The Nara Court practised harae purification rituals by the river

During the Nara period, river rituals were important and frequent events for the court and for the common people as well. The Oho-harae or Great Purification, a great purification rite performed by the Imperial court, was established as one of the most important and most solemn ceremonies of the Shinto religion. But the ceremonial rite was also performed by the population of the whole country —  from the Princes and ministers, the higher and lower officials of the Imperial court down to the common people, all had to be purified and freed from sins, pollutions and calamities.

O-harae purification ritual (artist impression reconstructing the o-harae event at Saragunjouri iseki)

The chief ceremonial rite was performed in the capital, near the South Gate or Suzaku-mon Gate (Gate of the Scarlet Bird) of the imperial palace, and it was essentially the purification of the court, a rite carried out to purify all the higher and lower officials of the Imperial court. The ceremonial rite was also performed at all the public shrines of the whole country.

Human shaped effigies

At the Saragunjouri-iseki site of what was once the ancient Heijo capital, the following harae artifacts have been recovered:  one human-shaped bronze effigy; five human-shaped wooden effigies and four wooden effigies in the shape of pointed board (see image above); five horse-shaped clay figurine; five pottery pieces with human face in black ink and six pieces of miniature pottery (see image immediately following);

Pottery pieces with faces painted in black ink

… and one votive tablet picturing a horse.

Wooden tablet horse effigy

Pottery with faces painted in black ink have been excavated from the Mizutare archaeological site of Nagaoka Palace in Kyoto Prefecture.

Pottery with faces painted in black ink lying on old riverbed at the Mizutare site

Archaeologists have also found fragments of earthenware jars that had been tossed into a dried-up riverbed of a tributary of the Yamatogawa River (in today’s Yao city, Osaka)  in a ritual to bring salvation and ward off illness. Distinctive faces had been painted in black ink on the small pottery jars. Along with the pottery jars, seven types of coins were discovered, along with Kocho-Junisen copper coins from the Nara (710-784) period (as well as Kangen-Taiho coins minted in the 958 which suggests the practice continued through the early Heian (794-1185) period).

Boat effigies found in old riverbed at Kannonji site

Excavated from the Kannonji site, which were once old riverbeds of a branch of the Yoshino River during the Nara period, were  large numbers of artifacts, including pottery and wooden boat effigies and other implements.  Also among the artifacts are thin boards shaped into a human outline, and faces drawn in ink. One board is split down the center, broken into upper and lower halves has realistically painted thick eyebrows, and the beard and moustache.  Together with the boat effigies made of wood, they are thought to have been used in a harae rite.

Wooden human effigy, Kannonji site

Origin of ritual:
River rituals involving human sacrifices to river deities were prevalent on the Chinese continent in the Shang, Zhou and Warring States eras and may have imported by Chinese immigrants into Japan over the long periods of time. The Korean kingdoms too had numerous river and water deities to whom the people tried to appease through their offerings.
In Japan, offerings of pottery at river sites had also been made since prehistoric or protohistoric times by local communities, Excavated finds by archaeologists indicate the purification ritual practice began at least as early as the Kofun era (large quantities of miniature earthern pots were found from the river area of the Mizokui site, Ibaraki city, Osaka; one of them with a face etched onto the pottery).
Some scholars believe that the use of effigies in Nara period river rituals in particular is associated with ancient Chinese witchcraft techniques may go back to the Han dynasty or even earlier as outlined in Chi Songzi zhangli (赤松子章曆 an important Taoist text and ritual compilation) were later introduced into Japan.
Shinto practitioners and experts in Japan today trace the various rites which go by the name of harae (or o-harae) to the Kojiki myth of  the act of  washing in the sea which Izanagi-no-kami performed after his return from Yomi, the land of the dead (to which he had followed his wife Izanami) in order to purify himself from the uncleanness and polluting elements he had come into contact with there.
In its earliest form of the custom, the ritual offerings made were a fine or penalty imposed upon those who had committed offences or in contracted pollution, under which term all crimes and sins were at first included. The ritual offerings sometimes took the form of human, animal or other food sacrifices, as well as other items of value. In the Nara period the practice was declared to be barbaric, so substitutive pottery, human or animal effigies, and coin offerings became the norm.
Until the Nara period, o-harae ablution events were performed at various irregular times and as the need arose, but from the Nara period onwards, o-harae became regular bi-annual court and shrine events  as carried over till today.  The “Great Purification” came to be held regularly on the 30th June and 31st December. This was because the mid-ninth century, the Nara court in adopting Chinese Tang dynasty style of court etiquette and government, had established an official bureau of yin-yang geomancy masters who went to work institutionalizing and regulating the expulsion rituals and the management of pollution taboos.
Among materials recently discovered in Kyoto, was a document in Chinese heavily based in Chinese Taoism beliefs titled Helin jiwen that dates from the 6th year (1474) of the Bunmei period. The text describes a riverside expulsion ceremony (bachu) presided over by the emperor. It details how the effigies serve as substitutes for the emperor’s person and that their use obviates the possibility of calamities arising from seven different emotional states of the officiant. The text indicates startling similarities between the Japanese and Chinese practices, and an overwhelming similar use of terminology. In the Kyoto documents are also references to the use of effigies in sacrifices — the Japanese use of effigies to attract and deflect spirits also shows a similarity with Chinese practices. The Helin jiwen documents the use of effigies made from seven different types of material to deflect calamity coming from the seven directions [the four cardinal points,the centre, heaven and the underworld].
The adoption and practice of Tao beliefs and principles at the Nara court was however not all smooth-going and could prove hazardous, it seems, for a courtier. The Nara court saw a fierce rivalry between court practitioners of yin-yang practices and the ecclesiastical order of Buddhist priests. Magical yin-yang practices were tightly supervised at the Nara court — the Nara court, for example, issued a prohibition against the use of Taoist magical charms for driving out malign spirits and curing illnesses (which was not the case with the Tang Chinese court).  There were also severe punishments those who engaged in the observation of heavenly portents for the purpose of interpreting good and bad omens to beguile peasants. The high ranking minister Prince Nagaya’s fall had had to do with his Taoist-like practices that included the use of elixirs and incantations employed in rites aimed at healing the ailing crown prince – due to rumours of the day that he had made use of a curse to kill the crown prince  born to Komyoshi consort of Shomu. During the reign of Kammu, the head yin-yang master of the Yin-yang Bureau was accused of performing magical curses against Kammu and joining in a plot to rebel.
The great purification at the court came to an end as a result of the Ōnin War (1467-77), but harae practices continued to be practised among the common folk, taking on great popularity at shrines such as Kamo Wakeikazura jinja and Kamo Mioya jinja in Kyōto and Sumiyoshi jinja in Ōsaka. Later, the twelfth month purification (harae) was abandoned by the people and the sixth month purification became increasingly grander in scale, and becoming known specifically as nagoshi no harae.
Folk rituals of nagoshi at shrines circular rings or “gates” made of miscanthus reed grass (chinowa) are also commonly included, in addition to customs of transferring one’s defilement onto a puppet that is then floated down a river and of purifying oneself in seawater.  These large rings are made of reeds bundled together with paper strips and set up under a shrine’s torii, or in front of its worship hall (haiden). Worshippers, led by the chief priest (gūji), pass through the reed gate consisting of  a hoop or ring of plaited miscanthus grass. By tradition, the rings are a magical charm against pestilence, and the worshippers are purified of all defilements (kegare) and protected from misfortune as they pass through the gate, hoops or rings.  This practice originates from a legend appearing in the “Bingo Fudoki,” in which Somin Shōrai, in return for housing Susano no mikoto for the night, was given a magical chinowa ring as protection against epidemic.
Today, we can still see  the 6th month and 12th month “Great Purification” celebrated at shrines in Japan on the 30th June and 31st December. Variations of the Nara human wooden or pottery effigie can still be found in various provinces  — usually in the casting into a river of human images made of grass or hemp, or images of human or horse paper dolls. One such event is the Great Purification” Minazuki no Harae or Nagoshi no harae which according to the Yakumo Goshu (出雲語書), the object being to get rid of and appease evil gods (hence the name nagoshi meaning “appeasing” and no harae, “sweeping away. The chinowa rite is also well and alive in many local festivals.

The Dawning Age; A Japanese Archaeology Exhibition on Return from Germany, Nara National Museum Saragunjouri-iseki items are a listed exhibit item / National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara
Kannonji / Shikiji mokkan and effigies Hakkutsu sareta Nihon retto 2007 [Excavations in the Japanese Archipelago, 2007] (Bunkacho [Agency for Cultural Affairs], ed., Asahi Shimbunsha 2007) (Retr. from

財団法人 大阪府文化財センター (Mizokui site, Osaka)

よみがえる日本の古代 金関 恕, 早川 和子 / 出版社: 小学館 / ISBN-13: 978-4096261361 / 発売日: 2007/7/18 (Source of images above courtesy of 小学館)

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