Monthly Archives: October 2014

Some thoughts on my first Samhain

inaripumpkin

My shrine to Inari Okami, with a seasonal offering of a munchkin pumpkin

This year will be my first time to celebrate Samhain as a Pagan. From what I can gather, Samhain seems to be a particularly significant Sabbat. In fact, it seems to me that more Pagans place a particular emphasis on Samhain, maybe even more than Beltane. So I thought I’d write down my current thoughts on this festival.

From what I can tell, out of all the eight Sabbats, Samhain is the only one that isn’t all joy and happiness – it has a dark, sombre side too. It’s very much a time for remembering the dead – both our ancestors who have long passed, and those who we have known and loved in our lives who are no longer with us. Some Pagans also recognise Samhain as the death of the Great God, until his re-birth at Yule. This gives Samhain a particularly strong feeling of solemnity and gravity that isn’t so apparent in the other seven Sabbats.

But this doesn’t mean that Samhain is only a time of mourning and sorrow. Like the other Sabbats, Samhain is a celebration – a celebration of our departed friends and family, of the changing of the seasons, and of the thinning of the veil between this world and the spirit world.

What’s more, Samhain is now more familiar to modern Brits as Halloween – a time associated with parties, costumes, eating sweets and enjoying spooky and horror-themed festivities of all kinds. And from my experience, Pagans still enjoy this more frivolous side to Halloween as well. I don’t think many Pagans have problems in celebrating both the dignified, spiritual side of Samhain together with the fun and festivities of Halloween. Certainly I don’t! Although I wasn’t able to attend my moot Medway Pagans’ Samhain festival (it coincided with my sister’s birthday meal), I do plan to hold some sort of ritual for Samhain in order to honour the spirits, my ancestors and departed friends and family. But as well as this, my husband and I have just returned from 2.8 Hours Later, an entertaining “zombie survival” experience (not bad but Zed Event’s “Shopping Mall” zombie experience was way better value for money in my opinion!), and we’re also planning on going to see the new vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows tomorrow. So I think we’ll get the mix of Samhain spirituality with Halloween horror-fun down pretty well!

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Float to commemorate the dead at the Shoro-Nagashi (Nagasaki’s O-bon festival)

This mixture of deep spirituality and light-hearted fun surrounding Samhain reminds me very much of the similar Buddhist O-bon festival in Japan. Celebrated in summer, O-bon festivals vary from place to place in Japan, but where I lived in Japan (Nagasaki), it was a pretty big event, the climax being the “Shoro Nagashi” or “Spirit Boat Parade.” At sunset, families all over Nagasaki would carry enormous boat-shaped floats covered with lanterns through the town, all the while throwing firecrackers as a way of welcoming the spirits of the dead. The whole occasion is held very much like any other Japanese festival, with plenty of stalls selling great food, games to play, and people dressed in bright yukata robes. It’s considered a fun festival, yet at the same time it is tinged with sadness, as it’s the time for families to remember their departed members.

In fact, while the idea of mixing both grief with joy when remembering the dead is rather strange in predominately Christian cultures like Britain, it’s fairly widespread elsewhere. Just think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its bright, garish colours.

I think that it’s great that the modern Pagan interpretation of Samhain can be celebrated both with solemnity and frivolity at the same time. It’s yet another wise Pagan reminder that all change, even the most difficult change, can still be celebrated in its own way, and that the darker sides to life do not need to be faced with dread.

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Spirit Houses in Asia

Spirit Houses by a sacred tree in Thailand. By Henry Flower at en.wikipedia (Transfered from en.wikipedia) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0

Spirit Houses by a sacred tree in Thailand. By Henry Flower at en.wikipedia (Transfered from en.wikipedia) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0

My fascination with hokora (small Shinto shrines) has led me to discover the “Spirit Houses” of Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. In the same way as hokora, these Spirit Houses are designed to function as a kind of shelter for the spirits. I know pretty much zero about South-East Asian folk religion, but from the little reading I’ve done on Wikipedia, it would appear that the spirits of these countries are very similar to the Shinto kami and the Roman lares, being numerous, invisible and associated strongly with nature.

As you can see from the photo, the Spirit Houses of South-East Asia do resemble hokora. They resemble tiny houses with pointed roofs, are not placed directly on the ground, and are often placed near sacred natural objects (such as a sacred tree). Offerings to the spirits are also placed by the Spirit Houses.

I find this overlap between Shinto and South East Asian folk religion extremely interesting. We often tend to think of Shinto as being the “native” Japanese religion, with the other main religion of Japan, Buddhism, being of continental Asian origin. But does the similarity of the kami to the South East Asian nature spirits, and the parallel in how they are venerated through hokora and spirit houses, hint at a historical link between the folk religions of Japan and South East Asia?

Or is the link a little broader than that? Not quite mere coincidence, it could be that the belief in folk spirits, and the need to venerate them in tiny house-like shrines, is fairly universal. The way in which the Romans venerated the Lares at a Lararium, and the current popularity of building tiny “faerie houses” in modern Western countries, would tend to support this idea.

Either way, I still find myself very much drawn to these tiny Spirit Houses from all cultures, and really want to make my own at some point.

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Becoming a part of the Genius Loci

dosojin

Dosojin guardian spirits in Japan, often seen as the protectors of a place. By 掬茶 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

How are we all part of the Spirit of Place? Click here to read at Patheos!

 

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Top 10 Pagan-friendly movies for adults

Now I’ve done some lists for my top 10 favourite Pagan and Wiccan-friendly family movies, I thought I’d explore my favourite Pagan-friendly movies for a more mature audience!  Continue reading

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“Goth Zodiac” Art Series: Scorpio

zodiac-scorpio

The latest in my Goth Zodiac series – Scorpio!

This one was pretty easy. With all the associations of sex, death, secrecy and the supernatural surrounding Scorpios, Goth comes naturally to them!

You can view the rest of the series so far and my other artwork here: http://trellia.deviantart.com

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Japanese Treats from JP Books

JPBooks

This weekend I’ve been working at Language Show Live, a big language expo in London. My organisation is there to represent Japanese language, and we’re sharing our stand with JP Books – a London-based retailer of Japanese books and other items.

At the Language Show, myself and a colleague had to do a presentation about kami-shibai – a traditional method of Japanese story-telling with pictures. The morning before the presentation, I made some offerings and prayers to Inari-sama to ask her for her support. The presentation went well, so I think Inari-sama may have been listening!

I also took the opportunity to treat myself to some things from JP Books’ stand – namely, some Japanese incense and two miniature daruma dolls.

Japanese incense is a little different to the Indian variety that’s more familiar in the UK. For one thing, the sticks are pure incense – there’s no “core” in the middle that sticks out that you can insert easily into standard incense holders. This not only makes Japanese incense rather brittle, but also makes it a little harder to find a good place to burn it because it won’t fit most standard burners available in the UK. Fortunately, these ones I bought (from the brand Morning Star which is actually based in Hong Kong) come with their own tiny holder, so that’s not an issue. Japanese incense also tends to be shorter and have a shorter burning time than Indian incense.

However, what I do like about Japanese incense is that the fragrance is always very “clean” – there’s no underlying pesticides or anything else as far as I can tell, which always seems to be a problem with Indian incense. You can pretty much guarantee that Japanese incense is going to smell good and not be too overwhelmingly heady. I’ve bought Amber, Cedarwood, Lavendar and Fig scents, and so far I’ve really liked them.

Daruma dolls are a sort of cross between a toy and a good luck item in Japan. Based (bizarrely enough) on Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the daruma dolls are weighted so they always stand up again when knocked over, like a weeble toy. They’ve therefore come to represent resilience and determination. They are also used to make wishes. A newly purchased daruma will have two blank eyes; to make a wish, the owner draws a pupil in one eye. When the wish is granted (or a goal achieved), the owner draws a pupil in the other eye to thank the daruma. Traditionally, one buys a daruma on New Year’s Day, and then brings it back to the temple where it was bought the following New Year so it can be ritually cremated.

I actually several daruma dolls now (I don’t want to cremate them as they’re not easy to get outside Japan!), and I actually use my oldest one as a prop during presentations about Japanese. My husband and I plan to use the two new daruma dolls to make our own wishes at New Year, and no doubt I will be displaying my full daruma collection on my altar around Yule.

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My Top 10 Wicca-Friendly Family Movies

As a continuation of my list of Top 10 Pagan-friendly family movies, here’s another top 10 list of family movies that Wiccans might find appealing. The main difference between this and the previous list is that, while the movies on the first list had more earth-based and environmental themes, these ones deal more with magic and witchcraft. Although you’ll probably find many items on both lists interchangeable.  Continue reading

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Reflections on “Japanese Death Poems,” Yoel Hoffman

DeathPoemsAs Samhain approaches, now seemed like a good time to read and reflect upon this collection of Japanese “death poems,” compiled by Yoel Hoffman.

There’s a tradition among Zen Buddhist monks and poets in Japan to compose one final poem during their final hours of life –  a jisei, often translated into English as “death poem.” This poem functions as a kind of self-epitaph, a farewell to the world. In this book, Hoffman has collected jisei from Zen Buddhists and haiku poets from all over Japan and presented them, many for the first time, translated into English.

The book begins with an introduction not just to the concept of death poems, but also to the culture and customs surrounding death in Japan, in addition to Zen teachings and Japanese poetry in general. It’s a nicely-written introduction that serves as a good preface to the collection of poems, which is divided into two parts – jisei by Zen monks and jisei by haiku poets.

So what are jisei like? Actually, there is quite a difference between those written by the monks and those written by the poets. Let’s start with the monks first, with this example from Hosshin, who died in the 13th century:

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?

This abstract, enigmatic poem is typically Zen – questioning the nature of reality and existence itself. Many of the other poems by Zen monks are similarly cryptic and philosophical. Each one is like a miniature Zen teaching in itself.

To be honest, I preferred those written by the haiku poets, both for their beauty and their messages. As those familiar with haiku might expect, they are very short (three lines) yet rich in imagery and symbolism. Take this example by Baiko, who died in 1903 at the age of sixty:

Plum petals falling
I look up – the sky,
a clear crisp moon.

Although brief, this poem is full of meaning. Firstly, the “plum petals” allude to the season of early spring, and their “falling” represents both death and the transient nature of existence, a concept which is fundamental to Zen. Seeing the moon can represent enlightenment, and this is re-enforced by it being clear and crisp. From this beautiful, short message, we not only get a glimpse of the time and place where Baiko spent his last hours, but also his most innermost feelings. It sounds like he had made his peace with the world before leaving it. Don’t worry if you need some help with the symbolism with some of poems – many of them poems are given a short interpretation by Hoffman.

The above poem also demonstrates the combination of simplicity and philosophical contemplation with deep appreciation of the natural world – two very common features of the haiku form of jisei. I like to think of this almost as a fusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy with Shinto nature-worship.

Baiko’s poem also contains the quiet sense of calm, dignity and gratitude for life that permeates many of the other poems in this collection. I felt quite inspired to read such beautiful and profound poems written by elderly people at the end of their lives – not only do they give a unique account from elderly people experiencing something so personal and private yet common to us all, but I also find them comforting and positive in the face of a natural phenomenon that many of us find frightening. Some of the poems even have a bit of humour in them too:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak
(Moriya Senan, died 1838)

While I think this is a wonderful collection, with good accompanying text and translations that capture the beauty and nuance of the original poems very well, there was one thing I found to be a major disappointment. That was the complete absence of the poems written in their original Japanese characters. The haiku poets’ jisei are only accompanied by romanised Japanese, while the Zen poems don’t even have this, giving us only the English translation to read. Considering that in Japanese, the characters used brings an added dimension to the meaning of text and contributes immensely to both the aesthetics and semantics of poetry, it is a massive shame that there were no Japanese characters included at all. I even think this is true of the poems originally only written in hiragana syllabary – while one might argue that the romanised version suffices as it conveys no more additional meaning than hiragana sounds, I believe that romanised Japanese looks rather awkward, ugly and stark. In putting the poems into romanised Japanese without any Japanese characters at all, the original looses much of its beauty and fluidity. Even though the work is written in English, its rather niche subject means that many students of the Japanese language would be among the target audience, so leaving out the Japanese characters entirely seems a very odd decision. Most peculiar of all, Hoffman did decide to put the poets’ names in their original characters! I am very surprised and bewildered that he prioritised the characters for the poets’ names over the actual poems themselves.

Japanese Death Poems is beautiful, poignant and very unique – a very welcome addition to my collection of books on Japanese spirituality. I would recommend it not only to those with an interest in Japanese philosophy and poetry, but also those who want to deepen their understanding of the nature of life and death – especially those who find it difficult or distressing to come to terms with this sensitive subject.

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Making a scrying mirror

scryingmirror

After painting my sun placque yesterday I was on a bit of a painting roll, so I decided to make a scrying mirror too – around Samhain seems to be an appropriate time! This is pretty easy – I just got an old photo frame, took out the glass and painted it with black acrylic, then put it back in the frame with the painted side on the inside. The effect is simply a pure black yet reflective surface that’s said to be ideal for scrying.

The photo frame is one that was given to my husband and I several years ago and we never used. The markings on the frame are the Chinese character 囍 (shuangxi), meaning “double happiness” (it’s composed of the character for happiness, 喜, repeated).

I plan to use this mirror for scrying closer to Samhain, as it’s said to be a good time for divination-related activities!

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Painting another charity shop find

Sun

Today I had a day off work for taiku-no-hi: “Sports Day,” which is a Japanese public holiday. I spent part of the day shopping in my local town, where I picked up some new Stamford incense (Stamford is my new favourite brand – it burns really cleanly and doesn’t have that sharp pesticide scent that other cheap brands have).

I also bought a lovely, plain white sun plaque made from for £2.00 (there was a matching moon as well but I didn’t like it as much and left it). I thought it would look great painted gold on my altar during the summer months, so I also bought some gold acrylic from Wilko (only 85p!) and painted a thick layer on. I’m pretty pleased with the result.

Of course, we are now into the season where we commemorate the death of the Sun God, so I’ll keep my sun plaque stored away for now. But come summertime, I’m sure he’ll look fantastic brightening up my altar!

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