Demon-repelling arrows of the Japanese New Year

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:

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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 sacred-texts.com

“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.

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