The basic framework of the game is now largely complete, but one extremely important element is still missing: kegare. Kegare is a central concept in Shinto, and is normally translated as “impurity”. This is not a bad translation, but it is also not quite right. Sometimes, kegare is referred to as “tsumikegare”, which is translated as “sin and impurity”. This is also not quite right.

The first point to make is that “impurity” is a better translation than “sin”. Traditionally, for example, childbirth attached a great deal of kegare to the mother, but childbirth was certainly not regarded as a sin; indeed, it was the primary function of a woman in society. (Like all religions with a history, Shinto has a history of sexism.) What’s more, physical dirt is a form of kegare, and physically washing it off is an important part of harae, and particularly of misogi, which I will discuss in more detail in a couple of posts’ time. Even more striking is the fact that being a victim of a disaster or a crime causes kegare. Sometimes, kegare is something that happens to you. It isn’t your fault in any way, but you are still impure.

On the other hand, sometimes kegare does arise from your actions. Wrong actions, like moving boundary markers in fields (this is one of the things listed in the nearest equivalent Shinto has to the Ten Commandments — it’s not a very close equivalent), cause kegare for the person who does them. People are, in some sense, damaged when they do something that is wrong. Wrong actions can also, of course, cause kegare for the victims of the action, as noted above.

The precise nature of kegare is unclear, largely because, as I have mentioned before, Shinto does not have a tradition of analytical theology. It is generally believed that having a lot of kegare is bad for you, in the same way as being ill is bad for you. Indeed, being ill might be a result of having a lot of kegare, as might any other form of bad luck. One popular etymology for “kegare” is that it comes from the words for “spirit” and “wither”, so that kegare represents a lessening of your energy. This means that you are less capable, less creative, and more prone to mistakes. It is also connected to damaged relationships with other people, and an inability to take stock of and address your own problems.

Kami really hate kegare. This is why you are supposed to rinse your hands and mouth before approaching a jinja, to make sure that you are not carrying kegare into the sacred area. Performing a matsuri while carrying kegare is a major taboo. The matsuri in which a newborn baby is presented to the kami is a good example of this. This matsuri was traditionally performed when the father and the child had been purified of the kegare caused by childbirth. However, at this point the mother was still considered to be suffering kegare, so she could not enter the jinja. Instead, the baby was carried by its paternal grandmother. This last custom is maintained today, although most shrines do let the mother attend as well. More generally, shinshoku are required to undergo purification before officiating at matsuri, to remove any kegare they have picked up in their daily lives, and anyone attending a matsuri is purified before it starts.

Kegare, then, is something that you get by doing the wrong thing, or because something bad happens to you. If you have kegare, things are more likely to go wrong, and you cannot approach the kami. In Kannagara, I want to use kegare as a general resource statistic. I’ll discuss the details in the next post.

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