In the third century a Chinese envoy wrote of a visit to the land of Wa (as Japan was known). At the time the country was divided into many small states, and he described how one of them called Yamatai was ruled by a shaman-queen called Himiko (or more probably Pimiko). Amongst the customs of the country were polygamy, divination, the wearing of headbands, the clapping of hands during worship, tattooing of fishermen to avoid sea monsters, and the burial of the dead in a small mound with a mourning period of up to ten days. There was little crime, and punishments were severe. But most fascinating of all is the description of the ruler. The state had been ruled by a man previously, but civil unrest over many years prompted the people to turn to a woman. Here is a quotation from the Chinese account:
“She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.” (taken from Sources of Japanese Tradition)
The account clearly suggests a type of shaman who kept herself pure by remaining unmarried and whose oracular messages were interpreted by her ‘brother‘. Historians see in this a female-male collaboration that was common in ancient times. While the female is possessed by the kami, the male acts as interpreter of the oracle to the wider world. The primacy of the female in Himiko’s time was to give way over time to the authority of the male priest, sanctioned by Confucianism. In this way the female miko (originally a shaman) who spoke with the voice of the kami became relegated to the humble shrine attendant that she is today.
The mystery of Yamatai
The location of Yamatai has long been the subject of controversy: was it in Kyushu, or in Kansai? It’s rather like the quest to locate Arthur’s Camelot in England. In recent years it’s been claimed that Himiko’s grave has been identified. The burial place is known as Hashihaka, just fifteen minutes walk from Hibara Jinja near Omiwa (http://www.greenshinto.com/wp/2011/08/11/hibara-jinja-and-amaterasu/). It has been dated from between 240 and 260 which would fit in perfectly with Himiko’s dates.
Hashihaka has a keyhole shape and is the eleventh longest burial mound in Japan. According to the Nihonshoki, it’s the grave of a daughter of Sujin who committed suicide by stabbing herself in the genitals with a pair of chopsticks – hence the name (hashi means chopsticks, haka is grave). It’s a lurid story that has to do with her uncovering a snake-kami in her boudoir: the mythological equivalent of a tabloid sensation. The imperial household supports the identification and hence the mound cannot be excavated because it would disturb an imperial ancestor. Himiko on the other hand is not an imperial ancestor – which may explain the mystery as to why she doesn’t rate a single mention in the Kojiki or Nihon shoki. How very intriguing!
When I visited the mound, a group of Japanese were being given a talk. I was only able to catch the end of it, namely that Himiko could have been head of a clan that came into Japan from Korea searching for metals and trade opportunities. It makes me think she could have brought Korean shamanism in with her (fear of unearthing Korean connections is supposedly a strong motivation of the imperial ban on excavating).
Not far from the tumulus is an archaeological site with claims to have been Himiko’s palace. I went in search of it, full of anticipation at seeing where the legendary shamaness may have once lived. But all I could find was a bare patch of land next to a single line rail track, looking like an empty rice field. A local assured me it was indeed the right place. Which just goes to show the virtue of leaving things to the imagination, for reality by contrast can be soooooo disappointing….
Tall white heron
Squawking with surprise –
More information about the archaeologists’ view of the matter on the excellent Heritage of Japan site….