I have mentioned before that Inari Okami, like other Japanese kami, has a bit of a “dark” side, with the ability to punish those who offend him as well as give. But to be honest, I’d never really paid much attention to this, and have generally seen Inari as a powerful yet ultimately benevolent spirit of Nature. Inari-san’s more fearsome aspects are talked about in my primary source of knowledge about the deity, which is Karen Smyers’ excellent book The Fox and the Jewel (which I intend to write more about in this blog soon), but on the whole the deity is portrayed in a positive light.
That is, I hadn’t really thought much about Inari-san’s “darker” aspects until yesterday.
I happened to talk about what books we’d been reading with a Japanese friend, and I showed her my copy of The Fox and the Jewel. When she understood what the book was about, she instantly recoiled and said, “Inari-san, kowai.” (Inari-san is scary).
When I laughed and said I didn’t find Inari-san scary, she then told me about an incident that made her fearful of the deity.
When she was about six, she had been playing with her friends at a local Inari shrine, and she went right up to the shrine and opened the doors containing the sacred charm enshrining the kami’s spirit. Those who know Shinto will know that such behaviour is a big no-no, but being so young, my friend didn’t understand that at the time. And that night, she had a terrifying nightmare (she didn’t give me any details). Even now, she is convinced that it was Inari-san’s way of punishing her for violating the sanctity of the shrine, and she is afraid to worship at any Inari shrines.
My friend warned me that if you decide to worship Inari-san, you must give him the proper respect and honour him every day, or he might punish you.
I have never encountered such a visceral, fearful reaction to a Japanese kami before (another friend of mine in Japan once mentioned that she found Inari-san’s kitsune statues creepy, but not necessarily Inari-san himself). When I told her that I was interested in Inari worship, it was as if I’d told her I was interested in worshipping the Devil. (I’m glad I didn’t tell her that I actually do worship Inari, what on Earth would she have thought then…?)
Now, I really don’t know what to think about this. I follow the ethos that if I am to follow a religion, it must be out of joy, and not out of fear. Therefore, fear has never been in my mind when it comes to worshipping Inari-san. And for the most part, I think that Inari worship has had positive effects on my life. My wedding, for example, went really well, and I had prayed to Inari-san to make it go well. Thinking about Inari-san, and seeing the foxes playing around my house, had filled me with such peace of mind.
And yet…I have to admit that recently, I have had some rather sinister dreams pertaining to Inari-san recently. In one dream, myself and my aunt were outside my house at night, surrounded by dozens of foxes. My aunt and I were charmed by the scene…until one of the foxes suddenly leapt for my throat, and I woke up with a start. And in another more recent dream, I was in someone else’s house, and I found a kamidana that had been broken into pieces by a toddler living in the house, who was playing with it. I did not know whether I should try to fix the kamidana or not, because it wasn’t my house after all. Although this dream wasn’t scary, it was definitely rather unsettling in tone.
Are these dreams messages from Inari-san, warning me that I am not giving him the proper respect? After all, I do neglect my shrine somewhat. I only put out new offerings once a week or so, and at the moment the shrine’s looking particularly bad (the recent bad weather means that one of the vases has fallen over and broken, and the shimenawa is also now at the bottom of the shrine, with no shide attached).
Or are these dreams merely just my own subconscious playing tricks on me?
Most Pagan paths I’ve looked into don’t really go in for divine retribution for not giving the gods the proper respect – they might simply refuse to work with you, but they won’t punish you. But that’s certainly not always the case; as I’ve mentioned before, there are two members of the Medway Pagans moot who do not participate in group rituals because they fear their patron deities may take offense and cause problems for the ritual.
I really don’t want to see Inari-san as a malevolent force to be appeased, and I certainly don’t want to worship him out of fear of the consequences if I do not – that is not a positive way to practice religion. For now, I’ll carry on as normal, keep on researching the other aspects of Inari-san, and see what happens.