Animal Oracles: The Hare

The hare is a very popular animal symbol in the new age and pagan community. It’s common to see many ‘moon gazing’ hare statues, paintings, figures and everything else you can imagine. It’s become more and more popular, and this year especially seems to have an explosion of hare-related merchandise!

So what does the hare represent? Besides the hare being an elegant and beautiful animal it is also an important part of our cultural heritage. This post will help you learn about the hare, the folklore surrounding it and it’s meaning as a totem or spirit guide.


Natural History

Brown Hare looking with ears down Lepus europaeus

Image Credit: BBC Nature

Hares are mammals which are related to rabbits and are in the zoological order Lagomorpha. Lagomorphs have been confused with rodents for many centuries but are distinct from rodents in that they have a second pair of incisor teeth in the upper mandible behind the main pair.

Although similar to rabbits, hares are also remarkably different. They are longer-limbed, swifter than their cousins and have more elongated features. At full speed, hares can reach 35-45mph depending on the source, making them the fastest land mammal in the UK.

European hares (Lepus europaeus), also known as brown hares are widespread throughout most of the UK where they were originally introduced by the Romans about 2000 years ago. This is also most likely the image of the hare that you are most familiar with. However, there is a species of hare that is actually native to the UK: The mountain hare (Lepus timidus), sometimes known as the Arctic hare. 

Hares are herbivores and feed mainly on grasses, herbs, fungi, roots and cereal crops, their diet changing with the seasons. They are prey to a number of animals including birds of prey, stoats and foxes. Their main form of defense is their incredible speed, using twists and turns on their powerful legs to outrun their predators.

Male hares are called ‘Jacks’, with females being ‘Jills’. Their courtship involves boxing and this behaviour gave rise to the term ‘mad March hare’. Contrary to popular belief, this behaviour is not two males fighting but in fact an un-receptive female hare pushing off a male.

Unlike rabbits, hares nest on the surface in a depression in the grass. The litters may consist of three or four young (leverets), with hares producing up to three litters a year. Their breeding period lasts from January to August. Brown hares have a typical lifespan of twelve years in the wild.

With heavier farming came more problems for the hare. Changes to the hares habitat due to land being turned into farmland caused them to become opportunistic feeders causing devastation to crops. They were hunted heavily throughout the last century as a pest species causing their numbers to drop dramatically.

Hare coursing has been illegal in Wales and England since 2004 and the consumption of the animal as a dish has almost completely stopped. There are also now various organizations and charities working to conserve this unique and enigmatic animal, giving the hare a better chance than it has had in almost three centuries.


Hares in Folklore

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“Glastonbury Hare” by artist Christopher Fry

The hare is an animal which has been cloaked in mysterious for thousands of years. It’s nocturnal behaviors caused humans to see very little of it’s habits and its sudden appearance in spring may have been the reason many cultures see the hare as an animal which could freely move between this world and others.

The hare has been very closely associated with various deities for antiquity and they were thought to bring luck, positive change, transformation and fertility. They were also associated with the unknown, rebirth and death. In Celtic mythology, hares are associated with the Goddess Eostre, a Goddess of the Moon an life and was said to shapeshift into a hare at each full moon.

As the hare was a sacred animal to the Celts, it was taboo to eat in the Celtic tribes of Britain, although in some parts of the island it was permitable to hunt hares on Beltane. It was said in Ireland that to eat a hare was to ‘eat ones grandmother’, most likely due to the Goddess beliefs of the time.

The rebirth aspect of the hare appears to come from it’s association with Spring, the time of life and rebirth. The hare is believed to be the original ‘Easter bunny’, as hare nests (forms) look remarkably like lapwing nests. How strange it must have been to find ‘hare eggs’ around the spring time!

The hare is very closely associated with the moon and not just in the British Isles. Multiple countries across the world have their own versions of hare and moon myths. What we know as ‘the man in the moon’ in Western culture is more commonly known as the ‘hare (or rabbit) in the moon’ in Asia, where it is depicted with a mortar and pestle, or pounding a mochi (a type of rice cake in Japan).

Hares were considered to be androgynous or able to shift sex, sometimes with the phases of the moon. This shape-shifting belief strengthened the belief that hares were messangers or symbols of the Goddess, perhaps even the Goddess herself. Interestingly, in the Welsh myth of Ceridwen and Taliesin, Gwion Bach transforms into a hare whilst fleeing from Ceridwen.

With Christianity and the medieval period came the inversion of various old pagan symbols such as the cat and the hare. They were demonized and seen to be witches’ familiars, or even witches in disguise.  Hares are often out grazing under the light of the full moon which in the time was associated with the devil, lunacy and madness and so like the wolf, they were seen as incredibly negative animals.

It was a common belief in that witches could transform into hares. This could be because the ‘hare’s parliament’, an unusual behaviour in which a group of hares sit facing each other in a circle reminded them of depictions of witches covens. This behaviour also usually takes place around the full moon when witches were believed to meet and perform rituals and spells. This is also most likely were the symbol of the moon-gazing hare comes from.

Hare’s feet were carried as talisman against misfortune or illness in some parts of Britain, or even to help actors ‘shift’ their roles. Historically their genitals were also carried with the belief that it would prevent infertility. In Scotland a hare’s foot found on a boat was considered a curse and even mentioning a hare at sea was considered incredibly unlucky. In the 1800’s recommending that the person who encountered the animal to repeat a protective chant should they see one.

Hares in British Culture

Hares have long been depicted in British art from sculptures to paintings. The most popular images of the hare are most certainly the ‘mad march hare’ and the ‘moon gazing hare’. With it’s elongated and delicate features the hare is often portrayed through anthropomorphicism in children’s books and TV shows. One of the best known depictions of a hare in a book is of course Lewis Caroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ This magnetism to the hare as a symbol is not a new thing either; there are multiple depictions of hares in ancient carvings and church architecture.

One of the most recognized symbols depicting the hare is the three hare symbol. It’s still a mystery what this symbol really means or where it came from. It can be found across Britain and although is believed to be a pagan symbol, is often found in churches and other Christian places of worship. In a city very close to my heart, Chester (being from nearby Mold) there lies a floor tile in the cathedral dated to around 1400 which shows this symbol. In the Christian pantheon the symbol is believed to represent the holy trinity, though no scholar has been able to accurately discover the true meaning of this reoccurring symbol. The symbol is not just restricted to the British Isles either; it has been found all over Europe and Asia.

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Hares symbol on the floor of Chester Cathedral. Image Credit: Chris Chapman

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The Hare Triad symbol: Image Credit


 

Hare as Spirit Animal

Hares are an animal which represent illumination, intuition, promise and balance. They are strongly feminine in their energy and often come into your life when you need to look within and figure things out. Time to calm down and take a moment!

With a hare spirit animal your intuition will often receive a boost and you may become a lot more aware of signs and symbols around you. It’s likely that you’re missing something important!

The hare asks you to value what you have in life and to ensure nothing is against your personal ethics and morals. If you are being pressurized to do anything you don’t want to now is the time to make your escape. Remember that it’s your life.

Hares are often spirit animals of artists and other creative people. If you are currently struggling creatively, the hare can help you overcome your block and allow the energy to flow once again.

Anything that you are putting off right now can be negotiated with the power of hare as your ally. Allow things to run their course and don’t try to make things too complicated. Remember that by putting off things you are simply allowing things to build up. It’s best to get things done and out of the way!


I hope you liked this blog post as much as I liked writing it! I will be making further edits in the future and will likely update it when I find out new insights and information.

What does the hare mean to you? Did you read something here that you’d like to discuss? Let me know in the comments below!

I’m also going to do a series of these posts based on native British and European wildlife; if there is an animal you’d like to suggest, go ahead!


References/More Reading

http://www.hare-preservation-trust.co.uk

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/European_Hare

http://www.nottinghamshirewildlife.org/animal-facts/hare

http://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2014/12/the-folklore-of-rabbits-hares.html

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The Energy for Prayer: Formal vs Informal

The past week has been a blur. Although I didn’t have much on, I was constantly exhausted from chronic pain and it disturbed most my sleep. As a Shintoist, I usually pray at the kamidana at least once a day, usually in the mornings. This week I found myself forgetting to on two days and unable to even stand up for more than a minute or so on others.

If you don’t know, Shinto prayer is usually very formal and done in front of a kamidana (or local shrine of course). It is customary to be fully washed and dressed before praying – this means brushing teeth, having a bath or shower and then getting dressed as if you were to go out for the day. Directly before praying, you should also wash your hands and rinse out your mouth. The norito are usually recited from books or paper scrolls, or by heart if the worshiper knows them. They are also read in Japanese in a type of chant.

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Japanese instructions on how to pray at a kamidana (‘God Shelf’) Image credit

As someone with chronic illness, I do not always have the energy for this full process, as discussed further in my previous post here. I feel bad about it often, and I’m sure if I really pushed myself I could manage to stand up and recite the norito. When I do this I often skip lines, lose my place or find myself repeating myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I feel that forcing oneself to pray – that’s not sincerity. The prayers are not coming from my heart, there is no power behind those words if I am merely reciting the text from my prayer book. Although I very much want to have a set prayer and worship schedule I find it impossible most of the time with the constant demands on my energy reserve, my ‘spoons’ if you will.

So now I am wondering, is it better for me to recite norito every day on schedule in an almost robotic way, feeling like I have to? Or should I pray with my heart and soul, even if it means only two or three times a week?

Recently, Loki came into my life and I feel that I can pray to him anytime, that he is happy with simply being acknowledged. Of course Loki loves offerings and rituals but he is not upset if I do not pray to him daily. He seems happy enough that I have welcomed him into my life and take his advice into consideration. Of course Inari is not angry either if I do not pray daily to her, neither are the other kami I enshrine. If anything, they seem indifferent. I still receive their blessings on a daily basis so I do not feel this affects them much – plus I believe that kami have a different concept of time to us mortals.

So I ask myself – who am I really trying to please? I realized it’s not myself, nor the Gods. Instead, it’s the Shinto community. I feel that ‘if so-and-so can get up at the crack of dawn every day and perform norito, make offerings and whatever else then so can I‘. It’s common to see someone query something on one of the English Shinto facebook groups, only to have a backlash from ‘higher ups’ in the community. (Of course not all groups are like this!)

This is not the Shinto I am drawn to. I have never been to Japan, I have never been to a Shinto shrine of any sort – of course I would love to but money dictates that wish right now. There seems to be an opinion that if you can’t pray every day, you are not a ‘real’ Shintoist. Again, I know that not all people feel this way but it’s something that makes me feel guilty.

Instead of formal norito I can always do other acts of worship such as artwork, research, tarot, playing music associated with that kami and other things. I feel that formal praying without a sincere heart is something I don’t feel comfortable with. Sometimes praying takes a huge amount of energy for me and I don’t feel any better afterwards than how I did in the first place. This is not what prayer should be. Prayer should be empowering, an act of gratitude and love. 

So in my opinion, prayer doesn’t have to be formal – of course within Shinto it is seen as a sign of respect and praying and making offerings formally should be a priority, but when you can’t then informal prayer is acceptable.

Some of my most powerful blessings have been received after a ‘chat’ with Inari, rather than norito. I have received amazing advice in meditation in my inner grove which contains a small Shinto shrine. I have also found solutions to problems in tarot whilst asking Inari to pick the cards. Inari and other kami have also appeared in my dreams with advice and always call me back if I stray too far away from my faith.

Speaking of faith, I have faith in the Gods to continue with their blessings even if I don’t pray constantly. If I feel I won’t receive blessings when not praying, that shows that I am not trusting them. And of course I trust them over everything.

Finally, not everyone who is Shinto even has a kamidana. They still receive blessings daily and still revere the kami. By simply taking notice of Great Nature we can communicate with the kami and the Gods. 

So I guess the message I am trying to convey in this rather muddled up post is – don’t worry if you cannot pray formally every day. Don’t feel guilty for it, or that you are not a ‘real’ Shintoist. Not all of us have the energy to do this, but the kami love us as we are.

So long as you respect nature and the kami, you are Shintoist. Remember that sincerity is one of the most important values of Shinto and do everything you can by that value.

I’d love to hear about your experiences too, readers! Do you pray and make offerings every day? Or do you perhaps pray only once on a full moon, or on sabbats? I’m always interested in other people’s practices, Shinto or otherwise. Feel free to comment below!

Interested in writing for this blog? I am looking for guest writers! Please see here for more information!

Ceridwen and the Raven: Self-Reflection

Today was a draining day. My depression had become crippling to the point that most of the day I didn’t do much. I tried to draw but all I wanted to do was to lay on the bed and sleep. I felt ill and desperately wanted for the day to be over. I managed to have a small one hour nap around 6pm. Eventually, dinner time came around and I ate and then did the dishes. I planned on going to bed after, too exhausted to think.

Sitting down at my desk, I noticed that I only had two things left on my to-do list for today, one of which was OBOD study, the other being meditation. Of course, meditating was the last thing I felt like doing. ‘Better get this over with’ I thought as I picked out the OBOD booklet to start work. I figured if nothing, I could at least speed read it and then re-do it tomorrow.

The week’s task was of course, a meditation. Typical. I’ll do it tomorrow I thought, scanning the pages. But my mind wanted something else, it seemed. As I read the text, it began producing images and feelings associated with the meditation. Feeling prompted to actually do the meditation I closed the door, did some breathing exercises and sat before my altar.

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Llyn Tegid, North Wales. Photo credit

I won’t describe the full meditation but it involved some deep self-reflection next to Llyn Tegid/Bala Lake, a sacred site in North Wales. Breathing deeply and watching the dances of light on the lake’s surface, I soon found myself in the presence of the Goddess Ceridwen. She stood before me at the water’s edge, seeing through me and watching my thoughts.

As the meditation had prompted, I thought about my life journey and what my main downfall was. Ill health, of course, both mental and physical. My memories flashed before me as I saw times in hospital, times I behaved badly towards others because of mental illness, and other times where I had neglected or inflicted harm upon myself. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. Instead, I felt a sense of shame or embarrassment.

Ceridwen asked me what I most desired in life. I replied ‘To be able to support myself and Charlie, to be happy‘. ‘And what is stopping that?’ She asked. ‘My ill health‘ I immediately responded. She smiled knowingly, and something almost dawned on me.

Yes, I do have various illnesses. But they are all manageable. I don’t treat myself well, for years I have struggled with a personality disorder that has influenced me to hate myself, and not look after my health. How am I going to be happy, unless I look after myself?

I’ve spent so much of my life feeling sorry for myself. And I don’t know where the line is between self-care and laziness. Am I not going out because I honestly can’t, or am I just being lazy? It’s a harsh truth, and probably something that seems obvious to a lot of readers. Of course looking after myself better will result in me feeling better in other ways. But for those of us with chronic illnesses, it is way too easy to give up at times.

I had a strong sense that Ceridwen absolutely believed in me, in almost a pushy mother kind of way. She wants me to succeed and I know I can. I just need to try. I need to not give in to the culture of chronically ill people being useless and unable to do anything. Of course, I need to figure out my own limits and work with them, but I do feel a renewed sense of healing and focus.

Before the meditation was over, I felt something heavy land on my shoulder. A large black raven to my left, preening me softly. Ravens and crows have long been my guides, but previously it’s mainly been crows. I felt a sense of calm and love from the bird, whose talons gripped my skin softly.

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Photo credit: Chris Aydlett

‘He and his brethren will guide, protect and take care of you’ Ceridwen said. The raven preened my hair delicately some more.

He will help you heal by facing your deep and hidden truths’. 

And so I awoke, back in front of my candle-lit altar. A new feeling of calm washed over me, and I have a strong feeling this is the beginning of an entirely different part of my life.

This meditation was more influential than I thought it had been when I was in it. I guess I was expecting some kind of life-changing revelation. But my revelation is something that has always been obvious from the start. I believe that meditation gets us in touch with our inner selves, the selves that are not influenced by media, other people or negative thoughts. They will tell us deep truths which we can find difficult but we know that we need to face. And that’s what I need to do. I need to face my inner self, my inner demons as others may call them.

I certainly plan on working with Raven wholeheartedly, I know that he has many lessons to teach me. And I will be meditating a lot more too. I find it difficult to quiet my mind most the time, but sometimes I feel almost dragged into it as with this one.

A Calling From Loki

Loki_in_paintingSo this post is not directly Shinto or Druidry based, but as you have probably gathered, I am an eclectic Pagan and sometimes deities from other pantheons do come calling. Loki is one of them. To say that Loki has only just began calling would be a lie, I know and recognize that he’s been around me for at least 10 years.

It all began when I first read about the Norse god whilst doing Wiccan studies back in 2004. The name ‘Loki’ started off sounding very familiar and I had a feeling that something had awoken within, a type of firey energy that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t look too into it and moved on, content with the God/Goddess and no particular deities in particular. I was given various reminders around this period of my life from meditations involving black wolves, young red-haired men and of course, the crow becoming one of my primary guides, next to the wolf.

My next major contact with Loki came with, as with many, the release of the Marvel movies ‘Thor’ and ‘Avengers Assemble’. I adored Tom Hiddleston in the movies as Loki, though I knew this was a fictional version turned into a villian. But I became obsessed with the character Loki, looking up the lore once again, and even naming my first pet snake after him. And of course, I thought about working with him but the negative posts and experiences with him as a deity turned me off big time. I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.

Loki has been calling to me again, over the last few years. I find that some deities seem to come and go, they might show up when you need them and then leave, but Loki has been my ‘stalker’ since I started practicing. At first, I was afraid. The signs and symbols kept flooding and I ignored them, like many people do. In fact, I thought a lot of the crow and raven symbolism that came my way was Morrigan calling, but now I release it was Loki all along. I know that Loki is known to masquerade as other gods to get to people too, so perhaps he has been doing that for a while.

On Monday I did a ‘week ahead’ tarot reading and one thing that stood out to me is that it stated ‘social interactions will lead to a new path, a new opportunity’. I had it in my mind that this was helping out with the local Pagan group, as this was my first moot and I had already made it known to them that I was happy to help in whatever way I could.

On the night of the moot, the conversation quickly turned to Loki. I felt an almost guilty feeling about it, that there was a person at the moot who identified as a Lokean and talking freely about him. I wondered if I had misjudged him. We joked and laughed about Loki’s mythology, but I got a strange sense of paranoia, almost like we were talking about me in third person. I almost felt as I had been tricked into coming to the moot, expecting one thing and getting something different – Loki, I feel you there.

After the moot, I could not stop thinking about Loki and spent all of yesterday once again reading and researching him. I learned more about his pain and past, his ‘bad’ and ‘good’ deeds, his meaning to pagans and heathens alike. It felt like I was finding new parts of myself, almost like I have ‘come out’ and learning new things that I didn’t know were possible.

Confused, I asked Loki for a sign to help me understand if it is him calling me. I clicked a page in my research and immediately, there was some artwork of Loki dressed up as a fox, fox mask in hand. That was it to me. My patron deity is, of course, Inari. And Inari is heavily associated with foxes. That was the sign.

Out loud I stated ‘Fine, Loki. I get it. I welcome you.’ And I felt the biggest relief possible. Almost like my entire body sighed and went ‘FINALLY!’. Since then, I have felt an immense firey energy about me, I struggled to sleep last night because I was so inspired to write this post (of course, I waited until today). I did some automatic writing and Loki provided me with a collection of sigils to use for him and for magic working. Some of them looked like runes and I looked them up – the meanings were accurately on point for what I was to use them for.

tumblr_inline_mfuuo0F5Rx1qivd2bI have never experienced such a talkative deity before, and it’s going to take some getting used to. For a long while I have been trying to project myself as a ‘pure’ person, delving deep into Shinto, making sure to always portray myself spiritually as mentally and physically sound, when I’m not. I have chronic illnesses and personality disorders. And you know what? That’s okay. The world needs to know that these illnesses exist, especially ‘invisible’ ones.

Therefore, I believe Loki is helping me to learn that it’s okay to talk about things. It’s okay to joke and laugh about them too. They are a part of life, and by hiding them I’m making myself worse. He is teaching me to be more honest, even when the truth hurts. And life does hurt, it’s just part of living.

I very much feel that this is the balance that the gods have been trying to get me to understand for a long, long time. Things suddenly feel very right, like I can move on with the energy and creativity to achieve my goals.


As a thank you to Loki, here is my personal writing and apology:

“To Loki, Shapeshifter, Trickster, Fire God, Breaker of Worlds,

I apologize to you for my misjudgment,

I absorbed the tainted words of others, I shut you out.

I see now that you have been with me always,

Through pain and strife, through hate and fear.

You’ve supported me and helped me discover who I am inside,

I know it’s okay now to be different, to be ill physically and mentally,

To be transgender and not solid with my gender expression.

There is no shame in these conditions,

You take these aspects and you rule them.

Defender of the infirm, the bullied, the weak and the oppressed.

I welcome your influence into my life and my being,

I ask that you show me the hard truths I need to learn,

And give me the courage to change what needs to be changed.

Allow me to be more open with myself and others,

About my personal sufferings, so that I may spread joy.

There is no Light without Dark.

Hail to you Loki, My friend in the Otherworld. ”


 

A Message From Inari-Okami: Three of Cups

Recently I have been not too well both physically and mentally. I’ve been on and off different medication, my mental illness is not in a good place and I’ve been trying hard to fight my own mind and body. Not to mention the fact that I was greatly affected by the death of one of my favourite singers of all time, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. I have been crying and depressed for days, having unwanted thoughts and feelings, and it needs to stop.

Today I wanted to cleanse myself of the energies associated with death. I performed shower misogi and then changed the offerings and lit incense to Inari-Okami. Although incense is often associated with death due to it’s strong ties with Buddhism, it is appropriate for Inari-Okami, being both a Shinto and Buddhist deity. I recited three norito: Inari Daimyojin no Harae (稲荷大明神祓), Inari Norito (稲荷祝詞) and Inari Ōkami Himon (稲荷大神秘文). I then made some personal prayers in English, before asking Inari-Okami to help me choose a tarot card. I asked ‘What message do I need in my life right now?’

The card drawn was the Three of Cups from the Wild Unknown Tarot – one of my absolute favourite decks:

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The message I received along with this: ‘You are in the summer of your life, enjoy yourself. Never forget that family and friends are important and you must keep in contact as often as you can. Realize that others depend on you as much as you do them, you need to meet the effort half way. Recognize the love and support all around you – there is no shame in feeling closer to friends that blood relatives. You are a wonderful person, caught in a snare of emotion – as you spend time with people this will slowly dissolve and you will once again be able to fly.’

This message means a lot to me as I suffer from severe social anxiety and find it difficult to meet up with anyone. I should remember that it is never as bad as I think it’ll be and that Inari-Okami has my back. I have many omamori I can take with me too, for an added boost.

I am also visiting my family in Wales this week and I am very anxious about travelling there and seeing them. I find it hard to keep my disorder under control, especially under overwhelming social pressure. But I know I can do it – Inari-Okami will be there for me. And of course, I will take my travel shrine with me – I will make a post on this in the future, if you guys would be interested in seeing it.

I feel a lot more uplifted and there is certainly less weight on my shoulders now. I look forward to seeing my family, and my friends in the near future.

 

Tomoe: What does it mean?

tomoe2If you are familiar with Shinto or Japanese culture at all, you will most likely have seen the tomoe symbol. Tomoe,  (巴 or 鞆絵, とも) is a Japanese symbol that is widely accepted as the symbol of Shinto. ‘Tomoe’ can roughly be translated as ‘comma’, with mitsu-tomoe meaning ‘three commas’. The mitsu-domoe is the version usually used as a symbol in Shinto, with three being a sacred number. The tomoe symbol can also come in other versions with less or more commas, as seen here:

The tomoe is an ancient symbol which has been used in Japan for thousands of years. It has long been associated with samurai, household crests and martial arts. The comma shape itself is also an ancient symbol originating with magatama (勾玉) -stones, clay and later jewels shaped into a comma that appeared in ancient Japan from around 1,000 BCE to 300 BCE. It is believed that originally magatama were used simply for decorative purposes, but gained use as religious ceremony objects by the end of this era.

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Magatama continued to develop and were used heavily throughout Japanese history and religion as a symbol. What the magatama originally symbolizes has always been up for debate by scholars; It could represent the shape of the soul, a good luck charm, an animal tooth, energy, the moon, an unborn fetus or any number of things. In the modern era magatama are worn as a protective symbol, a symbol of power and a symbol of spirituality and heritage.

It is also possible that the magatama and tomoe could have been inspired by the ancient Daoism symbol (called the taijitu and known in the West as the ‘yin-yang symbol’, should it have existed then and should the Japanese have encountered it. The two symbols have very similar meanings associated with them and it is not unusual to see the taijitu also used in both Shinto and Buddhism.

Magatama are mentioned numerous times through the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, two classical chronicles on the mythological history of Japan.  They are associated with the kami Amaterasu-Omikami, with magatama being one of the items that was used to lure the sun Goddess from her cave in one of the classic stories.


The Shinto Symbol – The Mitsu-Tomoe

In Shinto, the mitsu-domoe is mostly used and commonly represents the interaction and union of the cosmic forces that make up the Universe. These can be seen as The High Plain of Heaven – Takama-ga-hara (高天原), the Earth and the Underworld, or as Heaven, Earth and Man. The spaces in between the commas can represent the unknown dimensions – those parts of existence that dwell between the physical and spiritual.  The mitsu-domoe represents a life cycle which never ends, a constant moving forward of energy and regrowth, the philosophy of Shinto itself.

I was also contacted by Kityrinn on Tumblr who added ‘Regarding the Mitsu Tomoe, it is my understanding as imparted to me from Rev. Barrish of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, that a leftward spiral is the spiral of materialization or Ki coalescing to matter and representative of actions of the female kamisama. And the rightward spiral is the spiral of spiritualization of matter returning to Ki, or ascending to heaven, and refers to the actions of male kamisama.’

The mitsu-tomoe is often associated with Hachiman, the kami of warriors and can be found in abundance at his shrines. As samurai were known to worship Hachiman, the mitsu-tomoe also became associated with them as a symbol of strength and courage.

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Mitsu-tomoe on a horse statue at a Hachiman Shrine. Image credit: Green Shinto

Three is a very sacred number in many religions, Shinto included. According to Japanese mythology, the first beings to exist in the Universe were three kami born out of the nothing. In the story of Izanagi and Izanami, Izanagi washed away his impurities in the river Hi and his three most renowned children were born; Amaterasu-Omikami – the Sun kami, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto – the moon kami and Susanoo-no-Mikoto – the sea (and later natural disaster) kami. The Imperial Regalia of Japan are also three items: A sword, a jewel and a mirror.

The idea of three, inter-dependent things is something found all over the World in many cultures. Some examples could be:

Mind, Body, Spirit (New age faiths)
The Three Jewels and the Three Bodhi (Buddhism)
The Son, The Father, The Holy Spirit (Christianity)
Sky, Sea and Earth (Modern Druidry)
The Maiden, The Mother, The Crone (Wicca/Witchcraft/The Occult)
The Three Pure Ones (Daoism)
The Trimurti and Tridevi (Hinduism)

The symbol of the mitsu-tomoe is also not strictly unique to Japan and Shinto. There are many other symbols across the World that represent similar themes. The swastika, although tainted heavily by WWII Germany is still a sacred symbol across the World and is thousands of years old.

Here are some examples of swastikas and various other similar symbols:


What the Mitsu-Tomoe symbol means to me

For me, the mitsu-tomoe is a powerful symbol of continuity in life. It reminds me that life goes on no matter what happens. I use it as a protective symbol, a symbol of my faith and something to signify the union of all forces. It reminds me that good things come in threes and that when I have bad times I just need to wait for the circle to spin around once more. I very much believe in the concept of karma and so it also symbolizes the ‘what goes around comes around’ aspect of life.

I guess the closest ‘general’ meaning I can apply to the mitsu-tomoe is that of ‘mind, body and spirit’ – except in this case it’s more ‘mind, body and kami‘. It is a powerful symbol and I wear a magatama daily to enforce it’s meaning even more. It is an image of peace, sincerity and faith.

In the end, mitsu-tomoe can be a very personal symbol and mean different things to different people. Ask around in Japan and you’ll get a variety of answers! But it’s part of this unknown aspect I feel that makes the mitsu-tomoe such a powerful and potent symbol.

What does the mitsu-tomoe mean to you? Do you use any other kinds of religious symbol? I would love to hear your input and I truly hope that this post was informative!

Thank you for reading!


References:

Thanks to KityRinn for their information on the mitsu-tomoe and also corrections on the Celtic
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomoe
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika
http://www.nihonbunka.com/shinto/trinity.htm
http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1660

Kami of the Sky

Tanabata night (7th July-8th July) I had a very vivid dream in which I found a small shrine inside a children’s playground. The playground itself seemed to be rather old with paint peeling off the animal characters, the old playground painted in pastel shades of pink, purple, yellow and green.

The shrine itself had a natural coloured wooden torii, as well as some signs in Japanese about the kami. I recall that I was able to read enough that I found out the kami was one of the sky and the stars. There was also a depiction of the kami; a stocky male character, almost reminding me of Overwatch’s Hanzo, with a touch of the kami Tenjin. I defiantly felt a strong masculine force from the shrine, one I have not felt before.

I know that this was a kami reaching out, but despite the lack of a name, I still thought ‘Tenjin’ when I woke up the following morning. Strangely, I had prayed for help from the kami with my Japanese studies on tanabata and so Tenjin would indeed be an ideal kami to assist me with this. In fact, the kanji written to spell Tenjin’s name, 天 and 神 actually do mean ‘Sky god/deity‘, although Tenjin himself is a kami of education. and scholarship.

In fact, while writing this post, I am becoming more convinced that it was indeed Tenjin who called out to me and perhaps the ‘sky’ part of his name is what I had read in the dream. Could it also be a coincidence that the offerings I made on Tanabata were plums, with Tenjin’s associated tree being the Chinese plum tree? 

The ‘image’ of the kami I saw could be created from my mind’s library of Shinto kami, and resulted in a much younger looking kami, but with the same ‘feel’ as Tenjin. In any case, I aim to try to contact Tenjin through prayer and see if it was indeed him who made this calling.

Finding Time For Prayer

Waking up at dawn, heading down to your local Shinto shrine and praying to the enshrined kami before starting your day, that’s the dream, right? Unfortunately for many Shinto practitioners this is not an option. We are outside of Japan, or situated somewhere far away from any kind of Shinto shrine or retreat, sometimes even stuck in the middle of a large city.

So instead, we pray at home. Some of us might have a kamidana (a household altar), others may simply revere part of their home or garden as sacred. Or perhaps you simply pray to the essence of Kami-sama themselves. I find that often life gets in the way of this ideal life of prayer and reflection and we stray from our Shinto values and fall into the ‘real world’ of too many responsibilities, chores, bad moods and everything else that demands our attention.

I’m guilty of this too; of not praying daily, I don’t always do misogi and sometimes I forget festival days. However we must remember that Shinto is not and has never been a strict faith – in fact you are not required to really do anything drastic to ‘be’ Shinto. You just need to understand and respect the Shinto values and ideas, living with them in mind.

But for some of us, prayer and ritual does form an important part of our devotion to the kami. It is almost like a ‘hello, I recognize that you are there and influencing my life’ practice, a recognition of the kami and such a fuel for the kami to act on our behalf.

Norito (祝詞)

A lot of Shinto prayers and ritual are very formal, known in Japanese as norito (祝詞). These often require a formal celebration, offerings and actions in a certain order, along with the prayer said. Norito can range in length from a few syllables to a full 30 minute session of chanting, dancing and blessings. Although norito is usually carried out by kannushi ((神主 – sometimes refered to as a ‘Shinto Priest’ but literally meaning ‘God master‘ or ‘Shinto master‘) in Japan and at other shrines across the world, many individual practitioners also perform norito in their home. These are often done daily and at a kamidana, or in front of an ofuda (a type of wooden or paper tablet inscribed with the kami’s name).

When to Pray

Ideal times to pray would be at sunrise and sunset, especially as the ‘main’ kami revered in Shinto is Amaterasu-Omikami – the Solar goddess. Other times can be at midnight on New Year’s, before a business venture, before an exam or other life events. Some people pray once a day, some twice a day, while some people pray only once a month or year. It is really up to the individual on how often they feel that they need to pray.

If you have any type of kamidana in your home, it is expected that you pray at least once a day out of politeness and reverence for having the essence of that kami in your home. Ideally this would be at the kamidana but of course, many of us find this impossible. There are many reasons why and this could be:

  • A lack of privacy: This is my main problem. I live in a small flat with two other people and it’s difficult to find the time to pray. Even if I close the door, I feel self-conscious and like I can’t fully be sincere – almost like my connection to kami is compromised.
  • Demanding kids or pets: It can be even harder to find privacy if you have kids or loud pets. In this case, perhaps praying before they wake up or after they go to sleep may help.
  • Outside noise: How many times I have woken up, prepared to pray and only for someone outside to begin drilling! This is not the ideal background ‘music’ for any kind of spiritual reflection.
  • General busyness: A lot of us have commitments which get in the way – we may have to go to work, perhaps we oversleep, the fire alarm is going off, the post man is here! So many interruptions that can really put us on edge and get in the way of prayer time.

How to Find Time

Prayer should never be a chore

First of all, prayer does not have to be a huge event that takes over half an hour every single day. You do not have to schedule it five days in advance, get into different clothes, dust the entire house or perform misogi. Of course if you have the time, you can! But remember that prayer is something personal that comes from the heart.

If you don’t have any norito on you or you don’t know them by heart, that’s okay! You can pray in your native language. The kami will understand! Remember that language is a human invention – the kami (and all deities) do not speak our languages – their own language is merely translated to ours through our own minds. Although it can feel more powerful to re-enact a norito perfectly and in Japanese, remember that you also need to see it as something that comes from your soul, your very core – not just a ritual. Conversing in your own language with the kami will also bring you closer to them and improve your relationship tenfold.

Pray for the little things

If you are praying just because you feel like you need to, then your intentions are not truly there. Remember one of the most important core values of Shinto – gratitude! Instead of a formal prayer that stresses you out because you need to take the kids out in five minutes, consider a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ (ありがとうございます) throughout the day. Gratitude goes a long way and I often find myself exclaiming ‘Thank you, Inari-sama!’ at events on a daily basis, even if I was too ill or forgot to do formal norito that morning.

You can pray before meals too, like many religions do. Small prayers that can be said are ‘Itedakimasu‘ (いてだきます) before eating and ‘Gochisosama deshita‘ (ごちそさまでした)afterwards. These basically translate as ‘Thanks for the food’ and show gratitude to the kami for providing you with the meal.

Pray in Nature

It is easy to feel separated from nature in today’s society. However remember that us humans are not separated from nature at all; we are very much a part of it. Think of the grass that grows between the city concrete, the animals and plants that flourish in urban settings. We cannot ever escape nature, and we should be thankful for that. When you can, say a few words of gratitude to nature – to the sky, the wind, the potted plants on your windowsill. If you can get to a park, you can even pray or meditate there. Being in a city does not mean nature is not there also.

Some more tips:

Prayer reminders: If you want to pray often but also forget to, consider placing small verses of norito you like, images of kami or similar symbols on the walls in your home (yes, even in the bathroom!). This will remind you to pray, even if you are not at a kamidana! Remember that the whole Universe is kami’s domain, not just a shrine or kamidana!

Prayer beads: Although prayer beads (mala) are more often associated with Buddhism, they can also be used in Shinto for praying. Wearing them or carrying them on you can help you focus and pray – if you haven’t learned any norito by heart, you can always say one thing you are grateful for on each bead.

Setting an alarm: If you really want to perform prayers at a certain time, set an alarm on your phone! Once you have done this successfully for over a month, it should become a solid habit. If you feel yourself going off this, start setting the alarm again.

Read up on Shinto or learn kana: If you are travelling or somewhere you really feel you cannot pray, consider studying from some Shinto books. Alternatively, you can study some kana (the Japanese alphabets) in order to be able to read norito in Japanese. You don’t need to learn the language itself to read the norito, but learning the kana can be a huge boost, as well as a focus boost.

Something to Remember

Most importantly, please remember that kami understand that you are busy. They understand that you are human and you have other priorities. They understand that you are too tired or sick to pray, or that maybe you forgot. If they want to remind you themselves, they find ways through dreams and signs. So please do not feel bad if you cannot pray daily or if you only change offerings once a week – kami understand.

I hope that you found this post insightful and useful and as usual, if you have any questions feel free to ask or comment below!

Thank you for reading!

[Guest Post] Inari-Okami in Numata City

This week we have a wonderful guest post by Hannah over at http://benannainjapan.blogspot.com/!

This post does an excellent job of illustrating just how much influence Inari has in a small area. I love how the shrines range from formal to casual, traditional to untraditional. And of course, the pure feeling of love and nostalgia that comes from these photos. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did!


Japan is a very interesting and unique place when it comes to religion because it is both very religious, and yet not at all religious. When asked, most people in Japan will say that they don’t believe in any faith, not even Shinto. And yet there are Shinto aspects and traditions throughout Japan that people participate in because for them it’s not religious, it’s just a part of the culture.

I live in Numata City, Gunma Prefecture in Japan. Numata only just qualifies as a city based on population, but it is incredibly large based on its actual geographical size because of how the city has grown and adapted to the mountains in which it was built (because of the mountains it also has a very strong connection to the tengu, and there’s a giant tengu mask at town center that is paraded around the city during the summer festival). That being said, I have not experienced the entire city, not even close, but from what little I have seen, this is what I’ve learned.

Inari Ōkami is by far the most recognized kami in the area I live (whether people admit it or not). I don’t know why this is, but as I have gone around and photographed as many temples and shrines as I can find, I’ve noticed Inari Ōkami has the largest presence among those structures. But they aren’t all large sweeping structures with hundreds of torii gates like the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Many of them are quite small, almost like personal shrines that are out in public places next to restaurants, behind stores, in parking lots, and of course in larger structures.

It’s truly fascinating to see that Inari Ōkami is so present here, even when so many people say they don’t believe in Shinto as a religion at all. It’s as if Inari Ōkami is simply a recognized aspect of Japan, not part of a religion that people may or may not have faith in. Inari Ōkami just is.


 

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Let’s start big. This is one of the local Inari shrines, located on the left side of the greater structure known as Suga Shrine (another area to the right is dedicated to Sarutahiko Ōkami). Suga Shrine is one of the largest shrines I’ve been to in the area, but it’s not staffed and kids often play on the shrine grounds.

Inari Shrine 1b

The Inari shrine has two torii gates, and the traditional fox statues flanking either side, mimicking the traditional lion statues found in other shrines. Yet there is no bell to ring, and no offering box.


Inari Shrine 2a

This Inari shrine is located within a greater temple structure, Shōkaku-ji. This is important to note because this is one example of how Shinto and Buddhism have merged in Japan: a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple on the same grounds. The main temple is devoted to another deity, and the temple itself is quite famous for its association with the popular Sanadamaru drama that recently aired in Japan. But before walking the path to the main Buddhist section of the temple, off a small path to the left is this Inari shrine. Having one torii gate, the building is quite long, and on either side of the doors are shelves lined with fox statues of various size and quality, some of them quite weathered.

Inari Shrine 2b

 

This shrine and temple are also quite close to where I live, so I walk by them every morning on the way to work, and when I come home at night.


Inari Shrine 3

Near where I work is this Inari shrine. It doesn’t have the traditional fox imagery, but the bright red torii makes it stand out along the road side, and it is a structure unto itself rather than a branch of a larger shrine. I don’t often see people here, but there is an offering box and a bell to ring.

I have been told that the exact process for making a prayer at a shrine varies from region to region. Where I live, you toss in a coin (usually a 5 yen or 50 yen coin, which is standard most everywhere), ring the bell, clap twice, bow twice (at which time you make your prayer), and then clap once more when you’ve finished. This is of course in addition to the traditional bowing as you pass through the torii and as you exit the torii. One of my coworkers also said that it’s important to say your name at the beginning of your prayer, so the kami knows who exactly is praying. I’ve never heard this before, but it doesn’t hurt!


Inari Shrine 4a

Inari Shrine 4b

This little shrine is located in a parking lot near some houses and what I believe is an apartment complex. In the middle of the lot, it is a single patch of green with trees growing all around to protect it. It is one of the most complete shrines I’ve seen, housing all the tools you would find in a kamidana, yet this shrine is in a semi-public space. There is a small bell for ringing, a small torii gate that you walk through to reach it (I have to crouch), and a small stone plate on the steps below the shrine to hold offerings, such as the famous inarizushi (which is quite good, I can see why Inari Ōkami and the foxes would like it too!).


Inari Shrine 5a

Inari Shrine 5b

This shrine is in a parking lot next to one of the police stations. It is quite literally in the middle of the lot, so cars park all around it. Careful inspection of the shrine proper shows vases holding fresh (or fake, I’m not sure) sakaki on either side, a small kagari-bi or candle holder at the front, an offering cup towards the back, and rows of fox statues, all of the same style going back along either side.


Inari Shrine 6

This slightly more modern shrine is located outside one of the local businesses, and it’s not the only one of its kind I’ve seen. Another one quite similar to this is located outside one of the local restaurants. The style of the altar is more detailed than some of the other small ones I see, yet it is still a simple enough design with the two flanking fox statues. The ofuda sits at the center and a mizutama for holding the water offering sits in front.


Inari Shrine 7

This is probably one of the more interesting Inari shrines I’ve seen. It’s located behind a toy store down an alley, and it doesn’t face the road. The only reason I found it was due to my ‘Shrine Sense’ as my friends say.

I’ve never seen another shrine designed like this, with the larger structure and gated front. Inside isn’t the traditional shrine setup, but rather what looks like a small house with four compartments. There’s a small electric candle at the front surrounded by fox statues, and then there are a couple fox statues on the upper levels of the ‘house.’ I wanted to get a closer look at the structure itself, but I felt that closer inspection would be a major intrusion. Perhaps it was the gated structure that made it seem so closed off, but regardless I took my single picture and left.


Inari Shrine 8a

This little shrine was down a side street that I found. The torii has discolored with time and the small stone structure has chipped and cracked, and yet someone has still left a small offering cup of sake. I find these very basic and simple shrines in many places, and usually it’s unknown what kami they are dedicated to. I don’t know if they’re all dedicated to Inari Ōkami, but this one is for sure, because if you look VERY closely at the small hole in the structure, you’ll see a single fox statue.

Inari Shrine 8b


In closing, I’d like to share this last shrine, one of my favorites.

Inari Shrine 9

I see this shrine every day on the street I live, which isn’t a very well-travelled area. It’s in a patch of overgrowth, next to an old apartment building and a wire fence. Yet this small, simple Inari shrine is always clear of leaves, the overgrowth around it is kept in control, and in the winter the snow is always brushed from the stone (I’ll brush off the top in the morning if no one else has when I go to work). I don’t know what it is about this old little shrine with its single, solitary fox statue, but it’s my favorite. It appears forgotten and abandoned, but closer inspection reveals that someone, somewhere still takes care of it.


These are just some of the shrines dedicated to Inari Ōkami I’ve seen in my travels, and there are much larger and grander ones in Tokyo as well as many more temples in shrines in Numata, but these shrines for Inari Ōkami from my hometown are special to me.

From the large extravagant ones to the small simple ones, all of these shrines in all of their shapes and sizes show how Inari Ōkami is everywhere, a presence that has always been and always will be.


If you enjoyed this blog post, please check out Hannah’s Blog in which she documents her travels in Japan!

If you are interested in writing a guest post, please email me at foxofinari@gmail.com

Thank you so much for reading! 

8 Ways to Celebrate Spring

Spring is a wonderful time for planning, exploring, planting and really taking the time to energize ourselves. The days are finally getting longer, the sun is out (between all those April showers of course!) and the birds are singing. Spring is my absolute favourite time of the year. I love the fresh and busy feeling and the cool breezes. And of course all the cute baby animals we get to see this time of year! It is truly a time for celebration!

Here are eight things you can do in your life and local area to celebrate the Spring!

Go for a Walk: Take a walk in your local area. What signs do you see that tell you it’s now spring? Perhaps you see wild flowers, particular birds or even a change in how other people are dressing. Doing this is a lot more powerful for your internal clock than staring at the dates on a calendar, and you’ll also remember the signs of spring for the future. You could even get some local plant or animal guides to help you identify all that you see.

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What wild flowers are blooming right now in your local area?

Spring Clean and Declutter: Spring is a perfect time to clean your home. The milder weather gives us a lot more energy and the longer hours inspire us to do more. Now is the time for a proper deep clean – by doing this we are not only keeping our home hygenic and loved, but we are opening ourselves up to the Universal energy that we are open to new things and that we are ready to accept positive energy into our lives. In spring I also make it a habit to declutter things I have acquired over the holidays or the past year – maybe foods, cards and the like. As a rule of thumb, if I haven’t used it over the past 12 months I probably don’t need it! I recycle when I can or donate books and clothes to my local charity shops.

Donate Food: For our ancestors, Spring was a difficult time. They would have been running low on resources gathered in the Autumn, foraging foods are not yet available and many animals are not yet back from their migrations. By the act of donating food to your local supermarket bin, church or homeless shelter, you are not only helping a great cause but also honoring your ancestors. If you want to keep your donations ‘in the family’, you can create gift baskets or cook a meal!

Gardening: Spring is the prime time for many seeds to be planted. Whether or not you have a garden, you can still plant seeds with the intention to nurture and care for the plant as it grows. If you do have a garden, now is the time to tidy up and weed your garden, creating a clean and safe space for your new seeds to grow. If you don’t have a garden and are not allowed or unable to keep house plants, you can plant seeds in a metaphorical way – state your goals and intentions now for manifesting later in the year. Places like B&Q will often have seed planting guides, or you can find them online or from your local community.

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Spring is the optimal time for planting

Community Work: If you are able to, donate some of your time to local community work. This could be helping with a community garden, woodland maintenance, animal rescues or even litter removal. It gets you out and under the sun and by giving to the community, you are opening yourself up for positivity to flow your way.

Buy from a Farmer’s Market: Support your local farmers at this time of year where they are working incredibly hard to plant new produce. Many farmer’s markets will sell cheese, bread, honey, ales and other delicious local-made food and drink. This is especially good if you are an ethical eater, sourcing locally can allow you to know exactly what goes into your food, how the animals are culled and where exactly it is grown.

Make a Springtime Altar: Decorate your existing altar with flowers, leaves and spring produce or create a new one, especially for Spring. If you like, you can dedicate it to a deity associated with spring, the season itself, an animal or even your ancestors of blood or tradition. It is advised that you research your local wild flowers before picking them for decoration – there are many endangered species in the UK and Worldwide. Even better would be to grow your own plants or herbs for sacred reasons or support a local florist.

Research your local wildlife: It is amazing how many of us know about various sacred traditions and the meanings of particular animals in those traditions. How many of us have Wolf, Bear or Eagle as a totem or spirit animal? What about Crows? Magpies and Jays? Even Squirrels, Stoats or the lowly Pigeon? Research your local wildlife and see what they mean to you. You can find a list of your local wildlife from mammals to reptiles, invertebrates to trees and plants by searching for your local Wildlife Trust. They keep comprehensive lists of the local wildlife for your area including a map where you can check where the animal has been sighted. Although it’s nice to have powerful animal spirits, it also benefits us to find out what energies we are working with directly on a day to day basis.

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Common everywhere but perhaps for good reason. What does the pigeon have to tell us about ourselves?


I hope you enjoyed this post on eight things you can do to celebrate spring in your area! Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below or email me at foxofinari@gmail.com!

I hope you all have a wonderful and productive spring time!