The Jomon world of ceremony and ritual

Since the Jomon period lasted thousands of years and the Jomon people were really groups of many hunter-gathering tribes each with their own customs. Customs often differed from region to region. However, there were no definite boundaries between the regions, instead with the flourishing trade and exchange between the regions, and as people migrated, customs also spread, adapting or changing over time as well. The basic Jomon culture was actually an amalgam or mixture of cultural and customary practices of different groups of people.

The Jomon world of ceremonies and rituals  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.

Stone circles 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.

Jomon ritual artefacts 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 (see above photo on the right)  while the men wore hip-ornaments made of antler (see above photo on the left). Many of these items made in faraway village workshops, were prestigious and traded and bartered for with other precious commodities.

Jomon clay masks at the Kawasaki City Museum

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.

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.

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.

Jomon pottery vessel with snakehead motif on the rim (Kawasaki City Museum)

Animal cult worship 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.

Potwithsnakemotif.jpg Jomon pot with snake motif picture by Heritageofjapansnakemotif.jpg Snake motif up close picture by Heritageofjapan

Jomon pot with a snake motif; right: close up of snake decorations (Tokoro Archaeological site)

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.

Jomon vessel intended for religious use (Kawasaki City Museum)

Ceremonial pottery vessels 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.

Ritual burials with grave goods  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.

Some other well known customs of the Jomon people include:

Tooth extraction  A series of certain healthy teeth were removed or filed at different stages of a person’s life. For example, starting with the removal of upper canines at initiation or puberty, which was followed at the time of marriage by the removal of lower incisors and/or canines, and later on, upper first molars may have been extracted upon the death of parents, while lower premolars are removed when spouses die. Usually the incisor, canine or premolar teeth were removed in a common repetitive pattern, such that the missing teeth would be easily seen during exchanges with people within a particular group.

This may have been done to distinguish members of status, or to distinguish the original members of the community from those who marry into it. The Jomon people had this in common with some other Southeast Asian and African tribes who also practiced tooth extraction to mark passages into adulthood.

Tattooing  Many of the clay figurines suggest that the Jomon people were likely to have practised tattooing. They may have tattooed their bodies and/or their faces. This custom was reported in early Chinese accounts of Japan, and was still practised at the beginning of the 20th century among the Ainu people, who, according to DNA researchers, are the descendants of the Jomon people.

In the beginning, the Jomon people probably regarded tattooing as a means of decorating themselves, as a symbol of status or as a ritual practice. But as time went on…by the Kofun period, tattooing was used to mark criminals as a form of punishment.

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.

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