Oracular Kagura

“Kagura” is the term within Shinto for sacred dance and music, and these days it normally brings to mind either miko dancing during a jinja ceremony, or masked dances telling stories from Shinto myth. However, the term is far broader than that, and those are not the oldest forms.

Recently, I read a book by Revd Kanzaki Noritakë (神崎宣武), Priest and Village Folklore (神主と村の民俗誌). This book was originally published in the early nineties, although I read the 2019 reissue from Kodansha. Revd Kanzaki is still active, and writes a regular column for Jinja Shinpō, but he explains, in the afterword for the reissue, that many of the customs he describes in the book have declined over the thirty years since, as the region has depopulated. He is the hereditary priest of a jinja in a village in the mountains of Okayama Prefecture in western Japan, and the book is a record of his activities there and in the surrounding villages in the late eighties and very early nineties. It is full of interesting accounts, but here I want to retell one that particularly struck me.

It concerns a particular kagura performed in a village in 1989, where Revd Kanzaki was the presiding priest. These particular kagura continued all night, and mostly consisted of older forms, performed by men, with ritual rather than artistic meaning. One of the kagura was the “oracle kagura”, in which the kami would possess the dancer and provide a prophecy for the following year. In 1989, Revd Kanzaki was asked to listen to the oracle, while Mr Yamashita (a pseudonym), a 78-year-old with a lot of experience of kagura, did the dance itself.

Mr Yamashita danced for about twenty minutes before becoming “kami gakari”, or “possessed by the kami”. He closed his eyes, knelt in the centre of the sacred space, and recited the poem that went with the ceremony. Revd Kanzaki then put three handfuls of rice that had been offered to the kami on a sanbō, a tray stand, and handed them to Mr Yamashita. He recited another poem, then, with his eyes still closed, seized some of the rice and threw it over his head. Revd Kanzaki caught some of the grains on an empty sanbō, and quickly counted them. An even number was a good omen, while an odd number meant they had to do it again. (Yes, nothing is left to chance.)

There was an even number, so Revd Kanzaki announced the good fortune. At this point, Mr Yamashita was supposed to issue an oracle for the new year, saying what would be good or bad, and anything that needed to be taken particular care of. However, he said nothing.

Revd Kanzaki thought that he had got the timing wrong, so that Mr Yamashita was still in a trance. Revd Kanzaki took a deep breath and folded his hands in a particular way, before letting his breath out in an explosive “Ka!” shout.

This brought Mr Yamashita back around, but he started shaking and said,

“A terrible fire will rage. You must be careful on dates with two in them. There is a danger of fire. Be particularly careful in February [2-month]. Do not forget to venerate the kami Kōjin on dates with two in them!”

This was not normal. Mr Yamashita’s voice was very quiet, so only Revd Kanzaki could hear him, but he was sure of what he had heard. He could hear people behind him waiting for the oracle, but quickly recited a harai (purification) norito, and the people behind him joined in. As he did so, Mr Yamashita returned to his normal state, although he was exhausted, and staggered back to the performers’ dressing room. Revd Kanzaki told the attendees that there was a danger of fire, and that they should be particularly careful in February.

A few days later, on December 22nd, most of the people in the village were gathered in the community centre to celebrate the successful completion of the matsuri. During that gathering, a serious fire broke out in the home of just about the only person in the village who hadn’t bothered to attend. When he was told this, Revd Kanzaki obviously noticed that there were a lot of twos in the date.

It is interesting that, in the book, he goes on to say that it was probably just chance, and he says elsewhere that (at least thirty years ago) he would describe himself as not believing in the kami if forced to say. Still, it had a strong effect on the villagers, who said that something similar had happened about 80 years previously.

I am not going to pretend to know what happened. Given Revd Kanzaki’s writings, I am inclined to believe that he did not make this story up, although given the vagaries of human memory it may not have happened exactly as he says. But it is interesting that it made enough of an impression on an avowed skeptic for him to include it in a book.

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2 thoughts on “Oracular Kagura”

  1. Pingback: Roadside Shrines – Mimusubi

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