 7 days after death. According to Needham and Lu (1974:88), “It is a little difficult to ascertain the reason for this, since fives and sixes (if they corresponded to the viscera) would have rather been expected.” Three hun may stand for the sangang 三綱 “three principles of social order: relationships between ruler-subject, father-child, and husband-wife” (Needham 1974:89). Seven po may stand for the qiqiao 七竅 “seven apertures (in the head, eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth)” or the qiqing 七情 “seven emotions (joy, anger, sorrow, fear, worry, grief, fright)” in traditional Chinese medicine (Baldrian-Hussein 2008:522). Sanhunqipo also stand for other names.

Source: Hun and Po

Chinkon is still a revived Shinto practice today in Japan, as a soul-binding or soul-summoning procedure or rite for healing (an ancient shamanic calling back the wandering soul spirit) Chinkon  kishin and as a ‘Chinkon’  (‘Pacifying and Deepening the soul’ exercise, which is “a quiet journey into  the interior. This involves meditation, and focusing on specific  mental images. These three elements, purification, spiritual movements, and meditation, are the bases of Shinto training” see Green Shinto’s “Spiritual exercises: misogi, furitama and chinkon” article. The chinkon ritual practice was revived by Shinto scholar Honda Chikaatsu who based the practice on the Chinkonsai court ritual and the Kojiki account of Okinaga Tarashi Hime’s medium spirit possession, see Birgit Staemmler’s “Chinkon Kishin: Mediated Spirit Possession in Japanese New Religions” at p 117.

Cloud spiral motif seen on traditional clothing of Ainu people, c. 1904 (Wikipedia)

Cloud spiral motif seen on traditional clothing of Ainu people, c. 1904 (Wikipedia)

The cloudsoul hun, we theorize, was likely a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan as well as the Amur populations(see Ainu cloud motif), although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud-symbol-associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all of East Asian civilization, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol“.  Cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud spiral and storm/thunder meander patterns. We may surmise that while the cloud-soul meaning was lost during the cloud motif’s diffusion westwards, cloud symbolism associations with a divinity’s descent, and particularly that of sky-storm gods, remained.



Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun. Nov 15, 2014

Ainu creation folklore and cloud symbolism

According to Ainu mythic poetry, the world was created when oil floating in the ocean rose like a flame and became the sky. What was left turned into land. Vapor gathered over the land and a god was created. From the vapor of the sky, another god was created who descended on five-colored clouds. Out of those clouds, the two gods created the sea, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. The two gods married and produced many gods including two shining gods—the Sun god and the Moon god, who rose to Heaven in order to illuminate the fog-covered dark places of the world.

Okikurmi of the Saru region is a semidivine hero who descended from Heaven to help humans. Humans lived in a beautiful land but did not know how to build fire or make bows and arrows. Okikurmi taught them to build fire, to hunt, to catch salmon, to plant millet, to brew millet wine, and to worship the gods. He married and stayed in the village, but eventually returned to the divine land.

Ainu historical heroes include Kosamainu and Samkusainu. Kosamainu, who lived in eastern Hokkaido, led an Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He destroyed ten out of the twelve Japanese bases but was killed in 1457. Samkusainu organized Ainu in the southern half of the island during a 1669 uprising, but after two months they were destroyed by Matsumae forces armed with guns.

Source: Ainu (

The above myth represents just one of the many folkmyths transmitted by their epic poetic oral traditions.

The Ainu have handed down a vast body of oral traditions. The main categories are yukar and oina (longer and shorter epic poems in literary Ainu), uwepekere and upasikma (old tales and autobiographical stories, both in prose), lullabies, and dance songs. Yukar usually refers to heroic poetry, chanted mainly by men, dealing with demigods and humans. It also includes oina, or kamui yukar, shorter epics chanted principally by women about the gods. The Saru region of south central Hokkaido is particularly known as the homeland of many bards and storytellers.

Yukar was narrated by the fireside for a mixed gathering of men, women, and children. Men sometimes reclined and beat time on their bellies. Depending upon the piece, yukar lasted all night or even for a few nights. There were also festival songs, group dance-songs, and stamping dances.

This myth showing the tradition of divine descent on a cloud, as well as a long tradition of using cloud patterns on their clothing show the Ainu’s connection to the Far Eastern or Northeast Asian tradition where cloud symbolism and descent from the sky or heavens of deities, sages and ancestral heroes, is a strong and widespread genealogical and mythical traditional motif associated with the ancient Mongols, Udegeys, Manchurians, and the Jurchen Tartars, Han Northern Chinese (spiral motifs better known as thunder patterns) and possibly proto-Mongol-Tartars before them. The concept must have disseminated across Eurasia along trade routes in fairly early prehistoric times as India’s Krishna and other deities, and Buddhist imagery of divinities, sages and the Dunhuang celestial beings, depicted as descending or seated upon clouds, are later disseminated back to East Asia and Japan (see Amida’s descent, celestial beings, and the use of the cloud motif as an artistic convention).

Jomon "dogu" ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif

Jomon “dogu” ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif Photo: Heritage of Japan archives

It may have been a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan, although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all through East Asia, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol.”

Katsurano,Yamanashi prefecture, Middle Jōmon(2500-1500BC), Fuefuki City Board of Education

This cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol” as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud and storm/thunder meander patterns.


The Legend of Sanai Isoba: The fire cult and rituals, fire-bringing visitors and the noro fire custodians of Yonaguni Island

… excerpted from Ryukyu Survey 1960 ~51~ By Naioichi Kokubu and Erika Kaneko

Sanai-Isoba is said to have lived on top of the rocky hill top


Sanai-Isoba. In local tradition the key figure is the female chieftain Sanai-Isoba.

Ikema and Arazato (1957:46) explain the name as a combination of the given female name Isoba with the place-name Sanai which in turn denotes the place of the gajumaru’ (ficus retusa, small-leafed banyan).

Sanai-Isoba is a female of superhuman stature and strength; she performed astonishing feats and taught the islanders agriculture and improved ways of life. She also established her four brothers as village heads of Donanbaru, Dateg, Dannu, and Tebaru. She is said to have gone abroad t oishigaki and Iriomote, thereby initiating a cultural pattern, whereby the less advanced ust learn from their superiors, viz. the Okinawans from the Chinese, the Miyakoans from the Okinowans and so forth, isolated, marginal Yonaguni was the lowest rung on the ladder.
Is Sanai-Isoba a historical person and if so when did she live? Every Yonaguni child can point out the field ‘where her house once stood’ and knows the location of her grave where under a large tree village trials were held until quite recently Sannai Isoba is worshipped in a ritual which takes place once a ear. The high ranking Chimafuka family consider her their ancestor and until a generation ago reckoned from her its matrilineal descent.

All Yonagunian ships call at a place called Ohatake at Sonai village, suggesting an ancestral place of worship, on Iriomote island.

Around 1700, Keraikedagusuku family were sent by the central government to the island of Yonaguni to rule, and they were called Master of Yonaguni (confirmed by the genealogy of the family. Lord of Iriomote

Yonaguni history is shrouded in complete mystery. Neither local traditions, nor outside sources provide reliable data for a reconstruction. Official written sources like the court gazette of the ‘Shuri ofu’ (AD 1707) offer no detailed information on the outlying Yayeyama islands, let alone isolated Yonaguni. The Yaeyama to yurai ki and other locally compiled documents , originally in 7 volumes, was lost in the tidal wave of AD 1771; and it was subsequenty reconstructed by order of the officials Miyara, Ishigaki and Ohama.

Is Sanai-Isoba a historical person and if so when did she live? Every Yonaguni child can point out the field ‘where her house once stood’ and knows the location of her grave where under a large tree village trials were held until quite recently.

Sannai Isoba is worshiped in a ritual which takes place once a year. The high ranking Chimafuka family consider her their ancestor and until a generation ago reckoned from her its matrilineal descent.”

A depiction of female priests of Okinawa (Tokyo National Museum in Ueno)

Note: Details from the story check out with written histories from the Shuri court in Ryukyu or Okinawa, and put Sanai-Isoba’s rule at 1500 AD, but the extent of her powers are seriously questioned, given that Yonaguni and Yaeyama were recorded to have been taken in an invasion by Nakayama Kanemaru who conquered Lord Oyake Akahachi in that year.

From the Nippon-kichi article, “Yonaguni” which describes Sana-Isoba as Empress:

“Yonaguni (Yona Country) was an ancient state that once existed on Yonagunijima (Yonaguni Island) at the westernmost end of Okinawa Prefecture. The oldest archeological remains verified there are the Tsuguruhama-Iseki. They were thought to be from the late Eolithic age, but recent research shows they may date back to 4400 years ago.

No earthenware has been excavated from this site, which suggests that the people who lived here practiced a culture where pottery was not used. In recent years, further sites have been discovered that lie under water, which may lead to some interesting correlations.

The history of Yonaguni is still vague, but it is known that in the 11th century, the people living in this country established settlements on plateaus. It is also thought that in the 14th century the culture and civilization of Yonaguni further developed as a result of its position as a marine crossroads.

In 1522, Yonaguni was ruled by the empress Sanai Isoba, but fell before vanishing completely under the domination of the Ryukyu Dynasty. The lost history of Yonaguni is still wrapped in a mystery, and leaves many questions unsolved.”

According to Nicolas Tranter’s “The Languages of Japan and Korea” the languages of Yonaguni and of the main Yaeyama District an Yaeyama (Ishigaki)islands are not mutually intelligible, and that the people of Yonaguni used to feel an affinity to Taiwan and mainland Japan, rather than to Yaeyama Island from which Yonaguni Islanders have been centrally controlled. In 1477, fishermen from the Korean peninsula are said to have drifted to an island ruled by a female ruler called Sanai-Isoba.

Although Sanai-Isoba is described as an Empress in some quarters, it is more likely that she was a noro shaman prietess.

George H. Kerr in his book “Okinawa, the history of an island people” writes of an ancient cult that he calls a “living fossil” of a prehistoric age.

“From legendary times until the present day the noro priestess has exercised a powerful influence in the Ryukyuan community. until 1879 a daughter or sister of the king at Shuri usually assumed the role of the chief high priestess as intercessor between the spirit world and the king’s household,and was often an important counselor in royal affairs.
It was the noro’s duty to preserve the fire on the hearth. It can be imagined with what difficulty fire was transported from island to island in primitive days, and what hardships a community suffered if the precious flames were extinguished by accident. A daughter in each household was assigned the task of conserving and feeding the hearth” fire. Fire was a communal treasure, in itself a living thing, handed on from generation, to generation. A taboo system grew up around the office of the fire-custodian. She was expected to remain a virgin and was thought to be in close communication with the ancestors from whom fire descended. When new households were establishes, fire was transferred from the family home to the new dwelling or kindled anew with ceremony. In this way the continuity of the fire came to represent blood relationships and family continuity as well. The custodian of the fire upon the oldest hearth in the community assumed an official distinction; her office was hereditary, passing usually to a female child of the noro’s brother. A plot of land was set aside for he support. Thank offerings from the community enlarged her income. Within her house, three hearthstones served as a center of worship, for these formed the locus of the root deity (ne-gami) of the village.
It has been suggested that in ancient days fire was always made by striking stones together and that, through association the stones themselves became sacred. Another theory suggests that the three stones originally were used to support the earthenware pots over the fire and so became associated with it. It is noteworthy that the stones are brought from the seashore, no matter how far inland the house or village altar may be, and that among the pantomimic seasonal dances performed by okinawan villagers, there usually is one which tells a legend of the “fire-bringing visitors.”

Kerr also describes of the noro priestess institution:

Vestments of white cloth (symbolizing ritual cleanliness) and a string of beads (including the magatama or curved jewels) have been symbols of the noro’s office since prehistoric times. her duties require care of the hearth fire, worship of the ancestors through ritual devotion, and divination to settle upon auspicious days for marriage, burial, travel, or the simple tasks of the agricultural community.”

While the noro has all but disappeared at Naha and Shuri, the institution still commands respect as diviner and intercessor for the common man in the country villages and in the outlying islands, where she guards the ritual objects on the sacred heath and attends springs and sacred groves associated with the welfare and protection of the village life.

Kerr is of the view that this noro institution is a relic matriarchal cult similar to those neolithic cults “once found in many regions of the Eurasian land-mass long before the literate and historic cultures of China, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean areas were evolved. The sacred groves, the springs and wells, the oracular shrines, and the guardian priestesses of British Isles find close counterpart in the 20th-century mysteries of the noro cult.”

In Ryukyu Kingdom before 1945, he writes of the probable origins of the noro priestesses — “in this we have a form of ancient religious practice (shamanism) common to the Ural-Altaic people settled across the Eurasian landmass, from northern Europe to the Pacific shores of Siberia, and down the Korean peninsula. Thus in the realm of religious life there would seem to be evidence of ancient cultural relationships linking the early settlers of Ryukyu with the early Japanese, and perhaps with the Continent through southwestern Japan and Korea.”

Kerr also wrote of the important role of fire before 1945 to Ryukyu Kingdom peoples from the Ryukyu Shinto-ki source:

Origin of the ancestral fire and ancestors

According to the Ryukyu Shinto-ki, (about 1603) at the beginning of time two deities named Shineri-kyu and a female named Amai-kyu. in due time, they built huts side by side. Although they indulged in no sexual intercourse, the female deity Amami-kyu became pregnant, thanks to the influence of a passing wind. Three children were born to her. The eldest, a son became the first ruler of the islands; the second, a girl became the first noro or priestess; and a third, a son, became the first of the common people. Fire, which was essential for their well-being, was obtained “from the Dragon Palace,” traditionally believed to rest on the bottom of the sea.
With this simple tale the Okinawans provide for the virgin birth of demigods who personify the essential social functions of administration, religious practice, and economic production. The Dragon Palace episode hints at a folk-memory that that at sometime in the dim past the fire treasured on every hearth was brought with religious care from somewhere over the open seas.
[the Okinawan scholar iha Fuyu, who devoted much time to an analysis of the early records, language and legend to discover the origins of okanwan people and their prehistory. In the story of the two progenitores of the okinawan people, he detected a fable emboying the meeting and blending if two peoples, possibly in the island of Amami oshima. The name of the female deity was Amami-kyu, which by a process of linguistic analysis, he identifies with a fishing people from kyushu who moved into Oshima and thence pushed on southward unto okinawa. The people of Oshima say they are descended from Amami-dake, who created Amami-Oshima. Some of the Omoro songs refer to the Amami-ya (“Dwelling of the Ama-bo” or fishers’ community).

According to the legendary history of one line of paramount local chieftains – singled out and styled a “royal house” called the Tenson dynasty, their first king called Shunten was descended from the gods who ruled for “seventeen thousand years.”

One version of the Tametomo legend says that Tametomo was sailing one day between two Izu islands when he was blown far out to sea, drifting at last in the storm’s wake to Okinawa.
There he and his men were welcomed by a local chieftain, the Lord of Osato, with whose daughter he contracted a marriage. Shunten was born of that union. This was a temporary arrangement; he was to get back to the wars in Japan, and after ien vain attemot to take his Okinawan wife and child with him, he and his men left Okinawa.

…we must note the existence in the Ryukyus of many stories of the sun goddess Amaterasu. One of these repeats the tradition into a great cave and of her return to bring light to the world after fearful darkness. In japan this legend is associated with a cave near the Ise Grand shrines in the Shima Peninsula; in Ryukyu it is associated with a deep hillside cavern overlooking the sea on the eastern shores of Iheya island. This legend of Ama no Iwa To may have been introduced from Japan in later years. The cave is still held sacred by the local priestesses, and the Okinawans have not lost pride in repeating local beliefs that the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu began his great north-eastward conquest of Japan from this minor island in the Ryukyus.”

The custom of planting a paulownia “princess tree” at the birth of a baby girl



In Japan (especially Kyoto, Nara and Osaka), there remains a custom of sending over a kimono dresser made of paulownia wood with the bride as she settles into her new marital home. This tradition is a relic from olden days when the aristocratic and elite families would plant several paulownia trees at the birth of a girl. The kiri or paulownia tree, also known as the Empress Tree or Princess Tree, is native to western and central China, and the custom of planting the tree, initially reserved for the aristocracy and later for the wealthy, at the birth of a girl spread from there to Korea and Japan:

“Paulownia tomentosa (also known as the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree) is a deciduous tree in the genus Paulownia, native to central and western China, but invasive in the US… In China, an old custom is to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The fast-growing tree matures when she does. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down and carved into wooden articles for her dowry.
Carving the wood of Paulownia is an art form in Japan and China. In legend, it is said that the Phoenix will only land on the Empress Tree and only when a good ruler is in power. Several Asian string instruments are made from P. tomentosa, including the Japanese koto and Korean gayageum zithers” – Empress Tree

From an article on Mishimachi’s pawlonia craftsmen “In love with paulownia“:

“Paulownia makes a good dowry.

Takeshi Suzuki, chief of the Planning Section at the Mishima-machi Town Hall, recalls: “In Mishima-machi they used to call paulownia ‘gold wood’ because you could pretty much sell the wood from one paulownia tree and buy a new car with the proceeds. When you gave birth to a daughter, you’d plant three paulownia trees, so that they’d be grown by the time she was ready to marry, and you could use them as dowry.” Back in the 1970s, a rich person was someone who owned a lot of paulownia trees. But all good things must come to an end. After imports yanked the rug out from under the paulownia market, the wood from a single paulownia tree was only worth a few hundred thousand yen….

Women all over Japan are in agreement that the best wood for a chest of drawers is the Aizu paulownia of Mishima-machi, because a kimono must be stored in a high-quality chest. The paulownia goods of Mishima-machi are all made of locally grown Aizu paulownia, as are the fine-quality paulownia chests on display at famous national museums all over Japan”

See also the article “Paulownia history” on the uses and significance of the paulownia tree for Japan and China:

Furniture, made of paulownian wood is not rare in China. On the contrary, it is considered that not even before, but also in the present, there is not a Chinese house without a furniture made of this legendary tree. Ceertainly, many other applications of paulownian wood are known. The famous musical instruments, which have been a true mystery for the Europeans, first stepped in the unexplored China and Japan were only one of them . Even the treasures of the Japanese culture – the magicians of singing and dance – geisha, used paulownia to strengthen their charm. Part of the accessories for each of them was thin, specially treated and dried branch of paulownia, which they used to make their eyebrows up, creating an unattainable mysteriousness of the look.

Certainly, we can not omit the fact, that paulownia is a beautiful tree – with its large velvet smooth leaves and bright purple blossoms, it is worthy decoration of every park or garden. In China and Japan this kind of use dates from centuries and in a sense it is a national tradition.

Emblem of the Prime Minister's Office

Emblem of the Prime Minister’s Office

Actually how paulownia is tied to the history and being of these countries, is understood from the fact, that it is a part even of the official political life. The Japanese, who like aesthetics, as the symbols, have chosen paulownia precisely for an emblem in the prime minister’s office – this is so called „mon“ – a word, used to indicate and underline one’s personal or family identity; its meaning in fact, is close to “coat of arms“ and carrying approximately the same messages. So – the coat of arms in the prime minister’s office in Japan is a stylized picture of paulownia. It is hardly to find more definite manner to express the national importance of paulownia for the Japanese people by its presence on the Order of the Rising Sun. It is the first Japanese order, founded in1875, which is serviced to persons with credits to the country. We also cannot omit the presence of paulownia on the Japanese currency – on the coins of 500 yen is it again – the paulownia.

Below: Back of a coin of 500 yen displaying paulownia.


The Order of the Rising Sun with stylized leaf of paulownia. Japanese prime minister’s coat of arm with stylized leaf of paulownia.

An interesting detail of Japanese lifestyle is hanafuda – special playing cards, depicting different plants. At first Hanafuda were used for different complex games, which the noblemen entertained with. Forbidden for the commonalty, the card games, especially gambling went wide in the Japanese people’s life with the opening of Japan to the Western world. Different authors have described these cards and the games played with them have become popular in many countries, including South Korea. Even the cards were called by many different names during different ages and in different countries, there is one thing that remaines unchanged – there is always a picture of paulownia on them. Apropos, it is considered, that even Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) uses them, but this rumor we did not dare to check personally.

Japanese playing cards hanafuda with picture of paulownia on them.”

The custom of planting a tree at the birth of the child was known to have practised in several other cultures as well:

– With the Jewish culture:

“In ancient Israel , a tree was planted when a child was born—a cedar for a boy, a cypress for a girl. As the children grew up, they cared for their own trees” – Tree planting ritual

-Also with ancient Germanic and Mongol cultures:

” … ways of life and death have been associated with particular trees. Tree planting, for example, was considered an investment in life. In Germany, it was customary to plant a tree at a wedding. As each child arrived, an apple tree was planted for every boy and a pear for each girl. The longevity and fruitfulness of the trees were thought to give strength to the marriage and children. Marco Polo said that the Khan had many trees planted because “he who plants a tree will live a long life.” — Cultural aspects of trees: traditions and myths

– And with the Dai culture:
In Dehong of Yunnan, whenever a Dai family gives birth to a new baby, they would plant a lofty fig nearby the village to ask for the sheltering protection of the gods. — Lofty Fig

(In the case of Miao families in China, when a baby is born, the father plants a pine tree or a fir tree, but the wood is not used for dowry purposes but to be made into the funeral coffin. – Miao coffin)

(Images of photos were all from Wikimedia Commons, except the photo of the 500 yen coin which was own work)

Dragon Boat Race Festivals of Japan, their cultural significance and historical connections China

Docked dragon boat during the Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

Docked dragon boat during the Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

The dragon boat race festival, also known as the Duanwu festival, known to be associated with Chinese culture and believed to have originated from China was only officially observed in China from 2008. Before that, it was unofficially celebrated there as it is currently unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of southeast Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia.

In Japan, approximately 260 boat races are being performed throughout Japan under the name of Tarai Matsuri
(basin festival), Minato Matsuri (port festival), Ikada Matsuri (raft festival), Dragon Canoe festival, Peiron Festa, and Tenmasen racing (barge racing). Most of the traditional boat races have been performed in the western areas (including the Hari boat races in Okinawa, Peiron boat races in Nagasaki, and Aioi City)

Nagasaki inherited boat races closely related to the Chinese style, whereas Okinawa still maintains its
own traditional Shintoism in its local style of boat racing. It is said that there are slight differences between the Japanese and Chinese styles. Their legendary roles and functions for conducting the races also seem to be different.


In Japan, Okinawa Prefecture has an ancient tradition of dragonboat races known as hari (ハーリー haarii). In the capital city of Naha, the Naha Hari (那覇ハーリー Naha Haarii) is performed as part of the national observance of Children’s Day, but in Itoman the Itoman Hare (糸満ハーレー Itoman Haaree) is celebrated the same day as the Duwanwu Festival on the Chinese lunar calendar. The city of Tomigusuku also has its own Tomigusuku Hari (豊見城ハーリー), but it is performed in late July  Equivalent and related official festivals include Children’s Day in Japan, Dano in Korea, and Tết Đoan Ngọ in Vietnam.

The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival in Japan

“The origin of boat races in Japan There are many types of traditional boat races in Japan, from
the Tohoku region in the north to the Okinawa islands in the south. It is difficult to specify when these traditional boat races originated, however, what we can observe is that, over the ages, boat racing has been performed for enjoyment and also as a part of traditional Shinto religious rituals.
It seems true that traditional boat racing in Japan was originally influenced by China. Boat racing in Japan took place mainly as a festival for fishermen for the purpose of praying to the gods for a safe voyage and good fishing, whereas boat racing in China was performed on rivers and creeks to pray to their God of Agriculture. Japan is surrounded by the sea and boats played an important role in people’s lives. Boat owners and boat builders
tried boat races to check the performances of their boats and show-off their boat building skills. This is how traditional boat racing developed and continued up until now.

Geographic distribution of traditional boat races 

Traditional boat racing has become more common throughout the world, especially in the South East and East Asia areas, and Japan is no exception. In Japan, more of the traditional boat races have been performed in the western areas, with Hari boat races in Okinawa, Peiron boat races in Nagasaki, and Aioi City holding the more typical style of traditional boat races. There seems to be slight differences in accepting the styles of boat racing from China. Nagasaki inherited boat races closely related to the Chinese style, whereas Okinawa still maintains its own traditional. These days, numerous towns and villages are trying to resurrect traditional boat racing as one of the events of summer festivals for the purpose of revitalizing its people. However, their styles are mostly different from the traditional and old ones. Recent surveys tell us that approximately 260 boat races are being performed throughout Japan under the name of Tarai Matsuri (basin festival), Minato Matsuri (port festival), Ikada Matsuri (raft festival), Dragon Canoe festival, Peiron Festa, and Tenmasen racing (barge racing).

How Hari started in Okinawa 

Dragon boats in Japan date back to around 1390, the oldest date among different accounts, when they were called Hari in Okinawa, the southernmost islands in Japan. The most established
account is that they were brought in from Fukien (Fujian) and Guangdong (Kwangtung), provinces in southeastern China on the East China Sea coast. Later, Hari boat races became a national event of the former Ryukyu (Okinawa) Kingdom and spread over Okinawa Islands as an oceanic god festival for abundant fishing and safety. Hari was originally a fisherman’s festival, but changed a great deal to a local festival after World.

How Peiron started in Japan

Nagasaki Peiron is said to have begun in 1655 when several Chinese ships were unable to leave Nagasaki Harbor due to strong winds and to comfort the oceanic god Peiron boat races were held in the harbor. Following this, Peiron spread gradually to neighboring towns and villages from coast to coast, and they served as a prayer for a good harvest, prosperity in local industries, rain, calm seas, water safety, etc. The Peiron boat is about 14 meters long with 30 paddlers, one drummer, one gongman and one steersman, a total of 33 crewmen on board. Boats race to the drums and gongs for a round-trip of over 1150 meters.
In 1922, Peiron paddlers from a shipbuilding company in Nagasaki came to Ishikawajima-Harima Shipbuilding Company in Aioi City, Hyogo Prefecture, and raced at a company’s athletic gathering. This was the beginning of Aioi Peiron Races and is now held annually as a major tourist attraction.” — The Japan Dragon Boat Association

Get set for boating for Naha and Itoman by Hillel Wright (Japan Times, Apr 21, 2013)

Naha hari boat race

Naha hari boat race

Between May and June are the months in which to visit Okinawa if your aim is to witness the spectacle of fiercely contested races between crews paddling dragon boats or the Ryukyu Islands’ small traditional fishing boats calledsabani.

During Golden Week, from Friday, May 3 to Sunday, May 5, Naha Hari festival will feature dragon-boat races in the city’s Tomari fishing harbor between large haryusen powered by 30 paddlers each.

This year’s festival will be the 39th of the modern era, in which pop concerts, Ryukyu singing and dancing, a youth sumo competition and a fireworks display combine with the intensely competitive races to create a truly carnival atmosphere enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

From morning to evening during the three-day event, crews representing schools, companies, civic organizations and military units compete using the three traditional Naha dragon boats. Symbolically representing the three ancient towns that make up modern Naha, these dragon-prowed vessels with trailing tails are Naha’s dark-green-painted boat, the yellow one of Kume and the black beast of Tomari.

Although dragon-boat racing can be traced back 2,500 years in China — to around the time of the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece — local legend has it that the fearsome-looking craft first appeared on Okinawa about 600 years ago.

In 1393, Wan-ōso (aka O Oso), the lord of Tomigusuku Castle and nephew of the King of Nanzan — the southernmost of the three kingdoms on Okinawa Island at the time — was a student at the Imperial University in Nanking, China. Having become enamored of the dragon-boat races he saw there during his stay, he is said to have had one built upon his return home to use on the Manko River.

Soon afterward, impressed locals began building similar boats, and when Wan-ōso became King of Nanzan in 1403, he launched the Hari dragon-boat races to impress the gods and ensure good fishing, a bountiful harvest and peace in the kingdom.

Today’s trio of Naha dragon boats are each 15.25 meters long with two rows of 15 seats for the 30 paddlers who sit side by side. Crews also include a drummer (or caller), who sits in the bow, a steersman (or sweep) in the stern, and a flag-puller, who positions himself near the bow to grab the all-important pennant attached to a float and so signal that his boat has finished the race.

In Chinese tradition, the dragon’s eye is painted red prior to a race to bring the creature to life. So if a dragon boat is alive and the paddlers are its wings, the drummer is the dragon’s heart. Like the cox in Western rowing races, he directs the pace, frequency and rhythm of the paddlers’ strokes. Additionally, the steersman controls the course of the boat with a large “sweep oar” on one side of the stern — though Naha dragon boats often use two steersmen.

As for the crews, synchronizing their paddle strokes in time with the drummer’s “heartbeat” is just as important as the speed and power of their strokes.

Last year’s Naha Hari took place under mostly sunny skies and, as it’s held at the city’s fishing port, there was no shortage of food booths in front of the municipal fish market as well as inside the market itself. Typically, those attending can escape from the usual matsuri (festival) fare of yakisoba (fried noodles), corn dogs and okonomiyaki pancakes and indulge instead in island specialties such as maguro kama (grilled tuna “shoulder”), gurukun(bananafish), tempura bento (box lunches) and grilled tuna steaks or whole scallops.

As well, for those looking for a fishy treat to take home, some booths also sell fresh local seafood, including kihada maguro (yellowfin tuna), kajiki (marlin),mekajiki (swordfish), mambo (moonfish), mibai (Okinawan grouper),irabucha (parrotfish) and umi budoh (sea grapes).

Meanwhile, just as the Naha Hari festival happens during Golden Week in early May on the Western calendar, the Itoman Hare sea festival, focused on fishermen’s sabani races, is a one-day event held on the fourth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar — on June 12 this year.

The Hare is Itoman’s sole sea festival, and given that the city is famous throughout the western Pacific Ocean region for its tough and innovative fishermen, this is a major date that normally attracts around 30,000 revelers and spectators from far and wide.

Between races, young esa dancers entertain 30,000 hare viewers

Between races, young esa dancers entertain 30,000 hare spectators

Like the Naha Hari, the Itoman Hare is held at the local fishing harbor to seek the gods’ favor for safe voyages and good catches. But unlike Naha Hari’s dragon-boat races, Itoman Hare’s are between sabani fishing canoes developed by Itoman fishermen more than 500 years ago.

In the 19th century, those fishermen — wearing then newfangled goggles — would dive down from these boats to drive schools of fish into nets set ahead of them. Then, at the end of the 20th century they started using so-called fish-aggregating devices, which are basically lengths of rope or old fishing gear left dangling from flagged and anchored buoys. In the natural way of things, this detritus soon becomes host to mussels, barnacles, seaweeds and the like, which attract small fish to feed on them. Then larger fish such as tuna, marlin and mahi mahi (dolphinfish) soon turn up to feed on them — and it’s these the fisherman hunt using nets or hooks and lines.

Sabani boats evolved from dugout canoes, to the sides of which strakes (flat boards) were added to raise the freeboard and prevent waves swamping them. Then, over time, the vessels evolved into the sabani’s now distinctive and streamlined fish-form shape. No iron or steel nails are used in building them, as their fastenings are wooden dovetail keys secured with bamboo nails.

In earlier times, sabani were sailed as well as paddled, and though their narrowness and shallow draft made them fast, they were prone to capsizing. Being buoyant, though, they were easy to right and then bail out. This has given rise to one of the Hare’s most popular events, its kunnukase (capsize) race, in which the three boats must be tipped over mid-race so their crews have to right them, bail them out and get back aboard to resume paddling. This is to demonstrate the courage and seamanship of Itoman’s fishermen, as well as their strength and power as paddlers.

At 6.8 meters long, the sabani are smaller than Naha’s dragon boats. They carry 10 paddlers, a drummer, a steersman and in some races a flag-bearer who stands amidship and chants and waves pennants to help synchronize the crew’s strokes.

Around 9 a.m. on the day of Itoman Hare, the Hare bell is rung to symbolically announce the end of the annual rainy season. Then the Nanzan and Itomannoro (priestesses) perform a ceremony and the races begin. The opening event, the Ugwan Bare, is over an 850-meter course, as are most of the other races between schools, organizations and companies. But then, at the climax of the competition, comes the 2,160-meter Agai Subu contested between fishermen from Nishimura, Nakamura and Mijima — the three ancient villages comprising today’s city of Itoman.

After the Agai Subu all the sabani crews go to the Nundunchu (House of the Itoman Noro) to sing the Hare song and receive awamori (Okinawan sake) from the priestess.

Finally, after the festival ends, local legend has it that the souls of those who have died at sea have a race called the Guso Bare. Consequently, whether hungover or not, the day after the Hare no one goes fishing to avoid contact with the ghost paddlers. After that, it’s back to work out on the turbulent ocean until the following year’s festival draws excited crowds to Itoman’s shores again.

Wikipedia on the historical origins of the “Dragon Boat”:

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists, and anthropologists to have originated in southern central China more than 2500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of the Chang Jiang (now called the Yangtze) during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia).[1] Dragon boat racing has been practiced continuously since this period as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations and for the traditional veneration of the Chinese dragon water deity. The celebration was an important part of the ancient Chinese agricultural society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing was historically situated in the Chinese subcontinent’s southern-central “rice bowl”; where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats.

Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese zodiac, only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical animals, yet all twelve of the zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. Dragons were traditionally believed to be the rulers of water on earth: rivers, lakes, and seas; they also were thought to dominate the waters of the heavens: clouds, mists, and rains. There are earth dragons, mountain dragons, and sky or celestial dragons (Tian Long) in Chinese tradition. Mythical dragons and serpents are also found widely in many cultures around the world.

Tang dynasty painting of a dragon boat race attributed to Li Zhaodao

Some Western scholars have speculated that sacrifices through drowning may have been involved in the earliest boat racing rituals, although this remains unconfirmed.[2] The origin of this speculation seems to have originated with Carl Whiting Bishop (1881-1942), an early East Asia scholar who was active with the Smithsonian.[3] He theorized that the festival came from a similar cultural purpose as an Egyptian practice as described by the ancient historian Plutarch, although without citing evidence: “The ritual appears to be [a rite] of rainmaking in connection with agriculture, and it is pretty certainly of pre-Chinese origin. Not improbably it once centered on a human sacrifice by drowning.”

Based on this theory, some of these accounts have suggested speculatively that perhaps during ancient times, violent clashes between the crews of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo poles. This unsubstantiated idea claims that paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water would receive no assistance from the onlookers as their fate would be considered the will of the dragon deity. In this highly speculative scenario, boaters who drowned would have been thought to have been sacrificed. That Qu Yuan sacrificed himself in protest through drowning, in this line of thought, may speak to this early notion. However, this theory of human sacrifice is in direct contradiction of most accounts of the origin of the races, which hold that the dragon boat festival began as a way to rescue Qu Yuan. The traditional food zongzi is often thrown into the water, originating from the idea of keeping fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body.[8] Modern academics continue to attempt to confirm the origin of the race, which is somewhat still open to speculation.[9]

Traditional dragon boat racing, in China, coincides with the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to June on the modern Gregorian Calendar). The Summer Solstice occurs around 21 June and is the reason why Chinese refer to their festival as “Duan Wu” or “Duen Ng”. Both the sun and the dragon are considered to be male. (The moon and the mythical phoenix are considered to be female.) The sun and the dragon are at their most potent during this time of the year, so cause for observing this through ritual celebrations such as dragon boat racing. It is also the time of farming year when rice seedlings must be transplanted in their paddy fields, for wet rice cultivation to take place. Wu or Ng refers to the sun at its highest position in the sky during the day, the meridian of ‘high noon’. Duan or Duen refers to upright or directly overhead. So Duan Wu is an ancient reference to the maximum position of the sun in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year or summer solstice.

This hot season is also associated with pestilence and disease, so is considered as a period of evil due to the high summer temperatures which can lead to rot and putrification in primitive societies lacking modern refrigeration and sanitation facilities. One custom involves cutting shapes of the five poisonous or venomous animals out of red paper, so as to ward off these evils. The paper snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards and toads – those that supposedly lured “evil spirits” – where sometimes placed in the mouths of the carved wooden dragons.

Venerating the dragon deity was meant to avert misfortune and calamity and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and thus for the prosperity of an agrarian way of life. Celestial dragons were the controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds and the clouds. The Emperor was “The Dragon” or the “Son of Heaven”, and Chinese people refer to themselves as “dragons” because of its spirit of strength and vitality. Unlike the dragons in European mythology which are considered to be evil and demonic, Asian dragons are regarded as wholesome and beneficent, and thus worthy of veneration, not slaying. But if rainfall is insufficient drought and famine can result. Dragon veneration in China seems to be associated with annually ensuring life giving water and bountiful rice harvests in south central China.

Another ritual called Awakening of the Dragon involves a Daoist priest dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber and re-energising its spirit or qi (pronounced: chee). In modern dragon boat festivals a VIP can be invited to step forward to dot the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint made of the blood of a chicken in order to reanimate the creature’s bold spirit for hearty racing.

* Worcester, George. The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River, 1971.
See also Duanwu Festival:

Some modern researchers suggest that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed on a pre-existing holiday tradition. The promotion of these stories over the earlier lore of the holiday seems to have been encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence at a time when other belief systems were seen as gaining influence in China.

The deaths (and lives) of both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu were recorded in Sima Qian‘s Shiji, completed 187 and 393 years after the events, respectively. While Sima Qian gave high praise to both characters, there is no evidence showing any link between the historic account of these characters in Shiji and the popularity of the festival in their names.

Many traditional rituals of the Duanwu Festival emphasize the avoidance of disease(see Horses, Dragons, Disease in Nara Japan by Michael Como, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34/2: 393–415). The desire to prevent health hazards associated with the mid-summer months may have been the primary original motive behind the holiday.

Another theory, advanced by Wen Yiduo, is that the Duanwu Festival had its origins in dragon worship. Support is drawn from two key traditions of the festival: the tradition of zongzi, or throwing food into the river, and dragon boat racing. The food may have originally represented an offering to the dragon king, while dragon boat racing naturally reflects reverence of the dragon and the active yang energy associated with it. This combines with the tradition of visiting friends and family on boats.

Another suggestion is that the festival celebrates a widespread feature of east Asian agrarian societies: the harvest of winter wheat. Offerings were regularly made to deities and spirits at such times: in the ancient Yue, dragon kings; in the ancient Chu, Qu Yuan; in the ancient Wu, Wu Zixu (as a river god); in ancient Korea, mountain gods (see Dano (Korean festival)). As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.

Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

The festival was long marked as a festival culturally in China and is a public holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. However, the People’s Republic of China government, established in 1949, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005, the government began to plan for the re-recognition of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. Since 2008, Duanwu has been celebrated not only as a festival but also a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China

Dragon boat races are often given significance due to the patronage by royalty of such events, and the repeated performance of religious rites associated with the boat race festivals, and the body of myths surrounding the dragon perpetuated by the festivals:
The Dragon Boat Race, although centered in southern China, is found over a wide area of East Asia and Mainland Southeast Asia. Zhuang points out that the Dragon Boat Race’s ritual functions include praying for rain or good harvests, for the cure of sickness, and for protection from disaster and from the curses of those who have drowned. The ritual displays great variety, however, because of its close links with local folk worldviews and religious
The content of the Dragon Boat Race ritual is quite complex. Researchers have investigated the ritual’s meaning, function, and organization, its relation to production and political power, the legends of its origin and related folk beliefs, and the symbolism of the dragon and the dragon’s multiform powers. Confining ourselves to Mainland China, we can say that the “classic” Dragon Boat Race is held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the old calendar, and is linked to the legend of the poet Qu Yuan of the Warring States period. The race introduced in this video is of the type connected with this legend. The ritual practices and various religious customs in the documentary show the general procedures of the Dragon Boat Race.
We are, for instance, introduced to a family rite related to the growth of small children, to a local sanctuary called Taishanfu and to the deities venerated there, to the rites dedicated to the dragon head at the boat’s prow, to the priests and their ritual roles, to the Dragon Boat Race itself as it is performed by the villagers, to the throwing of rice dumplings into the river to commemorate Qu Yuan, and finally to the parade of the gods of the local sanctuary
through the settlement. In view of the long gap in our knowledge of the detailed circumstances of the race’s ritual practice on the mainland, every single piece of information recorded in this visual ethnography is of great importance.
Here, however, we must return to a very fundamental problem. The Dragon Boat Race as described above is not only a religious ritual; it also serves a variety of other functions. In Thailand, Myammar, and Laos, for example, it is typically a rite of the royalty with direct links to the king’s authority, while in Okinawa it displays clear connections with the folk worldview and local ritual organization despite cultural influences from China. In mainland
China peoples like the Miao or Bai — minorities strongly influenced by the Han — possess the Dragon Boat Race. Source: The Dragon Boat Festival, review of a video production
Yang Ssu-chJang has written up rather convincing reasons based on the folk-function of dragon boat race and dragon paper boat rites in ancient times similar to the Japanese harae rites as rites for dispelling evil and their association with the 5th month of Duanwu:

“It seems to me that the end and aim of the boat race is ‘to send away the mark’ but it is not clear why this ceremony is so called;. As the ceremony itself indicates, it is a ceremony to send away evils. . In some other districts it is also said that the boat race is held to expel evils. For example, in Yao-chow ( 岳 州 ),Hunan, the people believe so. (Cf. Fan Chih-ming 范致明,Yao-yang Feng-fu-chi 岳陽風 土 IE ,P. 23; Ku-chin I-shih 古文逸史 edition.) The dragon boat is generally considered as a thing to send away evils. In Yao-chow also the houses in which, somebody is sick make a sacrifice on a water side, prepare food and wine for the boatmen and make a straw boat to float on the river (ibid). In Heng-shan ( 衡 山 〉,Hunan, on the dragon boat festival the Taoist priests and sorcerers make a dragon boat of paper, which is carried on a wooden frame by two men; on the frame are hung a drum and a gong; the men sing and beat them from door to door along the street. This is said to arrest the plague. (Cf. Hunan Ko-hsien Feng-su Tiao-ch’a Pi-chi 湖南各縣風俗調査筆記 ,by Tseng Chi-wu 曾繼搭,1931,p. 136.) In Yu-hsien (攸 縣 ) on the same day a wooden dragon boat about five feet long is made, on whし」 are standing some paper figures with oars in their hand, and are carried through the streets (ibid. p. 126). In Ch’ang-sha ( 县 沙 )at any time when one is ill a boat is made according to the advice of the sorcerer (ibid. p. 120), Even the Mu-lao Miao ( 棘猪留 ) of Kueichow during some festivals construct dragon boats of straw on which are flown flags of five colours. They dance and sing around them and make sacrifice to ghosts. (Li Tsung-fang 李宗昉,Chien Chi 龄言巳,chiian 3,p. 4,in Wen-, ying-lou Ts’ung-shu 問影樓叢書 .}

What evils are sent away or expelled? Some points of the present article suggest the answer that it is the deceased souls.
(a) According to the legend on page 11 quoted from the Hsii Ch’i-hsieh-chi a five-coloured thread is tied up on the bamboo tube or the tsung-tzu that is thrown into the water on the 5th day of the 5th month. This kind of thread is closely connected with the soul of the dead,probably a symbol of it. To illustrate this point we had better take some evidences from the Miao tribe, who formerly lived in South Hunan. When a Hei-miao (黑 菌 )has died, a coloured thread is tied up on the top of a bamboo stick which is erected in front of the tombf^men. and women made offerings to it (Li Tsung-fang-, Ch’ien Chi, chiian 3, p. 2). When a “Kuo-ch’uan Ch’i-lao ( 飼圈狡狡猪 )is sick, a five-coloured thread is bound up on a tig e i’,s bone, which is put in a winnowing fan, and a sorcerer is invited to pray for him (ibid. chiian 3,p. 3). In Sung Yu’s Calling Back the Soul (cf. note 33) it is also said that a bamboo basket and a thread was used to call back the soul. According to Kiang C hi,s (蔣騎 > commentary on the Ch,u Tz,u,the thread is in five colours. (Shan-tai-ko Chu Ch’u Tz,uchiian 6, p. 5). — THE DRAGON BOAT RACE IN WU-LING, HUNAN

Ancient rivers and boat expulsion practices:

Excerpted from “Rivers of death in Japanese myth and folklore and in other parts of the world

The Nagatoro Funadama Festival held annually on the Arakawa River in the Chichibu area of Japan in Saitama prefecture is but one example among many, of ancient river or water expulsion practices still practised today in Japan. The Nagatoro Fireworks festival is held right beside the river, preceded by sending off a boat lit up with lights. The festival takes place during the Bon period, to honor the spirits of the dead that visit the realm of the living during this period. After dark, boats decorated with paper lanterns and about 1,000 individual lanterns are floated on the waters of the Arakawa River to pray for the repose of drowned persons, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Click here to watch a video clip of the event or read more about the Festival for the Dead here. …

Origin of river rituals:

River rituals involving human sacrifices to river deities were prevalent on the Chinese continent in the Shang, Zhou and Warring States eras and are believed to have been imported by Chinese immigrants into Japan over the long periods of time. The Korean kingdoms too had numerous river and water deities to whom the people tried to appease through their offerings.
In a case study on the Taiwanese 18 deities’ Royal Lords temple cult, the rite of floating and burning boats was noted to be a custom prevalent among southern Chinese and Siberian Khanty peoples. That the imagery of a River of Plague or Disease may have been widely known to Central Asia in ancient times, is suggested by the research paper:
“The Royal Lords cult involves the performance of plague expulsion festivals, which include sending off a “plague boat”—small wooden boat—which represents the community’s accumulated afflictions. I saw exactly such kind of wooden boat in the underground chamber of the Temple of 18 Deities during my fieldwork.  According to Katz (2003: 158), worshipers in southern China and Taiwan have used the title “Royal Lord(s)” to refer to a wide range of spirits, including plague-spreading deities. Such cults developed in south China in the 10th century. Most popular deity among them is Marshal Wen (Wen Yuanshuai), who is worshiped in southern Fujian and Taiwan as Lord Chi (Chi Wangye). Marshal Wen originally was a snake-demon who spread diseases by spitting out poisonous vapours. The connected Chinese images of plague-spreading deities and a boat remind to the plot of a Khanty (Siberian) myth “Holy Legend about the Desirable Knight—Merchant of the Low World, Merchant of the Upper World” (1990 no. 30: 105–125), which describes a floating caravan of boats on the Ob river with diseases-spreading deities on them. The caravan brought epidemic diseases and mass deaths to many cities on the Ob banks and belonged to the underworld, which was believed to be situated on the North Lower Ob and was a kingdom of the Lord of Diseases and Death.
In Japan, offerings of pottery at river sites had also been made since prehistoric or proto-historic times by local communities, excavated finds by archaeologists indicate the purification ritual practice began at least as early as the Kofun era (large quantities of miniature earthern pots were found from the river area of the Mizokui site, Ibaraki city, Osaka; one of them with a face etched onto the pottery).
Some scholars believe that the use of effigies in Nara period river rituals in particular is associated with ancient Chinese witchcraft techniques may go back to the Han dynasty or even earlier as outlined in Chi Songzi zhangli (赤松子章曆 an important Taoist text and ritual compilation) were later introduced into Japan.
Shinto practitioners and experts in Japan today trace the various rites which go by the name of harae (or o-harae) to the Kojiki myth of  the act of  washing in the sea which Izanagi-no-kami performed after his return from Yomi, the land of the dead (to which he had followed his wife Izanami) in order to purify himself from the uncleanness and polluting elements he had come into contact with there.
In its earliest form of the custom, the ritual offerings made were a fine or penalty imposed upon those who had committed offences or in contracted pollution, under which term all crimes and sins were at first included. The ritual offerings sometimes took the form of human, animal or other food sacrifices, as well as other items of value. In the Nara period the practice was declared to be barbaric, so substitutive pottery, human or animal effigies, and coin offerings became the norm.
Until the Nara period, o-harae ablution events were performed at various irregular times and as the need arose, but from the Nara period onwards, o-harae became regular bi-annual court and shrine events as carried over till today.  The “Great Purification” came to be held regularly on the 30th June and 31st December. This was because the mid-ninth century, the Nara court in adopting Chinese Tang dynasty style of court etiquette and government, had established an official bureau of yin-yang geomancy masters who went to work institutionalizing and regulating the expulsion rituals and the management of pollution taboos.

Excavated from the Kannonji site, which were once old riverbeds of a branch of the Yoshino River during the Nara period, were  large numbers of artifacts, including pottery and wooden boat effigies and other implements.  Also among the artifacts are thin boards shaped into a human outline, and faces drawn in ink. One board is split down the center, broken into upper and lower halves has realistically painted thick eyebrows, and the beard and moustache.  Together with the boat effigies made of wood, they are thought to have been used in a harae rite.”
Further readings:

Three versions of the legend of the Silkworm-Golden Princess from India

The Golden Princess from India

The tale of Golden Princess from India rescued by a lion, depicted on a carving on the side of the Kokegesan Shrine in Kawasaki city, Kanagawa

The first version of the legend of the silkworm princess comes from Sanrei-jinja or Sanrei Shrine in Kamisu city,  Ibaragi prefecture.

Sanrei-jinja shrine, Kamisu city, Ibaragi prefecture

Sanrei-jinja shrine, Kamisu city, Ibaragi prefecture

Version 1

As Sanrei Shrine 蚕霊神社(さんれい じんじゃ)’s tradition goes, in the month of March 286 BC, a fisherman by the name of Gondayu found a small timbered boat drifting on to shore and he dragged it up the sands of the Toyoura Beach (豊浦浜 currently known as Nikkawa Beach which is about 2 km from the Sanrei Shrine).  When he had had a chance to examine the boat, he discovered inside it was a beautiful girl, who turned out to be a princess from India.

The princess had a tragic tale to tell – when her mother passed on, her father remarried. But like most classic evil-stepmother-fairytales, the princess’ new stepmother hated the princess because she was very beautiful and devised a plot to have her taken out to a remote island and abandoned on a mountain where wild lions were known to roam,  and where fierce hawks nested.

But as fate intervened, the princess was rescued by lions, hawks, and fishermen who returned her to the palace. Then the wicked stepmother in exasperation, had the princess buried her underground. But once again, the stepmother’s plan was foiled, as the princess was delivered by some supernatural presence and dazzling light that shone out of the ground and once again, the princess returned home.

Finally, the step mother confined the princess she hated with a passion in a timber boat made of wood from the mulberry tree and set it adrift on the ocean. The boat eventually drifted to Toyoura Beach and was taken up onto shore by the good fisherman, Gondayu.

Gondayu tried to nurse the princess back to health but she died anyway due to exposure and disease and was transformed into small insect. Gondayu believed that the insect was the princess reborn and incarnated as an insect and he fed it leaves from the mulberry tree. Then the insect began to spit out beautiful thread, and making a cocoon, confined itself in it. Gondayu then used the thread of the cocoon to weave fabric. That is how the sericulture in the area began and eventually the sericulture industry made the village prosperous.

A shrine was built by the locals to show gratitude and respect towards the originators and creators of sericulture….


Version 2

Kokegesan-jinja, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa

Kokegesan-jinja, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa

This second version of  the Golden Princess tale comes from the Kokegesan shrine formerly on the precincts of the Tokoin Temple, in Asao ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa,  now relocated to the Japan Open Air Folkhouse Museum in Kawasaki city.

As this version goes, the Golden Princess was born in northern India, and after overcoming four hardships, she arrived in Japan, as an incarnation of the Boddhisatva Memyō Bosatsu, introducing to local people the new technology of sericulture. It is said that the four hardships symbolize the four dormant stages in the life of a silk worm before it pupates.

Gondayu rescues the Golden Princess

Gondayu goes out in a boat and rescues the Golden Princess

The small but elegant shrine is dedicated to the patron deity of sericulture, Kokegesan Daigongen. Originally located in Okagami (In the precincts of Tōkōin-Temple), Asao Ward, Kawasaki city, Kanagawa prefecture. But as the silk industry declined, it became difficult for the village people to afford the cost of maintenance, so the building was moved to Nihon Minkaen open air folkhouse museum.


The shrine is decorated with relief carvings (see above and shown redrawn and enlarged below) depicting the story of the Golden Princess, although they are not fully open to the view of visitors.

FullSizeRender (7)FullSizeRender (11)FullSizeRender (5)(For no. 1 see the top of page)

This is a small shrine (kūden) is contained within a covered thatched building to protect it from wind and rain. It used to be located in the precincts of Tōkōin, a local Buddhist temple, and was an object of veneration for years. This folktale account is obviously a later version that has undergone syncretism incorporating a Buddhist deity Boddhisatva Memyō Bosatsu.

With a half hipped roof at the front and a hipped roof at the rear, the covering building is a cusped gable entry structure a cusped gable (Ikkensha, Kasugazukuri, mukai-karahafu, kokera buki) designed to be as impressive as possible when viewed from the front. Although relatively small, its roof makes it look magnificent, with deep eaves supported by long jettied members on all four sides (Segai Zukuri). The grass ridge (shibamune) of the thatched roof has irises planted in it, which look beautiful when they bloom in the spring. The space at the front of the building is an open earth-floored area, conceived as a kōhai(the porch area provided for the use of worshippers at the front of a temple building). The shrine (kūden) is set in the innermost recesses of the floored part of the covering building, surrounded by sliding panels and walls. The inner part of wooden floor, where the kūdenstands, is elevated, emphasising the respect in which the shrine is held.

The shrine is of the Kasuga Style type (i.e. it is modeled on the gable-entry shrine buildings of Kasuga Taisha in Nara) with a karahafu (cusped) gable at the front. It is known from the munafuda nailed to the rear wall of the building that the shrine was built in 1863.

Sources: My visit to Nihon Minkaen, own photos; Kokegesan Shrine – An Important Cultural Property of Kawasaki City

Version 3

The next version of the tale is recounted in TsukuBlog’s article “Ancient ritual for silkworms at Kokage-san jinja” in which the existence of another Kokai-jinja in Hitachi (Ibaraki prefecture) is mentioned, and detailed descriptions are also given of another Silkworm-deity dedicated Kokage-jinja in Tsukuba, also in Ibaraki (excerpted below), which according to the article, is supposed to be the oldest shrine in Japan dedicated to the Kokage-San Silkworm deity, although as I posted above, the shrine tradition of the Kamisu shrine, if accurate, makes that one the oldest.

Kokage-San Shrine is yet another Tsukuba superlative. It is the oldest shrine in Japan dedicated exclusively to sericulture and once attracted thousands of worshipers, many from the textile towns of Nagano, Gunma and Yamanashi.  Located in the beautifully rustic Kangori (神郡) district of Tsukuba, the shrine is reached by ascending ancient and uneven stone steps through an even more ancient sacred grove.

view of the proceedings as offerings of sacred sake (O-Miki) and sakaki branches are mad

view of the proceedings as offerings of sacred sake (O-Miki) and sakaki branches are mad

The Legend of the Konjiki Princess

The sea used to actually reach not very far from this site, and according to local legend (there are several versions!), in  6th century India there a princess who was constantly being abused by her step-mother. The situation got worse and worse and finally, the king decided that it would be best for his daughter to make her way to another land for a new start. He had her put in a boat made of mulberry wood and had her cast off. She made landfall near Mt Tsukuba. A local man called KONDAYU and his wife tried to help the princess- but to no avail. Starved and exhausted, she shrivelled up into a little worm, The couple put it in a big box and fed it mulberry leaves. It grew bigger and stronger. It made a coccoon. The deity of Mt.Tsukuba, in the form of a hermit named EIDO SENNIN (影道仙人), taught the local people how to extract silk thread from the cocoon.

This was the beginning of what would become the thriving sericulture of this area.

The name KOKAGE-SAN JINJA was created by taking the character from the word KAIKO - 蚕 – silkworm and adding the character 影 taken from the name of the hermit EIDO SENNIN- to create : KOKAGE JINJA (蚕影神社) also called KOKAGE-SAN JINJA (蚕影山神社)

To the right of the shrines main hall, under an enclosure I found an undated E-ma painting, donated by someone from Nagano Prefecture, depicting this scene.

I had a chance to chat with the Kanshushis (Shinto priests) as they were setting up the offerings on the altar. They were actually sent by The Tsukuba-San Shrine, as the Kokage Shrine has nearly been forgotten with the peicipitous decline in sericulture in Japan over the past few decades. Now there are priests at the shrine only twice a year, March 28th for the spring offerings, and then November 23rd for the shrine’s festival.

They explained to me how special the silkworms (kaiko) were to the Japanese, as they were the only domestic animal actually raised in people’s homes. They are also the only animals which normally are referred to using an honorific  – O Kaiko-Sama, though the local people usual shorten this to O Ko-Sama. As the time came to commence the ceremony only three old men had battled the stairs and settled inside the shrine for the ceremony. This being a mere shadow of the crowds which would have been there in former days. First, a purification rite was carried out, and then offerings of cocoons, fruit, and sacred sakaki leaves were made. O-miki (sake) was then drunk, and commemorative towels given to the few of us present.

After the ceremony, we clambered down the steps as the local men reminisced about the shrines glory days. Now the wooden buildings which would have been used by numerous vendors on this day were virtually falling apart ( one has actually collapsed!). One man mentioned that a movie had been shot on this staircase, though he could not recall the title ( it was the unwatchable first directorial effort by actor Yakusho Koji- Gama no Abura). Another man mentioned how just the other day the Emperor and Emperess performed a similar ritual for silkworms, which he had seen broadcast on TV (the Imperial Couple raises rice and silkworms for ritual purposes). 

We reached the bottom of the stairway huffing and puffing. We then entered the dilapidated old shop which once served the throngs of pilgrims who would flock here. They still sold a special souvenir — Kokage Yo-kan (beanpaste). As a breeze entered the shop it gently lifted the paper displaying the price of the yokan. I noticed that for that day they had raised the price by 100 yen, taking advantage of the ceremony. Unfortunately, only 3 locals and I had shown up. Times change, things change, and this ancient rite is certainly hanging on by a VERY thin thread.”

Some observations:

  • the folktale versions of the Golden Princess, dates and the names of the Kokage-san/Kokegesan deity vary slightly as you might expect, but we also find from examining these accounts:
  • the account of the Silkworm princess is found spanning the areas from Kanagawa prefecture to Ibaragi prefecture in southern to eastern Kanto Island;
  • the account of silkworm technology as originating from India is consistent (prior to Hata and others’ migration to the Japanese archipelago);
  • these accounts are completely different from the continental Hata clan and other Chinese or Korean-provenanced myths, the details of the different myths can reveal the specific connections with migrant populations from outside of Japan.

For further reading on this subject, see Weaving goddesses of Japan and elsewhere in the world; A loom with a view. Michael Como’s “Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient  Japan” and Akima Toshio’s “The Myth of the Goddess of the Undersea World and the Tale of Empress Jingu’s Subjugation of Silla” (Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1993 20/2-3) both works mention the important connection between the divine descent and weaving maidens such as Amaterasu’s younger sister and sacred weaving maiden Wakaru-hime who fell on her loom and died;  Himegoso‘s vengeful Akaruhime ; Natsuhata-hime and Kamuhata-hime, and the miniature loom/shuttle offerings that were made in prehistoric times to the Munakata goddesses on Okinoshima.

Further readings:

Oshirasama and Sacrifices of Silk

Silkworms and Consorts in Nara Japan, Asian Folklore Journal Issue no. 64, Jan,  by Michael Como

Abstract: This article examines the role of the Chinese ritual calendar and continental technologies in the formation of early literary and ritual tropes of the Japanese islands. Special attention is given to a small cluster of legends involving imperial emissaries that are sent to call out women with whom rulers have become enamored. The text argues that these legends illustrate the influence of continental rites and legends related to weaving and sericulture on the formation of early tropes of kingship and courtly romance. Because these legends appear to have been rooted in Chinese rites in which silkworm goddesses were “called out” using imagery based upon the silkworm’s ability to “die” and be reborn, the text further argues that these legends may have been related to the development of purportedly “native” funerary practices during the period

Kirin – The Japanese Unicorn

One-horned unicorn-lion of Yasaka Jinja shrine

One-horned unicorn kirin (sin-you) of Yasaka Jinja shrine

The Kirin in Japanese, qilin (in Chinese: 麒麟; pinyin: qílín) is a mythical hooved chimerical creature known in Chinese and other East Asian cultures, said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. It is a good omen thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. It is sometimes called the “Chinese unicorn” when compared with the Western unicorn. The Japanese kirin looked more like the Sin-you lion-like beast. Some later Japanese netsuke portray a Kirin that has wings that look like the Central Asian winged horse with horns or the Sphinx. Or they become increasingly dragon-like like Chinese Qilins.

Netsuke with wings, looking more like Central Asian mythical winged horses or sphinx-like beasts (photo: Tide Mammoth)

Netsuke with wings, looking more like Central Asian mythical winged horses or sphinx-like beasts (photo: Tide Mammoth)

An ivory netsuke of a kirin by Yoshimasa, Kyoto, early 19th c. (Photo: Bonhams)

An ivory netsuke of a kirin by Yoshimasa, Kyoto, early 19th c. (Photo: Bonhams)

The Kirin / Qilin  can sometimes be depicted as having a single horn as in the Western tradition, or as having two horns. In modern Chinese the word for “unicorn” is 独角兽(Traditional 獨角獸) “du jiao shou”, and a Qilin that is depicted as a unicorn, or 1-horned, is called “Du jiao Qilin” 独角麒麟 (Traditional Chinese: 獨角麒麟) meaning “1-horned Qilin” or “Unicorn Qilin”. However, there are several kinds of Chinese mythical creatures which also are unicorns, not just Qilin. Qilin generally have Chinese dragon-like features.

Most notably their heads, eyes with thick eyelashes, manes that always flow upward and beards. The bodies are fully or partially scaled, though often shaped like an ox, deer or horse’s, and always with cloven hooves. In modern times, the depictions of Qilin have often fused with the Western concept of unicorns.

Qing dynasty Chinese Qilin

Qing dynasty Chinese Qilin

The earliest references to the qilin are in the 5th century BC Zuo Zhuan. The qilin made appearances in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction, such as Feng Shen Bang. Emperor Wu of Han was said to have captured a live qilin in 122 BC.

According to ancient Taoist time period lore, although they can look fearsome, Qilin only punish the wicked, thus there are several variations of court trials and judgements based on Qilin divinely knowing whether a defendant was good or evil, and guilty or innocent, in ancient lore and stories. The Eastern unicorn was depicted as a solitary animal, believed to have sprung from the center of the earth, the first and most perfect of the 360 land creatures. The Eastern unicorn always reached its destination, never falling into pits or traps, so it was honored as a great spiritual guide through life.

In Buddhist influenced depictions, they will refuse to walk upon grass for fear of harming a single blade, and thus are often depicted walking upon the clouds or the water. As they are divine and peaceful creature, their diets do not include flesh.

In legend, the Qilin became dragon-like and then tiger-like after their disappearance in East Asia and finally a stylized representation of the giraffe in Ming Dynasty. The identification of the Qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He‘s voyage to East Africa according to recent scholarship. The modern Japanese word for giraffe is also kirin, which bears the same derived ideas.


The unicorn beast in Japan

“The Japanese unicorn, is an important part of oriental culture. Here the unicorn plays different roles and could appear as the gentle kirin, as the k’i – lin, or the sin – you.

The kirin and the k’i – lin, normally shy creatures, taking large detours to avoid confrontation, have a similar gazelle-like appearance and are solitary animals who walk with measured tread, though some say the k’i-lin skips. The male is called the k’i, while the female is the lin. Although it had different forms. its eyes were always intent and piercing.

In contrast the sin – you looks like a lion, being thick-maned, tawny, and fierce, with a single horn. The Sin-you unicorn was not as timid as its brothers and known for its ability to know right from wrong was often called upon to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals. If an individual was determined to be guilty, the Sin-you would fix its eyes upon him and pierce the guilty person with its horn.

In Taoism and other mystical Eastern cultures, there arose a variety of teachings in art and dance to honor all of nature, including the unicorn and other sacred beasts.” — Japanese unicorns

The Japanese Sin-you unicorn was especially associated with the idea of guilt and justice (see Japanese Unicorns ). It was typically depicted as a sinewy animal that looked much like the lion (as in the photo above).

On the later “Kirin” type of unicorn, Onmark Productions’ Shijin article has this to say:

The Kirin, which often appears tiger-like in artwork (see photos below), is a different creature entirely from the White Tiger. The Kirin is said to have the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse, a body covered with the scales of a fish, and a single horn. The Kirin appears only before the birth or death of a great and wise person. Said to live in paradise, the Kirin personifies all that is good, pure, and peaceful; can live to be 1,000 years old.

Below text courtesy of
Kirin - Icon found on popular Japanese beer called KirinspacerA mythical horned Chinese deer-like creature said to appear only when a sage has appeared. It is a good omen associated with serenity and prosperity. Often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. In most drawings, its head looks like that of a Chinese dragon (see dragon above). Japanese art typically depicts the Kirin as more deer-like than its Chinese counterpart. Kirin is sometimes translated in English as “unicorn,” because it looks similar to the unicorn — the later a hoofed mythological horse-like beast with a single horn on its head. Some accounts describe it as having the body of a deer and the head of a lion. <end quote>

According to the Kirin Brewery company whose mascot is the Kirin:

 “The Japanese art tends to depict the kirin as more deer-like than in Chinese art. Alternatively, it is depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer, but with an ox’s tail instead of a lion’s tail. The Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd., is named after the animal and uses a picture of one in its labels. They are also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Post-Qin Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot. This is following the style of the ancient Chinese, as qilin was ranked higher than the dragon or phoenix before the Qin dynasty. During the Zhou dynasty, the qilin was ranked the highest, the phoenix ranked second, and the dragon the third.” — “The Kirin: a mythological beast that portends happiness”. Kirin Brewing company.

According to North Korean tradition, Kiringul (Korean: 기린굴; “Kirin’s Grotto”) is a cave in North Korea said to have been the home of the kirin, a mythological chimeric beast that was reputedly ridden by King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo in the 1st century BC.


History of the Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社 Yasaka-jinja?), once called Gion Shrine (祇園神社 Gion-jinja?), is a Shinto shrine in the Gion District of Kyoto, Japan. Situated at the east end of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue), the shrine includes several buildings, including gates, a main hall and a stage. Initial construction on the Shrine began in 656. The Shrine became the object of Imperial patronage during the early Heian period.

In 965, Emperor Murakami ordered that Imperial messengers be sent to report important events to the guardian kami of Japan. These heihaku were initially presented to 16 shrines; and in 991, that composite list of shrines included by the Gion Shrine, ie Yasaka Shrine. From 1871 through 1946, Yasaka Shrine was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

In 869 the mikoshi (divine palanquin) of Gion Shrine were paraded through the streets of Kyoto to ward off an epidemic that had hit the city. This was the beginning of the Gion Matsuri, an annual festival which has become world famous.


Further readings:

Kirin |

For a quick global survey of unicorns around the world, see Diana Peterfreund’s Unicorn research

The Ethiopian unicorn, see Chap. 10 of Mythical Monsters by Charles Gould

Unicorn of the East: Kirin in The Twelve Kingdoms Myth and pop culture combine. By Niko Silvester  (April 04, 2011)


What’s in a flower? The Chrysanthemum vs Hollyhock : Royals vs. Samurai-daimyos


According to tradition, the Tokugawa forces were in opposition to the royal family and this is seen in Tokugawa’s refusal to accept the royal clan’s mon or crest, but favouring his own clan’s.

According to Mark W. MacWilliams (Pilgrimages — Canton to Chichibu), the Tokugawa crest …

“is believed to stem from a mythical clan, the Kamo clan, which legendarily descended from Yatagarasu, a Matsudaira village in the Higashikamo District of Japan.

Imperial family crest

Imperial family crest, a stylized chrysanthemum blossom Source: Mon (Wikimedia Commons)

The legend goes that Emperor Go-Yōzei presented a new imperial crest (presumably a design based on the imperial Chrysanthemum emblem above) of the Minamoto clan, to the Tokugawa founder, but Ieyasu declined the new symbol. Instead, he favored the old crest(below which is an inverted variation of the Matsudaira crest), thereby showing the bearer’s allegiance to the shogunate. In this way, he showed support for the shogunate as opposed to the monarchists, whose cause is symbolized by the Imperial throne’s chrysanthemum crest as seen at the Imperial Palace (“Japanese Family Crest”).”

Tokugawa crest, Source: Mon (Wikimedia Commons)

Tokugawa’s “triple hollyhock” crest, Source: Mon (Wikimedia Commons)

Matsudaira clan (松平氏 Matsudaira-shi) was a Japanese samurai clan that claimed descent from the Minamoto clan. It first originated in and took its name from Matsudaira village, in Mikawa Province (modern-day Aichi Prefecture). Over the course of its history, the clan produced many branches, most of which also centered on Mikawa Province.

Matsudaira crest

Matsudaira crest

In the 16th century, the main Matsudaira line experienced a meteoric rise to success during the headship of Matsudaira Motoyasu, who changed his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu and became the first Tokugawa shogun. Ieyasu’s line formed what became the Tokugawa clan; however, the branches retained the Matsudaira surname. Other branches were formed in the decades after Ieyasu, which bore the Matsudaira surname. Some of those branches were also of daimyo status. See Tokugawa Ieyasu, the former Matsudaira Motoyasu depicted below along with the crest.

The crest is believed to stem from a mythical clan, the Kamo clan, which according to legend, descended from Yatagarasu, a Matsudaira village in the Higashikamo District of Japan. The Aoi hollyhock is the emblem celebrated in the Aoi Festival held by the two Kamo shrines, a festival dating back to the 7th c. (p. 34, Japan Encyclopedia) – Kamigamo-jinja and the Shimogamo-jinja every May 15, which is an agricultural festival to pray for an abundant harvest and protection against disaster. The Kamo shrines enshrine the Wakeikazuchi no Kami, son of Tamayori-hime and brother of the legendary first Emperor Jimmu Tenno.

Predating Kyoto‘s establishment as the national capital in 794, the Aoi Matsuri began in the 7th century. There were natural disasters occurring that were believed to be caused by the deities of the Kamo Shrines. After the Emperor made offerings to the gods, the disasters subsided and a tradition was begun. The Aoi hollyhock is believed to ward off thunderstorms and earthquakes (see Aoi Matsuri Hollyhock Festival). The two Kamo shrines are thus regarded as the protector shrines of the Imperial Palace and capital (source: p. 201 Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan by William E. Deal).

Kamo-jinja priests in Kyoto used the Aoi flower motif as insignia for the shrine. Although Ieyasu Tokugawa never used the surname Matsudaira before 1566, his appointment as shogun was contingent on his claim to Matsudaira kinship and a link to the Seiwa Genji (who were the most successful and powerful line of the Japanese Minamoto clan that were descended from Emperor Seiwa). However, some members of the Tokugawa family were known devotee worshippers at the Kamo-jinja shrine. The Tokugawa family used the Aoi as their insignia, and families not related to the Tokugawa were forbidden the use of the insignia (source: Japan Encyclopedia by  Louis-Frédéric). This led to a belief that the Tokugawa may have actually descended from the Kamo clan, (賀茂氏 Kamo-shi) which is a Japanese sacerdotal kin group thought to have had roots in the Yayoi period. The clan rose to prominence during the Asuka and Heian periods when the Kamo are identified with the 7th-century founding of the Kamo Shrine.

During the Aoi Matsuri festival, some 500 people wearing splendid ancient costumes and traditional make-up parade through the main streets of Kyoto. The extravagant parade is in the style of the ancient Heian Court. Everything in the parade is adorned with the hollyhock leaf crest, also called “aoi” … aoi leaves are used as ornaments not only on the people’s costumes, but even on cows and horses, so this festival came to be called Aoi Matsuri.

Japanese women dressed in traditional costumes walk in the procession of the Aoi Festival at the Imperial Palace on May 15, 2013 in Kyoto, Japan. Aoi Festival is one of the three main festivals of ancient capital of Kyoto that festival is dating back 1,400 years. About 500 participants dressed as nobles of the Heian Period (794-1185) costumes, walk with decorated ox carts and horse around eight kilometers from Kyoto Imperial Palace to Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines.

Source: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images AsiaPac

The festival re-enacts the procession of officials delivering the Emperor’s message and offerings to the two shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo. The most important position held in the parade is the messenger on horseback wearing a gold sword at his side, who is followed by a train of attendants. The highlight of the procession is the parade of women accompanying the proxy of the imperial princess serving the deities.

Further readings:

Mark W. MacWilliams’ Pilgrimages to Bosatsu-East and West; Imperial Family and Nationalistic Pride

Aoi Matsuri

Aoi Matsuri (Japan Guide)

Otomo clan – The Kamo clan is also closely related to the Otomo clan who helped establish the Ashikaga shogunate (source: Ôtomo-no-Sakanoue-no-Iratsume’s Visit to the Kamo Shrine)

Legend of the god of the Sea of Japan and the Upsidedown Bottle Rock

Heishiiwa Mushroom rock in Esashi, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese: 瓶子岩(北海道江差町)

“Upside down Bottle Rock” or “Small-bottle rock” Heishiiwa Mushroom rock in Esashi, Hokkaido, Japan (Japanese: 瓶子岩(北海道江差町)

A 500 year-old purification ritual and tradition for renewing the rope around the rock exists and is performed during the Kamome-jima Matsuri (Festival). At Esashi, on the Japan Sea coast of Hokkaido, the fishing community’s select young men carry out in July an arduous annual journey to the rock to renew the rope.

The first weekend of July, the Kamome Island Matsuri, pays tribute to the legend of Heishi Rock. A group of young men receive a blessing at a local shrine. They then proceed to swim to the rock, dressed only in the traditional fundoshi, climb on top, and renew the 30-metre shimenawa that embraces the rock. The ritual rope weighs some 500 kilograms (1,100 lb). The festival lasts two days it focuses on the changing of the rope, but also includes a rowing competition, a parade of people dressed in traditional costumes, Taiko and singing performances, and a karaoke contest.

The island once served as a natural port for Edo period ships trading with Hokkaidō or for fishermen seeking to catch Pacific Herring. The historical importance of the herring fishery is reflected in the legend of the Heishi rock.

According to the 500-year-old legend, once upon a time when herring had vanished, an old woman (a fortune teller) was given a bottle with magic liquid. She threw the bottle into the sea and the herring returned. The bottle stuck to the seabed and turned into a rock, which became a representation of the god of the Sea of Japan.

In 1615, a group of merchants raised a shrine on the island to honor the god of the Sea of Japan. See an old map of Kamome-jima here

In 1868 however, the shrine was renamed the Itsukushima Shrine. In 1814, a monument to Matsuo Bashō, the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan, was installed near the shrine. For a long time, the island had problems with fresh water, which was important for passing ships to replenish their supplies. So, in 1876, a merchant from Esashi named Murakami spent a significant amount of money to build a water well on the island. Around that time, the island was also dragged into conflicts between different Japanese clans, and in 1852, two cannons were brought to the island for protecting it and the Esashi city.

Kamome Island (鷗島) or Seagull Island as it is called today, is an island (or more precisely, peninsula) in the Sea of Japan just off the coast of the town of Esashi, Hokkaidō, Japan. Kamome Island’s elongated shape resembles a seagull, thus explaining its name, Kamome, which means seagull. During the Edo period, however, the island was then called Bentenjima (弁天島). This was a common name shared by many Japanese islands because a Hindu goddess Saraswati, called Benzaiten (弁才天) in Japanese Buddhism or Shinto. Benten was worshipped as a goddess of water, and guardian of fishermen, and was therefore enshrined on many Japanese islets.

Kamome Island is part of the coastal terrace, being mostly flat. It rises just 27.6 meters (91 ft) above sea level. The island has a width of about 200 meters (660 ft), a length of about 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) and a coastline of 2.6 kilometers (1.6 mi). It is connected with the mainland by a 500 meters (1,600 ft) long sandbank and thus is accessible by road. As the island stretches roughly from north to south and the mainland lies to the east, the island naturally serves as a natural breakwater and coastal protection from sea waves. An additional wave breaker line was built to extend this protection to the north.




“檜山道立自然公園”. Home page of the Hokkaido government (in Japanese). HOKKAIDO GOVERNMENT. 2006. Retrieved 2009-07-03.

瓶子岩 Heishi-iwa official website of Hiyama Prefecture, Hokkaido (in Japanese)

かもめ島 Esashi Town Guide (in Japanese) A Town Blessed with the Romance of History

Kamome Island Festival

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Place, time and being in Japanese architecture by Kevin Nute, p. 63 Routledge, 2004

The Five-headed dragon of Enoshima the Benzaiten goddess

Enoshima Jinja (image source: "Enoshima and Kamakura", Divinity blog

Enoshima Jinja (image source: “Enoshima and Kamakura”, Divinity blog

“Enoshima has the myth of a five-headed dragon. The dragon was responsible for the hardships in the surrounding area, and the benevolent goddess Benzaiten eventually came from above to soothe the dragon’s rage. Along with her coming, she raised a large landmass from the ocean to serve as her dwelling. The dragon, wooed by Benzaiten’s beauty and benevolence, fell in love with her, but she rejected his proposal as punishment for the adversity he had brought to the humble fishing communities. The dragon, in repentance, then became a dormant part of Enoshima island where it still remains today (an area called “Dragon Hill” on Enoshima.) The Enoshima land of Goddess has a Enoshima shrine, which is famous for a god of match-making”.
– excerpted from’s “Enoshima is a legendary power spot”

The caves at Enoshima

The second (east) cave, which is linked to the first one (dedicated to the Benzaiten goddess) is dedicated to the dragon deity that has long been believed to be the guardian deity for fishermen. In the far end is the statue of a fierce-looking dragon, colored green. From time to time, the artificial sound of thunder surprises visitors.

Legend asserts that this dragon (some say it was a large serpent as long as 60 meters residing in the cave) deity came into view when Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215), father-in-law of Yoritomo and the First Hojo Regent, visited here and prayed for the prosperity of his offspring. The dragon promised that Tokimasa’s wishes be answered, leaving behind three scales, which are the origin of the Hojo crest, or Three Scales.



Enoshima is the name of an islet, 4 kilometers in circumference, linked to the mainland shore of Fujisawa city by two 600-meter bridges. Three shrines stand on this islet, each sacred to a mythological goddess. Legend asserts that 29th Emperor Kinmei (510-571) built a small shrine inside the cave in the southern bluff, wherein enshrined were trio goddesses. They were Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime and Tagirihime, all of which appear in the Ancient Chronicle, or Kojiki. (the trio’s names are slightly different from those in the Chronicles of Japan or, Nihon Shoki). The mother shrine for the trio is in Fukuoka Prefecture and called Munakata Shrine. Hence the name of Munakata Trio Goddesses.

Japanese Buddhism, in the meantime, was first introduced in the 6th century from China by way of Korea when Emperor Kinmei was in power, and later, the cave here became the favorite spot for Buddhist priests to practice asceticism. Among them were Priest Kukai (774-835), the founder of the Shingon Sect, Priest En-nin, the third chief priest of Enryakuji near Kyoto (mecca of the Tendai Sect), Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of the Nichiren Sect, and Priest Ippen (1239-1289), the founder of Ji Sect. A harmonious fusion of Shinto and Buddhism was already in progress in the eighth century.

As the cave was often awash by waves, enshrining the goddesses in a safer site was long thought necessary. In 853, Priest En-nin, commonly known by his religious name Jikaku Daishi, erected a shrine atop the islet, which is the origin of today’s Nakatsu-no-miya, one of the trio shrines.

Enshrined at the Okutsu-no-miya shrine is Tagirihime. In the tradition of one of the many appearing and disappearing deities of Japan(reminiscent of Hittite weather and seasonal solstice deities), legend holds that the goddess usually stays in the cave down the cliff during winter coming up here on the first Serpent Day of April and going back to the cave on the first Boar Day of October on lunar calendar. The shrine is a typical irimoya (hipped-gabled roof) style of architecture, though not old. It was rebuilt in 1842.

On the ceiling of the oratory, the well-known ‘A Turtle Glaring at Eight Directions’, painted by Hogetsu Sakai (1761-1829).

On the south side bluff of Enoshima, there are two caves.
The first (west) cave is 13 meters wide at the entrance and pierce to the length of 45 meters. Roughly 100 meters ahead stands a statue of Priest Kukai and then the cave branches into two. The right-hand one, 39 meters long, is called Kongo (Diamond or Vajradhatu in Skt.) cave and the left one, 20 meters long, is Taizo (Womb or Garbhakosa in Skt.) cave, based on Shingon Sect’s doctrines of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.). Being an amalgam of Buddhism and Shinto, the cave also houses Shinto deities: The trio goddesses are still enshrined in the innermost recess of the right-hand cave and Amaterasu Sun Goddess (see Shinto) in the left. However, the cave is filled with a number of stone-statues mostly associated with Shingon sect Buddhism…
Enoshima Jinja Shrine

It was Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, who invited the Benten (also referred to as Benzaiten. Sarasvati in Sanskrit) goddess here for the first time, and named it Kinki-zan Yoganji, a Shingon sect Buddhist temple, since the Benten was apparently of Buddhist element. It was founded as a sub-temple of Nin-nah-ji in Kyoto. To the newly enshrined Benten, he prayed for victory over the Fujiwara Clan, that was then powerful and grew near to rivalling the Minamoto up in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture in the northern part of Honshu.

Originating in Veda of Hinduism, Benten* is known as the goddess of fortune and closely associated with water or snake. (For further details, see Zeniarai Benten).

* She is one of the Three Great Bentens in Japan including the one here at Enoshima. The others are Miyajima (Itsukushima) Shrine in Hiroshima and Chikubushima Shrine in Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture, all located near water and venerated basically as the guardian deity of voyage.

Three women on a shore on Enoshima, a Utagawa Sadatora yukiyo-e painting

Three women on a shore on Enoshima, a Utagawa Sadatora yukiyo-e painting

Image source: Divinity blog

More info is found at Onmark Productions’ “Benzaitgen, Benten”:

“The water goddess Benzaiten (Benten for short) is one of Japan’s most complex syncretic deities, having long ago been conflated and associated with other divinities from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Japanese pantheons. Her worship in Japan is widespread in esoteric Buddhist camps, Shintō circles, and Shugendō enclaves. Her many forms range from a two-armed beauty playing music to an eight-armed martial deity holding weapons to a monstrous three-headed snake to a divine representation of Amaterasu (the supreme Shintō sun goddess). Dragons and serpents are her messengers and avatars. Like Benzaiten, each creature is closely associated with water and the sacred wish-granting jewel. Today Benzaiten is one of Japan’s most popular deities. She continues to serve as the preeminent muse of Japanese artists, an unrivaled agricultural deity invoked for ample rain and bountiful harvests, and the sole female among Japan’s wealth-bringing Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Originally a Hindu river goddess named Sarasvatī, she was introduced to Japan (via China) in the mid-7th century CE as a multi-armed defender of Buddhism and the state. But in later times, she was “reconnected” with water and appropriated by Japan’s indigenous island cults and kami cults to become, essentially, a native “Shintōized” deity of wealth and good fortune. Until only recently, scholars of Japanese religions have generally ignored this phenomenon and instead focused on the “Buddhazation” of Japan’s myriad kami. In many ways, Benzaiten also exemplifies a unique form of “Japanese Hinduism,” making it more fruitful to explore her within a Deva-Buddha-Kami (Hindu-Buddhist-Shintō) matrix rather than within a binary Buddha-Kami (Honji Suijaku 本地垂迹) model. See Honji Suijaku popup note. This illustrated guide traces the evolution of Benzaiten iconography in Japanese artwork and explores her role as a beacon of Japan’s combinatory Deva-Buddha-Kami religious matrix. To a lesser degree, this article also examines the ritualistic context of her worship – how her art was employed in religious rites, state functions, Shintō ceremonies, and folk practices. A special side page presents presents mini case studies of Benzaiten’s main sanctuaries in both old and modern Japan. The Benzaiten page is presented in approximate chronological order and can be read as a whole or sectionally. To improve readability, information is sometimes repeated. It aims to augment the efforts of students, teachers, art historians, and scholars of Benzaiten lore and art by exploring iconographic dictionaries, sculptures, mandalas, paintings, talismans, and other religious art, both old and new. It draws from pre-modern and modern texts by monks, scholars, and art historians in Japan, Asian, Europe, and America. This handbook does not cover Benzaiten’s earlier evolution in India or China in great detail. For more on that topic, click here (popup note).

ORIGIN & EVOLUTION. The Sanskrit term Sarasvatī refers to both a goddess and an ancient sacred river in India’s Vedic mythology. As the personification of this sacred river and of water in general, Sarasvatī came to represent everything that flows (e.g., music, poetry, writing, learning, eloquence, wisdom, performing arts). In the Rig Veda (a monumental Hindu text composed centuries before Buddhism’s emergence in India in the 5th century BCE), she is described as the best of goddesses, the “inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thought.” In India, she was invoked in Vedic rites as the deity of music and poetry well before her introduction to China around the 4th century CE.

Jump to 8-armed Happi Benzaiten Section Jump to Biwa-Playing Benzaiten Section
L = 8-armed Form. Details Here►
R = Mandala Form. Details Here►

She eventually entered Japan sometime in the 7th-8th century, where she was adopted into Japan’s Buddhist pantheon as an eight-armed weapon-wielding defender of the nation owing to her martial description in the Sutra of Golden Light. The oldest extant Japanese statue of Benzaiten is an eight-armed clay version dated to 754 CE (photos below). However, the formal introduction of Mikkyō 密教 (Esoteric Buddhism) to Japan in the early 9th century stressed instead her role as a goddess of music and portrayed her in the esoteric Taizōkai Mandala as a two-armed beauty playing a lute.

Prior to the 12th century, Benzaiten’s Hindu origins as a water goddess were largely ignored in Japan. But sometime during the 11th-12th centuries, the goddess was conflated with Ugajin (the snake-bodied, human-headed Japanese kami of water, agriculture, and good fortune). Once this occurred — once Benzaiten was “reconnected” with water — the level of her popularity changed from a trickle into a flood. By the 12th-13th centuries, she became the object of independent worship and esoteric Buddhist rites (see popup note). Over time her warrior image (favored by samurai praying for battlefield success) was eclipsed by her heavenly mandala representation — even today, the two-armed biwa-playing form is the most widespread iconic depiction of Benzaiten and her standard form as one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. Once reconnected with water, she rose to great popularity as the patroness of “all things that flow” — music, art, literature, poetry, discourse, performing arts — and was also called upon to end droughts or deluges and thereby ensure bountiful harvests. Her sanctuaries are nearly always in the neighborhood of water — the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond — while her messengers and avatars are serpents and dragons. In fact, the creatures who rule the waters are all intimately associated with Benzaiten in Japan. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) she was sculpted in the nude, but such statues are rare and dressed in robes when used in ceremonies. In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the spelling of her name was changed, with the character zai 才 (meaning talent) replaced with its homonym zai 財 (meaning wealth) and she subsequently became one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. With the addition of wealth and fortune to Benzaiten’s earlier roles, her popularity skyrocketed and she eventually supplanted Kichijōten (Skt. = Lakṣmī), the traditional Buddhist goddess of wealth and beauty. The two, even today, are confused and conflated.”

Sweet Potato Jizo of Kawagoe City

Sweet potatoes have been grown since the Edo period in Kawagoe.

Sweet potatoes have been grown since the Edo period in Kawagoe.

Sweet potatoes in Japan originate from Kawagoe potatoes that have grown since the Edo period. The sweet potatoes which are produced in the Kawagoe Area are called Kawagoe-imo. They are grown in the southern part of Kawagoe, at a farming area in Musashinodaichi. Sweet potatoes have been produced there for more than 240 years.

Between 1789-1801, Kawagoe sweet potatoes were very popular among the people in Edo (an old name for Tokyo). Kawagoe sweet potatoes are grown exclusively for making baked sweet potatoes. As Kawagoe’s sweet potatoes are of good quality, they became popular as the home of sweet potatoes.. See all about Kawagoe Sweet potatoes.

In  Kawagoe, visitors have the opportunity to savor interesting products (imogashi) made of sweet potatoes, a local specialty of Kawagoe. Highly recommended is sweet potato soft ice cream. Visitors flock to sample the specialty of Kawagoe at the Kashiya-yokocho, a confectionary lane. It is a five-minute walk from the Fudanotsuji bus stop. Shops selling Japanese candies, sweet potato cakes, rice crackers, and other snacks stand in a row on both sides of the stone-lined lane. In Kawagoe, visitors have the opportunity to savor interesting products (imogashi) made of sweet potatoes, a local specialty of Kawagoe. Highly recommended is sweet potato soft ice cream. For adults, there is also sweet potato beer. This beer is a product that you can get only in Kawagoe.

Jizo with sweet potato

Jizo with sweet potato, Myouzenji, Kawagoe

Even the Jizo deity is depicted holding a sweet potato. Since sweet potato is the basis of the town’s economy and good fortune, it is only to be expected that sweet potatoes are given as offerings to the Jizo bosatsu deity at Myouzenji, where visitors come to search and pray for good good fortune (the main deity venerated here is Bishamonten, deity of Power).

Jizo Bosatsu is venerated at this shrine

Jizo Bosatsu is venerated at this shrine

Sweet Potato Museum

18-5 Komuro Kawagoe City Saitama Prefecture
TEL 049-243-8243
Hours: 10:00 – 17:00 (Admission until 17:00)
Admission: Free
Holidays: Every Tuesday(in case of public holiday, the next day)

Koedo-Kawagoe city is today really just a small town -Koedo- means “Little Old Tokyo”

Located in the center of Saitama, Kawagoe City flourished as a castle town in the 17th century during the Edo Period.

Before the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, many feudal lords and rulers selected the historical town of Kawagoe as a place to build shrines and other related buildings because of its strategically important and convenient location.

Kawagoe thrived as a castle town important for the protection of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo. The Shingashi River and the Kawagoe Kaido (road) served as distribution arteries in the Edo period, and the coming and going of people and goods through these arteries gave rise to the various cultures in Kawagoe.

The city has been designated an important preservation district for groups of historic buildings where rows of magnificent merchants’ houses in the traditional storehouse-style stand side-by-side. It is called “Ko-edo,” or “Little Edo,” because of its city architecture. The feudal lord of Kawagoe Castle ordered a bell tolling the time be built in the 17th century. The bell has been rebuilt several times, and the present 4th-generation bell is a symbol of Kawagoe, together with the streets lined with these traditional houses.

The area around Saiwai-cho, Moto-machi, and Naka-machi with the Ichibangai or the first street at the center, is one of the oldest towns in the Kanto region, where houses, including a draper’s mansion, the Osawa family, and other palatial houses remain.

Perhaps most characteristic of Kawagoe city are its Kura-Storehouses and Old Streets

Just a short walk from Kawagoe Station, the streets start their metamorphosis into a town that in its entirety … looks like a museum.

How the tradition of building fireproof kurazukuri – firehouses began

A distinctly Warehouse district character

Following an event known as the Kawagoe Great Fire in 1893, wealthy traders supplying the old Edo capital with boats down the Shinagashi river, began to reconstruct their warehouse in the Kurazukuri style. While very costly to build, this method of construction, which – while still looking distinctively Japanese – is made from fire-resistant materials, rather than the clay and wood traditionally used. The buildings are crowned with steep tile roofs featuring immense, fire-deflecting Onigawara (Ogre tiles). Although virtually all of Japan has lost such buildings in the pre world war II era, unusually a preservation movement arose in the town in the mid 1960’ties, after a great deal of the traditional warehouses had been demolished, to preserve what was left of the historic district, and develop it as an attraction.

Today the warehouse district covers a few 100 square meters, about 1,5 kilometers north Kawagoe station. While narrow sidewalks along a fairly trafficked road. takes away some of the charm, it is still a worthwhile excursion from Tokyo, for those interested in catching a fleeting glance of the elusive “old Japan”. A famous landmark is the Toki no Kane, or Tower of Time, a bell tower located near the Kashiya Yokucho.

  • Hattori Museum of Forklore (服部民族資料館), 6-8 Saiwai-cho, ☎ +81 49-222-0337. 10:30-16:00. While there is, in fact, nothing relating to folklore in the folklore museum, the old Hattori family for which is warehouse is named, morphed into a medical company. So you’ll find a small display of old medicines, advertisements… and sandals. Free.
  • Kawagoe Festival Museum (川越まつり会館), 2-1-10 Moto-machi, ☎ +81 (0)49-225-2727. 9:30-18:300. If you don’t happen to be in Kawagoe during the yearly festival held in October, you can get a feel for it in this museum, which exhibits the great floats used in the procession and screens a 5 minute movie about the festival. Naturally the museum also details the history of the festival in Japanese. ¥300.
  • Museum of Kurazukuri (川越市蔵造り資料館), 7-9 Saiwai-cho, ☎ +81 49-222-539. 09:00-17:00. Built after the great fire, in 1893, this old wholesale Tobacco warehouse of the Koyama family, gives you a chance to look inside the warehouses, and learn about the history of Kurazukuri construction. ¥100.
  • Osawa Residence (大沢家住宅), 1-15-2 Moto-machi, ☎ +81 49-222-7640. 9:30-17:30. Built it in 1792, this warehouse from where the Osawa family traded Miso and Soy, survived the inferno of the great fire, and today stands as the oldest storehouse in Kawagoe. The first floor contains a store while the second floor houses a small exhibition. ¥200.
    Other attractions
  • City Museum (川越市立博物館), 1-20-1 Kosemba-machi, ☎ +81 (0)49-222-5399. 9:00-17:00. Useful after visiting the warehouse district as it contains information on how the warehouses was build. Otherwise your average local museum detailing local history with artifacts and models. Next door is a small art museum with a collection of local art. ¥200.

Kawagoe’s History

The history of what became of the Kawagoe landlord owners and clans is somewhat bloody.

Kawagoe is in the middle of Saitama Prefecture and retains a great deal of old Tokyo history. It is surrounded by rivers, which made it an ideal location for a settlement. People have been living here since ancient times. As with any peaceful settlement, power-hungry and greedy warlords rose up to conquer and take control of the land. The Kawagoe clan, who were especially powerful warlords, ruled this area till around the 12th century.

When the Minamoto clan was ruling the shogunate (the military government of old Japan) in Kamakura, its first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), had his eye on Kawagoe, or more appropriately, the owner of its land . The owner was Kawagoe Shigeyori. His daughter was married to Yoritomo’s brother, Yoshitsune. However, Yoritomo ousted the highly popular Yoshitsune and ‘inherited’ old Shigeyori’s land in 1185, before having the poor fellow executed.

In 1336 the shogunate was taken by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), who became the first shogun of Muromachi government. He established the Kamakura office to rule the Kanto region. The Kamakura-kubo, head of the office, was succeeded by the Ashikaga clan; the Uesugi clan was to support the head. However, the Kamakura-kubo opposed both the Shogunate and the Uesugi clan. In 1457, the Uesugi clan claimed that they were now the dominant power in the Kanto region. They ordered Ota Dokan (chief retainer of the Uesugi clan, 1432-1486) to make three castles. It was about this time that the warlords, now known as “feudal lords,” wanted to expand their territories. Hojo (from Odawara) battled against Uesugi in this area. The Uesugi clan lost and the Hojo clan now owned Kawagoe.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a warrior who unified Japan, conquered the Kanto region in 1590 and he also conquered the Kawagoe castle. He ordered Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who was a retainer of Hideyoshi and later became the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, to rule the Kanto region. Ieyasu noticed that Kawagoe was in a strategically advantageous position and decided to place a retainer there. Soon thereafter, Kawagoe became a military base for transporting goods to Edo. The Tokugawa Shogunate took all authority away from the feudal lords and stationed family and close relations to rule over the land .

When Matsudaira Nobutsuna (1596-1662) was a lord of Kawagoe, he greatly enhanced the town. He made transport routes, used the river for shipping, established many farms and ‘ inaugurated’ the Kawagoe Festival, which he copied from the Kanda Festival and Sanno Festival held in Edo. Kawagoe flourished as a castle town and was thought of as an important place to protect the north of Edo. It was called “Ko Edo,” meaning “Little Edo (now Tokyo).”

About 250 years later, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry from the U.S. navy came to end the Sakoku ( a policy that permitted no foreign trade routes or travel into and out of Japan ). At that time, the people of Kawagoe were ordered to provide coastal security.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kawagoe became the local center of trade. The town bustled with commerce and the prefecture’s first national bank, Dai Hachijugo Bank, was opened. In March 1893, a massive fire burnt down one third of the buildings in Kawagoe. After the fire, local people rebuilt fireproof storehouses, of which some 30 survive and still stand today in their modified original form. The town now has a population of around 340 ,000.

The Kawagoe Castle, in ruins today, is one of three castles made by Ota Dokan and his father, Michizane. These days only the Honmaru Goten (part of Kawagoe Castle) remains. There is a museum for the public.

Kawagoe is also an important religious center in Japan.

Kita-in Temple

Kita-in Temple

In 830, the monk Ennin founded Muryoju Temple for the worship of Amitabha Buddha (Buddha of Unending Life), divided in three parts:

Kitain (喜多院, North Temple), Nakain (Middle Temple), and Minamiin (South Temple, now destroyed).

Kita-in Temple (Kawagoe Daishi)

This temple was built in approximately 830AD by a monk named Ennin. He called it Muryoju-ji Temple. In 1205, it burnt down due to a fight ; it was thereafter rebuilt by a monk called Sonkai . In 1301, Emperor Gofushimi made it the head temple of 580 temples in the Kanto region. This temple had three branch temples : namely, Kita-in (North Temple), Naka-in (Middle Temple) and Minami-in (South Temple). In 1599, Tenkai (1536-1643), who was an advisor of Tokugawa Ieyasu, became the top monk of Kita-in. Aside from receiving pecuniary help, the temple changed from being the gloomy “North Temple (北院)” to “The temple of great happiness (翫刻)@).” The Tokugawa Shogunate and the temple have a long history of working together to keep the masses happy..Kita-in Temple boasts Kyakuden, a reception hall, and a study hall Sho-in, both of which are important cultural properties.

Kitain is today the head of Tendai Sect (one of the two most important buddhist sects) in the Kanto area. It is worth to pay the 400 yens entrance fee to visit the grounds of the temple. A magnificent garden can also be seen – but unfortunately it is not possible to wander in it; this garden was designed by Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), one of the three masters of the tea ceremony at the beginning of Edo era.You can also see the Gohyakurakan which is over 500 stone statues representing the disciples of Buddha, Shaka Nyorai, Amida Nyorai here.

Kitain is also famous as the the birthplace of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光, 1604 – 1651, third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty); the room were it is though he was born is located next to the garden, and features a ceiling with floral ornaments. The next room was probably that of his nursemaid, Kosuga no Tsubone, who bacame later a powerful woman living in the Edo Casatle. The importance of Kitain is mostly due to its head priest in the 16th and 17th century, Tenkai (天海, 1536-1643), who was a consultant to the three first Tokugawa shogun.

On the ground of the temple – where for an unknown reason bells should never be rung – a tiny spot can be found where 540 statues of disciples of Buddha can be seen. Those gohyaku-rakan (marker 6) statues are said to represent every single human emotion. They were carved between 1782 and 1825. It is really amazing to walk around, and watch closely those faces… One of the legend says that if you walk in that place at night and touch the statues, one of them will be warmer; you should mark it by putting a coin next to it, and come the next day to see which statue represents your actual feelings (practically difficult to do, as the place is closed at night…).

The first 3 days of the year, the temple is packed with Japanese who not only come to pray for the new year, but also to buy some daruma, a kind of popular doll – the tradition is to paint one pupil of the doll and make a wish, and paint the other one after the wish has been granted.

Go Hyaku Rakan – 500 Statues
There are actually 538 statues here. They are carvings of the Buddha’s disciples, created during a period of about 50 years between 1782 and 1825. Each and every one of them has an individual personality. According to legend, if you touch each Buddha in the calm middle of the night, you’ll find one that is warm. Mark it and come back the next morning. Provided no one has moved your mark, the Buddha you chose will be the one that most resembles deceased your father or mother.

Every morning in the center of the town, when the mist shimmers from the rising sun, a large bell rings. The original bell was made during the 17th century and the current version was constructed after the massive fire in 1893. The bell has been striking the time to the people four times a day for 350 years. Kawagoe is definitely a town that strives to keep its cultural history.

Reitaisai rituals, Hikawa Shrine

Reitaisai rituals, Hikawa Shrine

Kawagoe Festival (Kawagoe Hikawa Festival Float Event) takes root in the “Reitaisai” festival held at Hikawa Shrine on October 14, and is also consisted of the “Jinkosai” festival and “Float Event (festival)” that are held immediately afterward.

Reitaisai-Jinkosai-Float Event
The “Jinkosai” festival started life in 1648, when it was promoted by the reigning Kawagoe clan lord Nobutsuna Matsudaira Izunokami, who offered religious artifacts such as a portable shrine, a lion mask and taiko drums to the Hikawa Shrine. From 1651 onward, extravagant processions passed through the neighborhoods of shrine parishes, and these were soon joined by members of the commercial elite. It is in these rituals and festivals that the Kawagoe Festival takes root.

Go to the Kawagoe Festival Museum (\300) to check out the contenders for the battle. Twenty-nine parade floats, or rolling musical mini castles with different histories and songs, roam the streets for a musical battle. The float with the song that makes the most noise and causes its contender’s castle loose wins and is greatly applauded by the crowd. There are life-size (or alittle bigger) dolls riding atop these floats. The interesting mechanism of the floats is such that the dolls are drawn inside the floats, allowing them to pass through ‘real castle gates.’ This happens once a year, on the third weekend every October. See also this beautiful photo of a fox folklore character at the Festival.

In the original “Jinkosai” festival, the portable shrine of Hikawa Shrine was carried through the neighborhoods of shrine parishioners, and was accompanied by adornments of floats including costume parades provided by 10 neighborhoods of shrine parishes

From Kawagoe-hikawa-sairei-emaki (1826)

From Kawagoe-hikawa-sairei-emaki (1826)

Shingashigawa River Boat Transport

Boat transport on the Shingashigawa River allowed Kawagoe not only to receive the latest fineries and customs that came in from Edo, but also gradually developed the festival.

Later on, with the advent of festival floats taking the central role in the Edo Festivals, all the festival floats of the 10 neighborhoods were in 1844 unified in a single-column style and dolls were placed on the balustrades, as they are depicted in Hikawa-sairei-egaku (a votive picture scroll).

Hikawa-sairei-egaku (1844)
The Kawagoe Festival has been passed down in an unbroken line, and in February 2005, as an invaluable town festival that preserves the style and elegance of the Edo Tenka Festival, the ‘Kawagoe Hikawa Festival Float Event’ was designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property .

Under the divine protection of the Grand Hikawa Shrine, the people of Kawagoe that had brought this castle town to prosperity have proudly developed the Kawagoe Festival by using this economic strength both to maintain a history of over 360 years, as well as add its own unique Kawagoe features.

The Kawagoe-matsuri Festival celebrated in the fall is one of three best festivals in the Kanto region. You will see exquisitely decorated seven-meter tall floats parading the city.

Kawagoe Festival

The Kawagoe Festival happens annually on the 3rd Saturday and Sunday of October in Kawagoe City. The highlight of the city’s festival is called “hikkawase,” which is sort of a traditional battle of the bands… After dark, the floats are lit up by lanterns and begin to parade around the streets with their bands perched up on top. When two floats meet or catch up to one another, the bands on the floats will play music competitively, each trying to outperform the other.

Amongst the floats, lanterns, music, people, and food, it is easy to see why this festival has grown over its 350 year history to be one of the biggest on offer in the Tokyo area, in fact it was designated a “National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property” of Japan.

Hikawa Shrine (shikinaisha)

Hikawa Shrine (shikinaisha)

Kawagoe’s Village Shrine with a Beautiful Torii Gate

The tall torii gate is 15 meters high and is found on the approach. A Shinto shrine grounds is filled with numerous trees over 500 years old and the sacred keyaki tree rustles in the wind.
The history of Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine is very old going back to 6th century when it was separated from Omiya Hikawa Shrine. After that, Ota Dokan who constructed Kawagoe Castle became familiar as ‘Hikawa-sama (Mr. Hikawa)’.
The sacred shrine pavillion with elaborate Edo carvings was constructed by Matsudaira Naritsune, a castle lord, as a donation. In the center of the bright vermillon red torii gate is a framed symbol with writings from Katsu Kaishu.
In 1956, the Main Shrine and other historical buildings that pass on Edo culture were registered as a designated cultural property of Saitama Prefecture.
Known for enshrining the god of married couples, it is believed to be the ‘God of Marriage’ where many couples are seen holding weddings every year. On a lucky day, you may be able to see a bride wearing a shiromuku, a pure white kimono.
Throughout the year there are many types of events. In February, there are prayers for ‘traffic safety / achievements in studies’ and ‘purification of student’s leather backpack’. In August, Takigi Noh (Noh dance performed under the light of a bonfire). And in mid October, the famous Kawagoe Festival.
Within the shrine grounds full of greenery, not only will you see visitors coming to pray but also local people who come to relax and enjoy the four seasons.

[Related shrine in Omiya Saitama: Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社) in Saitama is one of the oldest shrine in Japan. It was established in 473 B.C.E. The Saitama’s former city, “Omiya,” was named after this shrine. Hikawa Shrine is one of the major groups of Shrine in Kanto, especially around Arakawa River. Also, it is the major spot in Omiya area. As the primary shrine of Musashi, many people worship this shrine for praying wishes for their happy everyday life..

This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the veneration of the kami or spirits of Susanoo no mikoto, Ōnamuchi-no-mikoto and Inadahime no mikoto.

As many as 290 daughter shrines exist across Japan, all named “Hikawa”. Most are small, but all are considered dwelling places of Susano.

According to the shrine’s tradition, the shrine was established during the reign of Emperor Kōshō in 473 BC. A legend recounts that Yamato Takeru, who injured his leg during his crusade to the East, visited the shrine in accordance with the directions of an old man who appeared in a dream. After worshiping, he was able to stand on his own. It is known that the old name of the region, Ashidate (足立?), literally meaning “leg stand”, was named after this incidence. The pond within the grounds of the shrine is a remnant of Minuma and considered to have roots in enshrining the water god of Minuma.

Hikawa was designated as the chief Shinto shrine (ichinomiya) for the former Musashi province, home of the greatest samurai warring traditions and martial arts.). This main shrine has 59 branch shrines in Tokyo and 162 branch shrines in Saitama Prefecture.]

In Japanese myth, Yamatotakeru no Mikoto visited this shrine and pray his victory of his eastern war. In the time of Emperor Seimu (early 2nd century), Edamohi no Mikoto brought people of Izumo and found the land of Musashi and Hikawa Shrine.

In the time of Emperor Shomu (724 to 749), it was set as the primary shrine of Musashi. In 766, Hikawa Shrine was the only shrine allowed to have a sacred well.

Emperor Daigo set Hikawa Shrine as the “Myojin Taisya,” the highest rank of Japanese Shrine.

Also, many shoguns played great respects to this shrine. Minamoto no Yoritomo contributed lands to Hikawa Shrine. Ashikaga and Hojo also contributed. Tokugawa Shogun also contributed another 300 koku of Land.

Sando, the main street to the shrine

Hikawa Shrine has a 2km long of Sando, the main streeet to the shrine. It runs the south of the shrine. There are three huge Torii Gates and a beautiful Keyaki Tree Avenue.




From Tokyo :
[Rail] 24 min from Tokyo to Ikebukuro Station by JR Yamanote Line, and 33 min from Ikebukuro to Kawagoe Station by Tobu-Tojo Line (regular express).

Best links:

Festival and event schedule

Architecture through the ages walk 

The Kawagoe Festival

Museums of Koedo- kawagoe

Musashi Ichinomiya no Hikawa

The search for good fortune at Kawagoe

Legend of Mt Yahiko and the Yahiko shrine

Yahiko Shrine in Niigata Prefecture source: Wikimedia Commons

Yahiko Shrine in Niigata Prefecture source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the 8th c. old shrine tradition, in ancient times, Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto – a great-grandson of Amaterasu Omikami – sailed across the Sea of Japan and landed at the Nozumi shore (modern-day Nagaoka City) on the western side of Mt. Yahiko.

(An auxiliary shrine of Yahiko Shrine called Sakurai Shrine, marks the spot where, after landing at Yonemizunoura (modern-day Nozumihama) during his trip to conquer the Hokuriku region, Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto allegedly stayed here for a short while to clean up, before heading for Yahiko. In front of the small main shrine is a worship hall with a unique design in that its roof is supported by only four pillars. “Sakurai” means a spring. In the precincts of the shrine, we can still find the spring bubbling up which, together with three big, ancient keyaki trees, bears evidence to the history of the shrine. The name “Sakurai,” which appears in the Wamyo-sho dictionary entry for Kanbara-Go in Echigo Province, is believed to refer to this place.)

The deity, it is said, taught the local people to produce salt by boiling sea water and to catch fish by using nets and hooks. He then settled in Yahiko and established the industrial foundation of the region by providing know-how on agricultural and other industries.

An unusual festival called the boiling water “Yukake matsuri” is still held today at the shrine.The Yahiko “Yukake” Festival begins by receiving hot-spring water from Yu Shrine where a sacred spring has been running for thousands of years. A praying ritual is performed with a tub containing the water borne on the shoulders of the participants. Once the ritual is over, the tub containing the sacred hot water is mounted on a Yubiki-guruma cart, which is then wheeled through the hot-spring resort area as Kiyari chants are performed. As the sacred hot water is splashed over the spectators using bamboo branches with green leaves, those spectators pray for sound health, good luck, business success, and success in their exams.

Hot water deity in procession during the yukake festival.

Hot water deity in procession during the yukake festival.

The rituals of bringing out the deities of hot water and sprinkling hot water on festive participants for auspiciousness and good health are similar to yudate practices elsewhere at the Shohachiman shrine’s honmaturi, where the Water King and Earth King deities or demons are wheeled out to sprinkle water on the participants, or during the Fuyu Winter Festival of Sakanbe, Tenryu village, where “demons” asperse the community with hot water from a cauldron which has been refilled, boiled and purified, and after the mikoshi has been carried by young men who have performed ablution rituals in the Tenryu River to the Suwa Shrine (source: Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan)

Yukake matsuri

Yukake matsuri

After the god left, seven generations of his offspring continued to contribute to forming the basis of the Echigo culture.

O-yahiko-sama has been worshipped since the Manyo era

O-yahiko-sama has been worshipped since the Manyo era

This is why the supreme shrine of Echigo Province, dedicated to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto, Yahiko Shrine, fondly referred to as “Oyahiko-sama,” has widely been adored and worshipped by the populace since the ancient Manyo era.

The Yahiko Chrysanthemum Festival is held from November 1 through 24 every year in the precincts of Yahiko Shrine, the supreme shrine of Echigo Province. The event is Japan’s largest chrysanthemum exhibition. Especially spectacular is a flowerbed in which 30,000 chrysanthemums create a large-scale landscape, the theme of which changes every year. It is the main feature of the festival that attracts many chrysanthemum aficionados. Yahiko in the autumn is also a spectacular fall-color viewing spot.

Daidai Kagura, a national important intangible folk cultural property, is a traditional dance and music performance that has been passed down for centuries by Yahiko Shrine. The shrine still carefully guards and maintains its traditional dance and music rites. Designated as a national important intangible folk cultural property on May 22, 1978, Daidai Kagura consists of seven Chigo dances by children and six other dances by adults. It is one of the representative dance and music rites preserved since ancient times in Niigata Prefecture. Being the largest shrine in the Echigo region and notable for preserving a distinguished and quaint style, Yahiko Shrine has long been worshipped ardently by the imperial court, Shogunate government, local ruling families and warlords, as well as by large numbers of the local populace.

This is why Yahiko Village is known as the birthplace of the Echigo culture. The village has prospered for many centuries as the temple town of Yahiko Shrine and a posting station on the Hokkoku-kaido (now known as the Hokuriku-do). Yahiko Shrine had cedar trees planted on both sides of the road bordering the land owned by the shrine, making for a 350-meter stretch of trees running north-south. The approach to Yahiko Shrine is still lined by cedar trees which are a Prefecture-Designated Natural Treasure and which since their planting, the cedar trees have been tended with great care.

Yahiko Village is situated on the Sea of Japan side of the central part of Niigata Prefecture. Its western side borders Niigata City and Nagaoka City with sacred Mt. Yahiko (634 meters) in between. There is a fertile grain-growing region abutting Niigata City on the northern side.

Yahiro village and its environs

Yahiko village and its environs

The Yahiko shrine stands in dense “divine” forest or sacred grove of tall cedar and keyaki trees on the south side and with its back against Mt. Yahiko, a volcano, which is the shintaizan or mountain that is the object of worship. This mountain and the nearby Mt. Kakuda, stand alone on the Japan Sea coast not far from Niigata City.

A verse about this shrine appears in Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poems. After passing through the first red torii gate, which stands out against the surrounding foliage, visitors will soon cross the Mitarai-gawa River that runs from Mt. Yahiko. A little further up the river, there is a “divine bridge” called Tamano Hashi. On the right side of the stone-paved approach is the Shinen garden, where many Satozakura cherry trees stand among huge trees and produce pretty flowers in the spring, offering a feast for the eyes of worshippers. The Shinen garden is accompanied by the Rokuen garden, in which about a dozen deer are kept. The deer kept in this garden were called “Kami-jika” or godly deer (messengers of the gods) in ancient times, and Manyoshu also contains a verse about these deer.

Yahiko developed along with Yahiko Shrine which is thought to have been established in the 8th century or earlier. The present shrine was rebuilt in 1961 after a fire destroyed the shrine building. The earlier shrine buildings were destroyed by a 1912 fire which started in the village. Though the exact year of construction is not known, as the shrine is referenced in Manyoshu, an old poetic anthology dating back to 750 AD, it certainly predates that time. The shrine is devoted to Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto. Ordered by Emperor Jinmu (the legendary first emperor), Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto taught the people of Echigo region of Niigata prefecture various agricultural methods of fishing, salt making, rice farming, and sericulture amongst others, and contributed greatly to the development of the region.  In its museum, shrine treasures such as Shidano-Ootachi, a prominent long Japanese Katana and designated as an Important National Property, and armors that are said to have once belonged to Yoshiie Minamto and Yoshitsune Minamoto, both being legendary warriors from the 12th c.

About Ame no kagoyama no mikoto

Ame no kagoyama no mikoto, a.k.a. Takakuraji no mikoto, Kumano no Takakuraji- differing traditions exist according to Kumano Taisha where he is also enshrined in an associate Kamikura Jinja shrine, and according to the Sendai kuji honji account:

“According to Sendai kuji hongi, Amenokagoyama was born in heaven as the child of Nigihayahi and Amenomichihime, and was the elder brother of Umashimaji no mikoto, who in turn was the ancestral kami (sojin) of the earth-born clan Mononobe no Muraji. He descended from heaven together with his father, and adopted the names Tekurihiko and Takakuraji no mikoto. He took for wife his younger sister by a different mother, Hoyahime no mikoto, and thus became the ancestral kami of the clan Owari no Muraji. Amenokagoyama is enshrined at Kamikura Jinja, an associate shrine (sessha) of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

In contrast, Kojiki and Nihongi provide no genealogical information for this kami, and they recognize no relationship between him and the Plain of High Heaven. The name given in those two works is likewise limited to “Takakuraji(which literally means owner of the high storehouse)” omitting any title, and Kojiki adds a note to the effect that it was a “person’s name,” indicating that he was not recognized with the status of kami.” -Mori Mizue, the Encyclopedia of Shinto”.

The lack of genealogical divine connection notwithstanding, the Kumano tradition gives Ame no kagoyama, aka, Takakuraji a huge role in Yamato nation-building and in saving the more august deity Emperor Jinmu(a.k.a. Kamuyamatoiwarebiko), see account below:

“A kami which presented the sword Futsu no mitama to the emperor Kamuyamatoiwarebiko (Jinmu Tennō). By this act he helped save Jinmu and his army after they had fallen unconscious from the poison emitted by “rough kami” at Kumano. Takakuraji had the following dream: Amaterasu and Takagi no kami (Takamimusuhi) requested Takemikazuchi to assist the Heavenly Grandchild in subduing the Central Land of Reed Plains, but Takemikazuchi replied that rather than going himself, he would open a hole in the storehouse of Takakuraji, drop in the sword Futsu no mitama, and have that sword presented to the emperor by Takakuraji. When Takakuraji awoke, he found the sword just as the dream had foretold, and bore it to the fallen Emperor Jinmu. The emperor and his forces opened their eyes, and were enabled to subdue the rough deities..



Cultural heritage of Yahiko village

Yahiko Travel youtube clip

shintaizan (Encyclopedia of Shinto)

Buddhism: Buddhism in China, East Asian and Japan, vol. 8, p. 140 on sacred spaces, shintaizan and earliest mention of the concept in Japanese texts Shoku-Nihongi, book10


Study shows Croatians from Hvar have a minor Central Asian/East Asian genetic component

Modern wooden statue of Perun, the god of thunder and lightning, Ruthenia

Modern wooden statue of Perun, the god of thunder and lightning(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The evidence of mtDNA haplogroup F in a European population and its ethnohistoric implications, European Journal of Human Genetics September 2001, Volume 9, Number 9, Pages 717-723, by  Helle-Viivi Tolk1, Lovorka Barac2, Marijana Pericic2, Irena Martinovic Klaric2, Branka Janicijevic2, Harry Campbell3, Igor Rudan3,4, Toomas Kivisild1, Richard Villems1 and Pavao Rudan2

Mitochondrial DNA polymorphism was analysed in a sample of 108 Croatians from the Adriatic Island isolate of Hvar. Besides typically European varieties of human maternal lineages, haplogroup F was found in a considerable frequency (8.3%). This haplogroup is most frequent in southeast Asia but has not been reported before in Europe. The genealogical analysis of haplogroup F cases from Hvar suggested founder effect. Subsequent field work was undertaken to sample and analyse 336 persons from three neighbouring islands (Brac, Korcula and Krk) and 379 more persons from all Croatian mainland counties and to determine if haplogroup F is present in the general population. Only one more case was found in one of the mainland cities, with no known ancestors from Hvar Island. The first published phylogenetic analysis of haplogroup F worldwide is presented, applying the median network method, suggesting several scenarios how this maternal lineage may have been added to the Croatian mtDNA pool. European Journal of Human Genetics (2001) 9, 717-723.

…The topology of the tree as well as the distribution of the frequencies of the mtDNA haplogroups15 do not differ substantially from that expected for a European Mediterranean population7,32 ± except for the presence of haplogroup F at a frequency about 8%. As mentioned above, haplogroup F must be very rare in European populations because it was not reported in largest recent collections (nR5000) of mtDNA varieties.19 ± 23 There- fore, its finding in Hvar was intriguing. Figure 2 shows the location of Hvar Island and its villages, along with reconstructed genealogies of nine haplogroup F cases. More- over, it is worth noting that a subject indicated by two asterisks developed an additional mutation at np 16207 over a span of the four generations from the common ancestor.
The two competing hypotheses were that the haplogroup F was introduced to the island from an unidentified source population by sea or from the nearby mainland. The nine subjects with haplogroup F came from three different villages (Vrbanj, Svirce and Bogomolje). The reconstruction of genealogies to five generations linked these persons to three female ancestors (Figure 2). It failed to link them to a single ancestor since Parish registry records revealed that the female (indicated by an asterisk) immigrated to the island from the nearby mainland city of Podgora. On interview, this individual stated that her ancestors had arrived from within the Balkans mainland a few centuries ago. This implies that haplogroup F might be present in the Croatian general population. Subsequent field work was undertaken and 715 unrelated mtDNA genomes from all Croatian counties were analysed. One subject (0.26%) from the northern part of Croatia (Zagreb county), was found to have the haplogroup F and was unaware of any ancestors from Hvar Island. Out of the 336 individuals from three other Eastern Adriatic islands (Krk, Brac and Korcula) no one had haplogroup F.
Haplogroup F derives from an internal node R of the human mtDNA phylogenetic tree10 and is a sister group to an eastern Eurasian haplogroup B, as well as to haplogroups H, J, K, T and U; the latter five comprising about 95% of the European mtDNA diversity.5 ± 7 In order to obtain further insight into the origin of the `Croatian F’ lineages, we constructed a phylogenetic network from HVS-I haplotypes belonging to mtDNA haplogroup F which were published in the literature. Two main boughs of the subset of the limb F1, F1a and F1b, are depicted in Figure 3.
Haplogroup F is characteristic of the Chinese population (10.8%) and reaches the highest frequency in the Vietnamese population (32%).13,14,16,26 It is relatively frequent also among Mongolians (8.7%), Koreans (5.1%) and Japanese (5.1%),13,17 but very rare in northeastern Asians.33,34 The sample from three Turkic-speaking Central Asian populations3 comprises 11 likely (based on HVR-I sequence information only) individuals, carrying haplogroup F mtDNA genomes (5.4%) and the corresponding mtDNA varieties originate from different limbs of haplogroup F. In a total sample of European, Near Eastern, Anatolian and South Caucasian data (n=7190)12,19 ± 23 only three individuals (0.04%) had a haplogroup F: two Turks and one Azeri (Figure 3).
Figure 3 indicates that within the phylogeny of limb F1, the particular varieties found in Croatia, belong to a mono- phyletic clade within bough F1b, specified by a rare C to A transversion at np 16232 and a transition at np 16249. The internal node is shared by Croats, Mongols and Turkic- speaking Uighurs, Kazakhs, Turks and even by one South Asian (Sri Lankan, our unpublished results) mtDNA. A further extension of this bough via additional transitions at nps 16129 and 16344 leads to a twig, shared by Korean and Japanese13,14,18 populations, including Ainus and Ryukyu people. Yet another twig (np 16172) is occupied by mtDNAs, found among Koreans and Turkic-speaking Uighurs.3,13 The single haplotype found in Croatian mainland belongs there as well (Figure 3). Considering all the available data, the coalescence age estimate for the base node of haplogroup F is approximately 40 000 ± 50 000 years before present, which agrees with an early Upper Palaeolithic origin of this major eastern Eurasian variety of mtDNA. However, it does not imply that the node containing Croatian mtDNAs started to expand at that time period. Bearing in mind a limited divergence of the corresponding internal node comprising Croatian haplogroup F sequences, it may have happened much more recently. More importantly, its phylogeography suggests that the particular variety of maternal lineages must have been within a migrational wave(s), carrying haplogroup F north and westwards from a putative origin in Southeast Asia.

… There may have been many occasions when haplogroup F could have reached Croatia; several possibilities can be found in recorded history. At the end of the 4th century AD, the Huns left Central Asia and invaded Europe for a short period. As a consequence, this major migration also ended a long period of a predominantly Indo-Aryan nomadic presence in the Steppe Belt, extending from China to Europe with their replacement by Mongoloid and Altaic pastoral nomads.37 A few centuries later, the Avars (a Mongol people) established a state on the Pannonian planes (current Hungary and North Croatia). It is historically well documented that Avars formed tribal alliances with Slavs, and, subsequently, partially dissolved into the Slavic populations.38 More recently, in the year 1241, Mongols reached the eastern Adriatic through Croatian territory.39 Finally, much earlier, there was the ancient Silk Road from China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean that can be considered as another possible route for the introduction haplogroup F to Europe. Any of these named population movements could have brought haplogroup F maternal lineages to Croatia. A more extensive admixture of Croatians with Central Asian Turkic or Mongoloid females (eg with Avars) is a less likely explanation of our findings because in this case, one would expect to observe the haplogroup M lineages in the Croatian mtDNA pool. The latter haplogroup is almost an order of magnitude more frequent in Central Asians than is haplogroup F.3 Since this is not the case, a more specific and narrow founder effect is a more likely explanation.

In summary, the above data show that a maternal lineage, likely arising in the early Upper Palaeolithic period in southeastern Asia, has found a route to Europe and, probably because of random genetic drift, could become a significant component of mtDNA variety in an isolated Adriatic island population. We have also demon- strated that a detailed phylogeographic analysis makes possible the tracing of this lineage back to its possible geographic origin among eastern-central Asian popula- tions. This, in turn, suggests historic and demographic events possibly explaining the presence of mtDNA haplogroup F in Europe.

The above study is supported by the results of another study “Review of Croatian genetic heritage as revealed by mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomal lineages“, Croat Med J. 2005 Aug; 46(4):502-13. Pericić M1, Barać Lauc L, Martinović Klarić I, Janićijević B, Rudan P.

This high-resolution phylogenetic study of the mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome variation in mainland and insular Croatian populations found that while the phylogeography of mtDNA and Y chromosome variants of Croatians can be adequately explained within typical European maternal and paternal genetic landscape, the mtDNA haplogroup F and Y-chromosomal haplogroup P* genetic component indicated a connection to Asian populations.

Croatia – Folklore and regional stories

“Towards sunset, having ‘done’ a few more sights, I sat with a pivo in the Stradun, the Old Town’s only wide street – of polished stone, lined with tall, gravely imposing buildings. And there Dubrovnik’s free evening entertainment mesmerised me: thousands of swifts giving a dizzying display of aerobatics, circling high in the sky , then swooping and darting low between the buildings, their speed and flock coordination something to marvel at, their shrill frenetic twitterings so loud I had to raise my voice when ordering another pivo. Looking up and down the Stradone, I mentally congratulated the successors to the Major Council: no plastic disfiguring of shop façades is allowed and only café table sunshades – Coca-Cola and Marlboro – marred the Adriatic’s most famous thoroughfare.

The above extract is taken from Through the Embers of Chaos: Balkan Journeys by Dervla Murphy (John Murray, 2002).

Croatian mythology should be told on a cold winter’s night. It’s the sort of stuff that needs flickering light from a dying fire and a howling wind whistling outside, occasional draughts sending extra shivers down your spine. Sitting in a semi-circle before a wise old woman, or a huge bearded man, you don’t get Croatian folk stories from a book, just from memory and invention.

Croatian myth is part of the Slavic tradition that sweeps across Baltic, central and Eastern Europe, terrifying children and giving nightmares a ghoulish flavour. There is almost nothing that can be called specifically Croatian, hardly surprising given that there has hardly been an area that would answer to the name of Croatia for very long.

The Slavic tradition itself is nothing like as hard and fast as Greek mythology. There are no ancient written authorities and all that survive are the characters, but without any actual stories.

There are Gods like Perun, God of Thunder, King of the Gods, who are recognisable from all mythologies. Most of the Slavic Gods, like Veles, God of the Underworld, would feel at home round a Greek or a Norse Gods’ banqueting table. But it is the lesser deities, who inhabit the world around us every day, who give Slavic myth its own peculiar dimensions.

Harry Potter fans might recognise the Vila, fairies who appear in the shape of beautiful women. There are also the domaci, good house spirits who live in cupboards and under the stairs. And who could forget those most famous of mythological demons, the vampires and werewolves!

Some fables are specific to Croatia, like that of Malik Tintilinic, a very naughty little boy dressed in red from head to toe. Known to the story-tellers of coastal Croatia, Malik loves to joke and dance and brings good fortune to his master. Typical to all Croatian stories, though, there is a darker subtext: folk say that Malik is the spirit of an unbaptised dead child.

These, and many other Croatian stories – like the tale of the frozen city of Legen – have been adopted and put into stories by one great Croatian writer. In her Croatian Tales of Long Ago (1916), long overdue for a new English edition, Ivana Brlic Mazuranic, used the rudiments of Slavic mythology to create a real mythology just for her country Croatia.

Called by contemporaries “The Croatian Andersen”, and more recently “The Slavic Tolkien”, Ivana was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her characters include Mokos, wife or helper of the chief God Perun, who is the Earth Goddess. We also meet gods of beauty, morning, bright skies, and a sphinx-like creature who asks travellers awkward questions.

In Brlic’s work, as in all Slavic tales, everything is black and white: there are creative and destructive forces and each good character has a nemesis, an opposing force in a dualistic universe.

These are folk tales with simple messages and characters in search of narrators; luckily, although Croatian mythology lacks a Homer or an Ovid, it has its Tolkien.”

The Croats arrived to the shores of Adriatic in the 7th century, giving their contribution to the Slavic migrations across Europe. In the following eras they developed their own myths and legends, often mixing real history with the world of fables. Here are just a few of them.
The legend of the founding of Zagreb
Somewhere in the early eleventh century, a young lad decided to leave his home and become a wandering knight. He spent many years on adventures throughout the area, doing good deeds with his wit and sword. Once he was going through a dark forest in the vicinity of Bear Mountain. As it came to be, he lost his way and became mortally thirsty.
There was no stream or pond to save him, and he sat in the dirt hoping for rain. Then, all of the sudden, a beautiful maiden came out of nowhere. At that moment, he was so thirsty he could barely speak, but the girl couldn’t help him as she wasn’t carrying any water. However, she advised the knight to dig on the place of his respite.

“Zagrebite!” said the girl. Or, in English if you wish, “Scratch it!” she yelled, pointing at the dirt below the knight’s feet. The young man scratched the ground to soon find water pouring from the shallow hole he dug.
The adventurer thought young girl was of elven kind, but she introduced herself as a poor human orphan, without anybody of her own. Her name was Mandusa. The young lad smiled, named the stream Mandusevac , and asked for her hand in marriage, with promises of building a huge city in which they would dwell. As she accepted, rays of sunlight engulfed the pair, and through some kind of enchantment, showed them the size and fame of the town in the future.
Therefore, Zagreb literally means “The place which is scratched,” while its heart, Mandusevac fountain on Jelacic square, is the place it was founded. It is said that drinking the water from it will make you never forget the town, but considering that people today throw their coins into the water, stick to your camera for memories.

The stone nuptial

On the western part of Medvednica Mountain, close to the romantic town of Samobor, lies an interesting site of dolomite rocks. These stones look almost human, and as if they are participating in some kind of rite or celebration.

Croatian writer August Senoa wrote a poem explaining the nature of the place. Based on his story, there was a family running a big mill under the mountain. The owner was an honest, hardworking man, and his son was not much different. However, the miller’s wife had an evil heart.

When her son expressed his desire to marry Janja, the daughter of poor blind man without any income, the woman was shocked. If it weren’t for the young girl’s father, the marriage would not be arranged. But the anger of the miller’s wife was unstoppable, and seeing the nuptial celebration, she cursed it, transforming all participants into cold stone.

The woman, of course, regretted her words, but it was too late. The rocks, once happy cortege and now rocks under Medvednica, can be seen near Jablanovec village.

The building of Pula’s amphitheatre

The size and magnificence of Pula’s amphitheater triggered people’s imagination, and legend was formed around it. According to this tale, Istria was inhabited by a strange kind of fairies called Divicas. Although small in size and very feminine, they had remarkable physical strength and were skilled in masonry.

By nature good towards humans yet shy enough to evade any contact with them, the Divicas had another unique feature. They were nocturnal creatures which dwelled outside until the first rooster’s cry in the morning.

They once decided to build their own settlement, called Divic-town (Divic being the word used for anything miraculous in Istrian language). They took large boulders from Ucka Mountain and carried them all the way to what is now Pula. Being so powerful, they managed to build the whole amphitheater in one night. A roost cried to warn them of the approaching daylight.

The Divicas immediately left the construction yard and went to their hideouts. They didn’t have time to build the roof of the amphitheater and had hoped to finish it the following night. For some reason, they never came back. This is why Pula’s arena remains roofless.

St. Vlaho and Richard Lionheart in Dubrovnik

Saints and kings like Dubrovnik, according to two prominent legends about the town. Based on the first one, St. Vlaho (known as St. Blaise in the West) miraculously appeared to Dubrovnik cathedral’s rector named Stojko. He reported that Venetians have disembarked on neighboring Lokrum Island and were preparing an assault on the town.
Stojko shared this information with the town guard, which organized defenses and scared the enemy troops away. Because of this event, St. Vlaho became the patron saint of Dubrovnik, visible on the emblems and architecture of the place.

As for royalty, it was said that no other than the famous Richard the Lionheart of England helped build the Romanic basilica in Dubrovnik. During the third crusades, he shipwrecked in the Adriatic and managed to reach the aforementioned Lokrum Island. To thank God for survival, he gave money for the church’s construction. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in an earthquake five hundred years later, leaving the place for today’s baroque cathedral.

Many more Croatian stories can be told and shared, but for now, let’s end with these. Just remember that if you find a strange rock in Istria, leave it there. The Divicas are probably building something in the vicinity.

Folktales of mermaids falling in love with fishermen, and legends starring Zeus and Poseidon (sky and sea gods) and thunder gods are mythical elements found on the Hvar island of Croatia that echo those found in the East as well.

Yudate – the practice of divination by boiling water and cauldron ceremony in Japan

While divination is no longer practised as magical sorcery in Japan today(as with forms of ritual kagura dancing which were once performed religiously as entertainment offerings to the deities), this practice has since become secularized and popularized and transformed over time into a folk practice. Ise-ryū kagura – for example, are a form of dances derived from those performed alongside yudate (boiling water) rituals at the outer shrines of Ise Shrine. Largely associated with Hanamatsuri (April 8), the miko or other group leaders immerse certain objects in boiling water as part of a purification ritual, now primarily used as a ritual prayer for good health.

Yudate ritual elements have thus been secularized and preserved in various ceremonies and incorporated with shrine festivals around the country in the form of:

~ (n) A Shinto ritual in which a shaman or priest soaks bamboo grass in boiling water and sprinkles the water on worshippers (originally a form of divination, later a purification ceremony)

Citing the Encyclopedia of Shinto on Yudate:

“In this ritual, water is boiled in a large pot placed before the altar, then a “female shaman” (miko) or other religious functionary soaks bamboo grass (sasa) leaves in the boiling water and sprinkles it on his or her body or on the other people present. In ancient times, the ritual was also called “divining hot water” (toiyu) and considered a type of divination (bokusen), in which steam was raised before the altar to induce a miko or other medium to fall into a state of spirit possession (kamigakari) from which the medium would communicate a divine message (takusen). This ritual is thought to have been linked to the archaic practices of divine arbitration called kukatachi.and yukishō, both methods of interpreting the divine will on the basis of water boiled before a deity’s altar. In later ages, the boiling water itself was believed to possess the power of purification and exorcism, and the ritual was combined with dance and transformed into a performing art. A description of the yudate ritual performed before the Awataguchi Shinmei deity in an entry from the 29th day, 9th month, 3rd year of Hōtoku (1451) within the Diary of Nakahara Yasutomi (Yasutomi ki) and other sources reveal that ceremonies by miko which combined yudate and dance were performed with increasing frequency in the medieval period and gradually turned into performances for spectators. Moreover, there are many cases of yudate being combined with kagura dance. For the Shimotsuki kagura exemplified by the flower festival (hanamatsuri) held in Kitashidara-gun, Aichi Prefecture, and the Tōyama festival held in Shimoina-gun, Nagano Prefecture, for example, a parasol-shaped “celestial canopy” (tengai) is suspended at the ceremonial site as the “object to which the deity temporarily descends” (yorishiro). A pot is set beneath the tengai and the yudate occupies an important role within the ceremony. ” — Iwai Hiroshi

Yudate matsuri (Yudate Festival)

Cauldron Ceremony – which is a ceremony in which water is boiled in a large cauldron and then sprinkled over participants and worshippers with bamboo fronds. It is a practice that may have roots in or may have been a magical belief that merged with Taoist beliefs in the yin-yang interactions of elements such as water and fire, and as such divination by water rites bear some relation to other heat-generating rites such as firewalking and is sometimes used to enable a miko to become possessed by the kami.

At the Ebisu shrine (see video clip above), the Yudate ritual is performed as part of the Yudate Kagura is a Shinto ritual in which a Shrine Maiden uses a bunch of sacred “Sasa” (bamboo) leaves to splatter hot water around.

In this ritual, water is boiled in a large pot placed before the altar, then a “female shaman” (miko) or other religious functionary soaks bamboo grass (sasa) leaves in the boiling water and sprinkles it on his or her body or on the other people present. In ancient times, the ritual was also called “divining hot water” (toiyu) and considered a type of divination (bokusen), in which steam was raised before the altar to induce a miko or other medium to fall into a state of spirit possession (kamigakari) from which the medium would communicate a divine message (takusen). This ritual is thought to have been linked to the archaic practices of divine arbitration called kukatachi and yukishō, both methods of interpreting the divine will on the basis of water boiled before a deity’s altar. In later ages, the boiling water itself was believed to possess the power of purification and exorcism, and the ritual was combined with dance and transformed into a performing art.

 A description of the yudate ritual performed before the Awataguchi Shinmei deity in an entry from the 29th day, 9th month, 3rd year of Hōtoku (1451) within the Diary of Nakahara Yasutomi (Yasutomi ki) and other sources reveal that ceremonies by miko which combined yudate and dance were performed with increasing frequency in the medieval period and gradually turned into performances for spectators. Moreover, there are many cases of yudate being combined with kagura dance. For the Shimotsuki kagura exemplified by the flower festival (hanamatsuri) held in Kitashidara-gun, Aichi Prefecture, and the Tōyama festival held in Shimoina-gun, Nagano Prefecture, for example, a parasol-shaped “celestial canopy” (tengai) is suspended at the ceremonial site as the “object to which the deity temporarily descends” (yorishiro). A pot is set beneath the tengai and the yudate occupies an important role within the ceremony. (seekukatachi)

 In later ages, the boiling water itself was believed to possess the power of purification and exorcism, and the ritual was combined with dance and transformed into a performing art.

Kiyome no yudate (“boiling water purification”) is also performed at the Tensho Daijinja of Mukagata in Nagano prefecture. The senior priests and miyôdo representative perform divination by boiling water. This ceremony is omitted during the regular annual festival. Mukagata well known is its “Festival of Purification.” At the time of the festival sons and daughters who have migrated outside the Prefecture return, and a number of tourists also visit the village as spectators. The shrine venerates Amaterasu. Between the segments called yachigo (wooden sword) and tsurugi (double-edged sword), the “fan” portion of Ôkôchi’s mitsumai dance is performed by residents of Ôkôchi (about twenty minutes). By the time the “sword” part of the mitsumai is completed, it is already about 1:00 A.M.

Sanbô Daijin no yudate: In the same way as the other boiling water divinations performed until now, the senior priests stir the hot water with the stem of the heisoku, and while reciting an invocation, sprinkle the water behind themselves. The stem of the heisoku is wrapped in bamboo grass stems and the latter is dipped in the hot water. More songs are chanted. With their backs to the shrine decorations, the priests arrange themselves to the right and left of the cauldron and bend their upper bodies gently in a dance (about twenty minutes). “One-Thousand Cauldron” (Senkama): The senior priests, together with all the miyôdo, hold heisoku and perform yudate while surrounding the cauldron. While chanting songs (utagura), they stir the water with the handle of the heisoku numerous times. This action is said to indicate that they have performed the yudate one-thousand times, thus the name “one-thousand cauldron” (about five minutes). Kirichigai no mai is a four-miko or person dance performed the same way as the yachigo portion of the yotsumai, holding heisoku and bells, and wearing a red tasuki (about twenty minutes).

A “Water to the king of the sacred border” (Shime no goô e ageru) rite was performed only at time of festival of purification. Yudate is performed and the sacred border rope (shimenawa) and heisoku emblems are gathered up. The water rites were performed along with the Yonabune or “Rice ship” also a rite performed only at time of Festival of Purification in which the sacred border rope and heisoku are taken to the shrine’s torii.

It should be noted that traditionally, the Festival of Purification was NOT a regular observance, but a ritual performed only on special occasions, when some kind of important change or renewal had occurred in the world, the year of a natural disaster, or as an accompaniment to a prayer for some great boon made by one of the villagers. This may be why the taoist style rite “Exorcism of evil spirits” (gedôbarai) was also performed only for festival of purification: The senior priest swings the sword in the air to symbolically cut the four directions, and ends by making mantric signs in the air (kuji o kiru). In contrast, the normal annual festival is called the “Eleventh Month Festival” (Shimotsuki Matsuri), or the “regular festival” (reisai), or simply “the festival” (o-matsuri), and it can be considered basically an abbreviated version of the Festival of Purification.

The local shrine Tenshô Daijinja is located in the “grove” of the Ue no Taira settlement, and represents the clan tutelary (ujigami) of the house known by the traditional house name of Okata (the Muramatsu family, no longer in residence), who were the legendary pioneer settlers of the area.

Yudate, Jonangu Shrine, Kyoto 湯立 城南宮

“At the beginning of the water boiling ritual (yudate, yutate) the priest purifies the worshippers to become worthy of approaching the deity by waving a branch of the sacred sakaki tree decorated with folded-paper streamers. Then the four shrine maidens perform the ceremonial dance to invite the spirit to become present in the water. The maidens dance with fans, bells, folded-paper streamers, branches of the sacred tree and five-colour silks of blue, yellow, red, white, and purple.

After the dance the senior maiden adds some rice wine, grains of rice, and salt to the boiling cauldron and stirs the water with the stem of a stick with strips of paper offered to a deity. Then she dips bamboo fronds into the hot pot and shakes them with big movements so that the sprays can sprinkle on people who attend the ritual. Those who get the splash out of the leaves could have a good year with sound health. The bamboo frond would also bring happiness if you can take it home.

In ancient times, this ritual was a type of divination, in which steam was raised before the altar to induce the maiden to fall into a state of media to communicate oracles between gods and men. Later, the boiling water itself was believed to possess the power of purification and exorcism, and the ritual was combined with dances.”

A stylised version of the rite which originated at Ise forms part of the kagura repertoire, as yudate kagura (see Yudate ceremony)

The divination by boiling practices appear to be frequently conducted alongside purification rituals of a Taoist nature, the question of whether which practices (miko Central Asian or North Asian shamanism vs. Taoism vs. Buddhism) were originally separate from others, or which practices had an origin in which, is difficult to fathom, due the syncretic nature of Japanese religion, which tends to merge different elements of different faiths. Some of this syncretism began early on the Asian continent, and arrived in their current forms in Japan. There were different movements at different times in Japan to try to separate Shinto from Buddhist religious elements and practices (see The Tao of Shinto as well as A New History of Shinto by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen).

See also the Yudate, yutate shinji ritual ceremony at Jonangu shrine, Kyoto for photos and more.

Judgment (and sometimes execution, the related consequence of judgment) by boiling water or Kukatachi, was a practice imported from the Korean peninsula:

Also pronounced kugatachi, this ritual is a type of trial in which the legitimacy or veracity of a person’s claim is judged by the divine will. After the suspected person is made to swear to the kami, he must plunge and keep his hand in boiling water. A guilty man will suffer severe burns, but a righteous man will not be burnt. The etymology of the word is not clear, but one theory suggests that it derives from a Korean word. As an archaic Japanese method for interpreting the divine will, kukatachi belongs to the category of “divination by pledge” (ukehi ) whereby a person first performs some act of proof to the deities, after which the legitimacy of the claim is determined by the outcome of that act. Kukatachi is also written as 誓湯 or 探湯.

In The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon shoki ), according to the entry for the 4th month of the 9th year of Emperor Ōjin’s reign, Takeshiuchi no Sukune proclaimed his undivided loyalty after he was nearly killed due to a slanderous accusation by his younger brother, Umashiuchi no Sukune. Unable to judge his loyalty, the emperor made Takeshiuchi no Sukune perform kukatachi at the bank of Shiki River. The entry for the ninth month of the fourth year of Empress Ingyō’s reign is annotated as follows: “明神探湯 refers to 区訶陀智 (kukatachi written phonetically). That is, mud is poured into a pot and boiled, then people bare their arms and grope around with their hands in the boiling mud.” Due to disorder caused by the extraordinary number of people who claimed high pedigree, this ceremony was conducted to rightful from fraudulent claims. It is said that a large vat called a kukabe was placed on Amakashi Hill at Kotomakado Cape, then clan representatives purified themselves by cleansing their hair and bodies (mokuyoku saikai ) and tucked up their sleeves with cords called yūdasuki; truthful men had no problem but dishonest men suffered burns and quickly withdrew, so the good and bad could be immediately distinguished. Moreover, an entry for the ninth month of Emperor Keitai’s reign states that a kukatachi ritual was conducted to reach a decision on a deadlocked suit between a resident of Imna (in Japanese, Mimana) on the Korean peninsula and a Japanese person. In later ages, kukatachi came to refer to the water boiled for purifying one’s body and worshipping before a shrine’s altar, as exemplified in Episode 21 of an essay by Ueda Akinari entitled “Records of the Bold and Timid” (Tandai shōshin roku): “Though on three occasions he entreated the deity to improve the situation, presented kukatachi as an offering, and performed kagura dance, the deity did not heed his prayers.”

Some of the ritual practices of yudate divination practised in Japan, although based on originally authentic practices in ancient Japan, may have been revived to some extent only recently by the Shinto Shinshukyo movement.

The cauldron divination by boiling ritual is a visual reference point and woven into the fictional novel entitled “The Kibitsu Cauldron” by UEDA Akitsu (reviewed in Kyosoul’s Blog, partially excerpted below)

“The Cauldron Purification ritual (Mikamabarai) is held in a small building on the grounds of the Kibitsu Shrine. Inside, a large iron rice cauldron rests on a clay hearth. When the water boils, fueled by burning pine needles, the cauldron makes a rumbling sound, the volume of which is taken to indicate good or bad fortune….

There is a long history of tales similar to “The Kibitsu Cauldron” in China and Japan. Commentators have identified a number of sources on which Akinari drew in writing this story, including, especially, Qu You’s “Mudan deng ji” (Peony Lantern), in Jiandeng xinhua (New Tales After Trimming the Lamp, 1378), and its Japanese adaptation, Asai Ryoi’s “Botan no toro” (The Peony Lantern), in Otogiboko (Talisman Dolls,
1666); 2 “Onna no ichinen kite otto no mi o hikisoite toritekaeru koto” (A Woman’s Vindictive Spirit Comes, Draws near Her Husband, and Takes Him Away with Her), in Zen-aku mukui hanashi (Stories of Karmic Retribution, Good and Evil, ca. 1700?), which combines tales 27:20 and 24:20 of the late-Heian setsuwa collection Konjaku monogatari shu (Tales of Times Now Past, ca. 1120); and Hayashi Razan’s Honcho
jinja ko (Studies of Japanese Shrines). Some of the details in the opening paragraph are derived from book 8 of Xie Zhao-zhe’s Wuzazu (Five Miscellanies, 1618)”

Divination by boiling water in other cultures

Divination by boiling of water may have been an extremely ancient perhaps even prehistoric practice brought with tribes who migrated out of Africa, as the practice is found among tribes of South and Southcentral Africa (see Barrie Reynolds) although this may merely have been carried into Africa as a result of backmigration of certain lineages. Judgment by boiling water was also a common medieval practice in Europe, see Medieval Sourcebook: Trial by boiling water ordeal.

Boiling water divination also practised by Barotse people, see Magic, Divination, and Witchcraft Among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia, and for southeastern Bantu

It exists in the New World too. The sorcerers of the Lakota people are said to be able to practise divination by boiling water, predict the weather and control it. They practise divination, the heyoka are those who have seen the Thunderbird, and because of this they are able to reach into boiling water with bare hands to take out the pieces of boiled dog-meat Divination through the Ages by Ellen Wallace Douglas Divination Through the Ages by Ellen Wallace Douglas

Divination by boiling water was also practised as magic among the Jewish people. See Divination, Magic, and Healing: The Book of Jewish Folklore by Ronald H. Isaacs (p. 76) in the Talmudic tractate of Gittin 45a, Rav Nachman’s daughters who were experienced in magical procedure were able to stir a pot of boiling water with their bare hands

Divination by boiling water is essentially a form of hydromancy or carromancy, see Carromancy Hydromancy, and forms of it, were practised by the Celts, Romans, Lithuanians, Germans and many other Indo-European peoples in ancient times. Cyclicomancy /ˈsɪklɨkɵmænsi/: by swirling water in a cup (Greek kuklikos, cyclical, circular + manteia, prophecy) – Divination methods (Wikipedia). Gazing and scrying are better known forms of water divination by European cultures.  Steam can also provide divinitory responses. This form requires a mirror hung on a wall and a low table placed before it. Fill a large pot with water and heat to boiling on the stove. Remove the pot and place it on a hot pad before the mirror. As the steam rises, it will cloud the mirror. You may gaze in the misty mirror, or wait for the steam to condense and drip down its silvered face. The drips may form themselves into a letter or letters, which can then be interpreted. Source: Water Divination (Angelfire) See also the Art of Divination: “Water scrying was very popular with the Celts and other Shamanistic traditions. The Cup of Jamshid was used in Ancient Persia to divine. The liquid in the cup was said to be an elixir of immortality and looking into the cup allowed you to view the seven layers of the universe and deep truths were revealed.”

Source and further readings:

Yudate by Iwai Hiroshi, Encyclopedia of Shinto

History: Boiled Alive!

Images of the Sacred

Boars belong to the Mountain Goddess…

Featured here is the Mountain Goddess, which Short calls the Yama no Kami. However, there are also other Yama no Kami, some of which are male, names differ depending upon the region, and the legends are different as well.

By Kevin Short

By Kevin Short

Nature in Short / Man’s survival is an age-old matter of flattering the Mountain Goddess

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News
Japan Times, August 19, 2014

One of my favorite Japanese folklore themes is the Mountain Goddess and the Devil Stinger. This is a story that is widely told in southern Kyushu, but has similar versions in other areas of the country. The Mountain Goddess, or Yama no Kami, is a Diana-like ruler of lands where men live by hunting wild boar or black bear, or by felling trees or gathering herbs. Men who work in the mountains revere the Yama no Kami as the ultimate life force animating the forests and the plants and animals that live there.

The great storywriter and folklorist Muku Hatoju once accompanied a traditional wild boar hunter on a trip deep into the mountains along the border of Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures. “The wild boars we hunt do not belong to us.” The old hunter explained. “They belong to the Mountain Goddess. When we go boar hunting, we humbly ask the goddess to share some of her bounty with us.”

But ruling over the mountains and forest creatures are not the Mountain Goddess’ only task. In early spring, when the rice paddies are ready for planting, she morphs into the Ta no Kami or Rice Goddess. The Goddess leaves the mountains and takes up residence on the dikes between the paddies. Here she stays, watching over the precious rice crop, until the harvest is completed in early autumn. Then she returns to her mountain domain. Rice farmers usually engage in celebrations, including dancing, music and sometimes theater, to welcome the Goddess into the paddies in spring, and to send her back to the mountains in autumn. The Mountain Goddess is a folk superheroine that blesses the lives and livelihoods of both rice farmers and traditional mountain folk.

In Japan, local kami are asked or thanked for their blessings with food, drink and entertainment. Beautiful fish, such as pink sea-bream (tai) are favored by most kami. The Mountain Goddess, however, must be handled with extreme delicacy.

Although kindhearted and with a true feeling of empathy for the people, she is subject to fits of almost manic depression, during which the natural order begins to break down in both the mountains and the paddies.

The Mountain Goddess gets particularly despondent about her looks. She is, if you will, a bit funny looking. If you presented her with a sea bream, she would only feel sadder; because the beautiful fish would stand in sharp contrast to her own strangeness. The only way to coax the Goddess out of a funk is with a fish that makes her feel better about herself. To qualify, the fish would have to be even stranger-looking than the Goddess.

The fish selected for this grave honor is the oni-okoze, called Devil Stinger in English. The oni-okoze is one of a dozen or so species of very similar-looking fish in the genus Inimicus, found in the warm tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region. All these fish are ambush predators. They lie camouflaged on the ocean floor until a smaller fish passes close, then thrust upwards at incredible speed. The passing fish is sucked into a wide vacuum-cleaner mouth, and swallowed whole before it even realizes what happened!

The oni-okoze is truly one very strange-looking fish! The heavy body is designed to lay still either on the ocean bottom or just inches above it. The huge, bulging eyes are on top of the head, and the big mouth opens nearly straight up. Bits of skin hang down from the jaws and face, made to look like pieces of algae attached to a rock. The lower two rays of the pectoral fins (muna-bire) can rotate freely, and are used as stiltlike supports for “walking” along the sea bottom.

To protect themselves, devil stingers are armed with a row of long, hard, sharp spines along their dorsal surface. These spines can be made to point straight upward and contain very powerful poisons in sacs at their base.

Swimmers and divers sometimes accidentally step on or touch camouflaged oni-okoze. Poison symptoms range from excruciating pain and severe swelling and reddening, to partial paralysis, and even to breathing difficulty and eventual heart failure.

In Japan the oni-okoze live from inshore up to about 200 meters deep, as far north as Niigata and Chiba prefectures. The devil stinger is considered to be delicious, and in some areas is even raised in aquaculture pens.

Depictions of the Yama no Kami are rare, but stone statues of the Ta no Kami are common throughout the rice paddy countryside of eastern Kagoshima and southern Miyazaki. An amazing chance to see four of them in Tokyo is in front of a small Suitengu shrine at Ikebukuro Ekimae Park, just a short walk northeast from Ikebukuro Station. Ta no Kami usually carry a shamoji rice ladle and a bowl of steamed rice. They wear unusual hoods or hats that are actually part of a neat deception. Viewed from behind, the hood or hat becomes the head of a classic male phallic symbol. The wish embodied in the stones is for fertility and abundance, not only in the rice paddies, but in the farmers’ homes as well.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

Saruta-Biko and Saru-hijiri — They may have been Sarts, the earliest wandering ascetics to settle in Japan?

Sarutahiko Ōkami, in a somewhat comical depiction; taken from a late-19th-century Japanese painting Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sarutahiko Ōkami, in a somewhat comical depiction; taken from a late-19th-century Japanese painting Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the book Ascetic Practices in Japanese ReligionTullio Federico Lobetti identifies the earliest mountain ascetic practitioners of Japan as hijiri, who were inspired by Taoist medical texts (compiled by Mononobe no Kosen, Izumo no Hirosada, Abe no Manao) to undertake longevity practices.  An early ascetic practice spot was Mt Hira on the western shore of Lake Biwa, a movement founded by Soo in 859. Other well known early bastions of mountain ascetics were the Dewa Sanzan and the Yoshino to Kumano mountain range. The first hijiri is said to be Saru-hijiri. Another figure that would qualify as a hijiri mountain ascetic would be Saruta-Biko kami.

Sarutabiko is enshrined at the Tsubaki Grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, first among the 2000 shrines of Sarutahiko Ōkami, Sarutahiko Jinja in Ise, Mie and Ōasahiko Shrine in Tokushima Prefecture in addition to Ise Jingu.

Saruta-Biko is best known in mythology from the  Nihon Shoki texts as a sort of Guide-Mediator figure, the one who greets Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, when he descends from Takama-ga-hara.

The etymology of Saruta-Biko is obscure. According to Michael Ashkenazi (Handbook of Mythology), saruta, which is traditionally transcribed with kanji characters that suggest the meaning “monkey-field” as a sort of double entendre, followed by the Classical Japanese noun hiko meaning “a male child of noble blood, a prince.” So that Sarutahiko Ōkami’s embellished name could be roughly translated into English as “Great God, Prince Saruta.

He is depicted as a towering man with a large beard, jeweled spear, ruddy face, and long nose — a description which fits closely the Tajik-Uzbek-Sart peoples.  We suggest that both his role and the name Saruta is a strong cognate with the known term Sarta or Sart or Sartuul peoples of Central Asia (found in Russian Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Xinjiang, Buryatia, Tajiks of Afghanistan). He was probably one of the early founding fathers of a member of the wandering Sart/Sartuul tribes who had come into Japan either as a merchant or as a religious ascetic propagating Buddhism, and who had come to be regarded as a mountain hijiri sage.  He was probably coopted by Ninigi’s forces, probably out of respect for his known class as a Sart and status as a “sage” ascetic, a local guide with strong knowledge of the mountains, and probably as a go-between-translator-mediator for dealings with the locals.

Sart people of Tajik-Uzbekistan Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sart people of Russian Turkestan Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His role as mountain guide is suggestive that he may also have been a typical hottai “mountain opener” such as found in the yamabushi tradition and in Shugendo Lore (according to Gorai Shigeru), the miracle-performing mountain-opener is usually a sage monk, part of the triad of mountain kami, including the layman deity and the female deity of the mountain. Other Buddhist hijiri-openers of mountains are suggested in Shugendo Lore, to include Kukai, Shojo Daibosatsu, and Sanno, the Mountain King.

Taguchi castle in Kirishima said to be the remains of former residence of the Saruta-Biko kami, although Saruta-Biko is better known and associated with Ise, see Oracle of the Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese religion by Brian Bocking:

“At Yamada-ga-hara in the village of Numaki, in the Watarai district of Ise province, she came upon an old man and made enquiry of him. (The old man was Saruta-hiko-no-mikoto whose shrine now stands in the Ise shrine). The old man replied to her saying: “I have been here since the age of the gods. I have accepted the command of Tensho Daijin# to protect this holy shrine for the last two hundred and eighty thousand years. It is located by the Isuzu river and I will guide you there. ‘This is the Inner Shrine that we know today.
This old man’s nose was exceedingly long, at over five feet. Today when there are festivals in this province [the character known as] ‘the king’s nose’ first of all puts on a mask with a long nose. This has come to be understood as a custom dating from the age of the gods.
To continue, when the princess finally arrived and saw the village of Uji, she set up fifty bells on the heavenly reversed-sword. This is why it is called the Isuzu (‘fifty bells’ river. After this the princess returned home and built an identical shrine on the slope of Seta-Suzuka. Day and night she went to the Inner Shrine to make offerings and even though the road she had to travel was long in the extreme she never failed to return to this rustic shrine. This is what we know today as the Saigu (‘equal shrine’) (a saigu is a gu (shrine) extending four cho on all four sides). Following princess Yamato’s example, an imperial princess from every generation has transferred to this rural shrine in order to serve the Great Shrine [of Ise].
[#“Tensho Daijin was the pre-eminent deity among the five generations of earthly kami. Her parents were Izanagi no mikoto and Izanami no mikoto, last of the seven generations of heavenly kami.”]- pp 48~51 Brian Bocking, Oracle of the Three Shrines

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney notes the monkey-moon symbolism* (scroll down below to read more on this) or associations with Saru-Biko kami, see Culture Through Time: Anthropological Approaches. Anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney lists three factors that identify Sarutahiko as a monkey deity: saru means “monkey”, his features “include red buttocks, which are a prominent characteristic of Japanese macaques”, and as macaques gather shellfish at low tide, the Kojiki says his hand got caught in a shell while fishing and “a monkey with one hand caught in a shell is a frequent theme of Japanese folktales”.

Turning to the other ascetic or sage figure, Saru-hijiri, who was identified as a hijiri mountain ascetic and given considerable detailed description in the Indian Buddhist tradition of the Nihon ryoiki (and classed as hijiri in elevated status together with Prince Shotoku):

“The title of bodhisattva is given to four other eminent eminent religious persons: Konsu, the Ascetic; Dhyana Master Eigo; Saru-hijiri and Dhyana Master Eigo. These persons were free from attachments to the world, led a disciplined life, engaged in missionary works, and except for Saru-hijiri, were venerated by the emperors. Their relationship with the Emperors reflects the development of the imperial practice of granting the title of bodhisattva (bosatsu) to eminent monks, the first record of which is found in 749. The exceptional case of Saru-hijiri leads to a consideration of what hijiri means in the Nihon ryoiki.

Hijiri may be defined as a charismatic leader of lay Buddhist movements in medieval Japan, particularly in the pure land school. Originally the concept of hijiri developed not under Buddhist but also Taoist and Confucian influences. In China, where legendary emperors such as the Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun, or Laotsu and Confucious were veneraged as sages, Sakyamuni was accepted as another great sage and added to the list. Kyokai, in compiling the Nihon ryoiki, may be seeking to portray Japanese sages under the influence of Chinese hagiography.

The Nihon ryoiki identifies only two persons as hijiri: one is Saru-hijiri, and the other is Prince Shotoku.

As has been pointed out, Saru-hijiri, an extraordinary nun with a deformed body, shows strong influences of the Indian tradition. On the other hand, Prince Shotoku’s legend reveals a Taoist influence in the concept of a “hidden sage”.

[However, we show here that it was a strong concept of the Saka people that of sages and taking care to entertain those who might be disguised sages (see also John Mock’s “Shrine Traditions of Wakhan Afghanistan” which has strong cautionary tale about how to treat disguised mendicant sages).]

“Prince Shotoku’s ability to recognize saintliness in a beggar was greatly admired:

A sage is said to differ from an ordinary person in this way

We learn that a sage recognizes a sage, whereas an ordinary man cannot recognize a sage. The ordinary man sees nothing but the outer form of a beggar, while the sage has a penetrating eye able to recognize the hidden essence. It is a miraculous event.

In the Japanese religious tradition, no clear-cut distinction can be made between the sacred and secular. What I closest to “sacred” is sei, sho or hijiri, but its antonym is ordinary as understood by Kyokai. “Sacred” means “supreme pre-eminent, extraordinary.” No discontinuity exists. This is the basis for the doctrine of universal salvation . Each person has the potential to be a bodhisattva, although there are differences in the degrees of achievement, which is by no means predestined. The idea image of man is not a scholarly and virtuous monk, but one who lives an ordinary life yet reveals an extraordinary quality through such a life. In other words, he is in society and at the same time rises above society. Generally speaking, bodhisattvas are monks noted for their virtuous lives, while hijiri is a term applied to those who possess charismatic or miraculous qualities. The person who combined these two is Gyogi, the most admired figure throughout the Nihon ryoiki. He is the embodiment of compassionate love, wherein the two aspects are incorporated.”

 — Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist tradition: The Nihon Ryoiki of the monk Kyokai (Nakamura trans.)

Hijiri in Japanese finds its closest cognate in the Arab hijra, hijrah, hijirah words, from same root as for the word hijira and hijirah:
“The simple meaning of the word Hijrah (migration) is to move from one place to the other and take up residence there.” [which fits the image of the roaming ascetic]
– “What is the true meaning of hijirah?

Hijrah is known in conjunction with Islamic concepts, the Islamic calendar and the Prophet Mohamed’s flight:
“Hijrah refers to reviewing one’s entire cultural and traditional heritage to find what is wrong with it, and where therein corruption of ideas and misunderstanding lie.
In other words, Hijrah is identical to seeking repentance and purification of one’s soul. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,

“Hijrah will not cease until repentance becomes useless; and repentance will not become useless until the sun rises from the west” (Abu Dawud).” — Hijrah

The above are consistent with an idea that Saru-hijiri may have been descendant of a migrant wandering ascetic tribe that bore strong notions and practised rituals of purification.

Who were the Sarts or Sartuul?

“The Sarts, or Sartuul, were an Iranian-speaking people that was plentiful in Central Asia in medieval times. They formed the urban and professional classes in the Turkic and Mongolian empires. Their closest relatives are the Tajiks of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Even today certain families in Mongolia and Siberia are recognized as being Sartuul, but most of them have become Asiatic looking due to centuries of intermarriage with Mongols.
The Sarts have been around forever in Central Asia. In more ancient times they were called the Sughd. They are the Iranian people in Turan (Central Asia) that are referred to in the Shahnameh. They traded with China and Mongolia for silks, fur, and lapis lazuli from the Sayan Mountains. They spread Zoroastrianism to Mongolia and Siberia in ancient times, and one of their Zoroastrian shrines has been found near Irkutsk in the Angara River valley. Thanks to them Hormasta (Ahura Mazda) is one of the chief deities of Mongolian shamanism. For this very reason the inscription in honor of the Uighur khan at Khara Balgasun is written in both Turkish and Iranian languages. They were scribes, missionaries, priests, and merchants in all of the Central Asian empires. Thus white Iranian peoples have always been part of the ethnic mix of Central Asia and lived along the Silk Road corridor. Thus in the Tarim basin the Persian technology of the karez (underwater canal) has allowed modern Uighurs to grow luxuriant gardens of grapes in one of the harshest environments in the world.
When the Uighur khanate fell in the 8th century the remnants of that people migrated into what is now Xinjiang, far from their original capital in what is now Arhangai Aimag. At that time the ruling family was Asiatic Uighur Turks and the bureaucracy and merchant class were Sarts. A Turkic-speaking government with Iranian-speaking subjects in the cities and Turkic-speaking subjects among the pastoralists in the countryside. Sort of reminiscient of the relationship between the Normans and Anglo-Saxons in England, for while the Tajik language (Tajik is a dialect of Iranian) is only spoken by a small minority of pure Tajiks in Xinjiang, the Uighurs of today speak a Turkic language with a large number of borrowings from Sogdian/medieval Persian. The Uighur khanate may have in part collapsed because the royal family embraced Manichaeism, a heretical Zoroastrian/Christian sect that spread among the Iranian population of Central Asia and which preached pacifism and vegetarianism–not exactly traditional nomadic values–as well as free sex. When the Uighur khanate in Mongolia collapsed and they migrated to the Tarim basin the Uighurs flourished for a few more centuries, converted to Red Hat Buddhism and then later Islam. During the twilight years of the Uighur kingdom the Sarts and their Turkic rulers gradually intermarried and thus acquired the mixed European/Asiatic appearance they have today. I think you will find that the more “white” looking Uighur occur mostly in the towns, while the nomads tend to be more strongly Asiatic in appearance, because Sarts did not intermarry with the nomads as much as with other city people.

Map of arkhangaiArhangai Aimag (pink) is outlined
The Sartuul of Mongolia, however, tend to be much more Asiatic looking since they are the remnants of Sarts who lived in the cities of the time of the Uighur Khanate that have now disappeared, but instead of migrating to Xinjiang they remained in what is now Mongolia and completely assimilated with the natives. If you read Ochirbat’s history of the Oirat Mongols you will find that almost all of the Oirat tribes have at least one Sartuul clan.
You must also look at the ethnic appearance in Central Asia in general–the closer you get to Afghanistan and Iran the more European they look. Compare the appearance of a Mongol with an Uzbek or Kazakh, these areas had proportionately larger Sart/Tajik populations historically and thus they have a more Iranian appearance. If you look at a map, you will see Kashgar is much closer to Kabul than to say, Huhhot or even Beijing. It is no wonder that the Persian influence both culturally and racially is strong there.
You must also consider that the Old Mongol script itself is derived from the Aramaic alphabet, the predecessor of the Arabic alphabet. This came about because the Sughd used the Aramaic alphabet and since they became the scholarly class in the Uighur khanate it is not surprising that it was adopted for the Uighur language and thus passed on later for use in the Mongol and Manchu languages.
Professor Winters of the University of Chicago has established that even as early as Harappan times there was extensive trade contact between Iran/Afghanistan/Indus Valley and southern Siberia/Xinjiang/Mongolia, especially for lapis lazuli and other precious stones. Some of the famous Harappan seals are made from stone mined in Siberia near Lake Baikal!
No doubt the Tarim mummies represent some of these early traders and their descendants. Regarding the plaid pattern, this is one of the easier patterns to weave using multicolored threads and it crops up in many cultures which are not necessarily related. While the fabrics from Xinjiang resemble the Celtic tartans they may not have a direct genetic relationship with them, just as the similarity between some Mayan and Tibetan fabric designs probably is not evidence of cultural contact. They are however relatively easy to weave and probably invented independently. The Turkic peoples of Xinjiang did have one thing in common with the Scottish use of tartans, however, in that certain of their silk weaving patterns were a mark of what village or clan the weaver (or wearer) came from, but these patterns are not plaids.
You must also remember that, contrary to how it is portrayed in Chinese movies, the Xinjiang area, like Tibet, was only intermittently under Chinese control before the modern period, and all of Central Asia as well as Tibet were rather “betwixt and between” with its own unique history which is still not well understood. Before Chinggis Khan and after the Mongolian empire began falling apart only a few generations after his death Central Asia was a patchwork of small khanates, emirates, trade cities, and vast expanses of land shared by nomadic groups, and after gradually drifting away from Mongolian control the Uighur region, while having lost the formal name Uighur, became Islamic and affiliated with various emirates that existed among the Turkic peoples of that region. Because Kashgar was the eastern gateway of the Khyber Pass and Wakhan Valley corridors of the Silk Road the Afghan influence was considerable.
This history of the Sarts and Uighurs is a good example of what a racial and cultural melting pot (or patchwork, better said?) that Central Asia is. Thanks to the relatively peaceful relationships between whites and Asiatics in this region it played an important role in the dissemination of knowledge and trade goods between East and West. It is unfortunate that in the modern era people like the Taliban and the more militant of the Chinese Communists have used race as a tool to divide and suppress peoples in Central Asia that had generally gotten along together peacefully for most of their history.”

Sartuls of Buryatia:

“The Sartul dialect of Buryat language, for example, is similar to Khalkha Mongol language of Mongolia. Dialect of the Khongodors (Tunkin and Alar) is closer to Oirat language of Western Mongolia (Dzungaria), which gave birth to the Kalmyk language. … The Uighurs, in turn, adopted their writing from the Sogdians of Central Asia. This East Iranian people of Sogdiana took their script from Aramaic syllabic writing system, which, in turn, was an adaptation of Phoenician. Phoenician was a precursor also to the Greek alphabet, as well as Hebrew and Arabian. The Sogdian writing comes from either from Aramaic or from the Greek alphabet. The Sogdians preserved Hellenistic traditions from the time of the conquests of Alexander of Macedon ( 4th Century before our era ) almost to Arab invasions in 8th Century of our era.

Large amounts of emigrants from Sogdiana streamed into Mongolia and Trans-Baikal. The Sogdians built a town on the north bank of Selenga river. Its name was Bai-Balyk, and it was built in 758 for the Uighur khan, according to the Finnish philologist Gustaf Ramstedt. In 19th Century, the Buddhist monastery Biy-Bulugiyn-Khure stood on the ruins of this town.

There are numerous excavations of Uygur/Uighur burials around the Baikal area. The ancestors of the Uighur people are known to the Chinese as Turkic pastoralists known as the Tiele (Tura in Uighur). Traces of the Tiele were found near Lake Baikal and the Yenisei River. They were nomadic tribes that lived around 200 B.C. A Sogdian settlement was excavated near Balagansk of Irkutsk region, where Unga flows into Ankara. Merited archeologist A. P. Okladnikov wrote: “ Sogdian colonists led settled lives at the mouth of Unga.” that was during the epoch of Orkhon Turks and Uighur Khanate, which was located around the Baikal.

The Uighur Khanate was destroyed by light-haired Yenisei Kyrgyz in 840. Afterwards, the Uighurs left our northern lands forever. The Sogdians, possibly, left with them. Eastern Turkestan became their new homeland (now Xinjiang in China.)” — Buryatia: In the depths of Siberian Runes


From Origin of Sarts

There are several theories about the origin of the term. It may be derived from the Sanskrit “sarthavaha” (merchant, caravan leader), a term supposedly used by nomads to described settled townspeople. Or it may be a corruption of the Sogdian ethnonym “Soghd.”[The Japanese Soga, Soka clans may have been of this origin]

The earliest known use of the term is in the Turkic text Kudatku Bilik (“Blessed Knowledge”), dated 1070, in which it refers to the settled population of Kashgaria[citation needed]. In that period the term apparently referred to all settled Muslims of Central Asia, regardless of language.

Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in the Jami’ al-Tawarikh writes that Genghis Khan commanded that Arslan Khan, prince of the Muslim Turkic Karluks, be given the title “Sartaqtai”, which he considered to be synonymous with “Tajik”[citation needed] (It is possible[original research?], however, that Rashid al-din, who was Persian, misunderstood the meaning of this, as “Sartaqtai” was the name of one of the Genghis Khan’s sons).

13-th century Mongolian source, “Secret History of the Mongols” states that the Mongols called people from Central Asia, most notably Khwarezm, as “Sartuul”. “Sar” in Mongolian means “moon“, hence sart or sarta would mean “ones with (flag with) moon”, since the Muslim people had Hilal symbol on their flags. One of the Mongolian tribes living in the Zavkhan province are descendants of merchants from Khwarezm, who resided in Harhorin. This tribe, still, is called Sartuul.

Sart is a name for the settled inhabitants of Central Asia and the Middle East, which has had shifting meanings over the centuries. Sarts, known sometimes as Ak-Sart (“White Sart”) in ancient times, did not have any particular ethnic identification, and were usually (though not always) town-dwellers. Since the 16th century and onward Mughal historians referred to the Tajiks of theKabulistan (now Afghanistan) and surrounding regions as Sarts

There are several theories about the origin of the term. It may be derived from the Sanskrit “sarthavaha” (merchant, caravan leader), a term supposedly used by nomads to described settled townspeople.[citation needed]. Or it may be a corruption of the Sogdian ethnonym “Soghd.”[citation needed]

The earliest known use of the term is in the Turkic text Kudatku Bilik(“Blessed Knowledge”), dated 1070, in which it refers to the settled population of Kashgaria[citation needed]. In that period the term apparently referred to all settled Muslims of Central Asia, regardless of language.

Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in the Jami’ al-Tawarikh writes that Genghis Khancommanded that Arslan Khan, prince of the Muslim Turkic Karluks, be given the title “Sartaqtai”, which he considered to be synonymous with “Tajik”[citation needed] (It is possible[original research?], however, that Rashid al-din, who was Persian, misunderstood the meaning of this, as “Sartaqtai” was the name of one of the Genghis Khan’s sons).

13-th century Mongolian source, “Secret History of the Mongols” states that the Mongols called people from Central Asia, most notably Khwarezm, as “Sartuul”. “Sar” in Mongolian means “moon”, hence sart or sarta would mean “ones with (flag with) moon”, since the Muslim people had Hilal symbol on their flags. One of the Mongolian tribes living in the Zavkhan province are descendants of merchants from Khwarezm, who resided in Harhorin. This tribe, still, is called Sartuul.

In the post-Mongol period we find that Ali Sher Nawa’i refers to the Iranian people as “Sart Ulusi” (Sart Ulus, i.e. Sart people), and for him “Sart tili” (Sart language) was a synonym for the Persian language. Similarly, when Babur refers to the people ofMargelan as “Sarts”, it is in distinction to the people of Andijan who are Turks, and it is clear that by this he means Persian-speakers. He also refers to the population of the towns and villages of the vilayat of Kabul as “Sarts”.

In the country of Kābul there are many and various tribes. Its valleys and plains are inhabited byTūrks, Aimāks, Afghans, and Arabs. In the city and the greater part of the villages, the population consists of Tājiks* (Sarts).[1] – Babur 1525

A political history of the Sarts.

On the evolving political identities of Neo sogdians, Sarts, Yaghnobi clans of Tajiskistan, see From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik-Uzbek, the reformulation of linguistic and political identity in Central Asian

“With the downfall of the Samanid Empire in 999 CE, Sogdiana came under the political domination of these same Turkic-speaking peoples. Over time, significant numbers of Turkic speakers settled in the region, intermarrying broadly within the local population. As a result, their language spread. But as it did, it was molded by the pre-existing Persian substratum, gaining a large number of Persian words and expressions; several of the resulting dialects even lost the distinctive “vowel harmony” that characterizes Turkic and, more broadly, Altaic languages. But the spread of Turkic speech did not result in the disappearance of Persian (or Tajik, in Turkic parlance). Instead, linguistic duality came to characterize much of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
In a social environment in which bilingualism was common, the distinction between those who spoke Persian and those who spoke a Turkic language was generally of little significance. What mattered more was mode of life. The main distinction here was that between settled people, whether city-dwellers or farmers, and pastoral nomads. Those with a sedentary lifestyle were generally called “Sarts,” both by outsiders and themselves, regardless of their mother tongue.
In contrast were the Turkic peoples who largely retained a pastoral way of life, most notably the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen. Included in this group were the original Uzbeks, a group of historically nomadic people, ultimately of Mongol origin, who had forged a powerful state the 1500s, the Shaybanid—or Uzbek—Khanate. The relatively non-Persianified Uzbek language of this group (known as Kipchak Uzbek) was, and is, much more closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than it is to the Turkic dialects of the settled Sarts (which are most closely related to Uyghur in northwestern China).

The Uighur were an ancient confederation of Turkic tribes that united in the sixth century (“Uighur” means “union”) and established a khanate south of Lake Baikal (Mongolia) in AD. 740. The capital of the Uighur Empire was Arhangai Aimag

Read more:

From an article on Xinjiang’s Taranchis and Sarts:

” In the multiethnic Muslim culture of Xinjiang, the term Taranchi is considered contradistinctive to Sart, which denotes towns dwelling traders and craftsmen. It of course excluded the ruling classes of the oases Muslim states, often calledMoghol/Mughal or Dolan because of the Doglat Mongol origin of the Chagatay-Timurid dynasties. However, from a modern perspective, Taranchi, Sart and Moghol Dolans cannot be considered three distinctive ethnic groups, but rather three different classes or castes in the same cultural-linguistic zone that was Chagatay-Timurid.”

*On moon symbolism of Saruta-Biko, and Saru-hijiri, the moon is a symbol closely associated with Uzbekistan and Buryatia (from which populations of Sarts and Sartuul people can be found):

The moon is a symbol of Uzbekistan. The crescent moon, a symbol of Islam, is common, though its appearance on the national flag is meant not as a religious symbol but as a metaphor for rebirth. The mythical bird Semurg on the state seal also symbolizes a national renaissance. In the early part of its history, the inhabitants of the area were from Iranian stock and spoke an Eastern Iranian language called Khwarezmian. During the final Saka phase, there were about 400 settlements in Khwarzem c. 500 B.C.

Subsequently the Iranian ruling class was replaced by Turks in the 10th century A.D, and the region gradually tuned into an area with a majority of Turkic speakers. The city of Khiva was first recorded by Muslim travellers in the 10th century, although archaeologists assert that the city has existed since the 6th century.

The Uyghur, Sarts are known to have slept with their heads facing east, and the Uighur Empire called the Empire of the Sun, therefore we posit the theory that such Hunnic migrants may have been the origin of the Japanese idea of emperor and how the Japanese empire of the sun came about.

Other resources:

Slavomír Horák, In Search of the History of Tajikistan What Are Tajik and Uzbek Historians
Arguing About?
Russian Politics and Law, vol. 48, no. 5, September–October 2010, pp. 65–77. ISSN 1061–1940/2010 DOI 10.2753/RUP1061-1940480504 – Tajiks were turkic or iranian speaking uzbeks according to the uzbeks. Mountain Tajiks refer to Takjiks from the Pamir-Hindu Kush region

Khwarezm has been known also as Chorasmia, Khwarezmia, Khwarizm, Khwarazm, Khorezm, Khoresm, Khorasam,Harezm, Horezm, and Chorezm. In Avestan the name is Xvairizem, in Old Persian Huwarazmish, in Modern Persian خوارزم (Khwārazm), in Arabic خوارزمKhwārizm, in Old Chinese *qʰaljɯʔmriɡ(呼似密), modern Chinese Huālázǐmó (花剌子模), in Kazakh Хорезм, in Uzbek Xorazm, in Turkmen Horezm, in Turkish Harezm, in Greek Χορασμία and Χορασίμα, by Herodotus.

The Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi in his Muʿǧam al-buldan wrote that the name was a compound (in Persian) of khwar(خوار), and razm (رزم), referring to the abundance of cooked fish as a main diet of the peoples of this area.[2]

C.E. Bosworth however, believes the Persian name to be made up of (خور) meaning “the sun” and (زم) meaning “Earth”, designating “the land from which the sun rises”,[3] although the same etymology is also given for Khurasan. Another view is that the Iranian compound stands for “lowland” from kh(w)ar “low” and zam “earth, land.”.[1] Khwarezm is indeed the lowest region in Central Asia (except for the Caspian Sea to the far west), located on the delta of the Amu Darya on the southern shores of the Aral Sea. Various forms of khwar/khar/khor/hor are commonly used also in the Persian Gulf to stand for tidal flats, marshland, or tidal bays (e.g., Khor Musa, Khor Abdallah, Hor al-Azim, Hor al-Himar, etc.) The name also appears in Achaemenid inscriptions as Huvarazmish, which is declared to be part of the Persian Empire.

Some of the early scholars believed Khwarezm to be what ancient Avestic texts refer to as Airyanem Vaejah (“Ariyaneh Waeje”; later Middle Persian Iran vij).[4] These sources claim that Old Urgench, which was the capital of ancient Khwarezm for many years, was actually Ourva, the eighth land of Ahura Mazda mentioned in the Pahlavi text of Vendidad.[5] However, Michael Witzel, a researcher in early Indo-European history, believes that Airyanem Vaejah was located in what is now Afghanistan, the northern areas of which were a part of ancient Khwarezm and Greater Khorasan.[6] Others, however, disagree. University of Hawaii historian Elton L. Daniel believes Khwarezm to be the “most likely locale” corresponding to the original home of the Avestan people, and Dehkhoda calls Khwarezm “مهد قوم آریا” (“the cradle of the Aryan tribe”). Like Soghdiana, Khwarzem was an expansion of the BMAC culture during the Bronze Age which later fused with Indo-Iranians during their migrations around 1000 BC. Early Iron Age states arose from this cultural exchange. List of successive cultures in Khwarzem region 3000–500 BC.

Further reading:



The Uyghur Empire The Uyghur khan appointed a yabhgu (there are Yabgu clans in Japan today) Yabghu – a title of Turkic polities, usually meaning Viceroy. The position of Yabgu was traditionally given to the second highest member of a ruling clan (Ashina), with the first member being the Kagan himself. Frequently, Yabgu was a younger brother of the ruling Kagan/Khan (Source: Yabghu)

History of the Uyghurs

“The Uighur were an ancient confederation of Turkic tribes that united in the sixth century (“Uighur” means “union”) and established a khanate south of Lake Baikal (Mongolia) in AD. 740. It maintained political and military alliances with the Tang dynasty in neighboring China. Trade and marital relations were forged as well, with Uighur princesses often marrying Chinese rulers. In 840 the Uighur Kingdom was conquered by the Kirghiz, another Turkic group. In the successive years, the original Uighur population dispersed south and west, often mixing with local populations. One group of Uighur likely became absorbed into the Chinese Empire, whereas another migrated south to became directly antecedent to the Yugur (Yellow Uighur) of China’s Gansu Province.

Many Uighur migrated southwest to the desert-oasis regions north of the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang Province, China). Near Turfan and Kucha they reestablished a kingdom increasingly based on agriculture and trade. Even as its political power declined, art, music, and religion flourished. Uighur established a new script based on the Sogdian writing system (an old Iranian dialect). Buddhism was adopted, along with Nestorian Christianity and Zoroastrianism.” Read more:

Forgotten Past – The Uyghur Empire by Dr. Haluk BERKMEN

Comparing Soul Trees and Trees of Life


The Soul Tree, Jomon Period, excavated in the Tama Hills, Kanagawa, reconstruction of original context

The Soul Tree, Jomon Period, excavated from the Tama Hills, Kanagawa, reconstruction of original ritual context

The above photo shows an excavated site belonging to the Jomon Period in Japan. The comma-shaped gemstones hung on the tree are called ‘maga-tama‘ in Japanese, ‘maga’ meaning ‘curved’ and ‘tama’ meaning jewel, which is also synonymous with ‘soul’.  (Of course, we cannot be sure that is what they were called during Prehistoric Jomon times)  However, maga-tama gems have been fairly common finds in Jomon Period, often seemingly in an altar setting beside a phallic item in the pit dwelling, although large numbers are excavated from Yayoi and Kofun Period tombs. The specific context of the funerary and ritual setting is significant and lends a number of possible interpretations of the abstract symbolism represented by the ritual setting (see  below – the scenes below are adjacent to the “Soul Tree” located to its right).

photo (6)photo (5)

Firstly, the maga-tama jewels hung on a tree in a funerary setting, are seemingly suggestive that each tama is symbolic of a soul (see definition below) The concept of a =departed ancestor on the Soul Tree is known in specific parts of the world (which we will examine below).

Secondly, the reconstructed scene based on the actual topography of the excavated site, faces a mountain with special astronomical sightings such as the appearance of the sun upon the mountain peak. This setting is suggestive of yet another set of fairly complex ideas at work (in Wakhan-Afghanistan as well as in Persia, the Nowruz Spring Festival/New Year would not begin till the sun had mounted the peak over the mountain and the people would pay their respects to their ancestors the night before, lighting bonfires(ancestor worship).

The ceramic pottery suggest a scenario where a feast and food offerings were made to ancestors, (a scenario which looks a lot like an ancient version of the Persian-Eurasia-wide New Year or spring festival). This setting leads us to infer that there was a symbolism of, and a belief in a Tree of Souls, and ancestor veneration practices among the Jomon people of the Kanto area. A Soul Tree concept is the concept of an ancestral tree to which the deceased or departed have ascended to find their rest.

There was a continuity in the magatama material culture from the Jomon through the Kofun ages.    But was there also a continuity of ideas?

Jomon Period magatama bead, Kiusu no. 4 site, Chitose city, Hokkaido

Jomon Period magatama bead, Kiusu no. 4 site, Chitose city, Hokkaido

Tama – the Soul or Human Spirit

The entry in the Encyclopedia of Shinto defines “tama” thus:

“A general term for spirit or soul in ancient times. In addition to human spirit, it also refers to spirit or spiritual force in nature. A human soul is considered a spiritual entity that comes from outside and dwells in the body, endowing the individual with energy and personality. The word tamashii (spirit, soul) presumably had an original meaning of the “function of tama.” Mitama (御魂、御霊) is an honorific term of tama. When it is written with the characters 神霊 (mitama), it refers to a spirit of a kami. Later on, the spelling of 御霊 came to be used exclusively for goryō, a spirit that brings hazards to a human society.”

The tama representing the soul or spirit of a person is a belief recognizable from the design motif found in crowns of the Kofun Period (possibly earlier) through to today’s Japanese. While the magatama beads attached to golden crowns are shared with the early Koreanic kingdoms, particularly, that of the Silla, the magatama found during the earlier Jomon Period are not similarly found on the Korean peninsula, thus suggesting a different provenance and associated cultures.

Tree worship and tree motifs are frequently said to be a universal phenomenon, however, we would like to show that within the broad notion of the Sacred or Magical Tree, there are in fact distinctive categories and different concepts, and important distinctions and different characteristics will help identify the cultural sphere the object and mytheme belongs to, and the stage of evolution and complexity of the belief, practice or myth, will lend a perspective on the historical events and times associated with the associated myth and mytheme.

For example, the Jomon Soul Tree idea is not only distinctive, the concept of a Soul Tree is significant in identifying the material culture it is associated with (i.e. stone and wood) and the distinct geographical locations where the Soul Tree beliefs exist, and may juxtaposed alongside of those cultures. It can be distinguished from the later material culture (bronze and gold leaf technology) which has the Tree of Life, central to the World Tree and Tripartite World cosmogony…and consequently with the cultural spheres from which metallurgy arrived.

The Jomon Soul Tree is also clearly a concept distinguishable from other ideas such as the Tree of Fortune; Fertility Tree, Dying Tree or Vegetative Deity, Tree of Knowledge, Cosmic Tree or Solar Tree, etc.. Each of these motifs are distinctive enough and we may be able to identify the associated cultural spheres of each of these. It may also prove useful and worthwhile to compare the Soul Trees found in other cultures, which may throw light on the general origins of and migrational paths taken by the Jomon people, before settling in Japan.

Other cultures with concepts of Soul Trees or cultural beliefs of a people or tribe descended from a tree include:

Indo-China: Vietnam appears to also have a complex Soul Tree, one that however, also includes Genesis-like two-tree motif which explains how mankind lost their immortality after the burial of man at the foot of wrong tree. Their Bahnars’ myth goes like this:
“They say that in the beginning when people die, they used to be buried at the foot of a certain tree called Long Blo, and that after a time they regularly rose from the dead, not as infants. But as fully grown men and women. So Earth peopled very fast, and all the inhabitants formed but one great town under the presidency of our first parents. ..[the crowdedness vexed a certain lizard ] and the wily creature gave an insidious hint to the grave diggers. “Why bury the dead at the foot of the Long Blo tree? Said he; ‘bury them at the foot of the Long Khung, and they will not come back to life again. Let them die outright and be done with it.’ The hint was taken, and from that day men have not come to life again.” – Oppenheimer “East of Eden,” p. 397
Iranian: The first human couple, Maschia and Maschiana, issued from the ground (according to some versions out of a rotting corpse ) in the form of a rhubarb plant (the Rheum ribes), which was at first single, but in process of time became divided into two. Ormuzd imparted to each a human soul, and they became parents of mankind.”
Gold Decorative Pieces Achaemenid Period, 5th - 4th century, B.C. In the collection of the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran

A Tree of Life flanked by a pair of animals, among the gold decorative pieces, Iran, Achaemenid Period, 5th – 4th century, B.C. In the collection of the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran

India: Mahabharata: An enormous Indian fig-tree from whose branches hung little devotees in human form. The Malabar speak of a tree whose fruit were pigmy men and women. The Khatties of Central India are said to be descended from Khat “begotten of wood” who at the prayer of Karna sprang from the staff fashioned from a branch of a tree. One Indian superstition is that peepal trees are the abode of ghosts and spirits. The legendary ‘Munja’ ghost is also believed to reside in the peepal tree.

According to Hesychius of the Greeks:
“The  human race was the first fruit of the ash, and Hesiod relates that it was from the trunks of ash-trees that Zeus created the third or fourth bronze race of men. The oak was particularized as the favored tree of another tradition. “Whence art thou?” Inquires Penelope of the disguised Ulysses ” for these are not sprung of oak or rock, as old tales tell”
Germanic and Nordic traditions, according to the Eddas,
“when Heaven had been made: Odin and his brothers walking by the sea shore came upon two trees. These they changed into human beings, male and female. The first brother gave them soul and life; the second endowed them with wit and will to move; the third added face, speech, sight and hearing. They clothed them also and chose their names  Ask for the man ‘s and Embla for the woman’s and they sent them forth to be parents of the human race.” – Odin and the Eddas
Interestingly, the Scandinavians are now thought to have received influences from their Central Asian interactions with Scythian-Sarmatians, and with the Altai tribes: see David K. Faux “The Genetic Link of the Viking – Era Norse to Central Asia: An Assessment of the Y Chromosome DNA“, Archaeological, Historical and Linguistic Evidence, 2004 – 2007. The shared concepts may be less surprising in view of the genetic links.

In the European tradition of Saxony,  Thuringians too, children are spoken of as growing on a tree. There were traditions in Latvia, Lithuania, and northern Germany of the world tree as a distant oak, birch, or apple tree with iron roots, copper branches, and silver leaves. The spirits of the dead lived in this tree.

In Damascus, Syria, they have a creation myth where their progenitor was a tree out of which everything descended and came – Bushmen, zebras, oxen …. In the Arabic tradition, the Arabs say there is a talking tree growing at the Eastern most point of the world which bore young women on its branches instead of fruit.

The Semitic tradition. While the Biblical Genesis Tree of Life or more correctly, the Tree of Knowledge is best known, the Kabbalah writings speak at length of a Soul Tree of the Hebrews – see Origins of the Kabbalah by Gershom Gerhard Scholem

God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise. The angel who sits beneath it is the Guardian of Paradise, and the tree is surrounded by the four winds of the world. From this tree blossom forth all souls, as it is said, “I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth from Me.”(Hos.14:9). And from the roots of this tree sprout the souls of all the righteous ones whose names are inscribed there. When the souls grow ripe, they descend into the Treasury of Souls, where they are stored until they are called upon to be born. From this we learn that all souls are the fruit of the Holy One, blessed be He.

This Tree of Souls produces all the souls that have ever existed, or will ever exist. And when the last soul descends, the world as we know it will come to an end.

Rabbinic and kabbalistic texts speculate that the origin of souls is somewhere in heaven. This myth provides the heavenly origin of souls, and in itself fuses many traditions. First, it develops themes based on the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. It also builds on the tradition that just as there is an earthly Garden of Eden, so is there a heavenly one ….

As for the Tree of Life in Paradise, its blossoms are souls. It produces new souls, which ripen, and then fall from the tree into the Gulf, the Treasury of Souls in Paradise. There the soul is stored until the angel Gabriel reaches into the treasury and takes out the first soul that comes into his hand. After that, Lailah, the Angel of Conception, guards over the embryo until it is born. Thus the Tree of Life in Paradise is a Tree of Souls. See “The Treasury of Souls,” p. 166. For an alternate myth about the origin of souls, see “The Creation of Souls,” p. 163. For the myth of the formation of the embryo see “The Angel of Conception,” p. 199.

Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari, believed that trees were resting places for souls, and performed a tree ritual in the month of Nisan, when trees are budding. He felt that this was the right time to participate in the rescue of wandering spirits, incarnated in lower life forms. The Ari often took his students out into nature to teach them there. On one such occasion, upon raising his eyes, he saw all the trees peopled with countless spirits, and he asked them, “Why have you gathered here?” They replied, “We did not repent during our lifetime. We have heard about you, that you can heal and mend us.” And the Ari promised to help them. The disciples saw him in conversation, but they were not aware of with whom he conversed. Later they asked him about it, and he replied, “If you had been able to see them, you would have been shocked to see the crowds of spirits in the trees.”

The core text of this myth comes from Ha-Nefesh ha-Hakhamah by Moshe de Leon (Spain, 13th century) who is generally recognized as the primary author of the Zohar. It is possible that de Leon symbolically identified the Tree of Souls with the kabbalistic “tree” of the ten sefirot. Tikkunei Zohar speaks of the ten sefirot blossoming and flying forth souls. (See also the diagram of the sefirot on p. 529.)

Not only is there the notion of a Tree of Souls in Judaism, and the notion that souls take shelter in trees, but there is also the belief that trees have souls. This is indicated in a story about Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav found in Sihot Moharan 535 in Hayei Moharan: Rabbi Nachman was once traveling with his Hasidim by carriage, and as it grew dark they came to an inn, where they spent the night. During the night Rabbi Nachman began to cry out loudly in his sleep, waking up everyone in the inn, all of whom came running to see what had happened. When he awoke, the first thing Rabbi Nachman did was to take out a book he had brought with him. Then he closed his eyes and opened the book and pointed to a passage. ..

Sources: Sefer ha-Hezyonot 1:23; Shivhei Rabbi Hayim Vital p. 66; Siddur Sha’ar Shamayim.    The  Kabbalistic writings “Tree of Souls

  The Turkic Tree Kazakh:

“Baiterek is the world tree. It is one of the embodiments of the universe and model of world. It is met in all myth traditions, including the Kazakh mythology. Baiterek (literally – original poplar, mother poplar), the World Tree, connects all three levels: upper-heaven with nine or seven layers, middle and lower ones, having seven or nine layers of the universe. Its individual parts represent the parts of separate worlds: roots represent the underworld, crown is the middle world, branches and leaves are the upper world. Etymology of ‘Terek’ (variants: darak, darau, dara, tarak) comes apparently from *Tir – life.

Baiterek is the original life. Most often, actually the one story found in many fairy tales is as follows: The hero finds himself in the underworld, and after a long journey reaches a large tree where he helps the chicks of giant bird Alyp Karakus (Simurg) killing a snake or dragon aydakhar. In gratitude, the bird delivers the hero to the earth’s surface. Tree is the world tree, and bird and snake are representatives of opposing worlds – the upper and lower worlds. Their perpetual opposition involves a middle world representative – a man, a hero of the tale.

Baiterek – the world tree – is the center of the universe. It is the door, the gate between the worlds, and usually the sacred actions occur under such tree. Baiterek is also at the center of the horizontal model of the world. The horizontal structure of the world: on the right of the tree is the moon, on the left – the sun and the star (ayyn tusyn onynnan, zhuldyzyn tusyn sonynnan).

The Kazakh epic Kobylandy and dastan of Kashagan ‘Aday tegi’ mention the world tree as a tree with golden leaves (in the epic it has the golden and silver leaves), in dastan of Kashagan, it is referred as a tree of all fruits.

There are data on two world trees or poles, standing in parallel. The image of the world tree symbolizes the marriage, succession from generation to generation, genealogical tree. The Turkic people had widespread belief that people take the babies under the trees (comparing with version of genealogical legend about Aday), or that the ancestors’ souls live in the tree, branches and leaves. The branches of shaman tree, according to the ideas of Turkic-Mongol people, host the souls, preparing for a new birth.

Kazakh shamans believe that the world tree appears as a material thing – ‘asa tayak’ as well as the pole put into the ground near the tomb of holy person-‘aulie’. The symbolism is clear in this case: the pole – Bagan shall symbolize the world tree, by which the soul of dead shall rise into the sky, and by which it can go down. For the same reason the Kazakhs are put on tunduk spear after they die.

‘Baiterek’ word is used in the tribal sign system of the Kazakhs. For example, a generic slogan and one of the mythical ancestors of the tribe Kangly is Baiterek. Among the Turkic people, the myth traditions of world tree image are preserved well enough by Sakha Yakuts. It is called al-luk-mas or pay kayyn. (Kayyn – katyn)” Baiterek   Source: Book of Serikbola Kondybay. Kazakh mythology

Source: Book of Serikbola Kondybay. Kazakh mythology

Source: Book of Serikbola Kondybay. Kazakh mythology

James George Frazer in his book “The Golden Bough” wrote of the ubiquity of the idea and belief among many ancient tribes all over the world, that one’s soul could be hidden in an object, totem animal, plant or tree, outside of one’s own body (akin to the shintai concept of the Japanese). He mentions the tamaniu concept of the Melanesians:

“Among the Melanesians of Mota, one of the New Hebrides islands, the conception of an external soul is carried out in the practice of daily life. In the Mota language the word tamaniu signifies “something animate or inanimate which a man has come to believe to have an existence intimately connected with his own… . It was not every one in Mota who had his tamaniu; only some men fancied that they had this relation to a lizard, a snake, or it might be a stone; sometimes the thing was sought for and found by drinking the infusion of certain leaves and heaping together the dregs; then whatever living thing was first seen in or upon the heap was the tamaniu. It was watched but not fed or worshipped; the natives believed that it came at call, and that the life of the man was bound up with the life of his tamaniu, if a living thing, or with its safety; should it die, or if not living get broken or be lost, the man would die. Hence in case of sickness they would send to see if the tamaniu was safe and well.”

The “tamaniu” is not only phonetically similar sounding but in meaning possibly finds a cognate in mi-tama, magatama, tamashi concepts of the Japanese, so that it may be able to find a genetic connection or an interaction sphere of cultural borrowing of ideas as well. When considering the jade material culture – the East Asia is markedly far more sophisticated from early times, and although it is the magatama jade and female figurines of the Jomon are popularly considered to have emerged from the Hongshan culture, it is abundantly clear however, that Japan did not follow in producing any of the same forms of jade items or figurines at all.

All that we can ascertain is that the early Jomon earring forms were identical to those on the Southern Chinese coast, and that some populations of the Jomon period received extensive migrations from Siberia which is evident from the shared genepool. These areas contiguous areas to Japan, therefore have been sources for Jomon tree myths and beliefs. The Bronze Age culture and gold crowns with Tree-of-Life with bird-and-boat motifs are most likely a heritage that came with the Bronze Age metal-workers, via the Silk Road, sponsored by some elite royals of Saka-lineages and/or Koreanic Sillan families. Their concept of a Cosmic World Tree of Life, however,  would only have complemented or built upon the previously existing body of tree myths and beliefs already owned by the indigenous or earlier waves of settled populations.

The Melanesians who are upstream (or older) in the ancestral or phylogenetic tree of the haplogroup C (Y-DNA)-bearing migrants who went northwards to Japan and to East Asia (Mongolians, Siberians, Koreans) after passing through the Indian subcontinent and Melanesian Island Southeast Asia (see p. 4, map A, Wang and Li paper). There is a Melanesian belief in the dual composition of the tama soul called “konpaku” (which looks a lot like the Taoist dual “maga-tama” embryo). According to one interpretation of the Chinkon sai rite:

Kon– A Sinic term that refers to the soul. In ancient China kon was related to yang (of yin-yang dualism) and to the dimension of mental activity, while haku was related to yin and the somatic, physiological dimension. Thus, the soul had a two-layered structure. Accordingly, when a person died it was believed that these two components returned respectively to the heavens and the earth. Concerning their relationship to the Japanese conception of soul (tama), the kon (tamashii) of konpaku was indicated as corresponding to it. This was according to an interpretation of chinkon (pacifying spirits, see chinkonsai) found in the regulations dealing with personnel (shokuinryō) in the article for Shintō administration (jingikan jō) of the ritsuryō legal code, which was revised in the first half of the eighth century. On the other hand, konpaku was used as another term for mitama in a tenth century work called the Wamyōruijūshō. Subsequently, other interpretations were also offered, such as konpaku being the combined spirit of blessing (sakimitama) and the spirit of auspiciousness (kushimitama). — Konpaku, The Encyclopedia of Shinto

The concept of the jade jewel or stone as repository for the soul is also significant in the exploitation and demand for jade and other semi-precious stones. Although jade as an elixir (grounded into powder) or as magical amulet is better known in the Chinese civilization, the association of green jadeite with the stone being a repository of life force is also a known reason for Chinese (and Khotanese) jade exploitation.

An alternative explanation is that Japanese tamashi might also be cognate with the also similar-sounding Indian Brahma Kumaris(origin: India) and Sikkh word, atma for soul, believed to be life-sustaining spiritual light or “spiritual spark”, and in the former, to reside in the forehead of the occupied bodies, and “The pure root of the tree is Brahman, the immortal, in whom the three worlds have their being, whom none can transcend, who is verily the Self” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:1)  (see The Universal Tree)

However, according to  “Legend in Japanese art“ at p. 355, the Jade Stone called Benwa or Tama is mentioned in a tale:

“The Jade Stone found by BENWA (PiEN Ho) is also called Tama, and it plays a part in the wars between the Chinese Kingdoms of Wu and Yueh, which is set forth in the Goyetsu gun dan (443, et seq.). In the eighth century B.C. Pien Ho found an eagle standing upon a large block of jade; he took the stone to the ruler of Ts’u, whose advisers pronounced it to be valueless, and gave it back to the man, but first of all they cut off his right foot. Benwa returned to the King Shan mountains and put the stone back in its proper place, when the same eagle came again to perch upon it. In the meantime the King had died, and the man went again to Court with his stone to present it to the new ruler, and this time his left foot was cut off. A third King came to the throne, and on seeing Benwa weeping by the gate of the Palace,  inquired into the cause of his grief, and had the stone tested, when it was found to be a perfect gem.*”

This stone was at last carved and made into a jewel called the Ho SHI CHI PIH, which finally passed into the hands of the King of Chao, Bun O; 3E (298-266 B.C.). This King had a devoted counsellor in the person of LIN SIANG Ju (Rinshojo)  and when the envious ruler of Ts’in offered fifteen cities in exchange for the stone, this crafty person advised Bun O to surrender the stone and accept the land in exchange. But soon after he went to the Court of Ts’in and requested that the jewel be sent back to Chao. Ts’in hesitated, but Rinshojo took the stone, saying: “Do you fail to see its defects?” walking the while away from the King until he came to the end of the hall. He then dropped his cap and exclaimed: “Unless you return this stone to my master I shall break it to pieces; not only have we jewels, but also courageous men, such as none could be found in Ts’in!” The King of Ts’in yielded to his demands.

In some versions, he is said to have invaded Chao, and requested the stone as a ransom for the fifteen cities, but to have given way before Rinshojo’s boldness””… See Comparative survey of moon symbols and beliefs, and the likely derivation of “tamashii” jewel or soul  [Note that in Zhuzhou, shishi (which is close in sound to the Japanese word for rock, “ishi”), is a Mongolic word associated with megalithic tomb stone]


Beliefs in tree worship, tree of life (immortality) and World Tree/Pillar cosmologies may be divided into these categories:

1) Creation myths of a race or tribe originating from trees, (many examples of Tree of Souls follow below)

According to the Altai Turks, human beings are descended from trees. According to the Yakuts, White Mother sits at the base of the Tree of Life, whose branches reach to the heavens where it is occupied by various creatures that have come to life there (Source: Turkic mythology) The central importance of the Tree of Souls to the Turks is dwelt on as revealed from ancient traditional rug motifs and the people who make them:

The Siberian Turks, who preserve most rudiments of ancient Turkish culture, believe in the ties between a man and a tree which they envision as a kind of umbilical cord. They believe, that when an old tree dies, it means that an old man had died somewhere, and when a young tree falls down, it indicated the death of a youth. After death, according their beliefs, the human spirit returns to the tree. Similar notions are current among the Kazaks and the Turkmen of Mangyshlak, who believe that there is a tree in heaven, every leaf of that tree belonging to someone on Earth. When a man dies, his leaf falls off (Karutz, s.a. page 134). It explains certain burial rites connected with trees. Small toothless babies were regarded as creatures completely belonging to Nature, therefore, Siberian Turks used to dispose of their dead bodies, wrapping them in birch bark, and hanging them on trees. Birch bark, the symbol of proximity to Nature, emphasizes that a baby has nothing to do with the culture of men, but instead belongs to wild nature. According to shamanistic beliefs, a six moth old baby still remembers the tree on which his spirit used to reset in the shape of a bird (Sovetskaya ethnograpfiya, 1974, No. 2, p 109). The placenta of a new born baby is buried below a tree. The tree was regarded as a place where reincarnated souls from the clan lived, growing in the shape of leaves, fruits or most often in the shape of birds. Each clan or tribe has its own kind of tree. Spirits of different animal species were also believed to be growing on their own special trees. The archaic cultures of hunter tribes of the Russian East present even more integral notions of incarnating spirits. According to their beliefs, a female demi-god named Omi, the mistress of all kinds of vital forces, lives in Heaven.

A female deity of a similar name, May, which is common to all Turkic peoples and which performs similar functions – patronage of childhood, childbearing, endowing ikhakans with charisma, luck in battle, etc. – probably represents the same personage. In Heaven animal species are ripening on their own tree which belongs to goddess the Omi. Anthropogenic myths about trees, the ancestors of human being, are popular among the peoples of this region.

The forefather of the Nanay people was born by a tree. He was also the first human named Hado or Hodai (Sistemniya issledovaniya vzaimosvyazi drevnih kultur Sibriri I Severnoi Ameriki, 1995, p. 114) [These sound like homonyms for Hoori and Hoderi brothers in the royal genealogy of the ancient Japanese texts]…Other myths tell about the creation of the shaman tree by a demi-god, who is at the same time a shaman himself, and a married couple, who are a brother and a sister born by a tree. Stories of a married couple, the forefathers of mankind, are widespread in Eurasia. In the legendary genealogy of the Oghuz people, the Oghuz name, two trees, the golden one and the silver one, are mentioned.

A clan generation tree of the Namay people from Eastern Siberia

A clan generation tree of the Namay people from Eastern Siberia, traditional rug motif (Source: Galina Serkina)

A newly consecrated Buryat shaman had to run around a tree (Potapov, 1991, 123). Moreover shamans used a tree during their mysteries (Radlov, 1989, p371). Each shaman was a keeper and protector of his clan or tribe. Shamans had their own tree upon which they placed the souls of all the people they protected (potapov., 1991, p423). Such trees were guarded by spirits-protectors assisting shamans. The Yakuts regarded their shamans as trees. His limbs were called “branches”, not arms or legs (Xenofontov, 1992, p. 77) …

The “vak-vak” tree

Now, let us turn to the “talking trees”. In the past, the peoples of Tuva and Altai ascribed to trees certain human abilities (Traditsionnoye mirovozzreniye tyurkov yutshnoi Sibiri, 1990, pp. 68, 79) Trees, according to their beliefs, were conscious of pain, they slept at night, and they could die as humans. The Turks of the Near East called them “talking trees” (danisan agac). In western scholarly works, they are also mentioned under the name “vak-vak”.. The theme of the vak-vak trees is founded upon the notions of the hunter tribes of Siberia that human souls grown on trees. As for the word, vak, it has originated from the Indo-European “bhag”, meaning “tree, ok”. It is known that the ancient Indo )Aryans worshiped oaks. (the Russian word “Bog” (God) also derives from the same stem.( The Yakut “bagah” is evidently related tot the Inod0Euriopean “bhag and “bak”. “Bagah in the Yakut language has two meanings, “tether and pole, pillar”. A similar word “bakan/bagana” of the Turkish languages has almost the same meaning “pole of the tent” (Potamin, vol IV 1883, p. 14). Both these objects played an important part in the rites of birth and fertility. The tether and the pole are the ritual substitutions of the mythical Tree. Turkish speaking peoples making a sacrifice to their gods used to stretch an animal skin on a tree (pole). The existence of a similar custom among the Tyugo people is testified by Chinese sources.

“symbolizes the world center, where Heaven and earth touch, where all times and places converge. They may be honored by tying on pieces of cloth. The lone birch, the “shaman tree”, is called ongonmodon, for these trees are believed to be the home of the shamans’ helper spirits, Ongon. Trees are also symbolic of the World Tree, which is usually visualized as a birch or willow. The Buryat have wooden ovoo (shrine) which are also a symbol for the World Tree. Another type of ritual tree is the serge, which is made from a young birch.Some of them were once souls of human beings, ancestors from a time so long ago. A mountain or tree of great majesty will be said to have suld, which is the same word that is used to refer to the soul which remains in nature after death. Unusual rocks or trees are believed to have a strong spirit and are respected or given offerings of tobacco or liquor. Mountain spirits are considered to be very powerful, and are prayed to in order to provide good hunting and abundance of natural food plants. These ceremonies are usually held roughly around the times of the equinoxes and solstices and are usually performed by the elders of the local clan or tribe. Mountain spirits and other powerful Gazriin Ezen are worshipped at special shrines called ovoo, which are tall piles of rocks and tree branches, roughly conical in diameter.”

The Buryat Mongols believe:

[Buriat] “A red silk rope is led from the patient to a birch tree set up outside the yurt. The soul of the patient is supposed to come back along this rope … . Outside the yurt a man holds a horse, as … this animal perceives first the arrival of the soul and quivers.”

A long, red ribbon with a copper button at the end is fastened to this arrow. Then the ribbon is … tied to a branch of birch tree that had been stuck there [outside the yurt] into the earth. The red ribbon serves as the path of the soul. … A man is sitting near the tree branch and keeps the … horse of the patient. … the horse feels the presence of the returned soul and begins to tremble and neigh.”

2) A general belief in trees or vegetation as abode of spirits, tree spirits or tree demons (sometimes flanked by animals)

In the Heian period dictionary, the Wamyō Ruijushō,  tree gods are mentioned and called “Kodama” (古多万). In Aogashima in the Izu Islands, shrines are created at the base of large sugi trees in the mountains and are worshipped under the name “kidama-sama” and “kodama-sama”, thus the surviving beliefs of tree spirits can be seen. Also, in the village of Mitsune on Hachijō-jima, whenever a tree is cut, there was a tradition that one must offer a festival {offering s-i-c] to the tree’s spirit “kidama-sama” . On Okinawa Island, tree spirits are called “kiinushii,” and whenever a tree is cut down, one would first pray to kiinushii and then cut it. Also, when the there is the echoing sound of what sounds like a fallen tree at the dead of night even thought here are no actual fallen trees, it is said to be the anguishing voice of kiinushii, and it is said that in times like these, the tree would then wither several days later. The kijimuna, which is known as a yōkai on Okinawa, is also sometimes said to be a type of kiinushii, or a personification of a kiinushii (source: Kodama).
In a broad swathe from India through to Southeast Asia and from the Southeast Asian Islands through to Melanesia, the concept of the vegative tree or vine deity as progenitor is extremely common.
The Kayans:

 “By far the most common, however, are those myths, which trace mankind to some miraculous source, an origin from plants or trees being perhaps the most frequent of these. For the most part we have from the eastern and southeastern islands only the statement that the ancestor or ancestors of mankind burst from a bamboo or tree, although in some instances the tales are more precise. Thus in the Ceram-laut and Gorrom Islands it is said that in the beginning a woman of great beauty, called Winia, came out of a tree together with a white hog, the woman climbing into a tall tree, while the hog remained at its foot. After a time a raft floated ashore, on which was another woman, Kiliboban by name, who had drifted here from New Guinea and who became the comrade of the hog. Later a man (of whose origin nothing is said) came by and took off his clothing to go in fishing, but the two women saw him and laughed at’ him, whereupon, surprised that any one else was in the vicinity, the man sought for the source of the laughter and found Kiliboban, whom he straightway asked to be his wife. She, however, refused, but directed him to the tree in whose top Winia was concealed; so he climbed the tree forthwith, found the lovely damsel there, and taking her to be his wife, became by her the ancestor of mankind.

… the island of Nias, lying off the western coast of Sumatra. According to myths from this island, there was in the beginning only darkness and fog, which condensed and brought forth a being with-out speech or motion, without head, arms, or legs; and in its turn this being gave existence to another, who died, and from whose heart sprang a tree which bore three sets of three buds. From the first two sets six beings were produced, two of whom made from the third set of buds a man and a woman—the ancestors of mankind

In Amboina and Buru, the first human beings came from a tree after a bird had sat upon it and fructified it. In the latter island, according to one myth, the first to appear was a woman, who built a fire near the base of the tree, which it warmed, whereupon the tree split in two, and a man came forth who married the woman. A variant makes the man the first to appear. In Wetar the first woman came from the fruit of a tree; and far to the north, among the Ami, one of the wild tribes of Formosa, we find the same belief, for it is said that in the beginning a being planted in the ground a staff, which took root and became a bamboo on which two shoots developed, a man issuing from one of them and a woman from the other. Coming farther west to Celebes, traces of the idea are found in Minahassa, where, according to one myth, a tree-trunk floated ashore, and from it, when it was broken open by a deity, a man (in reality a god) came forth. A similar tale from the Tagalog, in the Philippines, is reported, in which two hollow bamboos floated ashore on the first land; these were pecked open by a bird, whereupon a man issued from the one and a woman from the other, the two thus be-coming the ancestors of mankind. The belief appears again in Borneo in a tale from the Kayan, where the tree and vine of miraculous origin produce the ancestors of the different tribes; and a variant also occurs in southeast Borneo. Lastly we find in Nias 7′ that man originated from the fruit of the tree, tora’a, which grew, according to one account, upon the back of one of the first beings derived from original chaos; or according to another, from his heart after his death.” – “Myths of origins and the Deluge of Indonesia

The Southeast Asians possess many myths about spirit trees (see Thai spirit houses and spirit trees) and about people (Laos, South China, Tai, etc.) emerging from a gourd or vine (see Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (hun-tun), N. J. Girardot pp 206-213;  Myths, Lao Literature Home Page, chap 2)  Mention of the sacred gourd is among the earliest recorded royal genealogies (Kojiki) of Japan as well as in folktales (see Demon at Agi Bridge).
In Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East analysis:
“Austro-Asiatic areas show not only the earlier versions but also a greater variety of mechanisms in the inclusion of early forms of the perverted message and the trees of life and death. The last point of diversity gives further evidence that the area of origin of these myths was on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean.”

Vines figure prominently in the myths of Southeast Asia, particularly gourd (usually along with a deluge sub-motif) stories:

“The legends of the Kayan, Kenyah, and Bahau of central Borneo. According to the Kayan, originally there was nothing but the primeval sea and over-arching sky; but from the heavens there fell into the sea a great rock, upon whose barren surface, in course of time, slime collected, from which were bred worms that bored into the rock. The sand produced by this boring collected, eventually covering the rock with soil, and after many years there fell from the sun upon this land the wooden handle of a sword which, taking root, grew into a great tree; while from the moon fell a vine which clung to the tree and rooted itself in the rock. From this mating of the tree and vine were born two beings, a boy and a girl, who wedded in their turn and became the ancestors of the Kayan..”Myths of origins and the Deluge of Indonesia:

3) Specific Sacred Tree identification or association with specific deities – or tree associations with kings/princes/holy men/heroes with divine or semi-divine status (the distinction between the two categories may be blurred or one category evolves into another)

Examples of this type of tree belief … are too many to list all. In Japan, most shrines and temples have a “Shinboku” or “divine tree,” a tree regarded as sacred, as the symbol of sacred territory or a place in which the kami dwell” (see Encyclopedia of Shinto). Norse mythology:

The sacrifice of Odin (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

Odin was regarded as “guide of souls” and originally the leader of the war band. One of Odin’s names is Hangatýr, the god of the hanged. The ascetic ritual of hanging from the world tree, Odin’s practice of seidr, his familiar animals (Sleipnir, Huginn and Muninn) and his connection to ecstatic inspiration are highly suggestive of an origin in a shaman leader. With new later influences upon the warring society, Odin’s shamanistic role may have become less prominent, while remaining one of his attributes, so that he became revered in medieval society as a wise king of the gods and bringer of victory.

4) Magical trees with bounty of magical fruit (that can bring healing or have an amulet function to ward off evil), or fruits de la mer (the Fishing Tree) or Bronze Age Golden Tree or the Eastern variant: Tree of Gold, Fortune or the Money Tree

– Greek-Argos: Hera (see below) The deity who gave the fruits of the land, depicted with a pomegranate in hand

Juno, with Pomegranate

The Golden Tree The idea that trees are associated with treasure hoards, and therefore gold or fortune are naturally strongly associated with cultures that were involved with bronze, gold smithing technology (see Sarmatian gold; Silla Korea and the Silk Road: Golden Age, Golden Threads) and coin-minting.

However, a Jewish tale tells of The Golden Tree in the dream of a Jewish king, who regrets banishing his favorite wife, and has to travel to India to find her under a Golden Tree … and who, upon their return, plants a branch of the holy golden tree in his palace garden. The Golden Tree motif is often regarded a trait of Scythian crowns, but it is in fact traceable to the spread of gilt and goldleaf technology across Central Asian and a number of East Asian cultures, see this gallery of Scythian crowns

Crowns of a tree-like (or some say, an Iron Mountain motif) pattern are seen in Japanese tumuli, of a type found in larger numbers in the 5th-6th c. Sillan kingdom of Korea. The Tree of Life (Golden Tree or Tree with golden leaves motif) is thought to be an especially dominant motif of Bronze Age Scythian specifically Indo-Saka peoples, from Iran, Afghanistan in Central Asia diffusing to the Korean peninsula and to Japan in conjunction with gilt-working technology. The motif is particularly associated with princely crowns of Central Asia:

Images of the Tree of Life were as varied as the many cultures which depicted it, appearing in the art of both settled and nomadic cultures throughout ancient Eurasia. From the 8th-7th century BCE pectoral of Ziwiye, to the famous 1st century CE Sarmatian crown from Khokhlach, however, the importance and significance of the Tree was instantly recognizable, revealing a common thread of belief throughout the cultures and across the ages. This stunning pectoral illustrates the tree in its fullest magnificence, bursting with blossoms, its bottom branches hung heavy with fanciful leaf-shaped pendants. Double layers of six-lobed petals frame semi-precious stones, while nearly one hundred stones in vibrant orange and turquoise accent more than thirty dangling pendants.

Images of the Tree of Life were as varied as the many cultures which depicted it, appearing in the art of both settled and nomadic cultures throughout ancient Eurasia. From the 8th-7th century BCE pectoral of Ziwiye, to the famous 1st century CE Sarmatian crown from Khokhlach, however, the importance and significance of the Tree was instantly recognizable, revealing a common thread of belief throughout the cultures and across the ages. This stunning pectoral illustrates the tree in its fullest magnificence, bursting with blossoms, its bottom branches hung heavy with fanciful leaf-shaped pendants. Double layers of six-lobed petals frame semi-precious stones, while nearly one hundred stones in vibrant orange and turquoise accent more than thirty dangling pendants.

From the animal style of artefacts of the tomb the Ziwiyeh material are thought to have come from the tomb of a Scythian prince, or a Median chieftain. However, Ziwiyeh was most probably a stronghold of the Manneans, an indigenous people of the Zagros Mountains, mentioned in Assyrian records. To the north of this region Scythians followed their traditional life-style, with horse-borne warrior-elites maintaining their social position through rich booty acquired on raids Source: J. Curtis, Ancient Persia-1 (London, The British Museum Press, 2000)

This crown was excavated from Grave Six in Tillia Tepe, Afghanistan and is estimated to be from the first or second century A.D. thus predating the Korean or Japanese crowns

This crown was excavated from Grave Six in Tillia Tepe, Afghanistan and is estimated to be from the first or second century A.D. thus predating the Korean or Japanese crowns

Reconstructed crown of remains from Kofun tumuli

Reconstructed crown of remains from Kofun tumuli, Tokyo National Museum (Source: Wikimedia)

Japanese crown of the Kofun Period

Japanese crown of the Kofun Period

The Japanese gilt crown’s tree motif is similar to the Korean ones such as the one below, from which a genealogical connection is often inferred to exist between the respective royal houses by scholars:

5th - 6th gold crown from Geumgwanchon

5th – 6th gold crown from Geumgwanchon, S. Korea

Compare the bird-tree motif of this Japanese crowns …

Excavated from the Fujinoki tumulus

Excavated from the Fujinoki tumulus, Japan

With the remarkably similar Nanay (Eastern Siberian) tree motif below:

A clan generation tree of the Namay people from Eastern Siberia

A clan generation tree of the Namay people from Eastern Siberia, traditional rug motif (Source: Galina Serkina)

The traditional festive occasion silver headdresses of the Dong women of China still feature designs that are remarkably similar to “Scythian” gold crowns with bird, blossom, leaf or fish motifs included in the design.

Elaborate headdresses of the Dong ethnic peoples of China

Elaborate headdresses of the Dong ethnic peoples of China

Stories of the ‘Tree of Plenty‘ are said to belong to the region along the north coast of New Guinea, eg the Garus people tell the story of a Banag tree which had all kinds of fruits and roots hanging from it ‘like a supermarket’. The children partake of the fruit, but parents cut down the Sacred tree of Plenty, and when the chopped up bits of wood chips from the tree get distributed, the tree becomes available to others.

The sacred tree myths of this region tend to also be coupled with the quarreling brothers motif as well as a generative snake motif, as well as the concept that the tree has to be cut down or destroyed in order for the fruit or root crops to be distributed (Oppenheimer p.413)  This Tree of Plenty may be the precursor of the Bronze Tree of Fortune or Money Trees seen in China and India.

Relics of a bronze tree believed to be able to bring wealth unearthed from the Han Dynasty (202 BC - AD 220) family tombs in Guanghan city, China's Southwest Sichuan province, Oct 11, 2013.[Photo/CFP]

The Chinese Money Tree. Relics of a bronze tree believed to be able to bring wealth unearthed from the Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) family tombs in Guanghan city, China’s Southwest Sichuan province, Oct 11, 2013.[Photo/CFP]

more.. Unearthed from Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) family tombs in Guanghan city, China’s Southwest Sichuan province, Oct 11, 2013.[Photo/CFP]. The money tree symbol is a particularly unique icon belonging to the Han dynasty culture, see History of the Money Tree. Compare the above, earlier bronze money tree with the later one below

Bronze Money Tree on Earthenware Stand Eastern Han dynasty 1st-2nd century A.D

Bronze Money Tree on Earthenware Stand
Eastern Han dynasty
1st-2nd century A.D

A great deal of light is thrown on the meaning behind the symbolism of “The Bronze Money Tree” by the Kaikodo Asian Art studio:

“Money Trees provided promise of eternal happiness and wealth in the afterlife through the power of Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West, who presided over the Realm of the Immortals at Kunlun. Here she resides within each of the major branches (fig. 1). She sits regally in full frontal posture on her tiger-dragon throne, surrounded by her adoring court, as she is often represented in various arts of the Han including bronze mirrors and ceramic tomb tiles as in one illustrated here (fig. 2), or in the mirror catalogue 44.

Below the goddess, a potpourri of figures tread on the metal ledges, slopes and outcroppings of the branches: equestrians on their mounts, archers crouched with bows and arrows aimed at their prey, hunters, musicians, and dancers. The figures occupy areas of space created by the meandering bronze bones or skeleton of each branch, just as figures on Han ceramic hill jars or on tomb tiles occupy the “space-cells” formed by overlapping hillocks (fig. 3). The composition is also reminiscent of the fantastic creatures perched on swirling lines in Han lacquer painting, creating a sense of space by virtue of their presence (fig.4). Each branch is completed by constellations of large coins, similar to actual Han dynasty coins in design and must have shone as brightly as stars or suns when such trees were first produced, in preparation for burial where they would ensure both wealth and a paradisiacal afterlife in the presence of the Queen Mother.

The large branches of this tree are very similar to a number of successfully restored Money Trees, the one illustrated here notable for its towering height (fig. 5).[1] While Money Trees have been found in a number of provinces, excavations in Sichuan province have shown that area to have been the major center of production. It was furthermore the heartland of the cult of Xiwangmu during the Han period and also the provenance of the tomb tiles illustrated above.[2] The marriage of the goddess—who promises eternal life and good fortune—with a physical and material manifestation of that promise in the form of replicas of hard currency seems fitting enough in itself but is also supported by historical logic. During the 1st century A.D., the local government in Sichuan—a province in the southwest already experiencing great economic prosperity at the time—was given the right by imperial authority to mint coins that were then circulated throughout the land. It is not hard to imagine how this activity contributed to the development of what was clearly one of the most desirable of funerary items during the late Han in Sichuan.

Another source for the origins of the Money Tree can be found in Xiwangmu’s own garden wherein grows a very special peach tree that bears the fruit of immortality. Among the finds from the Marquis Yi of Zeng’s spectacular 5th century B.C. tomb discovered in Suizhou, Hebei province, was a painted lacquer chest with representations of heraldic trees, stiff and symmetrical, flanked at the top by birds or beasts (fig. 6). These trees are depictions of the Fusang Tree from which the Archer Yi shot down nine contender suns. The spiky orbs hanging from the Fusang Tree and the representations of coins on the Sichuan money trees are strikingly similar. More interestingly, the Zeng lacquer painting brings to mind a Han-dynasty textile from Noin-ula, in Mongolia, which was published and discussed many years ago by William Willets (fig. 7).[3] Willets connected this image with the Tree of Life which he noted was believed to grow in a paradise inaccessible to ordinary mortals, bearing fruit capable of prolonging life. He goes on to describe the Tree of Life as part of the stock of world myth, reaching from Mohenjo-daro to Assyria to Europe and spanning an immense length of time. Representations of that tree are stiff and heraldic and the trees are flanked by two birds or beasts, as they are in the lacquer painting. One might then consider elements in the arts of Sichuan province that suggest influence from the West—the Indian-style que towers, the explicit sexuality sometimes present in the sculpture of that province that also has an Indian flavor, or very early images of the Buddha that appear on the trunks of some Money Trees and Money Tree bases in the Eastern Han period (see cat. 46). The concepts and designs resulting in the creation of Han dynasty Money Trees were inspired by multiple sources, each contributing something to their designs and to their efficacy in the afterlife”

A final word on the Turkic Tree symbolism:

The influence from Central Asian Turkic and Saka nomads for whom the tree motif is central, is elaborated upon by Galina Serkina in her treatise on rug motifs:

“It is known that the tree occupied a semantically important position both in the world-outlook and in the ritual of the Turks. In the epics of Turkish speaking peoples the tree was the center of life which functioned as an orientation point in time and space: many epic themes concentrate around the tree, principal events and decisive encounters of epic heroes take place there.

The preservation of archaic cultural elements is most noticeable in those spheres of everyday life for which women are responsible, where mothers, the keepers of the hearth, transfer them to their daughters. The world of female artifacts is consequently more durable: these are objects playing a vital role in the rites of the cycle of life, their principal idea being fertility and rebirth (for example marriage rites). Similar sacred objects are immune to any changes in their shape or decorum. Female dress always preserves the pattern of ancient garments. Thus the bridal headdress of the Central Asia still preserves the shape of the ancient Sacae [Saka, Scythian] hats….

Tree patterns decorated garments of women reaching the age of fecundity. Chinese court ladies of the Tang period wore head dresses with tree decoration introduced by the empresses of the Uyghur origin. The process of cultural integration between China and Central Asia is not limited to the historical period, its roots go back to remote antiquity. In this connection it is worthwhile to mention the subject of one Chinese embroidery (ill. 74, Rudenko, 1968) from the Pazyryk barrow (southern Siberia); phoenixes and pheasants sitting on or flying around the otung tree.

The Chinese poet of the Tang period, Li Bo states that the nature of the phoenixes allows them to live only on the “otung” tree. [This recalls the otun shrines of Wakhan-Afghanistan, which are branches decorated with cloth stuck on top of a stone cairn, the custom said to be derived from the Saka invaders] As we can see, this statement indicates the presence of some vague ties between trees and birds. Another Chinese author (Li Shih, Chen who lived in the 12th century, was not quite aware of the meaning of the term ”otung”. For some reason, not explaining why, he tied it with the word for ”coffin”, referring to the 3rd century BC lexicon “Er-ya”. The earliest known case of the word “otung” appearing in Chinese sources is dated to the 2nd century AD. In ancient times, the word “otung” was disyllabic and was written in two characters. This means that it was most probably borrowed from some other language [This is the opinion of Prof. Leo Menshikov, a Russian sinologist.] I believe there was some reason for the untraceable association between the words “otung” and”coffin” reflected by ancient authors. We know that Central Asian nomad used to bury their dead below trees and to leave the corpses of children and shamans on trees (Viktorova, 1980, p. 1250). It is possible to suggest therefore that the embroidery from Pazyryk presents “the tree of souls”, its image re-worked beyond recognition by the creative fantasy of the Chinese people.”- Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs by Galina Serkina

5)  Tree of Life with healing or life-extending (i.e. immortality)or other properties (knowledge) fruit

With sub-motifs (often a triad) of

a. serpent and

b. bird and

c. other players such as the quarreling siblings)

a. An example of the serpent mythme or motif is to be found among the Sioux of Upper Missouri:  The original parents, like the trees from which they developed, at first stood firmly fixed to the earth, until a monster snake gnawed away the roots and gave them independent motion, just as in Paradise the serpent destroyed the harmony and mutual trust which united Adam and Eve.

Traditional Persian and Slavic myths both told of a tree of life that bore the seeds of all the world’s plants. This tree, which looked like an ordinary tree, was guarded by an invisible serpent-dragon that the Persians called Simarghu and the Slavs called Simorg. For fear of cutting down the tree of life by accident, Slavic peoples performed sacred ceremonies before taking down a tree. The Persians cut no trees but waited for them to fall naturally. The Simorg creature evolved and took many forms, and somewhere between Kazakhstan, Iran and Western China, the Simorg became a Dragon-Peacock, and eventually a Phoenix at the top of the Chinese bronze tree (see my article “Will the real firebird step forward?“).

Trees—or the fruit they bore—also came to be associated with wisdom, knowledge, or hidden secrets.

Two sacred trees—the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—appear in the Near Eastern story of the Garden of Eden, told in the book of Genesis of the Bible. God ordered Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, not to eat the fruit of either tree. Disobeying, they ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and became aware of guilt, shame, and sin. God cast them out of the garden before they could eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, which would have made them immortal. Thereafter, they and their descendants had to live in a world that included sin and death (Myth Encyclopedia)

The Tree of Life myths from the Bronze Ages to medieval times, are usually featured amidst these complexes of motifs as well:

i. The bird-tree-snake triad in the Lost Homeland/Paradise …is probably the most recognizable motif of Near Eastern mythology and Biblical references: Lilith is related to the bird (bird-goddess) motif in the “Eden” garden, see Lilith in Sumeria and Babylonia

“Lilith’s flower was the lilu, or lily, or “lotus” of her genital magic, which represented the virgin aspect of the Triple Goddess. A Sumerian king list dating from this time states that Lugalbanda, father of the great hero Gilgamesh, was a Lillu-demon. This statement cal also be read as a veiled reference pointing to Gilgamesh, who was reputed to be two-thirds divine and one-third human, to have the sacred blood lineage descending from the sexual rites of the Goddess.”

A Babylonian terracotta plaque from 2300 BCE depicts Lilith as a Bird Woman and Lady of the Beasts. She is beautiful, with a slender nude body, wings that fall behind her like an open veil, and powerfully clawed owl feet. Her head is adorned with a crown of multiple horns worn by all great deities, and she holds the ring and rod symbols of power. Surrounded by lions as her protectors, and owls depicting her nocturnal wisdom, she is the animal soul of the world, who is associated with every living creature that creepeth and all the beasts of the field. The literal meaning of Lilith’s name is “screech.” She was associated with the screech owl of the night, and later as a demon of screeching.” But we are informed of the Lilith-and-willow-tree association in Lilith: The Mother of Musical Worship (Graves, Patel) where Lilith “appears earlier as ‘Lillake’ on a 2000 BC Sumerian tablet from Ur containing the tale of Gilgamesh and the Willow Tree. There she is a demoness dwelling in the trunk of a willow tree tended by the Goddess Inanna (Anath) on the banks of the Euphrates.” (On her evolved characterization as seductress, see also The Story of Lilith the Seductress) The bird-serpent-tree triad motif in the Biblical garden or paradise setting as a package is not seen in Japan and as such is not given treatment here (please refer to Stephen Oppenheimer’s “Eden in the East and Trees of Paradise” and Elizabeth A. Newsome’s “Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World” that do the job remarkably well.)

ii. The sun-crow-sun-bird or rooster or phoenix bird in tree (a Eastern variant on the above Near Eastern mythologies).

The ten suns-equals ten sun-birds roosting on the mulberry tree and archer Yi Chinese myths are given very full treatment by Sarah Allen. We return to this motif later in the section on immortality. The bird on a tree-mast or prow of a boat is extremely abundantly found between the Yayoi and Kofun periods in Japan, in either funerary or shrine contexts (eg Ise Grand Shrines)  see our article examining rooster symbolism in Japan. [See next section iii for further treatment of this theme]

In the Turkic account of the Oghuz who invaded Europe:
“…the baby Oghuz, as soon as he was born, demanded cooked meat and wine, and started to talk [the prodigious, unusual cultural hero archetype signifying divine birth and status]…his loins were like those of a wolf, his shoulders like those of a sable and his chest like that of a bear: his whole body was covered in hair. Soon he hunted a unicorn, luring it first with a stag, secondly with a bear and third with himself. One day, when he was praying to God, a blue light came down from the sky, with a beautiful maiden in its middle. Oghuz fathered three sons on her, called Sun, Moon and Star. Then one day he went hunting, and found another beautiful maiden in a hollow tree in the middle of a lake. Oghuz fathered three more sons on this maiden, called Sky, Mountain and Sea. …Oghuz … sent his sons Sun, Moon and Star hunting to the east and his sons Sky, Mountain and Sea hunting to the west. The first trip found a golden bow, which Oghuz divided into three  ieces, giving these to the three brothers and telling them to shoot arrows right up to the sky. Then the second trip found three silver arrows which Oghuz duly distributed among them, telling them to be like arrows. He summoned a great assembly to the right of which he had a tree erected, topped by a golden hen, with a white sheep at its foot; and to the left he had erected a tree topped by a silver hen, with a black sheep at its foot. To the right sat the first triad to the left second. Oghuz then divided his kingdom between them (The hens and sheep of course symbolize the sun and the moon and day and night we shall find extremely similar materials ….the Book of Grandfather Korkut (Kitab-i Dede Korkut). This is a collection of twelve stories about the early Oghuz Turks, and this clearly reflects their life in Inner Eurasia (… put together in the early early fourteenth century and re-edited there in the sixteenth: thus it presents Isclamicized Turks fighting against Georgians and other Christians along the Black Sea coast. Beneath the Islamic overlay, however plenty of ancient Turkic myth and religion can be discerned….” Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia by Julian Baldick  pp. 57-58

iii. The immortality grove and location in Paradise, or Other World or Foreign Land The sacred grove is everywhere it seems, Zeus was born under a poplar in Crete; Rhea’s cypress grows out of her temple; Hermes is reared under a urslane tree; Hera is brought up under a willow in Samos; Apollo was born from an olive (or palm); Romulus and Remus under a Ficus ruminalis by the Tiber; Vishnu under a bamiyan and Buddha under a sal-tree, and died there too.  Other famous tree-deity associations include: Dodona: Zeus=oak;  Rome: Jupiter=oak; Arcadia: Artemis=nut-tree and cedar, etc, etc, etc. One of the most vivid and well-known accounts of an immortality grove must be that of the Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China (Max Dashu) and her legendary peach grove. Xi wangmu or Queen Mother of the West lives in a

“In a garden hidden by high clouds, her peaches of immortality grow on a colossal Tree, only ripening once every 3000 years. The Tree is a cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth, a ladder traveled by spirits and shamans.

Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers”

The influence of the Xi wangmu Peach Tree – (or perhaps that of a common source prototype tradition) upon Japan can be seen as the Peach Tree symbol appears in the earliest recorded Japanese myths (below).

“Yomi, or Yomi-tsu-kuni (Land of the Darkenss) yomotsukunu. is ruled by Tsuikiyomi-no-Mikoto. The grotesque female inhabitants of Yomi are known as omo tsu shiko me (gly femlae of the world of the dead) also known as Shiko-Me. In some versions Yomi is ruled by Tsukiyomi. ruler of moon and the night. Yomotsukuni is the god of the realm of the dead. Yomi is referenced in the legend of Izanagi and Izanami and Okuni-nushi and Susanow0…
The Peach Tree of life grows on the border of Yomi. The peach is a symbol of the mother goddess Izanagi who threw three peaches at Izanami’s pursuers in Yomi. The Chinese also have a gigantic sacred Peach Tree presided over by Xi wangmu. — Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities,  Charles Russell Coulter、Patricia Turner

Taoist immortals motif can be seen engraved on Kofun bronze mirrors, and to a rarer extent in statuary in the tumuli as well. The paper, Stone Ritual Items and the Stones of Okinoshima Island in the Fifth Century(by SHINOHARA Yuichi) traces the influence of Chinese ideas of immortality, jade or nephrite symbolism and Taoism upon the Kofun culture:

“Under the influence of ancient China, the ancient Japanese placed a high value on the materials and colors of precious stone objects in making prestige goods and treasured items. Green jasper and fine green tuff came to be used as the materials for such objects probably because the tradition of using jadeite since the Jōmon period was influenced by the ancient Chinese tradition of using nephrite. The problem is that no material stone has been found to fill the transitional gap between these hard stones to soft talcose materials for precious stone objects. In fact, green jasper and talc even coexisted for some time. This phenomenon suggests that both were used for precious stone objects and that the material and color failed to serve as criteria for differentiation. Interpreting this puzzling state of affairs requires considering the special importance attached to where the material stone came from. The source mattered especially for the Japanese, a people who has traditionally had a special concept of stone; from them, the materials for treasures and sacred treasures must come from a sacred place. Among such sacred places were Mt. Kasen in Izumo (the eastern portion of present-day Shimane prefecture), which produced green jasper. The ancient Japanese believed that Mt. Kasen was a divine mountain and that the green jasper produced there was sacred stone because it was the product of the divine will. In addition, the places that produced the material for precious stone objects were likely considered to be special places that served as a gate to the Taoist immortal world, as has been discussed earlier. The notion of branding production areas emerged as a result.

The brand of Izumo-produced comma-shaped beads and cylindrical beads showed that they were excellent precious stone objects with high spiritual powers. In this context, the talcose rock and serpentine that had been formed in the process of nearby green jasper and fine green tuff being formed in Mt. Kasen assumed a major property that they occurred in the vicinity of such precious hard rocks. When the ancient Japanese entered the sacred mountain by following the course of a river to collect material stone, they found green jasper and talc from two outcrops rather close to each other. They treasured talc likewise because what mattered was not the hardness or color of the material but the fact that the material had been obtained from a sacred place. In view of the influence of precious stone objects, especially the Taoist immortality thought, it is reasonable to assume that these stone materials were treasured as a product of the Taoist immortal world or as a means to attain eternal youth and immortality. “

See also my article “Bamboo good luck symbols, charms, taboos and superstitions and fairytales from Japan and the rest of Asia” which lists the many bamboo fertility myths, myths about bamboo grove immortals or sages, bamboo-tree rites and taboo beliefs, which can, incidentally, be correlated to the regions of the world where bamboo vegetation is distributed. The Norse or Viking complex of myths combines a number of tree motifs into a complex of ideas: The Viking Valhalla palace flanked by the Glasir Grove, the Golden Tree called “Glasir and Gload” was in front of the palace Source: the Viking Glasnir apple grove.

The Glasir Grove located near the southern ridge of Asgard, was an orchard of apple trees that had leaves made of red gold; it was near both GIMLI and GLADSHEIMR. In the middle of this forest, the god Odin had a third palace. Many of the horses of ASGARD grazed here … (Bennett, Guerber)

In addition, Odin’s son, also recalling the “dying tree-and-disappearing deity”‘s motif, is Odin’s son Balder’s death which is replete with the Syrian symbolism of the god Bel’s descent into darkness and his wife Nanna (recalling Inanna), according to Timothy J. Stephany “Brother Gods of Light and Darkness: Origins of the Baldr Myth”  (2006):

“The relation of Baldr to mistletoe reinforces the relationship of the seasonal cycle with the god of  summer. The general conception of light is more accurate than either sun or summer. However as gods of light and darkness, Baldr and Hod would also be associated with both the daily sun cycle and the annual solar cycle.”

The Norse people also believed that a tree runs like an axis, or pole, through this world and the realms above and below it. They called their World Tree Yggdrasill. It was a great ash tree that nourished gods, humans, and animals, connecting all living things and all phases of existence. It was a great ash tree that nourished gods, humans, and animals, connecting all living things and all phases of existence, but it had an evil serpent gnawing away at its roots (Myth Encyclopedia)

Galina Serkina draws comparisons between the Norse god Odin and the Turkic god Odun:
“Turkic peoples are also aware of an ethno genetic myth about mankind (Radlov, 1989, p 357) or as a shaman ancestor generating from a tree. The name of the forefather is Odun. In modern Turkish languages, this word means “firewood, log, timber”. In the connection it is tempting to draw a parallel between this name and the name of  ” (W)odin, the head of the Scandinavian pantheon. [recalls similar sounding name of the semi-legendary Emperor Ojin title of Japan]  The shamanistic character of this deity is beyond doubt. He is not only closely connected with a tree (he gets the runes after hanging on a tree as a sacrificial offer), he brings back to life the tree prototypes of the first human beings. Rashid al-Din (vol1, part 1, 1952, p. 139) mentions the old legend of a sovereign born of a tree, also that the Kyrgyz people numbered the larch tree among their ancestors, and that one of their tribes was called “modon tree”: (Potomin, vol. 2, 1881, p. 161). The name of one of the rulers of the Huns-Mode is definitely associated with the word “modon tree”. The legend of a sovereign born out of a tree is possibly a vague recollection of the Hunnish ruler, in whose name ethno genetic myths, the tree cult and a real historical personage are merged.”

The mythology of early India, preserved in texts called the Upanishads, includes a cosmic tree called Asvattha. It is the living universe, an aspect of Brahman, the world spirit. This cosmic tree reverses the usual order. Its roots are in the sky, and its branches grow downward to cover the earth.(Myth Encyclopedia)

Extended motif of a Solar Boat journeying towards sun /solar-tree or homeland:

Etchings among some of the rock petroglyphs of Japan (numbering more than 3,000 according to the Japan Petroglyth Society) depict the enigmatic bird-on-the-tree-boat-mast motif shown in the photo below.
The Japan Petroglyph Society

The Japan Petroglyph Society Source

Whether the above petroglyphs  relate to a funerary context, or a purely solar motif is not known, but the funerary context of the next item is certain.

This unusual Japanese crown reconstructed from a Kofun period find, has an unusual added motif of the bird on top of the boat, both symbolic of the journey towards the sun.
Reconstruction from excavated tomb find in a Kofun tumulus

Reconstruction from excavated tomb find in a Kofun tumulus

The Japanese funerary boat symbolism above and cult of Solar boats transporting the departed souls, finds remarkable parallels with the Boats in the Underworld of the Egyptians and Greeks:

“The soul of the deceased faced an arduous journey as he traveled throughout the underworld to reach the field of reeds.  To achieve this, the ba (soul) must be able to reach the land of the gods, as this is where it will become immortal. The ba must travel on a solar bark, led by the god Ra, as it travels to and throughout the underworld. This ideology exists throughout Egyptian history, starting in the Naqada Period and continuing for thousands of years.

The funerary cult was [ initially] focused on the lunar deities. Osiris [also a phallic tree dying-and-resurrecting-deity, see Frazer’s chapter “Osiris was a Tree spirit“], the moon god as well as god of the underworld, would take the deceased’s soul on his moon boat to the field of reeds. The field of reeds, a place for the souls immortality, could only be reached after passing the tests of various gods as well as avoiding the destruction by the evil ones. Over time, Egyptian mythology shifted towards a solar-based viewpoint with Ra as the sun god. Ra was essentially a mirror image of the moon god Osiris as he represented a stronger form of control over nature, while Osiris represented the uncontrollable chaos of nature. Every night on his solar bark, Ra would cross the underworld and emerge in the morning on his boat in the east….This bark would also carry the “Light of Consciousness” as it would travel hour by hour, waking up the dead. The destination of the solar boat was thought to be the modern constellation of Orion, which was the celestial home of Osiris. If the ba passed judgement, it would be allowed to reside in this celestial home.

Boats in the underworld also had the purpose of allowing the soul of the Pharaoh to cross various waterways on their journey to reach his place among the gods.” — Boats of the Dead

In Chinese mythology, Fusang refers to a divine tree and island in the East, from where the sun rises. A similar tree, known as Ruomu (若木) exists in the west, and each morning the sun was said to rise from Fusang and fall on Ruomu. Chinese legend has ten birds (typically ravens) living in the tree, and as nine rested, the tenth would carry the sun on its journey. This legend has similarities with the Chinese tale of the fictional hero Houyi, sometimes referred to as the Archer, who is credited with saving the world by shooting down nine of the suns when one day all ten took to the air simultaneously. Scholars have identified the bronze trees found at the archaeological site Sanxingdui with these Fusang trees, while others (Stephen Brennecke) with the Tree of Knowledge and Evil, given the fruit, serpent and bird symbols present on the tree. There is also an enigmatic hand with a triskele symbol on it.

Anne P. Underhill in her book “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology” has taken a totally different interpretation to the serpent, seeing it not as a serpent but as a dragon, interpreting it in the light of the ancient myth that dragons are said to pull the sun like a wagon across the sky, and that the dragons rely on the aid the tree to do so. There is a bird sitting on top of the bronze tree, Underhill refers to the myth of the ten suns as either bird avatars of the sun, or as suns that are  transported by the birds across the sky. In addition, she says that the eastern myths of the ten suns dating during the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 BC) are of a much later than the Sichuan myths that are no later than the late Shang period (c. 1600 BC to 1046 BC), deducing that the solar bird myths must have originated in the West rather than in the East as previously thought. Here, Underhill also mentions something possibly of significance – that the iconography of bird bodied, human-headed creatures probably represent the bird-headed clansmen.  The third bronze tree from pitK2 was noted to have three branches, each branch attached with a human-headed bird figurine.

One of the Sanxingdui bronze trees, Sichuan, China

One of the Sanxingdui bronze trees, Sichuan, China

This last inference of Underhill’s leads us to strengthened scenario that the Sanxingdui bronze trees represent a type of ancestral Soul Tree too.

iv) Sacred grove – the fertility tree or grove

Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and Oppenheimer’s “Eden in the East” combined, really give seemingly exhaustive treatment and examination of the cultures that practise sacred grove and vegetative fertility rites, so I don’t propose to deal with those themes that have been covered in many tomes. Frazer mentions the ancient European practice of tree-planting at the birth of a child Imagery of trees associated with fertility is particularly strong among Siberians and Turkmen and among Austro-Asiatics, Austronesians and Island Southeast Asians.

“A photo of a tree in Anatolia, with pieces of cloth tied on to the branches, symbolizing talismans to ensure fertility in childless women. In Turkey, notions and tires where the tree holds a place of importance are especially evident in the eastern part of the country (Serebryskova, 1979, pp130-31). Childless Turkish women and girls of marriageable age make a pilgrimage to a tree growing in a lonely place somewhere near their village or close to a mazar – a sacred place connected with the name of a local saint. Models of cradles and dolls tied to the branches of trees materialized and the wishes of the childless pilgrims. Other such bloodless sacrifices were made in the form of pieces of cloth or fillets. Similar trees are scattered all over Asia (Araz, 1995, pp 230-231). Childless Kazakh women appealed to the spirit of the a tree standing alone on the steppes and offered him a sheep (Radlov, 1989, ppp 230-31). The roots of this selective attitude to trees lie in the East.

Yakut women believed that childless woman could conceive a child after spending a night under a larch-tree having an unusual crown. A personage from the Kyrgyz Manas epic, whose wife remained childless for many years, explained it by her “neither going to a sacred place, nor lying where an apple tree grows… Chorasmian Uzbeks used to bury a placenta umbilical cord or a fetus less than three months old under a fruit tree so that it could go to the place of its former being. In the shaman’s performances of the Uzbeks in Samarkand, the fruit tree served as the symbol of fertility among childless women (Doislrnskiye verovaniya I obryady v Sredny Azii, 1975, p 69). In Erzurum and in other parts of the Turkey, an apple branch was set in the room where a woman was giving birth to a child (Serebryakova 1979, pp 130-3`1). The Siberian Turks, who preserve most rudiments of ancient Turkish culture, believe in the ties between a man and a tree which they envision as a kind of umbilical cord.” — Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs (Galina Serkina)

The Sacred Branch procession

“The carrying of the sacred branch in solemn procession formed the essential feature in some of the most important religious festivals of Greece. At Daphenephoria, held every nine years at Thebes in Boetia in honour of Apollo, the chief post in the procession was held by the Daphephorus, or laurel-bearer, a boy chosen for his strength and beauty. He was followed to the temple of the god by a chorus of maidens, also bearing branches nad chanting a porcessional hymn and was regarded for the ocasion as the priest of Apollo who bore amongst his many other appelations that of Daphenphorus because he had brought the laurel to Delphi and planted it there.” – p. 47  The sacred tree or, The tree in religion and myth

In much the same manner,  we see in Japan a “festival with a similar name of keichinsai is held at Kashima Jinja in Kashiba City, Kitakuzushiro County, Nara Prefecture, on January 16. The primary focus of the ritual is the tōya watashi in which gohei of sakaki and shiraki (unfinished wood) are moved from the shrine to the tōya‘s residence” — “Gechinsai” Encyclopedia of Shinto. (The purpose of the ritual is the warding off of evil pestilent spirits. Rivaling the symbolism of the pine tree, the Sakaki is the sacred laurel and evergreen tree of Japan, used in many shrine rituals and festivals, see The Sakaki from Myth to Modern Japan (Renata Maria Rusu) and Sakaki: Sacred Tree of Shinto for all its deep symbolism and connections with central Kojiki and Nihongi myths, and the Amaterasu solar myth. We suggest that the Sakaki Tree is so named, because it originally signified that it was a tree of the Saka people, literally Saka-tree.

v)  Cosmic Pillar and Sacred Adonis fertility (submotif of dismemberment and disappearing/dying and resurrected deity motif); phallic tree symbolism; symbolism of the erecting of asherah poles or tree pillars or poles; tree ladder climbing practices

The most famous of practice in Japan is possibly that of Lake Suwa’s Suwa Taisha. The erecting of the sacred tree pillar here is said to have strong masculinity and virility symbolism.

“Tate Onbashira,” the finale after the month-long Onbashira Festival, is the erecting of the Onbashira (sacred pillar) at the corners of Maemiya Shrine and Honmiya Shrine of Kamisha. It takes place on both May 3-4 at Shimosha, on May 8-9 at Harumiya and May 10 at Akimiya. Photo: Suwa Sightseeing Federation

“Tate Onbashira,” the finale highlight after the month-long Onbashira Festival, is the erecting of the Onbashira (sacred pillar) at the corners of Maemiya Shrine and Honmiya Shrine of Kamisha. It takes place on both May 3-4 at Shimosha, on May 8-9 at Harumiya and May 10 at Akimiya.
Photo: Suwa Sightseeing Federation

Enshrined at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen-jinja Shrine’s sacred grove are two large Japanese cedars and one Japanese cypress,  the God Trees or “Goshinboku ”.  They are over 1000 years old and are believed to stand guard over the shrine. Oyama (Yamamatsuri) Festival

At the Oyama Shrine in Fuse on Oki-Dogo Island in Shimane Prefecture which enshrines an old cedar tree on the first Day of Ox in April every year, the Obishime-no-shinji (fastening belt) ritual is held, in which the vine stem is put around the sacred tree seven and a half times. On the day before the festival, villagers perform the ritual called Obitachi-no-shinji (the belt cutting ritual), in which they go into the nearby mountain to cut out vine stems, which are put around the sacred cedar tree, and parade through the village carrying a large sakaki (a holy branch). This “Oyama-san” or “Yama-matsuri,”  festival is said to tell people of the coming of spring and to have been started by a mountain ascetic. (nationally designated as an Intangible Folk Cultural Property.According to the historical record of the festival written in 1825 by a mountain practitioner in Fuse village, it seems that the festival had already been performed hundreds of years before. (Source: Nippon-Kichi)

vii. The pair of tree posts-gate, dokana and tori

More insights are to be had from Galina Serkina’s paper, Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs about the rites and symbolism surrounding a pair of gate-tree-posts:
“In the Shah name by Firdowsi, founded, as is well known, upon folklore and mythology, there is a story about a husband tree and a wife tree endowed with the power of speech. The reflection of similar ideas could probably explain the meaning of the Ancient Roman monument Sororium tigillum. Its pillars were representing the male deity, Janus and the female one, Soror. The last name is translated as “sister”. The semantics of the rites performed before it are almost similar to the “birth” rites widespread among the nomads of Central Asia. Kidan emperors performed special rites in front of two trees symbolizing a gate (E Lun-Liu, 1979, p. 527). The consecration of the emperor was also performed in front of trees. It imitated the process of childbirth. Each time the emperor passed below the tree branches, one of those who took part in the ceremony exclaimed, “A boy is born!” (ibid. p.525). Trees were also used in the consecration rites of Siberian and Central Asian shamans which imitated childbirth (pp. 51-52, Snesarev, 1969)”
At Sparta (as well as Kastoria, northern Greece), the veneration of the Castor and Pollux pair of deities was very ancient: a uniquely Spartan, aniconic representation of the twins was as two upright posts connected as it were by a cross-bar (sometimes by a loosely hanging garland); as the protectors of the Spartan army the “beam figure” or dókana was actually carried in front of the army on campaign.
Gates at Dodana, representing the twins in Greek mythology, Pollux and Castor

Dokana gates at Dodana, representing the twins in Greek mythology, Pollux and Castor

The Dioskouri twins were associated with the Indo-European tradition of dual kingship and were so appreciated that two princes of their ruling house were elevated to immortality. Sparta’s unique dual kingship reflects the divine influence of the Dioscuri. When the Spartan army marched to war, one king remained behind at home, accompanied by one of the Twins, thus securing political order in the realm of the Gods”. The tree was regarded by the Spartans as sacred to Castor and Pollux, and images of the twins were often hung in its branches. While elevated to deities in their own right, they usually accompanied greater deities and goddesses.

The “God-entertaining” cult ritual theoxenia and a domestic setting with amphora (of wine?) was particularly associated with Castor and Pollux, with the two deities were summoned to a table laden with food, whether at public hearths or individuals’ own home shrines where the offering was a meal offered to the house god and the house god was a snake that came to partake of it (hence the depiction of snakes ascending the dokana.

In another interpretation, the dokana represents the house while the Dioskouri twins are themselves the house gods, often represented by amphorae (Greek Popular Religion, Martin P. Nilsson). Strongly associated with sailors and horses, they are sometimes depicted arriving at a gallop over a food-laden table. The “table offerings” were a fairly common feature of Greek cult rituals normally made in the shrines of the gods or heroes concerned. was a characteristic distinction accorded to the Dioskouri. Still other interpretations are that they were seen as phallic pillars and ‘beams’ of the world (A.B.Cook), and guardians to a shrine or sepulchre (the same forgotten meaning for the torii and Korean shrine gates is proposed in these writings) see The Meaning of the “Dokana” by Margert C. Waites.

In the final analysis, Japan owns rich tree symbolism, with the different motifs falling into many of the above defined categories. There appears to be a continuity of ideas from earlier Jomon times with the Jomon Soul Tree and then later Tree of Life motif seen in crowns from Kofun tumuli emerged from pan-Asian cosmology and tree worship practices. The maga-tama jewels were symbolic of a prototype kind of ancestral “Soul Tree” of the Turkic type or of the Iranic or the Soul Tree of the kabbalistic writings. The sun positioning on the mountain peaks suggest ancestor veneration may have taken place perhaps during spring or autumn equinox, such as during the current Bon period or during the spring Nowruz spring New Year festivities.

Since the magatama pendant ornaments and amulets originate early on during the Jomon era, the origin of the practice must lie with some of the earliest waves of migratory peoples into Japan. Y-DNA haplogroups C and D and NO are shown by DNA analysis to have been the earliest colonizers of South East Asia and East Asia (Wang and Li 2013) and any of these lineages may have brought Soul Tree veneration beliefs with them possibly via the Eurasian steppelands with a later Bronze Age Hunnic-Xiongnu wave (from Ordos-Liaoning or alternatively, via Sichuan’s and other Chinese-Xiwangmu-Taoist-following enclaves to Japan), with the tumuli technology. The spread of ancestral tree(s) and tree worship is so widespread throughout SEA and Eastern Asia, some diffusion of motifs from these areas is possible too. According to Oppenheimer:

“Austro-Asiatic areas show not only the earlier versions but also a greater variety of mechanisms in the inclusion of early forms of the perverted message and the trees of life and death. The last point of diversity gives further evidence that the area of origin of these myths was on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean.”
However, the mythology of spirits inhabiting trees found among the aboriginal tribes of Southeast Asia, Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia appears to be different from the Bronze Age cosmology of the World Tree at the centre of a Heaven-Earth-Underworld of Eurasia and West Asia, despite the existence of the bird-serpent-tree motif.
Although Oppenheimer points out in his book that the region has the richest diversity of tree myths, and that all of the mythemes are to be found here, a puzzle remains to be solved: The question of why the Garden of Eden myth should crop up so far away from the Near Eastern and Biblical centres of the Eden Paradise. For example, Micronesia’s Gilbert Islands has a version where the two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of death are guarded by Naa Kaa, and men always gathered one tree and women under the other. But when Naa. Kaa was away one day, the men and women gathered and mingled under one of the trees. Naa Kaa returned and told the people they had gathered under the Tree of Death, and from that day on, they would all be mortal.
Oppenheimer’s answer is that the Eden idea arose in the East in island Southeast Asia and Melanesia, spreading to the west, see Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East ” pp. 414 to 440, in which he traces the evolution of tree worship and immortality ideas…along with posited genetic trails.
We have earlier distinguished the pre-Bronze Age Jomon Soul Tree category from the Bronze Age Tree of Life of the tumuli world type. It is clear, however, that Japan has a diverse range of tree motifs, that are very likely of equally diverse origins.
Keiji Imamura in “Prehistoric Japan New Perspectives upon Insular East Asia” wrote “I am tempted to call the Jomon period an arboreal neolithic”, perhaps he was closer to the truth than we know, for the Jomon (and for many eras after them) were truly arboreal every sense of the word, for they considered themselves children born of the Soul Tree, and upon death, journeying back up it.


Resources on Tree Worship Myths of Origins and the Deluge of Indonesia (originally published in the early 1900’s)

The sacred tree or, The tree in religion and mythby Mrs. J. H. Philpot, at pp. 23 and 73

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, by Howard Schwartz, page 218

Tree worship (Jewish Encyclopedia) The Sacred Tree: Tree worship in Ancient Israel (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, July 2014) Comparative survey of moon symbols and beliefs, and the likely derivation of “tamashii” jewel or soul

Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs by Galina Serkina (Excerpted from the 11th International Congress of Turkish Arts – Utrecht, the Netherlands, August 23-28, 1999 paper) The paper is an important revelation on the coherent transmission of mythical and shamanistic beliefs via the rug-making technology, and both the rugs and the people who make them, being an amazing visual resource and preserve of knowledge.

“Rugs, like all other artifacts in traditional societies, perform not just utilitarian functions but store and transfer information on the world-outlook o f their creators. Rugs like other kinds o cultural texts (ritual, mythology, images, structures, etc.) retain archaic features which tie the culture of the Turks of Asia Minor with Turkish cultures [ethnic Turkic peoples] of other regions. These features testify to their common sources. Traces of ancient beliefs reflected in carpet patterns of the Turkish of Asia minor reveal their pre-Islamic, shamanistic origin. Turkish prayer rugs (namzliks) were usually intended to be a bridal dowry. Most of them are decorated with tree patterns.

The attention of human societies has always been attracted by the reproduction of life – the principal function of Nature. The cycles of natural cosmic processes was perceived as a constant process of rebirth….

Fertility was the principal essence of life of any traditional society. The tree embodies it in the most concentrated form. For that reason the tree functioned as a sacred center not only in mythology but in rituals as well (the prototype of an altar).””


Sources and further readings:

Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places by Theresa Bane (MaacFarland, 2014  p. 68 citing Bennett, Gods and Religions of Ancient and Modern Times, Vol. 1, 288; Grimes, Norse Myths, 260; Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen, 18

Who are the Turks and who are the Huns? compared with Hungarian-Turanian (Sumerian) hypothesis 

The Persian sphere of influence as seen in the Chinese New Year and Japanese New Year celebrations

White house haft seen.jpg

Nowruz, the Persian-Iranian New Year | Fire, the symbol of Nowruz (an ancient custom in common between Japan & Persia)

Although many Chinese New Year customs, such as the giving of money packets to children came to Japan during the Nara period in time of the Tang dynasty empire’s influence, there is evidence that the New Year practices of Nowruz were already being celebrated in Japan many centuries earlier, during the Kofun Period and possibly Yayoi Period (perhaps even during the late Jomon period), with the influx of nomadic tribes from the continent, some by way of Korea. The festival of Nowruz has been celebrated by many groups of people in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, but particularly by Persians and various other Iranian peoples. It is called Naw-wradz or Nuway-kāl by the Pashtuns, Navroz by Zoroastrians of the subcontinent, Nevruz in Turkic, Uyghurs who live in Northwestern China call it “Noruz”, and it is called Sultan Nevruz in Albanian. In Kurdish communities located in parts of western Iran, the holiday is referred to as Newroz, which is a variety of the Persian word Nowruz. The variety Nawroz is also an Eastern Persian word and is also used in the Persian speaking regions of Central Asia. In the Pamir-Afghanistani Wakhan corridor, it is called Shohguni and in Japan, it is called Shogatsu. See how Nowruz is similarly celebrated by different cultures from Iran to Turkey to China in Navruz – A Celebration of Life

Nowruz,  the “New Day” celebration is recorded from the Achaemenian period around 500 BCE. The name Nowruz first appears in Pahlavi texts from the Sasanian period, as nōg rōz. It is a celebration of spring equinox, when the sun begins to regain strength and there is a renewal of growth in nature.  Zoroastrians believed in the existence of a cognitive spirit, mainyu in all things, tangible or intangible. …

Which day it started and the number of days it was celebrated was closely related to the calendar of the period. Persians adopted a 365-day calendar similar to the Egyptian one, after Cambyses’ conquest of Egypt in 525 BCE. After the Xerxes (486-465) calendar reform, the Persians continued using their devotional religious calendar of 360-day to correctly observe the feasts of obligation, particularly the six feasts assigned to the six creations that were represented by the six Amesha Spenta (Holy Immortals). The six with the feast dedicated to Ahura Mazda formed a heptad representing the first seven creations, sky, water, earth, first plant, first animal, first human and fire/sun together. The Holy Immortals protected six of the creations and Ahura Mazda was the protector of fire/sun. The symbols of the seven creations and their protectors still can be seen in the Haft Sin spread.

The sixth feast, celebrating humankind was a very important one. It included the major feast, Hamaspatmaedaya, which in turn was linked to the Fravashis Night, preceding Nowruz. This was a celebration where the souls of the dead ancestors were celebrated and remembered. The tradition of visiting the graves of the dead relatives before Nowruz amongst many modern Iranians is a continuation of the ancient remembrance. It was believed that the dead spirits will come back to visit their old homes and relatives. For this night fires were lit to indicate to the dead that people were ready to receive them. Gradually this became a very elaborate 10-day festival before Nowruz, known as Suri Festival, complete with bon fires, prayers, feasts, music … (Source: Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri, Massoume Price)

Nowruz was a tradition that had widespread reach and adoption, and it survived (whilst lesser traditions were discarded by other nations) “precisely because Nowruz was associated from the outset with cultural memories of the splendor and divinely bestowed power of the royal courts of pre-Islamic Persia that it was attractive to rulers, from the Abbasid caliphs to the Pahlavis. Along with its many ceremonies, and most notably that of gift exchange, it provided the rulers with an alternative source of affirming and enhancing their power and prestige” Nowruz, Iranica Online.

In most of the Silk Road countries, Navruz announces the joyful awakening of nature after winter and the beginning of the agricultural cycle of cultivating, planting, and harvesting.

Navruz traditions are similar throughout the region, and have varied little over the centuries, except to embrace Islam. Unlike the western New Year traditions, Navruz is celebrated during daytime hours within the family circle. March 21 is the main celebration, but for the next 13 days it is common practice to visit friends and relatives, buy and plant seedlings of fruit trees and have cheerful gatherings in the fresh spring air. Traditionally, it is also a time to “clean up” one’s life.

People tidy up their homes, wash rugs and draperies, decorate with flowers, and buy new clothes that they will use for visiting. On the day of Navruz, all housekeeping – including the preparation of the meal, careful cleaning of the home and the arrangement of blossoming branches from apricot, peach, almond or pomegranate trees – must be completed before the rising of the morning star. Children enjoy the holiday because they often get presents of money, as well as blessings, from their elders. (Source: Navruz)

Nowruz – Pomp and Splendor at court

From Yāqut reports (Boldān, Cairo, VI, p. 258; cf. Moqaddasi, p. 431) we learn that during the rule of the Buyids(r. 949-83) Nowruz was customarily welcomed “in a majestic hall, wherein servants had placed gold and silver plates and vases full of fruit and colorful flowers. He sat on a costly seat (masnad), and the court astronomer came forward, kissed the ground, and congratulated him on the arrival of the New Year. Then the king summoned the musicians and singers and invited his boon companions. They entered and filed in to their assigned places, and all enjoyed a great festive occasion. Beyhaqi describes the lavish celebration of Nowruz at the Ghaznavid (see GHAZNAVIDS) court (Beyhaqi, ed. Fayyāż, pp. 9, 12, 704, 751, 815), and some of the most beautiful descriptive opening passages of Persian courtly panegyrics … are in praise of Nowruz.Their simple yet melodious rhythms suggest that they may have been accompanied by music. The melodies known as the “Nowruzi” airs, apparently inherited from the Sasanian period, included the Great Nowruz (Nowruz-e bozorg), Nowruz-e Kay Qobād, the Lesser Nowruz (nowruz-e ḵordak or ḵārā), the Edessan Nowruz (Nowruz-e rahāwi, comprising the Arabian and Persian melodies), and Nowruz-e Ṣabā (Source: Nowruz, Iranica Online)

Ancient Persia: Influences on Ancient Chinese and Japanese Calendars (via Dr Kaveh Farrokh) By BEHROOZ o PIROOZ bashid and Dr. Masato Tojo The traditional Chinese calendar is called Kyūreki旧暦 (old calendar) and/or Noureki農暦 (agricultural calendar). Its first day of a year was Winter Solstice in 1700 B. C. It was greatly improved in the time of the Tang dynasty under the influence of Persia and India. The new calendar is called Tai-en-reki大衍暦. This is the basic form of Kyūreki. Here are its characteristic points: (a) Official first day of a year is Risshun立春 (315 Zodiacal degree). The reason why this day became the first day of a year is for the convenience of agriculture. This is the reason why it is called Noureki (Agricultural calendar). (b) Astronomical first day of a year is Spring Equinox (0 Zodiacal degree). (c) The center day of a month in Kyūreki (Tai-en-reki) approximately corresponds to the first day of Persian month (Table 1). Note that Spring Equinox (b) and center day of the first month in Kyureki (c) are developed under the influence of Persian and Indian astronomy and astrology. (d) Spring Equinox (Shunbun) is the day when people venerate their ancestors. This tradition is said to be Iranian origin (Farvardin). Table 1 Kyūreki (Tai-en-reki)

24 Solar Terms Nijūyon-sekki二十四節気

Season 季節

Month 月

Beginning day 節(せつ)

Center day of Month 中(ちゅう)

Spring 春


Risshun立春 Zodiacal degree: 315 Gregorian day: Feb 4th

Usui雨水 330 Feb 19th


Keichitsu啓蟄 345 Mar 6th

Shunbun春分 0 Spring Equinox Mar 21th


Seimei清明 15 Apr 5th

Koku-u穀雨 30 Apr 20th

Summer 夏


Rikka立夏 45 May 6th

Shōman小満 60 May 21th


Bōshu芒種 75 Jun 6th

Geshi夏至 90 Summer Solstice Jun 21th


Shōsho小暑 105 Jul 7th

Taisho大暑 120 Jul 23th

Autumn 秋


Risshū立秋 135 Aug 7th

Shosho処暑 150 Aug 23th


Hakuro白露 165 Sep 8th

Shūbun秋分 180 Sep 23th


Kanro寒露 195 Oct 8th

Sōkō霜降 210 Oct 23th

Winter 冬


Rittō立冬 225 Nov 7th

Shōsetsu小雪 240 Nov 22th


Daisetsu大雪 255 Dec 7th

Tōji冬至 270 Winter Solstice Dec 22th


Shōkan小寒 285 Jan 5th

Daikan大寒 300 Jan 20th

The time of the Tang唐(とう) dynasty (618-907) was a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Not only Confucianism儒教(じゅきょう) and Taoism道教(どうきょう), but also Buddhism仏教(ぶっきょう),Manichaeism明教(めいきょう), Zoroastrianism祆教(けんきょう), Nestrians景教(けいきょう) became officially recognized religions, and allowed to do every kind of religious activities freely. The fact that two of the five Tang’s official religions are Persian indicates how great the influence and the presence of Persia were. Actually there were many Persian high rank officials in Tang dynastyAn-roku-zan* was such a general who is well known in Chinese history (See Tang_Dynasty) An-roku-zan安禄山 (705-757): He was a general of Tang dynasty. He is a Sogdian born in Samarkand. Roku-zan禄山 (“lu-shan” in Chinese pronunciation) is transcription of his Persian original name “Roshn (light)

2. Japanese Calendar

Tang’s calendar was imported to Japan and adopted in 737 and used until 1872. When the Meiji Restoration 明治維新(めいじいしん)started, the new government adopted Gregorian calendar in 1872December 15th. It was forbidden to use old Chinese calendar by the law. New Year’s Day (Nou-roz) was changed to 1st day of January according to the Gregorian calendar.

It is also forbidden to celebrate New Year’s Day according to the old calendar by the law. They set its start year on 660 B. C. which is the beginning day of Emperor Jimmu神武天皇’s reign (He is the legendary first emperor of Japan. He is Japanese Jamshid). This calendar system is called Kōki皇紀. Gregorian 2010 is Kōki 2670. The first day of a financial year became April 1st in 1877 by adopting English financial year. Ideally it should be Spring Equinox, for the convenience of Gregorian calendar it became April 1st. Spring Equinox (Shunbun), which is the day when people venerate their ancestors and pray for the harvest in the Shintō shrines, became the day of veneration of Emperor’s ansectors and pray for the harvest in 1878.

2. Japanese Calendar

Tang’s calendar was imported to Japan and adopted in 737 and used until 1872. When the Meiji Restoration 明治維新(めいじいしん)started, the new government adopted Gregorian calendar in 1872 December 15th. It was forbidden to use old Chinese calendar by the law. New Year’s Day (Nou-roz) was changed to 1st day of January according to the Gregorian calendar. It is also forbidden to celebrate New Year’s Day according to the old calendar by the law. They set its start year on 660 B. C. which is the beginning day of Emperor Jimmu神武天皇’s reign (He is the legendary first emperor of Japan. He is Japanese Jamshid). This calendar system is called Kōki皇紀. Gregorian 2010 is Kōki 2670. The first day of a financial year became April 1st in 1877 by adopting English financial year. Ideally it should be Spring Equinox, for the convenience of Gregorian calendar it became April 1st. Spring Equinox (Shunbun), which is the day when people venerate their ancestors and pray for the harvest in the Shintō shrines, became the day of veneration of Emperor’s ansectors and pray for the harvest in 1878. After the World War II, the Gregorian calendar became the sole official calendar in Japan. The Kōki calendar was forbidden to use in public by the law. If one print to sell Kōki calendar, he will be punished by the law. The financial year and the other traditions remain untouched except one thing. It is Shunki-Kōreisai春季皇霊祭. Before the World War II, Spring Equinox Day is an official national holiday and called Shunki-Kōreisai. But after the World War II, it was forced to change its name to Shunbun-no-hi春分の日 by GHQ, and became a day to spend visiting family graves and holding family reunions. Still Spring Equinox Day and April 1st are important days for official and financial activities in modern Japan.   Note Among Japanese Shinto-occult groups and right-wing activists and ideologues, the Kōki calendar is still used today. …..

The long reach of the Persian Empire

At the time when Zen Buddhism were transmitted along the trans-Asian trade route known as the Silk Road, various religions such as Mithraism, the cult of Mitra and Anahita, Zoroastrianism (Mazda worship), the Greek polytheism, the cult of local heroes (Siyavush in Khorezm and Sogd), early Mahāyāna Buddhism, Hinduism and the Nestorian Christianity flourished along this route.. The major transmitters of Buddhism to China were the Iranian peoples of Parthia, Bactria, and Transoxiana, whose convenient position between east and west enabled them to serve as middlemen along the Silk Road. The latter group in particular, known as the Sogdians, established communities along the trade routes from Iran and India all the way into China. Actually many important features of Mahāyāna Buddhism display Iranian influences, such as the soteriological (salvation) function of Maitreya 弥勒 (the one who helps people toward salvation) and the Buddha-nature 仏性 (Manichaean particle of Light). Central deities also had Iranian origins (Table 1. 2). Mihr (Mithra), Anahita, Bhaga, Farrox, Mah, Haoma, Ohrmizd (Ahura Mazda), Yima and Zardusht (Zoroaster) were the gods in its pantheon. Mihr and Anahita worship were prominent. Ohrmizd was not the supreme god. Ohrmizd worship was a mere branch of it. (Aoki. History of Zoroastrianism, p194-204; Kyō. History of Zoroastrian Arts in China). Mithra was incorporated as the sole successor of Gautama the World Teacher. Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) brought Greek culture to Central Asia. This gave certain influence upon early Buddhism.

Buddhists developed Gandhāra style art, which was a merger of Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian arts. This development began during the Parthian Period (50 BC – AD 75). Gandhāra style flourished and achieved its peak during the Kushan period (60 BC-375 AD). It might have affected the rise of Maitreya cult too. Maitreya cult developed during the period from 2nd BC to 2nd AD under the reign of Bactria (265-125 BC) and Kushan (60 BC-375 AD). Sutras called “Maitreya trilogy” 弥勒三部経 (Jp: Miroku-sanbukyō) were also formed during this period. The state religion of Bactria was Mithraism. Kushan adopted this policy.


There is a legend of Mithra’s magi in the area (Afghanistan, Pakistan, north-west India) where Mahāyāna Buddhism was formed. It is a legend about the Maga-Brahmanas, atarvan Maga, Bhojaka or Sakaldwipiya Brahmins. They identify themselves as having Iranian roots, and assert that they inherit their by-name maga from a group of priests (cf. maga) who established themselves in India as the Maga-Dias or Maga-Brahmanas. Their major centers are in Rajasthan in Western India and near Gaya in Bihar. According to Bhavishya Purana and other texts, they were invited to settle in Punjab to conduct the worship of Lord Sun (Mitra or Surya in Sanskrit). Bhavishya Purana explicitly associates them to the rituals of the Zurvanism. (The members of the community still worship in Sun temples in India. They are also hereditary priests in several Jain temples in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Bhojakas are mentioned in the copperplates of the Kadamba dynasty (4-6th cent) as managers of Jain institutions.)

Who were the Maga-Brahmins – were they Persians, Iranians or Indo-Greek-Iranian-Sakas?

Miro, Miroku and Maitreya was according to tradition the son of Brahmayus and Brahmavati and the patron of workers in precious metals (see Maitreya – Mythology), and according to some accounts, a real historical person and the incarnation of the Future Buddha. The debate is hashed out in Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin’s “Acta Iranica“.

“The phonetic form of Skt. Maga suggests the word may have been borrowed from Iranian  quite early, from the Late Persian to the Early Middle Persian … we would have to go back to the time of Darius and Xerxes . On the other had, the introduction of an image of a sun god as ascribed by Samba would point to Greek rather than Persian influence . Thus the historical kernel of the Samba legend should more likely be dated to the syncretism of Greek, Iranian, Indian traditions under Alexander the Great and his early successors…”

Images of Lord Sun Mihir in India are shown wearing a central Asian dress, complete with boots. The term “Mihir” in India is regarded to represent the Maga influence. Here is the summary of Bhavishya Purana 133:

Krishna’s son Samba was afflicted with leprosy, which was cured after he worshiped Surya, Hinduism’s god of the Sun. In response, he built a temple to Surya on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river, but no competent Brahmin could be found to take up the role of priest in the temple.

So Samba sought help of Gauramukha, the adviser of the yadu chief, Ugrasena.

Gauramukha responded with a suggestion that Samba go to Shakdvipa (see note on Mahabharata 6:11, below[a]) and invite their priests to worship Surya. Further, asked Samba, “tell me, oh Brahmin, what are the antecedents of these worshipers of the Sun?” To which Gauramukha replied… “The first of the Brahmins amidst the Shakhas was called ‘Sujihva.’ […] He had a daughter of the name Nikshubha, who so enamored Surya that she was impregnated by him. Thus she gave birth to Jarashabda who was the founding father of all the Maga-Acharya. They are distinguished by the sacred girdle called the Avyanga that they wear around their waist.” And so Samba called on Krishna to send him Garuda, on whose back he then flew to Shakadwipa. He collected the Maga-Acharya, brought themback to India and installed them as priests of his Surya temple.

Of the pious representatives of 18 families Samba invited to resettle in the city of Sambapura, eight were Mandagas, and their descendants became Shudras. The other 10 were Maga Brahmins…

Zen is traditionally credited to be established at the Šhaolin temple 少林寺 in China by a Persian wandering monk Bodhidharma. He came to China to teach a “special teaching not-written in the scriptures”. The reason was that the teaching is so subtle that it is impossible to transmit it by the words. Zen Buddhism arrived in Japan as early as the 7th century, but did not develop significantly there until the 12th century. Zen has since been an important force in Japan. It has had considerable influence on Japanese culture, “reaching far beyond the temple and entering into cultural and social areas of all kinds, including gardening, ink painting, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and even military strategies.” Zen priests played an important role in the political unrest of 16th century Japan, both serving as diplomats and administrators and preserving Japanese cultural life. There are about 9.6 million Zen Buddhists in Japan today. The Founder of Zen Buddhism is Bodhidharma 達磨 (470-543). He is the twenty-eighth patriarch after Gautama Buddha in the Indian lineage, and the first Chinese patriarch (i. e. the founder) of Zen 禅 Buddhism. There are two legends about his biography. One says he is a Persian, the other says Indian. Most Japanese scholars and Buddhist monks think he is a Persian. Bodhidharma is said to be a blue-eyed Persian 碧眼胡僧 (Hekigan-kosō) in Zen tradition. “Blue-eyed Persian” means Hellenized Persian, and/or a Persian who has much knowledge about western culture. Mithra’s magi are such Persians. For a well-known treatment of the theory of a secret Persian-originated Mithraic cult in East Asia, including Japan, see “Mithra in Japan, China and Korea” by Tojo, Masato, via In search of the Roman Mithra in Miroku and Maitreya. According to “Acta Iranica:

It is not the first phase of influence of Iranian Sun-worship in India (connected with the immigration of the Maga) but a distinct second phase which can be ascribed to the period of the invasion of the Sakas and Kushanas (beginning in the middle of the 2nd cent. B.C.). This second phase is characterized by the borrowing of the Middle Iranian Mihr (Mihire) ‘Sn’ into Sanskrit where it appears as Mihira is ‘SUn’. [Note here that it is the invasion of the Sakas (and Kushanas) that is attributed the greatest influence for the proliferation of sun worship. There are a multititude of solar shrines and festivals, ritual items in Japan (sakaki and sake) as well as the many common names and toponyms in Japan have the stem “saka” in it, suggesting a relic Saka cultural landscape in Japan.  That Japanese address each other as “san” is thus highly suggestive of the idea that they are all “children of the Sun” which is corroborated by what the indigenous Ainu called the later arrivals.].

As already perceived by Weber (1857, p. 104, Skt. Mihira is likely to originate in the Bactrian form of the name of the Iranian Helios. voz. Miiro (also written Miuro, Mioro, Miro etc.), which appears for the first time on the coin emissions of the Kushana rulerKaniska (1st half of 2nd cent.)

At least some indirect information as to the chronology of the borrowing of Bactria – Miiro (etc.) by the Indians can be found in a few Iranian names containing the element Mihira (Mira) and attested in early Indian inscriptions, such as the Kharosthi Inscription from Takht-i Bahi (Miraboyana) or a Kharosthi inscription from Baluchistan (Sahi Yolamira) or a couple of Brahmi Inscriptions from Mathura (Vakamihira etc.) etc). It is not unlikely that at the same time Mihira began to be used as a common noun meaning ‘Sun’ in Sanskrit. In In any case the name of the Hephthalite ruler Mihirakula (1st half 6th cent.) was understood by its bearer (and also by his contemporaries) as meaning ‘originating in the family of the Sun’. [Kalhana, Rajatarangini 1, 288 f. calls Mihirukula a son of vasukula and a grandson of Hiranyakula.] may be deduced from the inscription Mihiradata (=Mihiradatta) ‘given by the Sun’ found on one coin attributed by Gobl to Mihirakula and from the unusual spelling of the King’s name, using a Sun symbol combined with Skt. kula ‘family’ , on other coins. There also exist coins on which Mihirakula’s portrait is accompanied by a very little picture of the Sun God, and others on which we find the inscription Jayatu Tarani ‘the Sun (Tarani) shall be victorious’. From all this it becomes evident that Mihirakula’s name points to his having been a Sun worshipper. However, under Mihirakula’s reign, Sivaism was superimposed upo Sun worship…

As to the chronology it is remarkable that Mihira does not occur in the old and very popular list of 108 names of the Sun in the Mahabharata. it is found only in a later addition to that list known as Yudhisthira’s praise of the Sun, which is transmitted nly in a part of the northern and missing completely in the southern tradition of the Mahabharata. In this addition, Mihira apears in close vicinity to Mitra, which suggests the occurrences of Mihira in the indigenous dictionaries of synonyms, the restive articles of which  are of a similar type. The earliest among these dictionaries which seems to have drawn from lost works of Sanskrit literature is the famous Amarakosa by Amarasimha (before 6th ent.) who in a list of thirty- seven names of the Sun, mentions both Mihira and Mitra. At that time the etymological relationship between the loan-word Mihira and the inherited Mitra had undoubtedly long been forgotten, … As a matter of fact, the indigenous scholars connected Mihira etymologically with Skt., megha ‘cloud’ in which meaning it is used by the Jaina monk Somasdesvasuri . Mihira is explicitly derived from the same root as megha, namely form the root mih ‘to sprinkle let water upon’, by the grammarian Ujjvaladatta. (middle 13th cent.)

The famous Paris scholar Neriosangh is the only author of that period who had knowledege of the true provenance of the name or word. It was used by him as the Sanskrit equivalent of MP. Mihr which in the Pahlavi version of the Avesta renders the name of the Yazata Av. Miora (or Miura [recalling the toponym Miura Peninsula in Japan. Miro was the earliest form of Maitreya to arrive, followed closely by Miiroku and the later Maitreya, the earliest and most popular forms of Buddha to be worshipped in Japan. Miro is still a boy’s name for Maitreya in Japan whereas Miroku is closer to the Koreanic form Mireuk].

In John Mock’s Persian studies on “Shrine Traditions of Wakhan Afghanistan“, he describes and allows us to see the relic forms of the Persian Calendar and New Year observances in practice (the Wakhan corridor is where Persia had to pass before moving East to East Asia). He also suggests that the solar customs appear contemporaneous with the Saka arrivals as evidenced by rock carvings in the Scythic style of the 7th c. BC Saka as well as the East Iranic languages they left behind:

An annual observance takes place at the time of the Persian New Year (observed 16-18 March in Wakhan). The community marks the first day of the month of Aries (Hamal) as a day of celebration of Hazrat Pir Nosir Khusraw (i.e. Naser Khosrow). In Wakhan, the exact day, called shohgun [cognate with the Japanese shogatsu?], is determined through observation of the sun in relation to a fixed point on the mountains above the village, as seen from a fixed point within the village. According to the Yimit mukhi, “When the sun comes between those two rock peaks on the mountain, on that day we start the new year. That is our shohgun.” This observational system of calculating the agricultural calendar is used in other Wakhi villages in Tajikistan and Pakistan (Iloliev 2008a, 92)
When the hamal-bin sees the sun touch the point on the mountain, he goes and informs each household to prepare themselves and put on clean clothes. Community members wash, put on clean clothes, cook special food, and one or two hours before dawn, assemble at the shrine of Naser Khosrow for the ritual of Shohguni Nasiri Khusraw.

Source: “Shrine Traditions of Wakhan Afghanistan”, Journal of Persianate Studies 4 (2011) 117-145 by John Mock

Cultural heroes named Taro/Taru and agricultural gods in elderly garb

We highlight below an important paper by Susanne Formanek on the old age or Elderly couple motif in pre-Nara to Nara times, that gives us significant and valuable insights to the shamanic,  divinatory, oratory and ritual roles that the elderly played as evinced from local mythologies and folklore.

The excerpt provided here also serves as a launching point for us to establish common characteristics with certain Indo-European agricultural, weather-and-crop-growing rituals as well as Tartar myths, specifically:

– The role of the elderly couple Ashinanuchi and Tenuzuchi is seen as having a hand in the agricultural taaruji rites, while the story recalls the familiar Greek story (Deucalion and Pyrrha/Roman mythical old couple Baucis and Philemon from Tyana) and idea that any stranger might be a God in disguise.* The Greek idiom is, “were not apparent as entertaining angels” and “having entertained angels unawares (ἔλαθόν τινες ξεσίσαντες ἀγγέλους)” See Hom. Od. i. 96 ff.; iii.-329-370; xvii. 485. Comp. also the beautiful story of Baucis and Philemon as related by Ovid (Metam. viii. 626-724).
– Hittite myth of disappearing Taru plant-storm-deity – the name Taru recalls the name of the Japanese folk hero Taro (Urashima-Taro; Momo-Taro) who became in medieval times relegated to mere cultural heroes or adventurers journeying to another realm.
– The Hittite Taru’s slaying of Illuyankas recalls Susanoo’s slaying the Orochi serpent and it should be noted that the Urashima-Taro story of the visit to the Undersea palace and marriage to the Dragon-King’s daughter, is identical in certain aspects to the royal myth of “farmer” Hoori’s journey to the Undersea palace myth to recover his brother’s fishhook, can be seen in an agricultural-cum-weather-watery dragon context. In the Hittite version, the story are reenactments in a spring festival honoring Taru, the defeat of the monster-serpent Illuyankas by Taru. The alternative version of Telipinu, the son of Taru, and the retrieval of the deity’s eyes and heart when he married the monster’s daughter … predicated favorable crop-growing weather conditions, resembled Urashima Taro‘s retrieval of a magical (or sacred) fishhook and treasure-box upon marrying the Undersea Dragon-King’s daughter (see C. Scott Littleton’s “Gods, Goddesses and Mythologies” Vol. 10, p. 695) And to see a more complete list of Taru/Taro etymologies scroll down to the bottom @ endnotes.

Taaru-ji agricultural rites can (as explained below by Formanek) then be understood within the paradigm of the recalling of disappeared weather-crop deities back from the Other World => Taru=>Taro also joins a class of disappearing, vanishing deities, or heroes (such as Amaterasu), whose disappearance mean failed harvests(either because of the sun’s or weather-storm god’s disappearance), for more on this see “Disappearing (reappearing) deities – a Near Eastern theme):

“Old Age in Nara and Pre-Nara Periods” Susanne Formanek associates the elderly couple motif with sacred marebito and New Year’s Day’s rites:

“Of gods and old people

One of the characteristics of old age in Japan most often alluded to is the close- ness of the aged to the ancestors as expressed in such sayings as “rokujû de senzo ni kaeru“, a closeness which in a setting of ancestor worship, where the souls of the dead are thought to ascend to the status of gods, endows the aged with a godlike image. Looking at the earliest written monuments of Japanese culture, old people are indeed first mentioned as holding the status of gods, or rather, gods appear in the shape of old people. When in the Dragon-Slaying myth Susanoo descends upon earth, the first beings he meets are an old man and an old woman, Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi, who present themselves as being earthly gods or kunitsu-kami. Such meetings of Heavenly Deities or their descendants and an Earthly God evoking the appearance of an aged human being one way or another, occur several times in the early myths. When the Heavenly Grandson Hononinigi is beginning his descent upon earth, he meets in his search for land a god named Koto-katsu-kuni-katsu-no-kami, of whom it is said that his other name is Shiho-tsutsu-no-oji. Although we do not learn anything about his appearance, he is equated to an old man by his name. His behavior, at least in the mentioned episode, in which he is presenting the Heavenly Grand- son with land over which he seems to reign rather confers on him, too, the char- acter of an Earthly God. This same Shiho-tsutsu-no-oji appears once more in a somewhat related episode, namely as the one who pointed out to Jinmu Tennô where the land the latter ought to extend his power to was situated, in other words, as an Earthly God who is able to bestow the land on those who are apt to reign over it.

There are still other gods who in their encounter with Heavenly Deities bear characteristics of old men, as for example Sarutabiko or Shihinetsuhiko. The latter first appears in the Nihon shoki as an Earthly God named Uzuhiko. Later on, when Jinmu Tennô’s progress is stopped by seemingly invincible indigenous enemies, this Shihinetsuhiko and a certain Ukashi disguise themselves as an old man and an old woman by putting on a kasamino (a kind of grass coat) and a mi (winnowing-tray) respectively. In this attire they break through the enemy lines to ascend Mount Kagu, thus bringing about the success of the whole enterprise…

Both the kasamino and the mi which serve to transform the young gods into an okina (old man) and anomina (old woman) are items which in Japanese folklore are heavily related to magic and religious practices. Especially the wearing of the kasamino connects this episode very closely with certain religious folk ceremonies held on New Year’s Day, where villagers descending from the mountains wearing a kasamino visit the houses of the people. The words they utter are considered as sacred benedictions or forecasts for the year to come. A related rite taking place in Yakujima in which the disguise consists of akasamino and masks representing old men with long white beards, has an even more striking resemblance with our episode. These rites have been related to the belief in the marebito, visitors from the realm of the dead, who appear on certain occasions in the villages to give benedictions to the living. In this context it should be noted that the item serving to transform Shihinetsuhiko into an okina, namely the kasamino, is the same which Susanoo wore when he was exiled to the nenokuni or Japanese Hades. By putting on a kasamino, one took on this unearthly character of a traveler coming from remote realms, alienated from the human world. This seems to reveal that the okina too was regarded as a being with such characteristics.

This similarity or closeness of the aged with the souls of the dead is also suggested by the word kamusabu as used in the Manyôshû. Meaning literally “to behave, act like a god“, this word is used to describe the transformation of the souls of the dead into gods as well as the ageing of things and of persons. The pertaining to or being connected with the other world which thus characterized the okina is also exemplified by the already mentioned Shiho- tsutsu-no-oji. In the Nihon shoki variants of the Yama-no-sachi legend he is the one helping Yama-no-sachi to reach the Palace of the Sea God which can be interpreted to be related to that other world beyond the sea where the souls of the dead went to. The whole episode seems to be a mythical relation of a kind of initiation rite in which the initiand is made to die a symbolic death to come back to life provided with the knowledge of the other world and may hint at the fact that in the remote past of Japan’s history old men played the part of the initiator in initiation rites of this kind. As to Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi, whose names have come to be interpreted as ‘spirit of the late’ and ‘of the early rice crop’ respectively[or ‘Foot-Elder’ and Hand-Elder’ in folk kagura translation], they seem to be involved in the Dragon-Slaying myth in a kind of fertility rite and may thus be the antecedents of those characters wearing masks of old men and old women who in folk culture as taaruji and yasume perform the rites of the haru tauchi or taasobi in order to secure a rich harvest.

Unlike many scholars I would be very hesitant to conclude from the above- mentioned evidence that in the early periods of Japan’s history old people where considered to be living gods, as scholars have amply done. For one thing the equation old human being – god was for example no longer true for the compilers  of the Nihon shoki itself. When, apart from the mythical episodes, Earthly Gods appear in the shape of old men or old women, these are no longer deities a priori. Rather now a deity explicitly borrows the shape of an aged person to appear in the human world. This is the tendency which was to lead not much later under Buddhist influence to the legends in the Nihon ryôiki, where Buddhist gods manifest themselves to rescue humanity by incarnating themselves in old people who, after leaving a mysterious trace in the human word, vanish never to be seen again.

If it is safe to conclude that certain gods were imagined as bearing the shape of old people, there is still no way of knowing whether those okina and omina which we encounter in the early myths were meant to be real aged men and women, or whether those records simply were descriptions – transposed into the realm of myths – of religious rites involving the appearance of characters wearing old men’s masks, as is the case in the Shihinetsuhiko episode. This certainly would have had some bearing on how the elderly were regarded in general, but it is important that even in the mythical records the equation god = old human being is true only for certain Earthly Gods, who, in all the mentioned episodes, act as subordinates to the Heavenly Gods, the latter definitely showing the behavior of young people.

Furthermore there is textual evidence that old people may have performed important roles in certain religious practices as shown by the regulation whereby old women just as priestesses were exempted from submitting to the new Chinese hair style. But as far as the worship of the Heavenly Gods is concerned, growing old could on the contrary incapacitate for service. There is for example the case of Inishiki no mikoto who transferred the duty of guarding the sacred treasure of Isonokami to his younger sister when old age crept up on him, or that of Nunaki-no-iri-hime-no-mikoto who when showing signs of decrepitude was no longer able to do the worship of the Gods. In these cases senescence is obviously but a pretext, but one that must have afforded a plausible explanation. Still more striking although belonging to another context, is the Imperial Edict of Tenmu Tennô, which stated that old and sick persons who had up till then been housed in the temples now had to have quarters built for them outside the precincts in order not to pollute the holy places, thereby clearly equating decrepitude in old age with illness and assigning it the same polluting character, which does not combine well with the image of aged people as gods.

What brought about the association of old men and women with gods does not seem to have been the fact that in everyday life old people played such a dominating role that gods only could be imagined in their shape, but rather their unearthliness. This unearthliness, far from being contradicted by the polluting character of decrepitude, may on the contrary have been prompted by it, or rather it may be just another aspect of the same thing. Senile degeneration, being considered as nuisance at times (see below), could at other times by its association with death be helpful in connecting this world with the other world. It is remarkable that in the Shihinetsuhiko episode, the old man and the old woman, being disguised in the same way as Susanoo on his being exiled to the Neno-kuni, or realm of the dead, succeed in their task, not because the soldiers are overcome with respect at their awe-inspiring sight, but because they find them difficult to look at (ana miniku) and that their appearance is greeted with great laughter. Laughter in such a mythical setting of course does not only express the ridicule for the object, but also fear, in the same way as the expression ana miniku does not only mean ugliness, but rather a frightening quality which makes people shun its sight, so that this seems to me to be a rather clear illustration of the kind of abhorrence mixed with fear and admiration in which a seance was held at times.”

Suzanne Formanek’s effort to cast the masked elderly couple figures as part of sacred seasonal, agricultural or other marebito ceremonial rites is particularly borne out as there is the tradition of the wearing of kagura masks in connection with Ashinazuchi kagura plays, see the brilliantly photo-documented “Ashinazuchi kagura masks” by Ojisan Jake.

Margaret C. Miller, however, attributes the origin of the okina old man and woman figures in kagura dances to Greek influences, see The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama.”(p.317) and at p 315, Miller that it was the feudal courtiers who formalized the rites incorporating the early Sarugaku or Dengaku dances into paddy-rice field rice-planting inauguration ceremonies.

Apart from the clearly sacred visitor-from-the-other-realm and seasonal ritual nature of the Baucis and Philemon archetype figure, the Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi couple can be inferred to be a genealogical tradition or cultural figure inherited from Turkic-Mongol-Ashina-descended clans from the East Asian continent.  Support for this view may be found in genetics, a surviving Ashina clan population in Japan, as well as the practice and tradition of including an elderly couple in a genealogy or epic on founding histories, which is characteristic of the founding father histories of most of the Turkic-Mongol tribes, see excerpts below from the paper Motif of miraculous birth in Mongolian and Korean myths and epics by Prof. Dr Alexander Fedotoff, Int Journal of CAs studies, Vol 1 1996

“- Sagadai Mergen and His Sister Nogodai Sesen: Sagadai Mergen (СагаДай Мэргэн) and Nogodai sesen (НогоДай Сэсэн) were twins. They were born a long time ago in the family of an old man Gazar Boqoli (Газар БоЋоли) and an old woman Qagiar Qara Qamgan (Хагиар Хара Ћамган) (Toroev 1943);

– Qan Sakta Abqai (Хан Сакта Абхай) was born in the family of 75 years old man and 85 years old woman who prayed before three burqans Shebeli (Шэбэли) to give them a child (Dmitriev 1936);

-In this version of Buryat “Geser-saga” one can find a story about an old man Sengel (Сэнэл) who was 70 years old, and his wife Sengelen (Сэнгэлэн) whose age was 60. They had no children. Once upon a time, when the old woman gathered wild onion, she found unusual horse tracks. She followed in the tracks and reached the Mount Segte Sumer (Сэгтэ Сумэр), on the top of which she saw a huge figure. In her fright she fainted away. Later on, when she came to herself, she realized that became pregnant… Geser and his sisters were born in the same way…

– Abai Geser hubun…In this version the story about the birth of Abai Geser resembles the previous one: his parents Sengel-qan and Sengelen-qatan had no children; wild onion; Mount Segte Sumer – unexpected pregnancy; voice from the uterum; two brothers (instead of two sisters), born from arm-pits; the third boy – ugly and snotty. That was Geser who grew up very quickly and was permanently hungry (Abai Geser hubun…

– Abai Geser Bogdo qan: Abai Geser was born in the family of an old man Ser’el Sagan (Сэрьел Саган) and an old woman Senhir Sagan (Сэнхир Саган) who was 70 years old. Once she gathered wild onion and found a boy baby. The boy happened to be sick of diarrhoea, so the parents tried to get rid of him, but failed. The old parents decided the boy was given to them by Heaven (Abai Geser Bogdo qan – 5

(улгер) which means “story”, “legend”. Both terms are directly connected with ancient Oirat and Kalmuck epic, that is why one can define the epic genre preceded “Janggar” as tuul’-uliger (тууль-улигер) (Kichikov 1992:11). In the plot structure of such tuul’-uliger one can find different structural elements including those in which we are extremely interested:

– an old qan and an old qatun (an old man and an old woman) without heir;
– prayer for a child by childless couple;
– miraculous birth of the main character;
– a main character’s betrothed;

– miraculous growth and childhood of a main character (Kichikov 1978:5).

Let us analyse these elements, in particular the motif of miraculous birth and its submotifs in Oirat and Kalmuck epic and folkloric narrative works…

Oirats and Kalmucks have epic narrations which are not included into “Janggar-saga”. These narrations are characterized by such tuul’-uliger’s motifs as a childless couple, prayer for a child, miraculous conception, miraculous birth of a main character.

Comparative Analysis of the Motif of Miraculous Birth in Mongolian (Buryat and Oirat- Kalmuck) Myths and Epic

So, the analysis of mythic and epical narrative works of Mongols, Buryats and Oirat- Kalmucks shows that in the most of these works the motif of miraculous birth is usually connected with the follow submotifs: old parents; early orphanism; ugly look of the main character; supernatural might and strength demonstrated by him in childhood. It is worthmentioning that the age of the parents decreases simultaneously with the evolution of heroic fairy tales into heroic epic. Nevertheless, childless parants do not make prayer for a heir very often. As a rule, an old woman becomes pregnant in unusual way, and the father of the son is Heaven. The link between the child and Heaven is expressed not only in his unusual way of birth, look and might, but in the birth of his several brothers and (or) sisters who immediately after the birth fly up to Heaven. This is typical to almost all versions of Buryat “Geser-saga”. Divine origin of the main character is underlined in Mongolian version of this epic. Birth of a child with golden chest and silver buttock is an universal motif for the whole Turkic-Mongolian archaic epic. This motif corresponds to the motif of invulnerability (metal body), miraculous symbols (steel navel-string, iron cradle, white snare, arrow, magic stone, etc.). This side by side with the motif of the birth of the main character with a clot of blood in his hand symbolizes his future heroic deeds and supernatural status. This motif is widely spread in Mongolian epic and in historiographic works, as well. One the other hand, the epic character of Mongolian epic quite often looks ugly, suffers from heavy diarrhoea and troubles his parents. All these features put him very close to fairy tale’s character – a foolish boy with mediocre look. As a child the main character grows up very fast and demonstrates his supernatural qualities. Undoubtedly, the miraculous birth connected with Heaven; unusual look; fantastically quick growth are rather archaic features which prove the mythic origin of the main character. Perhaps, oral and written mythic texts created in Mongolia area, but not survived till nowadays, were incorporated into heroic epic and heroic fairy tales a long time ago.”

[Note that the childless elderly couple motif appears in the Korean founding historical myths such as the “myth about T’arhae isagwum goes that once upon a time a king of Silla married the daughter of the King of Chwoknywoguk, but she bore no sons to succeed to the throne. After offering prayer for a son for seven years she brought forth a large egg from her womb. The king decided that the birth of an egg was a bad omen. He ordered a large box to be made, put the egg into it together with seven treasures and two servants, and placed it on a boat. During the long journey a boy was born from the egg and grew up to be a strong boy. An old fisherwoman pulled the boat to the sand beach, opened it and to her surprise discovered a handsome boy. After the death of King Norye T’arhae succeeded to the throne as the first king from the Swok clan (Ibid.; Kim Busik 1959)”]

Endnotes: Motifs and mythemes with global connections

*The Greco-Roman stories of Deucalion-Pyrha and Baucis-Philemon aside, the notion of hospitality’s sacred nature was widespread in the ancient world.

There is the Biblical story (i.e., part of a genealogy) of Lot and his wife had feasted them, two strangers were revealed as “two angels” (Genesis 19:1; the story is in the previous chapter). Like the story of Baucis and Philemon, Lot and his family were told to flee to the mountains and not look back, before God destroyed the city that he was living in. In addition, Hebrews 13:2 reads “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [ The “don’t look back” or “don’t look” submotifs or mythemes have also traveled together to the East, suggesting a total cultural package.]

Similar to the Japanese idea of marebito(visiting gods), the idea that unidentified strangers in need of hospitality were gods in disguise appears to have been ingrained in the first century culture of the Hellenistic world and the Middle East. Less than two generations after Ovid’s publication, Acts 14:11-12 relates the ecstatic reception given to Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas as they ministered in the city of Lystra: “The crowds shouted, ”The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes.”

Linda Thompson suggests Sarah and Abraham are an archetype of the elderly couple who entertained the divine in “The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: the Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23“( at p. 91 of her work) – she states that the Biblical narrative about childless and elderly Abraham and Sarah is one example of pentateuchal historiography of scribes at work in having building into the Hebrew narrative cosmopolitan ideas contemporaneous to the Hebrew society — because of the explicit detail written that Abraham entertained the deity Yahweh by the Oaks of Mamleke, as a result of which they were blessed by a divine child who would be the founder of a nation.

The similarity in motifs and genealogical formula suggests an interaction between Western and Eastern spheres. Which raises a tantalizing notion that there might be a genetic connection for the transmission for the “genealogical narrative formula” but if it existed what might it be? And how would that have been transmitted, through a class of Brahmin-like priests? Bards, epic storytellers, or musician troubadours? Dancers? (Favoured by Margaret Miller above)  Shamanic wizards? Scribes (unlikely as most of the  nomadic tribes surveyed here didn’t have writing till later)

Here, we came across some strange “coincidences” in the names Habiru having popped up in Japan in the form of the existing Habiru clan and also in Puyo of a northern king called Haeburu, who was also according to one version, a son of Korean founding king Tan’gun – see Fedotof’s paper – this suggests to us that some of the Habiru people, proto-Hebrew stock) may have been assimilated into the ranks of the early Mongol nomadic populations(as their shaman?). Chronologically, the Greek-Roman ideas would have been contemporaneous with and drawn upon for Hebrew scribal historiographical work some years B.C., while Mongol historiography emerged around 6th c. at about the same time or a little earlier than Japan’s Nihongi and Kojiki texts.

Robert Wolfe writes in the “From Habiru to Hebrews: The Roots of Jewish Tradition” of his conclusion that the Hebrew people and Jewish traditions arose out of the Habiru people from the evidence that points to the Habiru presence at Shechem and key Abraham narrative events centred at Shechem:

“Although references to the Habiru have been unearthed all over the Middle East, far and away the most important source of information about them is the large collection of clay tablets unearthed at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century. Many of these tablets consist of letters written in Accadian cuneiform hieroglyphics during the 14th century BCE and sent to the Pharaoh in Egypt from various Egyptian puppet rulers in Canaan. The letters are filled with complaints about the Habiru, who are said to be leading a rebellion against Egyptian rule in Canaan and plundering the cities of those local rulers who still remained loyal to the Pharaoh. And in one such letter, reproduced on page 200 of Shechem by G. Ernest Wright, appears a threat by Abdu-Hiba, the ruler of Jerusalem, to align himself with the Habiru unless he receives more support from the Pharaoh. In particular, Abdu-Hiba threatened: “Now shall we do as Lab’ayu, who gave the land of Shechem to the ‘Apiru?”

Labayu is mentioned in many letters: he was the ruler of Shechem and the main rival of Abdu-Hiba for control of the hill country of Canaan. Whether he actually “gave the land of Shechem” to the Habiru is not clear. Perhaps Abdu-Hiba exaggerated, perhaps not. The important point is that his letter shows that the Habiru exercised a considerable degree of control over the region of Shechem in the 14th century BCE. And the reason why this point is important is because Shechem was without a doubt the main political and religious center of the Hebrews throughout their early history.

Numerous indications of the significance of Shechem for the Hebrews may be found in many of the books of Tanach, the Hebrew word (acronym actually) for what is commonly called the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, Shechem is the place where Abraham first sets foot when he arrives in the land of Israel and where he builds a sacred altar. In the Book of Joshua, Shechem is the place where Joshua convokes the Hebrews just before his death in order to enter into a solemn covenant to remain faithful to God. In the Book of Judges, Shechem is the place where Abimelech, the very first would-be king of the Hebrews, goes in order to declare his candidacy. And in the First Book of Kings, Shechem is the place where Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, is forced to go in order to try to get the Hebrew tribes assembled there to accept him as king. When the tribes decide to elect Jeroboam instead, Jeroboam makes Shechem the first capital of the kingdom of Israel. Even if some of these references are wholly or partially legendary, they still show that for the authors of Tanach, Shechem was thought to be a place which had a special meaning for the early Hebrews.”

For more evidence of this, see “The Habirus and the Hebrews: From a social class to an ethnic group” by Stuart A. West, Dor 7, 3 (1979) 101-107, and other writings on the Habiru.

The Japanese Habiru / Abiru clan (阿比留氏 Abiru-shi) said to be of West Asian descent, was a Japanese clan which served the Kamakura shogunate as local officials on Tsushima. It is believed the clan may have been derived from the Taira clan. In 1246, the Abiru rose up against their superiors, the Dazaifu authorities, headed by the Chinzei Bugyō, which oversaw the governance of Kyūshū for the shogunate. Koremune Shigehisa, at the request of Dazaifu, put down the rebellion and put an end to the Abiru clan.  Source: “宗 氏.” 戦国武将出自事典。 Accessed 29 Sept 2007. The tragic Abiru clan history is part of the Tsushima island history, see the Tsushima Island homepage.

@Etymology notes: The root forms below suggest the archetype of the conquering hero has an Anatolian-to-Indo-European origin

Hittite: Taru plant-storm-deity; Tarhunta Luwian name was Tarhun (with variant stem forms Tarhunt, Tarhuwant, Tarhunta); Hattian – Taru. From the Hittite root *tarh– “to defeat, conquer”

Turk: Taru (a Turkish name noted in the Hexaglot glossary of the Codex Cumanicus)

Korean: T’arhae; Taru (King of. Paekche is mentioned in Samguk sagi,vols. 23-26.)

Japanese:  taaruji [lit. Taaru-old man]; Kin-Taro; Taro (as in Japanese folk heroes: Urashima-Taro; Momo-Taro) Taro is a common name for elder son

Ainu: Retaruseta The Ainu, the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido, knew the Hokkaido wolf as the high-ranking god Horkew Kamuy. In Hokkaido’s Tokachi and Hidaka regions, there flourished versions of a myth about a white wolf that mated with a goddess, or sometimes a Japanese court lady, and the offspring from this union became the ancestors of the Ainu people. Several regional versions of this origin myth exist, and some feature a white dog rather than a white wolf. The difference between wolves and dogs appears to have been less important to the Ainu, since both wolves and dogs inhabited much the same space in their classifying imagination. One version of this myth from Shizunai, in the Hidaka region, explains that the god of the mountain Poroshiri-dake, Retaruseta Kamuy (the white-wolf god), could not find a suitable mate, even though he searched the entire island. So Retaruseta Kamuy summoned his divine powers, seeing all the way to lands across the seas, and in time spotted a mate in a distant country. Again drawing on his divine powers, he coerced the woman to get in a small boat, cross the seas, and once on the island become his wife. From this union, it is said, the Ainu people were born.

[Note: A Sino-Korean or Altaic origin of the word has been proposed by Korean scholar Han-Woo Choi who suggests a common Altaic root for the Turkic, Mongolian and Korean forms, and some kind of relationship with a primitive religion or shamanism, as well as with metal-working cf. Korean tarku-/tarho-/taru- “to heat a piece of iron in the flames”. An Altaic source is also being considered for the derived forms ‘Tar+khan’, = Tarkhan (Old Turkic Tarqan; Mongolian: Darqan or Darkhan;Persian: ترخان‎, Tarxān; Chinese: 達干, Dá-gān, Ta-kan; Arabic: طرخان‎; alternative spellings Tarkan, Tarkhaan, Tarqan, Tarchan, Tarxan, Tarcan or Targan) — these are all ancient Central Asian titles used by various Indo-European (i.e. Iranian and Tokharian) and Altaic (i.e. Turkic, Mongolic, incl. Hunnic and Xiongnu) peoples, especially in the medieval era, and prominent among the successors of the Mongol Empire. However, as far as I know, nobody has yet considered the more obvious root – an origin in the Hittites or Indo-Hittites…as we have demonstrated there are clear origins of Taru in the weather-storm-agricultural deities of the Hittites, who were also earlier than all the Mongol-Turkic tartars in the use of iron-work, and in so should have been the source of the concept of a conquering Taru, from which all derivative forms and titles emerged.]

Finally, the Deucalion-Pyrrha, Momotaro versions, it has been suggested demonstrates another variant of the Elderly Couple motif where it occurs in a Deluge or Flood (does watery sea/river setting count?), with the hero or hero infant (alone or with family) laid out in a boat or ark or floating chest/jar/vessel, floating gourd or peach, often sealed or covered, and where the abandoned or exposed hero is rescued or arrives to safety on a mountain setting, see Flood Stories from around the world. On the other hand, perhaps, Momotaro does not really fall in the Deluge archetype but instead into Moses-in-the-basket-infant exposure-down-the-river-type, since Stephen Oppenheimer points out that in Deluge myths, “none of these legends ever recount the ‘hero’ of their particular tale returning to his former home. One simple explanation for this might be that the original homelands no longer existed.” Urashima-Taro and Momotaro are heroes who journey to foreign lands but they do return home, so these presumably form a slightly variant category, closer to that of the Moses- and Sargon-archetype of hero who suffered infant exposure, set out in a basket or vessel and out to water (see Otto Rank)

Further reading:

Ashinazuchi in legend and genealogy

Obayashi, Taryo “Japanese Myths of Descent from Heaven and Their Korean Parallels”  Asian Folklore Studies’ Vol. 43,1984, 171-184

Antoni, Klaus “Momotarō (The Peach Boy) and the Spirit of Japan: Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese Nationalism of the Early Shōwa Age”“, Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 50,1991:155-188  Fairytales with conquering hero archetypes such as Momo Taro or Tametomo often follow a narrative where the hero goes to some foreign barbaric “Devil’s Island” or foreign land where he must subdue the human-heating demon inhabitants. These tales were prone to being hijacked as propaganda during WWII. [Related: Culture War and Propaganda in Japan]

Momo Taro, the Peach Boy

The Myth of the Birth of the Hero by Otto Rank

The god(dess) of iron and tatara ironmaking traditions

There is a shrine dedicated to Kanayago Photo credits:  Hitachi Metals Yasugi factory.

There is a shrine dedicated to Kanayago Photo credits: Hitachi Metals Yasugi factory.

Excerpted from Tatara,

“The god of metals was believed to be a woman, very envious, and no woman was allowed in the furnace area. The workers were all men and their wives could not wear any makeup during the operation so as not to incur jealousy of the goddess. … The furnace is compared to the vagina in which steel is given life.
(That’s why it is Goddess rather than God who takes care of metals). The kind of iron sand which is easily reduced and put into the furnace at the beginning is called ‘komori ‘iron sand meaning ‘nurse’ iron sand, which is helpful in every way in producing steel from other kinds of iron sand. The best part of produced steel is called ‘Tamahagane’ and its quality is on the world top level, and used for such sharp edges as Japanese swords. The furnace is built from soil.” For more comprehensive information see the Tatara home page by Hitachi Metals Ltd.

More is written about the history of tatara and the Kanayago patron goddess of iron:

“Tatara was likely imported into Japan from Korea by way of Shimane Prefecture, and seeing as the San’in region is rich with titanium magnetite, a necessary ingrediant for iron production, it took hold here very early on in Japanese history. Way back in ancient Japan–specifically 713AD, two years after the compilation of the Kojiki (originally ordered by Emperor Temmu) was completed, Empress Gemmei ordered the compilation of the Fudoki. While the Kojiki is like a history book (which we would now consider a book of Shinto mythology), the Fudoki were like encyclopedia, conducted in each province to chronicle geography,  plant and animal species, the lifestyles of the people, and significant historical events (many of which we would now refer to as myths). Most of the Fudoki no longer exist, but the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki remains mostly in tact. Therefore, we know a lot more about life in 8th century Izumo than about any other part of Japan. It includes many details about tatara.

Because we have so much information about its history and because it was practiced in Izumo province for hundreds of years, there are a number of museums, blacksmith family residences, archeological digs, ruins, and sword museums around the towns of Okuizumo, Yasugi, and Unnan. Okuizumo is best known for this because the The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords has rebuild a tatara there called Nittoho-Tatara, and forges swords using traditional means once a year a so. …

There is patron god of Tatara, though many of the popular local myths say she is a goddess. This is Kanayago, the kami that is revered throughout Japan for teaching craftsmen how to making iron. Having particular influence over Western Japan, she wanted to settle in the mountains there, so she descended upon a particular spot in southwestern Yasugi where a heron perched upon a katsura tree, a very brief hike up the hill from Kanayago-jinja, the head shrine of all Kanayago shrines.”

However, one of the best authorities on the subject is the Hitachi Metal’s “The history of the tatara” website which informs us that a couple, a male and female pair of deities tied to the Yamato royal line, named Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto and Kanayama-hime-no-mikoto, are ritually venerated at the tatara:

“Kanayago-kami (the deity Kanayago) is enshrined at tatara in the Chugoku mountains. While the main shrine dedicated to this deity (whose name is written with characters that literally mean “child of the metal worker) is located at Nishihida in the city of Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture. Devotion to Kanayago-kami is widespread, centered on the Chugoku region but extending from Kyushu and parts of Shikoku to the distant Kanto region and parts of Tohoku. The ritual deities celebrated at present are Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto and Kanayama-hime-no-mikoto with origins in the Yamato line (see section 2.1.3 for background), but originally it was Kanayago-kami, more familiarly called “Kanayago-san” throughout the region. Worship of Kanayama-hiko and Kanayama-hime (male and female, respectively) dates almost certainly to early modern times. This is believed to have been aimed at increasing the authority of the shrines.

The story of Kanayago-kami is as follows.

In the distant past, Kanayago-kami decided from the heavens to a place called Shiso-no-kori (Shiso County) in the province of Harima (in what is now southern Hyogo Prefecture, in the San’yo district). She taught the people there how to make iron, and made an iron kettle out of rock. Since then, that place has been called Iwanabe (“rock kettle”), which is in the vicinity of the town of Chikusa, Shiso County, Hyogo Prefecture. However, as there were no mountains nearby where she could live, Kanayago-kami declared, “If I am to be the deity who rules the western reaches, I will proceed to the west and live in a suitable place there.” So saying, she climbed on a white heron to travel to the mountains of Okuhida in Kurota in Nogi County of the province of Izumo (around Nishihida in Shimane Prefecture). The heron alit upon on a katsura tree to rest, and Kanayago-kami then taught the technique of making iron in that region to the members of the Abe clan.

Since then, Kanayago-kami has continued to be worshipped by the descendents of the Abe clan. The Abe clan involved itself not only with priestly affairs, but also with traveling around to instruct others in tatara techniques.

There are a variety of curious taboos associated with Kanayago-kami. Among them:

Kanayago-kami hates dogs, ivy, and hemp. She favors wisteria.
According to the legend in Hino County, Tottori Prefecture, a dog howled at Kanayago-kami when she descended from the heavens. The deity tried to escape by climbing a vine, but the vine broke. She was attacked by the dog and died as a result. The version of the story told in I’ishi County, Shimane Prefecture, is that, rather than ivy, she became entangled in hemp or flax and died. The legend in Nita County, Shimane Prefecture, holds that the ivy did indeed break, but she then grabbed onto a wisteria tree and was saved. She may be a deity, but in this humorous story she is a rather human character. Such legends are the reason why dogs are not allowed near tatara and hemp is not used for any tatara tools or equipment. Also, katsura trees are not burned in tatara because they are regarded as divine.

Kanayago-kami hates women.
Kanayago-kami is a female deity so she hates women. A murage will not enter the tatara when his wife is menstruating. He shuts down his tatara temporarily just before and after his wife gives birth. If work is at a point that he cannot put it aside, it is said that he will not go home nor look at the face of his newly born child. It is also said that murage are especially strict about not getting into a bath if a woman has used it.

Kanayago-kami likes corpses.
The disciples of Kanayago-kami did not know what to do with their tatara when she died so suddenly. It is said that just as they were praying to and beseeching her for help, just when the iron could not be brought to birth no matter what they did, they received an oracle calling for them either to stand a dead body up against the tatara’s four supporting pillars (Nita County) or bind the bones of a murage to the four pillars (the village of Yoshida, Shimane Prefecture). There similarly appears to have been no taboos about death in tatara in other locales, either. They apparently made coffins in tatara when a person died in Aki or Yamagata in Hiroshima Prefecture, while in Futami county in the old Bingo province (around Hiroshima today) people would carry a coffin around the tatara when holding a funeral.

Actually, it is unclear as to whether or not Kanayago-kami is meant to be a male or female deity, but in the tatara the deity has been said to be female. Masaya Abe, a descendent of the Abe clan and chief priest at Kanayago Shrine, writes, “Kanayago-kami is usually held to be a female deity. However, that is because it was a woman who enshrined it. The deity was originally a youthful male.” Details about Kanayago-kami turn up in various stories, including those related to such other deities as Yawata-kami, Ama-no-hiboko, Takuso-susano-no-mikoto, and Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto. In all cases, Kanayago-kami was the patron deity of blacksmiths, worshipped from the start by people involved in metalwork. These artisans spread devotion to Kanayago to many locations, and the present form of that worship was probably created by the Abe clan.

Festivals are held at the shrine Kanayago-jinja in the spring around the middle of the 3rd month and in the autumn early in the 10th month, the dates being determined according to the Chinese zodiacal calendar. In the past, the Kanayago festival at Hida was an event to which tatara masters and blacksmiths would come from distant provinces, as well as from Izumo and the neighboring province of Hoki.”

Another authoritative source, the Encyclopedia of Shinto relates that the Kanayago goddess is a Kajishin kami, at the centre of an ancestral cult of the blacksmith community:

” A kami of smithing and of metal forging enshrined by people who work in those industries. In premodern times, blacksmiths (kaji) included both those living sedentary lives in towns, and those who, together with bellows-makers (tatarashi) and metal casters (imoji), would join itinerant iron-working occupational groups called kanaya that traveled from village to village. In either case, such individuals were viewed as having a quasi-religious character due to their ability to control the magical power of iron.

Among these people, the kami Kajishin was worshipped both as an occupational ancestral deity (sojin) that transmitted to humans the techniques for iron smelting and smithing, and as a tutelary of the process of production and processing. At the heart of the cult of Kajishin was the goddess Kanayago no kami. The origins of this kami are not clear, but according to the Kanayago engishō, Kanayago no kami was the offspring of the union of Kanayamabiko no mikoto and Kanayamahime no mikoto. According to the legendary history related by the Kanayago no kami saimon (found in the Kayago no kami hissho), Kanayago no kami first descended from the Plain of High Heaven to the district of Shisō in the province of Harima. Climbing astride a white heron, Kanayago flew to a mountain forest in the district of Nogi in the province of Izumo, and there she transmitted the secret techniques of iron manufacturing to a man named Abe, who would later become priest (shinshoku) of the shrine Kanayago Jinja.

Portrayed as a female kami, taboos regarding Kanayago include blood pollution and the presence of women, and she is said to fear dogs. On the other hand, this kami does not appear to make a taboo of the pollution of death.

The cult of Kanayago no kami spread mainly in Japan’s Western Honshū region, and the shrine Kanayago Jinja in the town of Hirose (Shimane Prefecture) is regarded as the major shrine to the kami. Other kami worshiped as Kajishin include a number of deities appearing in Kojiki and Nihongi, including the blacksmith Amatsumara (Yamato no kanuchi Amatsumara), Ishikoridome, and Amenomahitotsu no kami. Of these, Amenomahitotsu appears in the Nihongi’s episode of the descent of the heavenly grandchild (tenson kōrin) in the guise of Kanadakumi, and also appears in the Harima fudoki with the similar name Amanomahitotsu no mikoto.

The kami continues to be worshipped today at the shrine Amenomehitotsu Jinja in the city of Nishiwaki, Hyōgo Prefecture. Local legends regarding the kami remain in this area, and they generally relate that the deity has only one-eye, in accordance with its name (ma-hitotsu = “one eye”). At some point, the kami Inari also came to be regarded as a tutelary of smithing, and some locales continue to celebrate both Inari and Kanayago no kami during the “Bellows Festival” (Fuigo matsuri) observed on the 8th day of the 11th lunar month.”

Notwithstanding that blacksmithing and forging traditions were established first on mainland Japan, some of most detailed information on the key deities is surprisingly to be found on Okinawa Island to where blacksmithing was introduced:

 “Since iron is not produced in Okinawa, the development of steel making and blacksmithing techniques lagged behind other advanced areas. Thirst for iron and its riches may have well been the source for Okinawan legends regarding the advent of iron and blacksmithing techniques. Seemingly, however, it remains presumable, only through folk tales, as to when, from where, and how the aspired skills in steel making and the art of blacksmithing came to Okinawa…

In Okinawa, ex-blacksmith families own most of the “blacksmith divinity” images. These are mostly in the form of hanging scrolls. Okinawan Blacksmiths{by Hiroaki Fukuchi (福地曠昭) Kaifu-sha 1989} has numerous remarks from blacksmiths interviewed. However, description of the images themselves remain scarce. Quoted below is Mr. Koji Asaoka (朝岡康二) refering to Akaya (阿嘉屋), one of the blacksmith families, which once flourished in Kumoji, Naha:

Originally, the balcksmith family Nareira (宮平) headed the “Mindakari (新村渠) Kanja (Blacksmith) Family”. Akaya, a family of court painters, up until the great-grandfather’s generation, joined Nareira in the mid Meiji Period (latter 19th century), whereby Akaya acquired the blacksmithing technique to reestablish itself as the blacksmith family Akakaji (阿嘉鍛冶). The first master of Akakaji painted and gave out freely many hanging scrolls with the Blacksmith Divinity image to his fellow workers. He had a natural talent for painting, as his ancestors used to be court artists. Although many of these hanging scrolls have been scattered about and lost, several former blacksmith families in Okinawa preserve them. The blacksmith divinity hanging scroll uses the complete mainland style that you would find in Kanayama-ko (金山講) hanging scrolls used in blacksmiths’ self-support gatherings i.e. Kanayama-ko, Japan. In short, Kanayama-sama (金山様) divinity is painted in the center, as Yokoza (横座) the bellow operator sits on the left, while Sente (先手) the assistant sledgehammer swings down from the right. Excluding minor differences, the basic composition was shared all over Japan. Notably, however, the blacksmithing images (Mainland Japanese style) are completely irrelevant to the blacksmithing procedures practiced in Okinawa.

In Japan, the Kanayama-sama divinity hanging scroll would be found in alcoves (床の間) on occasions of Kanayama-ko self-support gatherings. In Okinawa, however, the image is believed to have been used in annual bellows festivals, as self-help groups equivalent to the Kanayama-ko were never formed by Okinawan blacksmiths. (Ref. Koji Asaoka, Ironware Culture of Japan-Comparative Ethnology of Blacksmith, Chapter Four: Okinawan Blacksmith and Ironware Culture, p.184)
Fuchiyue (鞴祭: bellows’ festival) is respected by Okinawan blacksmiths as the hallmark of annual events. It is commonly celebrated on November 8th according to the lunar calendar, in Japan, whereas in Okinawa it is celebrated, by some, on November 7th, or for two days (November 6th and 7th) or for three days (November 7th to 9th).

During Fuchiyue the image of the bellows divinity is respectfully placed in front of the bellows, as sledgehammers, iron holders and other blacksmith tools are put as offerings. Prayers are offered to banish fire, accidents and injury throughout the year. Special dishes are prepared and shared within the neighborhood. In some cases blacksmith families visit and worship Okuma Kanja-ya (奥間鍛冶屋), the first legendary blacksmith enshrined in Okinawa, just as blacksmiths on Miyako Island would visit Funadatedo (船立堂), the sacred praying spot for blacksmiths.

According to Asaoka, the introduction of boxed bellows from mainland Japan, more specifically Sakai, Osaka, relates, particularly, to the attachment that Okinawan blacksmiths have formed to their bellows festival. Fuigo-cho (吹子町) the bellows ”manufacturers” quarter of commercially advanced Osaka is believed to have manufactured standardized boxed bellows for nationwide distribution. Asaoka states that because many Okinawan legends of blacksmith divinities speak not only of iron and the advent of steel-making techniques, but also of the introduction of boxed bellows, this proves that boxed bellows were accepted technologically advanced devices. Bellows festivals in the Ryukyu Archipelago have maintained considerably different ritualistic styles when compared to other village festivals, such as Tanetori-sai (種取祭), seed-sowing ceremonies and bountiful harvest thanksgiving ceremonies (豊年祭). Thus Asaoka retains that Okinawan bellows festivals originated on the mainland and, once introduced to Okinawa, were quickly diffused throughout the Ryukyus.
(Ref. Asaoka, Study of Ironware Culture in the Archipelago of the Ryukyus, pp. 188, 204, 257)

Images of Blacksmith Divinity and the Goddess/God Kanayago (金屋子)
Mainland Japan

In the northern Tohoku area of Japan, during blacksmith self-support gatherings, Kanayama-ko, alcoves or tokonoma (床の間) were adorned with “blacksmith divinity” hanging scroll images. Found in midwestern Chugoku, Japan, instead, would be the “Goddess Kanayago” and pictorial stories on “the birth of steeling technique”. During the Edo period, the scrolled images and pictorial stories were worshipped by tatara steel laborers, blacksmiths and casting workers all over Japan, mainly at iron producing mines.
Blacksmith divinities in ancient Japanese myth included Hinokagutsuchino-kami (火之迦具土神), Kanayamahikonomikoto (金山毘古命/金山彦命), Kanayama-himegami (金山毘売神/金山姫命), Amenomahitotsukami (天目一箇神) and more. On the otherhand, Inarigami (稲荷神), originally a god of rich harvest, was altered to a god of fire, eventually becoming a blacksmith divinity. This occurred, presumably, through the sacred rite of “Ohitaki” (御火焚) for an abundant harvest in the Kyoto and Kinki areas.
The word “tatara” originated in India, meaning blast furnace. In Japan, “tatara” appears in the names of ancient goddesses in Kojiki (古事記) and Nihonsyoki (日本書紀) e.g. Seyatatara-hime (勢夜陀多良比売), Hototataraisusuki-himenomikoto (富登多多良伊須須岐比売命) or Himetataraisukiyori-hime (比売多多良伊須気余理比売). According to myth, Izanaminokami (伊邪那美神) had her private parts (mihoto) seared as she delievered her baby Hinokagutsuchino-kami, and was, thereafter, banished to the netherworld (黄泉). It may well be in this light that the word “hoto” frequently appears in the names of ancient goddesses. Furthermore a wind way bamboo kiro (木呂竹) is inserted from the hole “hoto” to connect the bellows to the basin of a mud furnace, whereby a correlation between “tatara” and the goddesses is also suggested.
Kanayago Shrine in Nishihida (西比田), Hirose Town (広瀬町), Nogi County (能義郡), Shimane Prefecture, is an established center of worship for Kanayago, the goddess/god of steelmaking and blacksmithing. According to the stories of her advent and the origin of the shrine (which dates back to the Edo period), a snowy egret carried Kanayago on its back and flew from Harima Province to a Japanese Judas tree in Kuroda Forest, Nishihida village, Nogi County, Izumo Province.
Since Kanayago has also been worshipped as a child-loving goddess, tatara steel workers in Kamisaibara Village (上斎原村), Tomata County (苫田郡) Okayama Prefecture, for example, are known to have shown their faith in Kanayago (originally the tatara steel workers guardian deity) by inviting children to their homes every New Year (January 1st to 3rd) to tell them the old tales and legends. (Ref. Akinori Maruyama ,“Goddess Kanayago and Children: Folklore from a Tatara Village”)
In contrast, Kanayago’s hatred of adult women (who menstruate and bare children) was a source for the taboo against menstrual blood (赤不浄) as a symbol of uncleanness. However it is frequently noted that the uncleanness of death, which is symbolized by the color black (黒不浄), was readily accepted or even favored in these legends.
Mandarin oranges were believed to have been an offering at the bellows festival, much like as done by public bath owners and glue makers, each of whom were fire-relevant by trade, who gave away rice cakes and oranges to children. According to a legend in Yamaguchi Prefecture, an ugly one-eyed blacksmith deity got away from a barking dog by climbing up a mandarin orange tree. Fierce concentration at their furnaces frequently cost tatara steel workers the loss of an eye. The fact created one-eyed blacksmith divinities legend which in its turn are considered to have been diverted to single-eyed ogres of legend, oni (鬼). It is, presumably, in this context that toponyms such as Onimura (鬼村) and Onigashiro (鬼ヶ城) are often located close to iron mines. [Compare these one-eyed oni with the Greek myths of Cyclopes who were also one-eyed skilled blacksmithing giants who made the trident for Poseidon, thunderbolts for Zeus, and who were imprisoned deep in the heart of the Tartaros Earth Pit by the Sky god Uranus, until freed by Cronus.]

Mandarin oranges were believed to have been an offering at the bellows festival, much like as done by public bath owners and glue makers, each of whom were fire-relevant by trade, who gave away rice cakes and oranges to children. According to a legend in Yamaguchi Prefecture, an ugly one-eyed blacksmith deity got away from a barking dog by climbing up a mandarin orange tree. Fierce concentration at their furnaces frequently cost tatara steel workers the loss of an eye. The fact created one-eyed blacksmith divinities legend which in its turn are considered to have been diverted to single-eyed ogres of legend, oni (鬼). It is, presumably, in this context that toponyms such as Onimura (鬼村) and Onigashiro (鬼ヶ城) are often located close to iron mines.

Images of the Goddess/God Kanayago are largely categorized into the following three styles:

A) A Goddess on a Fox
A goddess in a Chinese dress, wearing a long, thin scarf (領巾) rides on a white fox, with a sword in one hand and a gemstone in the other. In other instances, she may have a magic cane, or wear a jewelled crown and armor, holding a pouch in one hand. The fox wears a jewel in its tail, and may sometimes have a hoe in its mouth. The goddess in Chinese dress, who wears the long, thin scarf (領巾) and carries the sword and gemstone, resembles, in appearance, Dakini (荼吉尼天), the harvest divinity. However Dakini is recognized as the original Buddhist form (honji 本地) of Inari-gami in accordance with the philosophy of honji suijaku (本地垂迹) a theory expounding the correspondence of Shinto and Buddhist deities. Imaginably, Inari-gami and Dakini, both of whom came to be accepted and worshipped as fire and blacksmith divinities, could have been confused to be represented both in the same scene.

B) A Goddess and Two Attendants (Male and Female)
Mainly found in hanging scroll images, which depict the story of the origin of Kanayago Shrine or scenes of steel-making and blacksmithing. Frequently a long-haired woman in sacerdotal kimono, attends a holy area located close to a mountain top and sanctified with a set of hallowed straw ropes (注連縄). A lady of the court in a red hakama and over-robe would be found on the right and a nobleman on the left, both may be standing or seated, ready to serve the goddess. A white fox may accompany the two attendants. At the foot of the mountain, there is a smith’s yard with the foot-pedaled bellows humming with steeling and refining. Court-attired noblemen and blacksmiths (in their medieval hats, eboshi, and aprons, hitatare) would be found laboriously at work.

C) Sampo-kojin (三宝荒神) Image
A series of monochrome hanging scrolls in wood block print, which Kanayago Shrine issued and distributed from the end of the Edo to the early Meiji periods, would find the Kanayago deity seated on a lotus pedestal as Sampo-Kojin. In northern Tohoku, Sampo-kojin as a standing figure is frequently painted on hanging scrolls as a blacksmith divinity. Composition-wise, Sampo-kojin often stands erect on the boxed bellows and blacksmiths are working underneath. Oni, the ogres, are also at work in the smith’s yard, sending wind to the bellows or hammering down as Sente, the assistant hammers.



Okinawan Images of Blacksmith Divinity

 The four blacksmith divinity scrolls that we were able to view during our field studies in the Yanbaru (山原) area, northern Okinawa, had basically the same composition, although they differed in the details. They belong to Type C, as mentioned above, in which the blacksmith deity is expressed as Sampo-kojin (三宝荒神). Furthermore, the four scrolled images show three Oni (鬼), ogres, that are assisting as Sente (先手), a woman in kimono, who is operating the bellows as Hakozashi (箱差し) or Fuigozashi (鞴差し) and a man wearing formal headwear (烏帽子) and an apron (直垂), working as Yokaza (横座). During the forging of iron, the boxed bellows would be found in totally different positions in Mainland Japan, Okinawa and China. At least in the latter medieval period (the Kamakura and the Muromachi eras) in Mainland Japan, it is believed to have been a common practice that Yokaza alone, without Fuigozashi, operated the bellows. On the other hand, it was a characteristic on Okinawa to have Fuigozashi sit behind Yokaza and operate the boxed bellows, as Yokaza worked without touching the bellows. The first job that an apprentice, in an Okinawan blacksmith’s yard, would be assigned to was Fuigozashi. If so, even though Meuchi (前打 i.e. Sente) and Yokaza are painted in different positions, the four hanging scrolls do not contradict with blacksmithing practices in Okinawa, because they depict how Yokaza and Fuigozashi played distinguishable roles from each other, as Asaoka indicates. Most hanging scroll images from Iwate and Gifu Prefectures (Mainland Japan) have also been found to differentiate between Yokaza and Fuigozashi.
However, the female Fuigozashi (bellows operators) that are in blacksmithing images in hanging scrolls from Okinawa (fig.21,23,24) are rarely found elsewhere. As we have discusssed, most blacksmith divine images in Okinawa are believed to be copies of the originals (that are presumed to have their roots in, and have come to Okinawa from, Mainland Japan, or have been drawn, relying upon information that had been passsed on by word of mouth. Akakanja would have made models of such originals for the many blacksmith divinity hanging scroll images that they created. It is, therefore, not totally deniable that changes might have been made by the painters to reflect more of the real blacksmithing practices in Okinawa.
Although the three headed Sampo-kojin-like figure was depicted frequently as the blacksmith deity in the hanging scrolls that we viewed (fig.24), the balcksmith deity in Okinawa is also imagined as a goddess at times(fig.23). It may be possible to assume the influential role that the myth of the Goddess Kanayago from Izumo Province had while crossing over the sea to Okinawa. We found an example in which a Sampo-kojin-like Blacksmith Divine is represented by three female faces while wearing feminine clothing, whereas Sampo-kojin should be represented by wrathful faces. This image was likely adopted by local painters to fill the gap between the faith of the people and the diffusion of painted images.
Did the images of blacksmith divinities accompany the bellows when they were introduced onto Okinawa from Mainland Japan, or could the images have possibly taken different routes? The question entails further progress in these studies, as well as the discovery of more blacksmith divine images from Okinawa which have hitherto been unseen.

 The widespread practicing of bellows festivals was, presumably, fueled by the orders and policies issued by the royal government of the Ryukyus, according to Asaoka (Ironware Culture of Japan–Comparative Ethnology of Blacksmithing, p.257). Blacksmith divinity scrolls could well have been one of the most significant ritual tools that popuralized the bellows festivals. In the 20th year of the King Sho Shitsu (尚質: 1667), the dynasty of the Ryukyus started the “Stationed Blacksmith System” (在村鍛冶制) administered by Ko shoken (向象賢). As Kaji-yaku (blacksmith officials) assigned to villages were non-craftsmen, the system is considered to have spurred the presence of Akakanja and other specialized blacksmith families, as well as that of traveling blacksmith (廻村鍛冶) which was to emerge later. The roles of the Kaji-yaku are assumed to have shifted from blacksmithing to the management of the bellows festivals and smiths’ yards. (Ref. Asaoka, Ironware Culture of Japan– Comparative Ethnology of Blacksmithing, pp. 152, 193, 224, 249).

 In Okinawa the Blacksmith Divinity is worshipped at many uganju (praying spot). Also blacksmith tales are sung in ancient ballads like “Kajiyadi Fu”. Believed to have brought forth the advent of farming with iron farming tools, the balcksmith divinity is also identified with the farming deity. (Ref. Hiroaki Fukuchi, Okinawan Blacksmiths, pp. 255 to 266). According to legend the Kunigami Aji (国頭按司 chief of Kunigami Village), Kaniman (金万・金満), who was the second son of Okuma Ufuya(奥間大親, the head of Jana Village in the Urasoe quarter, and a younger brother of King Satto (察度王), was believed to have founded the Okuma Kanja Blacksmith family. For helping Kanemaru (金丸), the future King Sho En (尚円), Okuma Kanja was said to have had his second son authorized as Kunigami Aji. The presence of Okuma Kanja continues to date as the ancestor of all Okinawan blacksmiths. Having the power attained through blood-related Monchu (門中) clans and the privileges, such as tax exemptions, and abounding riches, received through such ties, this glorious story of how one family member was promoted to Kunigami Aji is considered to have been suitable for the descendants of blacksmiths. Furthermore, they connected the legend of Okuma Kanja to the myth of the farming divinity and the advent of farming, through which Kaniman was, likely, idealized and idolized as a great ancestor and founder of blacksmith families. Today, Kaniman Aji and his wife are enshrined as founders of Uekaneshi Tunchi (上兼次殿内) or Kaniman Tunchi (金万殿内), in Kaneshi, Nakijin Village (今帰仁村), where the image of the blacksmith divinity has been traditionally recognized as that of Kaniman-sama(fig.35).

Source: Explanation of Blacksmith Divinity


Although the word “tatara” is said to have its origin in India, it is more likely to have a Volga-Ural region origin as Tartar identity is synonymous with a Turkic (or Mongol-Turk) identity, as not only is are the blacksmithing and forging skills of the “Tartars” legendary, the region is among the earliest metallurgical centers of the world, and is also the origin of the one-eyed Cyclopian-ogre tales. … Alternatively, the blacksmith migrant arrivals in Japan were Saka nomads hailing from from Northern India (Saka-stan, having sojourned there from the Caucasus) in which case, the oral tradition of the origins of the tatara-production may prove to be true after all. The Hittites were said to have been the earliest (or among the earliest) iron-workers, and both India and the Volga-Ural region were known to have had Hittite populations, from whom the Tartars could have learned iron-making.

The tale of that a “snowy egret carried Kanayago on its back and flew from Harima Province to a Japanese Judas tree in Kuroda Forest, Nishihida village, Nogi County, Izumo Province” is likely a euphemistic funerary reference to the death of the original ancestral chief, as birds were often the shaman priest’s helpers on their journeys in the Other World in prehistoric times.

The tatara culture is said to have been brought into Japan by Kaya lineages, who first established themselves in the enclaves of Kibi(Okayama), Kawachi province (Osaka), Takeuichi in Yamato, Ikenokami site of Fukuoka. They are said to have arrived in such notable numbers initially that they were called the Imaki-kun, the “now arriving khans” (ima meaning now, ki, coming and “kun” synonymous with the “khan” title used by nomads of continental Eurasia (the Korean cognate was “han”) – Source:Young Sik-Lee, Recent research  trends on the history of Kaya of Korea, Int Journal of History of Korea, vol. 1 2000

Read more about the swordsmithing apprentice Pierre Nadeau’s life here and on the making of a traditional Japanese sword at his Soulsmithing Blog

See also Turks, Tartars and Mongols of European Russia and What it means to be a Turk

And detailed descriptions out of the Khorasan or Kharezm court of who the Turks and Tatars are to be found at:

The Shajrat ul atrak, or genealogical tree of the Turks and Tatars

The haplogroup N/Tat-C “controversy” is finally over. This haplogroup N is distributed throughout Northern Eurasia. It is the most common Y-chromosome type in Uralic speakers (Finns and Native Siberian). This lineage most likely originated in northern China or Mongolia and then spread into Siberia where it became a very common line in western Siberia. See:

Rootsi et al., A counter-clockwise northern route of the Y-chromosome haplogroup N from Southeast Asia towards Europe, European Journal of Human Genetics advance online publication 6 December 2006; doi: 10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201748
“…detailed analysis of hg N suggests that its high frequency in east Europe is due to its more recent expansion westward on a counter-clock northern route from inner Asia/southern Siberia, approximately 12–14 ky ago. The widespread presence of hg N in Siberia, together with its absence in Native Americans, implies its spread happened after the founder event for the Americas.The most frequent subclade N3, arose probably in the region of present day China, and subsequently experienced serial bottlenecks in Siberia and secondary expansions in eastern Europe. Another branch, N2, forms two distinctive subclusters of STR haplotypes, Asian (N2-A) and European (N2-E), the latter now mostly distributed in Finno-Ugric and related populations. These phylogeographic patterns provide evidence consistent with male-mediated counter-clockwise late Pleistocene–Holocene migratory trajectories toward Northwestern Europe from an ancestral East Asian source of Paleolithic heritage. …
14 N2-individuals from Turkey, data from Cinnioglu et al6 (updated in this study), belong to the Asian subcluster N2-A, suggesting that the clade N2 might have geographically expanded from Siberia westward by at least two different flows: one northwest through the Volga-Ural region, giving rise to N2-E, probably mainly via the Finno-Ugric group, and the other, N2-A, southwest together with Turkic languages.”

Cyclopes (Encyclopaedia Mythica)

On the similarity between metallurgical traditions of extreme west-east ends of Eurasia, we may come to an understanding by tracing the early metallurgical centres to the taiga and forest-steppe zone to the north. An important network of contacts stretched from the Ural mountains to the Altai, giving rise to a common north-Eurasian metallurgical tradition at first based on the hollow casting of bronzes (and later iron – see  (See: Korya.Bronze). This was the ancestor to both of the Chinese bronze-casting tradition for ritual vessels of the Shang and Zhou periods, and of advanced types of hollow-cast weapons and tools (spearheads, axes) in northern Europe. Due to the spread of the kurgan civilization, the impact on Chinese technology was the incorporation of the steppe chariot-complex in the later Shang period (See: Shang period). Contacts between the western and eastern ends of Eurasia were thus established across the intervening region at the time of the Bronze Age civilizations in each area, and account for certain common features, despite the very different character of these societies.


The Comparative Lexicon for Metals

(Copper technology began in East Anatolia by 6500 BC with some researchers suggesting a possible origin in the Vinca Culture..)


Sumerian KAxUD.BAR (or) UDxKA.BAR (or) SI.BAR … also URUDU
Latvian varš (pronounced “varsh”), dim. VARiņš… also Latvian RUDU- “copper colored”, RUDVARIS (var. RUDU VARA)
Lithuanian      varis viz. varias  
Old Prussian wargien  
Latvian svars “weight” *sa-VARS 
Akkadian    SIPARRU 
Hebrew      SEPER
Urdu/Hindi  Tanba

Gujerati      Tabu

Pali                Tamba

Tibetan      zangs

Southern Min  Tang

Hakka            Thung

Chinese        Tong

Japanese      Dou

Vietnamese  Đồng

Thai                ทองแดง thongdaeng


Latvian          Dzelzs

Lithuanian   Geležis


Azerbaijani Dəmir

Chuvash      Timĕr 

Kazakh         temir 

Khakas         Timîr

Kirgiz            Temir

Turkic           Demir 

Turkmen      Ütüklemek, Demir 

Uighur          tömür

Uzbek           Temir

Mongolian  tömör

Hakka           Thiet
Chinese        Tie / Tit
Southern Min Thih
Japanese     Tetsu
Korean         Ceol 
Thai               lek
Tibetan        lcags 
Gujerati (India) lokha’ḍa 
Tin lead
Turkish Kalay  Used in most of the Balkan as well as in the Altaic languages
Baltic  Alavas (Baltic)The Baltic Alavas is used in Eastern Slavic languages (Russian Олово). In Western Slavic languages this is the name for Lead.

Azerbaijiani Qalay
Chuvash     Тăхлан [Tăhlan]
Kazakh       Къалайы [k”alajy]

Mongolian  Цагаан тугалга [cagaan tugalga]

Turkish       Kalay

Uighur قەلەي [qäläy]
Uzbek         Qalay
Georgian     kala
Hakka           Siak
Chinese        錫 [xi / sik]
Japanese スズ [suzu]
Korean      주석 [juseog]
Thai       ดีบุก [dībuk]
Vietnamese    Thiếc 
Germanic      Gold 
Bengali            Gold
Gujerati          Sonu
Latvian           Zelts 
Russian          Zoloto
Lithuanian    Auksos
Armenian      Oski
Khakas            altin
Uighur             altun
Uzbek              Oltin
Hakka                kim
Southern Min Kim
Japanese          kin
Chinese             金jin / gam
Korean              금geum
Source: Krogt; Salonen; Kassiteros at Eedle’s homepage.

The legend of Lake Titicaca and how the Japanese ended up in The Americas

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Photo: Wikipedia

A Japanese documentary recently broadcasted on NHK terrestrial TV, featured the theory of the origin of the name Lake Titicaca, and various lines of evidence supporting the theory that Japanese settlers arrived to populate the Americas (forming one of several waves of Asian migrants). The article “Establishing Japanese Ancestry” by Ariel Takada sums up the same points examined and made in the documentary:

– Waves of migration from Asian Siberia to the American Alaska occurred approximately 14,000 years ago. From then on, a slow movement southward began to take place all the way to Chile itself.

– In a substantial Brazilian project of ethnic research, for instance, researcher Heinz Budweg affirms that across the ocean “the Japanese, Chinese and even Indians traveled constantly to South America between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C.”

– Some of these migrants arrived via the land bridge, others by sea. The Japanese are thought to be later arrivals on the American continent

– Traces have been found demonstrating their presence have become increasingly more significant. Of these, here are a few examples:

1) Japanese vases of the Mid-Jomon period (1,600 B.C.), excavated at Napo, Ecuador. [Much earlier work focused on the similarity of Valdivian pottery to the Jomon period pottery of Japan]

2) The use of Japanese words for place names in the Americas. Here are two examples: “water” in Japanese is “mizu,” and it is suggested that it may have been the root basis for naming the Missouri River. The name of Mount Suyama in Bolivia is thought to have been derived from “yama,” which means “mountain.”

3) At the end of the ’70s, archaeologist Charlotte Emerich lived with a tribe of the Upper Xingu, proved that they communicated by way of an ancient Japanese dialect.

4) In December 1999, a team of Japanese scientists led by Kazuo Yajima of the Center of Cancer Research of Nagoya discovered Chilean mummies, buried more than 1,500 years ago, that were infected with the HTLV-1 virus (a leukemia variant), which is particular to certain regions of Japan and a few other spots in Asia. (The Chilean mummy — “Miss Chile” — infected with the virus can be found at the Museo San Pedro de Atacama in Arica.)


The Legend of the Japanese naming of Lake Titicaca

Excerpted from “Establishing Japanese Ancestry: “A Japanese myth that we grew up with and that mentions Chile talks about one of those possible currents. Additionally, the story brings to light a number of geographical names that remain in use, as well as the possible realization of a dream that may have given grounds for genetic and cultural influences over the Amerindian peoples:

“It is said that the oldest son of a great Japanese lord, obsessed with a prophecy foretelling that he was destined to be the founder of an empire across the ocean, set sail, accompanied by several faithful followers, around the year 1,100 B.C. The ocean current ‘kuro-shiö’ brought them to a beach they called ‘Arika’ (Arica), which can be translated as ‘here it is.’

Later, they traveled south while looking for the promised land, but they came to a halt at “Asaban” (“morning and night” – Azapa [in Spanish] to us) after surmising that they were on the wrong track. They retraced their steps and traveled northwest from the ‘Yutoo’ (Lluta) River, which means ‘something better’ or ‘better than the other.’ They crossed desert and mountain ranges, finally arriving at a great lake they called ‘Chichi-haha’ (‘Dad and Mom’ — Lake Titicaca), which was supposed to have been the divine sign that would lead them down the final route to the place where the prophecy would be fulfilled.”


Chichi means “father” and haha means “mother” in Japanese. Lake Titicaca a.k.a. Titiqaqa (Quechua) is a lake in the Andes on the border of Peru and Bolivia. By volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America.

Why the Maneki Neko beckons to you…

Maneki neko beckons to you

Maneki neko beckons to you

Reblogged and sourced from JNTO:

Since old times, cats had been kept at home in Japan to get rid of rats that gave damage to crops. And in about 18th century, cats had come on the scene as “Maneki Neko,” a cat doll that brings good luck. In today’s Japan, Maneki Neko is frequently found sitting near the entrance of shops. Shop owners put it there wishing for prosperity in business. There are interesting legends about the origin of Maneki Neko.

In the Edo Period, when the feudal lord of Hikone walked by a temple in Edo on his way home from falconry, the temple’s cat was beckoning to the lord in front of the temple gate. So he stopped by at the temple and had some rest. Just then, the clouds covered the sky all the sudden and a severe thunderstorm arrived. Not getting wet, the lord was so glad that he made a lot of donation to re-build the poverty-stricken temple. And he designated this temple as his family temple. This temple is Gotokuji Temple which still exists in Tokyo. When the cat died, Shobyodo temple (beckoning cat temple) was built in the temple’s ground and the cat has become a god called Shobyo Kannon. Visitors to the temple started to offer Maneki Neko, a cat doll to show their gratitude when their wish came true.

In Hikone where the castle of the feudal lord is, Hiko-nyan has born as the mascot for the 400th anniversary of Hikonejo Castle. It is said that Hiko-nyan is modeled after the Gotokuji Temple’s cat.

There is another legend in Edo (Tokyo). An old woman was forced to let go of her dear cat due to extreme poverty. And she let the cat go in Imado Shrine. That night the cat appeared in her dream and said, “You will be happy if you make a doll in the image of me.” So she made ceramic dolls in the image of her cat and sold them to see what happens. Soon after, the dolls became popular and that made the old woman happy. Today, a pair of female and male Maneki Neko sitting close together in Imado Shrine has become famous. And the shrine is popular among young women as a shrine of “Enmusubi (tying the knot)” that helps to get married. At the shrine a big beckoning cat welcomes the visitors.

There are a number of folk tales in Japan that animals such as dog, fox, rabbit and crow show people a way to happiness. As it tells, Japanese have been creating stories and lucky charms in their life using their creativity to wish their happiness. A wide variety of Maneki Neko is sold at souvenir shops in popular tourist sites such as Asakusa. There are whine ones, black ones, ones holding coins etc. How about getting one for yourself?

Gotokuji Temple
2-24-7, Gotokuji, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Get off at Odakyu Electric Railway “Gotokuji” Station from Shinjuku, and 5-min walk
Get off at Tokyu Setagaya Line “Miyanosaka” Station from Sangenjaya, and right outside the station

Imado Shrine
1-5-22, Imado, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Get off at Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, Asakusa Line or Tobu Isesaki Line “Asakusa” Station, and 15-min walk

Source: “what is that cat?” JNTO Japan’s monthly web magazine Apr 2014 issue

Kyoto’s Mt. Potola, and the poor and vagrant’s Juichimen Kannon and entrance to the Six Realms

The temple house a number of statues of the Heian and Kamakura periods that have been designated Important Cultural Properties, including a Kamakura period image of its founder Kūya, as well as a Heian Jūichimen Kannon that is a National Treasure

The Rokuharamitsuji temple house a number of statues of the Heian and Kamakura periods that have been designated Important Cultural Properties, including a Kamakura period image of its founder Kūya, as well as a Heian Jūichimen Kannon that is a National Treasure

The Rokuharamitsuji temple is located on Fudarakusan – Mt Potola (Kannon’s Paradise Island). In this temple, Kuya Shonin laid to rest the souls of the dead who had been dumped at the entrance to the cemetery, too poor to afford a proper burial. In naming the temple after the mythical heaven of Potolaka, Kuya clearly felt that his temple was Kannon’s Western Paradise for the poor of Kyoto.

About Rokuharamitsuji:
The name of the temple refers to the “Practice of Perfection in the Six Realms of Existence”. It is said that souls wander throughout these six realms – the realm of hell, the realm of the hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the realm of the titans, the human realm and the realm of the gods – until they reach a state of enlightenment. Nearby was the entrance to the great Toribe cemetery extending up the mountain side. Those who couldn’t afford a burial would be unceremoniously dumped at the entrance. The crossroads by Toribeno, were called the Rokudo no Tsuji – “Crossroads of the Six Realms”, a liminal space between this world and the next that was said to be the entrance to the underworld. It was next to this intersection that Rokuharamitusji was built.

Description English: portrait of monk Kūya(ACE930-972), total about cm height, wood, coloured, ACE13th century, Sculptor is Kosho(early 13th century), in Rokuharamitsu-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Portrait of monk Kūya(ACE930-972), total about cm height, wood, coloured, carved in 1207 by Unkei ‘s fourth son Kosho, in Rokuharamitsu-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kūya Shōnin, nembutsu monk, and son of Emperor Godaigo

Kūya Shōnin 空也上人 (903-972) was the son of Emperor Daigo and was tonsured as a monk at a young age. He rose through the clerical ranks to become the abbot of an important temple before forgoing all titles and becoming a wandering holy man instead. He became famous for his unique dance which he enacted as he chanted the Nembutsu. This dance is still performed and is called “Kuya’s Dancing Nembutsu”.

Until Kuya’s time, Buddhism was far too difficult for the common person to understand. So Kuya would travel around the countryside tapping a bell he wore around his neck, dancing to the beat and chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” as a way of bringing Buddhist practice to ordinary citizens.

He also built roads and bridges as well as digging wells for towns without water. He put his whole effort into helping the people of the villages and countryside. Always wearing shabby poor clothing and living a simple and frugal life, Kuya came to be revered as “The Marketplace Saint”, referring to his habit of preaching and dancing the Nembutsu in the village marketplace.

One year a terrible plague struck the people of Kyoto and one after another many people died. Kuya carved an image of Juichimen Kannon and mounted it onto a little cart which he pulled around Kyoto dancing the Nembutsu and giving medicine to the sick. In this way many people were cured of the plague. He stationed himself on a corner in the Gion district and dispensed a special tea made of pickled plums and kelp, called oyubukicha皇服茶. This tea became famous for its curative powers and sick people came from all over the city to drink it. Not only the poor people of the city came but also the nobility for the plague affected everyone regardless of rank. Gradually, the plague dissipated.

Thereafter the people commemorated the end of the plague by drinking Kuya’s tea ōbukucha on New Year’s Day, calling the tea “Prevention from Disaster Tea”. Nowadays people drink this tea on the third day of the New Year when it is considered to bring good luck for the year.

After the plague had run its course, he received Imperial permission to build a temple at the edge of Toribeno in order to continue praying for the souls of the dead.

One time, when Kuya was living amongst the beggars in Kyoto, a high-ranked priest named Senkan recognized him at the river side and asked Kuya, “Please tell me how I can be saved after death.” Kuya, recognizing the priest, humbly answered, “Surely it is I who should be asking you such a question. I’m just a poor vagrant who wanders around in confusion. I’ve never thought about such things.” But Senkan wouldn’t give up and very respectfully asked him once again. Feeling that an answer of some kind was due, Kuya replied, “Just discard your body anywhere,” and hurried off.

History of Rokuharamitsuji

After Kūya Shōnin’s death in 972, the temple he left behind prospered under the care of Nakanobu Shōnin中信上人, and the district gradually lost its gruesome reputation as the charnel ground of the poor. It even became fashionable when the all-powerful Taira clan, headed by Taira No Tadamori (1096-1153), established its mansions and military headquarters here, in the middle of the twelfth century. At the peak of its splendor, the temple complex covered the entire area from the river to the mountains, and there were over five thousand people living here. Unfortunately, when the Taira were destroyed by the Genji or Minamoto clan in 1183, after one of the most epic struggles of Japanese history, the whole district was destroyed by fire by the enemy. The temple was later rebuilt, but Rokuharamitsuji never grew very large again and remained a neighborhood temple. Japan’s first military ruler, Taira no Kiyomori平清盛 (1118–1181) became a monk and lived at the temple until his death.

From this time onwards the fortunes of Rokuharamitsuji went up and down along with the prevailing political and military winners and losers. Through the ascendancy and fall of the Hōjō and Ashikaga clans and later through the civil wars of the late 16th century, the temple and its buildings were regularly burned down and rebuilt by the subsequent winners. However, it was never able to rise to the glory it experienced in its heyday of the early 12th century. The temple was extensively renovated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after the civil war, in early 17th century. However, when the Meiji Restoration implemented its State Shinto nationalist agenda, this Buddhist temple was attacked and ruined. It remained in a ruinous state until the thousand year anniversary of the founding of the temple in 1969, when the building was completely dismantled and renovated.

Pothigai Malai in Tamil Nadu, believed to be Mt Potola or Potolaka.

Pothigai Malai in Tamil Nadu, believed to be Mt Potola or Potolaka.

The origin of Mt Potala and the Six Realms is believed to be India:

Six Paths (Jp. = Rokudō 六道 or Rokudō-rinne 六道輪廻 or Mutsu no Sekai 六つの世界). Buddhist concept stemming from Hindu philosophies. Commonly translated in English as the “Six Realms of Karmic Rebirth.”

Long before Buddhism’s introduction to India, Hindu (Brahman) beliefs and traditions held sway. One important concept was “transmigration,” more commonly known in the West as “reincarnation.” It holds that all living things die and are reborn again. Your rebirth into the next life will be based on your behavior in your past life. This rebirth occurs again and again. When Buddhism emerged in India around 500 BC, it too stressed this Hindu belief in transmigration, one that still plays a major role in modern Buddhist philosophy. The modern Buddhist concept of Karma is also a byproduct of ancient Hindu beliefs in transmigration and reincarnation.

Among Buddhists, all living beings are born into one of the six states of existence (Samsara in Sanskrit, the cycle of life and death). All are trapped in this wheel of life, as the Tibetans call it. All beings within the six realms are doomed to death and rebirth in a recurring cycle over countless ages — unless they can break free from desire and attain enlightenment. Further, upon death, all beings are reborn into a lower or a higher realm depending on their actions while still alive. This involves the concept of Karma and Karmic Retribution. The lowest three states are called the three evil paths, or three bad states. The Japanese spellings of all six, plus brief descriptions, are shown … here, along with more the rest of the article “Cycle of suffering; Cycle of Samsara” (Onmark productions).

Where is Mt. Potola?

Mt. Potola aka Potalaka, Potikai, Potiyil, (Putuo mountain in Chinese) and the cult of Avalokiteśvara

The Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka on the basis of his study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey, proposes the hypothesis that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra and Xuanzang’s Records, is the real mountain Potikai or Potiyil situated at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. Shu also says that mount Potiyil/Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the third century B.C.E., it became a holy place also for Buddhists who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there. The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Hindu religion. The mixed Hindu-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara.

In Tibet, the name of the Tibetan Dalai Lama’s Potola Palace (winter palace since the 7th c.)  stems from the same Indian-origined tradition pointing also, to an origin in southern India, and thus bears the above interpretation and theory out:

“From as early as the eleventh century the palace was called Potala. This name probably derives from Mt. Potala, the mythological mountain abode of the Bodhisattva Chenresi (Avilokiteshvara / Kuan Yin) in southern India.” —The Potola Palace

The compassion of Avalokitevara/Kuan Yin/Kannon for the poor and vagrant

An etymology of the Tibetan name Jänräsig (Jainraisig) is jän (eye), rä (continuity) and sig (to look). This gives the meaning of one who always looks upon all beings (with the eye of compassion).

The name Avalokiteśvara is made of the following parts: the verbal prefix ava, which means “down”; lokita, a past participle of the verb lok (“to notice, behold, observe”), here used in an active sense (an occasional irregularity of Sanskrit grammar); and finally īśvara, “lord”, “ruler”, “sovereign” or “master”. In accordance with sandhi (Sanskrit rules of sound combination), a+iśvara becomes eśvara. Combined, the parts mean “lord who gazes down (at the world)”. The word loka (“world”) is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied.

It was initially thought that the Chinese mis-transliterated the word Avalokiteśvara as Avalokitasvara which explained why Xuanzang translated it as Guānzìzài (Ch. 觀自在) instead of Guānyīn (Ch. 觀音). However, according to recent research, the original form was indeed Avalokitasvara with the ending a-svara (“sound, noise”), which means “sound perceiver”, literally “he who looks down upon sound” (i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need his help; a-svara can be glossed as ahr-svara, “sound of lamentation”). This is the exact equivalent of the Chinese translation Guānyīn. This etymology was furthered in the Chinese by the tendency of some Chinese translators, notably Kumarajiva, to use the variant Guānshìyīn (Ch. 觀世音), literally “he who perceives the world’s lamentations”—wherein lok was read as simultaneously meaning both “to look” and “world” (Skt. loka; Ch. 世, shì). This name was later supplanted by the form containing the ending -īśvara, which does not occur in Sanskrit before the seventh century. The original form Avalokitasvara already appears in Sanskrit fragments of the fifth century.

The original meaning of the name fits the Buddhist understanding of the role of a bodhisattva. The reinterpretation presenting him as an īśvara shows a strong influence of Hinduism, as the term īśvara was usually connected to the Hindu notion of Krishna (in Vaisnavism) or Śiva (in Śaivism) as the Supreme Lord, Creator and Ruler of the world. Some attributes of such a god were transmitted to the bodhisattva, but the mainstream of those who venerated Avalokiteśvara upheld the Buddhist rejection of the doctrine of any creator god.

According to Mahāyāna doctrine, Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who has made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every sentient being in achieving Nirvāṇa.

The Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) is generally accepted to be the earliest literature teaching about the doctrines of Avalokiteśvara. These are found in the Lotus Sūtra chapter 25, The Universal Gateway of Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva (Ch. 觀世音菩薩普門品). This chapter is devoted to Avalokitasvara, describing him as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and who works tirelessly to help those who call upon his name. A total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokitasvara are described, including female manifestations, all to suit the minds of various beings. The chapter consists of both a prose and a verse section. This earliest source often circulates separately as its own sūtra, called the Avalokitasvara Sūtra (Ch. 觀世音經), and is commonly recited or chanted at Buddhist temples in East Asia.

When the Chinese monk Faxian traveled to Mathura in India around 400 CE, he wrote about monks presenting offerings to Avalokiteśvara. When Xuanzang traveled to India in the 7th century, he provided eyewitness accounts of Avalokiteśvara statues being venerated by devotees of all walks of life, from kings, to monks, to laypeople. Avalokiteśvara remained popular in India until the 12th century when Muslim invaders conquered the land and destroyed Buddhist monasteries.

In Chinese Buddhism and East Asia, practices for an 18-armed form of Avalokiteśvara called Cundī are very popular. These practices have their basis in early Indian Esoteric Buddhism. Cundī is also referred to as “Cundī Buddha-Mother” or “Cundī Bhagavatī.” The popularity of Cundī is attested by the three extant translations of the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra from Sanskrit to Chinese, made from the end of the seventh century to the beginning of the eighth century. In late imperial China, these early traditions of Esoteric Buddhism are known to have been still thriving in Buddhist communities. Robert Gimello has also observed that in these communities, the esoteric practices of Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite.

The significance of six

In the Tiantai school, six forms of Avalokiteśvara are defined. Each of the bodhisattva’s six qualities are said to break the hindrances respectively of the six realms of existence: hell-beings, pretas, animals, humans, asuras, and devas.

In Shingon Buddhism, the mantra for Avalokiteśvara is:

おん あるりきゃ そわか
On Arurikya Sowaka
The Mahākaruṇā Dhāraṇī (Great Compassion Dhāraṇī), also called the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī, is an 82-syllable dhāraṇī for Avalokiteśvara.

While the Avalokiteśvara has an extraordinarily large number of manifestations in different forms (including wisdom goddesses (vidyaas) directly associated with him in images and texts), the form it takes At the Rokuharamitsuji, is the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara. The additional faces manifested are meant to teach all the 10 planes of existence. (Source: Avalokitesvara)

This image of Avalokitesvara is said to have been by Kuya himself, which he carted around on his nembutsu rounds (Source: Sacred Japan)

This image of Avalokitesvara is said to have been by Kuya himself, which he carted around on his nembutsu rounds (Source: Sacred Japan)

Mani wall carving of Avalokitesvara, Ghap, Nepal (Photo: Manaslu's Mountains of Travel photo gallery)

Mani wall carving of Avalokitesvara, Ghap, Nepal (Photo: Manaslu’s Mountains of Travel photo gallery)

The 11-headed Kannon with the four arms, and a lotus, of the Rokuharamitsuji temple, however, appears to be a form of iconography in between the Nepali(mani carving at Ghap) form and the Tibetan one, which also has a distinctive Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara, worshipped by all Tibetans as “Chenrezig”, the Holder of the White Lotus.

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 17th-18th c., Metropolitan Museum

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Tibet, 17th-18th c., The Art Institute of Chicago

However, unlike the Japanese form, The Tibetan one is in the male form which has two hands in the praying gesture while the other two hands hold his symbols, the Crystal Rosary and the Lotus Flower (see Kuan Shih-Yin). Compare the Japanese iconography also with the Nepali one called the Mani Wall in Ghap, as well as the Tibetan one. Each of the four arms is said to represent a different aspect of his compassionate nature. For an exposition of the relationship, development and meaning of the Indian, Nepali,  Tibetan and Chinese forms of Avalokitesvara, see Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara, 17th-18th century, Tibet.

According to the Metropolitan Museum’s theory, the Japanese Juichimen Kannon of Mt Fudaraka is derived from trade with the Chinese port of Ningpo:

“Described in the sutras as a mountainous island in the southern sea, Mount Fudaraka (Sanskrit: Potalaka[Putuoshan]) is said to be the residence of the bodhisattva Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara). This place was popularly identified in China as an island off the coast of Ningbo in Zhejiang province. Because Ningbo was the main port of entry for ships from Japan during the medieval period, the cult became known in Japan and was eventually assimilated into syncretic mountain worship shugendō) there. Certain sacred Japanese mountains, such as Kumano and Kasuga, came to be revered as Pure Land abodes of Kannon, who is viewed as an emanation of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitâbha). In this case, the bodhisattva is shown with eleven heads (jūichimen), one of the most commonly depicted of the deity’s thirty-three forms.

Here, details of the landscape, such as the spring blossoms and autumn leaves, reflect the painting’s role as a virtual pilgrimage to the sacred site, which is approached by a supernatural boatman to the right and the daughter of the Dragon King who emerges from the sea at left. Kannon’s luminous form is rendered by the painstaking technique of applying color to the reverse of the silk. That aspect, as well as the brushwork and the formal composition, suggests the hand of a thirteenth-century painter with formal influences from Song-dynasty China.”

Visions of the Fudaraku paradise

Potolaka was better known in some quarters as Fudaraku. Myōe (Japanese: 明恵) (1173–1232) was a Japanese Buddhist monk active during the Kamakura period who also went by the name Kōben (Japanese: 高弁). Born into the Yuasa family (湯浅), allegedly descended from a branch of the Fujiwara clan, he came to be ordained in both the Shingon school of Buddhism and the Kegon school. Myoe had also planned to set sail to visit Fudaraku/Potalaka. A 13th c. monk of Todaiji saw a vision of many “precious ship”, the lead ship was carrying Myoe Shonin who was leading the ships and the delegation on a stream over the Six Realms onto paradise.

See Floating Traces: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan pp 175 by James H. Sanford, William R. laDleur, Masatoshi Nagatomi

“A mid-14th c. History of Kokufuji contains an entry recording that in 1001 or Choho 3, 8th month, second day, Gato Shonin boarded a boat and sailed to Mount Fudaraku. Fudaraku (Potalaka), the paradise of Kannon, is reputed to be a mountain that rises from the southern ocean and looks like P’eng-lai. Gato Shomin actually sailed from Cape Muroto in Shikoku, and it is remarkable that his departure should have been reported in a history of Kokufuji.”The reason is probably that Mount Mikasa too was assimilated into the Fudaraku sacred geometry or landscape. A beautiful Kamakura period Kasuga mandara in the Nezu Museum shows Mount Mikasa with a detailed vision floating above it


Hirosaka, Shu. The Potiyil Mountain in Tamil Nadu and the origin of the Avalokiteśvara cult

Rokuharamitsuji (Sacred Japan)


Images: Wikimedia Commons

Crossreference 10th c. Heian image of two-armed juichimen kannon sculpture, Shizuoka prefecture, Museum of Art

Further reading:

Kannon notebook (Onmark Productions)


The Foxes’ Wedding — a weather or ghostly phenomenon, an astronomical and shrine ritual

A real wedding ceremony to be held tomorrow in Takasaki, Gunma, being a re-enactment of the Fox's Wedding folktale and shrine legend

A real wedding ceremony to be held tomorrow in Takasaki, Gunma, being a re-enactment of the Fox’s Wedding folktale and shrine legend (source: NHK Asaichi TV program)

The “Fox’s Wedding”, one of the most mysterious and romantic myths of Japan, is a popular folktale being re-enacted in actual weddings and shrine festivals in today.

Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri

Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri

Above is a photo of the re-enactment of the “Fox’s Wedding” held in the castle town of Minowa. The wedding ceremony passed down the generations in the Takasaki City Misato area is portrayed in a fox’s wedding and people made up to look like foxes march along in a parade. (Contact the Misato Branch Office of Takasaki City for tourist info, and see this blog). It is celebrated by locals in Gunma Prefecture’s Takasaki City on  6 (Sun) October.

The fox’s wedding, the legend

The fox bride and the fox groom

The fox bride and the fox groom, in a festival of  Takasaki, Gunma

As the legend goes,

Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyémon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony. Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, of course, received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while.* After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy.

*A shower during sunshine, which we call “the devil beating his wife,” is called in Japan “the fox’s bride going to her husband’s house.”

(This account of the story appears in Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford. It and its illustrations are reused according to the terms of the Project Gutenberg License online at

Associations of the myth with weather phenomenon, such as sunshowers and fox-rain

In the Kantō region, Chūbu region, Kansai region! Chūgoku region, Shikoku, Kyushu, among other places, sunshowers are called “kitsune no yomeiri.”

Like kitsune-bi foxfires and atmospheric ghost lights, this phenomena is called various names depending on area. In the Nanbu Region, Aomori Prefecture, it is called “kitsune no yometori” (狐の嫁取り, the fox’s wife-taking), and in Serizawa, Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture and the mountainous areas of Oe District, Tokushima Prefecture, it is called “kitsune-ame” (狐雨, fox rain).  In the eastern Isumi District, Chiba Prefecture, it is called “kitsune no shūgen” (狐の祝言). In the Higashi-Katsushika District, Chiba Prefecture, it is referred to as “kitsune no yometori ame” (狐の嫁取り雨, the fox’s wife-taking rain) like in Aomori, but this stems from the fact that this area was once a farming area, and seeing as how wives were noted for their labor, wives were thought as ones who existed to be “taken” for the sake of the prosperity of the family.

The relation between a fox’s wedding and the weather also differs by area, and in the Kumamoto Prefecture, it is when a rainbow appears, and in the Aichi Prefecture, it is when graupel falls that there is a fox’s wedding.

The “Kitsune no Yomeiri-zu” from the Edo period by the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika was based upon this weather-related folk belief, and it depicted various people surprised by a fox’s wedding procession and a sudden shower, and their bustle to take in their crop. This has been pointed out to be an unusual example where the imaginary background of the foxes and the real customs of farming villages are depicted at the same time in a painting.

Detail of Hokusai's

Detail from “Hokusai’s Kitsune-no-yomeiri-zu”

A poem of Kobayashi Issa, a haiku poet of the same era, reads, “in the autumn flames and mountains, there is the rain of fox’s weddings” (秋の火や山は狐の嫁入雨). Also, in the works of the Meiji period waka and haiku poet Kobayashi Issa, there was a tanka that read, “when the rain falls on the village from a blue sky at the hour of the horse, perhaps the king fox is getting married” (青空にむら雨すぐる馬時狐の大王妻めすらんか).

From the ningyō jōruri “Dan no Ura Kabuto Gunki” (壇浦兜軍記) first performed in 1732, one hears the refrain “it was quite clear weather all the way up to now, but then I heard it, the playful rain of the fox’s wedding” and in the period novel Onihei Hankachō published after the war, there was one volume titled “fox rain” (狐雨).

In Edo period kusazōshi and kibyōshi such as “無物喰狐婿入” (illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi) published in 1785 (Tenmei 5), “Mukashigatari Kitsune Yomeiri” (昔語狐娶入) (illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa), and “Anasaka Kitsune Engumi” (穴賢狐縁組) (illustrated by Jippensha Ikku), as well as in Kamigata e-hon such as the “Shūgen Kitsune no Mukoiri” and “Ehon Atsumegusa,” there are depictions of “foxes weddings” of humanized foxes going through weddings. There was a genre of works called “yomeiri mono” (嫁入り物, “wedding things”) of humanized animals going through weddings, but foxes had the special characteristic of concretely having the name Inari no Kami attached to them. This is seen to be an indication that faith in the god Inari as well as “yomeiri mono” both deeply permeated among the common people.

The foxes' wedding as depicted in Shugen Kitsne no Mukoiri

The foxes’ wedding as depicted in Shugen Kitsne no Mukoiri

Among local people, in Akaoka, Kōchi Prefecture (now Kōnan) among other places, there is the children’s song in which we hear “when rain falls in good weather, it’s the fox’s wedding” (日和に雨が降りゃ 狐の嫁入り, hiyori ni ame ga furya, kitsune no yomeiri), and it is said that an actual fox’s wedding precession was seen on a day of a sunshower.

The foxes’s wedding as an auspicious wedding reenactment (or wedding rite for the reversal of ill-fortune)

In the Suzakihamamiyashinemei Jinja in Miyado, Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, during setsubun, a shinto ritual called “kitsune no yomeiri dōchū (the fox’s wedding journey)” performed in the Edo period, and revived during the postwar period, and a man and woman who were in a yakudoshi or “unlucky age” that year would dress up as a little fox, the head envoy of the gods, and a girl fox, the envoy of the god of Suzakihamamiyashinemei Jinja, and then re-enact a wedding, which at that time it can be seen to flourish with several tens of thousands of visitors to the shrine. [The dressup as foxes was probably an act of deception intended to trick the gods into not knowing the couple’s true identity, so as not to attract misfortun while allowing them to go ahead with their wedding rites.)


Fox sightings, supernatural and ghostly encounters and — omens of death

The abovementioned auspicious tale has an ominous and foreboding counterpart legend in Tokushima prefecture, where the lantern procession and fox’s wedding weather phenomena sightings, are an omen that someone is about to die, a part of a funeral ritual.

Generally at night in the mountains or at riverbeds, it is said that countless kitsunebi would come together in a line and look like a procession of paper lanterns, and it is said that the foxes are lighting paper lanterns for a wedding ceremony, and thus it is called “the fox’s wedding.” These mysterious flames have the particular characteeristic that they can only be seen from afar.

In the essay “Kokon Yōdan Shū” from the Edo Period, there was a story where someone actually encountered the wedding. In Kanpō 5 (1745), a man appeared in the ferry landing in Takemachi, Honjo, and since there was a wedding ceremony in the home of his employer who he works for, he requested many ferryboats to gather, and as a gift to the host of the ferry landing, he gave one ryō as a tip. The host happily prepared the boats and waited, and since a splendid wedding procession came, the host courteously escorted the procession. However, the next morning, not to mention the tip, all of the ferry money turned into tree leaves. Local rumors have it that there was a wedding between deities(?) of Handa Inari in Kanamachi, Kasai (now Katsushika, Tokyo) and Yasuzemon Inari in Asakusa.

There are many foxes that live in Kirinzan in the Niigata Prefecture, and it is said that at night, there was a wedding procession with hanging paper lanterns. For this reason,  there is a festival called the Kitsune no Yomeiri Gyōretsu is performed in the Tsugawa region, Aga, Higashikanbara also in the same prefecture. Originally a place famous for kitsunebi, an event related to kitsunebi was performed starting from Shōwa 27, the wedding precession (yomeiri gyōretsu) is today an annual sightseeing event, with about 40 thousand sightseers.

A topography book of the Echigo province (now Niigata Prefecture), from the Hōreki period, the “Echigo Nayose” (越後名寄), includes the following statement about the appearance of the “kitsune no yomeiri”:

At whatever time at night, whatever place, on occasions when it becomes extraordinarily quiet, flames like paper lanterns or embers can be seen continuing far into the distance, far surpassing even one ri. They are quite rare in all places, but they appear occasionally in the Kanbara district. This is said to be the wedding of young foxes.

In here, lines of atmospheric ghost lights that stretch close to 4 kilometers are called “kitsune no kon,” and also in Nakakubiki District, Niigata Prefecture, and Uonuma of the same prefecture, the Akita Prefecture, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki Prefecture, Nanakai, Nishiibaraki District of the same prefecture(now Shirosato), Hitachiōta of the same prefecture, Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, Higashichichibu of the same prefecture, the Tama area of Tokyo, the Gunma Prefecture, the Tochigi Prefecture, Mukawa, Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, the Mie Prefecture, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, and Nanbu, Saihaku District, Tottori Prefecture, among other places, when atmospheric ghost lights (kitsunebi) are seen in the countryside at night, the phenomenon is called “kitsune no yomeiri.”

What it is called can vary depending on area; for example, the phenomenon is called “kitsune no yometori (狐の嫁取り, the fox’s wife-taking)” in Sōka, Saitama Prefecture and Noto, Fugeshi District, Ishikawa Prefecture (now Noto, Hōsu District)[15][16] while referred to as “kitsune no shūgen” (狐の祝言) in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Several theories exist as to why the bride and groom are seen as foxes. One such theory says that although the lights appeared to be signifying a wedding, there was actually no wedding anywhere and the entire thing was an elaborate trick played by foxes.

Past phenomenon in Toyoshima in Edo (now Toshima, Kita ward, Tokyo, and Ouji, of the same ward), allegedly include the atmospheric ghost lights that continuously appear and quiver and shake around in the darkness is called “kitsune no yomeiri,” –the phenomenon is counted as one of the “seven mysteries of Toshima” told about in this village.


The superhuman and supernatural

Stories of marriages between foxes that were shown to humans are disseminated country-wide.

One such example, was the folk legend of Sōka, Saitama prefecture, in the Sengoku period, where a certain woman promised to marry with her lover, but who died to an illness, and foxes were said to have been inspired by the regretfulness of this situation … into holding the fox’s wedding procession spotted taking place near the woman’s grave.  Also, according to a folktale in the Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture), there is a story where when an old man helped a little fox, he was eventually greeted by the wedding procession of the fox when it grew mature, and as a gift of thinks to the old man, he was taken along it. In stories of weddings like these, natural phenomena like those written about above as well as supernatural “kitsune no yomeiri,” function like stage settings, and weddings that take place in the day frequently take place in a sunshower, and those that take place at night frequently take place among atmospheric ghost lights.

There are various stories of strange wedding processions that were witnessed, and recorded, especially in old Edo literature which involved sightings of actual foxes, like in the essay “Konjaku Yōdan Shū” (今昔妖談集) of Kan’ei period of one taking place in Takemachi, in the Honjo area of Edo, as well as the written work “Edo Chirihiroi” (江戸塵拾) where one was seen at the Hacchō canal in Edo, as well as the kaidan collection “Kaidan Oi no Tsue” (怪談老の杖) of the Kansei period where one was seen in the village of Kanda, Kōzuke (now Gunma Prefecture).

The fox myths, as linked to the Inari deity and Inari shrine agricultural tradition, where the fox is deified as a god of harvest OR a messenger of the grain deity Inari.

In the Hanaoka Tokufuku Inari-sha in Kudamatsu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the Inari festival held in November 3 every year, the “kitsune no yomeiri” is performed. This is not related to either atmospheric ghost lights or sunshowers, but is rather a re-enactment of a wedding between foxes, and is due to the efforts of volunteers after the old practice of praying for good harvest at the Inari festival at that shrine ceased in the chaos of the postwar period, and the re-enactment refers to the fact a white fox couple at that shrine was looking for something lost, and was deified as a god of good harvest and thriving business. The ones who perform as the fox couple are selected among the people of Kudamatsu, but it is said that as the female who plays the part of one of the newlywed is going to be blessed with a good match, there is a benefit to a marriage at that same shrine.

See Hatsu Uma Festival commemorates the day that Inari, the grain deity descended upon Mt Inari

The fox is associated with Inari, a grain deity who descended upon Mt Inari

The fox is associated with Inari, a grain deity who descended upon Mt Inari

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社?) is the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan. The shrine that sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari, is predominantly patronized in early Japan by merchants.

The earliest structures were built in 711 on the Inariyama hill in southwestern Kyoto, but the shrine was re-located in 816 on the request of the monk Kūkai to the current Fushimi-ku location in Kyoto. The shrine became the object of Imperial patronage during the early Heian period. In 965 Emperor Murakami decreed that messengers carry written accounts of important events to the guardian kami of Japan. Inari shrine was among the 16 shrines, these heihaku were initially presented to. From 1871 through 1946, Fushimi Inari-taisha was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社?), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

The clear link between foxes and Inari is documented in Edo period kusazōshi and kibyōshi such as “無物喰狐婿入” (illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi) published in 1785 (Tenmei 5), “Mukashigatari Kitsune Yomeiri” (昔語狐娶入) (illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa), and “Anasaka Kitsune Engumi” (穴賢狐縁組) (illustrated by Jippensha Ikku), as well as in Kamigata e-hon such as the “Shūgen Kitsune no Mukoiri” and “Ehon Atsumegusa,” there are depictions of “foxes weddings” of humanized foxes going through weddings. There was a genre of works called “yomeiri mono” (嫁入り物, “wedding things”) of humanized animals going through weddings, but foxes had the special characteristic of concretely having the name Inari no Kami attached to them. This is seen to be an indication that faith in the god Inari as well as “yomeiri mono” both deeply permeated among the common people.

The foxes’ legend as a cosmological myth of great antiquity and with a broader common origin

The most probable explanation for the fox’s wedding, and other fox, legends, is that it was an ancient agricultural and seasonal astronomical precessional rite, that was inherited from the Altaic-or Northern Chinese continental migrants who brought grain agriculture into the land, both millet and rice. From studies of archaeology and astronomical knowledge, fox legends are believed to have a four thousand year old history, associated with prehistoric earth and sky agricultural rites and a part of the ancients’ rich body of calendrical knowledge of cyclical-seasonal readings. Fox sculptures are known in archeaology from Turkey’s Gobleki Tepe site, and fox myths and temples are found in abundance pan-Mesoamerican and -South American, the fox temples featuring earth offerings and sightings of celestial bodies’ alignments and seasonal predictions.

A 2011 study, published in the Journal of Cosmology, reviews the “evidence associated with the fox representations [and] argues that the beginnings of hierarchy in Andean South America occurred with the rise of a priestly cult who maintained a complex knowledge of astronomy.” The article entitled “Ancient South American Cosmology: Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox”, excerpted below states,

“The mythology of the South American fox is associated with both the sky, into which he ascended, and more strongly, the earth below. He brought back carbohydrates from the heavens in the form of agricultural plants, and animal protein in the form of fish. His association with climate change and prediction of crop success is told in stories over much of South America. His constellation is visible to indigenous peoples in a number of South American countries. From coastal Peru to southern Ecuador, shamans still use the fox to make prophesies, and variations on the fox myths are still heard from Central to South… The first representations of the Andean fox were found at the site of Buena Vista, Chillón Valley, Perú.


The fox representations at Buena Vista are the earliest three‐dimensional art in the Americas (Benfer et al. 2010). These 4,000‐year‐ago acts marked a point where stories about the fox first became expressed visually in sculptures, murals, paintings, and architecture. The archaeological representations of the fox at Buena Vista are associated with temples where one could observe sky‐events and make offerings to the earth.

These associations of the fox with the earth and the sky persisted from the Late Preceramic until the time of the Incas and are still known today among Andean peoples, both Quechua‐speakers and Aymara‐speakers….

An Andean constellation of his personage is widely known throughout much of South America. The fox of contemporary SA indigenous peoples’ cosmology appears to be the same fox that by 2000 BC was first represented in art associated with monumental architecture at Buena Vista.”

“The rising of the Andean Fox constellation in the Milky Way marked seasonally important dates such as solstices (Benfer et al. 2010) and lunar standstills (Adkins and Benfer 2009) between 2200 and 2000 BC. So, too, the Maya constellations and the Milky Way marked solstices.”

The authors argues for a distant common origin of the fox myths, having found that there were common elements of Mesoamerican and South American origin fox myths, such as nocturnal associations, trickery and associations with earth and agricultural offerings and a relationship between the fox and the sacred mountain: “The South American fox monitors offerings to the earth, which are reviewed for adequacy by animated mountains”.

In Japan, with its adopted western Gregorian calendar, the calendrical associations of fox myths are for the most part forgotten, however, vestiges of the seasonal significance remain. For eg.,according to legends of Fukushima Prefecture, it is said that at evening on 10th day of the 10th month on the lunisolar calendar, if one wears a suribachi on one’s head, and sticks a wooden pestle in one’s waist, and stand under a date plum, it is possible to see a fox’s wedding, and in the Aichi Prefecture, it is said that if one spits in a well, intertwine one’s fingers and look through a gap in between, one is able to see a fox’s wedding.

Shapeshifters, a separate Indo-European or Indo-Iranian development

The same 2011 study emphasized that stories of shape-shifting foxes belong to a separate tradition and possibly a later Indo-European/Aryan development. This appears to accord with the Japanese situation where shapeshifting foxes are mostly medieval developments showing diversified late Silk Road Eurasian influences.

There are also stories of weddings not just between foxes, but also between a human male and a female fox, and a representative work, which also became a ningyō jōruri, is the story about the birth of the Heian period onmyoji, Abe no Seimei in Kuzunoha. There is also a similar tale in the Nihonkoku Genpō Zen’aku Ryōiki, as well as in the “Tonegawa Zushi” (利根川図志) a topography book published in 1857 (Ansei).  The town of Onabake (女化, literally meaning “shapeshift into woman”) in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture got its name from this, and the a fox is deified in the Onabake Jinja in Ryūgasaki of the same prefecture.

Also, in the Konjaku Monogatarishū as well as the “Honchō Koji Innen Shū” (本朝故事因縁集) published in 1689 (Genroku 2) and the “Tamahahaki” (玉掃木) published in 1696 (Genroku 9), there is the story of a fox who appeared before a married man, shapeshifted and disguised as that person’s wife. Also, in the kaidan collection “Tonoigusa” (宿直草) published in 1677 (Enpō 5), there is the reverse story where a male fox fell in love with a female human, shapedshifted and disguised as that woman’s husband and intercourse, and resulted in the birth of children with atypical appearance.

See also She-Wolf, Were-Wolf Wives and wolf shrines of Japan

In Descended from Wolves: Wolf Symbolism, I draw upon the writings of Daniele Guizzo’s work, “”Blessed and cursed: Wolf”s totemism and tabooisation between the Caucasus and Iran“(p. 117~) says the fox was interchangeable with wolves in Iranic symbolism and the shapeshifting and other wolf attributes were indistinguishable in the Iranian and Caucasian world, — to show that wolves, werewolves originated in a Proto-Indo-European or Aryan homeland and moved westwards, from early Turk-Mongol centres, while the fox shapeshifter can be traced out of Iranic Central Asian dispersing through eastwards in East Asian cultural spheres (through China, Korea and Japan), perhaps in tandem with the spread of millet and rice agriculture (foxes’ tails are often compare with millet).

Finally, in Myths and Legends from Korea: An Annotated Compendium of Ancient and Modern Materials (edited by James Huntley Grayson) at pp.396-7 the Korean Fox Wife tale is compared with its counterpart Fox Wife tale from Japan, and at the same time, it is suggested from the background of the next tale of the fox who became the Empress of China, that the fox-ancestry or fox-descent tales of both Korea and Japan originate from Chinese sources [which in turn may have originated from Iranic or Dravidian sources), and are a variant of the Mongolic wolf-descent tales. The three Chinese-Korean-Japanese mythic cultural spheres are clearly related, for they share the same mythical nine-tailed fox iconography with genealogical significance (and therefore possibly the same royal bloodlines?). Korean tales, however, tend to portray the fox mountain spirit as evil, while foxes are more often than not regarded as benevolent by the Japanese.  History books like Book of Zhou and story collections like Extensive Records of the Taiping Era, depict the nine-tailed fox as a beast of fortune. Sent by the heavens, the nine-tailed fox was seen as a sign of fortune, peace and luck. In the Han dynasty, it is the protector of royal blood.

Nine-tailed fox from the Qing period Shanghaijing.

Nine-tailed fox from the Qing period Shanghaijing.

Source and references:

“Ancient South American Cosmology:
Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox”, Journal of Cosmology, 2011

Kitsune-bi (

Wikipedia entry “kitsune no yomeiri

For more resources on foxwives and nine-tailed foxes and more, see this page

Namahage – friend or foe?



The Namahage stories and traditions are so ancient, nobody can agree upon their origins anymore…

The Namahage is a demon-or ogre-like creature which features prevalently in an annual New Year’s tradition in Akita prefecture. On the 31st of December, young men don a demon mask and straw raincoat, and carry a pail and a weapon made of wood. They roar menacingly, dance around bonfires, play taiko drums and visit every house in the village, searching for indolent and disobedient children to drag away into the mountains. Once the children have been sufficiently chased around and frightened, parents assure the Namahage that there are no bad children in the house, and appease them with food and sake. The Namahage encourages the children to keep studying and working hard, and the children make a new year’s resolution to behave. Finally, the Namahage wishes prosperity and good health on the family before moving on to the next house.(source: ilovejapan website)

The Namahage’s role thus reminds us a little of Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas’) …”better be good, better be nice,  Santa knows…” as the carol goes. Actually, in this repsect, the Namahage has a very close counterpart in the Krampus demon found in Germanic areas of Europe. This suggests the diffusion of a very distant common tradition from a common origin in the early Aryan/Caucasus/Eurasian steppelands (or homeland of the proto-Europeans). See the Horned demons of Europe and Images of oni from Onmyodo traditions and beliefs

The namahage’s purpose was to admonish laggards who sit around the fire idly doing nothing useful. One of the refrains used by the namahage in the olden days was “Blisters peeled yet?” (なもみコ剝げたかよ namomi ko hagetaka yo?). Namomi signifies the heat blisters, or more precisely hidako (火だこ hidako?) (Erythema ab igne or EAI), a rashlike condition caused by overexposure to fire sitting by the dugout irori hearth. Thus “Fire rash peeling” is generally believed to be the derivation of the name namahage.

Some of the namahage’s other spoken lines of old were “Knife whetted yet?” (包丁コとげたかよ hōchōko togetaka yo?) and “Boiled adzuki beans done yet?” (小豆コ煮えたかよ azuki ko nietaka yo?). The knife apparently signified the instrument to peel the blisters. And it may be mentioned in passing that it was customary to have azuki gruel on the “Little New Year”.

Although the namahage takes the form of a type of oni or ogre, it was originally thought to be a custom where youngsters impersonated the kami who made visitations during the New Year’s season. Thus it is a kind of toshigami.

The namahage would typically receive mochi from the households they visited, but newlywed couples were supposed to play host to them in full formal attire and offer them sake and food.

Some ethnologists and folklorists suggest it relates to a belief in deities (or spirits) coming from abroad to take away misfortune and bring blessings for the new year, while others believe it is an agricultural custom where the kami from the sacred mountains visit. See the related marebito concept.

Namahage visits are nowadays practiced on New Year’s Eve using the Western Gregorian calendar. But it used to be practiced on the so-called “Little New Year” (小正月 Koshōgatsu?), the first full moon night of the year. This is 15th day of the first lunar calendrical year, which is not the same thing as January 15 as it fluctuates and usually falls around mid-February, exactly two weeks after the Chinese New Year (Japanese: Kyūshogatsu).


From the Oga peninsula, comes a great favorite folktale that paints the Han Chinese as unwelcome maurauders in the distant past…

The Legend of the 999 Stone Stairs and the Namahage

Legend has it that the Emperor Wu of Han (d. 87 BC) China came to Japan bringing five demonic ogres to the Oga area, and the ogres established quarters in the two local high peaks, Honzan (本山)and Shinzan (真山). These oni, as ogres are most commonly called in Japan, stole crops and young women from Oga’s villages.

The citizens of Oga wagered the ogres that if they could build a flight of stone steps, one thousand steps in all, from the village to the five shrine halls, [variant: from the sea shore to the top of Mt. Shinzan, all in one night, then the villagers will supply them with a young woman every year.  If on the other hand, the oni failed in their task, they would have to leave Oga never to return again.

The ogres accepted the wager and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager mimicked a cock crowing at dawn. So the ogres departed dismayed, believing they had failed.


In other regions, namahage act as village guardians and protectors against disaster… Eg., at the Namahage Sedo Festival

This famous winter rite is the union of the folk Namahage tradition and a Shinto festival.

The festival begins with Chinkamayu no Mai, a sacred kagura dance particular to the area. This is followed by the dynamic Namahage dance and drums. Finally, fifteen Namahage march down from the mountain bearing torches, bringing the night to its climax. The sticky rice cakes passed out by the demons themselves(unlike elsewhere where they are bribed with mochi cakes), are said to ward off disaster.



Sources and further reading:

Namahage  Museum

Yamamoto, Yoshiko (1978). The Namahage: a festival in the northeast of Japan. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Inc. p. 114. ISBN 0-915980-66-5.

Wikipedia’s entry “Namahage”

Banishing the demons one bean at a time

Horned demons of Europe

Images of oni from onmyodo traditions and beliefs


Namahage image: own work



How Taoist-Confucian ideology helped the Yamato rulers accommodate the indigenous fertility and phallic cults in Japan


Hōnen Matsuri at Tagata Shrine in Komaki

Hōnen Matsuri at Tagata Shrine (Wikipedia)

The Tagata and O-Agata shrines of Japan attract a great deal of interest both from locals as well as from abroad … for the phallic cult and fertility festivals.

The Tagata shrine and its paired O-Agata shrine actually enshrine and venerate a royal princess, who according to local tradition, was the daughter and husband of feudal lords who belonged  with the warrior aristocrat retinue from Nara. The Tagata shrine lies over the former residence of the Tamahime princess. This begs the question as to why the Yamato royal elites would be presiding over the phallic fertility festivals of the region they had settled or pacified.

Harvest Festival at Oh-Agata Shrine (Hime-no-miya Shrine)

Harvest Festival at Oh-Agata Shrine (Hime-no-miya Shrine) image: Japanguides

For clues to the answer, we look to the Taoist worldview and ideology that had been borrowed from China.

In Nara, the centre of Yamato state rule, the royal courtly culture was strongly influenced by continental traditions and customs, and Taoist beliefs governed every aspect of their daily lived. A veritable “Ministry of Magic” called the Bureau of Divination or Onmyoryo, headed by Taoist priests laid down yin-yang /in-yo rules for daily life and through its divination ritual practices, influenced the major and most important decisions of the day, such as when and whether to go to war, or to cross the seas in undertaking diplomatic missions or military expansions.

Phallic cults and festivals are often identified with Shintoism and assumed to be strictly local and indigenous since phallic rods and henges have been erected during prehistoric times and in early Japan. As such, they are commonly believed to be unconnected to or uninfluenced by royal customs which were foreign continental practices.

However, we suggest that the local indigenous phallic rituals and corresponding vaginal fertility cultic practices and beliefs were easily accommodated by the new system of Taoist beliefs that were taking root in Japan and forming the Way of Yin and Yang, the traditional Japanese traditional esoteric cosmology. The local fertility cults co-existed and appear to have been encouraged, institutionalized and presided over by the royal elites from Nara who established themselves as feudal lords over expanded local areas. As support for this idea, we highlight the interplay of phallic and womb-fertility component concepts inherent in Taoism-Confucian culture as it existed in the Longshan and Shang warring aristocrat communities, the continental cultural crucible for the ideas imported into Nara Japan. It may also be profitable to note the interaction of the idea of the Confucian Heavenly Divine mandate with Taoist beliefs on the continent,  may have influenced the structure of “heavenly” ruling clan deities of Yamato vs. the “earthly deities” of the localities seen in the Kojiki and Nihongi chronicles.

For support of the foregoing, we draw upon Don Lehman jr.’s writings “The Tao of China”, in which Lehman sees the historical events of the Eurasian continent as a polarization and interplay of cultures of the Bronze Age warring nomadic aristocracies and the sedentary farming agri-cultures as the former group impinges upon the lands of the latter. At Chapter 24 he lprovides a new geophysical paradigm for understanding the interaction of and interplay between the indigenous fertility phallic-womb beliefs of early prehistoric and protohistoric Japanese and the warrior and central ruling ideologies that were intrusions of the central governance from Yamato court:

“…during the Shang dynasty that there was a differentiation between the Government and the Clan. In this section we will see that during the Shang the religion of government differentiated itself from the indigenous fertility cults. The religion of government eventually became Confucianism, while the religions of fertility became Taoism. The yang phallic quest for power separated itself from the yin vaginal quest for fertility. While the religion of government was phallic, Taoism was vaginal. The roots of Taoism are in the Paleolithic as exhibited by their injunction against dependency upon agriculture. Because of their reliance upon Nature, Taoism is predicated upon a greater trust of the Tao of Heaven.

Phallus power vs. Vaginal fertility cultures

Phallic symbols represent Shang Gods

Traditionally the military cultures based upon the pursuit of power have been male based and phallus oriented. This started with the phallic spear of Homo erectus. The Shang culture followed this pattern. Their most important god was Shang Ti, the supreme ancestor. Next in importance was Shê, the god of the earth. The archaic pictogram for both ancestor and Shê is a phallic symbol. These cults have continued down to the present day. [1] This phallic orientation probably was a continuation of the Longshan with its emphasis on warfare. This stratified society with the phallic male on top is certainly reflected in the Confucian hierarchy with the male emperor on top of the father-dominated family. Hence Confucianism is based upon the Bronze Age military culture.

Vaginal symbols Taoist [ see photo of female rocks at O-agata shrine]

While the power-based cultures are normally centered on the phallus, the fertility based cultures oriented upon generation and creativity have been gynocentric, i.e. focused upon the female vagina. Taoism follows this pattern. The Taoist symbolism is riddled with references to the mysterious female, pregnancy and birth. Below is just one of the many vaginal references from the Taoist Bible, the Tao Te Ching.
“#10. Can you play the role of the female in the opening and closing of the gates of Heaven.”[2]

Vaginal Taoism polar opposite to Phallic Empire

Taoism was and is linked to the female vagina, emulating the pregnant state of the woman, to give birth to oneself. The Taoists tend to advocate small and decentralized political structures. The Shang ancestor worship was linked with the phallus, the male, the father, a patriarchy. This eventually connects up with the imperial structure with Confucianism. Thus the phallic orientation of the religion of the state oriented around Shang Ti, is a polar opposite to the vaginal orientation of Taoism whose focus is upon vitality and creativity.

Taoism/fertility: Confucianism/power

Worshipping the fertility of the woman, Taoism has been main force behind Chinese artistic expression. Behind Confucianism is the warrior ethic, which developed during the Shang…Taiji Quan has its roots in Chinese warrior training of the Shang dynasty. Confucianism, in worshipping the power of the man, has been the main force behind all of Chinese politics. This split occurred during the Shang, with its stratification of society into a military aristocracy, an agri-cultural peasantry, and the artistic class.

Taoism Paleolithic not Neolithic

The focus of Taoism upon female fertility links it with the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer fertility cults. While fertility was worshipped by the agri-cultures, it was linked with the fertility of the soil. The fertility worshipped by the hunter-gatherers had to do with fertility of Nature itself. First these cultures worshipped the propagation of the species as symbolized by their many fertility figurines. Second as hunter-gatherers they were dependent upon the annual rebirth of the natural flora and fauna. The female fertility figures, which symbolize this northern fertility culture, originated deep in the Paleolithic and were merely continued in the Neolithic agri-cultures…. Due to the sedentary and annual nature of agriculture, their [farmers’] freedom was severely limited. Also because of the nature of the military aristocracy, the farmers were and are always prone to domination.”

“Unpredictability of Nature brings freedom

While the unpredictability of nature was insecure, it brought freedom. Cultures depending only upon the bounty of Nature were simultaneously the most insecure and the freest. This worship of nature is very different from the worship of nature by the agri-cultures. The agri-cultures worship the rainfall and the ground to bring good crops which they need to feed themselves and their livestock. The agri-cultures have taken matters into their own hands, depending upon their own efforts rather than trusting Heaven’s Will.

Livestock, the original corruption

One Taoist story is of a Taoist going to live in the freedom of a mountain. A friend gives him a goat. Caring for the goat leads the Taoist into the binding agricultural lifestyle, complete with fences and dependency upon the soil[4]. In this story the livestock lead to the inhibited agricultural lifestyle. …

Yielding to the Tao or The trust in divinity

…Ironically one of Adam’s sins was the lack of trust in divinity. He wanted to taste the duality of choice rather than depend upon the wisdom of greater powers. The knowledge of Good and Evil fragmented his original wholeness into parts. Depending upon the unpredictability of Nature, means the cultivation of trust. The unpredictability of natural events can be so anxiety provoking as to be paralyzing. At that point of an individual becomes paralyzed by fear or anxiety, no matter how slight it might be, freedom is gone. Thus while unpredictability can lead to freedom it can also lead to anxiety that paralyzes. Each of us has our own line at which time too much freedom becomes paralyzing. Where the line is drawn is based upon our level of trust of nature or divinity or whatever.

Trust in the continuity of cycles: Up always follows the down

The first level of trust is simply believing that one day, that one season, and that the years will follow with some regularity and continuity. Believing that the fertility of spring will follow the barrenness of winter, relieves the anxiety of winter. The anxiety we experience in each of our personal winters, the darkness before the dawn, is eliminated if we unswervingly trust that day follows night as surely as spring follows winter. The long-term perspective based upon trust relieves the anxiety of being too present. Children even go through periods of fear of the dark, which only reflects their anxiety that they might not survive the night. Many anxieties are rooted in this lack of trust during the down cycles…From the Tao Te Ching:

“5. Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental;
It treats all things as straw dogs.”
Highest level of trust in the Tao of Heaven

For those that discriminate, the trust that everything happens for the best is insufficient to relieve anxiety. For the Taoist the highest level of trust according to my limited perceptions is the trust that aligning oneself with the Tao of Heaven is the best one can do, regardless of outcome or consequence. If one is given an evil or tragic role, one must still fulfill it to the best of one’s ability.
This level of trust is rooted in the unreality of the phenomenal world …

This higher level of trust is rooted in the Buddhist notion of unreality of the phenomenal world. Investing in the polarities of good and evil, life and death, (as did Adam and Eve) only leads to disappointment and suffering. In between the polarity of yin and yang is Taiji. Taking a yin yang bath in the non-duality of existence divests one of attachment.

Yielding to the Will of Heaven

Hence this higher level of trust is based upon the trust in Nature, not because natural events are for the best or a punishment for past transgressions, but only because Nature is so powerful that we are helpless before it… This type of trust is of a slightly different nature. The trust is a yielding to the Power of Nature, Divinity, the Will of Heaven. Hoping to fulfill Destiny but unattached. Relaxed before the potential of our aborted fate. Not assuming that because we are good people that we are blessed and protected by the almighty. But instead blessing each moment as the Grace of Conscious existence.

Taiji: trust in the Tao, not technique

In Taiji, the trust comes from the same root. Fear is based upon investment in duality. The divestment in the duality lessens the fear. The trust is based upon being in the Womb of the Mother. It is so comfortable and warm that even if she asks for your sacrifice you are thankful for the few brief moments that you have been able to reside in her womb. … Hence the trust in Taiji is not based upon trust of technique but instead upon the trust in existence. If your technique is not sufficient and you take a few knocks, so be it.

Trust that quietude will reveal the Will of Heaven

For the Taoist there is one other primary trust. This is the trust that the Tao of Nature, the Will of Heaven, is revealed in the midst of extreme quietude. While the Buddhists seek quietude in the pursuit of detachment, the Taoists seek quietude to allow the Tao of Nature to emerge and be listened to. The Buddhists seek the emptiness of the Void. The Taoists see the Void between yin and yang, but it is not empty. It is filled with purpose and meaning.


The ancestor worship of the Longshan clans and Shang government was oriented around phallic power, while the Taoism has always been oriented around vaginal fertility. The traditions based around the government and ancestor worship eventually coalesced around Confucianism, while the traditions centered upon cultivating fertility became associated with Taoism. Taoism is based in the freedom and insecurity of the Paleolithic while Confucianism is based in the military aristocracy of the Bronze Age. The insecurity of freedom is neutralized by the trust that doing the Will of Heaven, the Tao of Nature, is the best that we can do…”

We can see Lehman’s described dynamic of the underlying warrior-rule and dominance as well as the Taoist-Shinto elements at work in the fertility phallic-vs.-womb pairing of the respective Tagata and O-Agata shrines. It is significant that both shrines enshrine the Tamahime goddess who according to local tradition was the princess and daughter of Ogata, feudal aristocrats from the Nara court.

Manifesting the dualism of in-yo harmony, the Tagata shrine’s phallic-penis displays are paired with the “vaginal” womb celebrations of the nearby O-Agata shrine, see Green Shinto’s “Fertility festival (Ohgata shrine)

“Oh-agata Jinja is a shrine near Nagoya dedicated to Oh-Agata, a kami who is said to have founded the local area of Owari County. It’s known for its female fertility symbols and attracts women seeking marriage or the birth of a child. As such it’s paired with nearby Tagata Jinja, famed for its ‘big penis’ festival about which I wrote recently.

A central role is played by the Hime no miya subshrine, where the daughter of Oh-Agata is worshipped. Known as Tamahime no mikoto, she is a goddess of marriage, pregnancy, safe birth and happy conjugal life. ‘Above all,’ says the shrine brochure, ‘she is worshipped as the guardian goddess of women.’

The shrine’s Grand Festival takes place on the Sunday prior to March 15, when the Tagata festival is held. Like similar fertility festivals, it is aimed at securing good harvests and prosperity. The parade is led by Sarutahiko, kami of showing the way, and features unmarried women and a vaginal symbol made of pink rice.”


That the paired Tagata and O-agata shrines show the Taoist yin-yang principles at work, is also confirmed by the commentary on Honen Matsuri in the Encyclopedia of Shinto:

Good Harvest Festival. A festival held at Ōagata Shrine (Ōagata jinja) in Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture. The Sunday closest to March 15 is the festival day. Also called the Hime no Miya Hōnen Festival. The festival complements the Good Harvest Festival of Tagata Shrine and is famous for the worship of genitalia. Called the Yin (in or female) festival in contrast to the Yang (yō or male) festival of Tagata Shrine, rocks symbolizing the female genitals are enshrined. There is a procession of a sacred palanquin (mi-koshi) representing the female genitals, great banners (ō-nobori), and decorated horses. Good luck mochi are scattered from a sacred palanquin carrying a giant clam. In front of the shrine hall onlookers scramble for valuable items hanging from the large sakaki. These are talismans for safe birth, getting married, and satisfaction in married life.
There is also the Good Harvest Festival on the Sunday closest to March 15 at Tagata Shrine in Komaki City, Aichi Prefecture. It is said that this transporting of the deity rite is based on a legend about the enshrined kami, Takeinazumi-no-mikoto, who had an enormous penis and took to wife the local Aratahime-no-mikoto. The festival involves the transporting of the deity from Shinmei Shrine or Kubo Temple to Tagata Shrine. A linga (penis) almost two meters in length rides on the sacred palanquin, following a large banner upon which a penis is drawn. The banner is carried by youths, and at the shrine the onlookers scramble to claim pieces of it. The talismans that are on the banner pieces are skewered, and it is said that if these are placed in the fields the harvest will be good. It is also said they will bless one with good relationships and keep away sexual diseases. It is said that if one does not attend both this festival and the Yin festival at Ōagata Shrine then one will not prosper. — Mogi Sakae


Sources and Further readings:

Honen Matsuri, the Encyclopedia of Shinto

Don Lehman jr.’s writings “The Tao of China”, Chapter 24

The Tagata shrine and the “vaginal” womb celebrations of the nearby O-Agata shrine, Shinto’s “Fertility festival (Ohgata shrine or O-Agata shrin)

The Bureau of Yin-yang Divination, Onmyodo (the Encyclopedia of Shinto)

Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from the Chronicles of Japan to the Tale of the Heike by David T. Bialock

Bishamon(ten) and why paper tigers are placed around Chougosonshi-ji Temple

Mt Shigi (Image: Shigisan Chouson

Tiger figurine and Chogosonshiji Temple on Mt Shigi (Image: Shigisan Chogoshonshi-ji Temple)

Mt. Shigi is said to be the first place in Japan where Bishamonten appeared. Legend has it that when Prince Shotoku Taishi prayed for victory over Mononobe no Moriya, – an opponent of the Buddhism that the prince was promoting – Bishamonten appeared on Mt. Shigi at the hour of the tiger, on the day of the tiger, in the year of the tiger, and led the prince to victory. To express his deep gratitude, the prince built a temple dedicated to Bishamonten in 594 and named the temple Shigi-san which can be translated as “the mountain to be trusted and respected”. This anecdote is believed to be a reason why paper-tigers are placed around the temple. Affectionately known as “Shigi no Bishamon-san”, the temple is especially crowded with visitors during their first visit of the year (New Year’s Day).  As the temple enshrines Bishamonten, the original god of war and warriors, and also has a tiger as a guardian god, Chougosonshi-ji Temple is also famous for attracting professional baseball players from the Hanshin Tigers who go there to pray for victory.

Shigi-san Chougosonshi-ji Temple is the head temple of the Shigi-san faction of Shingon Buddhism and is located in Mt. Shigi in Heguri Town, Ikoma, Nara Prefecture. It is also the head temple of Bishamonten, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune.

Painting of Tamonten, the Guardian of the North (one of the Four Guardian Kings). 13th century

Painting of Tamonten, the Guardian of the North (one of the Four Guardian Kings). 13th century (Image: Wikipedia)

The “Bishamonten” are dedicated to the God of war. There are three famous Bishamonten in Japan. Saishouji Temple, in Oiwa, holds one of them, the Oiwa Bishamonten. The other two are located on Kurama mountain in Kyoto Prefecture as well as the abovementioned Shigi Mountain in Nara Prefecture. The main hall was rebuilt in 1762(Houreki 12nen) and in 1993 it was widely repaired. The principal image is 1.8inches tall and is made of pure gold. It is said to have been made by Shotoku Taishi(the regent of Emperor Suiko in the Nara period). Here many votive pictures of horses are dedicated.

More historical background is given in The Seven Propitious Gods: Bishamonten – Wealth or War – Which is it?:

“Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan in a 1998 publication of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies said that Bishamon has his origins primarily in Central Asia and not India. He emerged in the sixth and seventh centuries as a militant protector of Buddhism and Buddhist rulers.” She added that “There were also legendary accounts of the barbarian-quelling powers of Bishamonten.” These became popular in both China and Japan. “Later a Japanese emperor, Kanmu 桓武, would install a monumental sculpture of Bishamonten in the upper story of Rajōmon 羅城門, the main gate to his new imperial capital, Heiankyō (the predecessor of Kyoto), which he had ordered built and occupied as the Emishi wars came to a close… [¶] This is an iconography that helps explain… why shrine-temple complexes and military outposts bear so many similarities, why pagodas, to name but one example, are reminiscent watch towers.”

Bishamon is the patron saint of (among others) priests, soldiers, doctors and missionaries – All of this makes sense. This god defends the faith, i.e, Buddhism, he is militant, at least, in costume, he wards off evil – which includes things that could harm one’s health …

Henri Joly, who didn’t always get things exactly right, cited Ernest Eitel about Bishamon in saying that “…he was canonized as God of Riches by Hiuen Tsung in 753, and plays an important part in exorcism….

Getty notes that “In Japan [Vaiśravaṇa] is worshipped under the name Bishamon, and is represented in armour ornamented with the seven precious jewels, and is generally standing on one or two demons. In his left hand he holds either a small shrine or the flaming pearl, while in his right is a jewelled lance.” The shrine is said to represent the Iron Tower in India where the Buddhist scriptures were found. Bishamon is often shown looking at the shrine as a symbol of him overseeing the treasures of that religion.

In 1902 Clarence Brownell referred to Bishamon as “the lucky god of War.”

In a 1906 volume of Kokka there is a one page entry entitled “Portrait of Bishamon-ten (The Indian Mars)”.  Joly in 1906 identified Bishamon as one of thesan-sen-jin (三戦神) or war gods. This figure he says is represented by a head with three faces riding on a boar.

August Karl Reischauer, Edwin O’s father, said he is in his Studies in Japanese Buddhism originally published in 1917. That same year Basil Stewart concurred, but added that Bishamon was also the god of glory.

On the other hand, L. Beatrice Thompson wrote in 1906 that “…in spite of Bishamon’s armour and ferocious aspect, he is not more especially the god of war than is Daikoku, and quite as much the god of riches as he…”

Bishamon as the god of wealth – A number of ancient Japanese texts say that Vaiśravaṇa is the same as Kuvera (sometimes Kubera) the ancient Hindu guardian of wealth. According to Chaudhuri “These writings projected the image of Vaiśravaṇa as a god of wealth to the common Japanese, in addition to that of a protector of the country. Thus he became a god of fortune.


The article Bishamonten draws our attention to the earliest introduction of Bishamonten in Japan as one of the four compass or directional deities:

“This armor-clad, weapon-wielding, demon-stomping deity was introduced to Japan in the 6th century AD as one of the four Shitennō (Four Heavenly Kings Protecting the Four Directions), wherein he is known as Tamonten 多聞天, the guardian of the north and protector of the holy places where Buddha expounds the teachings. The Four Kings soon rose to great prominence in rites to safeguard the Japanese nation. In later centuries, however, Tamonten became the object of an independent cult, supplanting the other three in importance. When worshipped independently, he is called Bishamonten (or Bishamon, Bishamon Tennō, Tobatsu Bishamon), but when portrayed among the Shitennō he is called Tamonten.”

Despite Bishamonten’s associations with warriors and war, the article Bishamonten appears to make a distinction saying that “Bishamon is the god of warriors (but not of war) and prayed to for victory prior to battle. He is also a god of defense against foreign invaders, a deity of healing with the power to save emperors from life-threatening illness and to expel demons of plague…, to keep personal enemies at bay, and to reward followers with riches, good fortune, and even children.  Around the 15th century, he was enlisted as one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods owing to his association with treasure and wealth. He is identified with various other deities, including the Hindu god of wealth Kubera / Kuvera; the Buddhist deity Tobatsu Bishamon (protector of capital cities and dispeller of foreign invaders); the Great Black Warrior of Vedic lore Mahākāla (aka Daikokuten, another member of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods); the goddess of wealth and beauty Kichijōten (his wife in Japanese Buddhist lore); and with various syncretic deities including Sanmen Daikokuten, Tenkawa Benzaiten, Shōgun Jizō, and Sōshin Bishamonten.”

Tamonten statue at Tōdai-ji, Nara

Tamonten statue at Tōdai-ji, Nara (Image: Wikipedia)

In particular, the article Bishamonten highlights the deity’s role as expeller of plagues:

“The Shigisan Engi Emaki 信貴山縁起絵巻 (Illustrated Handscroll of the Legends of Mt. Shigi), was painted in the 12th century as a tribute to Bishamon’s miraculous power to ward off illness and expel the demons of plague. It includes the story of how Bishamon cured Emperor Daigo 醍醐天皇 (885-930) by dispatching Kumāra 倶摩羅 (Bishamon’s youthful dōji 童子 attendant) to help the sick emperor.Bishamon appears in other painted scrolls of the same period. Says the Tokyo National Museum (about adjacent image): “Here, Bishamonten is portrayed as a benevolent deity who protects devotees of the Lotus Sutra. Examples of Bishamon holding a bow, as he is painted here, are found in Chinese works of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. This scroll, called the Extermination of Evil (Hekija-e) or Exorcists Scroll, is conjectured to have been made during the time of Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-92, r. 1155-58) in the latter part of the Heian period (794-1185) and kept in the treasure house of Rengeo-in Temple (Sanjusangendo). All the deities shown here [in the five scolls] are considered, in China, to be benevolent deities who expel the demons of plague. This set was originally mounted as a handscroll that was known as the ‘second edition of the Masuda family Hell Scroll.’ After the war, the hand scroll was cut into five sections and the paintings mounted as hanging scrolls. The acts of each of the gods in exterminating evil are briefly explained in the texts accompanying the illustrations. <end text from Tokyo National Museum


The Indian equivalent of Bishamonten or Tamonten is Vaiśravaṇa –  the Indian guardian of the northern direction, and his home is in the northern quadrant of the topmost tier of the lower half of Mount Sumeru. He is the leader of all the yakṣas who dwell on the Sumeru’s slopes. In the Pāli scriptures of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, Vaiśravaṇa is called VessavaṇaVessavaṇa is one of the four Great Kings, each of whom rules over a specific direction. Vessavaṇa‘s realm is the northern quadrant of the world, including the land of Uttarakuru. According to some suttas, he takes his name from a region there called Visāṇa;  Vessavaṇa has the authority to grant the yakkhas particular areas (e.g., a lake) to protect, and these are usually assigned at the beginning of aVessavaṇa‘s reign. When the Buddha was born, Vessavaṇa became his follower, and  often brought the Buddha and his followers messages from the gods and other humans, and protected them (Source: Wikipedia entry on Vaisravana. )  It maybe a somewhat futile or frustrating task to sort out whether the origins of Bishamon are Chinese or Indian as Buddhism originated in India and Buddhist figures and concepts filtered to Japan, not only via China (after having evolved or having been transformed there) but also directly by Indian monks to Japan or interacting with Japanese monks.

In Japanese iconography, Bishamon is portrayed holding a spear in one hand and a small pagoda in the other hand, the latter symbolizing the divine treasure house, whose contents he both guards and gives away. For images of Bishamonten in Japan, see the BISHAMON, BISHAMONTEN article.



Sources and references:

Shigisan-chougo-sonshi-ji Shigi-san Chougosonshi-ji Temple

New Year Rituals in the Temple of the God of War (Ancient Worlds)


The Seven Propitious Gods: Bishamonten – Wealth or War – Which is it? Vegder’s Blog


Yama-no-kami, the mountain deity, and the folk culture of the fishing communities

Statue of Ebisu, Kessennuma

Statue of Ebisu, Kessennuma, image: Wikipedia

In today’s post, we would like to highlight the research of Johannes H. Wilheim, whose paper “Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Beliefs of Japanese Fishing Villages: With Special Reference to Yoriiso (Miyagi) and the Sanriku Region”, on the folk beliefs of fishing village communities. In particular, we draw attention to the keen insights the paper gives us on the all-important role of the yama-no-kami or mountain deity in the ceremonial life and fishing culture of the Sanriku northeastern coastal fishing villages as well as the related ideas of fertility and ritual impurity, their impact on gender division of labour, and upon the organization of social institutions. This is a rare paper because most writings on the yama-no-kami focus only on the mountain and rice-field aspects of the religion (cf. Encyclopedia of Shinto) but this paper shows how the mountain kami concept (the Ebisu deity is the most prominent of the fisherfolk deities) relates to fishing and maritime spheres as well.  The salient parts of his paper touching on these themes are excerpted below:

“An essential factor in the beliefs of Japanese coastal fishing culture is the concept of yama[defined earlier as a concept related to a “turning point”, a boundary and the transition of zones, rather than a mountain]. For instance, in many fishing villages a yama no kami is worshipped near an adjacent forest or inside a shrine, and often, these are located at boundaries of a settlement. Generally, the yama no kami in fishing communities is believed to be a female deity affecting numerous aspects of everyday life. For example, in many communities she is associated with the forest and thus to fire (wood). She is said to bring easier childbirth to women but is worshipped by male (foresters and rangers), too.18 At the same time, however, the yama no kami is regarded to be a very jealous deity and dislikes the presence of other women in her territory.19 At occasions such as pregnancy, when villagers have to “meet the goddess,” it often happens that exclusively men are allowed to perform the ceremonial duties to avoid angering her. In addition, reverential installation of male phallic symbols in the yama is a common custom that can be found in many regions.

In the following, yama-related aspects of beliefs and customs in a typical fishing village (Yoriiso, Miyagi Prefecture and surrounding areas) are described. We will see that yama cannot be reduced to a topographic feature, but as concept rather symbolizes a “turning point.”20 Another feature of yama as concept is femaleness that is woven into a complex system of beliefs and ceremonies.”

“The wakagi mukae is a ceremony on January 6 that ritually opens the mountain for woodcutting. Male villagers cut down twigs and sticks from several trees and bushes. These are bundled and offered with kiri-mochi to the yama no kami.38 Until 1951, this was the first time in a year to enter the yama, because the shishi-buri shifted from January 16 to January 5 in 1952.

A similar ceremony to the wakagi mukae, the yamanokami mairi 山神参り (lit. “procession to the yama no kami”), is carried out on January 12 by women of the yamanokami-kØ.39 The yama no kami is worshipped at a “sacred stone” (Map 1, Y)40 serving as shintai beneath a tree located at the eastern boundary of Yoriiso to the forest that leads to the neighboring settlement of Maeami. There, the women make offerings and pray for an easy and safe delivery. After this, the group convenes at a member’s house and enjoys a feast-like banquet for the rest of that day. On days of yamanokami-kØ, all members of the group are freed from profane work …

… In Japan, New Year (shØgatsu 正月) is, next to the ancestor’s festival (bon盆) in summer, the most important part of the annual ceremonial cycle, the nenchË gyØji. A cycle of New Year ceremonies usually continues until ko-shØgatsu 小正月 (lit. “small New Year”) on January 15. In Yoriiso, on the first day of a year there is the obligatory genchØ mairi 元朝参り (commonly known as hatsu mØde 初詣) at the local Kumano shrine 熊野神社 (Map 1, K), and the first sunrise (hatsu hi no de 初 日の出) is regarded to be best seen on top of Azumamoriyama. Also kuzen 供膳 (ceremonial food offerings) are prepared by female members of a household in advance for these days of ritual renewal at the turn of a year. This ceremonial food is placed by male members in front of a household’s kamidana and later removed from there (also done by male) to be eaten by the family. The go-nensho mawari 御年始回り, the “first day visit” to several households of the community, is also customarily done in Yoriiso by the major domus of a household.28 Also, division of actors by gender can be observed, however, there are other ceremonies in which this is more evident.

The “first ride on a boat” (nori some 乗り初め) is celebrated on the second day of a year. One important part of this ceremony is the veneration of the funadama 船霊 (or 船玉; Illustration 2), the guardian deity of a vessel. Its shintai is usually a small wooden box with female hair next to sugoroku 双六 (dice), old coins or even puppets and other objects inside (TRS 1984: 41, Yoshida 1981: 93), and on modern vessels it is also possible that there are two of them aboard, for example, one at front deck and one in the cabin each venerated at ceremonies, and, at last, “invisible” funadama are also known. Yet, on old style sailing boats, the box is mostly located below the mast of a vessel, where the shipbuilder installs the shintai – in some cases secretly – before the launching. This place aboard is often called mori 森 (lit. “where many trees are” = forest or mountain) or muro 室 (room) (Sakurada 1934: 148). In many Japanese fishing villages, people consider the funadama as a spirit that is embodied in female human beings, and there are even cases, in which women are considered to be the manifestation of a funadama deity.29 For this reason, a female’s hair – containing elements of the yama (i.e. wood [fire] and the soil) – is believed to protect a vessel from being shipwrecked. In other places of Japan, the funadama is also said to bring good wind direction or even attract fish (Sakurada 1934: 162), an interesting analogy to Ebisu.30


Funadama ritual and female deity

As for Yoriiso, descriptions of nori some is rudimentary, we instead refer to the one in Kesennuma 気仙沼 (about 50 km north of Yoriiso) as described in Kawashima (2003: 71-73). The nori some in Kesennuma begins with a ritual purification of the vessel. Among others, the fishing vessel is turned to southern direction so that the ship-owner (or sendØ) can look at the mountains from starboard, while praying words like “Shall the yama at hakari be visible!” or “Please show the yama soon!” to the sai no kami 幸神 (deity of luck), which is regarded as metaphor of the yama no kami. A piece of kiri mochi 切り餅 (cut rice cake) is offered as ceremonial food, which is dipped with a hook into seawater thrice. After a recitation to the oki no kami 沖の神 (offshore deity), this piece of mochi is denoted oki no mochi 沖の餅 and it is said that this consecrated mochi helps people suffering illness in the mountains. In analogy, there exists a yama no mochi 山の餅 that helps when suffering from seasickness consecrated at the wakagi mukae 若木迎え (lit. “greeting the young tree”; described below). The nori some continues with a first ceremonial catch (hatsuryØ). Some of the caught fish are offered at the kamidana. The rest of the fish is sold at the first, rather ceremonial, sale.”

The article also contributes to our understanding of how the yama-no-kami concept affects social organization and institutions:

“Society in Yoriiso is structured by a relatively intact system of age-grade- groups (nenrei kaitei-sei 年齢階梯制; Table 1) that is historically traceable to mid- 18th century (OHI 1988: 978). For instance, women of bearable age are associated with a specific group called yamanokami-kØ 山神講.22 At the same time, women become members of the jizØ-kØ 地蔵講, the group of the children’s guardian deity. Together these groups are called jo-kØ 女講 (women’s group) to which the women belong until the age of about 42.23 The fujin-kai 婦人会 (women’s association) is a much newer social institution and is not directly related to the yama no kami. Today, most of these women in Yoriiso are associated with both groups, the traditional jo-kØ and the modern fujin-kai; i.e. no clear distinction of membership is drawn between the groups. We often find such overlays between traditional and modern social institutions in Japanese fishing villages..” The male counterpart of the jo-ko, “The jitsugyØ-dan is the backbone of Yoriiso’s village self-management, especially in ceremonial matters (TRS 1998: 50). Other important functions are activities for mutual aid (at childbirth, funerals, shipwreck), management of common property (common land and forests) and local public services (for instance, concerning education of children = local school and related matters) and also at certain degrees financial aid in form of a mutual credit association (tanomoshi 頼母子, in which credits are allocated by lottery) for impoverished members or those needing capital for investments such as for building or renewal of a house. The jitsugyØ-dan was called keiyaku-kØ 契約講 (“contract group”) until 1878, then (possibly under the influence of state ShintØ, but this is questionable) renamed jinp ̈-kØ 神風講 (“group of the divine wind”) and since 1923 named jitsugyØ-dan (OHI 1988: 978). A memorial stone in Yoriiso documents that the local keiyaku-kØ was founded in 1808 (OHI 2002: 514), however, as has been noted above, it is possible that there existed a preceding group with similar functions since mid of 18th century (OHI 1988: 978) or even before.26 There used to be two annual meetings of this group held on February and November 11, yet, these days, it convenes only once after the ceremonial cycle of New Year on January 20 (TRS 1984: 50).

We can see that everyday life in Yoriiso is structured by social institutions that can be characterized as gender-specific age-grade groups. Each of these groups is assigned a specific domain of ceremonies. The keiyaku acts as core institution and is therefore the most important group among all. In Yoriiso, labor at sea was until recently exclusively done by males. An exception was the collection of seaweed and other benthic species from the shore, which was mainly done by women…”


18. There are in fact many facets of the yama no kami. Shibusawa comprehends yama no kami as a multi-layered deity that can be a “mountain spirit” or a deity of hunting, fishing, agriculture, sericulture, forestry, pharmacy or even one with explicit territory and power to rule (Shibusawa 1959: 172). Although, not focusing on the yama no kami in fishing villages, Naumann (1963/1964) presented a detailed study on several traditions of this deity. For the purpose of this paper, however, the yama no kami is simply seen as found during fieldwork in Yoriiso and other places by the author, i.e. as an important deity in village life that is in several ways related to the mountains.
19. According to contemporary legislation women older than 18 must not work in tunnel construction (Japanese Labour Standards Law 労働基準法 64, 2; http: //www. as of Feb. 15, 2005). Administration insists that this law is to secure pregnant women from hard and dangerous work, but a closer look at the history shows that menstruating women were banned from such work at least since the Edo period because they were “ritually unpure.” This can be seen in connection to beliefs of the yama as female deity.
20. Yama-ba 山場 (lit. “place of yama”) denotes a “turning point” in Japanese and not a “mountain place.”
22. KØ 講 in most cases denotes a social institution found in most Japanese villages that can be characterized as “cult groups,” yet, the term kØ can also denote a day of veneration for a specific deity or kØ-group, such as the Ebisu-kØ found in many fishing villages. They originate in Buddhistic seminars in ancient times. During the Edo-period (1603-1867) they became a widespread social institution in many villages and can be characterized as gender specific age or generation groups. These have also been characterized as age-grades (e.g. Norbeck 1953).To avoid confusion, these are simply called groups in the following.
23. Although in Yoriiso the yamanokami-kØ and the jizØ-kØ are regarded more or less the the same, days of worship can differ. There are communities on Oshika peninsula that clearly make differences between the two, i.e. younger (married) women belong to the jizØ-kØ and later join the yamanokami-kØ.
29. Interestingly, fishermen, on the other hand, often avoid taking a single women aboard a vessel. (Makita 1954: 224-225). See also Sakurada (1934: 134) and Yoshida (1981: 91-92). In the Sanriku region, especially pregnant women play an important role in ceremonies concerning fishing vessels. Yoshida translates funadama as “guardian spirit of the boat” (1981: 92).
30. The Ebisu is enshrined in every kamidana of a net-shed (naya 納屋), too (TRS 1984: 40- 41). A special ceremony for the Ebisu is held in Yoriiso on the 20th of January and October. In these ceremonies Ebisu is worshipped by offering rare crops from the yama and the sea together with sake 酒 in front of the kamidana and the funadama.

Source: Johannes H. WILHELM, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Beliefs of Japanese Fishing Villages: With Special Reference to Yoriiso (Miyagi) and the Sanriku Region”, Japanese Religions 30, 1&2

Read the rest of the article here.

Further information on Ebisu:

Ebisu, the visiting deity of fishing and good fortune – more excerpts here focused on Ebisu from Wilheim’s paper

Wikipedia entry on Ebisu

The Wise Scarecrow of Japan and the origin of Scarecrow Festivals, Rituals and Legends

Origin of the scarecrow and Kakashi Matsuri Scarecrow Festival

Japanese scarecrows in a rice paddy field

Japanese scarecrows in a rice paddy field

The word “kakashi” is supposed to be derived from a meaning of something that smells hideously awful, and is said to have been  derived from the Edo period word “kagashi” (although the word etymology inexplicably resembles somewhat the Bengali word for scarecrow Kaktadua (কাকতাডুয়া)) or Kag-darawa (काग-डरावा) from the Hindi, which suggests possible connections with the Indo-Sakas, source: Scarecrow). Many fascinating tales and legends surround the use and character of the kakashi in the rice field in Japan.

In Kojiki, the oldest surviving historical chronicle in Japan (compiled in the year 712), a scarecrow known as Kuebiko appears as a deity who cannot walk, yet knows everything about the world.

The (ca. 712) Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) has the earliest reference to Kuebiko in the myth of Ōkuninushi (“Great Land Master”). When Ōkuninushi was at Cape Miho in Izumo, a small kami arrived in a boat. Nobody knew his name, but a toad suggested asking Kuebiko, who revealed the god was a scion of the goddess Kami-musubi (神産巣日) named Sukuna-bikona (少彦名神). In Basil Hall Chamberlain‘s translation,

Then the toad spoke, saying: “As for this, the Crumbling Prince will surely know it.” Thereupon [the Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land] summoned and asked the Crumbling-Prince, who replied, saying: “This is the Little-Prince-the-Renowned-Deity, the august child of the Deity-Producing-Wondrous-Deity.” … So [the Deity here] called the Crumbling Prince, who revealed the Little-Prince-the-Renowned-Deity, is what is now [called] the scarecrow in the mountain fields. This Deity, though his legs do not walk, is a Deity who knows everything in the Empire.[2]

Many cultures have knowledge deity myths. Kuebiko is paralleled by two other Japanese kami of widsom: Fukurokuju and Omoikane. Source: Wikipedia article “Kuebiko

Excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Shinto:

Kuebiko a.k.a. Yamada no Sohodo (Kojiki)

kami incapable of walking but possessing broad knowledge of things in the world. According to Kojiki, a kami arrived from across the ocean at Cape Miho in Izumo, where the kami Ōkuninushi was residing. Since no one knew the identity of the kamiŌkuninushi accepted the advice of a toad and asked Kuebiko, whereupon the latter answered correctly that the kami arriving was Sukunahikona, offspring of Kamimusuhi. With the identity of Sukunahikona thus established by Kuebiko, Ōkuninushi had a partner to help in making and developing the land. The name Yamada no Sohodo is interpreted to mean “someone left soaking wet from standing guard over mountain rice fields,” a euphemistic reference to a “scarecrow.” Kue means “disable,” and indicates someone physically handicapped but endowed with wisdom.” -Mori Mizue

Till this present day, Kuebiko is worshipped as the god of agriculture or scholarship and wisdom. The Kuebiko Shrine (Kuebiko jinja 久延彦神社), a subordinate shrine (massha) of Ōmiwa Shrine in Sakurai, Nara, is dedicated to this deity (See the Kuebiko shrine page)

From the Yamagata Kakashi Matsuri Facebook page:

“The Scarecrow Festival or Kakashi Matsuri takes place in autumn, from 8th-16th September. It is best known as a custom of the rice-producing Yamagata prefecture in Japan. But also a popular festival with many villages elsewhere.

At first the Japanese farmers would hang old rugs, meat or fish bones from bamboo poles in their fields and then set them on fire. The smell was so bad that the birds and other animals would stay away from the rice.

Now it not only function as a prop to scare little animals away but a creative centre piece for one’s crop! “

Japanese farmers invited the god of agriculture to leave his home in the mountains each spring and enter their scarecrows, called kakashi. The kakashi could see everything, and the birds who landed on them whispered secrets to the god. When the autumn harvest was completed, the kakashi were taken down and stacked in a pile. The farmers prepared rice cakes to thank the god for his service and to provide food for his long journey back to the mountains. After the rice cakes were placed around the kakashi, the pile was set ablaze and the god was released. The ceremony was known as “The Ascent of the Scarecrow.” – Source: Scarecrow Magick by Lynne Stutevant

Another history of scarecrows has this account, see The History of Scarecrows  :

Japanese farmers also began making scarecrows to protect their rice fields about the same time the Greeks and Romans made their wooden statues.  At first the Japanese farmers hung old rags, meat, or fish bones from bamboo poles in their fields.  Then they set the sticks on fire and the smell was so bad that birds and other animals stayed away from the rice.  The Japanese farmers called their scarecrows kakashis which means something that smells badly.  Soon Japanese farmers also made scarecrows that looked like people.  They were dressed in a raincoat made of reeds and a round straw hat that rose to a peak in the middle.  Bows and arrows were often added to make them look more threatening.  These scarecrows were also called kakashis even if they didn’t stink!

Imaizumi Area Kakashi Festival is held from September 7 (Sun) to September 28 (Sun)

Chris Drake’s Scarescrow (Kakashi) has more fascinating details on the background of the origins of the kakashi, including its being “possessed” by the mountain god until he returns to the otherworld in winter …

In the Edo period, this word was pronounced “kagashi”, meaning something that smells hideously, because the farmers used to hang up rotten fish or hides from animals. In my area, somethimes they hang up dead crows or even small wild boars to let them rot .. and smell.

Usually done on the tenth day of the tenth lunar month.

A custom of Nagano prefecture.

The scarecrow is taken from the field and placed in the garden of the home, harvest offerings to the god of the fields (ta no kami) are then made.

Perhaps Issa is also remembering that in most areas of Japan farmers worship scarecrows as the physical representatives of the local shamanic mountain god, who (like the hototogisu “nightingale”) comes down from the mountain (and the other world) when the weather grows warm to invigorate and protect the paddies and fields until the crops are harvested.

By “possessing” the bodies of the scarecrows in a shamanic manner, the mountain god is able to directly watch over the crops and ensure they grow well while also protecting the fields from birds. In fact, Issa’s hometown is located in an area famous for a ceremony carried out on lunar 10/10 called “sending off the scarecrows” (kakashi-age). During this ceremony farmers move their scarecrows from their paddies and fields to their own yards, where they put broad rush traveling hats on them and place offerings of rice cakes in front of them in order to send off the mountain god as the god returns to its mountain and the other world during the winter. So Issa’s personification of the scarecrow as the protector of a young child in this hokku may have roots in these rural beliefs as well as in his own protective instincts.

At the same time, in Issa’s age the most common rural name for wife was “mountain god” (yama no kami), an old word that perhaps reflected the predominance of women in Japanese shamanism and ancient matrilocal marriage customs. Husbands tended to explain the word as a reflection of the absolute power commoner (as opposed to ruling-class) wives had inside a household as well as the power of women’s wrath, which could be as fierce as any divine retribution. – Chris Drake’s Scarescrow (Kakashi) 

 If we could establish an ancient origin for the practice of making scarecrows that were connected to visiting vegetative spirits from the mountains in spring that left in winter for the other world, it is suggested here that the practices had in common with those across Eurasia.  In Juliette Wood’s The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals‘,  it is suggested that the Gothic scarecrow was an ancient practice of making a straw effigy that represented a vegetative deity or spirit, and part of pre-Christian fertility rites. On the subject of effigies and vegetative or agricultural spirits, James Frazer’s “Golden Bough” is an authority on the subject. With the clear custom of the Japanese mountain god descending the mountain to possess the kakashi scarecrow and leaving in winter for the Otherworld, it seems we must consider a highly likely connection with continental practices such as those involving Frazer’s many Indo-European and Eurasian examples of dying and rising vegetative deities.  

The most secret Primordial Pair: Kamuro-gi and Kamuro-mi

We tag the following passages from Michael Witzel’s “The Origins of the World’s Mythologies” for their great value in giving us important insights into the premier strata of the Japanese deity pantheon:

“… in the Kojiki 1.1 we find:

At the time of the beginning of heaven and earth, there came into existence in Takamanohara a deity called Ame-no minaka-nushi-no Kami, next Kami. These three deities all came into existence, as single deities, and their forms were not visible. Next, when the land was young, resembling floating oil and drifting like a jellyfish, were sprouted like reed-shoots [ashi-kabi].175

It is important to note that the three first gods of the Kojiki creation myth are invisible and worshipped in the Imperial Palace but otherwise only at Ise and in some other minor shrines,176 as well as those of ancient esoteric sects, especially in Kyushu.177 however, the ancient prayer (Norito) texts of the period reveal that these are two gods who existed even before all other creation, the male Kamuro-gi and the female Kamuro-mi.178 Interestingly, these two (apparently, very secret) primordial gods occur only in ritual and are never mentioned even in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. However, they survived in Norito, in oharae purification rituals, and in worship at Ise and other shrines. They may, especially represent the Primordial Pair in Indo-European terms, Father Heaven and Mother Earth… The ultimate primordial gods often are surrounded by secrecy. They are known to only a few initiated specialists.” — Source: “The Origins of the World’s Mythologies” by Michael Witzel, at p. 126

More information is given in an entry in The Encyclopedia of Shinto:

“Terms referring generically to male and female ancestral kami (sojin). Examples can be found in the Shoku Nihongi, Engishiki, norito, Nakatominoyogoto, Hitachinokuni fudoki, Izumonokuni fudoki, Shoku Nihonkōki, and Kogoshūi. Commentators are agreed that the truncated kam means kami, while gi and mi refer, respectively, to male and female, but opinion is divided regarding the significance of the element ro. Kamo no Mabuchi interpreted kamuro to mean divine king, with the result that he understood the terms as referring to emperor and empress. Motoori Norinaga added the concept of ancestral deity to Mabuchi’s interpretation, claiming that the two referred to divine ancestral deities of the emperor and empress. In the most general sense, the deities can be understood as ancestral kami. When the two deities are mentioned individually, they refer respectively to male and female kami, and when mentioned jointly as a pair, they refer to ancestral kami as a whole.

 Various suggestions have been made regarding to which specific kami these names might have originally referred. The Kogoshūi claims that the two refer to the kami of begetting, Takamimusuhi and Kamimusuhi, but Kamo no Mabuchi argues that the reference is broader, extending to all imperial ancestral kami. In contrast, Motoori understands the terms to refer to Takamimusuhi and Amaterasu. At present, the terms are believed to refer not to any specific kami, but to different beings in accordance with the context of the historical materials in which the terms are found.”
-Endō Jun

A loose translation of the norito made by goes as follows:

Prayer of Heaven

In the highest planes of heaven
Primeval Kamurogi and Kamuromi live.
And in accord with them, Izanagi,
In a grove of pine at Tsukushi,
Bathed at a river’s clear mouth.

As he bathed purifying spirits were born.
Of them we ask that all baseness,
Fault, and filth be washed away.
Humbly, we plead they be dispelled
And we made pure.
Please, divine spirits,
Legions of heaven and earth,
Answer our plea.
And just as the dappled horses of heaven
Perk their ears at the slightest rustle,
Hear our meek prayer.”

— The Amatsunorito: Background and Translation

Further sources and references:

Norito: A Translation of the Ancient Japanese Ritual Prayers
edited by Donald L. Philippi

Takama Shrine

The shrine legends of Shinojima island, the island of sea bream and puffer fish

Shinmei Shrine retains the magnificence of the Ise Grand Shrine. Once every year, the male spirit of Hachioji Shrine is said to visit Shinmei Shrine (a female shrine). On that day, all the lights on the island are turned off awaiting the ritual’s end. Photo credits: The Yomiuri Shimbun


“In the Edo period (1603-1867), travel and transportation were restricted under the Tokugawa shogunate, and the only major trip most people could take was to visit the Ise Grand Shrines in Mie Prefecture once in their lifetimes. Surprisingly, the famous shrines apparently weren’t the final destination for the worshippers.

After visiting the Ise Grand Shrines, pilgrims crossed Ise Bay by boat to reach a shrine on Shinojima island off the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture. Their worship is completed with their visit to the island shrine. At least, that’s the story passed down on the island, even if the Ise shrines deny the legend. The discrepancy intrigued me.

Amid the gusting winter winds, I disembarked from a high-speed boat onto Shinojima. I noticed a sign reading “The island of onbe-dai and fugu.” Onbe-dai is a salted preparation of sea bream, which is made as an offering for the Ise shrines.

Legend has it that Yamatohime no Mikoto, a daughter of Emperor Suinin, once paid a visit to Shinojima island. The princess, who is said to have established the Ise Grand Shrines, loved sea bream caught near the island so much that she decreed Shinojima to be the sole source of sea bream to be presented at the grand shrines. For more than 1,000 years since, exactly 508 of the chosen sea bream are devoted to the shrines each year, spread across three separate occasions.

Certainly, there must be lean years. But the designated number of sea bream of very specific sizes must be collected for the offering each year. It must be a difficult duty.

“We want to give good fish to the gods. I can’t call it a hard job,” said Yoshichika Kinoshita, 54, of the Shinojima fishery cooperative association, who has been responsible for the work for more than 30 years. …

The one fishing town on this small island, which has only about 6 kilometers of shoreline, is like a labyrinth. The roads are so narrow that I can touch either side with my arms outstretched. The alleys twist in irregular turns. And at one corner of this labyrinth stands a magnificent shrine—which seems somewhat out of place with the rest of the island’s scenery. It’s the main structure of Shinmei Shrine, which enshrines some of the same gods enshrined at the Ise Grand Shrines.

Thanks to this auspicious background, one of the old halls from the Ise Grand Shrines is given to Shinmei Shrine, once every 20 years, in the year following the regular renewal of the Ise shrine halls. That’s why pilgrims in the past headed to Shinojima to pray, and why islanders have passed down the lore.

When Shinmei Shrine receives a new hall from the Ise shrines, its existing hall is moved a short distance to Hachioji Shrine, whose hall will be moved to another shrine in turn. The halls, made of 200-year-old Japanese cypress, have been recycled this way over many long years. ”

Read more about the legends of Shinojima island here..

From Golden Egg to Saena-Simurgh-Phoenix to Ashes and Worm(?) : Will the real firebird please step forward?

Ho-ho bird

In this article, we aim to look at the various forms of the Phoenix in Japan, and compare its iconography with that found elsewhere.

In Japan, the phoenix is identified as the Ho-ho (alternatively, ho-o) bird. As is common in east Asia, it is a sunbird … the sun is often represented in the art form of a bird. The ho-ho bird is a messenger of goodwill comes to earth and sits on top of the torii. Below are some of the early representations of the phoenix in Japan and its neighbours in East Asia.

A very early art representation of the phoenix in Japan is the Vermilion Bird (Suzaku) in the 7th -8th c. Kitora Kofun tomb in Asuka, Nara, for more details, visit Steve Renshaw’s “Kitora Kofun” astronomy homepages.

Suzaku, Red Bird of the South, (Image credit: National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara)

Suzaku, Red Bird of the South, (Image credit: National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara)

Similar iconography may be found in the Red phoenix (one of the Four Guardian Deities, defenders of the four directions on each wall to guard the soul of the deceased against demons), Kangso Middle Tomb built between the second half of sixth century and the first half seventh century AD, Namp’o, North Korea  Image credits: Yonson Ahn, Japan Focus

Both the Korean and Japanese Four Guardian Deities tomb murals are evidence of the reach of the Chinese Han dynasty empire. See a comparable Han dynasty example of the Red Bird below:

The Vermilion Bird on the gates of a Han Dynasty  Shen family mausoleum complex in Sichuan, China

The Vermilion Bird on the gates of a Han Dynasty Shen family mausoleum complex in Sichuan, China Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Simurgh in Uzbekistan (see tile mural below) is a more graceful birdlike form resembling the Chinese and other East Asian phoenixes, while the Saena depicted with peacock-tail on Sassanian silk (next next image below) takes on more composite bestiary fantasy forms. A diversity of art iconography and storylines are found in Persia.

Simurgh or Phoenix decorative motif outside of Nadir Divan-Beghi madrasah, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Simurgh or Phoenix decorative motif outside of Nadir Divan-Beghi madrasah, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

In one late version of the Saena bird, the bird is said to have carried Rustam the Persian cultural hero off to China.

Samruk motif on a piece of Sassanid silk textile of the 6th - 7th c.

Simurgh motif on a piece of Sassanid silk textile of the 6th – 7th c. Image: Wikipedia


The Simurgh (/ˌsɪˈmərɡ/; Persian: سیمرغ‎), also spelled simorgh, simurg, simoorg or simourv, also known as Angha (Persian: عنقا‎), and Anka (Arabian) is a benevolent, mythical flying creature. The figure can be found in all periods of Greater Iranian art and literature and is also evident in the iconography of medieval Armenia, the Byzantine empire, and other regions that were within the sphere of Persian cultural influence.

While the task of sorting through the variant evolving versions of the phoenix symbol (both art iconography and mythical tradition) is fraught with difficulty, tracking down the source(s) of the iconic Phoenix can theoretically be done by tracing a number of characteristics back through time and across geographical locations and space, linguistic etymological variants and the mythical descriptions as well as iconic artwork. We will make an attempt at a series of observations about the origins and evolutionary phases of the iconic Phoenix symbol.

First, a number of preliminary observations about the early phase in the evolution of the phoenix:

a) The Indo-Iranians seem to have started out with a tale of two birds — two raptor birds – falcon or eagle-hawk types: the Syenah/Saena and Cīnāmrōš/(C)amros/ (C)amru.

b) On etymological cognates and groupings based on linguistics: Avestan mərəγō Saēnō and / Saena (also Turkic)/ Sanskrit śyenaḥ (read a version of the tale here)

The Middle Persian term derives in turn from Avestan mərəγō Saēnō “the bird Saēna”, originally a raptor, likely an eagle, falcon, or sparrowhawk, as can be deduced from the etymological cognate Sanskrit śyenaḥ (“raptor, eagle, bird of prey”) that also appears as a divine figure. Saēna is also a personal name, which is root of the name.

c) The Saeno-Saena-Syenah-Xarnah group of bird icons have to do with fortune, health and wealth or prosperity, including nourishing rain for a bounty of crops. Saena is a rain-bringer (with a role much like a sky- or thunder-deity’s)…this characterization datable to 6th century BC through 2nd century, CE.

In the Avestan Yašt 14.41 Vərəθraγna, the deity of victory, wraps xᵛarnah, fortune, round the house of the worshipper, for wealth in cattle, like the great bird Saēna, and as the watery clouds cover the great mountains, which means that Saēna will bring rain. In Yašt 12.17 Saēna’s tree stands in the middle of the sea Vourukaša, it has good and potent medicine, is called all-healing, and the seeds of all plants are deposited on it. This scanty information is supplemented by the Pahlavi texts.

The bird Cīnāmrōš (Camrōš) collects the seeds and disperses them where Tištar (Sirius) will seize the water with the seeds and rain them down on the earth. While here the bird breaks the branches with his weight, in Bundahišn 16.4 (tr. Anklesaria) he makes the tree wither, which seems to connect him with the scorching sun. An abbreviated form of this description is found in Zādspram 3.39; a gloss on the Pahlavi translation of Yašt 14.41 confuses the tree of many seeds with the tree of the White Hōm. Two birds are involved in the scattering of the seeds also in the New Persian Rivāyat of Dārāb Hormazyār (tr. Dhabhar, p. 99), here called Amrōš and Camrōš, Amrōš taking the place of Sēnmurw; these names derive from Avestan Amru and Camru, personal names taken from bird names.

d) Simurgh is said to be derived from Middle Persian Pahlavi Sēnmurw (and the earlier Sēnmuruγ), also attested in Middle Persian Pāzand as sīna-mrū.

Cinamros-and Sina-mru transform easily into the Central Asian Turkic cognate Samrug falcon-  or eagle-like raptor.

–>In Central Asia, Samran, and Samruk.

—> In Persia, Sēnmuruγ–> Senmurw—>Simurgh

—–> in West Asia, Semrug, Semurg

In Kazakhstan, the official  version of the Samruk legend goes as follows:

“In the centre of the composition is a depiction of the Baiterek Tower, a monumental structure representing the ‘tree of life’ with a large ‘egg’ nestling in its branches. The monument is situated in the centre of Astana and it has come to represent the thrusting ambitions of the capital and the country itself….

At the base of the Baiterek motif, there is a decoration symbolizing ‘birds wings’ which refers to the mythical sacred bird Samruk, which is associated with freedom and happiness (in Kazakh mythology, the Samruk lays its golden egg in the Baiterek or poplar tree and when the Samruk flies away, a snake eats the egg… The bird returns a year later, lays another, and the snake eats it and so on… ). Like the legend of the phoenix, the tale of the Samruk is a regeneration myth that suits Kazakhstan well.” — Embassy of Kazakhstan

Local folklore adds a few more details, ”

“>Baiterek, AstanaKazakh legends have it that on the World River bank, there grows the Tree of Life, called Bayterek. Samruk the holy bird of happiness is flying to it to lay a golden egg in the nest, located on its top. The egg symbolizes the Sun, granting life and hope. But beneath, there is Aydakhar, a wicked dragon, hiding among the roots, and wishing to eat the egg.” –photo of Baiterek credit: Advantours

The Persian-Iranian Simurgh evolved diverse forms … according to Magickal, Mystical Creatures: Invite Their Powers Into Your Life by D.J. Conway:

The Early Persian Sinamru was an immortal half bird-half mammal or dog-bird, with access to two worlds –>

The Sasanians’  Senmurv was a dragon-peacock with role of friend and helper, healer and an enemy of snakes –>

The Simurgh’s giant bird beast that’s part lion-peacock-snake-griffin, lived where haoma grew—>

Simurg is a benevolent giant bird that nested in the highest peaks of Alburz mountains Of North Iran … He helped a wizard bring Rustam into this world with the help of magical feathers, Rustam is a giant —>

11thc. Simurg and Rustam defeated evil prince Isfandiyar with magical feathers —>

The Iranian’s Simurgh is a noble vulture, that helps the adventurer on his journey who is trapped in the Underworld to get back to the middle world.

The Metropolitan Museum adds some further insights:

“In the rich heritage of monstrous beings that fell to the Sasanians when, at the beginning of the third century A.D., they became the masters of the Near Eastern kingdoms, there is little evidence of one demon who was to become a favorite during the three hundred years of Sasan- ian domination. A very ornate example of this creature, the senmurv, appears on a bronze plate (Figure 2) purchased last year by the Metropolitan Museum. The head is doglike, with open mouth displaying a forked tongue and a row of pointed teeth. The forelegs and paws are canine or feline, with sharp claws. The animal forepart then comes to an abrupt halt and the back half of the creature is a bird. Wings come from the shoulders and long slender feathers rise above the head. Finally a rich tail of double plumes curves out behind.
In the Avesta, the great book of the Zoroastrian religion that flourished in Iran from the Achaemenian through the Sasanian periods,from the fifth century B.C. to the seventh century A.D., there are a few references to a great bird, the saena, who was probably the senmurv. But our only real description of the creature comes from a collection of Pahlavi writings concerned with Zoroastrian mythology and compiled in the centuries after the fall of the Sasanian empire. The senmurv is said to be of three natures, and his actions are described thus: “The tree of all germs was produced, from which all species of plants continuously grow. And the senmurv has his resting place upon it; when he wanders forth from within it he scatters the dry seed into the water and it is rained back to the earth with the rain.”2 His service to mankind as the distributor of the seeds of plants is obviously a beneficent one, and this explains his frequent appearance in Sasanian art, in metal, stucco, stone, textiles- in all mediums except seals. The small stone stamp seals carved during the Sasanian period are varied in subject matter and show a number of composite creatures, but almost never the senmurv. This is hard to understand, since there is no question of either his popularity or his importance. In a seventh century rock relief at Taq-i-Bostan in western Iran he is carved on the garment worn by the king, and many fine textiles of the Sasanian period which were worn by nobles or used as hangings in the royal court are decorated with medallions each enclosing a senmurv.
The lion-griffin and the serpent-dragon are similar in many ways to the senmurv, but the feathered ending of the latter, the purely bird- like termination of his body, is not to be found in any of the animal conglomerates known from the heart of the ancient Near East, Iraq, or Iran.
Probably the first true prototypes of the sen- murv came from the art of the nomads who spread westward across the Russian steppes in the beginning of the first millennium B.C. and infiltrated the lands on the northern borders of these ancient civilizations. The Scythians appeared in the seventh century B.C. around the shores of the Black Sea and in the Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas. Their art was rich in fantastic animal-bird combinations, often including forms that were taken over from the Near East and elaborated by the native artists. Imagination, fantasy, and a distinct taste for the decorative are all characteristics of the style they developed while they were in touch with the cultures of the Near East. It is here that the closest parallels to the senmurv appear from the fifth century B.C. onward. The variety characteristic of both the animal and bird parts in these early examples disappears by the time of the Sasanian empire and the form becomes relatively standardized.” —The Senmurv

Some tentative conclusions may be made here:

  • There appears to be strong linguistic relatedness in the etymologies of the Simorghian-Saena-Samrug(k)-Senmuruy-Semurg-Simurgh cognates from Central to West Asia…as well as to East Asia at the other extreme end of the Silk Road.
  • The Turkic-Hun-Mongols were nomads with a central role in the transporting and the trading of silks, textiles from China To the West. The mythical bird is a motif found in silks and woven textiles also found in the mythology of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, which is an indigenous form called Kerkés, thought to closely connected to  the Indo-Iranian (perhaps proto-Indo-European) derivative Semrug, Semurg, Samran, and Samruk. The diffusion of the Simurgh-Phoenix motif took place along the Silk Road trails.
  • The Persian-Greek Simurghs-Phoenixes forms are often said to be derived from the Egyptian Benu sunbird (or the Ba of Ra bird) and this has been accepted as truth without much detailed discussion(Herodotus attributes the phoenix’s origins to the Arabs rather to the Egyptians), nevertheless, we intend to reexamine this assumed derivation and source. We see no reason why the European and West Asian phoenixes could not have been derived from an Eastern source and/other Central Asian sources as well, as a result of the vast Sassanid and Persian and extensive Eurasian Silk Road trade routes. The West Asian griffin-like birds that often change and assume forms as part dog- or lion- or bat-forms rather than birds, appear to be late-comers (griffin metalwork forms also appear in a more eastern location in the Altai mountains in Scythian burials) … later than the West Asian Persian-Turkic eagle-motifs or the more heron-like slender forms from China/East Asia.  …  Cina / Sina was an ancient appellation and pre-fix for China [Sina (Chinese 支那), old Chinese form of the Sanskrit name Cina (चीन)] See Geoff Wade’s “The Polity of Yelang and the Origin of the Name ‘China’“, Sino-Platonic Papers, No. 188, May 2009], so that one would have thought it reasonable to posit that Sina-mru or Cinamros indicated a provenance from China or even the vague eastern region where the ancients thought China lay. There may have also have been two or more distinct forms of West vs. Eastern birds before their properties became conflated into the more prominent  Simorghian or proto-Phoenix forms.]
  • The Simurgh is seen as withering the tree in the Bundishne… i.e. scorching the tree and therefore associated with the sun. Therefore, the Simurgh may have been the origin of the Phoenix as Sunbird, however Matteo Compareti is of the view that the Senmurv shows up rather late in history — the evolution of the Phoenix as a Sunbird and Solar Symbol may have radiated from a centre in Central Asia, or even more easterly location as follows:

—>In West Asia, Semrug, Semurg
—-> Earlier Sēnmuruγ –>Middle Persian Pahlavi sēnmurw.

——>in Middle Persian Pāzand as Sīna-mrū. (si is said to mean “thirty”, bird seen as large as thirty hands, and of thirty colours) but Sina is a word often used in association with China, and therefore, the origin of the Sina-mru is likely a bird that came from the East.

Association with the Tree of Life

The evolution of the phoenix as a fertility and healing symbol (eagle) at the top of the Hom Tree.

Iranian legends consider the bird so old that it had seen the destruction of the world three times over. The Simurgh learned so much by living so long that it is thought to possess the knowledge of all the ages. In one legend, the Simurgh was said to live 1,700 years before plunging itself into flames (much like the phoenix).
The Simurgh was considered to purify the land and waters and hence bestow fertility. The creature represented the union between the Earth and the sky, serving as mediator and messenger between the two. The Simurgh roosted in Gaokerena, the Hōm (Avestan: Haoma) Tree of Life, which stands in the middle of the world sea Vourukhasa. The plant is potent, life-giving, medicinal and is called all-healing, the seeds of all plants are deposited on the Hom tree … seeds that cure all the illnesses of mankind.

The association with the Hom, results in another variant name for the bird, Homa or Huma which has a Persian origin, and which also reflected in Avestan Humāya.

—-> Early diffusion of bird on top of tree motif into northern and western China as the Feng-huang niao atop the Paulawnia tree, its adoption as one of the Four Directional Guardian Deities, is common throughout East Asia, as a result of the Han dynasty’s influence, as well as Hun-Mongolic movements on the continent.

In the Mēnōg ī Xrad (ed. Anklesaria, 61.37-41) the Sēnmurw’s nest is on the “tree without evil and of many seeds.” When the bird rises, a thousand shoots grow from the tree, and when he (or she) alights, he breaks a thousand shoots and lets the seeds drop from them.

From the Persian: As the seeds floated around the world on the winds of Vayu-Vata and the rains of Tishtrya cosmological motif developed and diffused eastwards on the Silk Road [… This corresponds to the Chinese phoenix’s role as the Heaven descended bird.]

For the worshipper, fortune/glory “around the house of the worshipper, for wealth in cattle, like the great bird Saena, and as the watery clouds cover the great mountains” (Yasht 14.41, cf. the rains of Tishtrya above). Like the Simurgh, farrah is also associated with the waters of Vourukasha (Yasht 19.51,.56-57). In Yašt 12.17 Simorgh’s (Saēna’s) tree stands in the middle of the sea Vourukaša, it has good and potent medicine and is called all-healing, and the seeds of all plants are deposited on it. — Encyclopedia Iranica’s “Simorg”

–> Did the Ho-o Bird in Japan originate from the source of the Hom? Homa? Huma? Hol? Or from the indigenous Ho-musubi (fire) deity

(—-> Feng-hom –> Feng-huang?)

The relationship between the Simurgh and Hōm is extremely close for Iranians, and especially in Zoroastrianism. Like the simurgh, Hōm is represented as a bird, a messenger of god, and the essence of purity that can heal any illness or wound. Hōm – appointed as the first priest – is the essence of divinity, a property it shares with the Simurgh. The Hōm is in addition the vehicle of farr(ah) (MP: khwarrah, Avestan: khvarenah, kavaēm kharēno) (“divine glory” or “fortune”). Farrah in turn represents the divine mandate that was the foundation of a king’s authority.

The Simurgh-Phoenix is a Symbol of Investiture It appears as a bird resting on the head or shoulder of would-be kings and clerics, for Iranians indicated Ormuzd’s acceptance of that individual as his divine representative on Earth; Falconry had already developed as a trademark sport of nomadic chieftain kings throughout Hunnic Eurasia and the Persian and Chinese royalty, and a legacy seen in medieval European royalty. The sport arrived in Korea and Japan, soon after the arrival of kurgan-tumuli building and horse-riding elite chieftain immigrants. In Korea and Japan, the phoenix’s association with Hom tree shows evident strong influences from the Chinese Han dynasty as well as of Iranian or Persian ones, due to Silk Road exchanges and trading activities.

Reconstruction of fine filigree-work on a gilt crown with a tree and bird motif in a Japanese tumuli of the Kofun period

Reconstruction of fine filigree-work on a gilt crown with a tree and bird motif in a Japanese tumuli of the Kofun period

—–> At the same time, the “bird-alighting on the shoulder of the anointed king” concept is known to be one that is especially significant for the chiefdoms deriving legitimacy as royal lineages on the Korean peninsula, hence the identification of Korean kings (and queens in earlier times) with the Phoenix (see Phoenix Throne of Korea). The idea of a bird as a messenger of the Sky God or sky deities, becomes a cornerstone of the myths of divine kingship or heavenly descent in East Asia, and sacred birds feature prominently in many court-chronicled myths as well as folklore surrounding the royals of Korea and Japan. Genetically and culturally, the Koreans (and certain Korean lineage-related Japanese) are closely related to ancient North and Northeast Asian populations. Given that Jewish or Hebrew communities were known to have existed in various parts of China like Kaifeng, Luoyang and elsewhere in South China, we also cannot discount the intriguing possibility that the Japanese phoenix called Ho-o may be derived from a source connected to Jewish (or Jewish-Iranian) priestly lineages — the Rabbis called the phoenix the hol phoenix, the closest etymology for the Japanese phoenix so far (although hom is a another close cognate) … and there are those who have speculated that the danjiri resembles the holy ark of the Jews.

“The Talmudic version goes like this:”The Talmud tells how the phoenix (Hol) was the only animal allowed to stay in the Garden of Eden, because it refused to eat the forbidden apple. God granted the bird immortality for its obedience.” – “The phoenix through the ages”

A pair phoenixes adorn the rooftops of the danjiri deity carrier during a festival in Takayama, Gifu prefecture.

A pair phoenixes adorn the rooftops of the mikoshi- danjiri deity carrier during a festival in Takayama, Gifu prefecture.

Identification of the phoenix with which bird? Eagle? Rooster? 

According to Encyclopedia Iranica, with a very large, three-fingered bird, probably the Golden Eagle, on account of its being also the bird identified with the constellation Aquila.

The Fenghuang of the Chinese, said to live atop the Kunlun mountains, is also called the “August Rooster” (Chinese: 鶤雞; pinyin: kūnjī) with solar symbolism as an animal signalling the dawn sun and since it sometimes takes the place of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac (although its features have evolved to comprise the composite features of six  celestial beast over time) It is a symbol with positive connotations, symbolic of high virtue, grace and prosperity, associated with rulership like its Central Asian counterparts. The Chinese feng-huang was also often portrayed as a male-female yin-yang pair of birds, with the female being an emblem for the Empress. The Chinese regard the phoenix as a rare phenomenon (like its counterparts elsewhere) seen only in times of peace, and symbolizing conjugal bliss. — see Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature, by Jane Garry, Hasan El-Shamy. Charles Saba’s comparative writings on astrological charts and numerology establishes that Chinese astrology, zodiac and numerology systems were deeply influenced and fundamentally based on Chaldean sources (as were Greek, Indian Vedic and Egyptian ones):

“According to Chinese scholars, astrology was introduced in 2637 BC, as a result of the commercial trade between Emperor Huang Ti and the Chaldean Royalty. These origins made Chinese astrology primarily and deeply based on Numerology.

There are striking similarities between Chinese, Chaldean and Egyptian astrology, which goes beyond the use of 28 hsui and 12 animal types, as in the case between the Chinese Lunar Mansions and the Egyptian Lunar Mansion system.

The same occurs between the predictions of the Shih Chi (historical record) of Ssuma Chien, and the Chaldean ‘Enuma Anu Enlil’. These predictions, deal with the rising of the planets, their conjunctions and paths through the stars. It is strong enough to suggest that communication between the Chinese and Chaldean astrologers existed long before 1000 BC.

The newly acquired Chaldean astronomical sciences were translated into Chinese, and were imbued with the Chinese philosophical thought and influences. The numerological basis of Chinese astrology lies in the use of a specialized numbering system that counts from 1 to 60.

Since the general public is less familiar with this system, additional information will follow to provide a more comprehensive overview.

The numbers in this system consist of a first digit, from a series of ten ‘Heaven Stems’ (Tiangan), and the second from a series of twelve “Earth Branches” (Dìzhi).

The numbering system of 60 is used to count days, years and hours, thus arranging time into sixty-unit ‘cycles’, repeating it into the infinite past and future. Each year is numberedin an ever repeating 60-element cycle. So is each month, day, and hour.

Similarly, Heaven Stems and Earth Branches provided a progression of spaces in the circle of the horizon (each pair corresponding to 6 degrees in the western division of a circle into 360 degrees). Thus space and time could both be associated with units of measurement.

There are three systems used for counting and classifying the years: The Ten Heavenly Stems, the Twelve Earthly Branches(12 animals), and the Five Elements. The year of birth indicates a certain phase or aspect of a sixty-year cycle of time.

All throughout this process, is the ever present concept of Yin and Yang. The terms given to the complementary, dynamic forces that keep the universe in balance at every level.

In event predictions, hours, days, and years are associated with some pairs of Heaven Stems and Earth Branches, and depending on the combination, may be considered to be favorable or unfavorable for various activities, especially for people born at hours, days, or years associated with other combinations of Heaven Stems and Earth Branches.

Chinese astrology includes Five Elements instead of four: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood. They are agents or modifiers that subtlety alters the nature of whatever they represent.

There are ten Heaven Stems, and the pairs of Heaven Stems are aligned with the five elements and hence with various other significations connected with the ‘Five Elements’.

The significations associated with the ‘Five Elements’ range from flavors, colors, virtues, organs, and notes of the scale. Through the linkages between Heaven Stems and the Five Elements, time and direction was even more subtly linked with these other features of human experience.

Because there are ten Heaven Branches, and because the cycle is used to count years, the Heaven Branch is predictable from the western year. A Western year ending in 0 always corresponds to a Chinese G (Geng) year. Thus a Western year ending in 1 will be a Chinese H (Xin) year, a year ending in 2 an I (Rén) year, and so on.

The ancient Chinese use the 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches, but the 12 animals were designated to equate to the 12 Earthly Branches in order remember them more easily.

Therefore, the twelve Earth Branches are aligned with the famous year animals used in Chinese astrology. But they are also associated with the constellations used in the West for signs of the zodiac, and with twelve Chinese hours of the day (each two hours long by international calculation), and with directions around the horizon.”

(The foregoing might lead us to infer a possible Middle or Near Eastern connection —> Feng-hom –> Feng-huang?)

The Japanese rooster is associated with Amaterasu, and a Phoenix or Rooster often sits on top of the wooden cart or palanquin that carries the deity on procession about town from a shrine during a festival. This identification of the phoenix with another solar symbol and sunbird August-Rooster, suggests another intriguing connection — one with the Hepthalites (alternatively, Hata and Hatays from Hattusha or Nysa) … See Encyclopedia Iranica’s entry “Simorg”:

“The Sēnmurw is very prominent on the coinage of the Hephthalites in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. It is distinguished from the standard Sasanian form by having rather a cock’s than a peacock’s tail and also frequently showing reptilian features, which are rare in the Sasanian form. Its head occurs as a crown-emblem in several issues (nos. 208-10, 241-243, 246, 254-255 in Göbl I, cf. the drawings in IV, pls. 6-7); in one issue (no. 259) the whole animal appears on the top of the crown. The head and neck, or the complete animal, are also used as countermarks (KM 102, 106, 107, 101, 106, 107, 101, 105, 3a-d, 11A-K, 1, 10 in Göbl II, 141ff., IV pl. 10). When carrying a pearl necklace in its mouth (Issue 255.1), the Sēnmurw is probably the conveyer of the investiture (Göbl, p. 156), whether the necklace can be identified with the xᵛarnah or not….

In the chapter on the classification of animals of the Bundahišn the three-fingered Sēn is called the largest of the birds (13.10), and also the Sēnmurw is of the species of birds (13.22); they are obviously identical. The three-fingered Sēn was created first among the birds, but is not the chief, a position held by the Karšipt (according to the Indian Bundahišn 24.11 a carg, falcon or hawk), the bird that brought the religion to the enclosure (var) of Jamšēd (cf. Vd. 2.42) (17.11). In 13.34-35 the Sēnmurw has come to the sea Frāxkard (Vourukaša) before all the other birds. In Zādspram 23.2 the Karšipt and the Sēnmurw are singled out among the birds to attend the conference with Ōhrmazd on the animals, the creatures protected by Wahman. Bundahišn 13 contains serious contradictions. While in 10 and 22 the Sēnmurw is a bird, … Zādspram 3.65 … counts … the Sēnmurw among the birds, though they are of a different nature, having teeth and feeding their young with milk from their breasts. Bundahišn 13.23 contradicts not only 10 and 22 but also 15.13, where the Sēnmurw is counted among the oviparous birds. From this state of affairs it can be inferred that there was an older version, in which the Sēnmurw was a bird pure and simple as in the Avesta, …..

An identification of the original Sēnmurw with a known bird is difficult. The Sēn’s being called three-fingered is puzzling, since most birds have four claws. Herzfeld (1930, pp. 142-43) suggested the ostrich, which has only three claws, but this is impossible because the ostrich is an African flightless bird. The epithet may then be based on the observation of the bird when perching on the branch of a tree when only three claws are visible. The Sēnmurw in representative art also has only three claws but, contrary to my earlier opinion (Schmidt, p. 59), it is hardly the source of the description. The three-fingered Sēn is the largest bird (Bundahišn 13.10) mentioned among the large birds, side by side with the eagle (āluh) and the lammergeier (dālman); this excludes the falcon, which is much smaller than either of them. In size and habitat the closest possibility would be the black vulture (Aigypius monachus), which nests mostly in trees, but as a scavenger does not hunt live prey. Therefore I would suggest the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), particularly if the identification with the constellation Aquila is correct. That the Simorḡ was not known solely as a mythological being, but also as a real bird, can be inferred from the fact that in Judeo-Persian the word translates the Hebrew näšär‘eagle’ (cf. Asmussen).” — Simorg

Born from an Golden Egg associations  Turkic Kerkes tradition may be a close source or one of the underlying sources or provenance for the East Asian phoenix icon, particularly for Koreanic (Korean-descended Japanese lineages) because of King Suro of Gaya/Kaya and various Kim-Royal lineages of Silla, all said to be born from a golden egg, like the Turkic Kerkes which is…

“A Turkish version of the Phoenix and Bennu. It arises from a burning tree. It was at first represented by a wagtail but later it took the appearance of a heron with two long feather protruding from its head and red legs. It lived for 500 years and then at the end of its life it would be consumed in fire and was reborn as a golden egg to hatch again. It was the first creature to be created and it emerged from the primordial mud.” – See more here from

Here, in this connection, we bring the Greeks in, because they are said to have given the Phoenix the name of Circe, cognate with Kerkes.

“According to Greek mythology, the bird lives in Arabia, near a cool well. Every morning at dawn it bathes in the water and sings a beautiful song. So beautiful is the song, that the sun god would stop his chariot to listen.

The phoenix bird symbolizes immortality, resurrection and life after death. The Greeks probably got the idea from the ancient Egyptians. In ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, it is associated with the sun god, the phoenix represented the sun, who dies in flames each evening and emerges anew each morning. The Arabs had an incombustible cloth woven of flexible asbestos that was thought to be its hair or plumage. There was only one phoenix at a time, and it lived for 500 years. It laid no eggs and had no young, and it was there when the world began. It was the quintessential firebird, young and strong” — on “Rukh, Benne, Phoenix”

Recall that the earlier mentioned Kazakh Samruk (Uzbekistan) is also born from a golden egg.  The Greek-Arab account of the Kerkes bird is however, strangely different in one respect from the Turkic Kerkes and the Kazakh Samruk … it lays no eggs. It is a self-contained, self-sufficient and the primordial sunbird. In all other accounts, phoenix eggs traditionally need fire in order to hatch.

Medieval mixed identities of the Simurgh:

Eagle and rain associations “The Armenian paskuc and the Georgian p’asgunǰi both translate the Greek gryps ‘gryphon, griffin’ in the Septuagint (Marr, p. 2083). It is also glossed as ‘bone-swallower’ (ossifrage, osprey) (Marr, p. 2087 n. 2), but also mentioned as a kind of eagle native to India. In Modern Armenian paskuč is the griffin vulture (Gyps fulvus). In Georgian sources ap’asgunǰi is described as having a body like that of a lion, head, beak, wings and feet like those of an eagle, and covered in down; some have four legs, some two; it carries off elephants and injures horses; others are like a very large eagle (Marr, p. 2083). In late mediaeval Georgian translations of the Šāh-nāma, Georgianp’asgunǰi renders the Persian simorḡ (Marr, p. 2085f.). In a Georgian parallel to the Armenian and Kurdish tales quoted earlier, the bird there called Sīnam and Sīmīr is replaced by p’asgunǰi (Levin-Schenkowitz, p. 1ff.). In a Talmudic tale a giant bird pwšqnṣʾ swallows the giant serpent that has swallowed a giant toad and settles on a very strong tree; Daniel Gershenson (personal communication) interprets this as a metaphor for the coming of the rainy season: the frog represents water, the snake drought, and the Pušqanṣā the rainy season. The tale is thus a reworking of the Sēnmurw story. Talmudic commentators identify the bird as a gigantic raven. In an illustration in the Gerona manuscript of Beatus’s commentary on the Book of Revelation, the picture of the Sēnmurw opposite that of an eagle is found with the subscript coreus (read corvuset aquila in venatione “raven and eagle on the hunt” (Grabar, pl. XXVIII fig. 2). ***This evidence shows that the Sēnmurw took different shapes in different cultures and that the same name was used for real birds and fabulous composites as well as for benevolent and malevolent beasts.”***

Senmurw and Camros have starry associations  The seasonal activity of the Sēnmurw in conjunction with Camrōš and Tištar can be interpreted consistently in astronomical terms. The symbolism of the Persian senmurw or Simurgh bird in astronomy and the pairing of stars/birds also influenced the dualist nature of the feng-huang, Chinese ideas about the peaceful and prosperous reign and sovereignty and Taoist cosmology and the meaning of the Chinese (East Asian) phoenix. The identity of Tištar with Sirius, the brightest star of the constellation Canis Major (the Great Dog), is well established, and it can be assumed that Sēnmurw and Camrōš are stars, too. For Sēnmurw the constellation Aquila (Eagle), or its most prominent star, Altair (Ar. al-ṭayr ’the bird’), is the most likely candidate. The heliacal rise of Sirius in July corresponds to the setting of Aquila. Camrōš may be identified with Cygnus (Swan), which sets some time after Aquila. The influence of Greek astronomy and astrology is well attested in Sasanian Iran, but itself goes back to Babylonian sources, and it is quite possible that the Avestan source was dependent on them (contra Schmidt, p. 10). The assumption that the rise of Tištar signals the beginning of the rains, as it does in Egypt, and must therefore be a direct borrowing, is not compatible with the climate of most of Iran. Historical ties between the Sassanian, Persian and Chinese empires are known.

Serpent/Dragon are enemies of the Simurgh     From Azerbaijani folklore, we see that the dragon as enemy of the Simurgh-phoenix developed, adopted from a common source of cosmological knowledge as the Chinese idea of the Four compass directions -Four Guardian Deities, and the similar display of the oppositional pairing of the Feng-Huang and the dragon together, as mortal enemies.

The Simurgh and Phoenix is sometimes like a genie helping out a hero on his journey (sometimes in the Netherworld or a distant land. Derived from the Middle Persian and Iranian common stock of stories, Simurgh is transformed into “Sīmīr” in the Kurdish language. The scholar Trever quotes two Kurdish folktales about the bird. In one of the folk tales, a hero rescues Simurgh’s offspring by killing a snake that was crawling up the tree to feed upon them…introducing the Tree-and-Serpent-and-Bird Triad motif…a motif also seen in central and East Asia. As a reward, the Simurgh gives him three of her feathers which the hero can use to call for her help by burning them. Later, the hero uses the feathers, and the Simurgh carries him to a distant land. In the other tale, the Simurgh carries the hero out of the netherworld; here the Simurgh feeds its young with its teats, a trait which agrees with the description of the Simurgh in the Middle Persian book of Zdspram. In another tale, Simurgh feeds the hero on the journey.

The idea of the Phoenix emerging from the Worm /Silkworm in the ashes … probably diffused from the East, along the Silk Road, as a bird that resurrects itself, the Silkworm cocoon to butterflymoth to egg cocoon cycle, analogous to the Worm to Phoenix Cycle. With the idea of the resurrective power of the Phoenix, it becomes an important symbol of immortality, and appears on the mural walls of funerary tumuli of kings. The concept holds sway until Buddhist ideas of reincarnation take hold, and remains an important iconic symbol even thereafter. More below:

“In a Persian translation of Kazini’s Geography … we find this story, without the mention of a divine intervention but with explicit mention of the rain: when rain has fallen on the ashes of the Phoenix it gives rise to a work on with wings grow, and from this there develops a bird that lives and dies in the same way as its predecessor? In this last text it is especially clear that the rebirth of the bird is a consequence of the rain. The same perhaps finds expression in a Syriac text on the Phoenix that otherwise does not refer to the origin of the bird; Therefore there is moisture there, thanks to that kind of worm is born3. We shall have to go in some detail into the Judae-Christian conception of the developing the rain as the means by which God brings the dead to life4. This idea must also underly the motif of the rainfall on the ashes.

On the 3rd day it appears t o be a mature bird exactly like its predecessor … the detail of the life-inducing rain*probably received several Oriental version of the Physiologas: to be inferred from the Syriac text that is strongly dependent on the Physiologus, and Epiphanius’ version of the Phoenix myth clearly showing that he too was influenced by the world as indicated by this work, as indicated for instance by his mention of the period in which the worm develops in which the worm develops into a full-grown Phoenix.(*only found in the East)

Only the Physiologus and the texts related to it say that the worm developed into a Phoenix in 3 days. Most of the versions and translations state that the priest of Heliopolis examines the ashes on the altar on the morning after the burning and finds a worm. On the second day, the worm has acquired feathers and has become a young bird and on the third day, it appears to be a mature bird exactly like its predecessor” — Broek, “The Myth of the Phoenix”

Four "worms" motif on a bronze mirror excavated from a Japanese tumuli of the Kofun period

Four “worms” motif on a bronze mirror excavated from a Japanese tumuli of the Kofun period

Development of solar imagery, and the tradition of the self-immolating or self-combusting bird. According to several sources (Epiphanius, Zeno of Verona, Ambrose, Pseudo-Bede, but also the Turkish Kerkes tradition — the Phoenix causes itself to burst into flames after striking its wings together or spreading its wings.

We are also told in Broek’s book that…

“the Didascalia [Apostolum 40] stresses the fact that… the Phoenix makes a deep impression when it enters Egypt….It is also in this book that we first encounter the report that before setting itself afire, the phoenix faces the east and the rising sun, and then, utters a prayer.”  Another suggestion here is that the phoenix is a foreign import, and a tradition from the east, is by Philostratus, who tells us that the Indians supplement the well-known singing dying Phoenix story by saying that like the dying swan, the Phoenix sings its own dirge as it is consumed in its nest.

The Greek discourses and subsequent retellings of the Phoenix story have disseminated the motif to the rest of the Greco-Roman world and leaving a lasting literary and art legacy to the modern world today. A 2,500 year version went like this:

“The fabled bird is said to live 500 years or more, and when the old bird is tired, it flies from Arabia to land in Heliopolis, Egypt, the “City of the Sun.” There, it gathers cinnamon twigs and resin to build a nest of spices atop the Temple of the Sun. The sun ignites the nest and the old phoenix dies in flames. A new, young phoenix emerges from the ashes and wings back to Arabia to live another life cycle. The bird’s features have changed over the centuries, but most agree it’s an eagle-like bird with shining red, golden, and purple plumes.”  – The Phoenix Through the Ages

The modern English noun phoenix is derived from Middle English phenix (before 1150), itself from Old English fēnix (around 750). Old English fēnix was borrowed from Medieval Latin phenix and, later, from Latin phoenīx, deriving from Greek φοίνιξ phóinīx. With the deciphering of the Linear B script in the 20th century, however, the ancestor of Greek φοίνιξ was confirmed in Mycenaean Greek po-ni-ke, suggesting a provenance in Hittite-Luwian Anatolia.

During the Classic period, the name of the bird, φοίνιξ, was variously associated with the color purple, ‘Phoenician’, and the date palm. According to an etymology offered by the 6th- and 7th-century archbishop Isidore of Seville, the name of the phoenix derived from its purple-red hue, an explanation that has been influential into the medieval world, and the bird was considered “the royal bird”.

Garden and magic apple associations  In Azerbaijan, the Simurgh goes by the name of Zumrud (emerald). In an ancient tale about Malik Mammad, the son of one of the wealthiest kings of Azerbaijan, that king had a big garden. In the center of this garden was a magical apple tree that yielded apples every day. An ugly giant named Div stole all the apples every night. The king sent Malik Mammad and his elder brothers to fight the giant. In the course of this tale, Malik Mammad saves the Zumrud-Simurgh’s babies from a dragon. Slavic myths hav# variant, and the Russian “Firebird” folktale is now classified as Slavic which is in keeping with the results of genetic studies (#scroll down to the reference section)

Plant associations  Through cultural assimilation the Simurgh was introduced to the middle East and Arabic-speaking world, where the concept was conflated with other Arabic mythical birds such as the Ghoghnus, a bird having some mythical relation with the date palm, and further developed as the Rukh (the origin of the English word “Roc“). In an illustration of a manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights the Simorḡ is identified with the monstrous bird Roḵ (cf. Casartellli, p. 82fIn Arabic translations of the Physiologus of Pseudo-Basil, twining vines and twigs of grape-vines, were a symbol of immortality that was associated with the Simurgh.

We can make one final observation, that the later the newcomers on the scene, such as the Slav settlers of the Siberian steppes, or the relatively late invaders of the Arab Islamic empire, the more likely the myths are to lose the mytheme of the phoenix as a beneficent provider of wealth, grace, immortality and divine legitimacy, and the more the likely these near-modern firebird myths will have a feature such as a garden with apples, a cultural folkhero or adventurer journeying very likely in the Underworld, elements introduced from other folktales as well as a more fantasaical and composite form of the phoenix beast, with body parts (such as its feathers that grant wishes) that are embued with magical charms or amulet powers, or other strange bestiary features.

Sources and further readings:

The Myth of the Phoenix: According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions. by R. Van den Broek, pp. 199-204

Hanns-Peter Schmidt,”Simorg” in Encyclopedia Iranica

The Phoenix Through the Ages” by Heather Shumaker, Swarthmore College bulletin, October 2008

Simorgh, the fabulous mythological bird, Tehran Times, Sept 2012


Charles Saba’s writings on astrological charts, numerological systems and on “History: China”

#MOROVA, Irina et al. Russian ethnic history inferred from mitochondrial DNA diversity, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Volume 147, Issue 3, pages 341–351, March 2012,

The 2012 study indicated that the core of the Russian gene pool is the mixture of two genetically different groups, the northern and southwestern, which are apparently related to the two major inflows of Slavic settlers from Western Europe to the East European Plain.

See Wikipedia entry’s “Firebird (Slavic) Folklore”:

The Senmurv by Prudence Oliver Harpe

Magickal, Mystical Creatures: Invite Their Powers Into Your Life by D.J.ConwayThe so-called senmurv, an old Iranian theory  reconsidered by Matteo Compareti

Senmurv silk fragments at the Victoria & Alberts

See fresco depiction of simurghs inside medallions (evoking motifs found on Sassanid textiles) in the church of Tigran Honents at Ani. P Donabedian and J. M. Thierry, Armenian Art, New York, 1989, p. 488.

In Cappadocia, Turkey, a row of simurghs are depicted inside the “Ağaçaltı” church in the Ihlara gorge. Thierry, N. and M., Nouvelles églises rupestres de Cappadoce, Paris, 1963, p. 84-85.

A. Jeroussalimskaja, “Soieries sassanides”, Splendeur des sassanides: l’empire perse entre Rome et la Chine (Brussels, 1993) pp. 114, 117f, points out that the spelling senmurv, is incorrect (noted by David Jacoby, “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004:197-240) p. 212 note 82.

The Tang Dynasty’s Son of Heaven cosmic worldview that Japan inherited during the Nara Period

Layout of cosmically heaven-aligned city, Changan of the Tang Dynasty, Shaanxi History Museum: "Scenes of Flourishing Tang", P27. Zhejiang People's Fine Arts Publishing House, 1999.

Layout of cosmically heaven-aligned city, Changan of the Tang Dynasty, Shaanxi History Museum: “Scenes of Flourishing Tang”, P27. Zhejiang People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1999.

During the Nara period, the Japanese court actively sought to absorb the body of advanced ideas and knowledge of astronomy, engineering and city-building, medicine, technology, arts and music and governmental organization, that were coming out of the Chinese Tang Dynasty’s capital city Changan (Cho-an to the Japanese).  These ideas were transmitted via two-way diplomatic missions between Nara and the Changan capital, and for the most part, the incoming corpus of knowledge and ideas, studied, embraced and adopted enthusiastically, including its fashions — much of which almost wholesale. More details and background on this here.

Plan of Nara (image source: wiki college notes by Angelo di Franco

Plan of Nara (image open source: Wiki College Study Blue notes by Ornello di Franco)

The city of Changan, according to the US State Department’s report entitled, “Chang’an”…

“continued to be the principal capital of the empire and entered the greatest period of its development under the Tang Dynasty (618-907). “At the height of its glory in the mid-eighth century, Chang’an was the most populous, cosmopolitan, and civilized city in the world” (Richard B. Mather, foreword to Xiong, p. ix), occupying some 84 sq. km. with around one million inhabitants. It suffered major damage during the An Lushan rebellion in the mid-8th century, but even toward the end of the Tang period, when the empire was in disarray, the “enormous size” of the city impressed an Arab visitor.

Under the Tang, the city was a major religious center, not only for Buddhism and Taoism but also for several religions which were relatively recent arrivals in China: Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism and Manichaeism… a Japanese pilgrim noted in 844 that there were over 300 Buddhist temples in Chang’an.”

The writer Anthony Aveni in “Bringing sky to earth” gives us a good account and concise summary of the Tang Empire-Son of Heaven’s worldview that would have been transmitted to Japanese during the Nara period.

“…cities with long written histories – like Beijing – provide us with some unanticipated connections.

The written legacy helps us understand the reasons behind the desire to orientate one’s capital to the stars. A strong bond existed between astrology and good government: a mandate from heaven underlay all Chinese dynastic ideology.

Chinese society has always been bureaucratically organized. Family histories contain lengthy chapters on astronomy, with data such as where and when celestial objects appeared or disappeared, their colour, brightness, direction of motion and their gathering together in one place. These histories also suggest implications that such data might have on family affairs: thus one Chinese historian and court astrologer explains that when planets gather, either there is great fortune or there is great calamity. He knows this because when they gathered in Roon (Scorpio), the Zhou dynasty flourished, but when they gathered in Winnowing Basket (Sagittarius), Qi became the emperor.

The Chinese called their constellations the ‘heavenly minions’. But when they looked among them in the north they saw not a pair of wheeling bears flanked by a dragon as we do, but rather a celestial empire. Which constellations did they recognize and what do the Chinese stars tell us about their ideas concerning rulership and the orientation of the city? Confucius compared the emperor’s rule with Polaris, the north star: just as the emperor was the axis of the earthly state, so his celestial pivot was the polar constellation. The economy revolved around the fixed emperor the way the stars turn about the immoveable pole. According to one legend, the Divine King was born out of the light radiated upon his mother by the Pole Star. Four of the seven stars in what we know as the Little Dipper, plus two others, constituted the Kou Chen or ‘Angular Arranger’ of the Chin Shu dynasty. These stars made up the great ‘Purple Palace’ and each of their celestial functionaries had its terrestrial social counterpart. One member of the group was the crown prince who governed the moon while another, the great emperor, ruled the sun. A third, son of the imperial concubine, governed the five planets, while a fourth was the empress, and a fifth the heavenly palace itself. When the emperor’s star lost its brightness, his earthly counterpart would sacrifice his authority, while the crown prince would become anxious when his star appeared dim, especially when it lay to the right of the emperor.

The four surrounding stars of the palace proper are Pei Chi, the ‘Four Supporters’. On Chinese star maps they appear well situated to perform their task, which is to issue orders to the rest of the state. The ‘Golden Canopy’ is made up of seven stars, most of them corresponding to the pole-centred stars of our constellation Draco. It covered the palatial inhabitants and emissaries. Beyond them lay the stars of the Northern Dipper. More concerned with realizing celestial principles in the earthly realm, these ‘Seven Regulators’ are aptly situated to possess the manoeuvrability to come down close to Earth so that they can inspect the four quarters of the empire. According to one version, the Big Dipper is the carriage of the great theocrat who periodically wheels around the central palace to review conditions. Its stars are the source of Yin and Yang, the two-fold way of knowing what resolves the tension between opposing polarities: male and female, light and dark, active and passive. Yin and Yang wax and wane with cosmic time and make up the potentiality of the human condition. For every affair of state the starry winds of good and bad fortune blow across the sky.

Why this royal fixation with the stars of the north? Like the power invested in royalty, they were eternally visible, never obscured by the horizon. Indeed in temperate latitudes the stars that turn about the pole are raised quite high in the sky. The fixity of the polar axis is a cosmic metaphor for the constant power of the state.

Given the close parallel between the events surrounding the palace economy and the celestial arrangement, it seems logical to enquire whether Chinese royal architecture, like that of Stonehenge and Teotihuacan, is also situated in perfect harmony with the land- and skyscape.

To harmonize the arrangement of the royal capital with the local contours of cosmic energy, the king would call in a geomancer to perform the art of feng shui. This expert would decide where to select and how to arrange a site. His sources of cosmic knowledge were the local magnetic field, the paths of streams and the land forms; he might also consult oracle bones, engraved pieces of bone and shell used in divination. Sometimes workers would need to remove vast quantities of boulders or plant forests of trees to regulate the disposition of Yin and Yang energies passing in and out of the site.

There is an account of the foundation ritual associated with the city of Lo-yang of the Zhou dynasty at the close of the second millennium bc. On the second day of the third month:

Diog-Kung, Duke of Zhou, began to lay the foundations and establish a new and important city at Glak (Lo) in the eastern state. The people of the four quarters concurred strongly and assembled for the corvée … In the second month, the third quarter, on the sixth day in the morning the King walked from the capital of Diog (Chou) and reached P’iong (Feng). The Great Protector preceded Diog-Kung to inspect the site. When it came to the third month … on the third day the Great Protector arrived at Glak in the morning and took the tortoise oracle as bearing on the site. When he had obtained the oracle, he planned and laid out the city. On the third day the Great Protector and all the people of Yin began work on the public emplacements in the loop of the Glak river.

The attention to detail regarding place and time suggests that acquiring proper urban form depended on getting things right with nature – especially the cardinal axes. If it were to function properly, the city needed to be accurately partitioned into its quarters.

Beijing still preserves its ancient cosmic plan. If you stand in Tiananmen Square you can line up the Bell and Drum Towers, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong on a perfect north-south axis. Continue that line and you’ll discover that it runs through the gates of the old city. Today the cosmic axis is defined by a marble pavement that marks the imperial meridian. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which houses the emperor’s throne, lies at its northern terminus; this symbolizes the circumpolar region where the earth meets the sky.

Beijing offers a lasting reminder of the cosmically ordained duties of the emperor. He had to perform a specific task at the beginning of the first month of each season, these being determined by the court astronomers who followed the course of the moon and sun and the five planets across the lunar mansions of the Chinese zodiac. The emperor would go to the eastern quarter ouf his domain to start the new year every spring equinox to pray for a sound harvest; then, followed by his ministers, he would plough a ceremonial furrow in a field. At the other seasonal pivots he would visit the other quarters of his city.

This calendar would have been familiar to any farmer, for it was based on what he could see in the sky. At the beginning of summer Antares lay due south at sunset, while on the first of winter the Tristar of Orion’s Belt took its place. Of course, farmers knew well when they could plant, but they needed to be aware that the official time to do so occurred when the handle of the Dipper pointed straight down, for then was it the first day of spring – the time for the king to come forth and speak to the people about the new year’s harvest.

The keeping of the observations and the preparation of the calendar resided in the state observatory. This institution lay hidden within the bowels of the Purple Palace. The importance of astronomical observing in the world of politics made secrecy a necessity. One directive issued by a ninth-century Tang Dynasty king reads:

If we hear of any intercourse between the astronomical officials or of their subordinates, and officials of any other government departments, or miscellaneous common people, it will be regarded as a violation of security relations which should be strictly adhered to. From now on, therefore, the astronomical officials are on no account to mix with civil servants and common people in general. Let the Censorate see to it.

And so the astronomers, spurred on by their government, performed their appointed task: to give the correct time so that the affairs of state might be properly conducted. “

Source of article excerpt: Bringing the Sky Down to Earth by Anthony Aveni | Published in History Today Volume: 58 Issue 6 2008 (retrieved online Jan 25, 2014:

Anthony F. Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University. He is the author of People and the Sky: Our Ancestors and the Cosmos (Thames & Hudson).

Further recommended sources and readings:

Nara capital built in the shadow of the Chinese empire & under the influences of the Silk Road  (Heritage of Japan wordpress blog)

C. Cullen, Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China (Needham Resarch Institute, 2007)

Victor Cunrui Xiong, Sui-Tang Chang’an: A Study in the Urban History of Medieval China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000).

King Enma and his ogres take a winter vacation from tormenting people

Azuchi-Momoyama period wallscroll depicting King Enma, Nara, Japan

Azuchi-Momoyama period wallscroll depicting King Enma, Nara, Japan

Tochigi temples hold events for King Enma

(NHK World, Jan 15, 2014)

Buddhist temples in Ashikaga City, north of Tokyo, have held events for King Enma, the ruler of Hell and suffering.

According to the teachings of Buddhism, January 16th is the king’s winter holiday, when the lids on the cauldrons of Hell are removed and Enma and ogres stop tormenting people there.

Yakushido Temple showed pictures of Hell to the public on Thursday.

The pictures of torture from centuries ago during the Edo period are said to frighten children and leave them unable to sleep at night.

Another temple, Rishoin, held a service for Enma, continuing 200 years of tradition.

Visitors prayed for good business and safety for their families before a 2-meter-tall statue of Enma.

One supporter of the temple said King Enma is popular among students preparing for entrance exams because he is tough on liars but grants wishes to hard workers.

Source: NHK World


“Enma face” (閻魔顔 Enma-gao?) is an idiom used to describe someone with a fearsome face.
“If you lie, Lord Enma will pull out your tongue” (嘘をつけばと閻魔さまに舌を抜かれる?) is a superstition often told to scare children into telling the truth.
A Japanese kotowaza states “When borrowing, the face of a jizō; when repaying (a loan), the face of Enma” (借りる時の地蔵顔、返す時の閻魔顔?). Jizō is typically portrayed with a serene, happy expression whereas Enma is typically portrayed with a thunderous, furious expression. The kotowaza alludes to changes in people’s behaviour for selfish reasons depending on their circumstances.


The deity Yama, a deity of Indo-European origin (Indian “Yama” and Iranian “Yamaxaita”, I-E etymology “yemos” or “ymyos”,  North European-Finno-Ugric deity Ymir) arrived in Japan and Korea via China…consistent with the frequent portrayal of Yama in Chinese bureaucratic garb.

For more on see “King Yama Lord of the Dead: Comparing counterparts and cognates in Central Asia and Southeast Asia”

 Yama's Court and Hell. The Blue figure is Yama with his consort Yami and Chitragupta. A 17th-century painting from the Government Museum in Chennai.

Yama’s Court and Hell. The Blue figure is Yama with his consort Yami and Chitragupta.
A 17th-century painting from the Government Museum in Chennai.

In Hinduism, Yama was the son of sun god Surya and presided over Naraka, the Hindu underworld. Adopted into Buddhism, Yama’s exact role is fairly vague in canonical texts, but is clearer in extra-canonical texts and popular beliefs, although these are not always consistent with Buddhist philosophy.
In the Pali canon, the Buddha states that a person who has ill-treated their parents, ascetics, holy persons, or elders is taken upon his death to Yama. Yama then asks the ignoble person if he ever considered his own ill conduct in light of birth, aging, sickness, worldly retribution and death (mrtyu). In response to Yama’s questions, such an ignoble person repeatedly answers that he failed to consider the kammic consequences of his reprehensible actions and as a result is sent to a brutal hell “so long as that evil action has not exhausted its result.”
In the Pali apocrypha, the scholar Buddhaghosa’s commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya describes Yama as a vimānapeta (विमानापता), a “being in a mixed state”, sometimes enjoying celestial comforts and at other times punished for the fruits of his karma. However, Buddhaghosa considered his rule as a king to be just.

Modern Theravādin countries portray Yama sending old age, disease, punishments, and other calamities among humans as warnings to behave well. At death, they are summoned before Yama, who examines their character and dispatches them to their appropriate rebirth, whether to earth or to one of the heavens or hells. Sometimes there are thought to be two or four Yamas, each presiding over a distinct Hell.[Source: Wikipedia entry on Enma]

Wagtail myths of Japan and their parallels elsewhere

Image: Kevin Short, excerpted from the  Yomiuri Shimbun article (see article below)

Image: Kevin Short, excerpted from the Yomiuri Shimbun article (see article below)

The Ainu of Japan have a tale of creation (among many versions) involving the wagtail:

In one version the creator deity sends down a water wagtail to create habitable land in the watery world below. The little bird fluttered over the waters, splashing water aside and then he packed patches of the earth firm by stomping them with his feet and beating them with his tail. In this way islands where the Ainu were later to live were raised to float upon the ocean. Source: “A Dictionary of Creation Myths” – “Ainu Creation” Leeming, David Adams; Leeming, Margaret Adams (2009).  Oxford University Press. [See also Barbara C. Sproul’s (1979). Primal Myths. HarperOne HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 978-0-06-067501-1].

In another more detailed version (Batchelor), the wagtail takes on a Cupid-like role:

CHAPTER VII. Cupid and the Hero Okikurumi. The water- wagtail as Cupid — He instructs husbands and wives in their conjugal duties — Legend of Okikurumi in lov — Yoshitsune not worshipped — The shrine at Piratori. If the ancient Greeks and Latins had their Cupid, the Ainu also are human enough to have theirs. But, instead of being a saucy, winged, chubby child, with a malicious smile and cunning twinkling eyes, he appears in this case with wings indeed, but the wings of a bird. He is, in fact, no other than the water- wagtail. It has already been shown elsewhere that, by one account, this bird is supposed to have brought the earth out of chaos, and by another to have simply made rough places plain and level. We are now about to learn that he first taught the ancestors of the Ainu race their duties to each other as husbands and wives, and that he has been known to act as Cupid in watching over love-stricken people. I find that some young Ainu men keejj the skins and skeletons of these birds in boxes, as love charms, carefully wrapped up in 171(70 shavings. These they sometimes worship, especially if their possessors are in love or want a wife. The legend recounting this is as follows : — ‘ The water-wagtail is called Ochiu-cJiiri by some people, and this means the ” bird of passion” or “desire.” He is thus named because he has strong sensual desires. After God had created human beings and placed them in the world, the water-wagtail came to them, and first taught them their duties to one another as husbands and wives.

It is through his kindly offices of instruction that men increased and multiplied in the world. He is known to be a good charm, and therefore to be highly prized. Once upon a time a man killed one of these birds, and used the body as a charm. It was soon observed that its possessor was becoming very lustful, and was continually getting into all kinds of trouble. He had to pay a great many fines for his misdeeds. This kind of thing lasted just six years. After that time had elapsed he repented, and completely turned over a new leaf, and grew very rich indeed. This was all owing to his possessing a water-wagtail as a charm. Whoever, therefore, keeps this kind of fetish must expect to be very wicked for the space of six years ; but after that time he may, by exercising care, repent and grow rich.’ In the first chapter of this book, which was on the subject of the origin of the Ainu, we had occasion to discuss an ancient hero named Okikurumi. It was there shown that in all probability this person was no other than the Japanese Yoshitsune, who is said to have come to Yezo and married an Ainu damsel. The following legend shows him to have been really in love with his bride, and the purpose of it appears to be to teach young lovers never to despair, even though they cannot always obtain the object of their affections, and to show young men that they ought never to look too much after the softer sex. It also shows the water- wagtail acting in his capacity of Cupid.

The Water-Wagtail a Cupid.

Ainu Man abuut to Drink.

‘ The great Okikurumi fell deeply in love ; he became very ill, yea, exceedingly love-sick ; he lost his appetite and bodily strength ; he lay down in his hut in sullen despair, and would eat neither good food nor bad ; he was, in short, ready to die of love. And, mark you, all this happened through taking just one glance at a beautiful woman. ” Dear, dear!” says the legend, “how badly he felt!”

Therefore let the young beware. ‘ But Okikurumi was cured of his dangerous malady, A little bird, the water-wagtail, flew to the cause of this affliction — the object of his affections. Word was brought to her of his deep-seated love and critical condition. The pretty little bird wagged his tail, and whispered in the lady’s ear that if Okikurumi died the soul of Ainu-land would also depart. Therefore the bird begged her to have mercy upon poor Okikurumi for the sake of Ainu-land. The intercession was successful. An unreal, unsubstantial woman was made in the likeness of the beauty with whom Okikurumi had been smitten. She was brought to his hut, and forthwith proceeded to arrange the mats, furniture and ornaments. Okikurumi took a sly glance at her through his sleeve ; he was encouraged ; he got up, rejoiced, ate food, was revived, and felt strong again. This done, the lady took her departure ; she was not. What then did Okikurumi do ? Why, he saw that he had been deceived in the woman, and, as there was nothing to be done, nothing to be said, he got ,well again, like a sensible man.’

Okikurumi in Love.

The following is the explanation of the legend : — ‘ The goddess {i.e. the beautiful maiden) felt lonely, and gazed upon the inside and surveyed the outside of the hut. She went out, and behold ! the clouds were floating and waving about in beautiful terraces upon the horizon of Ainu-land. Yes, that is what she saw ; so she returned into the hut back- wards and took down her needlework.’ (By this we are taught how it happened that Okikurumi first caught sight of this beautiful woman with whom he fell in love. She had been sitting in the hut, and now felt a little lonesome, restless, or tired. Her eyes had been wandering about from one object to another with weary solicitude. She gets up, goes outside in an aimless kind of way, and scans the horizon, which she sees Is very beautiful In its grandeur, the clouds being piled one upon another In terrace-like masses. She revives and returns into her hut. But we are told that she returns backwards. This Is a sign that she was paying great respect to someone or something out-side. The Ainu say that she was paying respect to the Ijrilliant beauties of Nature which were depicted upon the heavens ; hence she came into her hut reverently walking backwards. Now women never pray to the- heavens, indeed, they never worship any deities at all ; I therefore venture to think that she was paying her respects to Okikurumi, whom she saw outside.)

‘Again, she looked to the point of her needle, and fixed her gaze upon the eye-end thereof.’ (That is to say, she paid great attention to her work.) ‘Then came a little bird, called the water-wagtail, and sat upon the window shutter. He wagged his tail up and down, and waved it from right to left. ‘ Then two chirps and three chirps came to her and touched the inside of her ears, and what she heard was this: “The mighty Okikurumi, who is governor of all Ainu-land, went out of doors for a little while, and seeing you, has fallen ill of love on your account. And though two bad fish and two good fish were placed before him for food he refused to eat.” ‘ (Two good and two bad fish is merely an expression meaning that whatever food was placed before Okikurumi he could not touch it, he was so love-sick.) ‘ “Now, if Okikurumi should die, the soul of Ainu-land will depart.” ‘ Then the little bird called water-wagtail, waving its tail, spake two words to her and said, ” Have mercy upon us, that Okikurumi may live.” ‘ Thus, then, by simply looking out upon the world, Okikurumi fell so sick of love that though two bad fish and two good fish were set before him he could not eat. ‘ Dear, dear, how badly he felt !

The Shrine at Piratori. ‘ Therefore the form of a woman resembhng the go.ddess was made and sent down to Okikurumi. ‘ The house was set in order; that woman who was sent down put things to rights. ‘ Then Okikurumi looked through his sleeve, and saw the beautiful woman. He got up greatly rejoic- ing. He ate some food ; strength came back to his body, and — the woman was gone! ‘Okikurumi saw he had been deceived ; but there was nothing to be done and nothing to say, so he got well.’ It has been thought by many that Okikurumi or Yoshitsune has been and is still worshipped by the Ainu, and the fact that a shrine has been set up to him at Piratori has lent colour to this idea. But that shrine is of purely Japanese manufacture, while the idol within it, which is also of Japanese make, only dates back one hundred and ten years. Beyond this there is nothing of antiquity about it. Indeed, no Ainu would think of offering prayer at this shrine. The very idea of such a thing would have been ridiculed by the people twenty years ago. As a matter of fact, Yoshitsune was not spoken at all well of by the Ainu when I first came to Piratori. It is true, indeed, that he is supposed to be the maker of some things in creation. But of what kind of objects ? The cuckoo, for example, which is looked upon as a bird of evil omen ; and snakes also, which are not pleasant creatures by any means. I have sometimes seen iiiao offered at the above-mentioned shrine, and on one occasion heard a semi-prayer said, which was as follows: —

‘ O my divine Yoshitsune, through thy divine favour I am frequently getting sake. I salute thee; I thank thee.’ This can hardly be called proper prayer, and it was old Penri who said it. This old gentleman is very fond of sake, as is shown in another chapter, and this shrine used often to be the means by which he obtained it Indeed, the nickname the shrine used to be called by, a very few years ago, was ‘ Penri’s sake trap.’ He considered it a great joke when some Japanese appointed him keeper of the shrine, and was duly pleased and thankful.

— Source: pp. 75 – 80, of John Batchelor’s “Ainu and their Folklore” at

The wagtale features not only in the indigenous Ainu people’s creation myth, but in the earliest written royal chronicles of Japan as well, which is given special treatment in the article below:

Excerpted from Kevin Short’s*  December 12, 2013 Special to The Japan News Nature in Short / Adaptable wagtails peck out a living in the city:

“… The fields, paddies and woodlands of the countryside are home to a rich biodiversity, so I often find myself pulling over to observe and photograph a variety of flowers, insects and birds. One day, however, I encountered a bird in a most unlikely spot. I had stopped to fill up with gas. As I stepped out of the car, I noticed a small black-and-white bird with a long tail, just a few meters away. The bird completely ignored me and other customers, seemingly intent on foraging on the concrete ground around the pumps.

The bird was a wagtail, a member of a group of passerine birds classified in the genus Motacilla, distributed widely across Eurasia and Africa. Their most easily recognized common trait is a long tail, nearly as long again as the body, which they continuously flick up and down as they move across the ground. This behavior is the base for their generic English name. In Japanese they are referred to as sekirei.

About a dozen or so species of wagtail are found worldwide. Half of these have been recorded here in Japan, but only three species; the White Wagtail, or Haku-sekirei (M. alba)—the Japanese Wagtail, or Seguro-sekirei (M. grandis); and the Grey Wagtail, or Ki-sekirei (M. cinerea)—are common. The rest are rare migrants.

Both the white and Japanese wagtails are common year-round residents in the Kanto area. These two gray, black-and-white feathered species look alike at a distance, but up close can be readily distinguished by the amount of black on their face, head and back, which is noticeably greater in the Japanese wagtail (the Japanese names mean “white” and “black-backed,” respectively).

Both these species usually prefer countryside or waterside habitats. They are primarily insectivorous, feeding on or close to the ground. Their long, thin bills are well adapted to plucking insects out of low vegetation and shallow water. Another typical foraging behavior is jumping up to snatch disturbed insects as they try to escape. Over the past several decades, however, the wagtails have dramatically expanded their range to include suburban and even hard core urban habitats.

The gas station bird was a white wagtail. For more than five minutes, I watched it pecking away at what seemed to me to be nothing more than bare concrete. I have also seen these birds foraging out on my 20th floor verandah, and even dodging dump trucks on the national highway asphalt. No matter how hard I looked, I could see nothing that might be edible.

One might easily imagine that the wagtails have somehow evolved a method for extracting nutrients from tiny pebbles of concrete, or maybe from spilt motor oil. My ornithologist friends, however, assure me that the birds are simply picking up tiny seeds or minuscule scraps of food dropped by people. By widening the scope of their diet, these adaptable critters have been able to move into new urban and suburban habitats.

Wagtails also play a small but significant role in Japanese classic mythology. According to the traditional creation myth, a pair of kami deities was dispatched from the Celestial Realm to found a new world here on earth. Arriving on a portal bridge, the male deity Izanagi stirred the primeval chaotic sea with his magical spear. Brine dripping from the spear coalesced to form the first island.

Izanagi and his mate, Izanami, then erected a pillar, around which they danced in anticipation of the task of giving birth to the land. When all was ready, however, they found that being a bit naive and inexperienced, they didn’t actually know just how a man and a woman should go about producing offspring. Fortunately, just at that crucial moment, a pair of mating wagtails happened by. Izanagi and Izanami simply watched what they were doing and tried it out for themselves. The result was the land we now call Japan.”

*Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

Comparing the Japanese wagtail myth with parallels elsewhere, we find that the wagtail features as myth in many of the ancient civilizations (Egypt, India, Australia, Greek and Japanese aboriginal):

  • Egypt — The tale there appears to be of great antiquity and its prototype tale may have moved through connected to lineages through Central Asia to Japan (perhaps, via Manchuria or China): “In Heliopolis, at least from the building of the Heliopolitan sun temple, around 2660 BC, Ra, the sun and Atum were linked to the wagtail, and then the heron, or some other mythical bird with a likeness to the heron. It became known as the benu, perched on the original mound, on the benben, which in Egyptian mythology had emerged from the primeval watery chaos, and was closely linked to the original rising sun. The benu was the carrier of sunlight from the gods to mankind in the daily resurrection of the sun and in rebirth in general. The benu became an aspect of Atum was later the Ba soul aspect of Re and afterwards was linked to Osiris. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-420 BC) associated the benu on the benben with the Greek mythological Phoenix. Perpetual sunlight was carried from the gods to mankind.” Source:  Egypt, Trunk of the Tree, Volume 1 by Simson R. Najovits
  • Manchurian tale: A Nisǎn shamaness, a Manchu of Chinese Manchuria, was described having to cross a river where there was no ferry, and beseeching the spirits including that of a golden wagtail, she stood on her shaman drum, and managed to cross the river in an instant, whereupon she conjured up a great soaring bird in various guises, including “the Eikuli yekuli silver wagtail Eikuli yekuli circling the sea” (Source: Art, Myth and Ritual  byKwang-chih CHANG, Kwang-chih Chang at pp. 69-70)
  • India: To the Hindus, the wagtail was a”prophetic bird. Prophecies are made based on the direction from which the bird arrives and from the place where it alights.” Source: The Mythology Dictionary‘s entry on wagtail.  In another Hindu myth, the yellow wagtail was the bird that got its color, because it was made to bear the disease jaundice, see p. 16 of James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough“, and an ancient medical ritual from the Atharvaveda (roughly 1000 BC) involves curing jaundice with a whole range of red (good) and yellow (bad) things, ultimately transferring the disease to the yellow wagtail. Frazer tells us that the Greeks have a similar myth [this suggests that the Hindu myth may be derived from the Greek incursion into India or possibly both versions were derived from the same proto-Indo-European source].
  • The wagtail also features in Greek, African and Bornean myths:

The genus of birds ANTHUS gets its name from Greek Anthos, named for the yellow wagtail, ” which was according to a Greek tale, was a kind of bird which had originally been a boy turned into the bird after having been trampled to death by his father’s horse. (Source: Birds of the Sierra Nevada by Edward C. Beedy and Edward R. Pandolfino) The tale is further elaborated upon in a version from an unverified Internet source: “The family’s hungry mares eat the son, Anthos, as he cries out to the gods for help. Dad did nothing and got turned into a bittern; mom fought the mares and got turned into a crested lark; Anthos became the yellow wagtail, which is scared of horses and yet sounds a little like neighing when it takes off. Pitcher suggests the horses have eaten poison plants…”

“In Greek mythology, wagtails were seen as a gift from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the wagtail was a symbol of love. In India the wagtail is a bird of divination and bears a holy caste mark. The situation in which it appears is an omen: if it is near a lotus flower, elephants, cows, snakes or horses it is favorable; if near bones, ashes or refuse it presages evil and the gods should be placated.

Wagtails featured strongly in tribal life among the Xhosa people of South Africa in the early twentieth century. The wagtail (primarily the cape wagtail, possibly also the African pied wagtail) was widely known as “the bird of the cattle” and “the bird of good fortune.” It was held in high regard and was protected because its presence was thought to assure the increase of stock, while its call was likened to a herd boy’s whistle. The departure of cape wagtails from a region was seen as a sign that war was about to take place.

Despite their often striking display flights, the more cryptic and less approachable pipits hardly seem to have figured in myth and legend. However, young Zulu men in South Africa formerly manufactured love charms from pipits and it is interesting to note that the Xhosa people were aware of the close relationship between pipits and wagtails.

In the remote hinterland of Borneo, the Kelabit people determine their crucial rice-planting cycle by the arrival of a series of migratory bird species from far northern breeding grounds. These birds, which include the yellow wagtail, indicate the sequence of clearing, planting, bedding, weeding, protecting and harvesting the rice crop, and give their names to the months.” — Source: Focus on the Wagtail (The Secret World)

Demon-repelling arrows

Around this time of the year, and especially after the New Year shrine visits, lots of people in the crowds can be spotted at train-stations bearing arrows, especially children and young people. See below, an extract from Yomuri Shimbun:


These arrows are called “hamaya” and its etymology and symbolic meaning are explained in an entry by the Encyclopedia of Shinto as follows:

Literally, “demon-breaking arrow,” a decorative arrow sold at shrines at New Year’s to ward off misfortune and to attract good luck. Hamaya are popular among New Year’s visitors to shrines as one type of good-luck charm or engimono. From the Edo to the early Meiji period, hamaya were given as gifts to celebrate the first New Year of a male baby’s life, frequently in a set together with a pair of decorative bows called hamayumi(“demon-breaking bows”). The custom of selling the arrow alone is thought to be a later abbreviation of this custom. Even today, the custom persists of standing such symbolic bows and arrows at the northeast and southwest corners of a new house (called kimon, the directions thought particularly susceptible to evil influences) on the occasion of the roof-raising ceremonies (jōtōsai). The etymological significance of hama is not clear, but it is said to have been an ancient word for an archery target or an archery contest. The practice of making round targets of braided bamboo or straw, or circles of wood, and throwing them into the air or rolling them on the ground as archery targets was a common children’s pastime, but it was also known as a form of New Year’s divination used to foretell the fortunes of the coming year (toshiura). When these elements are considered in the context of the current use of hamaya as New Year’s good-luck charms, one must consider that the current interpretation of hamayaand hamayumi as “demon-quelling” arrows and bows was rejected by the Edo-period scholar Ise Sadafumi, who asserted that the characters used to express hama were originally adopted merely for their sound, and that the word’s true meaning lay elsewhere.

-Suzuki Kentarō

The arrow as an amulet charm has its equivalent elsewhere, particularly in Central Asia. For example, amongst the Bhotiyas tribe of the Sikkim uplands and Tibet, they have among their demon-repelling arsenal a number of charms considered necessary for killing one’s enemy, including a three-animal-headed axe (a pig-headed snake-headed and bull-headed) and a bow and arrow:

“Hang a bow and an arrow on the left and load him (the effigy made of wheat inside the pig’s mouth) with provisions on his back. Hang an owl’s feather on right and a rook’s feather on left; stick a piece of the poison tree on the upper part of the body and surround him with red swords on al sides. … the arrow on the right will repel all the inauspicious cases, and the bow in the left will repel all the hosts of The-u-brang demon.

Source: p. 122 Mountains of the God: Spiritual Ecology of Himalayan Region (by K.S. Gulia, ed.)

Keeping arrows or arrowhead as charms and amulets were a widespread practice held by the Indo-Europeans, and the practice probably began in the Bronze Age sometime soon after bronze weaponry-making as well as by the Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan peoples. In The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems, by William Thomas and Kate Pavitt, [1922], at

“The Arrow-head in its symbolism had a similar significance to that of the Axe, and in Japan flint. Arrow-heads were thought to have been rained from Heaven, or dropped by flying spirits. They were very popular in the early days of the present civilisation as Amulets to protect the wearer from disease and to avert the Evil Eye; whilst throughout Europe they were regarded as the product of Elves (Elf-shots, or fairy weapons), water in which they had been dropped or dipped, being considered very efficacious in curing feminine ailments (see Illustration No. 17, Plate I) “

For more details on the arrowhead amulets and charms called “elf-arrows” made and kept by the ancient Scots, see Scottish charms and amulets: Elf-arrows.

Ta-no-kami: Water god of the rice paddy field

Ta-no-kami: “Kami of the rice paddy,” a tutelary of rice production.


Ta-no-kami, to see various statues of the deity and the source of this image, visit the Tanokami page

The general term ta no kami can be found nationwide. While the ta-no-kami has undergone synthesis and conflated with other folk beliefs and deities from other lineages, such as Daikoku and the Lord of the Mountain (Yama no Kami) and is now thought of as a male mountain spirit, it is plausible that the early Ta no kami was originally a female water goddess, given that such a goddess was venerated throughout Eurasia, and much of Central and Southeast Asia and given that the sound of “Ta” is similar to the “Da” shortened Indian form of the Danu / Dana / Dhanya goddess.

The Ta no kami is depicted usually as an abstract deity or holding phallic symbols — see Green Shinto’s Ta no kami for an image of the deity, and the article from which the excerpted description of the deity below was taken:

“The Ta no Kami cult is widespread throughout the country, and is at the heart of Japanese rural folk cosmology. The Japanese imbue rice with a sacred reverence … In most regions, the Ta no Kami are represented abstractly, with tree branches decorated with strips of paper, sometimes stuck into mounds of sand. In a restricted area of southern Kyushu, however, there is a tradition, dating back to at least the early 18th century, of carving unique stone representations, locally called Ta no Kansa. This tradition centers in Kagoshima Prefecture but includes a small portion of neighboring Miyazaki Prefecture as well…”

It is possible that the Ta-no-kami (lit. the “Ta” deity) may have been derived from the Eurasian Proto-Indo-European Dana/Danu->Da deity.

Like the Ta-no-kami which is clearly a water god,  Danu, is associated with the Celtic goddess also regarded as a river or water flow deity … the name of the river Danube is believed to be derived from this Celtic origin. Hindu mythology similarly, has a goddess called Danu, who may be the Indo-European cognate. When we consider the etymology of the word “danu” as a word for “rain” or “liquid”… that dānu is compared to Avestan dānu “river”, and the existence of a Danu river in Nepal, and the many river names of the Eurasian steppes like DonDanubeDneiperDniestr, etc. the association is likely.

“The Rigvedic Danu was the mother of a race of Asuras called the Danavas. A shortened form of the name appears to have been . The Greek goddess of agriculture Demeter (Da-mater, Da being the Doric form of De, see Online Etymology Dictionary), is also associated with water several times. [2] Julius Pokorny reconstructs the name from the PIE root da:-: “flow, river”, da:-nu: “any moving liquid, drops”, da: navo “people living by the river, Skyth. nomadic people (in Rigveda water-demons), fem. Da:nu primordial goddess , in Greek Danaoi(Danaans, Greek tribe, Egypt. Danuna).” — Source: Danu (Irish goddess)

According to Balinese Cosmology and its Role in Agricultural Practices by Julie Melowsky:

In Balinese cosmology, the Goddes