Date: Sun, 25 Oct 1998 10:09:22 -0500 (EST)
To: firstname.lastname@example.org (Nold Egenter)
From: Noah Raford <Noah_Raford@brown.edu>
Subject: AHA, territory and ritual
Dear Mr. Egenter,
You may remember me from our discussion last year regarding AHA and
Ekistics. I am still studying Ekistics here at Brown University in the
States. I recently used your work in a brief paper I wrote that attempted
to explore the cross cultural valuations of space and territory. I had to
puff it up a bit with references to the things we had been reading in
class, so it might be one step removed from your original thesis, but I
think I did it justice. I would enjoy your comments on it, at your
PS - all the references have been stripped during conversion to email,
unfortunately. If you'd like a copy of the paper, with references, I can
send you the file that should include the references.
This log focuses on the ethnographic work of the Swiss
anthropologist Nold Egenter, who uses the lens of "sacred topography" to
understand the Shinto religious experience and how this orders and informs
Japanese village life. It then looks for connections through the works of
two anthropologists studying the Australian Aboriginal system of defining
and experiencing sacred territory and paths.
Egenter begins with what he terms as the settlement-genesis
approach, which has three primary distinguishing qualities. The first
methodological quality of this approach contrasts European cosmologies,
which view space as essentially undifferentiated and equivalent versus a
space defined by ritually significant localized sites and a network of
polar relationships, which are highly charged with values and meaning.
Turner describes this phenomena as "sets of pairs of opposed value [lying]
along different planes in ritual space." From this definition, Egenter
defines the term 'sacred space' as what is "centered on that which is of
the highest value". The second aspect of the settlement-genesis approach
generates a distinct and precise cartography of meaning by mapping the
positions of houses, fields, roads, etc., into a Durkheimian matrix of
sacred and secular village spaces. Egenter calls this the "sacred
topography" of the village. Finally, he uses these tools to examine how
social hierarchy is expressed and reaffirmed through yearly ujigami
Egenter's unit of analysis was three neighboring villages in the
Shiga region of southeast Japan. Since the end of a dispute in the 15th
century, these three villages (named Mabuchi, Sensoku, and Iwakura) have
been joined in both political and religious union. It should be noted that
like many villages, these three practice "traditional" Shinto, a form quite
distinct from that which is practiced on the national level. Central, or
"historic" Shinto is practiced nationwide and uses a large shrine system
common to all regions. Local, or "traditional" Shinto, is primarily
practiced at the village level in rural Japan. Its roots extend back to
Japan's prehistoric agrarian society and its most important rituals revolve
around the rice cycle. Of these, the gosha-matsuri festival is most
The most striking feature of these ceremonies is their use of
various ritually constructed, fibrous objects named yorishiro, or "holy
seats", which come in several varieties. These resemble small trees,
built out of branches and bundles of grass, which serve as sacred nodes
which binds ceremonial space with local village space. Such objects act as
"points of interconnection between separate planes of classification,"
appearing as ceremonial reference points during the subsequent days.
The festival begins at nightfall, when the surrounding villagers
are called to one of the village's central shrine by loud drumming. The
location of the festival rotates annually from village to village, where a
suetaimatsu (local torch or worship) is burnt to symbolize the union of the
villages. The next morning, each village begins its own separate, but
closely related, festival by congregating at the house of the village
founder. Here, other "holy seats" are constructed. Once they are
completed, they are seen as sacred and as the temporary seat of the local
diety. They serve as spatial and ritual axes for the festival, with all
activity and symbols either engaging them directly or referring to them
indirectly . These mobile shrines are taken along a processional path to
special tents, where people gather in groups and feast on rice wine and
food. After the feast, various rites of fertility and appeasement are
performed at each of the village's local shrines. Finally, the "holy seat"
is taken back to the central shrine and burned signifying the end of the
Egenter seeks to uncover how these symbols evolved, why they have
meaning for the villagers, and what role they play in maintaining village
life. As mentioned in the introduction, he does this in three ways;
analyzing the spatial hierarchy of ritual space during the festival, cross
analyzing this with the secular layout of the village, then looking for
ways these support or project systems of meaning in the villages. He
primarily uses a cultural- materialist approach to the ordering of village
space (Rappaport) mixed with a socio-functional analysis (Durkheim,
The "yorishiro" holy seats embody the most fundamental aspects of
agricultural Shinto. After construction, they are perceived as spiritual
vessels- the physical embodiment of the holy spirits that inhabit the
surrounding fields and mountains. Once constructed, a series of rituals
invites the local spirits to "descend from heaven" and preside over the
ensuing festivities. It is significant that they are constructed at the
house of the village founder, symbolically linking the regenerative spirits
of the rice fields and mountains with the ancestors of the founding family.
This act of reconstruction affirms the authority of the ruling family (via
relation to the founder) while simultaneously expressing deep respect and
thankfulness to the life-giving spirits of the valley. But why do bundles
of grass represent the temporary "body" of the local spirits, and how did
it become linked to the founding family?
Egenter finds that very much like the Tsembaga's rumbim plants
described by Rappaport, the yorishiro serve to reinforce territorial as
well as social demarcation. Each village displays a different form of
holy seat, and within a village, there is variation amongst the young men's
group and groups of older men. Mytho-analysis from the sixth century,
describing the process of founding a village, reveals the origin of the
yorishiro and their connection to land-ownership through the dominant
family. A settler by the name of Matachi decides to develop new land for
rice cultivation in a small valley, but "horned snake gods" hinder the
project. In traditional Japanese myth, snakes represent barrenness and
non-fertility, as exemplified in the story of the "Serpent With Eight
Heads". In this story, a giant serpent which eats young girls (symbols of
fertility) must be killed in order for a royal marriage to take place (a
symbol of sexual and social union).
After driving the horned snake gods out of the fields and into the
forested mountain, a process known as "driving out spirits", the settler
gradually begins to define and adopt space. Matachi then erects a
post-like ceremonial marker of reeds and draws a border ditch between the
fields and the mountain, establishing a threshold between mountain and
valley. This process creates a binary between that which is ordered and
the domain of man, the fields, and that which is chaotic and the domain of
the gods, the forests, in a fashion similar to the Ndembu ringing the
ceremonial site with branches to differentiate it from the undifferentiated
bush. Once this has been completed, Matachi speaks, "From now on I shall
honor you gods with due respect as a priest, generation after generation,
for always. I beseech you, do not bring curses upon us, harbor no wrath
against us." He then turns toward the shrine (the ceremonial bundle of
reeds, the proto-form of the yorishiro) and inaugurates the first religious
festival (matsuri) upon which the current festivals (gosha-matsuri )are
Thus, the yearly ujigami festivals perform several functions. The
reconstruction of the holy seats gives manageable form to the local
spirits, forces normally beyond the control of the rice-farming villagers.
The spirits preside over the festivals, are given honors and sacrifices,
and are then ritually burned (dispelled) at the end of the ceremony. They
also renew the territorial and political rights of the founder's family and
his descendants. Finally, they both determine and illuminate the physical
ordering of the village itself, laid out around the ritual precession route
between the founder's house and the local shrine, a "path-place schema" in
the words or Egenter . The yorishiro acts as cosmological map for the
village, serving as "a historically transmitted system of meaning" for the
Does this form of cosmological and ceremonial expression find form
in other cultures? To answer this question a comparison between the case
of Shinto villages with the ritual establishment of place in Australian
Aboriginal life can be made. It should be noted that this paper makes no
claims towards a full account of the incredibly complex connection between
land, identity, ritual and the Dreamtime that exists for native
Australians. Rather, it hypothesizes a meaningful relationship between the
ritual markers of the Arunta and the functions of territorial demarcation,
group identity and cosmological ordering. It draws primarily upon the work
of the article "Australian Aborigines and the Ritual Definition of Place,"
by architectural anthropologist Amos Rappaport, supported by additional
ethnographics reading from "Foragers of the Australian Desert" by Richard
Gould and "Dingo Makes Us Human" by Deborah Bird Rose. The primary
theoretical basis of both works is the cultural materialist approach,
enhanced via semiotic and socio-functional analysis.
The much studied Aborigines of Australia live amidst a complex web
of significance, tying every hill, stump, ravine and rock into an intricate
pattern of cosmos and society. In this sense, the land serves as an
enormous stage for a sacred, invisible drama of meaning known as "The
Dreamtime". Each tribal member vividly participates in this drama, a
Geertzian "model for reality", which informs and orders the lives of these
native Australians. It is their "theme of existence and as such
constitutes one of the most sophisticated and unique religious and
philosophical systems known to man."
The Dreamtime creation myth acts as a socio-cultural cognitive map,
which is superimposed over the physical landscape of Australia. This
creates a network of sacred places and events which serves as "a typology
of culturally recognized and stereotyped situations." The story relates
how before time, great animistic heroes and heroines traveled over a flat
and featureless land (akin to the Western cosmological idea of
undifferentiated space mentioned above). As these mythic characters
traveled across the land, the places where they walked, slept, ate, mated,
had babies and died were metaphorically transformed into what is now the
physical landscape of natural features. Thus, they create "a mythical and
physical landscape which distinguishes places from each other and
establishes a system of special places."
The events of the Dreamtime creatures also determine social and
geographic arrangement. "Dreaming travels are celebrated in song, dance,
story and ritual. Tracks and songs are the basis to Aboriginal maps and
are often called 'boundaries'." These boundaries are also known as
"strings", because they unite a people as opposed to separating them. Each
tribe defines itself in relation to the Dreamtime creature that created the
land upon which they live. In this fashion, they consider themselves
ancestors of the that being. However, a complex system of intermarriage
ensures the mixing of totemic types so that a great many tribes might be
represented in one living group.
How is this elaborate social and mythical system regulated or
reinforced by ritual? Do these rituals reflect and codify the Dreamtime
story, as the yorishiro does for the village Shintoists? Yes and no.
Aboriginal ritual expresses the relationship of humans to the cosmos
primarily through ceremonial orientation towards the sacred routes and
sites of the Dreamtime ancestors. These ceremonies re-enact the Dreamtime
wanderings of the spirits and hence express and re-affirm the tribal social
order. In this way, they are similar to the Shinto ceremonies of Japan.
But they differ in that the Aboriginal ceremonies use minimal ceremonial
objects and do not encode cultural meaning within the built environment.
Nonetheless, the primary component of both rituals anchor symbolically
charged mythic descriptions of cosmic order with distinct geographic
places. They differentiate sacred spaces from profane, acceptable behavior
from blasphemy, and order from chaos.
Rapoport concludes with the statement, "The making of places is the
ordering of the world." In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,
Durkhiem wrote, "Religion is not only a system of practices, but also a
system of ideas whose object is to express the world." The ritual
practices of both the Japanese village Shintoists and the Australian
Aborigines define society and religious meaning in relation to a
multi-axial system of geographical symbols. Such a layering of symbols
upon the age-old landscape ensures both the interpretability and longevity
of these systems of belief, for as long as the land exists and the people
exist to perform the rituals associated with them, the universe is whole
and in order. I believe that this is essentially what Clifford Geertz
meant when he defined religion as "a system of symbols which acts to
establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in
men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence..."
Date: 25. 11. 1998
To: Noah Raford <Noah_Raford@brown.edu>
From: email@example.com (Nold Egenter)
Subject: Re: AHA, territory and ritual
Dear Noah Raford,
thank you for sending me your paper and please excuse me for the delay in answering. I need a quiet time to read such things, and there was not much of that this month.
Your comparative approach is interesting, and, in fact there are objective similarities. I have read Rapoport's report quite some time ago and was surprised that he had not been aware of the architectural conditions of the place-making rites he describes. In my concept these markers are 'semantic architecture' which means that architecture is involved. But this relates to methodological differences in regard to Amos Rapoport.
I have underlined many expressions in your paper which I thought important. But there were also others that I considered problematic. I attribute them to the fact that my relation with these phenomena was basically empirical or phenomenological (not materialistic!) and that it is very difficult to transmit this complexity in written form. It is true, Shinto is considered basically as a religion in the humanities, and this implies corresponding terminology and concepts. However, I had studied these cults and rites with the instruments of an architect, objectively focussed on materials, construction, form, expression, impacts on social structure and behavior of the population and the landscape structure of the settlement. The results were quite different. In this light, these Shinto cults and rites show a very dominant new meaning as local 'constitutions' (in the framework of our disciplines they should be dealt with by 'law'!). A leading historian of religion had considered this as a basically new approach to the history of religion (Zwi Werblowsky). In view of this I hesitate to use the terminology of conventional religions. The concepts are highly Eurocentric in their outlooks and imply value judgements (high, primitive religion), which is not tolerable with scientific standards. Also in view of space (universal creation) the concept of religion might be a late interpretation of basically legal conditions of early societies and their settlements.
In short, I have given a fairly precise terminology to describe these phenomena (see glossary in 'Sacred Symbols of Reed and Bamboo', 1982) and I think this was estimated in Japanology and Asian Studies in general. It is fairly questionable to shift such an 'explanatory system' into another one with very different paradigms. It leads to distortions by introducing (fairly outdated) arguments from the second domain ('serpent story', 'regenerative spirits', 'fertility', etc.). This is felt in your study: it tries to synthesise two domains which are incompatible from their paradigms and consequently from their methodological prerogatives: the view of religion and the view of architectural anthropology. The former is focussed on the peoples beliefs (method: interviews!) which then are classified into a universal system of the spiritual (originally based on Eurocentric scholasticism, Neoplatonism). The second is empirically focussed on a settlement's spatial organisation and its implications for the population's worldview. The two methods and their resulting terminologies and ways of interpretation should be distinguished!
There are also some mistakes which should be corrected, e. g. "southeast Japan". Correct is central Japan. Matachi is not "myth", but history (Fudoki), "Rappaport", Rapoport? etc.
In spite of such problematic points I estimate your interest in the topic. It is a rewarding one. It leads one to reflect about 'how this world is built!' Have you seen the new study on 'anthropological definition of material culture' in our website?
P.S. Many architects who turn their interests towards science to some extent have difficulties with the following. Architectural reasoning has a wide tolerance in communicating facts, comparisons, analogies, ideas, views etc. In contrast to this, scientific reasoning meticulously separates what is considered as objective 'materials' and the interpretation of these materials. Since science works basically on the condition that statements are intersubjectively controllable, the objective and interpretative parts must be precise and discernible in regard to their sources. There are many books on scientific methodology, dealing with such problems of the scientific approach..
>Dear Mr. Egenter,
>You may remember me from our discussion last year regarding AHA and
>Ekistics. I am still studying Ekistics here at Brown University in the
>States. I recently used your work in a brief paper I wrote that attempted
>to explore the cross cultural valuations of space and territory. I had to
>puff it up a bit with references to the things we had been reading in
>class, so it might be one step removed from your original thesis, but I
>think I did it justice. I would enjoy your comments on it, at your
>PS - all the references have been stripped during conversion to email,
>unfortunately. If you'd like a copy of the paper, with references, I can
>send you the file that should include the references.