Miko (巫女, literally "shaman woman") is a Japanese term that anciently meant a "female shaman, spirit medium" who conveyed oracles from kami ("spirits; gods"), and presently means a "shrine maiden; virgin consecrated to a deity" who serves at Shinto shrines.
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The Japanese word miko or fujo "female shaman; shrine maiden" is usually written 巫女, compounding the kanji fu, miko, or kannagi 巫 "shaman" and jo, onna, or me 女 "woman; female". In Chinese, wunu 巫女 (or the reverse nuwu 女巫) means "female shaman; witch; sorceress". Miko was archaically written 神子 (lit. "kami/god child") and 巫子 ("shaman child").
Miko are known by many names; Fairchild (1962:119-122) lists 26 terms for "shrine attached miko" and 43 for "non shrine attached miko". Common names are ichiko 市子 (lit. "market/town child") "female medium; fortuneteller", reibai 霊媒 (lit. "spirit go-between") "spirit medium", and itako いたこ "(usually blind) female shaman".
English has diverse translation equivalents for Japanese miko. While "shrine maiden" is frequently used, other equivalents are "female shaman" (aka "shamaness" or "shamanka"), "(spirit) medium", "prophet", "priestess", "witch", or "sorceress." Some scholars prefer the transliteration miko over translations, and contrast Japanese "mikoism" with East Asian "shamanism". Fairchild explains:
Women played an important role in a region stretching from Manchuria, China, Korea and Japan to the Ryukyu Islands. In Japan these women were priests, soothsayers, magicians, prophets and shamans in the folk religion, and they were the chief performers in organized Shintoism. These women were called Miko, and the author calls the complex "mikoism" for lack of a suitable English word. (1962:57)
The (ca. 712) Kojiki mytho-history contains what scholars interpret as the oldest reference to miko trance dancing. Japanese mythology recounts a legend about the sky turning dark when the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami got angry with her brother Susanoo-no-Mikoto and sealed herself into the dark Amano-Iwato cave. In order to restore light to earth, the gods devised a plan to trick Amaterasu using a mirror hung on a bejeweled sakaki tree (which later became Shinto symbols). The goddess of revelry Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto performed a shamanistic dance to lure Amaterasu out of the cave.
Her Augustness Heavenly-Alarming Female [Uzume] hanging round her the heavenly clubmoss of the Heavenly Mount Kagu as a sash, and making the heavenly spindle-tree her head-dress, and binding the leaves of the bamboo-grass of the Heavenly Mount Kagu in a posy for her hands, and laying a soundingboard before the door of the Heavenly Rock-Dwelling, and stamping till she made it resound and doing as if possessed by a Deity, and pulling out the nipples of her breasts, pushing down her skirt-string usque ad privates partes [Latin for "all the way to her private parts"]. (tr. Chamberlain 1919:64-65)When Amaterasu heard the roar of gods' laughter, she came out in fascination with her mirror image, and restored sunlight. One traditional school of miko, says Kuly (2003:198) "claimed to descend from the Goddess Uzume".
Other mythical and historical examples of Japanese women identified as shamanistic miko include:
- Yamatohime-no-mikoto, daughter of Emperor Suinin, founder of the Ise Shrine
- Yamato-totohi-momoso-hime-no-mikoto, aunt of Emperor Sujin, lover of a dragon god
- Empress Jingū, wife of Emperor Chūai, medium for voices of the gods
- Queen Himiko, 3rd-century ruler of Wa (Japan)
- Izumo no Okuni, 16th-century founder of kabuki
In 780 A.D. and in 807 A.D. official bulls against the practice of ecstasy outside of the authority of the shrines were published. These bulls were not only aimed at ecstasy, but were aimed at magicians, priests, sorcerers, etc. It was an attempt to gain complete control, while at the same time it aimed at eradicating abuses which were occurring. Fairchild (1962:53)The early Japanese miko was an important figure who associated with the ruling class. "In addition to her ritual performances of ecstatic trance", writes Kuly (2003:199), "she performed a variety of religious and political functions." For example, the Heian statesman Fujiwara no Kaneie consulted with Kamo Shrine miko before he made important decisions.
the miko was forced into a state of mendicancy as the shrines and temples that provided her with a livelihood fell into bankruptcy. Disassociated from a religious context, her performance moved further away from a religious milieu and more toward one of a non-ecclesiastical nature. The travelling miko, known as the aruki miko, became associated with prostitution. (Kuly 2003:199)
During in the Edo period (1603-1868), writes Groemer (2007:46), "the organizational structures and arts practiced by female shamans in eastern Japan underwent significant transformations". Miko practices were heterogeneous, working independently or in hierarchical groups, they transmitted spirit voices of the deceased, performed exorcisms to cure illness, and sold talismans and ema plaques.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), authorities prohibited many shamanistic miko practices. Groemer explains,
After 1867 the Meiji government's desire to create a form of state Shinto headed by the emperor-the shaman-in-chief of the nation-meant that Shinto needed to be segregated from both Buddhism and folk-religious beliefs. As a result, official discourse increasingly repeated negative views of miko and their institutions. (2007:44)
In the 20th century, the miko was restored back to her respectable position in Japanese society. Miko are often female attendants at Shinto shrines, traditionally the daughter of a shrine's kannushi 神主 "Shinto priest". The Shinto kagura 神楽 (lit. "god-entertainment") dance ceremony, which originated with miko ritual dancing to convey divine oracles, has transformed into the popular ceremonial dance called miko-mai 巫女舞 or miko-kagura 巫女神楽.
Traditional miko props and paraphernalia (Fairchild 1962:76-78) included azusayumi 梓弓 "catalpa bow", bells, tamagushi 玉串 "offertory sakaki-tree branches", drums, candles, altars, rice bowl of water, and the gehōbako 外法箱 (lit. "supernatural box") containing dolls, animal and human skulls, and rosaries.
Fairchild summarizes their historical role.
Mikos performed in Japan throughout history. The term miko means possession by gods and spirits, and while originally perhaps all mikos employed ecstasy, the term gradually came to include many groups which did not use ecstasy. Mikos performed both within the shrines and outside of the shrines, divining, driving out evil spirits, performing sacred dances, etc., the purpose of which was to serve mankind by preserving life and bringing happiness to man. (1962:61)
Modern miko are often seen at Shinto shrines, where they assist with shrine functions, perform ceremonial dances, offer omikuji fortune telling, and sell souvenirs. Kuly (2003:201) describes the contemporary miko, "A far distant relative of her premodern shamanic sister, she is most probably a university student collecting a modest wage in this part-time position." The traditional attire of a miko consists of a red hakama (long, divided trousers), a white haori (kimono jacket), and white or red hair ribbons. In Shintoism, the color white symbolizes purity.
The ethnologist Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), who first studied Japanese female shamans, differentiated them (see Kawamura 2003:258-259) into jinja miko 神社巫女 "shrine shamans" who dance with bells and participate in yudate 湯立て "boiling water" rituals, "kuchiyose shamans" 口寄せ巫女 "spirit medium shamans" who speak on behalf of the deceased, and kami uba 神姥 "god women" who engage in cult worship and invocations (for instance, the Tenrikyo founder Nakayama Miki).
Researchers have further categorized contemporary miko in terms of their diverse traditions and practices. Fairchild (1962:62-85) grouped them into: blind itako (concentrated in north and east Japan), mostly blind okamin (north and east Japan), blind waka or owaka (northeastern Japan), moriko (north and east of Tokyo), nono (central Japan), blind zatokaka (northwest Japan), sasa hataki who tap sasa "bamboo grass" on their faces (northeast of Tokyo), plus various family and village organizations. Kawamura (2003:263-264) divided miko or fujo by blindness between blind ogamiya 尾上屋 "invocation specialist" or ogamisama who perform kuchiyose and spirit mediumship and sighted miko or kamisama who perform divination and invocations.
In the eclectic Shugendō religion, male priests who practiced ecstasy often married mikos (Fairchild 1962:55). Many scholars (e.g., Blacker 1975:140, Hardacre 1996, Kuly 2003:205) identify shamanic miko characteristics in Shinshūkyō "Japanese New Religions" such as Sukyo Mahikari, Oomoto, and Shinmeiaishinkai.
Manga and anime typically portray a miko as a heroine who fights evil spirits or demons. Miko are frequently ascribed with magical or supernatural powers, especially divination, and skilled in Japanese martial arts. In western role-playing games, they sometimes correspond with clerics or white witches. Some romantic bishōjo video games and visual novels portray miko as attractive but prim girls. Fictional Kuro miko 黒巫女 "Black/Dark Miko" are an evil counterpart to traditional miko; for instance, the manga Shrine of the Morning Mist depicts kuro miko as proficient in demonology and black magic.
In the Tōhō computer game series, both Hakurei Reimu and Kochiya Sanae are miko of different shrines. Sanae's outfit does not resemble a traditional miko's clothing, however.
- Blacker, Carmen. 1975. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: George Allen & Unwin.
- Chamberlain, Basil H., tr. 1919. The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters. Asiatic Society of Japan.
- Fairchild, William P. 1962. "Shamanism in Japan", Folklore Studies 21:1-122,
- Groemer, Gerald. 2007. "Female Shamans in Eastern Japan during the Edo Period", Asian Folklore Studies 66:27-53.
- Hardacre, Helen. 1996. "Shinmeiaishinkai and the study of shamanism in contemporary Japanese life," in Religion in Japan, ed. by P.F. Kornicki and I.J. McMullen, Cambridge University Press, pp. 198-219.
- Kawamura Kunimitsu. 2003. "A Female Shaman's Mind and Body, and Possession", Asian Folklore Studies 62.2:257-289.
- Kuly, Lisa. 2003. "Locating Transcendence in Japanese Minzoku Geinô: Yamabushi and Miko Kagura," Ethnologies 25.1:191-208.
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