The Function of Tamagushi

It may occasionally seem on this blog as if I learn everything I know about Shinto from Jinja Shinpō. That is not quite true, as I will demonstrate today.

I am also a member of the Society of Shintō Studies, an academic society based at Kokugakuin University, and so I get their journal, The Journal of Shintō Studies, or Shintō Shūkyō in Japanese. (The literal translation would be “Shinto Religion”, but that is not the official English title.) The articles are often extremely interesting, and I want to pick up one from issue 261 (pages 164–165). This is from the summary of the annual conference in 2019.

The article is about the function of the tamagushi. The tamagushi, these days, is normally a small branch of sakaki with a single shidë attached, which is offered to the kami as part of a formal jinja visit. However, there is a long-standing debate as to its significance. The main theories about its function are that it is an offering to the kami, that it is a vessel for the kami to inhabit, and that it is a means for unifying the kami and the person.

Adachi Ryō addresses this question by looking at early records of rituals at Jingū at Isë, as recorded in the early ninth century in the Kōtaijingū Gishikichō. In these records, the central figures in the rituals pay their respects while holding the tamagushi, and the norito are recited for the kami from behind the tamagushi. Further, the number of the tamagushi varies depending on status, with the highest status priests, including the Itsukinohimëmiko, the Tennō’s personal representative (an unmarried imperial princess), carrying two, while mid-status priests have four, and the lowest-status priests have eight. Thus, the closer you are to the kami to start with, the fewer tamagushi you carry. It is also worth noting that these tamagushi were a lot bigger than the current ones; probably about 1.5 metres long, with lots of leaves and smaller branches. A person could actually hide behind them.

Thus, Adachi argues that the tamagushi is not an offering or a vessel, but rather a tool to enable people to approach the kami. He mentions that “sakaki” is thought to be etymologically derived from “boundary tree”, and suggests that the greater the distance between you and the kami, the more tamagushi you needed to carry if you were approaching.

This is a very interesting suggestion, and the evidence is good. However, there is other evidence — the decorated sakaki in the legend of the Cave of Heaven, for example, looks a lot like an offering, and there are descriptions of things that sound a lot like a tamagushi in early poems where they seem to be vessels for the kami. In other words, the other theories also have support. It strikes me as quite likely that there will not turn out to have been a single function for things that developed into the contemporary tamagushi.

And, of course, the meaning of the contemporary item is a separate question. This is something that could easily change over the course of a thousand years or more, and it seems to have. Given its role in a matsuri, the contemporary tamagushi seems to be quite clearly some form of offering.

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4 thoughts on “The Function of Tamagushi”

  1. Presumably, commoners wouldn’t be present at all in said historical Jingu rituals. So if the Tamagushi were involved in keeping Kegare from the Kami, one would assume that wouldn’t be an issue for priests who would do Harae first.

    Maybe it’s related to always keeping the Shintai hidden? Maybe the assumption is that if you come too close to the sacred it can be harmful, ala the Ark of the Covenant, following the theme of veneration placating the Kami?

    Just some thoughts I had while reading your wonderful post.

    1. That is another real possibility. Hiding the kami and not looking directly is a very important element of Shinto.

    1. I am not sufficiently familiar with the details of Ainu religious practices to comment, but that sounds plausible. I know there are deep similarities between Ainu and Shinto practices, as well as differences.

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