Descent of deities in the land of Kumano



There are numerous legends of deities descending onto trees, water pools or waterfalls, rocks, and mountains in Japan. Some of these are to be found in the Kumano region:

Halfway up Mt Gongenyama in Wakayama, is a shrine called Kamikura-jinja, attached to which is the legend of the three deities of Kumano are said to have descended upon the gigantic rock called Gotobiki-iwa, which is known to have been worshiped as a sacred object since ancient Jomon times. Bronze bell artifacts of the 3rd century Yayoi period and sutra mounds of around the 12th century attest to both the antiquity and the sacredness of the site. (See spectacular photo of the fire festival at the Kamikura shrine at Kumano Otou MatsuriGotobiki means a toad in Kumano dialect. The name comes from the largest rock, which looks like a toad.

Mt Gongenyama and its Kamikura-jinja site are considered to be part of the Kumano Hayatama Taisha complex, along with other well-known and important ritual sites in the vicinity. Located in the north of Shingu near the Kumano River, this World Heritage Grand Shrine(one of Kumano’s three), enshrines twelve deities including Kumano Hayatama no Okami and Kumano Fusumi no Okami. This place came to be called “Shingu” (literally meaning “new shrine”) because the Kumano deities originally enshrined in Kamikura Shrine (“old shrine”) were transferred to a new shrine, Hayatama, in the era of Emperor Keiko (71-130). The present main shrines, rebuilt in 1953, enshrine images of the Kumano twelve avatars starting with Kumano’s three deities, all of which are designated either national treasures or nationally important cultural assets.

Other examples of nature worship in the Kumano region include the Hanano-iwaya Shrine also enshrining another huge rock, and the Hiro Shrine in Nachi area enshrining a waterfall. While there is an impressive sacred tree (one of the largest in the country) in the Kumano Taisha compound called the sacred nagi tree, a more titillating legend surrounds another sacred tree in Kumano at the Oyunohara site.

“An old tale from Kumano tells of a hunter who was out one day with his dogs when he spotted a large boar. Stretching his bow, he took aim and loosed an arrow deep into the body of the beast. With its last strength, the boar fled and led the hunter to a yew tree at Oyunohara, where it lay down and died. After gorging on its flesh, the hunter fell asleep under the tree, only to waken in the night to see that three moons — which revealed themselves to be manifestations of the three Kumano deities — had descended onto the tree.” — Japan Times Jan 11, 2014 article “Communing with nature in the land of Kumano’s ancient gods”

Source references

Kumano (Wakayama prefectural gov. homepage)

Gotobiki Rock (Nippon-kichi)

Source of image of Gotobiki rock-kamikura-jinja – Wikimedia Commons

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