An architectural anthropological approach to the interpretation of myth: The case of Japan

By Nold Egenter

Arch. ETH-Z, Architectural Anthropologist

Paper for the VIIth International Congress of the Spanish Association of Semiotics. Zaragoza 4.-9. November 1996

Myths in the narrower sense of early historical sources or ethnographically recorded survivals of verbal traditions have conventionally been dealt with in the framework of religion. European scholasticism and its Neoplatonistic idealism provided the base to isolate the historical or ethnographical sources from objective cultic and ritual conditions and to describe them independently as 'beliefs' into spiritual or supernatural powers. Irrationalisms produced by this interpretation were often used to devaluate such narratives as primitive.

The present paper shows an entirely different and new approach based on architectural anthropology and anthropology of space perception. It relates the historical or verbal 'myths' to an universal object tradition, or, what religion describes as 'life-trees' in historical circumstances, 'fetish', or 'idol' in ethnography, or 'maypoles' and the like in folklore studies. In the framework of architectural anthropology religious phenomena of this type form an objectively researched and universal class of pre-domestic 'semantic architecture' with local >territorio-socio-semantic< and >spatio-structuro-symbolic< functions. Semantic architecture thus can be described as the highly valued core of a local ontology. And what is conventionally called 'myth' reveals as a traditional scriptless (pre-historical) type of local constitution.

The paper will illustrate this approach showing materials of present Japanese village cults as researched by the author in 100 villages of the Omihachiman-region at the Eastern coast of Lake Biwa. It then gives an outline of how Japanese myths of the 8th century A.D. can be interpreted in new ways. The deities mentioned in the early generations and their temporal and spatial relations to a more evolved sinogenetic cosmology are visibly the protohistorical constitutional base of the Japanese imperial state newly founded at those times under influences from China.

The model described can be used also for various other cultures.


Amerlinck, Mari-José (ed):
- Hacia una antropologia arquitectonica. Univ. de Guadalajara, Guadalajara, 1995

Bollnow, Otto F.:
- Mensch und Raum. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1963

Egenter, Nold:
- 1992, The present Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture; Architectural Anthropology - Research Series vol. 1, Structura Mundi, Lausanne
- 1994, Semantic architecture and the interpretation of prehistoric rock art: An ethno-(pre-) historical approach. In Semiotica 100-2/4 (1994) :201-266
- 1995, Architectural Anthropology - Semantic and Symbolic Architecture. An architectural-ethnological survey into 100 villages of central Japan. Structura Mundi, Lausanne
- 1996, Foundations for Anthropological Research into Architecture: Architectural Anthropology - Research Series vol. 2; Structura Mundi, Lausanne

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