THEORY OF RELIGION: An important book

An architectural-ethnological survey into hundred villages of central Japan
>The sacred Shinto demarcations built in the framework of the annually performed ujigami-cults of the Omi region<

Editions STRUCTURA MUNDI, Lausanne; 1994; 250p. ~1000 ill.
ISBN: 3-905451-02-6
(English version of ETH edition of 1980 in German)
[NOW HALF PRICE: 30.-USD+mailing;
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R. J. Zwi Werblowsky: Bookreview in Numen, International Review
for the History of Religions, Vol. 37, 1990:128/129

„Old and hoary commonplace truths nevertheless surprise us whenever
we actually encounter them. One of these truths is that important insights
often come from the most unexpected quarters and from experts in completely
different fields. Few students of Japanese folk religion are aware
of the importance of the contributions made by the Swiss architect Nold
Egenter, founder and director of “Documentation Centre for Fundamental
Studies in Building Theory”. During his repeated and prolonged
periods of fieldwork in Japan, he was struck by the role played by
“artificial” trees erected for certain matsuri and burned (like other
paraphernalia of the hi-matsuri) when the celebrations are over. (A natural
tree would never catch fire immediately like a torch (taimatsu)and burn
down). This led him to a more intensive study of temporary structures
built for special, non-domestic purposes and the use made of reeds, rice-straw
and bamboo in all sorts of “ritual” building, including the temporary
“seats of the gods” (yorishiro). The ethnologist Egenter applies the
training of the architect Egenter to pursue his researches (carried out with
the help of the Mombusho and in conjunction with the Dept. of Architecture
of Kyoto University). The field-work was done mainly in villages in
the vicinity of Omihachiman near Lake Biwa. Egenter’s method is based
on an analysis of the form of the structures, the materials used, and the
ways they are being used. The first major publication resulting from this
research appeared in connection with an exhibition “Seats of the Gods
and Human Dwellings” held by the ETH (the prestigious Federal School
of Technology in Zurich) in 1980.31 The next volume, following hard on
the heels of its predecessor, dealt with a more specific subject and was
published in a bilingual (German and English) edition.32 This volume too
analyses in great detail the structure, form and symbolism of the bamboo/
reed structures erected in connection with the taimatsu (torch) festival
in Ueda village (Shiga Prefecture) and its constituent hamlets. It was
preceded by an article in Asiatische Studien xvi, 1981: 34-54 “Die heiligen
Bäume um Goshonai: ein Bauethnologischer Beitrag zum Thema
Baumkult”, which already adumbrated, in condensed form, the author’s
main theses. There are column or hut-like types of fixed trusses
(okimatsu); high-column, movable as well as stable trusses (kasa-taimatsu).
It is when we come to a discussion of the symbolism that the historian of
religion may want to demur. Egenter is no doubt right in insisting on the
decisive importance of Sachtradition i.e., the materials and the techniques
of construction. These latter possess a permanence through time which
the concomitant “interpretations”, changing throughout history in
accordance with cultural and religious developments and influences, do
not have. Hence it would be a waste of time to question your village-informants
about “meanings”. Just stick to the res that you can objectively
analyse: material, techniques, form, measurements etc. There is a
“genetic” underlying groundstructure (or should we say “underground
structure”?) which provides the key to the “relative symbolism”. To
study things the other way round would be putting the cart before the
horse. This is a methodological credo with far-reaching implications, and
not everyone will agree with what are for Egenter axiomatic truths e.g.,
the assumption that through the study of the Sachtradition you can
penetrate to the original significance, or the assertion that a type of structure
found over a larger area is necessarily secondary whereas those found
only in one locality must be primary. But Egenter’s presentation and
discussion are invaluable, not only because of the wealth of material, the
penetrating analyses and his bold hypotheses, but also because he teaches
historians of religion to re-think their own matter-of-course axiomas and

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