Tag Archives: Festivals

Sacred Objects, Places, and People (Part 3 of 3) . . .

The previous two posts discussed how people use objects and places as mediators whereby they may come in contact with the sacred world.  In so doing, social harmony between the sacred world and secular world is maintained so that no harm or misfortune comes one’s way.

Sacred people are the last of the three ways.  Since I have been using the Ryukyuan Islands (between Japan and Taiwan) as examples, I will continue using that area of the world to illustrate.clip_image002

Sacred people are an integral part of the Ryukyu-Okinawan people’s animism and shamanism.  Spirits are communicated with through the agency of the “yuta,” (one is seen to the right) whose role is performed almost exclusively by women.  The yuta is an intermediary between the spirit world and those of the village.  The world that can’t be seen is closely intertwined with the world of the living.  The yuta has supernatural power to see, hear and discern the cause of misfortune and advise action to be taken.

“Examples of problems for which they are consulted include ill health, dream analysis, suitability of marriage partner, matters related to the tomb, selection of a house site, economic hardships, and even politics.  In Okinawa, where women have traditionally held the predominant role in religion, the yuta and her practices are deeply rooted in the social structure.” (Brief History: 2002)  There are four categories of things that people go to yuta for.

  1. After a person dies, from one week to forty nine days of death, the family will ask yuta to come to their home and consult with the dead person to hear the yuigon (遺言) or the last wishes.
  2. Based on the lunar calendar (旧暦), on New Years, the yuta goes to the house to pray for the safety within the house, health, etc.
  3. Divination (うらない).  If there is sickness in the family, among the animals, or if there is death, etc., people will go to the yuta to find out the reason.  For example, there was a man whose stomach was bloated with water, and there were no medical causes.  The family went to the yuta and she told the family that the urn that contained the bones was full of water and needed to have the holes unplugged.  Since the family had made a conscious effort to maintain the grave, they did not think there was water in the urn, but it was true.  After they had unplugged the holes and let the water out, the man’s stomach was no longer bloated.
  4. People believe that if a child stumbles and falls down, the spirit of the child departs from him (魂が抜ける).  To restore the spirit, the yuta takes the clothes belonging to the child, rice for cleansing (あらいの米), and rice wine (お神酒) to the place where the incident happened.  The yuta then chants something, which my informant did not know, and it brings the spirit back into the clothes.  She then takes the clothes back to the house where the child is and does a ritual to transfer the spirit from the clothes to the child.

As another example, there is a lady, a friend of my informant from Osaka, who had a child with a high fever.  The doctor determined that there was no medical cause, so the family consulted a yuta.  She told this family that there were ihais (tablets representing ancestors) under their family shinsu (しんす) altar and they need to to clean it up.  This yuta had not been to this house before.  When they did as the yuta directed them, the fever went away.

Shamanism is popular and well-patronized in the Ryukyuan society which is part of one of the world’s most developed nations.  Ryukyuan people move comfortably between modern science and shamanism for treatment and counsel.

Women conduct and oversee religious affairs of the community.  In ancient Okinawa, people believed that women instead of men possessed the power to sense, approach, draw spiritual power and communicate with gods. In this belief, women are considered spiritually superior than men. They possess the ability to provide spiritual protection over their male siblings.  Thus there is a belief in women’s predominance over men in various religious rituals.

000_5095For instance, I was invited to a harvest festival on Miyako-erabu, around a one hour plus plane trip south of Okinawa.   The spiritual priests and yuta consisted of three women and three men.  One priest (seen to the left) asked me an unusual question, “What island are you from?”  From his worldview perspective the world consisted of islands.  In conversation with him, I discovered that he had never traveled outside the surrounding islands and so for him was a collection of islands.  Basically, the three men priest only assisted in the festival and the women yuta were the only ones allowed to approach the most sacred places.

The role of women in rituals or festivals practiced is pronounced and exclusive. Rituals held in utaki (the sacred groves protecting the community) are overseen by a group of women.  Men are prohibited to approach this spot, participate only as assistants in these functions and are limited to serving sacred liquor to priestesses.  Women are considered to stand closer to gods and possess the ability to sense spiritual power. Their spiritual power plays a large and central role in religious activities.

Throughout the world, people rely upon sacred object, sacred places, and sacred people in order to maintain social harmony between this world and the other world.  In so doing, no misfortune will come their way.  Instead, they will receive blessings and peace in this life.

The author of Hebrews (Hebrews 9-10) speaks of old testament worship.   The people relied upon sacred objects (see Hebrews 9:1-6), sacred places (the temple), and sacred people (the priests and high priests) as means for entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place.   In a real sense, each one served as mediators and advocates between the secular and sacred.  The author then reveals that Jesus is now the only mediator (Hebrews 10:19-20).

When I think of this truth, concerning Jesus Christ as the one and only mediator, and also how people live life on earth, I am thankful for my spiritual heritage.   However, I also stand humbly before the Lord knowing that it is my responsibility as His ambassador (II Corinthians 5:20) to proclaim this simple message of what, where, and who is the true mediator between the sacred and the secular.

What Rituals . . .

It’s that time again!  To name a few, it’s time to gather around the decorated Christmas tree, unwrap Christmas presents, and to eat that big turkey and all the sweets, especially pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream.  I love the many rituals associated with the Christmas season, or at least I love the eating ritual.

Rituals are acts done in accordance with specific social customs that have become normal protocol for specific festivals.  Moreover, rituals are clothed in symbols.  Symbols are objects, acts, events, a quality, or relation that serves as a vehicle for conception – the vehicle is the form, and the conception the symbol’s meaning (Langer 1960).   That is, symbols are something tangible, being a formulation of a notion, or belief (Geertz 1973: 91).

In brief, symbols are something that stand for something else.   Paul Tillich states,

This is the great function of symbols: to point beyond themselves, in the power of that which they point, to open up levels of reality which otherwise are closed, and to open up levels of the human mind of which we otherwise are not aware (1956:107).

With the above in mind, the rituals of decorating, unwrapping, and eating are clothed in symbols of Christmas trees, presents, turkey. and pumpkin pies.  Many of these rituals with their associated symbols have nothing to do with the origin of the historical story of Jesus.  In fact, most have been added in time.   Nevertheless, the rituals and symbols give meaning to the Christmas festival itself.

This is often the case.  No matter the festival, people add rituals with associated symbols that have nothing to do with the origin of the festival.  Nevertheless, people find meaning in these rituals and symbols that commemorate certain aspects of the original event or story. 

The question is whether those who celebrate the Christmas festival will perform rituals with their associated symbols that remind them of the historical event of God coming to live among them, Immanuel?  Even more important, will they even know the original historical event and why they are celebrating Christmas with its many trimmings of Christmas trees, presents, turkeys, and pumpkin pies?

Once Upon a Time !!!

Children’s fairy tales often begin with the phrase “once upon a time” to emphasize an event that happened at a certain time in the past. Such a phrase usually gives the impression that the event never happened. In Asia Pacific, there are many “once upon a time” stories that inform culture and how the people celebrate their many festivals.

Mr IshigakiI rather recently traveled to Ishigaki, Japan.  While there, I met with Mr. Ishigaki, my cultural informant who proved to be a storehouse of cultural information. Mr. Ishigaki went to university in Naha, Okinawa, and then later studied western oil painting. He had traveled extensively and presently serves as one of the curators for the Ishigaki island museum.

Located between Okinawa and Taiwan, Ishigaki is home to approximately 45 thousand people.  As one approaches the island, one can quickly notice the beutiful beaches and farm land.

Every year on the island of Ishigaki (Japan) in the village of Kabira, the people celebrate the mayungahasi festival. Set according to the lunar calendar and celebrated shortly after the fall harvest festival, this festival means “the god who comes to visit” or the “come visit god” and commemorates the god who comes from across the ocean from “god’s country.”

come visit godFor the festival, men dress with a cloth over their face so people cannot recognize them. They speak in a different voice than normal to disguise their identity. In addition, they carry a long wooden stick, wear a straw skirt outfit with leaves at the bottom, and wear an Asian conical hat in order to receive the “come visit god” when he arrives. According to the local people, this festival has its origin in the following legend:

Once upon a time on the day before the lunar New Year a stranger dressed in a grass skirt, wearing a hat, and holding a wooden staff came from the sea to the northwest side of the island (near Kabira). He was in a shipwreck and went from house to house asking if he could eat with and spend the night with a villager. Every villager rejected the man except for the southernmost house in the village. That villager invited the man in to eat and spend the night. The next morning the man woke and said to the villager that he was not a stranger nor was he shipwrecked. Instead, he was the “come visit god” and because the family had been so gracious to him they would be blessed and gain much wealth. That family later experienced prosperity and other families regretted their lack of welcome to him. The man said he would come back and therefore every year people in the village prepare for his return.

This festival teaches us several lessons. First, it teaches how men and women often play specific roles in festivals and in the culture as a whole. Kabira has two geographic levels: an upper part associated with women, and a lower part associated with men. Years ago these two levels were distinct physical and geographical areas. The part of the village near the ocean is related to men and the part on the mountains is related to the women. The role of men and women has significance pertaining to patriarchal versus matrilineal societies and the roles that each gender should or should not play.

Second, this festival teaches the importance of group solidarity. Outside people cannot come in and participate in this festival. No cameras or recording are allowed. In the past, it was limited to people of the village. For those who have moved away they can go back to their own home.

There are often individual idiosyncrasies in the rituals of festivals. On Ishigaki, each village has its own style for this festival which is done on the same day. It is the same festival with the same story but with different individual preferences. In the past, when the tide was out, people would go to the other villages by walking on the sea bed (low tide).

Festivals originate from legends and myths.People often celebrate festivals without knowing these “once upon a time” stories. Nevertheless, these stories inform how people celebrate their festivals. Whether or not these stories are true is another issue. This is an issue worth discussing in another post.

It is interesting to note how many “once upon a time” legends and myths appear related to Biblical themes. For instance, could it be that the above story is a type of redemptive analogy left behind? Or, could it be that the “come visit god” refers to the coming of Jesus Christ as Immanuel, God with us?