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Fire in Shinto

Every issue of Jinja Shinpō includes a short column from Jingū at Isë. In the January 29th issue, this column talked about the importance of fire at Jingū. It is used to provide light for the matsuri that are held at night, and to cook the food for the kami. In the latter case, the fire is started using a fire drill. It is also used to boil down the sea water from which the salt offered to the kami is extracted.

That’s it. All the uses of fire are entirely practical. It is certainly important, even essential, to the rituals, as the food needs to be cooked and the priests need to be able to see, but its importance is not symbolic, and it is very much a peripheral element.

This is a general feature of Shinto. In most jinja, the only use of fire is to provide light, from lamps, during some matsuri. There may be jinja that do not use fire at all, relying on electric lighting and microwave ovens. This is, perhaps, the best evidence that fire is only serving a functional role — there seems to be no problem with replacing it with something else that can do the same job.

This being Shinto, there are, of course, exceptions. Kinkasan Koganëyama Jinja, in Miyagi Prefecture, burns wooden sticks with prayers written on them as part of the daily matsuri, and has a large matsuri every six years that involves burning large numbers of such prayers. Kasuga Taisha, in Nara, uses incense in its purification rites. There are matsuri at Izumo Ōyashiro in which fire, and the tools with which to make it, play a central role. Many of these exceptions seem to be due to Buddhist influence — Koganëyama Jinja is clearly an example of that, while Kasuga Taisha almost certainly is. A few, like the matsuri at Izumo Ōyashiro, may well be from ancient local traditions, but they do seem to be local.

Overall, however, fire is only a peripheral and functional element in Shinto matsuri, with a much smaller role than in many other religious traditions.

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6 thoughts on “Fire in Shinto”

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  1. This is really fascinating food for thought. Sengen jinja also have connections with fire prevention. I’ve been investigating this for many months now, and although Sengen appears in the Engishiki, the fire connection appears poorly documented and murky; it never appears in works on Fuji worship, not even the classic work by Iwashina, and only pops up as stray references. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell it seems like an ancient connection.

    1. Well, Mt Fuji is a volcano. The link to fire there is not terribly murky… I wonder if it really is that simple, so that there is essentially no theology behind it, and thus nothing to write about.

      That is fascinating, however. I seem to remember reading that one theory is that the fire connection is why the Sengen Jinja were associated with Konohanasakuyahimë, and so if the fire connection is only weakly documented, that makes this connection even more tenuous. (Do you know how far back it goes? Is it even pre-Meiji?)

      1. I think Iwashina mentions that Konohanasakuyahimë emerged as a candidate for Fuji’s saijin in the mid-Edo period. But my close attention to Fuji kō, which developed its own non-Shinto theology, made me miss the fact that Takeya Yukie has researched this at length. He suggests that the saijin started out as Kaguyahimë (whose sci-fi story ended on Mt Fuji), who was dubbed a “fire princess” and later equated with Asama Daigongen. Obviously none of these names is properly “Shinto” and it makes sense that the Kojiki kami Konohanasakuyahimë eventually emerged as a replacement. Here, I feel that the natural properties of the mountain came first, and names like Kaguyahimë and Asama were applied based on what local people felt appropriate.

        1. Mid-Edo sounds like it could be Kokugakusha trying to organise things around the Kiki. I don’t think the earlier myths are necessarily any less Shinto, although I agree with you about the likely sequence of events.

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