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.

Kusatsu Onsen Sainokawara Park, Gunma Prefecture Source: Wikimapia

In folklore, there is a famous River of the Dead called Sai-no-kawara, for which there are actual varying physical locations in Japan, the most famous one being perhaps Kusatsu’s Sainokawara Park. And according to tradition, here it is Jizo is the most beloved and well-known of folk deities, who is the guide for the lost souls of children on the Sai-no-kawara riverbank, and who saves them from either the Oni (ogre demon) or Shozuka-no-baba (see photo of her enshrined) who is the hell’s hag receiving the souls of the dead, and wife of Ten Datsu-Ba (source: Mythology Dictionary). She demands money from all who arrive at her home on the bank of the River of Three Roads (River Sanzu) and, if it is not paid, takes their garments…one version of the story is found in the folktale “Broken Images“:

“I am Jizo, who guards the souls of little children. It is most pitiful to hear their crying when they come to the sandy river-bed, the Sai-no-kawara. O dreamer, they come alone, as needs they must, wailing and wandering, stretching out their pretty hands. They have a task, which is to pile stones for a tower of prayer. But in the night come the Oni to throw down the towers and to scatter all the stones. So the children are made afraid, and their labour is lost.”

Statues of Jizo Bosatsu at the Kusatsu Onsen Sainokawara Park (Photo source: Wikimapia)

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.

Boat effigies found in old riverbed at Kannonji site

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.

Wooden human effigy, Kannonji site

Pottery with faces painted in black ink have been excavated from the Mizutare archaeological site of Nagaoka Palace in Kyoto Prefecture.

Pottery with faces painted in black ink lying on old riverbed at the Mizutare site

Archaeologists have also found fragments of earthenware jars that had been tossed into a dried-up riverbed of a tributary of the Yamatogawa River (in today’s Yao city, Osaka)  in a ritual to bring salvation and ward off illness. Distinctive faces had been painted in black ink on the small pottery jars. Along with the pottery jars, seven types of coins were discovered, along with Kocho-Junisen copper coins from the Nara (710-784) period (as well as Kangen-Taiho coins minted in the 958 which suggests the practice continued through the early Heian (794-1185) period).


Below is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Religionthat particularly illuminating on the widespread, and it is contended here, connected ideas and cosmology behind the “river of Death” in various ancient cultures, including Japan’s.”RIVERS OF DEATH.

Crossing the river at the time of death, as part of the journey to another world, is a common part of the symbolic passage that people have seen as part of one’s journey after death. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero encounters a boatman who ferries him across the waters of death as he seeks the secret of immortality. The river Styx of Greek mythology is well known as the chief river of Hades, said to flow nine times around its borders. Styx is married to the Titan Pallas and according to Hesiod counts as her children Rivalry, Victory, Power, and Force. The power of the Styx is evidenced in the fact that Achilles gained his invulnerability by being dipped in the river as a baby held by his heel, the only part of his body thereafter vulnerable to mortal wounds. In addition, the most inviolable oath of the gods is sworn with a jug of water from the Styx, poured out while the oath is being uttered.

In Hindu mythology, the river Vaitaran: marks the boundary between the living and the dead; in the Aztec journey, the river Mictlan must be crossed on the way to the underworld; in Japan, rivers are part of certain landscapes designated as realms of the dead in both the Shinto¯ and Buddhist traditions. The Sanzunokawa, for example, is said to divide the realms of the living and the dead. The dry riverbed of Sainokawara is said to be the destination of dead children.

The far shore of the river of life and death, or birth and death, thus becomes an important symbol for the destination of one’s spiritual journey in many religious traditions. In the Buddhist tradition, nirva¯n: a is referred to as the “far shore.” In the Hindu tradition, holy places are called t¯ırthas (“fords”) because they enable one to make that crossing safely. Riverbank  t¯ırthas, such as Banaras and Prayaga, are thought to be especially good places to die. In the Christian tradition, crossing over the Jordan has come to have a similar symbolism. On the far shore is not only the promised land, but the spiritual promised land of heaven. Home is on the far shore…”

Source and references:

Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd edition) ed. Lindsay Jones, pps. 7862

The Nara Court practised harae purification rituals by the river (Heritage of Japan sister website to this one)

Common symbols in Eurasia-Pacific unconsious cultural heritage: A case study of the Taiwanese 17 Deities’ cult” by  Igor Sitnikov

2 thoughts on “Rivers of death in Japanese myth and folklore and in other parts of the world

  1. Emilia Chalandon says:

    I would like to ask for the name of the author and how could we quate from this very interesting article. Thank you!

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