ancestor cults

Yama-uba

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There is an old saying among some mystics and occultists “that the demons of today were the gods of yesterday.” One of the biggest examples of this principle can be found in the legend of the ancient Japanese goddess now known as Yama-uba.

Yama-uba Nursing Kintoki, Kitagawa Utamaro 1802

Yama-uba Nursing Kintoki, Kitagawa Utamaro 1802

Yama-uba is commonly described, not as a kami, but a yokai. Wikipedia describes her as follows:

Yamauba (山姥 or 山うば?), Yamamba or Yamanba are variations on the name of a yōkai found in Japanese folklore….. Depending on the text and translator, the Yamauba appears as a monstrous crone, “her unkempt hair long and golden white … her kimono filthy and tattered,” with cannibalistic tendencies. In one tale a mother traveling to her village is forced to give birth in a mountain hut assisted by a seemingly kind old woman, only to discover, when it is too late, that the stranger is actually Yamauba with plans to eat the helpless Kintaro. In another story the yōkai raises the orphan hero Kintarō, who goes on to become the famous warrior Sakata no Kintoki.

In the Wikipedia article cited, Yama-uba is depicted in a monstrous light. In some accounts she is also described as having shape-shifting abilities, being able to transform into a spider. However, there are other sources which describe her as an ancient goddess. Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane provides us with a different definition of this primordial force:

“In Japanese beliefs Yama-uba (“mountain grandmother”) was said to be the female NATURE SPIRIT of the mountains. As old as time itself this singular being would work constantly to maintain the cycle of human life; occasionally she appeared to travelers as a beautiful young woman.”

When we compare the two definitions of Yama-uba presented so far in this discussion, while they seem to be in conflict, it seems to reflect the dual side of this kami. In some ways, the latter description of Yama-uba seems to have some comparisons with Izanagi-no-Mikoto In Body Politics and the Fictional Double edited by Debra Walker King, we read:

“Both yamauba and Izanami possess dual natures: they may be frightening demons intent on killing men or nurturing women bestowing wealth and bountiful crops. There are a number of parallels between them. First, the archetypal image of a woman chasing a man with the intent to kill is embodied by Izanami chasing Izanagi; similarly, the prototypical image of the yamauba is the chase to capture male prey. second, Izanami gives birth to islands and then to many deities; this is echoed in the yamauba tradition when she gives birth painfully to many offspring in rock caves—and sometimes dies by fire as did Izanami. Third, Izanami and Izanagi are happily married at first and she does not show her demonic nature until Izanagi violates her prohibition of looking at her body; likewise, yamauba sometimes marry men who are quite content until they see the demonic side of their wives’ personality.”

The comparison between Izanami and Yama-uba continues in the reference cited above. Yet, it is also revealed why divine feminine personages, such as Izanami-no-Mikoto, were demonized later on:

“Tracing patriarchal elements in the Japanese creation myths reveals an attempt to displace belief in the great-mother with male-dominated belief systems.”

From the information that we have covered so far, it is very likely that Yama-uba may be Izanami-no-Mikoto before becoming demonized by a new male-dominated “theocratic” society. Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 49, page 140 states:

“Nelly Naumann (Sulzburg), introduced among others Izanami, the goddess of death, and she demonstrated how this mythological female figure has survived as cannibalistic ” Yama’uba” in Japanese fairy tales.”

Based on the information we have covered so far, there existed in prehistoric times veneration of the “great-mother” goddess that was replaced by a male-dominated religious system. The Nihon Shoki discusses the worship of Izanami-no-Mikoto:

“When Izanami no Mikoto gave birth to the Fire-God, she was burnt, and died….In the time of flowers, the inhabitants worship this Goddess by offerings of flowers. They also worship her with drums, flutes, flags, singing, and dancing.”

Although some authors have made some great comparisons between Izanami-no-Mikoto and Yama-uba, as we have already discussed, it may very well be noted that the similarities possessed by these two deities is due to one being the heir of the other. It is recorded in the Nihon Shoki that while Izaami no Mikoto was laying down to die, she gave birth to two deities; one whose name is Hani-yama-hime, which means clay-mountain lady a possible origin of Yama-uba and a class of mikoThe Yokai Grove featured an article entitled Yamanba, another name for Yama-uba, which states:

“Most scholars believe Yamanba’s origin was as a Miko (female religious figure) for mountain kami (gods or spirits) who storytellers later made into a yokai. In some regions, there’s a day called “Yamanba’s laundry day.” On this day, people shouldn’t use water or wash clothing. In Northern Kyushu, this day is Dec. 13th or 20th, at the end of the year. It is still believed that it will certainly rain on this day. It was likely the ancient purification day for the Miko of the mountain kami who controlled the rain (in Japan, water is still used for purification purposes before entering a shrine).”

Yama-uba’s role as a miko of the mountain kami and the survival of her legend, hint at a technology of the ancient Asiatic female shamans of the Far East attributed to the Christ in the modern world had its origin among the female shamans of Asia. They were able to cultivate human immortality, never having to age or die. After having achieved this state of being they could shed the human body to continue their work in the spiritual world for the benefit of all humankind

Feminism and World Religions edited by Arvind Sharma, Katherine K. Young, states:

“Indeed, throughout the history of Taoism, women have played prominent roles—as teachers of other Taoist adepts or sages, as heads of monasteries, and as Taoist immortals, achieving the highest levels of enlightenment. The Yellow Emperor, one of the most respected Taoist sages was taught by a woman, The Lady of the Nine Heavens.”

An online essay entitled, Gender Difference in History Women in China and Japan, reveals the following:

“Within Shintoism women held power as mikos, a type of shaman with divination abilities. Before the 8th century, half of Japan’s reigning female sovereigns, such as the popular semi-legendary empress Jingu, were believed to have shaman-like powers. Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu, to whom every emperor has had to claim direct descendancy, was also worshiped as a symbol of female mystical power. Her Great Shrine at Ise, cared for by high priestesses, still plays an important role in the lives of the Japanese today.”

Many of the deities in the ancient Japanese historical records were shamanic rulers and this by no means takes away from their divinity for the “anointed one” is the spiritual practitioner who is empowered by both the stars and nature. It’s just that in the Western world, the experience of such is assigned singularly to the Christ, but is the science of all supernatural works of the Far East. Once these divine beings passed from human form and into the world of spirit, they worked as mediators between humankind and the celestial worlds.

Yama-uba , is not only a deity of nurturing and destruction, but also represents the survival of an ancient form of spirituality today that is revered by many, but practiced by the few.

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2 replies »

  1. In my experience with a Yama-Uba I definitely, got the feeling of an elder woman that was keeper of a nature based sacred art, however she was marginalized and demonized by the changing society around her. They pushed her further away from her home village into the mountains, and she eventually developed the ability to merge with the spirit of the mountains and forest.

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