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Cow-Related Matsuri

This year is the year of the cow according to the Chinese zodiac, and so the back page of the year’s first issue of Jinja Shinpō introduced several matsuri and other events associated with cattle.

The first was about an area in Niigata Prefecture where they have traditional bull fights. These fights are between two bulls, and they are primarily a Shinto ceremony, so they are not allowed to go on long enough for there to be a winner, or for either of the bulls to get injured. The purification and prayers for safety are carried out by the priests of Isurugi Jinja. At the jinja, there is a very simple wooden model of a bull (it’s basically a cylinder of wood with a U-shaped branch attached to look like horns — there is some minimal shaping of the front), which people rub for luck. They also throw rings, made to resemble the collars used to lead bulls, onto it, and use the number that loop over it to determine how lucky they will be in something — love, business, or whatever.

The second was about a “cow matsuri” held on Iki Island, off the coast of Kyushu. (The island is part of Nagasaki Prefecture.) The main event of this matsuri is a parade, led by a taiko drum, and followed by two papier maché cows (not exactly papier maché, I think, but it sounds very similar), and a children’s cow mikoshi. This matsuri was held for the Cow Jinja, which was founded in the seventeenth century after a pestilence killed many cattle on the island. The jinja seemed to halt the disease, so the matsuri was instituted to offer thanks. Cow Jinja (Ushi Jinja) no longer exists independently, because the government merged it into another local jinja (Tsu Jinja) early in the twentieth century, but the matsuri continues. It had to be cancelled last year, because of the pandemic, but I suspect that they will find some way to hold it this year — it is the year of the cow, after all.

The last was perhaps the most interesting. It was about the Takachiho Yokagura, a very famous cycle of kagura (sacred dances) held at night in the Takachiho region of southern Kyushu. This is the area where Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the ancestor of the Tennō, is supposed to have descended to earth, and the 33 kagura dances retell much of that legend, in addition to some other kagura with more ritual meaning.

The article was about the mask used in one of the dances, Nokatano at Ishikami Jinja. This mask is a red oni mask, and it has two cow’s horns, which is the connection with cows. Apparently, it is the only horned mask used in the Takachiho kagura. The interesting point, however, is that it is one of the masks known as “Omotë-sama”. These masks are, apparently, themselves honoured as kami. They are normally kept, and venerated, on the kamidana of the households that look after them. When they are needed for the kagura, they are formally venerated before being removed from the kamidana and handed over to the dancer, and when the dance finishes they are replaced on the kamidana.

I suspect that there is no agreed answer to the specific questions one might want to ask about what this means, but we can say that, in this kagura, the dancers wear the kami in order to play the role of the kami.

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