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Shinto and Hellenism – part 2

Posted by Erik on September 4, 2007

This post is going to be much less meaty than last week’s, but it’s still on topic for the series, so I’m going to claim victory and move forward.

In Part 1, I mentioned that both Greek temples and Shinto shrines have a place outside for worshippers to purify themselves with water before prayer. In this post I want to touch briefly on a couple of other similarities between the physical aspects of worship in Shinto and Hellenismos.

Public Worship

In both traditions, the shrine (basic terms are temenos in Greek, jinja in Japanese – there are other, more specialized, terms in both languages) is traditionally associated with a particular physical/geographic location. It is important here to briefly note that the motivations behind this are different; this is a point I will touch on more deeply when I discuss the understanding of the nature of the divine, in a future post.

According to Burkert, the area of an ancient temenos was generally marked off either with boundary stones, or with a stone wall. A single entrance would be established, where the lustral water would be available. Likewise, the basic layout of a jinja includes a path, usually marked with torii gates, leading to the entrance where the purification basin waits.

Once purified and inside the sacred precint, the worshipper of either tradition would still be on relatively familiar ground – an open area in front of the shrine proper, where worship would be conducted. In neither tradition does the worshipper actually enter the shrine. (I find it interesting to note the similarity here between ancient Greek and Hebrew worship as reflected in the layout of the modern Greek Orthodox church, with the ikonostasis separating the altar and the priests from the nave of the church where the congregation sits.)

The Greek would have prayed standing up, as modern Hellenists do as well; the Japanese might pray either standing or kneeling.

All of this, of course, is not to obscure the fact that there is a clear and vitally important difference between Hellenic and Shinto worship. To the ancient Greek (and most modern Hellenists), the basic act of worship is sacrifice – whether that takes the form of a simple libation, an offering of food or money, or even an oath promising some future action… or in ancient times even an animal sacrifice (although those were most often community affairs, and resembled a sort of “sacred barbecue”).

In Shinto, with the exception of harvest festivals, sacrifice is generally not the theme – there may be a gift given to the kami, but it is looked on more as a token of appreciation; the act of prayer is itself the central action of the ritual.

There are also some cultural differences in the physical appointments of the shrine area – the Greeks were heavily into marble, statues and bright colors , while the Shinto aesthetic runs more to unvarnished wood, simplicity and empty space.

Home worship

In both traditions, the home is a central locus of worship – although Shinto home worship is perhaps a bit more complex, and some of the underlying motivations, again, are different.

In the Greek household, or oikos, the most common act of worship was the “first fruits” offering to Hestia at the start of each meal; again, a sacrifice, however token, performed as many times a day as the family ate meals. This offering was thrown into the hearth-fire, where the family gathered, and consumed by the flames and thus by the goddess Herself. Worship in the home was also performed on the occasion of public festivals, and on particular days in the calendar devoted to the special worship of one or the other of the Theoi. The family ancestors were also honored with rites in the home.

In contrast, the Shinto home has a kamidana (lit. “kami-shelf”) that is placed high up on a wall in the main room, so that it is elevated above the people. If there is a second story to the house, tradition dictates that the word “sky” is supposed to be written on a piece of paper and placed on the upper floor directly above the kamidana, so that people don’t accidentally but disrespectfully walk over it.

The basic home worship scenario in Shinto is that in the morning, after bathing, a family member will present the first-fruits offering of clean rice (cooked or not), water and salt, together with acknowledgement of the presence of the kami. At the end of the day, the offerings are removed from the kamidana and frequently eaten with the evening meal, in order to internalize the blessings of the kami. (Of course, as Ono points out, this is the ideal – practice probably varies a good deal from home to home, as I am sure happened in ancient Hellas as well.)

The ancestors are not enshrined in the kamidana, but have a separate shrine a little lower down. Interestingly, according to Ono, the ancestral kami of the clan, or ujigami, is always worshipped in shrines rather than in the home.

I don’t know that my practice has been influenced overmuch in this area by my study of Shinto; this is just one of the things I noticed when I started studying Shinto that piqued my interest and helped convince me that I should look for other similarities.

Click here to go to Part 3.

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2 Responses to “Shinto and Hellenism – part 2”

  1. John Dougill said

    The distinction of sacrifice versus prayer as the central focus is interesting. Is the sacrifice in the Hellenic tradition connected with a prayer/wish of some kind? I always tend to look at the Shinto offering as a kind of bribe. One expert on the subject has called Shinto services a kind of feasting for the kami, and it’s interesting that one of the etymologies
    comes from kamu (eating). In this respect eating the food tasted by the kami is an important communal rite of sharing with the spirits and solidifying harmony. Is that aspect in the Hellenic rites too?

  2. executivepagan said

    Is the sacrifice in the Hellenic tradition connected with a prayer/wish of some kind?

    Sacrifice pretty much *is* prayer in the Hellenic tradition; offerings might be made when seeking favor from the Gods, or when thanking Them for prayers answered, etc. Offerings, particularly libations or incense, were/are also offered simply because it’s the appropriate thing to do – both the tradition and modern experience indicate that They like to be approached this way, even if it’s just to say “hi”.

    One expert on the subject has called Shinto services a kind of feasting for the kami … Is that aspect in the Hellenic rites too?

    Definitely. A lot of times when animal sacrifices were carried out they were big communal affairs, sponsored by either the polis or a wealthy citizen (hekatombs of oxen aren’t cheap! :)… and after the required bits were offered to the gods, the assembled worshippers would feast on the rest, essentially sharing the meal with the Gods.

    There were exceptions to this, of course, in either direction – the cult of some deities occasionally required a smaller blood sacrifice (a cock for Asclepius, for example, and offerings to the dead or to the chthonic aspects of certain deities would go straight into the ground or be entirely burned), and the most common offerings were bloodless (first piece of a meal, libation, barley, money…)

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