Customs and Rituals

What are the basic features of the more elaborate shrine rituals?

Larger rituals typically include four features. Before beginning any sacred act, including the simplest ones, celebrants purify themselves with water or salt. Welcoming the kami (kami-mukae) is among the first acts of the presiding priest. The invocation is necessary because many matsuri begin away from the shrine in places where the kami does not ordinarily reside. Next is the offering to the kami (and that includes ancestors, as in Chinese traditions). In addition to responding to the obvious requirement of funds to maintain the thousands of shrines great and small all over the country, people make symbolic offerings and the priests in turn formally present them to the deities. Flowers, food and drink, beautiful textiles or jewelry, and even the performance of traditional art forms or sport can be included among offerings. Entertainment arranged in connection with a religious festival is known as “divine amusement” (kan-nigiwai).

When the priestly staff perform elaborate offerings, the chief priest opens the doors of the innermost sanctuary. The priests pass the offerings among themselves and finally the assistant chief priest places the offerings before the sanctuary doors. Ritual specialists then recite prayers—many of ancient origin and some more recently composed—of praise, thanksgiving, historical recollection about the meaning of the particular occasion, all concluded with appropriately humble leave-taking of the kami with a gesture called “sending the kami away” (kami-okuri). Ceremonies conclude with a kind of communion rite in which the chief priest serves the other members of the ritual staff a symbolic sip of sake. The priests walk in procession from the inner worship hall to the outer hall for this rite, which is usually brief, depending on the number of officiants participating. When large crowds are in attendance for a particularly festive occasion, the closing meal can be quite elaborate, and include a share in some of the food just offered to the kami. One ritual element notably lacking in Shinto worship is preaching. Since worship is entirely focused on relating ritually to the deities, Shinto tradition does not regard persuasive religious rhetoric a necessary tool.


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