Mundane and Divine Intertwined

On Shinto, from Nyri Bakkalian

Shinto, the religion indigenous to Japan, is an old, diverse and incredibly multifaceted thing. Its precise beginning is unclear. The various shrine networks devoted to particular kami, or deities, have rituals and rules and common practices but is not so clear on any sort of unifying dogma of the sort other religions possess. What we call Shinto today is more of an aggregate of connected traditions than a single entity, only under one umbrella now because of the nationalists and nativists who forcibly tore it from its older, more closely tied syncretic state with local forms of Buddhism in the 1870s. Any practitioner inside or outside of Japan, solitary or not, would do well to mindfully square with this, and with the legacy of nationalist-coopted state Shinto and its role in Japan’s empire building from 1868 to 1945. Those of us outside of Japan must also understand that the indigenous spirits of our places of residence are not the gods of Japan.

But even with these things understood, being a Shintoist outside of Japan is a challenge. In a sense, as a Shintoist in the eastern United States, I suppose I’m adrift. Shinto is inclusive of non-Japanese people but does not proselytize, so its spread outside its native soil is relatively limited compared to other world religions. My religious minority is a minority in the extreme in North America. If I wanted community in person, I’m on the wrong end of the continent for it.

The nearest properly staffed Shinto shrine is Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, 2500 miles away in Granite Falls, Washington. There’s another, newer shrine, Shusse Inari Shrine of America, just being organized in Los Angeles. A third, usually unstaffed shrine stands in Colorado. While sect Shinto has its own places of worship in North America, for shrine Shinto, these three are all there is. Connecting with their affiliated parishioners has helped, to a point. Ultimately, though, none of these enshrine Hachiman-himekami, the goddess of battle and motherhood enshrined by the Date clan, who is my tutelary deity.

I have the advantage, thanks to my graduate-level training in history, of advanced Japanese language skill. I also have the advantage of prior history in Japan, though it was over a decade ago now. I keep a home altar as best I can, offer what offerings I can, and observe the festival days of my home shrine, Sendai’s Kameoka Hachiman Shrine, as observantly as I can.

These practices and contacts too, only go so far. The simple fact of the matter remains: I am thousands of miles away from my nearest place of worship. So in a sense, I suppose I’m adrift.

So, without a shrine and without in-person community, what’s a solitary, fish-out-of water devotee to a Japanese spirit of battle and motherhood to do?

A basic tenet of Shinto, beyond its well known reverence for nature, is its belief in the fact that all things, living and inanimate, have a spark of the divine in them. It is, thus, unsurprising to me that shrines big and small are everywhere in Japan. They’re seamlessly mixed in with both urban and rural surroundings: in forests and atop skyscrapers, in little corners beside shopping arcades and in parking lots beside universities. With such ubiquity, they’re part of the everyday. Folktales further underline this: they tell of gods in the streets. Far from standing aloof on clouds or atop mountains– though yes, some of them do– by and large, they live beside us and walk among us. They drink the same booze, eat the same food, and breathe the same air. Sometimes, they take on human forms and discreetly interact with our society even more closely. Though they can do things we can’t, they are our neighbors the same as humans or animals.

This all seems, to me, to point to something fundamental in my faith: the sacred and the mundane are inextricably intertwined. This is not to say that purity, especially ritual purity, is not a concern– rather that although there are dedicated sacred spaces where the gods call home, they are no more contained to them than we are to our homes.

Realizing this interconnectedness, in turn, opened the door to an exciting new range of possibility for me. For after all, if the sacred and mundane are so intertwined, doesn’t that mean there is seemingly endless opportunity for putting faith into action?

Sendai at Dawn

It’s been nearly nine years. I have yet to return to Sendai and pay my respects at my home shrine. Yet there are any number of things, now, where I can see the influence of my faith in the actions I take in the world in general and my local community in particular.

I find that environmental destruction– be it corporate polluters pushing deregulation, or careless locals littering my neighborhood’s sidewalks and the little forest nearby– offends my religion. If there is a spark of the divine everywhere, if we are neighbors with the gods in this world, I cannot tolerate environmental disregard. There’s less I can do directly about industry lobbyists, though I speak as directly and as forcefully as I can to government officials about these issues, in the perhaps vain hope that they’ll listen. More immediately than that, I can, and do, clean up neighborhood trash and keep a modest garden.

I take involvement in my local LGBTQ community seriously, too. Being a queer woman myself, this is already in my interest, but as I pray to a goddess whose purview included protection of same-sex couples, I also find advocacy and involvement in community activities have an added dimension of spiritual significance. By going the extra mile in calling out institutional discrimination and advocating for new policies, by being a listening ear and offering support and advice, by helping facilitate as simple a safe space as a community game night, and even by simply being visible as a queer woman, I see myself as doing the work of my gods in the world around me.

Another concept my faith teaches me is the importance of harmony (wa in Japanese): harmony between humans, harmony between humans and the divine, and harmony with nature. So I do my utmost to teach, to connect, and to build bridges in the world around me.

It may be a long time before I can return to Japan and pray in the place my guardian deity calls home. In the meantime, I plan to have something to show for it when I do.


Nyri Bakkalian

Nyri A. Bakkalian, Ph.D. is a queer Armenian-American by birth, a military historian by training, and a proud Pittsburgher by choice. Her writing, art, and photography have appeared in Gutsy Broads, Metropolis Japan, The Copperfield Review, Con course, The Raven Chronicles, Inklette, QueerPGH, and other venues. What’s her secret, you ask? Garlic and Turkish coffee. But really, mostly Turkish coffee. Follow her blog at sparrowdreams.com , support her writing at shiogamawaves.com, and come say hello to her on Twitter at @riversidewings


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Equinox Musings – Connections

“We dream of space travel to distant planets, of the stars, all the while forgetting that the stuff that makes the stars, that makes the universe, makes us too.”

From Emma Kathryn

pexels-photo-323314

The world is a mysterious place.

It’s funny to think that so many go through their lives oblivious to the magical other-world that resides within this one (or perhaps it is this world that resides in the magical one), either way, so many people are unaware of it.

We’ve forgotten we are a part of it.

Instead of going out and living, truly living and connecting with this world, we watch films that take us to new and fantastical worlds, we watch nature via documentaries through our telly boxes. We dream of space travel to distant planets, of the stars, all the while forgetting that the stuff that makes the stars, that makes the universe, makes us too.

And in the forgetting of our real world and our real selves, we are sold false ones instead. We buy endless crap to try to fill the void, thinking that if we just buy this new phone or that brand of clothing or this new car, then we’ll feel better. Only it never works. We might feel better momentarily, that is until the novelty of the new stuff wears off and they just become things, like the rest of the things we buy. The circle is never-ending, at least until you take a step back and realise it’s all shit, all designed to keep us spending, to keep us docile. It’s time to break the cycle.

As I write this, it is the spring equinox, or if you follow the wheel of the year, Ostara. I’m outside, in my garden, or rather sitting on my porch. Sunrise is still ten minutes or so away. I love this time of day, there’s no one around, no sounds of traffic. It’s like you can actually really relax.

It’s cold still, though the last of the snow has melted and narcissus and crocus are almost ready to bloom, to unfurl their yellow and purple petals, providing the first splash of colour of the season.

The dawn chorus is in full swing as the birds begin to get ready for the mating season, pairing up and nesting. There’s a couple of blackbirds that nest in the wall of ivy that grows in my garden, just beside the house, as well as a quarrel of sparrows. Every morning, the male blackbird perches in the wild cherry tree that grows at the front of my garden and sings his little black heart out, marking his territory. His song is crystal clear and melodic. It cuts through the early morning air with the delicate clarity of a glass bell, combining with the rest of the feathered choir. Yes, the dawn chorus is truly one of my favourite things about spring time.

If Imbolc is a time for the unfurling of roots, of planning and scheming, then Ostara is the time for those plans, so carefully laid down, to be put into action. The season of fertility and growth is upon us, everything is beginning to awaken. Spring is a time of energy and activity, and so we too must take our cues from nature, from the season. It is time for us to begin our work.

Sometimes I think that we, as a species, have fallen out of sync with the natural cycles of earth and of nature. The modern technological world has made it so easy for us. We live in climate controlled homes all year round; our days stay remarkably (or perhaps unremarkably) the same, day in day out. We get up, we go to work for eight or more hours a day, too tired to pursue our own interests, and it’s the same with our children too, except they are in school for the best part of the day, and longer if the parents rely on the school for childcare.

I’m not proposing (here at least) that we shun the comforts of home, or that you quit your job tomorrow ( regular readers will know how I feel about the capitalist system and how we are enslaved to it), instead, I suggest that we make a start in reconnecting to the land, to nature.

To retune ourselves to the natural rhythms of life, to the cycles of nature and the land in our own locality means that we must be willing to put in at least a little effort. It’s not enough to visualise in meditation sitting out in nature, to imagine a deep connection to it. It’s certainly not enough if you never make an effort to get outside.

In mainstream paganism, I feel that the natural world is sometimes overly romanticised – think the earth mother offering us all of her gifts, her bounty. I guess you can tell that I’m going to disagree with this view of nature. Nature does indeed give us all that we need to live, but that does not mean that these things are easy to come by, that we don’t have to put in the work or effort. It doesn’t mean we can just do what we want, take what we want. Nature is not all love and light, and to go out without understanding this is to risk your own safety.

The pagan mythic of the wild wood and building a connection, a relationship with it or any other large natural formation, mountain, lake, whatever, is indeed romantic, and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want that. But for many, the reality is only a dream. For sometimes it can be hard for us pagans to realise that sometimes, quite often in fact, the wild wood, the mountain, the lake, do not want a relationship with us. It’s true. I have felt it myself.

I took my dogs out once, not to my normal woods, the ones I write about here, but to a larger one. I am a witch, and tracks are not for me, so off the track we went. It was such a nice walk, a warm spring day, the dogs were running through the trees, loving their freedom. We walked and walked until we came to a part of the woods I didn’t know. I was looking forward to exploring, always on the look out for plants to forage and what not, but then the atmosphere changed. I thought it was just me, spooking myself, and so I forced myself onwards. I looked back to find the dogs waiting about  two or three metres back, and no matter how much I called, whistled and cajoled, they wouldn’t go any further. Instead we turned back the way we had come.

Sometimes we are just not wanted. I believe it’s because the land remembers, and though we as individuals may be innocent, the crimes committed against the land by humanity are too much and thus great effort is required to regain what we have lost. The land remembers.

So with all of that said, building a relationship with the land, with nature needs to start small, and the best way to do this is to start with where you live. It doesn’t matter where you reside either, just for the record, whether that be the city, town or countryside. Before, when I’ve written on the subject, I’ve had people say that it’s all well and good for us country folk to talk about building a connection to the land, but for those who live in cities, then to do so costs money and time. To that I say forging a connection does take time, of course, but I truly believe you do not have to spend a penny. You don’t need to transport yourself away from where you live. Every place has a spirit, and forming relationships with the genius loci, the spirit of the place where you live will be more than fulfilling, even if it’s a relationship with a stunted and lonely tree, a patch of wasteland where only weeds grow (of course the sorcerers and witches will know that really, there’s no such thing as a weed,an unwanted plant!).

Let the season of fertility and growth inspire you. Take yourself outside, go for a walk around your neighbourhood, learn the natural rhythms and cycles where you live, what grows where.

The best place to forge relationships with the land and spirits of place is the place where you live. Let Ostara be the time for action.

Happy Ostara.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!

You can follow Emma on Facebook


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Lost Watercourses and Resacredization

The watercourses of my local landscape were once considered very sacred. The river Ribble was venerated by the Romano-British people as Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’. The boundaries of the settlements of Penwortham and Preston were defined by freely flowing streams whose deities would have been regarded as powerful guardian spirits.

Life depended on clean, pure water drawn from wells rising from underground sources. Rows of women queued on Petticoat Alley to collect their morning’s fill. Many wells possessed miraculous and healing properties. Ladywell and St Mary’s Well were important sites of pilgrimage. Mineral springs on New Hall Lane were renowned for curing eye ailments.

The brooks that form the perimeters of Penwortham can still be walked. However not a single glimpse of fresh free flowing water can be seen in Preston anymore. Every water course has been culverted. They can be traced by following signs: Syke Hill, Syke Street, Moor Brook and walking dips and shallows in roads and parks. Put your ear to the drain on Main Sprit Weind after a night of heavy rain and the river Syke can be heard. They’re still there; vegetationless, fishless in gloomy grey tunnels that may never again see the light of day. Their deities forgotten. Unrevered.

All the wells have vanished. Ladywell lies under the car park of the Brunel student halls. I doubt a single student knows of the well for which their flats were named. The springs on New Hall Lane are built over by houses. St Mary’s Well in Penwortham possesses the most tragic story of all. During the creation of Riversway Dockland the Ribble was moved from her natural course to beside Castle Hill. During this process a breach in the sandstone bedrock shattered the hill’s aquifer. St Mary’s Well and the nearby St Anne’s Well both dried up.

This must have been a cataclysmic event for the local people, some of whom walked a mile from Middleforth every day to collect water from St Mary’s Well. Their sacred site was lost forever. If there was outcry and talk of omens not a single record remains. What we do know is piped water arrived soon afterward at a hefty fee. St Mary’s Well was buried when the A59 was widened and its site is only recognised on old maps.

The stories of the disappearance of these rivers, streams and wells form a damning reflection on the way we treat our sacred landscapes. Whilst in the south of England a good number of ‘heritage sites’ have been preserved, in the heavily industrialised north there are few places of sacred or even historic interest undestroyed. A prime example is a Roman industrial site in Walton-le-dale equivalent to a major tourist attraction on the Rhine. Our local developers decided this would make a good location for a bowling alley.

The destruction of sacred places results from capitalism’s commodification of the whole of nature. Nothing is holy. Nothing lies outside its discourse. This puts it at loggerheads with paganism, which is based on the assumption all of nature is sacred. This raises the question: what can be done to win back the sanctity of nature from capitalism’s commodifying grasp?

It is my belief each time we affirm our relationship with the sacred we also defy capitalism. We give value to what cannot be commodified. For me the choice to learn the stories of my local landscape, my gods and ancestors and share them in my communities instead of following a ‘proper’ career path is a political choice.

The stories of what we have lost illustrate the value of what we have. And how much we will lose if fracking is allowed across the UK along with the continuous development of roads and properties.

Are stories enough to bring about material change? To bring down the system? It is my belief each realisation and action it inspires helps. Each recognition of the sacred. Each turn away from consumerism.

It has taken capitalism centuries to develop (the term ‘capitale’ was first used in the 12th C). It may take centuries to bring it down. Yet as the lost watercourses slowly eat their way through concrete, groping their way to a land of sunlight of vegetation we must retain our focus. Ensure that by future generations their emergence is welcomed back with reverence into a world resacredized.


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