Signs and Symbols

Have relics been important in the Shinto tradition?

Sacred objects play a very important role in Shinto ritual. Every shrine houses some small token of the deity who graciously calls this humble place home for the benefit of worshippers who come to pay their respects. These objects, called go-shintai or “revered kami body,” are said to include such unremarkable items as a mirror, sword, comb, ball of iron, paintings, pebbles, or pieces of carefully cut paper. Worshippers generally do not get even a passing glimpse of the objects, for they remain always behind the innermost shrine’s closed doors. People visit a shrine not so much because the sacred objects are there, as because the presence of the kami makes the place holy. When Christians or Buddhists, for example, make pilgrimage to a church or stupa, they frequently do so because certain objects associated with a particular sacred person are enshrined there. They may not believe that the objects themselves contain miraculous powers, but it is the presence of the objects that makes the place worth visiting. Shinto’s sacred objects play a very different role. Many worshippers may not even be aware of exactly what items a given shrine holds. In other words, the symbols of the kami are of secondary importance from the perspective of Shinto worshippers.


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