Max Moerman

Shugendō as Social Practice: Kumano Goōhōin and Inscribed Oaths in Premodern Japan


This presentation examines the articulation of Shugendō within the social domain through an analysis of the ritual, legal, political, and economic practices of oaths (kishōmon) inscribed on printed talismans (goōhōin) produced at the Kumano Shrines.  Goōhōin have been and continue to be produced at institutional centers of Shugendō throughout Japan — such as Ōmine, Kinpusen, Yoshino, Omine, Kurama, Dorogawa, Atagosan, Shigisan, Hakusan, Kubotesan, and Togakushisan – but perhaps most extensively at the three Kumano shrines of Hongū, Shingū, and Nachi.  Such talismans were affixed to buildings for protection from fire and burglary, worn on persons for protection from all range of misfortune, and burned and ingested while taking an oath. The veracity of these oaths was often demonstrated through ordeals such as plunging one’s hand in boiling water or grasping a rod-hot iron.  Their most common use, however, was in the writing of promises and attestations of truth.  Inscribed on the reverse side of these talismans were written pledges which, if broken, carried the threat of not only legal but also divine retribution. Such punishments included disease in the present life and rebirth in hells in future lives.  Blood was often used to sign these documents and occasionally to write them out as well. These talismanic oaths were used by people of all classes in performing acts of truth and asserting legal claims, by warriors to swear their allegiance to commanders, by farmers in pledging unity during peasant uprisings, by plaintiffs, witnesses, and judges in courts of law, by prostitutes and prostitution houses to document economic and sexual servitude, and by those same prostitutes as pledges of undying devotion to their patrons. This rich but largely unstudied body of material will be explored for what it might reveal about the relationship between religious, legal, political, and economic practices.