Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and Archaeology

The Open College course on Shinto at Kokugakuin University has started again today, and the theme for this year is Shinto texts. They are working through in roughly chronological order, and thus starting with the Kojiki, which was completed in 712 (so next year is the 1300th anniversary). The last lectures will cover important twentieth-century figures, like Kunio Yanagita, so this promises to be another interesting year. Of course, given the emphasis that Shinto places on not putting things into words, there is a certain irony in basing a course on texts, but then this is a lecture course, so words are rather unavoidable.

Unlike the previous two years, the lectures this year are being given by various staff at Kokugakuin, and today’s was given by Professor Sasao, whose speciality is the archaeology of religion. Thus, “The Kojiki and Archaeology” was the theme of the lecture. While the Kojiki is not a very long text, it’s still far too long to cover in its entirety in a 90 minute lecture, so he focused on one incident: Ame no Iwayato, when Amaterasu hides in a cave and the other kami have to entice her out.

His initial description of the Kojiki was interesting, though. He said that it tells us what people in the early 8th century thought about the origins of the world, the birth and activities of the kami, and history up to Suiko Tenno. That is, the Kojiki does not tell us what actually happened in any of those categories. The context here is important. Kokugakuin is one of the two Shinto universities in the country, and this course is about Shinto. So, a western equivalent would be a public lecture on the Bible at a Catholic university that started by saying that the Bible tells us what people in the early 1st century thought about things. There is thus one clear respect in which Shinto is not about words, then: the Kojiki is not believed to report the truth.

So, back to the Ame no Iwayato legend. On my Japanese blog, I could assume that people knew the story, but I’d better not here. This is the very abbreviated version.

Susano-o, the younger brother of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, went to her home in Takamagahara. Once he got there, after promising to behave himself, he started breaking down the banks and filling in the ditches of the rice paddies, and scattered shit around the hall for the harvest ceremony. Amaterasu excused him, saying that he was drunk, and maybe trying to enlarge the paddies. However, he then made a big hole in the roof of the hall where the sacred clothes for the kami were woven, and threw in a horse that had been half-skinned backwards. This surprised the weaving woman so much that she stabbed herself in the vagina with the shuttle, and died.

At this, Amaterasu lost her temper, and went to hide in the Ame no Iwayato, a cave. When she did so, both Takamagahara and this world were plunged into darkness, a lot of kami made trouble, and everyone was at a loss as to what to do. All the kami gathered on the banks of the Amenoyasu river, and asked Omoikane what they should do. He told them to find a cockerel and make it crow, then get iron from Amakana Mountain, make a curved jewel and a mirror, and hang them all from a sakaki tree outside the cave. Amenotajikarao, a strong kami, hid beside the cave’s entrance. Then Amenokoyane and Futodama used a deer’s shoulder blade to divine the will of the kami, and the ceremony began.

Amenouzume danced outside the cave, becoming possessed by the kami, so that she opened her clothes, exposing her breasts and vagina, and all the kami laughed and cheered. Hearing this, Amaterasu became very confused.

“I’m hiding in this cave, so it must be really dark out there. How come everyone’s having so much fun?” she asked.

“An even greater kami than you has come,” Amenouzume replied, “so we are having a party to welcome her.”

Amaterasu wasn’t sure whether she believed that, so she pushed the rock at the cave’s mouth open a little. When she did so, Amenokoyane and Futodama pushed the mirror forwards, so that Amaterasu saw her reflection. Thinking it was another, greater, kami, Amaterasu couldn’t resist coming a little further out. As soon as she did so, Amenotajikarao grabbed her and pulled her out the rest of the way, and in that moment Futodama slipped in behind her and put a rope across the entrance to the cave, telling Amaterasu that she couldn’t go back in now, because the way was blocked. And so light was returned to the world.

As central myths go, this has some odd elements. For example, lying to the kami of the sun is a central part of restoring the order of the universe, and the kami of the sun can’t tell the difference between her own reflection and another kami. However, there are a couple of points that, taken literally, make no sense at all. First, Amenokoyane and Futodama perform divination to learn the will of the kami. This is a bit peculiar, as all the kami are right there, at the council, and they could just ask them. Second, Amenouzume is possessed by the kami when she dances. Which kami, exactly? Wouldn’t it rather be Amenouzume who did the possessing? These elements suggest that this scene is actually a description of a Shinto ritual, moved to Takamagahara, and that is how it is usually interpreted. It’s also how Professor Sasao interpreted it, so now we can get back to the content of the lecture.

Archaeology can tell us something about the rituals and social background at various periods in history, and thus help us to place the origins of the story. So, what does it have to say about this legend?

First, paddy fields separated by banks and supplied with water by ditches were found all across Japan by the late Yayoi period, about two thousand years ago, so Susano-o’s actions make sense in that context. Such damage would have caused serious disruption to agriculture. As for his desecrations, shit is always available, but horses only came to Japan in the 5th century AD, so that part of the story cannot date any further back than that. What’s more, miniature looms have been excavated from ritual sites dating from the 5th century in Shizuoka prefecture, and are still found in sites dating from the 7th century elsewhere in the country.

The inclusion of a cockerel in the story also relates to archaeological discoveries. Burial mounds from the 4th century on sometimes have clay models of cockerels set around them, among other things, which suggests that cockerels were a part of rituals by that point. On the other hand, if we go back a hundred years or so, we find that cranes are depicted instead, which tends to date the legend to the period after the 4th century.

Next, let us look at the items gathered for the ceremony. First, the kami are told to gather iron. Iron implements are found in 5th century ritual sites in Ehime Prefecture (on Shikoku) and in Chiba Prefecture (just east of Tokyo), along with iron ingots. In the 5th century, iron was not mined and refined in Japan; rather, ingots were imported from Korea, and made into tools and weapons in Japan, which is why the ingots are also important. Curved beads are also a common find in 5th century ritual sites, again from all over Japan. Mirrors go back a bit further, becoming important in the 3rd century, when they were made in China, although they were, later, made in Japan, following Chinese models. In the 5th century there was a vogue for making mirrors modelled after Chinese mirrors from the 3rd century, and they were commonly included in grave goods in the burial mounds. Thus, the ritual significance of mirrors in this period is also clear. Finally, the mirrors, including stone mock-mirrors, and curved jewels recovered from sites of this period very often have small holes drilled through them, so that they could be hung from something. It seems very likely that they were hung from trees, although I don’t think there’s any direct evidence of that.

If we now turn to the divination, this was performed using the shoulder-bones of deer. The excavated evidence of this form of divination suggests that holes were burned through the bones with hot needles, and the resulting cracks analysed. The dates are significant here, because divination using deer bones seems to have started in around the 2nd century BC, and continued until the 5th century AD. From the 6th century, divination shifted to using turtle shells, or cow bones if there were no turtle shells available.

Amenouzume’s naked dance is also supported by archaeological evidence. The clay figures from burial mounds of the 5th and 6th centuries include naked dancing figures, both male and female.

Putting all the evidence together, the conclusion is clear. This legend describes a 5th century ritual. The horse could not have been involved any earlier, deer-bone divination would not have been used any later, and all the other elements correspond to items found in 5th century ritual sites. The 5th century is also the period in which the unification of Japan got seriously underway, and the first period in which there is conclusive evidence for the use of writing by people who understood it. Thus, the 5th century also seems to have been the period of a very significant change in ritual practice, because when people came to record a ritual 250 years later, it was a ritual from that period that they described.

Now we go back to my editorialising. It is very hard to say when Shinto started, because there is no clear foundation event. However, we can say that there is a point at which it becomes useful to talk about the religious practices as “Shinto”, and start looking at the changes in Shinto, rather than at the practices that preceded it. I think that point is the 5th century, and I thought that before I heard this lecture and thus knew about the connection of the Kojiki myth to that period. There is also good evidence at Omiwa Shrine and Munakata Shrine that rituals that show strong continuity with contemporary Shinto started around the 5th century.

Of course, there have been significant changes. Deer bone divination had vanished by the sixth century, and naked dancing is no longer a prominent part of the overwhelming majority of Shinto rituals. (Shinto being Shinto, however, I’m sure it still happens somewhere, although it is quite likely to be a secret ceremony.) More subtly, although mirrors and sakaki are still important parts of Shinto ritual, mirrors are not usually offered to the kami, and offerings are not normally hung from sakaki branches.

However, I think that the common features mean that, if we are going to accept that Shinto has changed over time, the best time to start calling the rituals “Shinto” is the 5th century. That makes Shinto a fairly young religion, as religions go; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are all significantly older.

This lecture was extremely interesting, so if the rest are going to be like that, this is going to be a very good year.






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