JOMON RELIGION, SNAKE CULTS AND BURIALS
Alieen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: "Because they decorated their pottery with complex imagery of humans, animals, and abstract forms, we know that the Jomon people were highly expressive and religious people who believed in the magical and spirit world. Jomon pottery reveals a lot about the Jomon world, and that Jomon beliefs and religion were very rich in symbolism and differed from tribe to tribe and over time.” In the Late and Final Jomon phases, the Jomon “developed more sophisticated ritual practices and an identifiable religion. A large number of figurines, mostly heavy female figurines suggesting mother goddess or fertility goddess (prayer for better harvests) were produced. Many ritual tools, such as stone rods, stone phalli, and figurines, are produced in larger numbers during the Late and Final Jomon periods. And stone circles were constructed outside the main villages. “ [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]
“Snake motifs and other animal-like heads could be found as decorations on the rims of pottery of the Katsusaka people who lived in the area of Yatsugatake Mountains in Nagano prefecture and in surrounding coastal areas. Some of the clay figurines made by the same people had animal-like faces and some were crowned with a coiled snake.
“The snake represented the mamushi, a deadly snake that lives at high altitudes in the area. Experts believe that the snake motifs are signs that the Katsusaka people were snake worshippers who performed snake-cult ceremonies presided over by female shamans. Pottery with rodent-shaped faces, slant eyes and sometimes harelips are most frequently found on steaming vessels.
“Some of the Jomon people began burying some of their dead along with simple grave goods such as pottery usually shallow bowls, shell bracelets, and ritual items during the later part of the Jomon period. A small percentage of society would be buried with objects such as shell bracelets. Many such burials tended to be for children. Many babies, infants and babies who died at birth along with placenta, were buried in jars. Sometimes they were buried with very precious items such as jade beaded necklaces. Archaeologists suppose that those children must have belonged to families of high status in Jomon society since young children do not usually have had the time to achieve a high status through their own activities.
Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Essay on Early Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ;Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art metmuseum.org; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu sannaimaruyama.pref.aomori.jp ; Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp/en ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki
Kawagoe wrote: During the era of the Jomon society, shaman-style tribal chiefs were the norm throughout the Eurasian continent. Masks, pottery figurines and ritual artefacts suggest that shaman-type leaders were also common in Jomon society. We can make conjectures about what a Jomon shaman or shamaness’s role was like by looking at modern day Buryat Shamans of Siberia. The Jomon people are determined to be genetically related to the Baikal Buryat people and to have shared the same prehistoric ancestors. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapn.wordpress.com ]
“The shaman is an authority figure who first has to be accepted by the community by manifesting some evident individual talent and character associated with legendary ancestors. He has to be able to confirm his high position by performing a special character, display exceptional lexical knowledge and ability to create his autobiography and reflect about his life and interpret it in terms of ancestors.
“Buryat shamans guard their secrets and control what kind of knowledge they can communicate to others. The Buryat shaman is also the community’s richest repository for knowledge about ancestors and the relations with them through personal genealogies. When the child is born in the Buryat family’s grand parents conduct a special ritual with a prayer for the future shaman child to inherit the characters of his/her ancestors.
“Shamanic rite is the technique to control and manage memories and dreams. Shaman is thus a specialist who as the authority and right to perform rituals and to restore, manipulate or interpret the lost memories (and dreams) of other people. The shaman connects the people to their ancestors and helps them remember their ancestors often by performing rituals of respect towards their ancestors. Since the shaman represents the character of the ancestors, he is thus secures his superior position as the most authoritative person in the society. Some shamans also conduct healing rituals.
“The Jomon people are believed to have had important shaman leaders who had similar roles as the Buryat shamans. In excavated pit houses identified as having belonged to the village shaman, are often found ritual objects such the clay figurine, the phallic stone, a lamp-shaped vessel and often some pottery vessel that likely contained brewed wine or beverage from wild grapes or elderberries. Ritual masks associated with ritual events are also sometimes thought to be part of the shaman’s kit. It is likely that Jomon shamans officiated or presided over ceremonies in the public areas of their villages and sometimes at the stone circle sites.”
Jomon Ceremonies and Rituals
Kawagoe wrote: The Jomon world was one where many ceremonies and rituals took place. We can only guess at what ceremonies took place thousands of years ago. Some of them were held by the Jomon people probably to honour their great hunters or to commemorate great catches, such as when dolphin skeletons are discovered at certain sites in special arrangement along with ceremonial items. Other ceremonies may have been held when celestial phenomena took place at strategic locations, e.g. where at mountain sites like Mt. Yatsugatake you could see sunrises or sunsets over the mountain, or mountain sites that offered vantages f0r astronomical sightings. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“Magical rites sometimes were held at mysterious stone circles – probably for the purpose of praying for or celebrating bountiful hunting or fishing catches or harvests. Still other ceremonies of nature worship would have taken place in honour of their gods. It seems certain that they held many magical rites and ceremonies which were presided over by an important member of society, such as a shaman leader. See Separate section on Stone Circles.
“During Jomon ceremonies the important members of Jomon society would wear exquisite ornaments – the women wore earrings and shell (or earthen) bracelets, comma-shaped pendants made of jade called magatama while the men wore hip-ornaments made of antler. Many of these items made in faraway village workshops, were prestigious and traded and bartered for with other precious commodities.”
The Jomon may have practiced purification rituals. “Clay figurines were apparently left in the house at the Hiraide site in Nagano prefecture and abandoned and the house was intentionally set fire to and burned. The house destroyed by fire was obviously set apart from other pit houses in the village. Another pit house from the Ubayama site in Chiba prefecture showed that it had been moved with extra postholes. The hearth had been moved as well and the house enlarged and seven times. It was not uncommon for Jomon villagers to reposition supporting posts, relocate their fireplaces and to redig their ditches. Changes of luck and fortune, such as when disease, death or poor harvests hit the villagers, would have signaled them to move and to vacate their unlucky houses.”
Phallic Rods and Other Jomon Ritual Objects
Kawagoe wrote: “Heavily decorated pottery vessels were used for ceremonial occasions. Lamp-shaped pottery vessels were found often alongside clay figurines. Many ceremonial items were lacquered and coloured red with vermilion, oxidised iron or bengara. The colour symbolized magic or the spiritual world. Other ritual artefacts were clay masks and figurines. Clay masks were mostly made to be worn at ceremonial events, although there were also masks that had no eye or mouth holes and composite masks that were mere nose, mouth or ear parts – that could have been decorative ornaments. The clay figurine was another important ritual implement. Shakado was an important ritual center where 1,116 figurines, mostly female figurines, from the Middle Jomon period were discovered. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“Experts have noted that the majority of the figurines represent the female body, particularly a pregnant-looking body. The female figurines of Shakado, as well as those found all over the Jomon world indicate that the Jomon people may have conducted many rites offering prayers for the safe birth of babies, or worship towards some fertility or earth mother goddess. Experts also note that very few completely whole figurines have been found. Most figurines appear to have been made to be easily broken and then the pieces scattered in some kind of ceremonial ritual. Fragments of many figurines were found dispersed over a wide area, in various places and even in neighbouring villages. Because in rural Japan, figurines or straw figures are still used today as substitutes to avoid epidemics and other disasters, some scholars think Jomon figurines may have had the same protective function. Alternatively, they were used in purification rituals. Another theory is that it was a practice that emanated from a popular fertility goddess myth similar to that found in Indonesia, Polynesia, Melanesia and the Americas today.” See Separate Section on Dogu.
“The Jomon people also produced stone rods that appeared to represent the male genital part, stamp-shaped stones and stone “swords”. The phallic stones were often found at the entrance to or on some kind of platform likely an altar in the pit houses. They were usually accompanied by one or more figurines. As with the female figurines, many scholars regard the stone rods as symbols of fertility. Others think that the stone rods were used in hunting rituals involving only men. Very large sized stone rods were often used as upright stones in the centre of stone circles or placed in a pit dwelling. In the Final Jomon period, many of the stone rods and swords were broken and often showed burn marks. In addition to these, several other artefacts were also produced and used for ritual purposes: triangular clay and stone tablets, triangular-prism-shaped clay and stone artefacts, ball-shaped artefacts, seiryuto-shaped stone tools, gyobutsu stone bars and dokko-shaped tools.”
Magic Mushrooms Ritually Used by Jomon People?
Kawagoe wrote: “Ceramic mushrooms have been excavated from a Jomon archaeological site in Akita prefecture, indicating that the Jomon people as with many cultures elsewhere, probably used “magic mushrooms” (i.e. psychoactive mushrooms) ritually. The mushrooms reproduced in clay were found in a ritual context along with other ritual implements such as ceramic human figurines and as such likely indicate their central function and symbolism attached to shamanic rituals possibly at solstice or other festivals where they may have been distributed to other members of the society. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“Around 30 species of magic mushrooms inhabit Japan and the archipelago is among the category of countries with the richest finds of magic mushrooms with more species expected to be found in the future as research advances. Apart from the graphic clay representations, magic mushrooms are referred to in the Konjaku Monogatari Shuu (compiled in the Heian period 12th c.) which records the story of some nuns who climbed a mountain and ate some mushrooms that caused them to dance. Magic mushrooms references in Japan are often referred to as dance-inducing(Odoritake and Maitake) or laughter-inducing (Waraitake) mushrooms.”
Jomon Burial Rituals
Kawagoe wrote: “We don’t know exactly what happened when a death takes place in the Jomon village. But we do know that it was a big event and the Jomon society had important burial rituals. Except for the earliest days of the Jomon era when the dead were buried in flexed body positions in the shellmounds, burials in pits or jars became the standard Jomon practice. Some of the Jomon people had mass burials and village cemeteries with grave markers. Some of the most elaborate burials had to do with jar burials…especially for infants and children...Animals were sometimes buried too, particularly dogs, which must have been Jomon housepets. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“Unfortunately, not many human remains have been found in condition because of the soil in Japan is very acidic. Often these burial pits were located in the central plaza area within the horse-shoe shaped layout of pit-dwellings. The Jomon people sometimes marked their cemeteries of burial pits with circular stone arrangements called kanjo-haiseki-bo in Japanese.
“Cremation was practiced only in rare cases (archaeologists have found burnt skeletal remains from the Early, Late and Final Jomon periods. Even more unusual was the practice of mass cremations where as many as fifteen people may have been cremated together. In Niigata and Nagano regions, burial sites with stone features such as a stone hearth, a feature with flagstones, and a stone feature with pottery containing burnt human bones were found together with the pits of burnt mass bones.
“The Jomon people who lived in the Chiba and Kanagawa prefecture area” buried “the dead person together with house where the death occurred and then the dwelling would be abandoned … or moved to a new location…perhaps in a purification ritual because the home was considered unclean or unlucky. They would place the dead person’s remains directly on the floor of the pit dwelling and then cover the body with shell layers.”
Jar Burials and Other Types of Jomon Burials
Kawagoe wrote: From archaeological excavations, we also know today, that children had a special place in the hearts of the Jomon people. In some places, the Jomon people took great and special care in burying their babies and infants. Burial jars for babies, infants and unborn foetuses, are commonly found in excavations in both eastern as well as western Japan. The jars were placed upright but many jars have no bottoms or have holes drilled in the bottom. 80 percent of the burial jars were of babies and unborn foetuses. 800 infant and child burial jars were discovered at the Sannai Maruyama site alone. Children’s graves are often separate from the adults’. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]
“As the centuries passed, the burial rituals got more and more elaborate. During the Final Jomon stage, a few infants were buried with exquisite ornaments and the burial jars covered with iron oxide which is red in color – the color of magic. In a few places during the Final Jomon period, adults were also buried in burial jars. For both adults and children, the body was first arranged in a curled up body (or anatomically natural) position and then laid in their jars.
“Pit burials were however the more common kind of burials. The Jomon people commonly buried their dead directly in pits without cremation. They placed the bodies in the pits with their knees flexed. The burial pits were circular, oval- or oblong-shaped. Others were flask-shaped – these flask-shaped ones were once used to store food and were later used as burial pits. The most common type of burials were the pit burials.
“A small number of and a less common type of burial (but peculiar to western Japan) was the collective secondary burial. For this type of burial, skeletons were removed from their temporary burial places and then reburied together in masses into a large pit. This large mass pit-cemetery remained open for a long time with new bodies being added from time to time. The pit was then sealed and covered with some kind of structure over it. In another type of secondary burial, the Jomon adult was placed in burial jars a long time after death, perhaps long after the flesh and tissues had rotted away. Interestingly, in some of these burials, the bones were carefully arranged in a rectangular shape. Scholars and scientists still don’t have a clue as to why the Jomon people would go to such trouble to arrange the bones.”
Infant Jar Burials in Jomon Japan
In the abstract to “Mortuary Practices for Children in Jomon Japan: An Approach to Jomon Life History”, Yasuhiro Yamada wrote: “A model of Jomon life history was generated through an analysis of data collected on children’s burials. The data were first classed by the age of the child, as divided into the five stages of neonatal period (up to six months), later infancy (six months to two years), early childhood (two through five years), later childhood (six through twelve years), and adolescence (thirteen through sixteen years). Patterns of burials were then examined for variation by region and temporal period, with burial practices assessed in terms of type of burial facility, number of burials per facility, sex of other individuals in cases of multiple burial, and whether the burial is primary or secondary. The results show that, as for adults, single, primary burials are most prevalent for children, with jar burials most numerous up through infancy, and multiple burials most numerous from then on. [Source: “Mortuary Practices for Children in Jomon Japan: An Approach to Jomon Life History” by Yasuhiro Yamada, Nihon Kokogaku (Journal of the Japanese Archaeological Association); ISSN:1340-8488; Vol.4; No.4; Page.1-39; (1997) /*]
“Further examinations were made of characteristics stemming from the time of burial, such as burial posture, location of the burial near or away from a residence, use of red pigment and of bodily ornaments; the age in weeks of infants in jar burials, and the sex of children in multiple burials were also considered, and the following observations were made. Burial posture differs little from that of adults. Burials connected with residences are common. Red pigment is used from the neonatal stage, but varies regionally. Ages of 38 weeks or more are common for infants in jar burials, which are thought to be examples of early infant deaths. Also, weekly ages of 38 weeks and less are common in pit burials. For burials of children together with adults, interment with women is common through infancy, with burial together with men being practiced from early childhood on. This means that early childhood is a point of change in the child’s sphere of activity. Full-scale use of bodily ornamentation is practiced from early childhood on, but is limited to necklaces and bracelets mainly of beads and shell; no ornamentation is known for the head, waist, and so forth. This is thought due to different principles governing the use of bodily ornaments for adults and children. /*\
“Six sites in which both child and adult burials are known were then examined to provide clear and concrete illustrations of differences in characteristics stemming from the time of burial. A model of Jomon life history, summarizing these observations is presented showing the child’s position with age in the transition to adulthood.
Also check: 1) “Burial practices and social complexity Jomon examples” by Takamune Kawashima, Documenta Praehistorica XXXVIII (2011), which notes that communal graves emerged only in the Kanto region and during the Late Jomon period; “Genealogy in the Ground: Observations of jar burials of the Yayoi period, northern Kyushu, Japan” by Koji Mizoguchi”, 2005; “A Review of Yayoi Period Burial Practices” by Erika Kaneko, Asian Perspective April 1966]
Jomon Grave Goods and Cemeteries
Kawagoe wrote: In the beginning, the Jomon people buried their dead with everyday things like deep jars and stone tools such as arrowheads, scrapers and awls. Then from around the Middle Jomon period, they started burying their dead with precious ornaments in addition to common everyday things. Sometimes the Jomon people were buried th or wearing ornaments such as clay, stone and jade beads, shell bracelets, pendants made of stones, boar ivory, shells, shark teeth and deer antler (these were either waist pendants or knife handles), amber ornaments and slitted stone earrings. In the later years, more and more types of grave goods were seen. Ritual items like clay figurines, stone rods, stone swords and stone and clay tablets, all sorts of pottery, bowls and lacquered wooden goods went together with the Jomon burials. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ] “In many Jomon village settlements, they located their burial pits in clusters either in circles or rows at the center of the village. One common design was to locate the burial area in the center of the settlement, the rest of which radiates outwards in concentric circles. The pits are then surrounded by circular arrangement of so-called “raised-floor” buildings (structures with post-holes). Outside this zone are pit-dwellings and storage pits which form the outermost ring of the concentric patterns. In another popular design, the pit burials are also located at the center of a plaza surrounding by pit dwellings arranged in a horseshoe-shaped or U-shaped pattern. In other settlements, eg. that of Sannai Maruyama, the burial pits are arranged in rows along flattened earth pathways.
“Pit burials are often marked with stone markers often arranged with stone circles (called kanjo haiseki-bo). Some of the pits such as Sannai-Maruyama’s, had wooden frames built into the walls of the pits. There have also been discoveries in Aomori prefecture at the Horiai site of pits with stone walls, i.e. stone coffins. Stone circles were most common during the Late to Final Jomon periods.
“During the Late Jomon period, a kind of graveyard called the kanjo dori appeared in some parts of Hokkaido. Grave pits are found in the centre ring area. There is a circular pit that surrounds the central grave pit area, and on the outside is an embankment dug from the dirt from the inner circular pit. The embankments vary between 0.5 and 5.4 meters. The central pit usually contains mass graves but single graves have also been found. It has been noted that in some settlements, there are two groups of graves, whose bodies were arranged in different directions, either north-south or east west. This may indicated that there were two different groups of people within the same settlement.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go; Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku jomon-japan.jp; Jomon clay figures, Tokyo National Museum; Jomon Man, MIT Education
Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2016