I have now finished reading the Society of Shinto Studies journal special issue about the Daijōsai, and there were some points that struck me as particularly interesting. For the purposes of this blog post, I am going to assume that my readers know the broad outline of the Daijōsai, and of the debates over its origins and meaning — in short, I am going to assume that you have read my Patreon essays on the subject. If you haven’t, I’m afraid that this might not make a lot of sense.
The central ritual of the Daijōsai, the food offering, is performed in the Daijōkyū by the new Tennō and the Haizen Unëmë, the highest of the female attendants. There is a mat for the kami to sit on (which, as far as we know, appears unoccupied throughout the ceremony), and there is a mat for the Tennō to sit on, which is smaller than the mat for the kami. Between the Tennō’s mat and the kami’s mat, in front of the Tennō as he kneels, is another mat, on which the boxes of offerings are placed by the Haizen Unëmë. Along another side of the kami’s mat, at right angles to the Tennō, is another mat. The Haizen Unëmë kneels facing this mat and the Tennō.
The Haizen Unëmë takes the plates for the offerings, which are woven of oak leaves, and passes them to the Tennō. The Tennō places three pieces of the appropriate offering on the plate, and passes it back to the Haizen Unëmë. She then places it on the second mat for food, where it is offered to the kami. (All the food offerings are divided up into little units, so small balls for the rice and millet, for example.) The offerings of soup are placed directly on the mat by the Haizen Unëmë, without any intervention by the Tennō. The only thing the Tennō does directly on the offerings mat is sprinkle sakë over it at the end.
Why is this interesting? The normal assumption is that the food offerings are placed in front of the kami, not to one side. If that is the case, then the Daijōsai ritual assumes that the kami is not facing the Tennō. On the other hand, the Haizen Unëmë is facing the kami. Further, in standard Shinto rituals, the person who actually puts the offerings in front of the kami is the highest ranked attendant, and the one who puts the offerings on the plates is second ranked. Finally, while the Tennō reads a prayer to the kami before the offerings, the prayer that is recited after the offerings have been made, in the standard slot for a norito in a jinja ritual, is recited by the Haizen Unëmë.
In other words, the form of the ritual makes it look very much as though the Haizen Unëmë is the main celebrant, assisted by the Tennō, not the other way around.
This is consistent with what is known of the history of the ritual, as the ritual that developed into the Daijōsai seems to have been primarily performed by women.
Of course, if we look at the content of the two prayers, and consider the fact that the Tennō, but not the Haizen Unëmë, eats some of the offering food to close the ritual, it is clear that the Tennō is the main celebrant now — quite apart from the fact that every single bit of the theory around the ritual makes that explicit. However, the ritual form does look rather like further evidence that the Tennō took over an existing ritual that was primarily performed by women.
Two more interesting, but minor, points. The food offerings are piled on top of one another, three offerings deep, with the higher plates resting on the food below. When the ritual finishes, the mat is simply rolled up with the offerings inside and removed from the Yukiden or Sukiden to be disposed of as a unit. That is also not quite what I was expecting.