The Day Without Atonement

(A pagan, ritualistic attempt to deal with sins)

In this (now past) semester, I had the opportunity to study and write about an early Japanese official writing that detailed the ritual performance called the “Great Exorcism of the Last Day of the Sixth Month.” I found the document incredibly intriguing, especially when viewed against the light of the Scripture’s teaching on how God deals with our sins. For this writing, my focus was on the various boundaries (i.e. spatial, moral, ritual) found in the text, whether implicit or explicit. There is much I’d like to consider about the implications of this piece, especially contrasting its presentation and solution of sin against the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, but for now, this is a good summary of this 10th Century A.D. document. One noteworthy observation, as the title of this post suggests, is that the sins are never really atoned, but merely transported to another, ultimately worldly location.

The Source (It is 4 pages, pgs 57-60)

(Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Ed. Shirane, Haruo. New York, NY: Coumbia UP, 2008. Pages 57-60.)

An Analysis

(Establishing and Crossing Boundaries in the Great Exorcism Rite. Whitford, Todd. 2014.)

Within the Engishiki, compiled around the first quarter of the 10th Century, a peculiar prayer ritual is presented, called the “Great Exorcism of the Last Day of the Sixth Month” (“Great Exorcism”, 56-57). This rite addresses the presence and persistence of sins committed in the realm, and prescribes certain works by which those sins are to be exorcised and purified. Throughout the rite, various boundaries or barriers are mentioned or implied, and these boundaries must be crossed in order for the sins of the people to be exorcised. There are boundaries of authority between the speaker of the ritual and those spoken to, national boundaries between “Great Yamato” and the rest of mankind, distinctions between deity and humanity, role boundaries between male and female deities, and material boundaries between heaven and earth. These boundaries are interacted with and crossed throughout the ritual, and yet in such a way that they remain firmly intact so that every year, twice a year, the ritual may be repeated and sins may be exorcised and purified from among the Japanese people.
One of the most striking observations about this rite, as given in the Colombia anthology, is the authoritative tone of the unnamed, first-person narrator. This person confidently addresses all the nobles of the court, gives an account of the authority that the emperor has received from greater deities, declares the actions that the Nakatomi must complete in order to exorcise sins, and assures all who hear of the effectiveness of this rite. Regardless of who he is, whether the emperor himself, a priest, or a shaman, the narrator leaves no question as to the presence of sin in the land as he matter-of-factly states twice in the first quarter of the document, “the various sins perpetrated and committed” (“Great Exorcism”, 57-58). The scope of sins that the speaker addresses is initially limited to those “perpetrated and committed by those who serve in the Emperor’s court,…attendants, as well as those who serve in various offices” (“Great Exorcism”, 57). This seems very limited since, presumably, those in close attendance with the emperor are not the only sinners in the realm. Following some introductory words that establish the hierarchical authority of the gods entrusted to the emperor, the scope of sins is then expanded to “the various sins perpetrated and committed by the ever-increasing people to come into existence in this land which [the emperor] is to rule…” (“Great Exorcism”, 58). At this point, all those within “Great Yamato, the Land of the Sun-Seen-on-High” presumably are within the scope of this ritual (“Great Exorcism”, 58). The reinforcement of the hierarchical order is a likely reason why the scope begins so small and then expands to the people of Japan in general. A further reinforcement of the hierarchical order is seen in the latter half of the rite when the sins are exorcised “beginning with the court of the Sovereign Grandchild” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). Implicit within this ritual is a sense of national identity and boundary, such that the exorcism of sins is only addressed in terms of the land of “Great Yamato”.
The speaker also names specific sins and categorizes them into two lists as either heavenly sins or earthly sins. These are likely representative sins, as demonstrated by the repeated lines, “many such sins as these…” (“Great Exorcism”, 58). Pondering these two lists, it is unclear what standard is used to distinguish the heavenly sins from the earthly sins, and yet the document clearly places a boundary between them as distinct categories. Most of the heavenly sins involve the destruction of crops or committing deeds that work against the regular husbandry of the land. I am puzzled, however, why defecation is listed here as a sin. This list of heavenly sins is reminiscent of the rage of Susano-O given in the Kojiki (“Kojiki”, 28). The earthly sins mostly involve death or sexual perversions with animals or close female relatives that tend toward the “death” of the basic family structure. Another way of putting it is that the earthly sins involve committing deeds that work against the regular husbandry of a family. Again, I’m puzzled as to what the three woes (insects, deities, and birds) refer, but it likely follows a similar pattern of rest of the earthly sins; the three woes probably represent some sort of defilement or dirtying of one’s flesh or fleshly relationships (“Great Exorcism”, 58).
Once these sins, whether heavenly or earthly, are committed, they “are to be exorcised, are to be purified” (“Great Exorcism”, 57). Sins are presented as having a sort of substance, or at least a lingering effect. Once “many sins such as these shall appear,” they do not simply disappear, but must be dealt with according to a particular rite of purification (“Great Exorcism”, 58). The solution to this problem of sin also demonstrates the boundaries that exist between different areas and groups. Particularly of interest is the boundary between heaven and earth and the boundaries between men, women, and deities. First, the sins are transferred onto heavenly narrow pieces of wood, and heavenly sedge reeds. The anthology editor’s introduction to the ritual fills in the missing details that these heavenly items bear the sins for the sinners across the waters and eventually into Hades (“Great Exorcism”, 57). Men, as opposed to deities, are the ones responsible for preparing these heavenly items and transferring the sins to them.
After the men have completed their part in this solemn ritual, the deities then rend the boundaries between heaven and earth, boundaries that apparently hinder the gods from doing their part in exorcising the people’s sins. First the heavenly deities, “pushing with an awesome pushing,” break through what are described as “myriad layers of heavenly clouds,” and “the heavenly rock door” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). This allows them to hear the words of the ritual and act accordingly. Next, the earthly deities must push aside “the mists of the high mountains and the mists of the low mountains” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). Having done so, they too can hear and act accordingly. The language of the document makes clear that, whatever the “heavenly rock door, heavenly clouds, and mists of the mountains” are, they block the way from earth to heaven, and they must be removed before the deities can even hear what is going on with this ritual exorcism of sins.
The borne sins are then carried away to Hades by four deities. Lady Seori carries the sins off to the sea, Lady Hayaski swallows them, the Lord of Ibukido blows them away, and Lady Hayasasura carries them off and loses them. Whether or not there is any intended communication of gender roles, it is interesting to note that three of these four sin-transporting deities are women. Furthermore, the one male deity involved in the process is the only one who does not physically handle them; whereas the three female deities physically carry them, the male deity simply blows on the sins to transport them to Hades. Intentional or not, there is an implied boundary here between the roles of male and female deities, further establishing and reinforcing a hierarchy of authority going from gods to the emperor, from the emperor to his subjects, and from male to female.
Boundaries, both material and ideological are present throughout the rite of the Great Exorcism of the Last Day of the Sixth Month. In order for sins to be expelled to Hades and lost, according to the rite, men must transfer their sins to a “sin bearer”, they must then reach out to the gods, the gods must clear a path from heaven to earth, and certain gods must physically take the sins off to be lost in Hades. In this story-ritual of how the sins of the realm are dealt with, the observer is made conscious of the various spheres of authority, and the often-invisible boundaries between these spheres are reinforced by the authority of the “eight myriad deities” (“Great Exorcism”, 57). Yet, as a result of this ritual, “each and every sin will be gone…there will be no sins left” (“Great Exorcism”, 59). According to the understanding of the one who speaks in this ritual, this exorcism of sins is only possible through a combined effort of men, the heavenly deities, and the earthly deities to cross these established boundaries.