Oshirasama and Sacrifices to the Silk gods

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mayudama 繭玉 (まゆだま) “cocoon balls”

Mayudama iwau 繭玉祝う(まゆだまいわう)is a festive celebration involving mochi cocoon balls.

Mayudama 繭玉 (まゆだま) small “cocoon balls” made of  round mochi are characteristic decorations for the “small new year” (koshoogatsu) on January 15. They are used to decorate twigs and made to resemble spring blossoms in the home, usually in the auspicious colors of white and red, and are a thanks-giving gift to the deity  for protecting the silkworms. (These days, imitation decorations in white and pink styrofoam balls are used a lot in supermarkets and department stores as festive decorations instead.

Silkworms feed on mulberry leaves, and kuwa means “mulberry” and so the folk Silkworm deity is literally the Mulberry goddess is called – Kuwahimesama kuwa himesama 桑姫さま deity’s role is to protect the mulberry trees and silk.

Kuwahimesama kuwa himesama depicted as carrying a mulberry branch

Kuwahimesama kuwa himesama depicted as carrying a mulberry branch

Stone statues like this are common in areas with silk production

Image credit source

Silk-related legends

The Hata clan was an immigrant clan active in Japan since the Kofun period, according to the epic history Nihonshoki.
….. The first leader of the Hata to arrive in Japan, Uzumasa-no-Kimi-Sukune, arrived during the reign of Emperor Chūai, in the 2nd century CE. According to the epic, he and his followers were greeted warmly, and Uzumasa was granted a high government position.
….. The Hata are said to have been adept at financial matters, and to have introduced silk raising and weaving to Japan. For this reason, they may have been associated with the kagome crest, a lattice shape found in basket-weaving. During the reign of Emperor Nintoku (313-399), the members of the clan were sent to diverse parts of the country to spread the knowledge and practice of sericulture.

Kaiko no yashiro (蚕ノ社) – the Silkworm Shrine, is adored by many sericulturists, because one of the internal auxiliary shrines, Kokai Jinja (蚕養神社), which was established by Hata-uji, enshrines the deities of silk raising.
Hata-uji was known to be adept at silk raising and introduced it to Japan. The Silkworm Shrine is more well-known as the Konoshima Jinja 木嶋神社 and even more correctly, as Konoshima-ni-masu-Amateru-mitama Jinjya 木嶋坐天照御魂神社) in Kyoto, which is related to the immigrant clan Hata-uji (秦氏). 

According to legend, Otehime 小手姫, the empress-consort of Emperor Sushun 崇峻天皇の時代 (r. 587–92), fled to Kawamata after the emperor was assassinated in 592. There she is said to have propagated the arts of sericulture, or silkworm cultivation, and weaving.

see Kawamata Silk 川俣シルク

Oshirasama was often worshipped as a pair of two sticks of the mulberry tree.
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Sometimes bamboo was used for these figures. They had the form of man/woman or horse/chicken and were clad in many-layered robes called “osentaku” オセンタク. These figures (dolls) were put on the family God shelf or the family Buddhist altar and prayed to every day.
On the festival days, they were brought to the local shrine, where rituals were carried out to call the deities close by:
“O-shirasama please come” O-Shirasama asobase オシラサマアソバセ.

Other mantra were sendan kurige 「せんだん栗毛」, kinman chooja 「金万長者」, mannoo chooja 「まんのう長者」, oshira honji 「オシラの本地」.

These were all referring to the famous lovestory of a princess with a horse. Both Chinese and Korean versions are extant.  Read Alan L. Miller’s paper “The woman who married a horse. Five ways of looking a Chinese folktale”

See the “Kaiko-gami to uma” 蚕神と馬
The silkworm deity and the horse

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Female Silkworm God on a Horse

Festival days at Oshirasama jinja were the 16th day of March and September (or January and December). 

Oshirasama, a.k.a. Oshirabotoke

A tutelary of the home (ie no kami) found throughout Japan’s northeastern region; also referred to as Oshirabotoke (“the Oshira Buddha”).

Although Oshirasama is commonly viewed as a tutelary of agriculture and silkworm production, little agreement has been reached regarding the etymology of the name Oshira and the kami’s specific characteristics.

The object of Oshirasama worship generally consists of a pair of sticks of mulberry (ocassionally bamboo) about 30 cm long, with male and female faces (or a horse’s head) carved or painted in ink on one end. The images are clothed in layers of cloth called osendaku which are added to each year. Many old families enshrine Oshirasama on a kamidana or in the alcove of a main room, and they are also used as ritual implements by religious practitioners such as itako. Devotees of Oshirasama may be composed of individual homes, lineage groups (dōzokudan), geographically linked community groups, and confraternities (kō), but all are characterized by the fact that women play the central roles in the cult.

Called meinichi, the festival day to Oshirasama falls on the sixteenth day of the first, third and ninth months according to the lunar calender. On meinichi, the Oshirasama is removed from its kamidana, offerings (shinsen) are presented, and a new layer of osendaku is added. On the meinichi of the third and ninth months, one of the folk female shamans called itako is called to the home. The itako faces the Oshirasama enshrined on an altar, and reads a mantra meant to invoke the presence of the kami. Next, the itako holds one Oshirasama in each hand and while intoning the Oshira mantra, moves the dolls as though they were dancing, a rite called oshira asobase. Finally, the itako performs divinations for the village or individual households.

The Oshirasama cult involves taboos, as it is said that Oshirasama disdains eggs and chickens, as well as the meat of two- and four-legged animals. Breaking one of the taboos may result in a twisted mouth or major illness. In addition, should one fail to worship Oshirasama properly, the Oshirasama may visit the family with a curse, or fly away and mysteriously disappear.
source : Iwai Hiroshi / Kokugakuin University

Other variants of, or related silkworm deities, include:
“Neighing horse deity”, menari myojin 馬鳴明神
“Silkworm God”, kaikogami, sanjin 蚕神 , カイコガミ
“White Deity”, O-Shirasama, oshirasama おしらさま、オシラサマ
Okonai sama オコナイサマ
“White Buddha”, O-Shira butsu オシラ仏, おしら仏
Tobigami 飛神 “flying god”
Kokage Myoojin 蚕影(こかげ)明神
Kodama sama 蚕玉様. 蚕養神
Memyoo Kannon, Memyoo Benten, Memyoo Yakushi
Komagata Myojin 駒形明神

Details on: Memyo Bosatsu 馬鳴菩薩(めみょうぼさつ)
Mamyoo, Meimyoo 馬明(鳴)(マミョウ・メイミョウ)菩薩
“Neighing Horse Bosatsu”
Sanskrit : Ashvagosha
Memyou Bosatsu

Like Oshirasama, Memyou Bosatsu is mostly shown sitting on a horse, with six, four or two arms. He holds various things in his hands, for example scales and thread or a reel. These things are essentials for the silk production. He is also surrounded by attendants, sometimes of Chinese form and robes.

This deity, sometimes seen as a female incarnation, is closely related to the silk industry of Japan and China. For the connection between the horse and the silkworm, see below. His statues were often found in areas raising silkworms. Some are simple stone reliefs, some were rather elaborate. Silk farmers would conduct the annual festivals in his honour.

There was also a poet in India of the name Ashvagosha (Asvaghosa) in the second century, who first opposed Buddhism but later became a devote practitioner.

Source reading: For this article we relied heavily on and adapted from Dr. Gabi Greve’s “Memyo Bosatsu” entry in his Daruma Museum blog.

2 thoughts on “Oshirasama and Sacrifices to the Silk gods

  1. […] can read about the silkworm deities at Kaiko no yashiro (蚕ノ社) – the Silkworm Shrine here. It’s an interesting story. Next year on the Silk Study Tour to Japan we will add a short […]

  2. […] from Japanese myth or not, so I did some research to find out. The main article that helped me was here at this interesting blog. The Kaikogami are gods of silk in Japanese mythology. One of them is Oshira-sama, a god whose form […]

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