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Home » 7. Concepts and Doctrines » Research on Shinto
Mythological Research
The Japanese mythology relevant to the study of Shinto is recorded in classical sources from the Nara and early Heian periods. It is often called Kiki mythology (Kiki shinwa) and refers to the chapters on the age of the kami in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Alternatively, it is also described as "classical mythology," in order to include myths from other classical sources, such as the Fudoki and the Kogo shūi. In the medieval period, moreover, much importance was attached to the mythological tradition recorded in the Sendai kuji hongi. With the exception of the ancient norito (prayers) recorded in Book 8 of the Engishiki (927), the myths recorded in these classical works were not read out as part of ritual performances. These norito were recited during rituals, and referred implicitly to the Kiki mythology. The Kiki myths retain clear traces of religious concepts from the agricultural society that existed during the process of political integration in the Yayoi period (when, for example, the Yamatai state arose), and the birth of the Japanese state as a coalition of clans under the "Great Kings" of the Kofun period. In these periods, society moved away from the relatively egalitarian, loosely-structured society of the paleolithic and Jōmon periods, when the economy had been based on hunting and gathering. In all sectors of society we can note signs of the concentration of power, social stratification, and specialized division of labor. It was against this background that religious specialists emerged and with this development, deities gained individual characteristics and these deities were integrated into a pantheon. The Kiki myths developed in the course of this process. In their final form, they reflect not only traditional religious ideas and conceptions of deities, but also the political intention of the Yamato court to mobilize the authority of the deities for the legitimization of court rule in the sixth and seventh centuries. This explains why Kiki mythology gives much attention to the relationships between deities and their achievements, and why the myths are placed within a clear overall structure both temporally and spatially. Such structuring of myth is characteristic of highly developed cultures and societies (societies with a high culture, ancient civilisations).
       Kiki mythology contains a great variety of heterogeneous elements, some motifs that had spread from other regions, and others reflections of historical events and popular practices, allowing for multiple interpretations of any particular point. Moreover there were differing objectives in the compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki and as a result the works display numerous differences. Here, however, I shall focus on the characteristics that these two sources have in common, rather than on their differences. I shall address connections between myths and ritual practice, and give an overview of some religious ideas and conceptions of deities that formed the background to Kiki mythology as a whole.

Life and death
       On the subject of the cosmogony, Kojiki relates the appearance of "three deities of creation" (zōka sanshin), called Ame-no-Minakanushi, Takami-musuhi and Kami-musuhi. Of these three deities, Ame no Minakanushi or the "Heavenly Lord of the Center" personifies the center of the world contraposed to the other two deities which form a pair of musuhi or "life-producing spirits" that are the origin for all things. The Nihon shoki does not mention these deities. Even so, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki agree in describing the cosmogony not as an act of creation by a transcendent deity, but as the production of deities, heaven and earth from a floating primeval chaos. Life originates from muddy earth, and a period of primeval deities begins in which the genders of male and female emerge. This mythical period, known as "the seven generations of the divine age" (kamiyo nanayo), ends with the appearance of Izanagi and Izanami, who are brother and sister. By circling the Heavenly Pillar (ame no mihashira) they enter a sacred marriage, and Izanami gives birth to the land (kuniumi) and to numerous deities. The Heavenly Pillar, Izanagi and Izanami may perhaps be seen as the realization of the design of heavenly order seen in the three deities of creation mentioned in the introduction of the Kojiki as well.
       Along with the creation of life and birth, the occurrence of death and its meaning is an important theme. Izanami dies when giving birth to the fire deity (kajin), but both in the process of dying and after her death she continues to produce many useful cultural deities. Similarly, we read how grains and domestic animals are born from the dead bodies of female deities (Ōge-tsu-hime in the Kojiki, Ukemochi in the Nihon shoki). In all these cases, death is conceived as an opportunity for the production of new life, and not necessarily regarded as solely negative. This view of birth and death as a cyclic movement is typical of agricultural societies.
The mythology about the origin of death is inseparable from funerary practices, as rituals of dealing with death in reality. The mythological view of a continuity between life and death is mirrored in the idea that the spirits of the dead remain in this world for a period of time after death. Kojiki recounts that after Izanami's death, Izanagi "crawled around [her body] and wept;" this is interpreted as a description of the practice of tamafuri ("stirring up the spirit"), a ritual to prevent the spirit of the deceased from roaming. Another reflection of this practice is hinted at in the chapter on Emperor Nintoku in the Nihon shoki. Here we read that on the death of Uji-no-Waki-iratsuko, his elder brother Ōsasagi-no-mikoto "oosed out his hair, and bestriding the corpse, called upon him three times, whereupon Waki-iratsuko temporarily came back to life.
       Izanagi wishes to retrieve the body of his wife Izanami and goes to the land of the dead, called Yomo-tsu-kuni. However, he flees when he sees her decomposing body and closes the entrance to this land (at Yomo-tsu-hirasaka) with a large rock. With this, Izanami's death becomes irrevocable. Another version of this tale, recorded in the fist chapter of the ninth volume Nihon shoki, mentions that "Izanagi, wanting to see his sister, went to the temporary burial-place (mogari)." This corresponds to the ancient elite custom of burying their dead twice, with a temporary funeral at a hinkyū (temporary resting place) followed after a certain period by the main funeral. It seems that the concept of Yomo-tsu-kuni practice is a reflection of this hinkyū. A more concrete description of mogari practice can be found in the myth of the death of the deity Ame-no-Wakahiko. The Nihon shoki states that female mourners wept at the mortuary house for eight days and eight nights. Also, we read that different kinds of birds carried out a variety of ritual functions. Wooden figures of birds have been excavated at sites throughout Japan, suggesting that the spirits of the dead were symbolized as birds.

Establishing hierarchical order
       Izanagi lustrates himself (misogi) in a river to remove the pollution of Yomo-tsu-kuni, and in the process he produces a range of deities, including the mihashirano-uzunomiko (Three Precious Children), Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi and Susano-o. Izanagi gives them each their own domain to rule. Amaterasu receives rule over taka-ama-hara (Plain of High Heaven) and Susano-o over the seas. However, Susano-o fails to reign over his allotted domain, and continues to weep even as an adult. As a result, the green hills wither and the rivers and seas dry up. A range of disasters plunges the world into a state of chaos. When Izanagi asks for the reason for this excessive weeping, Susano-o replies: "I weep because I wish to follow my mother to the netherland (ne no kuni)." Izanagi is enraged and sends Susano-o away. Hereafter, Susano-o visits his sister Amaterasu who is the sovereign deity of taka-ama-hara, but Amaterasu distrusts him and meets him in full armor. Susano-o proposes an ordeal (ukehi) to establish his good intentions, and the two deities exchange objects (monozane) and by this action they produce children (see gonansanjōshin). Susano-o claims victory in the ordeal and engages in various kinds of destructive behavior on the Plain of High Heaven, for which he is punished with exile. The list of Susano-o's crimes in this passage corresponds to the heavenly crimes (ama-tsu-tsumi) recited in the Great Purification Formula (ōharae no kotoba), as recorded in the Engishiki. This suggests that this tale served as a mythological precedent for the Great Purification ceremonies (ōharae) conducted at the court in the sixth and twelfth months.
Susano-o's crimes were threefold. He obstructs the growing and harvesting of rice in Amaterasu's fields; he obstructs the ceremony of First Tasting (Niinamesai); and he obstructs the weaving of the robe (obusuma) to be worn by the new emperor at his enthronement ceremony (sokui no rei) by flinging a piebald colt flayed with a backward flaying into Amaterasu's sacred weaving-hall (imihataya). Thus Susano-o first disobeyed his father by continuing to mourn his mother; his motives for visitng his sister are suspected and after the suspicions are removed he then disrupts her religious duties (the Niinamesai and the weaving of the sacred cloth); and finally he ends up being exiled from the Plain of High Heaven to the earthly region of Izumo. Gary Ebersole has made the interesting suggestion that Susano-o may represent a mythological model of the prince who plans to take over the throne.
As a result of his exile, Susano-o performs the mythological role of linking together the Plain of High Heaven and Izumo but in actual fact, Susano-o's connection with Izumo is tenuous. The essential nature of Susano-o in the mythological realm is that of embodying the crime (tsumi) and anarchy of rebelling against royal order. The reason for stating that he descended to Izumo must be sought in the myth of "handing over the land" (kuniyuzuri), which was a necessary preliminary step preceding the Descent of the Heavenly Grandson (tenson kōrin). The construction of Izumo mythology to tell of the visit of Susano-o to Izumo and the firming of the land (kunitsukuri) by his descendant Ōkuniushi later is as an example of the incorporation of local royal legends in the mythology of the Yamato court. This myth recounts how Susano-o's descendent Ōkuninushi handed over the land to an envoy from the Heavenly Deities, and thus set the stage for Ninigi's reign. This does not necessarily reflect the historical reality.

Chinkonsai and daijōsai
       In reaction to Susano-o's violent conduct Amaterasu retired into a cave and the world was plunged into darkness. In the Man'yōshū the phrase "retiring into a cave" (iwado-gakuri, iha-gakuri) is refers to the death of aristocratic persons. Amaterasu's retirement, too, is a symbolical death, leading to the restoration of life. In the Kojiki, it is written that in order to lure Amaterasu out of the cave, Ame no Uzume "overturned a bucket before the heavenly rock-cave door, and stamped on it until it resounded; in a state of deity-possession she pulled out her nipples and pushed her skirt-string down to her private parts." In the Kogo shūi, it notes that "the ritual of tamashizume (i.e. the chinkonsai) has its origin in Ame no Uzume," showing that the ritual acts of the miko at the chinkonsai are a re-enactment of this myth. Tamashizume or chinkon can be translated as "settling the spirit." In this ritual, a miko stood on an upturned tub (called ukebune, "hollow tub" in the Jōgangishiki and the Engishiki) and hit it with bells and sakaki-branches. According to the Jingi-ryō, the Jōgangishiki and the Engishiki stipulated that this ritual was to be performed in the eleventh month of the lunar calendar, on the day of the tiger, one day before the Niinamesai. A commentary on this body of law, Ryōnogige describes the aim of the ritual as follows: "Thus [the miko] invites the roaming spirit [of the emperor], and settles it in his body." To ensure the return of the sun in the middle of winter, the spirit of the emperor as the descendant of Amaterasu, was called back from its roamings and settled securely in his body.
       Traditionally, the Niinamesai has been seen as the reflection of Amaterasu's weaving on the Plain of High Heaven, while the Chinkonsai has been seen as the reflection of her retirement to the heavenly cave. Recently, however, Matsumae Takeshi, Okada Seishi and others have argued convincingly that the myths about Amaterasu must be understood in connection with the ritual practice of the Grand Shrines of Ise. In this view, the myth of Amaterasu's weaving must be understood as a mythical precedent for the kanmiso-sai held at ise in April and September; and her retirement is seen as the mythical precedent for the kanname-sai held in September. It is thought that the myth of Amaterasu's retirement originally belonged together with the myth of the descent of the Heavenly Grandchild (Ninigi-no-mikoto), but that with the insertion of Izumo mythology, these two had been seperated. There are two strong arguments for regarding Amaterasu's retirement as a prologue to Ninigi's descent. First, both myths make mention of five ancestral deities of ritual craftsmen, the deities Omoikane and Tajikarawo, and the jingi (Imperial regalia); second, the names of the clans that descended from these five ancestor-deities are mentioned in the myth of Ninigi's descent, but not in the myth of Amaterasu's retirement.
       The name of the Heavenly Grandson Ninigi means ripened rice-ears. When the new-born Ninigi descended from heaven, Amaterasu gave him rice-ears from her sacred garden, and after his descent, Ninigi enters a sacred marriage with Ata-tsu-hime, who symbolizes rice paddies. For these reasons, Ninigi is understood to symbolise the spirit of the grain in the form of a new-born child.
       In the main, fourth and sixth versions of the descent from heaven as recorded in Nihon shoki, Ninigi descends wrapped in a "coverlet covering the true couch" (matoko oufusuma); this is believed to correspond to the coverlet that covers the "deity-seat" (kamikura) in the Daijōsai enthronement ritual. On his descent Ninigi is accompanied by the ancestral deities of a range of clans: Ōtomo, Kume, Nakatomi, Inbe, Sarume, Kagamitsukuri and Tamatsukuri. At the daijōsai these clans played important roles, ranging from the performance of a dance called Kume-mai and the reading of norito prayers, to opening and closing the palace gates and leading the new emperor in procession in and out of the ritual space. In this way, the myth of Ninigi's descent served as a mythical precedent and set a sanctified norm for the performance of the daijōsai, which had developed from a harvest ritual to an enthronement ceremony.

— Matsumura Kazuo
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
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