Sunday, June 26, 2016

Horsing Around at Shinto Shrines

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan (and the official state religion until 1945).

An animistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of many (read: thousands) of divinities, known as kami, who represent and watch over everything and everyone.

Traditionally, horses were considered intermediaries between the human world and the realm of the kami (though, unfortunately for the horses, they had to be sacrificed in order to get there). White horses are considered particularly sacred, and were sacrificed to the kami on important occasions.

The sacrificial horses were often stabled at the shrine, fed well and given special care to ensure both the animal's health and the kaki's favor. On the festival day, the horse was adorned with ornate tack and blankets, amulets, and sometimes even a headdress, walked to the altar ... and sent on its mystical journey. (We'll leave it there.)

These special sacrifices continue even to this day, but in modern times, wooden amulets and statues of horses take the place of real, living animals. Many of the larger shrines still "stable" a life-sized statue of a horse (usually white) on the grounds - sometimes in the converted stable where the real horses were once kept:

Awaiting his fate at Itsukushima Shrine

At Itsukushima Taisha, on Miyajima Island, the ritual horse (pictured above) has a stable directly across the path from the shrine's main entrance, with a view of the shrine's Great Torii and the bay:

Great view . . . if you don't mind being a sacrifice.

It's a world-class view, though I'm sure the real horses didn't appreciate it quite as much.

The Great Torii (same view) at high tide.

At other shrines, like Fushimi Inari Taisha (just south of Kyoto) the ritual horse is kept in a ritual "stable" built especially for that purpose. Fushimi Inari's ritual horse "lives" halfway up the first flight of steps at the very base of Mount Inari, between the shrine's main altar and the first of the uphill paths where thousands of torii line the mountain's slopes.

The horse lives in the little house, bottom center frame.

The "stable" measures about the size of a one-car garage, and has windows so visitors can see the horse (and vice versa) as they pass on their way up the mountain.

A closer view of the "stable"

The horse is removed from his "stable" and decorated for festivals and rituals where a real horse would once have been sacrificed.

Fushimi Inari's ritual horse.

Symbolic sacrifice as a form of worship is fairly common in Shinto ritual - many of the shrines sell amulets imprinted with various objects, and worshippers purchase the ones that correspond to their current prayers and needs.

Shinto remains one of Japan's primary religions, and a significant portion of the population will acknowledge Shinto as their faith, if asked. Among the world's religions, Shinto ranks among the more peaceful--although (some of) the kami don't necessarily object to war or hostility, most of them don't request it or expect anyone to conduct it in their name. Also, Shinto accommodates other religions well--when Christianity came to Japan in the 16th century, many adherents of the Shinto faith became Christians "also" -- seeing the Christian god as simply one more to add to the pantheon. (Ironically, most of them didn't worry much about the Bible's claim that the Christian God was the only god - they simply thought he was foreign, and thus mistaken--and like most gods, they figured it was easier to simply go along with him in church than to try and disabuse him of the notion.)

I find both Shinto and its various kami fascinating, and its shrines offer some of the loveliest and most compelling architecture in all of Japan. If you find yourself near one, definitely take the time to visit. They're beautiful, relaxing, and peaceful places  and perfectly safe. . . unless you happen to be a horse.


  1. As a life-long horse lover, I'm glad the sacrifices are more symbolic today! Thanks for sharing the great photos.

    1. As a fellow equiphile - I agree! I absolutely understand why the Japanese would equate horses with the kami - they're such majestic animals - but also definitely glad they've decided to let statues handle the work.

  2. It's fascinating how you never fail to fascinate me ever more over a culture that's always fascinated me. The photos of the Great Torii at low and high tide are simply...well, you know what I'm going to say.:)

    1. They're ... great?


      Thanks Jeff. Japan never ceases to fascinate me, even after all these years, and the night I spent on Miyajima - a five-minute walk from the shrine and that torii - ranks among the best of my life. It was truly spectacular and deeply meaningful.

      I'm glad you liked it!

  3. Fascinating. (Wait, I think Jeff is getting into my head. Oh nooooooooooooo....)

    Somehow I think that teenaged girls in Japan must have had a different attitude toward horses than modern day teenaged girls in the U.S.

    1. Having Jeff in your head is indeed a scary experience, Everett.

      Given that only samurai were legally allowed to ride horses during the medieval era, I suspect many teenaged Japanese girls were forced to worship them from afar. Which, of course, the horses probably preferred to the hands-on worship that happened elsewhere...

  4. Oh, Susan. Thank you. I needed a moment of peaceful contemplation. I am so glad the Shinto adherents about killing actual horses. My David believed that all human beings were gods in their own right and should be treated as such: revered, taken care of, believed in. A religion that has thousands of gods and is inclusive of other people gods seems a great thing these days. Would you write some time about how and why the militaristic in Japan went astray and started worshipping the emperor as a god and then using him as an excuse to go out and conquer other peoples in his name? It seems such an alien thought to this beautiful story.

    1. Absolutely, Annamaria. Ironically, the Japanese have considered the Emperor divine for thousands of years - and for most of that time, they considered him a symbol of peace, not aggression. Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess, is supreme in the Shinto pantheon, and it's from her line that the emperor allegedly descends. She's a peaceful goddess - harsh when you cross her, of course, but not aggressive (and mostly benevolent) by nature.

      The events surrounding World War II are a little outside my primary area (I'm a medieval specialist) but I think I can shed some light on the issue - not that it will be reassuring in today's political climate. Ultimately, Japanese aggression in World War II resulted from some misguided people acting in the Emperor's name (possibly with, possibly without his full knowledge and consent) and allowing their personal thirst for power to overcome the cultural and historical ethical foundation that should have tempered their aggression.

      In other words: some bad dudes got out of hand and seized power, and it went downhill from there. Seems like no culture is entirely immune. :(

    2. Also, I agree with David. All humans are sacred, and all animals deserve respect (even those we eat - we shouldn't abuse them), and there's great wisdom in the Shinto philosophy that says all things - animate and inanimate - can be possessed of the kami and their spirit, so we should treat the world, and others, with respect regardless of whether or not we agree with them.

      The Golden Rule in a pure, unadulterated form: respect all life, love all people, and as much as it lies within you, do no harm. It's how I try to live my life too. :)

    3. Dearest, this makes me want to take my own horse statue to the nearest Shinto shrine--there is one up on East 58th Street--and burn it. The world we live in is needing a LOT of help these days. "Bad dudes out hand" indeed. HELP!!!

    4. Oh, man, Susan. You mean I have to start treating Jeff with RESPECT???

      Oy. Hell of a way to start a new week...