Onmyodo and onmyoji, legendary magicians and diviners of the Heian Period

Abe no Seimei and his shikigami before an assembly of God-like demon spirits, 14th century emaki scroll “Fudo Rieki Engi” (不動利益縁起) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Onmyōdō is defined as the Japanese esoteric cosmology and astronomy, but the art also involves practices of magic, divination and exorcism. Onmyodo practices merged with other beliefs and occultism, and evolved from imported Chinese thought into a syncretism found only in Japan. Japanese onmyōdō took in elements from Taoism which was transmitted to Japan at the same time as onmyōdō, including magical elements such as katatagae, monoimi, henbai, and ceremonies to Taoistic gods such as the Taizan Fukunsai. Elements of feng shui and the medical art of jukondō were incorporated as well, and as onmyōdō and Japanese Shinto mutually influenced each other, onmyōdō grew more distinctive. From the end of the 8th century onward, it was influenced by the magical elements of esoteric Buddhism and the Indian-derived astrology (Sukuyōdō) that were transmitted with it.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, the principles of yin-yang and the Five Elements were transmitted to Japan from China along with Buddhism and Confucianism. Yin-yang and the Five Elements, as well as the divisions of learning to which they were linked – astronomy, calendar-making, the reckoning of time, divination, and studies based on observation of nature – were amalgamated into fortune telling. This process of judging auspicious or harmful signs present in the natural world was accepted into Japanese society as a technique for predicting good or bad fortune in the human world. Such techniques were known mostly by Buddhist monks from mainland Asia who were knowledgeable in reading and writing Chinese. Over time demand from members of the imperial court who believed that onmyōdō divination would be helpful in decision-making made it necessary for the laity to perform the art, and onmyōji began to appear around the middle of the 7th century.

With the implementation of the ritsuryo system law codes in the 7th and 8th centuries, yin-yang techniques were put under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Onmyō (陰陽寮 Onmyō-ryō) in the Nakatsukasa-shō of the Imperial bureaucracy. The Bureau of Onmyō was responsible for overseeing the divinations of Onmyōdō, astrological observations, and the creation of calendars. Also, by law the Buddhist clergy was forbidden to practice astrology and fortune-telling; hence, government-controlled onmyōji came to monopolize the practice.

Onmyōji developed political clout during the Heian period, but in later times lost state patronage completely along with the decline of the power of the imperial court. From the Heian period onward, as the ritsuryo system relaxed and the Fujiwara family rose to power, the society of the Imperial court took on a more formal shape, and adherence to rituals to placate the souls of the dead (御霊信仰 Goryō Shinkō) to combat the creation of vengeful ghosts (怨霊 onryō) burgeoned. Because onmyōji displayed methods that were believed to avert disasters with their skills of divination and magic, the practice afforded onmyōji influence over the personal lives of the Emperor and the nobility of the court. Consequently, popular awareness of onmyōdō gradually spread from court society to Japanese society as a whole, strengthening its development into a characteristically Japanese art.

Onmyōji were specialists in magic and divination. Onmyōji, also In’yōji) was one of the classifications of civil servants belonging to the Bureau of Onmyō in ancient Japan’s ritsuryo system. People with this title were professional practitioners of onmyōdō. Their court responsibilities ranged from tasks such as keeping track of the calendar, to mystical duties such as divination and protection of the capital from evil spirits. They could divine auspicious or harmful influences in the earth, and were instrumental in guiding the capital and its inhabitants around these. It is said that an onmyōji could also summon and control shikigami.

During the Heian period the nobility organized their lives around practices recommended by onmyōji. The practice of “lucky and unlucky directions” provides an example. Depending on the season, time of day, and other circumstances, a particular direction might be bad luck for an individual. If one’s house was located in that direction, such an individual was advised not to go back directly to his house but had to “change direction” (katatagae), by going in a different direction and lodging there. Such a person would not dare to go in the forbidden direction, but stayed where they were, even if that resulted in absence from the court, or passing up invitations from influential people.

Statue of Abe no Seimei on the left at the Seimei Shrine

Famous onmyoji include Abe no Seimei (921–1005) who was an Astrologer in the court of Emperor Ichijo, so famous for his accurate predictions of astrological events, that he became venerated as a divine soul and had a shrine post-humously erected for him by the emperor. Seimei worked as onmyōji for emperors and the Heian government, making calendars and advising on the spiritually correct way to deal with issues. He prayed for the well-being of emperors and the government as well as advising on various issues. Seimei’s duties included analyzing strange events, conducting exorcisms, warding against evil spirits, and performing various rites of geomancy. He was said to be especially skilled in divining the sex of fetuses and finding lost objects.

Abe no Seimei (February 21, 921 – October 31, 1005) as drawn by painter Kikuchi Yōsai (菊池容斎)

According to the Konjaku Monogatarishu, he correctly predicted the abdication of Emperor Kazan based on his observation of celestial phenomena. He enjoyed an extremely long life, free from any major illness, which contributed to the popular belief that he had mystical powers.


The torii, Seimei Shrine and omikoshi with roosters atop it Sources: Wikimedia and Autumnal equinox at Seimei Shrine

Immediately after Seimei’s death, legends arose much like those surrounding Merlin. Many legends of Seimei were originally written in the Konjaku Monogatarishu, and by the Edo period there were many stories in circulation that focused on his heroic acts.

According to legend, Abe no Seimei was not entirely human. His father, Abe no Yasuna, was human, but his mother, Kuzunoha, was a kitsune (a “fox spirit”). At a very early age, no later than five, he was allegedly able to command weak oni to do his bidding. His mother entrusted Seimei to Kamo no Tadayuki so that he would live a proper human life and not become evil himself.

Oni mask hung on a tree at the shrine signifying subjugation by Seimei, Source: 晴明神社の秋分 The Autumnal Equinox at Seimei Shrine 

The Heian period, especially the time when Seimei lived, was a time of peace. Many of his legends revolve around a series of magical battles with a rival, Ashiya Doman, who often tried to embarrass Seimei so that he could usurp his position. One noted story involved Doman and the young Seimei in a divination duel to reveal the contents of a particular box. Doman had another person put fifteen mandarin oranges into the box and “divined” that there were fifteen oranges in it. Seimei saw through the ruse, transformed the oranges into rats, and stated that fifteen rats were in the box. When the rats were revealed, Doman was shocked and defeated.
Seimei is involved in numerous other tales as well. He appears as a minor character in the Heike Monogatari and is said to be responsible for divining the location of the Shuten-dōji, a powerful oni purportedly slain by Minamoto no Yorimitsu.

Abe no Seimei is credited for having come up with the arcane insignia in the 10th century, symbolizing the Five Chinese Elements. The mystical symbol of the equidistant five-pointed star, referred to in the West as a pentagram, is known in Japan as the Doman Seiman or the Seal of Abe no Seimei.

Japanese bellflower (Platycodon grandiflorus) ornamentation are found in decorative tiles and lanterns. The five petal tips of the flower are thought to represent the same ideal as the pentagram.

Taoist iconic sacred peach of immortality, and fruit talismans for warding off evil

According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto, while early on there existed onmyō theories (onmyō shisō) or the “study of onmyō” (onmyōgaku), the actual “Way of onmyō” (Onmyōdō) was only founded and spread by the Kamo and Abe families as a religion of magic from around the tenth century. Onmyōdō should be considered as referring to the group of adherents and the activities of officials originating in the Onmyōryō, who were in charge of conducting rituals and magic.

In the 10th century Kamo no Tadayuki and his son Kamo no Yasunori made great advancements in onmyōdō, astronomy and calendar science, and from among their students emerged Abe no Seimei, who displayed superior skills in the divining arts of onmyōdō, by which he gained an uncommon amount of trust from the court society. Tadayuki and Yasunori passed on their skills in astronomy to Seimei (while their advances in calendar-making went to Yasunori’s son). Abe no Seimei is credited with the writing of the Senji Ryakketsu, an onmyōdo primer. From the end of the Heian period into the Middle Ages, astronomy and calendar science were completely subsumed into onmyōdō which was under the control of the imperial government, but the Abe and Kamo families came to dominate the art. From the late 10th century, the Abe clan controlled the Onmyōryō, the government ministry of onmyōdō.

From the tenth century, Onmyōdō ceremonies were introduced as rites of personal protection for the emperor, thus leading to the deep penetration of Onmyōdō rituals into noble society. Records make frequent mention of such a diversity of rites —  rites largely directed toward celestial bodies as invocations of happiness and longevity, or rituals meant to ward off calamity and disease.

The growth of Onmyōdō rites, however, did not occur due to state sponsorship, but rather was the result of growing popularity among the nobility and people, who used Onmyōdō as privately sponsored rites and personal magic to invite blessings and avoid misfortune. In some cases, rites originally observed as part of the kami cult were replaced by Onmyōdō rituals. An example is the ritual of Shikaku shikyōsai (a rite performed by officials of the Onmyōdō on Kyoto’s four bordering roads to exorcize epidemic kami and evil spirits), which in the tenth century came to be given importance as a state rite in replacement of the earlier Ekijinsai (festival to exorcize epidemic kami), which was part of the kami cult.

This growth of individual reliance on magical invocations (kitō) and personal religious faith among the nobility is believed to have shaped Shrine Shintoism as a result of the gradual transformations taking place within the kami cults (jingi saishi) of the ancient ritsuryō system. It was not until the tenth century that shrines had permanent priests (shinshoku) who acted as the main ritualists in ceremonial worship. The foundations of Shrine Shinto as it continues to exist today were likely laid during that period. However,  it is noted that Taoist Yin-Yang thought and kami cults were already influencing each other before the 10th century, and it has been pointed out that Daoist thought may have influenced the Japanese view of the emperor, since the “three seasonal festivals” (sansetsusai) observed at the Grand Shrines of Ise (Ise Jingū), namely the Kannamesai together with the semiannual “month festivals” of Tsukinamisai (held in the sixth and twelfth months) were performed in accordance with principles of Yin-Yang and gogyō thought.

Onmyōdō thrived till the middle of the 19th century, at which point it became prohibited as superstition. In modern day Japan onmyōji are defined as a type of Shinto priest. The asteroid 5541 Seimei, discovered in 1976, is named after him.

As popular subjects, onmyoji may be found in manga, anime or fairly recent movies. A 2001 Japanese fantasy film about Abe no Seimei. The sequel, imaginatively named Onmyoji 2, came out in 2003, watch a Video clip of Onmyoji2.

Sources and references:

Encyclopedia of Shinto article “Shinto and Onmyodo

Wikipedia “Onmyōdō

Onmyodo – Taoism in Japan (Jame’s Deacon’s Reiki pages)

Onmyōdō: Ancient Magic In Japan (Film, Manga, Anime, Novels And Games)

Abe Seimei

Onmyōji | Sex, Pathos, and Grotesquery in Yumemakura Baku’s Oni Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 66, 2007: 107–124

OnmyōdōThe Onmyōdō Symposium was held May 1–3, 2009, at Columbia University.


Daoism Handbook” by Livia Kohn

The Encyclopedia of Taoism ed. by Fabrizio Pregadio

Onmyodo – The Architect of Japan’s Formative Years” (author unknown)

Nine Kamo Deity Dolls in the Boone Collection:  There are the Hasshojin, or Eight General Gods, who take different positions depending on the zodiac year and who determine human fortune depending on their position. These eight gods, despicted by the eight standing dolls in this set, are Daishogun, Oban, Saiha, Saikiyo, Hiyobi, Taisai, Saisetsu, and Daion (listed in order from left to right in the picture above). Each of the eight presides over an area of human life, and the position of the relevant god in a certain year can determine whether luck is good for an action

Isho Ningyo

Aiki no In-yo-ho (Aiki no On’yoho / Onmyodo)

4 thoughts on “Onmyodo and onmyoji, legendary magicians and diviners of the Heian Period

  1. Simon Magus says:

    Very good article. Onmyodo is still practiced today. I know a close associate engaged in such practices though it is renamed as the Art of Ninzuwu. Thank you for posting.

    • Thank you. Yes, it’s very much alive here, in the daily lives of the Japanese. From choosing the names of babies, to women looking up their fortune and future at horoscope booths, to practical customs, to shrine rituals.

  2. […] Onmyodo and onmyoji, legendary magicians and diviners of the Heian Period . [Online] Available at: https://japanesemythology.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/onmyodo-and-onmyoji-legendary-magicians-and-divin…Hushicno. Date Unknown. Onmyoudou Awakening . [Online] Available at: […]

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