The Many Many Kami of Shinto Religion

In the past, I’ve touched on the subject of Shinto religion, and its great many kami (神) who range from great deities to little more than nature spirits or revered historical figures. In Japanese Shinto there is a saying: ya-o-yorozu no kami (八百万の神) which means “the Eight Million kami (of Japan)” which captures this sense, not meant to be literal, that there are many, many kami within Shinto. But outside the short-list of well-known kami gods and goddesses, most of this pantheon is fascinating, yet pretty obscure.

Case in point, I’ve been writing more adventure modules for Dungeons and Dragons, and delving more and more into Shinto mythology.1 My particular interest lately has been a goddess, one I had never even heard of before, named Konohana-no-sakuyahime-no-mikoto (木花之佐久夜毘売命). She is often called Konohana-no-sakuyahime for short and is both a goddess of volcanoes, and of cherry blossoms:

Painting by the famous artist, Hokusai, in 1834, courtesy of Wikipedia and the Harvard Art Museum

Konohana-no-sakuyahime is probably best known as the goddess of Mount Fuji itself. You can read more about it on the English-language page of the official shrine of Mount Fuji. The mountain is treated as her form, and thus the mountain is considered sacred ground. Konohana-no-sakuyahime is also the kami of volcanoes in general, not just Mount Fuji.

Like many obscure kami in the Shinto religion, Konohana-no-sakuyahime appears mostly in an ancient text, the Kojiki, a large collection of myths from antiquity.2 In one such myth, posted originally here, she is described as the goddess of cherry blossoms and is married to Hononinigi and soon becomes pregnant. Hononinigi is suspicious of her being pregnant so fast, and she vows that if the child is born safely, it belongs to Hononinigi. To prove her point, she shuts herself in a home and sets it on fire, then delivers the baby in the middle of the blaze. Actually, she delivers three sons. All are safe and unharmed by the blaze, and thus proving that they are Hononinigi’s children after all.

In another story, posted in Wikipedia, Konohana-no-sakuyahime is disguised as a little girl who helps guide a villager to a stream whose waters have healing powers, and can save his village from a plague. The villager carries out the instructions of the little girl, and the village is saved. When he returns to thank the little girl, he comes to realize that the little girl is in fact the goddess herself.

To be clear, such kami are also obscure to most Japanese people as well. A deep understanding of a certain kami or even the pantheon as a whole isn’t really required anyway. It’s more about deepening one’s “spiritual tie” or goshin’en (御神縁 or ご神縁) with a particular kami3 that is really the whole point of Shinto, I would argue.

Still, the fact that a goddess of both volcanoes and cherry blossoms exists is kind of fascinating to me, and one of those examples of how very little of Shinto has been properly conveyed (not to mention translated) to English audiences.

1 Although, my background with Japanese religion is definitely more Buddhist than Shinto, I still have my personal favorite kami, and always happy to visit shrines when I can.

2 Sadly, translations of the Kojiki in English are by and large terrible. Like, really bad. I have heard that the “Phillipi translation” (ISBN: 0691648905) is the best, but it’s also out of print and hard to find. The only sources that sell it are quite expensive too. I hate Amazon’s third-party pricing model, btw. 😦

3 Interestingly, in Japanese, the verb that goes with this is musubu (結ぶ) which literally means to tie (as with a string). So, “spiritual tie” actually makes sense as a translation. 😀

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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