Ancient(6) |  Art(4) |  Gender(9) |  General(12) |  How to(5) |  Myth(10) |  Philosophy(17) | 

April 10, 2012

Shinto Symbols as Totemism/Bricolage

Shinto shrines are covered in pieces of paper, often zigzag strips of paper. They hang from the rice straw ropes (shimenawa 注連縄) that mark a sacred site. They are attached to the sacred branches that people give as an offering in Shinto ceremonies (tamagushi 玉串). They are used as a tool for purification, when swung to and fro in bulk at the end of a wand (大幣/祓い串). They stand next to mirrors at shrines as gohei(御幣).

In addition the the zig zag strips however, there are other pieces of paper that Shrines give out, specifically the pieces of paper that people take home to put in their household shrines (ofudaお札), and the pieces of paper that are contained inside Shinto lucky charms (omamoriお守り).

However, in many case, as Yanagita (1990) bewails, the same things are at once offerings to the gods (like money today) and invested of, containing the gods themselves (note 1).

It seems to me that essentially they are all the same, the vector for the sacred symbols of Shinto: the offerings which start out as simply pieces of paper become sacred as a result of their use as symbols. When they are in their zig-zag form, the form which is usually given to shrines, they have yet to have been cut or torn into their individual form for distribution to worshippers as sacred tags (fuda札) or lucky charms (omamori).

This video shows you how to make the zigzag strips and how I propose they were originally used, to create strips of paper for distribution to the faithful.

There is strong evidence to suggest that these strips of paper evolved from the use of branches, leaves, and grass as is recorded in the ethnology of Kunio Yanagita(1990), and as is suggested by the form of the tamagushi, which like the composite forms recorded by Yanagita, may be the old form of the Shinto symbol (a branch with leaves) combined with new (the zig zag strips shown in this video). For ethnographic evidence that these strips of paper were once branches and leaves, and that they were distributed, please notes in Japanese at the bottom of this post.

Bearing in mind the natural origins of Shinto symbols, I think that Shinto can be interpreted as a form of totemism, that is to say, a religion that values, structures, distributes a certain type of sign. Levi-Strauss (1966) redefined totemism as "bricolage," (DIY) or "the science of the concrete": the use of things to hand, things in the world to signify their gods *and themselves*. The importance of this observation is that it provides a hint to a non-logocentric (i.e. hearing yourself speak) form of self.

The problem with this interpretation is that, while Levi-Strauss(1966) concentrates on the use of natural articles for thought, he does mention the use of manufactured articles (such as gourds) used as totems, and even mythical articles (mythical creatures) used for totems. This considered, the distinction between "savage thought" and Western thought (using mental images of phonemes) becomes very vague. If Shinto is a form of totemism then it has moved beyond using solely natural articles to using seals printed on pieces of paper. In what sense if any are such symbols "concrete" or part of the world any more than phonemes are part of the world? I suggest that these symbols, that are organised, distributed and valued by the Shinto religion are above all visual, understood by the eye rather than ear of the mind.

That visual signs can mean by themselves without the vector of the phoneme is argued persuasively by Hansen (1993) but runs directly against the Western tradition (Barthes, 1977) and is attacked vociferously by scholars such as Unger (1990).

That Japanese may have used branches, leaves, and grass as important religious symbols may be the reason why they are recorded as saying things in the "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves" (Manyoushu) and why, as recorded in the same book, as a result of the imperial government being so effectively organised (and I suggest the use of paper and ideograms) that the same trees and grass stopped saying things. I need to find those two poems.

Sorry it was not poems. In the great purification ritual in the Shinto book of prayers and rituals (engishiki) it says
国内にあらぶる神たちをば、神問はしに問はし給ひ、神掃ひに掃ひ給ひて、語問ひひ磐ね樹だち、草の片葉をも語止めて、天之磐座放れ、天の八重雲をいつの千別に千別きて、天降りし依しまつりき (Toyota, 1980, p74)
Which may mean something like. To all the wild spirits throughout the land, impeaching them and sweeping them away, the rocks and trees and the leaves of grass that before called out to us, stopped speaking, when (and) the imperial ancestors left the rock of heaven and parting the clouds came down from heaven.

By performing the purification ritual (which these days is accompanied by a lot of waving of paper, but in those days seemed to use tablets or pieces of wood that are washed away in a river) the ancient Japanese felt that their ritual provided by the new imperial system enabled them to rid of their wild spirits, and prevent the rocks, trees, and grass from speaking despite the fact that they had done so hitherto. I argue that what we are seeing here is the gradual transformation (or subjugation) of a purely natural science of the concrete (totemism), wherein rocks, trees and grass where used as symbols - hence they 'spoke' - into a ritualistically structured legal, political religious system eventually using Chinese characters stamped on pieces of wood, cloth and paper. By way of analogy imagine if some deposed EU bureaucrats from Brussels, went to live with the Nuer (as studied by Evans-Prichard, 1940), and rather than converting them to Christianity, ordered and persuaded the Nuer to formalise their belief system. "No, there is no need to cut scars into your face any more. Please use these ID cards instead. Don't worry, the same information will be contained in the bar-code here. Yes, the bar-code reader will be available at all marriages and festivals." And so the science of the concrete evolved, but it did not become logo-phoocentric (Derrida), or alphabetical (Hansen, 1993).

Implications for Non-Shintoists Recent Westerner psychologists have with increasing frequency, claimed that it is the practice of using 'inner speech' or internal self-narration that is constitutive of self. Descartes cogito has been modified from "I think, therefore I can be sure that I am," to "I think, or speak to myself, and listen to myself speaking to myself, therefore I come into being." But what sort of being can come into existence as a result of speaking? Only a fiction surely? Over this question Western psychologists and philosophers (see Dennet, 1992; Velleman, 2005) are divided, but as long as there is only one method of symbolic-self-creation, then it may seem as if humans are bound by some imperative (Kant, 1785), or hard-wired (Pinker, 1994), to narrate themselves into existence. But what if there were other ways of symbolising oneself? What if there were indeed some race of 'Cretans' who consistently prevaricated, who did not care about, certainly do not identify with, and perhaps even despised language, and who, at the same time, functioned, and created a stable society? Then the 'imperative,' 'hard-wiring' would be swept out from under the feet of the fiction, and once again perhaps we'll be 'falling, backward, sideward, forward, in all directions', unless God, of one type or another, were still alive.

Barthes, R. (1977). Elements of Semiology. Hill and Wang.
Dennett, D. (1992) "The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity." in F. Kessel, P. Cole and D. Johnson, eds, Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives, Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum. Hansen, C. (1993). Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas. The Journal of Asian Studies, 52(02), 373--399. doi:10.2307/2059652
Kant, I; translated by James W. Ellington [1785] (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Hackett. pp. 30. ISBN 0-87220-166-X. Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The science of the concrete. In G. Weidenfield (Trans.), The Savage Mind. University Of Chicago Press. Retrieved from
Toyotai, K. 豊田国夫(1980)『日本の言霊思想』講談社学術文庫
Velleman, D. J. (2005). "The Self as Narrator". In "Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Unger, J. M. (1990). The Very Idea. The Notion of Ideogram in China and Japan. Monumenta Nipponica, 45(4), 391--411.
Pinker, S. (1994). "The language instinct: How the mind creates language". New York:William Morrow and Company Inc. (Recommended!) Yamada, T. (n.d.). Shinto Symbols. Contemporary Religions in Japan, 7(2), 89--142.
Yanagita, K. 柳田国男. (1990). 神樹篇-柳 田国男全集.
Note 1
Yanagita (1990, p214) confused as to how an offering can be holy. My comments in [brackets]
これは日本の神道の解きに くい問題の一つだが、[神の憑代である]シデと[お供えされた]ヌサのとの区別がはっきりとしていない。[神の憑代である]ミテグラは明らかに手に執る祭の木の名であったに もかかわらず、[お供え物の意味のある]幣帛(ミテクラ・へいはく)という漢字の古訓として久しく用いられ、今でも俗間では[神の憑代である]斎串(いぐし)を[お供え物]御幣と呼んでいる。幣は、贈遣でありま た財物このことであって、むしろ今日の貨幣の用法が正しいのに、どういうわけがあってわが邦(くに)でばかり、これを神々の依りたまう木の名にしたか、と いうことがまた説明せられていないのである。
On the one hand these things (natural or strips of paper) are things that are given to shrines somewhat like money is today, and at the same time are things that the deities are said to possess (such as fuda, which are containers of spirit). At some point in their history, as argued in the video above, the transition from mere offering or artefact to vessel of the sacred may have been achieved by stamping pieces of paper with a shrine seal but it is not the stamp that is important, rather the way that the artefact is used. A branch from a special tree given to a shrine may be just a branch. Leaves from the same branch given to worshippers can be symbols signifying group membership, the ability to marry (see recent post on other types of "omamori"), and identity. By their symbolic function they are transformed from mere leaves to very special things.

That these strips are given to people not just to shrines/gods
p50 棒の上端に藁苞を取り付け、それへたくさんの幣を指すベンケイのような形になる家々にその幣を配って、軒に指させ全をもらった。

That this distribution of strips of paper is not only in the paper form but also in the natural form.

p51 稲荷山の杉・伊豆さ山の梛(なぎ)[tt常緑高木、榊に少し似ている]の葉のごとく、信者が神木の枝を折って行く慣習と、著しく類似する点があるのである。

Again that originally it was not paper but branches that were used
p70竿の尖に取り付けた藁苞(わらづと) に、たくさんの小さい御幣を押し、それを抜いて家々に配る風習は前に述べておいたが、天然の神木において、祭りのたびごとにこれと類似した小枝の分配があった。その最も古­い出処は、『貞観儀式(じょうがんいしき)』巻三、大嘗祭の儀式中に、舞人八人、布の帯末額(おびまっこう)[はちまき?]を着け、おのおの阿札木(あれき)を執るとあるのがそれであろう。。。。阿札木・ミアレキは[玉串・御幣のように]神の降りたまうことである。

Prior to the use of paper, things made out of trees and their bark were used, and before that branches and grass were used as is.
白紙を細かく剪(き)ったものをシデとする以前、こちらにもすでにいろいろのシデがあった。最も著名であったのはユウシデである。このユウにも木綿 という漢字をあてているが、いまあるモメンとはまったく別なもので、何か楮(こうぞ[used in Japanese paper making, of mulberry family])の類の木の皮の繊維、またはその織物の白く晒したのを祭りの木の端に結び垂れていたろうと思われる。近世は朝の苧糸をもってこれに代用 し、紙の流行もまたこれに基づいたものらしいが、そのユウシデとても工芸品であるからには、やはり最初からの習わしとは見ることができないのである。
い ま一段と古いころのシデとしては、イトススキの葉などが想像せられる。。。。今でも稀ならず各処に伝わっている。たとえば、大井、大竜の二川の流域など を、夏の祭りのころに汽車で通ってみれば高い幟(のぼり)の竿の頂上にははきっと芒(ススキ Silver grass. )が結びつけてある。東北地方の燈籠木(とうろうぎ)には、三 ところに杉の青葉をつけたものが多い。

These strips that hang from shimenawa are called Shide (or hanging-down things) but Yanagita suggests that they originated in a word for flora.
213 (シデは垂れるのではなく) 繁きを意味する言葉で、たださまざまの木立ち草立ちの中にあっ[た」。

213 Process of using man made things instead of natural articles. This is one step away from the bricoleur who uses natural things as symbols, but it is a symbolism that is still using things as symbols.

Posted by timtak at 02:20 AM | Comments (0)