Vestal virgins and virgin-mothers and sacrifice

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Above: 70 shrine maidens (called miko) congregate at a special national convention in Japan.

Miko (巫女?) are women in the service of Shinto shrines. The translation of Miko is “Woman of God” (chosen by, or totally devoted to, the gods), but the closest meaning is “shrine maiden”. In Shinto, there are priestesses; but Miko are not priestesses, because they have less authority. However, they can act as priestesses in case of need. They usually act as helpers of the Shintoist priests.

Miko maidens in ancient times used to be virgins, but in modern-day Japan, the requirement is only that they are unmarried.

Japanese Miko shrine maidens attend a ceremony to present an offering of the first harvest of sacred rice during the Takara-No-Ichi ceremony at Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine, Oct. 17, 2012 in Osaka, Japan. The Takara-No-Ichi Shinto rice harvest ceremony dates back about 1800 years, and is held annually on October 17 with sacred rice that was planted June 14

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Japanese Miko shrine maidens attend a ceremony to present an offering of the first harvest of sacred rice during the Takara-No-Ichi ceremony at Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine in Osaka, Japan. The Takara-No-Ichi Shinto rice harvest ceremony dates back about 1800 years, and is held annually on October 17 with sacred rice that was planted June 14.

Miko at a wedding ceremony

Read more below:

Becoming a Shintō Priest or Priestess –  Titles-Roles of Men & Women Serving Shrines

More glimpses of unfamiliar Japan: Miko – the miko here are wearing unusual costumes and headgear, their costumes are printed with the phoenix (or homa bird) motif, and they hold ritual relics or icons such as bronze (hand)bells and tridents (handbells are seen from archaeological digs of the Kofun burial mound period and tridents are emblems of Poseidon, Indian deity Shiva/Siva, the Mongol army, the Tibetan Buddhism, fishing gear of Chinese fishermen, and appears upsidedown on top of a sacred mountain in Kyushu).

Miko, veiled in mystery | Green Shinto

Miko 巫女 – A Shrine Maiden

Watch a video of shrine maidens dancing for a good rice harvest of rice and vegetables

See miko shrine maidens performing a special Shinto Shaden Kagura dance ritual during the annual On-Matsuri festival, a traditional Shinto religious festival held at the Kasuga Wakamiya Shrine in Nara, Japan.

Vestal virgins were Rome’s sacred maidens, “priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The College of the Vestals and its well-being was regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out.”

THE VIRGIN-MOTHER

As widespread as the idea of a saviour deity is the concept that such a god is born of a virgin mother, a myth found in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. In such cases, the mother either brings forth the child with no external agency, or is impregnated by a heavenly spirit. In Mexico, an ambassador was sent from heaven to a virgin of Tulan called Chimalman [titled ‘Queen of Heaven’] announcing that it was the will of the God that she should conceive a son. As soon as he had left she found herself with child. This son was called Quetzalcoatl, the god of air, who sacrificed himself, was crucified, and drew forth his own blood with thorns. Quetzalcoatlotopitzin means “our well-beloved son.” Zeus, Father of the Greek gods, visited the virgin Semele in the form of a thunderstorm. She gave birth to the great saviour and deliverer Dionysus. Zeus, taking the form of a shower of gold, also impregnated Danae and the child was Perseus, who slew the dark power of the Gorgons and saved Andromeda. In Hindu mythology, Devaki the virgin bore the hero and saviour god Krishna. There is also a legend that the Buddha was brought forth from the side of a virgin. In Egypt, Isis conceived the child Horus after the death of her husband Osiris, and images of the virgin and child date from this period. Mithras was born of a virgin, and images of a mother suckling a child are common on Mithraic monuments. The old Teutonic goddess Hertha (‘Earth’) was a virgin impregnated by the sky father and her image with a child in her arms was to be seen in the sacred groves of Germany. The Scandinavian Frigga caught in the embraces of Odin, the All-father, conceived and bore a son, the blessed Balder, healer and saviour of mankind.
These goddesses often stand for the Earth itself, Mother Nature, source of all life and mother of all- their names often reveal this: Gaia [‘Earth’], Demeter (“Earth Mother”), Ceres [‘Corn], and Hertha.[‘Earth’].”

The slain god and risen god

Aztec Sun God

Aztec Sun God (Photo: public domain ) The Aztec sun god Tonatiuh depicted in the 16th century Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The Aztec believed that human sacrifice was necessary to keep the sun moving through the sky. (Source: Livescience)

Why did the Incas practise sacrifice?

The Incan state held annual rituals where they sacrificed children to the gods in order to promote a healthy harvest and the working of the sun. Children were sometimes brought to ceremonies from their homes, then returned to be killed.

Several theories exist explaining Incan motives for capacocha. One states that the Incans practiced this sacrifice in order to ensure a plentiful harvest, rain, and protection for the people. Another focuses on the idea that the children of local leaders were chosen because their parents would thus strengthen ties to the emperor. A third perspective is based on sacrifice as response to vital occurrences such as eclipses and deaths of emperors. The child, selected to perfection, may need to escort the emperor to the afterlife.

In all cases, the chosen one would be a messenger to the gods for the Inca. Even though the Sun God was supreme, mountain gods were regarded as very powerful as well. In Quechua, the Incan language, mountain gods were known as apus. Several mummified bodies reveal deformed skulls due to enormous pressure by binding of the head since birth. One girl’s skull was molded into a conical shape that represents the mountain. Other heads show shapes of mountains with multiple peaks that signify the breasts of mountain goddesses….

The rite itself was greatly elaborate. The child sacrifice would be glorified with a grand and abundant feast, dressed in fine clothes, and adorned with jewels. Many times, he or she would be given plenty of drink to ensure intoxication. Then, the child, along with priests, parents, and other chiefs, would go on a long journey to the summit of a mountain. Some were already numb from the cold or too drunk for consciousness and may have even slept through their deaths. The most common forms of killing were strangulation, a blow to the head, or being buried alive.

Mountains were the prevalent sites of sacrifice, since the Incas believed that there, they were as close as possible to the heavens. When a child was sacrificed, the place of burial was regarded from then on as a “huaca”, the sacred home of someone who lives on in the other world. The huaca was filled with supplies of food, coca leaves, male and female gold figurines as well as miniscule statues of llamas. It remained as an eternal holy place.”  — The Secrets of Incan Sacrifice

Sources and references:

Ancient Rome’s sacred maidens: who were the vestal virgins? (BBC 7 Sept 2012) | The cult of Vesta

Incan mummy frozen after human sacrifice still has infection in lungs after 500 years – giving new insight into diseases of the past 26 July 2012 Daily Mail

Japanese Miko Shrine Maidens (Worldwide Reporters)

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