Yesterday, I went to the third lecture in this year’s open Shinto course at Kokugakuin University. The topic was the Sacred Marriage hypothesis. In this context, this is the claim that certain Shinto rituals originally included an act of ritual sex, as a central part of the rite. The lecturer, Professor Okada, does not believe this.
The first case he dealt with was the Daijousai, the oldest rite that is part of the accession rituals for a new Japanese emperor. The rite is carried out in temporary buildings, built a few days before the rite and disassembled a few days afterwards. The main rituals happen in two of these buildings, which are exactly similar. They are performed in one just before midnight, and in the other a few hours later, on the following day. The details of the rites are secret, and in theory known only to emperors, although in practice a few other people have learned them, in part because in the eleventh century some new emperors were only four years old, and needed help. What is known is that an important part of the rite is offering food to a kami, presumed to be Amaterasu. This takes place at two mats set out to one side of the room.
However, the room is dominated by a bed, complete with a bedside table bearing various toilet articles and a pair of shoes at the base. This has led numerous people to suggest that the bed must be involved in the rite somehow. Seiji Okada (to be distinguished from Shouji Okada, who is giving these lectures) suggested that it might have been the site of an act of ritual sex, symbolising the submission of the country to the emperor.
This is not a completely random suggestion; Seiji Okada is a respectable scholar. In the ancient period (around the seventh century AD in Japan; history started rather late here) the regional families sent women, called uneme, to the imperial court. They had sexual relations with the emperor, were not allowed to have such relations with anyone else, and were, effectively, hostages. They also played a significant role in the Daijousai, bringing the food in. In addition, the rice in the Daijousai was grown at two locations in the more distant areas of the country, chosen through divination.
So, it seems plausible that the Daijousai does symbolise the emperor’s rule over the whole of Japan, and it seems certain that the uneme were sexually related to the emperor. In that sense, it isn’t a great stretch to suppose that such an act of sex was part of the rite.
The big problem with this theory is that there is absolutely no evidence for it. All of the records of the ritual suggest that the central part of the ceremony was the offering of food. Obviously, if a sexual act were involved, it would also be more than a little difficult for a four-year-old to perform the rite, and it would also cause problems for female emperors, who were not uncommon in the seventh and eighth centuries. Indeed, the evidence we have suggests that the bed is carefully avoided at all points during the ceremony.
Professor (Shouji) Okada argues that the bed was for the kami, and thus the most sacred location in the hall. No-one, not even the emperor, could touch it; it had the strongest taboos. Having sex in it would be even more taboo.
The second case he discussed was the Miare festival at the Kamo Shrines in Kyoto. These shrines were very closely associated with the imperial court from the late eighth century, when the capital moved to Kyoto. The Miare festival takes place at night, a few days before the most famous festival of the shrines, the Aoi Festival, and it is a secret ceremony.
Two scholars, Yoshie and Miyake (the Japanese use of honorifics means that I don’t know what the correct titles would be in English; probably Dr, maybe Professor; I’ll use Dr from this point), have suggested that the Miare festival involved ritual sex between the hafuri, a male priest, and the imiko or iwaiko, a female priest. (Prof. Okada couldn’t seem to decide on which reading of the kanji was best.)
The theory apparently started with Dr Yoshie. She noted that, in the seventh and eighth century lineages of the Kamo priests, of eight, three are connected to four imiko, and she claimed that these women were the original Tamayorihime, the female kami enshrined at one of the Kamo shrines. She said that the imiko and the hafuri, representing Tamayorihime and Tamayorihiko, from the legends, were linked in a sacred marriage. In addition, she said that the areotoko and areotome involved in the festival were names for the male and female priests. Dr Miyake elaborated it to say that the ritual sex between the priests representing Tamayorihime and Tamayorihiko represented the birth of the lightning kami who is the main kami of the other Kamo shrine.
Prof. Okada said that this theory made several large jumps. First, while the recorded legends of the Kamo shrines do include a sacred marriage and the birth of the lightning kami, the sacred marriage is between Tamayorihime and Honoikazuchi no kami. Tamayorihime and Tamayorihiko are brothers, and the shrine families are all descended from Tamayorihiko. Similarly, the areotoko and areotome, while they were male and female, referred to ambassadors sent from the emperor to the festival, not to priests at the shrines.
The only real ground for the sacred marriage theory here seems to be the existence of a sacred marriage legend at the shrine. However, that’s not very good grounds. The legend need not be literally acted out in the festivals, after all.
In addition, Prof. Okada, being a professor at one of the two Shinto Universities in Japan, was able to examine the eighteenth century record of rituals held at the Kamo shrines. (It hasn’t been published.) This gives details of what the imiko do, and, significantly, they are not involved in the Miare festival. They spend the entire time enclosed in a building in the shrine grounds. (This is quite common in Shinto, for both men and women, and both for purification, actual festivals, and the aftermath of festivals.)
Thus, in these two cases, the evidence for a sacred marriage is rather tenuous. More generally, Kunio Yanagita suggested that miko, the female attendants at shrines, were originally the wives of the kami. Prof. Okada is not sure about this, either. The evidence that we have, going back to Chinese records of an embassy from the Japanese islands in the third century, suggests that Shinto associated abstaining from sex with rituals. He also mentioned a ritual at one of the Sumiyoshi shrines (I didn’t catch which one, and this wasn’t on his handout), where the entire shrine is closed for several days and almost no-one but the priests are allowed in. The priests are all enclosed in the shrine, and perform certain rituals. However, some things are taken in and out, by women, but by women in their fifties and sixties, not young women. He then tied himself in knots trying to get across the idea that these women were asexual, while facing an audience containing a high proportion of women in their fifties and sixties.
The sacred marriage hypothesis is not entirely a modern phenomenon. Prof. Okada talked about a document from the Kamakura period (I think; the Japanese middle ages, anyway) which mentions a popular belief that the kami of the Grand Shrines of Ise visited the Ise Princess, the imperial princess sent as a representative of the emperor to the grand shrines, in the form of a snake, and slept with her. The monk (and son of the Ise shrine family) who reported this rejects the story, pointing out that, according to the legends, the kami at Ise was not born sexually, and did not produce descendants sexually, either, so why would there be a sacred marriage? Oh, and the kami in question is Amaterasu, who is a goddess, which makes the whole thing even less sensible.
It does sound like there is, at best, very little evidence for these theories. However, one line of evidence that Prof. Okada adduced did not convince me. He said that people who served in Shinto ceremonies could see that these hypotheses were ridiculous, because sex would never be involved in the rituals. Maintaining a calm heart is, he said, central. However, this is true of Shinto rituals now. It doesn’t tell us anything about what they were like twelve or thirteen hundred years ago, particularly not when we know that they were substantially revised about 150 years ago. If sex had been part of the rituals, I would expect a bit more trace of it in the oldest records, so I suspect he’s right about that, but spirit possession and uncontrolled dancing does make a number of appearances in a ritual context, most famously in the legend of the heavenly cave, so I’m not convinced that the importance of a calm heart goes all the way back.
One thing he said at the end of the lecture was that he hoped that, as we learned more about Shinto, we would come to agree with him. (He was at least half joking at the time.) It’s certainly true that, the more I learn about Shinto, the more certain things do not seem to fit into it. On the other hand, Shinto is very diverse, even now, so I’m not sure that you can say of anything that it doesn’t fit into Shinto at all. The diversity and lack of centralisation of Shinto is one of the things that makes it so interesting.