Honoring the Kami
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Article ID: 15069
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: May 20th. 2012
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The world of Japanese folklore is as rich and detailed as its western counterparts and holds many beautiful stories. There is the same prevalence of cautionary tales, of lucky fools and of greedy men who get their just results in the end. And, alongside all of this, there is an amazing mythology with many unique facets.
Much like in western culture, Japanese folklore includes a wide variety of mystical creatures that influence the stories. However, unlike in western society, where fairies have been relegated to little more than the stuff of fantasies, Japanese culture still honors their spirits - the Kami. Some define the word “Kami” as a name for deities, gods; however, the actual definition of the word is far closer to simply meaning “spirit”. Kami are the spirits of everything around us, from the trees to the rivers to the blades of grass.
Folktales describe the Kami as local deities who bless the land or provide aid to the peasants. One tale, The Bear Guardian, is the story of a woodcutter who tended to a wounded bear. The bear was so grateful that he helped the man tug his logs to town from that day forward. When the man died, the bear turned into a Kami and inhabited a stone by the village, helping villagers pull their cards up the mountain.
While this Kami used to belong to an animal spirit and had largely local significance, there were other Kami who were worshiped by many as gods. A good example is the Kami Kwannon, the goddess of mercy. The sick or otherwise needy could plead her to relieve their troubles, often with interesting success. One legend has it that a man with terrible headaches was lead by her words to find a skull buried underneath a tree. The skull was his from a past life, and the roots splitting through it caused the headaches. Thus, when he pried the skull free and put it in a safe place, his headaches went away.
Sometimes the help of the Kami was even more direct than an answered prayer… in folktales, at least. My favorite example of this is a story about the Kami Sombutsu, a thunder Kami. The tale describes a drought that threatens to kill the crops belonging to an old man and his granddaughter. Desperate not to lose their livelihood, they embark upon a journey to find the Kami Sombutsu and ask him to bring rain.
At first, their prayers are not answered. Day after day, they climb up his mountain and ask him for help. Finally, the grandfather cannot take it anymore, so he throws a pebble at the Kami’s stone. The Kami wakes up and appears, roaring, wondering why he has been woken from his slumber. However, once he realizes how the surrounding area has been suffering in his absence, he quickly sends rain that waters the crops and allows the family to live.
It was a common belief that the Kami inhabited certain plants or objects. This belief actually led to the practice of placing a kamidana, or shrine to the Kami, in one’s home. These shrines consist of a small house for the Kami, in which a stone blessed with a Kami’s spirit would reside and in it the family places offerings of salt, rice, and water, which were the essentials of life; and candles and other religious objects. The Kami that lived within the shrine were unique, and would bless the home or building where the shrine was kept, provided that proper devotions and offerings were made.
Although the Kami are very much like deities, they also bear many resemblances to western fairies. They can be benevolent, but on occasion surprisingly vain and fickle. One story tells of a mountain Kami who came down every year to aid a village. However, one year he happened to see his reflection in a pool of water and realized that he was extremely ugly. He fled the village and refused to return, thinking that no one would want to see him. The villagers panicked, not wanting to lose their benefactor, and had to concoct a plan to make the Kami realize that he was not the most ugly thing in the world.
Certain Kami also bore a resemblance to water sprites. This Kami Schoojoo lived in a river, and would on occasion bless people who enjoyed a good cup of sake with him. One young man, who hospitably refilled Schoojoo’s sake jug without asking, was blessed with an ever-full jug of the best sake he had ever tasted in his life.
The tales of the Kami are much like western fairy tales in that they bear words of caution and suggestions for behavior - i.e. behaving generously in order to be rewarded. However, underlying them is a reverence that is not found in western mythology for the fey that exist in European lands. While western fairies are often to be feared, the Kami are generally benevolent, and as long as they are treated well, they tend to shower blessings on those around them.
The concept of a spirit in everything is not a foreign one to many Pagans. I tend to see the Kami as an extension of Spirit, a more physical representation of the underlying magic in everything. The layout of a kamidana is much like the layout of a typical altar, the offerings very similar to the type that I myself might make.
The biggest difference that I notice is how deeply personal a relationship with the Kami is. Western Pagans might worship the Goddess and God, or one of their avatars; however, the deity they worship tends to be followed by others. Having a kamidana in one’s house means having a personal deity, one who watches directly over your life. They generally can help influence smaller things, be it easing your trip up the mountain or guarding your home from thieves. Other Kami can offer aid on a larger local level, like for a village, or on a greater level, like the entire nation. For each and every small or large purpose, there is a Kami one can call to.
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