Concepts of sacredness and beauty

It is likely that the history of Japanese gardens finds its origins in Shinto traditions. In particular the sacred nature of rocks: “from the ancient remains of rock arrangement” of the fifth century AD, we find a resemblance to existing Japanese gardens. “However it appears they were used for the spiritual rituals and not designed as a stone arrangement for the beauty of gardens.”

The earliest known Japanese gardening texts are a medieval text, Sakuteiki, and an illustrated text dating from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). The origins of Japanese garden design principles are said to be traceable back to these two texts. The location of Shinto shrines were near striking natural formations, waterfalls, caves, rock formations, mountain tops or forrest glens reflecting the idea that kami spirits were located in nature. The earliest shrines were mounds, caves or groves. Kami occur in two categories (object kami) and mythical and historical persons (active kami). Illustrated is off-shore rock kami.

The following story is related of an off-shore rock just off Oshima:
“The kami enshrined here is Ichikishimahime, daughter of Susano, and eldest of the three Munakata princesses. Just off Oshima is a large rock protuding from the sea. The story is when Ichikishimahime heard she was going to be enshrined on Oshima, she was really excited and proud because Oshima means ‘Great Island’, but when she got here and saw just how small it really was, her tears formed the rock.”

With the introduction of Buddhism into Japan the earliest interaction saw local kami asking to be saved from their kami-state by means of Buddhist ritual.

12 thoughts on “Concepts of sacredness and beauty

  1. Tom Turner

    The etymology of the word sacred is very interesting. Cryptically, the OED writes that ‘The original participial notion has (as the pronunciation indicates) disappeared from the use of the word, which is now nearly synonymous with the Latin sacer . A similar change of meaning has taken place in the corresponding Romanic forms, French sacré (which probably influenced the English use), Spanish sagrado , Portuguese sagrado’. I think they mean that the word derives from ‘sacrifice’ and from the priestly task of “performing priestly functions or sacrifices”. I have also read that people derive the word from the same root at “stone”. These meanings can be brought together, in Eurasia, with the hypothesis that nomadic peoples (before writing and before settlements) had religious ideas and considered certain places to have a particular association with the gods. In most cases we only know which places were sacred when temples etc were built on them. The Meteo-iwa rocks near Ise Shrine may be an exception.

  2. Tom Turner

    Walter Burkert argued that Greek sacrifices derived from hunting and that hunters wished to atone for killing animals. The word ‘sacred’ is related to the word ‘sacrifice’ and leads to the question of why certain places were selected for sacrificial rites – and held to be sacred.

  3. Tom Turner

    More info, on the place of Meoto Iwa in Japanese mythology, from Wiki:
    Japan’s creation narrative can be divided into the birth of the deities (Kamiumi) and the birth of the land (Kuniumi). The seventh and last generation of Kamiyonanayo were Izanagi no Mikoto (“Exalted Male”) and Izanami no Mikoto (“Exalted Female”), and they would be responsible for the creation of the Japanese archipelago and would engender other deities.To help them to achieve this, Izanagi and Izanami were given a naginata decorated with jewels, named Ame-no-nuboko (“Heavenly Jeweled Spear”). The two deities then went to the bridge between heaven and earth, Amenoukihashi (“Floating Bridge of Heaven”) and churned the sea below with the halberd. Drops of salty water formed the island, Onogoro (“self-forming”). The deities descended from the bridge of heaven and made their home on the island. Eventually, they fell in love and wished to mate. So they built a pillar called Amenomihashira around which they built a palace called Yashirodono (“the hall whose area is 8 arms’ length squared”). Izanagi and Izanami circled the pillar in opposite directions, and when they met on the other side, Izanami, the female deity, spoke first in greeting. Izanagi didn’t think that this was proper, but they mated anyway. They had two children, Hiruko (“leech child”) and Awashima (“pale island”), but the children were badly formed and are not considered gods in their original form. (Hiruko later became the Japanese god, Ebisu.)
    The parents, who were dismayed at their misfortune, put the children into a boat and sent them to sea, and then petitioned the other gods for an answer about what they had done wrong. They were informed that Izanami’s lack of manners was the reason for the defective births: a woman should never speak prior to a man; the male deity should have spoken first in greeting during the ceremony.[5] So Izanagi and Izanami went around the pillar again, and, this time when they met, Izanagi spoke first, and their union was successful.From their union were born the Ōyashima, or the eight great islands of Japan.
    Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩?), or the Loved one-and-loved one Rocks, are a couple of small rocky stacks in the sea off Futami, Mie, Japan. They are joined by a shimenawa (a heavy rope of rice straw) and are considered sacred by worshippers at the neighbouring Futami Okitama Shrine (Futami Okitama Jinja (二見興玉神社?)). According to Shinto, the rocks represent the union of the creator of kami, Izanagi and Izanami. The rocks, therefore, celebrate the union in marriage of man and woman. The rope, which weighs over a ton, must be replaced several times a year in a special ceremony. The larger rock, said to be male, has a small torii at its peak.

  4. Christine

    Sorry for my silence Tom…I must have been too careful observing the male speaks first etiquitte!

    Gosh, yes it does raise a million questions about gendered relationships in a cross-cultural context…

    …not to mention marriage relationships.

  5. Christine

    Hard to say. But it seems as a historian Melvyn has a longstanding interest in archaeology.

    Supposedly the etymology of Shinto is from the Chinese:

    “Literally translated the word ‘Shinto’ is composed of two words from the original Chinese Shêntao: ‘shin’ meaning gods or spirits and ‘to’ meaning the philosophical way or path.”

    They continue on the Kwintessential site:

    “The origins of Shinto are hidden in the mists of time. According to the historical chronicles of ancient Japan (AD712), the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami presented the Imperial Regalia to her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto. The Imperial Regalia (sanshu no jingi) are holy relics which appear in Japan’s ancient myths. In order of importance, they consist of the sacred mirror, the sacred sword and the curved jewels, all stored in separate specific shrines. They are the symbols of the legitimacy and authority of the emperor. He in turn is meant to have passed them on to his descendants, the emperors, the first of whom was Emperor Jimmu.”

  6. Christine

    Again considering the etymological connections is interesting:

    In a most thorough study on the subject, Wilhelm H. Roscher (Omphalos) showed that the Indo-European term for these oracle stones— navel in English, nabel in German, etc.—stem from the Sanskrit nabh, which meant “emanate forcefully.” It is no coincidence that in the Semitic languages naboh meant to foretell and nabih meant “prophet.” All these identical meanings undoubtedly harken back to the Sumerian, in which NA.BA(R) meant “bright-shiny stone that solves.”

    It would be interesting to consider the difference between spirit oracles, for example,
    [ ] and object oracles.

  7. Tom Turner

    Astrophysicists have set an interesting example by concluding that certain principles and particles (eg the Higgs Boson ) MUST exist. A comparable historical-archaeological principle, which I think MUST be correct, is that most belief systems have their origins in Central Africa and, subsequently, Central Asia. Whether the hypothesis will ever be confirmed is doubtful – but the etymology of Omphalos is a contributory piece of evidence. Europeans have spent too long think itself the hub of civilization, instead of a peripheral incident.

  8. Christine

    Ahhh. It would seem that all cultures are self-referential before they are outward looking. I don’t believe Europe would be the only civilisation to consider itself as central rather than peripheral…but then the question always needs to be asked: central to what? peripheral to what?

    Still not convinced about the evolutionary and migratory paths of humans – but still much is in the realm of speculaton at present.

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