A Festival of traditional Village Shinto

The Cult Torches of Ueda Village
in the Framework of Symbolic Architectural Traditions
around the Town of Omihachiman

by Nold Egenter

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Throughout Japan an extremely rich multitude of folk Shinto cults (matsuri) has been locally handed down and preserved, in which the construction and - often shortly after - the ritual destruction of "sacred seats of deities" (yorishiro) made with perishable plant materials play a central role. In contrast to the conventional ways of interpreting such cults with concepts of the history of religion, the author has objectively documented a living tradition of this type of cult-torch festival (taimatsu matsuri, or hi-matsuri) in the region around the town Omihachiman on the eastern shore of lake Biwa. In about 100 villages a still-living tradition was studied essentially in the framework of the ethnology of art and architecture.

If one deals seriously and in detail with the numerous cult festivals of this region, one will soon make a surprising discovery. Did time stand still here? In front of one's eyes things take place which are reminiscent of descriptions in very ancient mythical texts. Nobody would think that such things are still possible today. People still proceed with 'sun spears' carrying 'mirrors' decorated with 'jewels' like in mythical times. 'Sun-wheels' still appear in this region. Symbolic struggles are performed in front of the deity with such objects. And as described in the oldest mythical texts of Japan, divine figures are created from reeds. Multi-headed snakes moving in front of our eyes are cut into pieces by heroic men. One-headed snakes guard a sacred place and later die in fire. Strangely formed 'dragons' spit fire and eat themselves up, moving wildly through the narrow lanes of villages at night. Ocean fish are 'swimming' through the night while madly burning. They will soon disappear in the mountain forest. Gloomy lantern ships are aimlessly moving back and forth through the night on drunken waves. Like miracles, multi-species trees are growing out of the ground to considerable size in just one day. They never get old, remain young and fresh, shining at night in brilliant light, but soon returning back to nothingness.

A land of fairy tales? Not at all. There's nothing odd going on here. What we described appears very realistic at these cult festivals, closely related to a very primordial object tradition. If we describe the cults phenomenologically together with this object tradition, these seemingly irrational ideas gain a quite clearly understandable meaning. Can they explain the meaning of myths?

The region around the small rural town Omihachiman is part of a wider plain in which rice is intensively cultivated. This plain extends between the eastern shore of lake Biwa being delimited in the east by the hilly Suzuka chain. The famous area owes its enchantment to the wide stretches of shores lined with high grown reeds and to the picturesque spaces defined by mountains often formed like islands in the landscape. The Omi region is one of the earliest cultural provinces of Japan. Similar to the Yamato plain around Nara or the fertile river plains around Kyoto and Osaka, it was from earliest times one of the most important seeds of Japanese culture.

Annually, around the month of April, about 100 villages in this region celebrate a type of Shinto cult festival which is quite strange for Western ideas. These festivals are focused on the local village deity called ujigami. The elderly men, a cult group composed of members who are representative of the important houses and their family lines (ujiko), all come together at the shrine of the village deity in the morning of the festival day and build a cultic sign fixed to the ground. It is made of reed, bamboo, rice straw and rape. Evidently it owes its form to very ancient local traditions. During the festival time it temporarily incorporates the deity venerated in the local shrine. This sacred seat of the deity (yorishiro) demarcates a sacred place within village space, and may then become the centre of secondary cult activities and customs. At the end of the ceremonies, the cult sign is dissolved materially and formally in the framework of spectacular fire festivals (himatsuri). In the whole region this basic pattern appears in enormously rich and multilevelled differentiations which can be explained from the complex character of the symbols. They can be interpreted at the same time as buildings, as signs in space and as cultic symbols showing specific characteristics as aesthetic forms and often also as figuratively interpreted structures. They are thus a kind of deeply rooted sacred art. Methodologically comparing their forms, positions and functions, their basic meaning can be reconstructed. They speak a clear language without script. They are visual symbols in the most profound sense. And they tell us important things about the local settlement history.

In the framework of the history of religion which conventionally dealt with cults of this type, such symbols were not of objective interest. Western history of religion is theologically based on the absolutely interpreted spiritual, thus is focused on religious ideas, on "belief". Cult objects were registered only marginally. Particularly if things looked technically simple, it was considered as part of "primitive religion", "primitive belief". Thus the symbols we are looking at would have to be considered as "fetishes" or "idols". Or, the fire would be taken as sacred element and this might then form the basis of the religious interpretation of the rites. However, in the region researched this would be entirely wrong. The factual reality is quite different. The cults show a considerable manifold of explicitly symbolic buildings which are closely related to the traditional social structure of the settlements. Evidently we are confronted primarily with a very ancient type of construction. A sacred architecture related to primordial Shinto. The fire is of secondary significance. Objective characteristics of the buildings, the evident manifold of their forms, the explicit symbolic designations and the complex social and territorial functions make it evident: the cults can dominantly be regarded with an objective view. They can be described in the framework of an ethnology of art and architecture. With this approach, considerable new possibilities of aesthetic interpretation are shown.

Technically these cult symbols are unusual buildings, carefully and precisely made. They are constructed with simple manipulations by binding and bundling stalks and twigs around staked constructions. Similar types of handicraft are known in many traditional cultures related to huts and windbreaks. But this comparison immediately raises an important question: does man not only build huts and houses, that is, buildings which offer protection, but also signs and symbols which are freely set up in space? The traditions surviving in this region show this clearly because the cult symbols do not offer interior space. Their meaning is entirely in the outer form.

Regarding the exterior of these symbols, we are surprised to see an ever present geometry. The forms are abstract, even if they imply figurative meanings from the terms they are given. But they are not abstract in the sense of modern art where this implies in fact "abstracted". Geometry is the primordial essence of this tradition. This is expressed in triangles, squares, circles, polygons, in cylinders, cones and pyramids. But everyone will be aware on first sight: geometry is not produced here based on the "artists love of geometry". It is produced quasi autonomously by the constructive processes. It is an intrinsic by-product, a result. To name just some samples: bundling many stalks leads always and automatically to cylindrical or conical forms. In other words, what man always considered his own pure creation, geometry, creates itself quasi automatically in these divine figures. Maybe the ancient legends are right in describing geometry as a gift of the gods.

There is something more to become aware of in the exterior of these seemingly primitive cult symbols. If we are not completely blinded by Eurocentric ideals of art which only accept the materially durable and costly and what is individually created by an 'artist', we will say spontaneously: these forms are beautiful. But what is it that makes them beautiful? If we look more closely, we become aware that these cult signs show a mysterious type of aesthetics. They are not forms protruding dynamically into space or, on the contrary, closed forms. They are both. They do not show a picturesque naturalness or emphasise the linearly technical, they show both. They are not diffusely defined or clearly outlined form, they are both. And all this is enclosed in the same form which is at the same time definitely articulated but also a clearly unified form. Nietzsche would say that two basic oppositions of all art, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, are harmoniously united in these forms. They are full of tension in the extremest possible sense. Similar to the Chinese YinYang concept, or Daoism, they are models of polar categorical experience of the world. They reflect polar creativity. They incorporate the forces of the universe manifested in contrasting forces which man experiences and with which he harmonises his environment. If for instance we grasp the depth of this principle from Chinese thought, we will be surprised by the most simple means with which this is expressed here. But it is also very evident that this profound formal principle is to a great extent a product of the techniques and the materials used.

In view of this symbolic depth, it is not surprising that the wise inhabitants of this region preserved their treasures over the centuries. Each cult group consequently considers of highest value the knowledge handed down in this group. Throughout their lives they are learning about it and teaching it, recreating it again and again in the same form. Are these cult symbols metaphysical models? We could understand that these structures are still signs today of ancient sedentary groups in the villages. They are representative of the land they live off and which they inhabit. A traditional type of land law! A pre-written constitution?

Evidently, this stereotyped tradition presents us with doubtless valuable forms. The symbols unfold a spiritual concept in space very narrowly related to a small circle of territory on which humans live their lives strongly adhering to local traditions. It is very surprising in this context that many of these cult symbols carry the "sun wheel" (nichirin) at the top of their form. There are other types in which the upper part is considered the "canopy of heaven" (tenkai), thus reminding us, for instance, of symbolic concepts like Shamanistic world pillars or even the Greek god Atlas. Further, many ancient cultures considered their environmental world as a world of polar harmony, as articulated into substantial and non substantial, consisting of materia and the spiritual, of earth and heaven, sometimes imagining both parts united by symbolic bands or ribbons. In a world that has become dualistic, we have difficulty in understanding such polar world views operating with analogies of 'coincidence of opposites'. It is probably not by chance that the thick rope, the 'conditio sine qua non' of our forms is sacred (shimenawa). Is it possible that these forms are some sort of primordial models or prototypes of those universally known world views that operate with cosmic axial systems like Mircea Eliade's 'axis mundi'?

Initially we mentioned also that some very abstract forms showed designations indicating figurative concepts. This too is very surprising. In spite of their dominantly constructive character, these forms are considered as fish, as dragons, as trees, as man and women or as divine figures. Often parts of them are considered as snakes, as cancers and dragons. This type of figure touches our senses as something very archaic, often nearly grotesque. Evidently, a technically conditioned abstract symbolic form seems to be on the way to reach out towards natural forms of the environment, but the result of this cognitive process seems to have been stabilised on a very elementary level. It seems that these forms want to tell us something about how man - long ago - discovered natural form.

In prehistoric times the shores of lake Biwa were inhabited by fishermen. Later archaeological finds show a successive settling of the plain extending to the hills of the Suzuka chain. Maybe the type of cult festival described, particularly in regard to its reed symbols, still shows traits of these early times when land-seeking settlers from the near continent reached the Japanese archipelago, moved along the inland sea and reached the central lands of Japan. In this case they were very likely coming up the Yodogawa river, entering the region through the lower end of lake Biwa, spreading along its shores and superseding the earlier cultures with a stratum of a higher agrarian culture. It can well be imagined that at those times the plains that today are intensively cultivated, were, as is often mentioned in ancient texts, still covered widely by reed fields. Maybe these early settlers had brought their customary sacred territorial law with them, a tradition which the 100 villages still carry on today. Thus, the perishable signs and symbols which these farmers of the Omi region annually build anew, very likely correspond to those signs and symbols that related their ancestors for the first time with their settlements in this region.

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