Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

The Easter Bunny Conundrum

Is the Easter Bunny a Controversial Christian Symbol or a Godless Pagan Icon?

It’s Easter again. Time for young children to be forced against their will by their parents to put on uncomfortable tight-fitting new Easter clothes so they can be exploited by picture-snapping, cheek-pinching relatives. Then it’s off to Church where suffering tykes have to endure a lengthy and boring Easter Service that they can’t possibly hope to understand.

The only thing that brings them comfort and makes the day worth it is the traditional hunt for colorfully painted Easter eggs left by Santa Claus’s estranged cousin: the Easter Bunny.

Christian Symbol or Furry Pagan Idol?

The Easter Bunny is so thoroughly mixed into Easter traditions that he often upstages the main focus of the holiday namely Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus had to be crucified, buried, and resurrected in order to qualify for a second holiday. The Easter Bunny did not have to go through such ordeals and yet he gets equal if not top billing on Easter.

Due to the bunny’s traditional presence on Easter, some feel he is too Christian of a symbol to use in certain secular situations particularly in government. Recently, the city council of St. Paul, Minnesota, felt it necessary to remove Easter Bunny decorations from its premises lest someone not of the Christian faith become offended by the sight of a toy bunny with a basket of fake Easter eggs.

Apparently no one on St. Paul’s city council has ever had a chat with fundamentalist Christians on this matter. Fundamentalist Christians would have applauded the removal of the Easter Bunny but for different reasons. To them the Easter Bunny is just a bit of leftover godless pagan idolatry.

How did that wascally Easter Bunny worm his way into a holiday that seemingly has nothing to do with him? The rabbit and his close cousin, the hare, have long been regarded as the heralds of spring in ancient cultures throughout many parts of the world. They were seen as symbols of Spring’s promise of new life and fertility.

The Germans in the 16th Century incorporated the old pagan view of the rabbit/hare into a slightly modified new role as Oschter Haws. Oschter Haws it was believed would actually lay a nest of magically colored eggs for all the good girls and boys. One is hesitant to think about what he left for bad children but chances are it would have been less preferable to the lumps of coal Santa would leave for such children.

Eggs like the rabbit had long been seen as symbols of life and renewal. Servants were once given eggs as gifts from their masters on Easter during the Middle Ages. From this came the concept of the Easter Egg but it was not until the late 19th Century that the eggs and bunny would truly come together.

German immigrants to the New World in the 1700s brought over their Oschter Haws tradition. Over time the Easter Bunny tradition was born and became firmly entrenched in American culture.

Overall it should not come as much of a surprise that two completely non-Christian symbols such as the rabbit/hare and eggs have become so tightly woven into the Easter holiday.

The Easter holiday itself represents a bit of early Catholic salesmanship to potential pagan converts. It was noted by Christian missionaries that many pagan cultures already celebrated spring fertility rituals around the same time as the remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. The word Easter, according to the the 8th Century English historian monk Bede, is derived from the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring and fertility, Eostre. The hare is beleived to have been her sacred animal.

The Goddess Eoster and her Hare

Mythologically-speaking the resurrection of Christ, the Easter Bunny, and Easter eggs are very much the same in their symbolism. They all represent new life that comes with the Spring season so it was only natural that pagan converts would retain these images and mesh them with their new faith.

Despite these symbolic similarities, however, some fundamentalist Christians see red every time that heathen bunny hops onto the scene each Easter with his hell-wrought basket of godless Easter eggs – the Easter Basket tradition actually comes from an old Catholic custom of blessing food in a basket on Easter but fundamentalists often don’t hold Catholicism terribly high either above paganism.

An Easter Postcard of an Angel that looks similar to the old Eoster

While the St. Paul city council recently felt the Easter Bunny symbol too Christian, two years ago a fundamentalist sect in Pennsylvania was under no such illusion. They demonstrated their animosity towards this pagan interloper in a religious play.

In trying to get Easter back to its roots with the fertility cults, eggs, maypole dances …. oops! that is: Jesus Christ and the resurrection, the Pennsylvanian Glassport Assembly of God during a morality play decided to whip up on the ole Easter Bunny while chanting: “There is no Easter Bunny! There is no Easter Bunny!”

They whipped and beat a person dressed up as the Easter bunny and broke Easter eggs in a frenzy of Christian cleansing. Their purpose they claimed was to show that Easter is not about the Easter Bunny but about Jesus Christ.

Needless to say many of the 3-6 year old audience members were a bit confused over the message the Glassport Assembly of God was trying to convey. The small young audience members simply wondered through their big bubbly bright tears why the Easter Bunny was getting the stuffing knocked out of him.

With both situations, it’s a case of overreaction coupled with sheer foolishness. The Easter Bunny is a harmless entity much like Santa Claus. If it gives children joy and eases their suffering on Easter Sunday, then more power to the Easter Bunny.

March 22, 2007 Posted by | animals, Blogroll, easter, easter bunny, easter eggs, fertility, life, mythology, spring, tradition | Leave a comment

Japanese Fertility Festival Has A Prominent Guest Of Honor

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The “Good Morning!” shrine is the guest of honor at this Festival

Japanese Shinto rituals can at times be solemn affairs but at Tagata Shrine near Nagoya, it’s rather hard to keep a straight face when an enormous 13 foot (3 meter) long penis rolls by. The gargantuan member is the guest of honor at the Honen-sai festival which is held every spring in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Honen-sai is a fertility festival that has common roots with ancient fertility rituals from around the world.

Fertility festivals are or were world-wide phenomenons whose traditions go back thousands of years ago to the beginning of agriculture. Farming has always been a tricky business subject at times to the whims of fate in the shape of bad weather, hungry animals, and crop sickness. It’s no wonder that people in ancient times tried to win favor from the various invisible powers they beleived in to ensure fate would be kind to their agricultural endeavors.

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The Phallic Sword makes an apt appearance at the Honen-Sai Procession

Ancient societies tended to link human sexuality with fertility of the soil. Fertility deities generally oversaw the fertility of humans, livestock, and farmland all of which were necessary for the survival of a community. Due to this connection, male and female sexual organs were common objects in many fertility rituals around the world. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians used phallic symbols in their fertility festivals to represent the missing severed member of the god Osiris. Osiris had fallen victim to his evil brother, Set, who trapped and later dismembered Osiris’ body. The goddess Isis found the pieces and reassembled them. She could not find his private parts so she fashioned one for him.

Fertility festivals never sat well with the Judeo-Christian crowd. All these sexual overtones and phallic images popping up all over the place disturbed their conservatively-repressed mindset. Jewish prophets railed against the creeping encroachment of paganism and heathen sexuality in Ancient Israelite society. The Catholic Church on one hand stamped out such pagan cults but on the other tried a bit of appeasement to recruit converts. The Church in its earlier days allowed festival days to still be celebrated so long as they were in a Christian setting. This assimilation process allowed some pagan symbols like the Easter Bunny to survive.

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Before the Procession, traditional music is played

When Japan opened its border after two and half centuries of seclusion in the late 19th Century, a number of westerners swarmed into Japan to gawk and wonder at customs that they saw as bizarre and sometimes downright heathen. At that time In the Western world, particularly in the English-speaking parts, prudish Victorian morals held sway over people’s thoughts and emotions. It was the heyday of sexual repression where the rare sight of a woman’s bare ankle could cause a man to swoon in lustful agony.

Some of these Western visitors to Japan who suffered from stuffy Victorian-ethics were quite naturally taken aback by what they saw as the loose morals of Japanese society. Mixed bathing so horrified them that the Japanese segregated the bathhouses and they remain so to this day with some exceptions.

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An Uninhibited Young Girl Posing by the Phallus

One straightlaced visitor was Amy Wilson-Carmichael, a missionary who came to Japan in the 1890s with the lofty noble goal of converting the heathen Japanese to Christianity. One day she chanced upon one of the many local matsuri (festival) that take place ever so often throughout Japan. Today, visitors would count their blessings to have stumbled upon such a celebration. Ms. Wilson-Carmichael, however, did not feel so fortunate.

“…A burst of ‘ all kinds of music,’ Nebuchadnezzar’s orchestra in full swing, drowns our voices…Men and women in exchanged attire and gaudy colours flit past, and mingling with uncanny monster forms dance the wild Matsuri dance with abandonment inconceivable, every step a parody, every gesture a caricature. … Pale, expressionless faces are theirs, dead, vacant, joyless, their heavy half-shut eyes hardly glance at the revelry around them. We turn away heart-sick, for this is heathendom indeed.”

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A Very Graphically Detailed Banner

What Ms. Wilson-Carmichael encountered was a matsuri of common variety – no more decadent than any other local festival around the world. It’s quite obvious by her revulsion that she had never seen a matsuri the likes of the Honen-sai Festival. Her delicate mind no doubt would have snapped and her gentle soul would have gone on to meet her Maker after suffering a massive aneurysm from seeing an enormous phallus paraded past her.

Tagata Shrine’s principal deity is not the male organ but is actually a female, Tamahime-no-mikoto. She was once a daughter of a powerful lord living in the area during Japan’s Kofun Period (300-600AD). Her husband, Takeinadane, was a local prince but he died at an early age fighting in some far off place. The Honen-sai Procession represents a reunion of these two sundered spirits which in turn brings about good blessings for the harvest.

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The Two Deities are Re-united through the Honen-Sai Procession

The Procession begins at Shinmei Shrine in the afternoon. Leading the way is a herald who purifies the path by tossing handfuls of salt. This is similar to the way Sumo wrestlers use salt to purify the ring before entering. Following behind comes a large banner emblazoned with a painted phallus uncomfortably complete for some viewers with hair and veins. After the banner comes two small trees known as sakaki. Pink paper amulets hang from their branches given them the appearance of cherry blossoms. In the past, people used to rip these trees apart at the end of the festival in their eagerness to gain spiritual insurance from disaster while also guaranteeing the fertility of their fields.

Next comes the mikoshi – or portable shrine – of the visiting male deity: Takeinadane-no-mikoto. This symbolic reunion with his former love is an age-old theme that can be found throughout the world in ancient societies. One of the earliest accounts comes from Ancient Mesopotamia, where the god Tammuz died and was sent to the underworld. His lover Ishtar could not live without him and struck a deal with the Guardian of the underworld to allow Tammuz return to the world for a period of time each spring. Thus the returning male god represents the rebirth of life that comes with spring after the death that is winter.

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A Herald purifies the Procession path tossing handfuls of salt

After the male deity comes his enormously exaggerated pride and joy. The large phallus is carved every year from a single cypress tree. The tree is selected and felled in mid-winter then taken to the shrine for purification rituals. Using only traditional tools, the phallus is slowly carved into being. After the festival, the phallus will reside the rest of the year at nearby Shinmei Shrine until it is time to carve the next phallus.

When the large phallus passed by young men would smirk, old women would sigh, young women would blush, and old men would cry. Free sake was handed out to help those of a more prudish nature overcome their shock.

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Unlucky Woman carry Phallus for Good Luck

Following the phallus, comes a group of women all of them 36 years of age who cradle a twenty inch (sixty centimeter) wooden phallus in their arms like it were a baby. 36 is traditionally thought to be an unlucky age for women so the women gain protection as well as energy by carrying these phallus-es. Their revitalized energies in turn help to stimulate the energy of the male deity.

Behind the unlucky ladies comes a group of men carrying yet another phallic symbol that stands upright on long thin board. They sing old laborers’ songs with scarcely concealed sexual overtones.

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Dirty Old Geezers croon a dirty ditty

With all these abounding phallus-es one could easily make the mistaken assumption that it is the male organ which is worshiped at the Honen-sai. This is a common misconception with fertility festivals in general. It is the living-giving energies of the earth which is celebrated. Despite its size and popularity, the Honen-sai Phallus would be physically and spiritually impotent without these energies. Fertility festivals are/were in the minds of the participants a form of energy transference and revitalization. The participants, the fertility symbols, the fertility deities, and the earth share and transfer energy back and forth, each revitalizing the other in a mutually beneficial way.

The image of these ancient fertility festivals have been marred primarily by Judeo-Christians who viewed them as examples of decadent paganism. Today certain elements of modern society in its giggly adolescent attitude towards sex see ancient participants in these festivals as little more than hedonistic swingers. It is true that human sexuality and sexual practices were mixed in with fertility customs but this was ritualized. These ancient societies instinctively knew that sex was important to life. Ancient people, despite being superstitious to the point of sacrificing a fellow or two whenever the rains didn’t come down, seem to have been more mature at least in their attitude towards sex than many so-called modernly-enlightened people today.

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Some serious size overcompensation is going on here

February 8, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, entertainment, fertility, festival, folklore, japan, mythology, sexuality, Shinto, spring, travel | 11 Comments

Setsubun – Devils Driven Out In Japanese Spring Ritual

Japanese Drive Out Devils in Spring Ritual
Setsubun Festival celebrated with a fanfare of bean-throwing exorcisms
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A pair of Japanese Devils terrorize kindergarteners

Once again devils have been driven forth from the homes and workplaces of the Japanese with a hand-full of tossed beans in the age-old rite known as Setsubun. Setsubun, which occurs on February 3, is kind of like Halloween, New Year’s, and Groundhog Day all wrapped into one with a little bit of Christmas and Madri Gras tossed in.

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Grasping hands reach for tossed packs of beans at Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo

Originally, before the adoption of the Western Calendar, Setsubun was the day before the lunar New Year’s. Now it falls coincidentally one day after America’s Groundhog Day. On Feb. 2 Americans, in complete disregard for meteorological science, put their faith for the ending of winter’s cold weather in the auguries of a groundhog’s reaction to its shadow. If it sees its shadow, supposedly six more weeks of winter will follow but if not, spring will come early.

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A Priest blessing objects before a sacred fire

Setsubun is similar to Groundhog Day, without the groundhog and yet with the same desire of hastening an end to winter. Setsubun is seen as the beginning of spring despite February being the coldest month. Wishful thinking or grim humor could perhaps best describe the motives behind the Groundhog Day and Setsubun rituals.

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Sumo Wrestler Tossing Beans Instead Of Opponents

In modern times, we tend to forget how terrible winter could truly be in a time before convenience stores, central heating, and winter fashion. Today, winter means skiing, snowboarding, snowball fights, knee-high boots, and days off from school and work. In the past long winters could mean unbearable cold, famine, sickness, and death. It’s no wonder that these spring rituals were so concerned with bringing winter to a close as soon as possible.

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A Fiercesome Oni – Japanese Devil

With Japan’s version of Groundhog Day, the Japanese don’t have to worry over the precarious nature of an oversized skittish rodent to determine whether winter will end or not. It’s not the shadows of groundhogs that concern the Japanese. It’s the devils infesting their homes that they are worried about. Instead of calling upon the professional services of an exorcist, however, the Japanese take matters into their own hands.

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Buddhist Priests herald the arrival of the brave Demon-quellers

Japanese purify their homes and drive out any unwelcome invisible devils by tossing beans and shouting: “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Good luck in!”). This tradition comes from a Buddhist priest who over 1,000 years ago exorcised devils using beans. Some beliefs say that beans will make the devils go blind, so they flee before the beans hit them.

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The brave Demon-quellers ready to do battle with the dreaded Oni devils

Japanese devils, called oni, are a mix of indigenous spirits and old supernatural immigrants who came over with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th Century AD. Unlike devils of Christian belief, who are entirely evil, Japanese devils can be both good or bad depending on their individual nature or the situation. Following the acceptance of Buddhism, oni devils became mainly associated with causing harm to humans through illnesses and natural disasters. More benevolent devils became the protectors of Buddhist institutions.

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The physical appearance of a typical Japanese demon is that of a large human-shaped creature with a mass of unruly dark hair from which two horns project. They have the requisite horrendously sharp teeth and claws that all monsters must have. Sometimes oni have extra eyes, fingers, or arms. Their skin color varies in hue with red, blue, and green being the most popular. The standard accoutrement of an oni is a cruel-looking iron-studded club of enormous proportions.

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Children vanquishing an oncoming red devil with beans

Oni are powerful creatures, often possessing an impressive array of magical powers. They can change their shapes, control the weather, or summon up fire, and yet a handful of roasted soybeans tossed in their direction can drive them off. If only the Catholic Church knew of this. Their exorcism rituals could be considerably simplified. The movie “The Exorcist” would have been over before the opening title sequence finished had someone just thrown some beans at Linda Blair the moment her voice started sounding funny. However, perhaps it is only Japanese demons who have this allergy to beans.

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Devils easily disposed of with one quick toss

In olden days either beans were not effective or no one knew about them, because there are many stories of oni terrorizing the countryside, killing and looting, and making off with beautiful maidens. They could only be bested by the bravest of heroes. Nowadays, they are symbolically and rather degradedly driven off by packs of bean-throwing kindergarten children. How the mighty have fallen!

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His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, enjoying throwing bean packets on Setsubun

This ritual of humiliation is carried out at a number of temples on February 3rd. Afterwards comes the mame-maki – the bean-throwing ceremony in which large crowds of people will gather to receive beans thrown at them by priests, sumo wrestlers and celebrities. Things get a bit hectic as normally stoic Japanese go wild grasping for beans and other cheap trinkets. It’s similar to the madness that consumes people at Madri Gras in New Orleans when they risk life and limb and possible life-term sentences for murder as they scramble to recover beads that cost less than a dollar thrown from festival floats.

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Mame-Maki: bean-throwing ceremony at Kishbyojin Temple

In Tokyo, the largest crowds of bean-seekers head to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa and Zojo-ji Temple in Hamamatsucho. I went to Zojo-ji one year and watched sumo wrestlers and TV celebrities pelt the crowds with beans, candy, and washcloths. I saw on old lady get beaned in the head with a pack of beans thrown by a muscle-bound sumo wrestler. She quickly recovered, though, and bowled over a younger salary man in order to grab another pack of beans that landed by his feet. I came off much better than she as I only got hit in the head with a rolled-up washcloth. Had it been an orange like they throw at some temples, I might been sent into a coma and gone down under a swarm of bean-grabbing pensioners.

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Dangerous Mame-maki with oranges

In Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo, a small Setsubun procession is made not on Feb. 3rd but on the roving day before the lunar Chinese New Year’s. The long-nose Japanese goblin, the Tengu, is given the honor of throwing beans to drive away devils. The Tengu goblin is pulled along in a type human-drawn chariot. With him march the seven Japanese gods of luck.

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A few of Japan’s Seven Gods of Luck accompany a Tengu in his Devil-quelling mission

In another part of west Tokyo at Hosen-ji Temple in Nakano, Buddhist priest dress up as warrior monks from the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (15th – 16th Century). In sharp contrast to the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism, Japanese warrior monks donned armor and carried the deadly naginata into battle against rival sects and secular warlords.

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Warrior monks at a Setsubun Ritual who were often devils in their own right in the past

They proved to be more trouble to Japan than the devils. They became such a nuisance that in 1571, the great warlord Oda Nobunaga viciously destroyed one of the greatest strongholds of warrior monks at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, north of Kyoto. Nakano’s modern “warrior monks” are a little too long-in-the-tooth to cause much of a nuisance to anyone. Instead of throwing spears, they throw beans, oranges, and peanuts to the gathered assembly.

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Some Japanese Celebrities throwing beans at Zojo-ji Temple

In last year’s record-setting winter of low temperatures and heavy snowfall, the Spring ritual of Setsubun did not seem to have had much effect on the devils of winter. When the sun had set that day, the temperatures plunged drastically. A few days later it snowed again in Tokyo. Also in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where every Groundhog Day people gather to watch the actions of Phil, the town’s famous Groundhog weather forecaster, the prediction was for six more weeks of winter. This year with the warm temperatures, it probably comes as no surprise that Phil predicted an early Spring.

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A Demonic Bag of Chips looks on in amusement as his bean-allergic brethern flee

The most important part of Setsubun is a reminder to eat healthy to thus ensure yourself of a life that is long, healthy, and hopefully Devil-free!

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Longnosed Tengu goblin driving away devils


Strong Foes with an Achilles’ Heel to Health Food¬†
Vampires and Devils beaten by vegetables

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Japanese devils despite all their strength, meanness, and magical abilities seem to be easy pushovers if all that it takes is a couple of tossed beans to get rid of them. However, they are not alone in the supernatural world of night terrors with such an odd weakness. Further down the power scale but still a threat in its own right is the vampire of Western folklore. These undead dangers possess superhuman strength, unnaturally prolonged lives, the ability to change shape from bat to mist, and the power to hypnotize their victims before they drain them of their precious life blood. Vampires are notoriously difficult to kill and yet one clove of garlic will send these unholy terrors packing.

If one looks at the situation from both a folklore and medical point of view, one can that the devils and vampires represent not only bad luck but also bad health. Vampires with their pale skin and thirst for blood represent a kind of blood disease. Eating garlic promotes healthy blood circulation so garlic-eaters will never have to worry about becoming a vampire. With Japanese devils, beans represent good health and life. As part of the Setsubun ritual, people eat the number of beans that correspond to their age. Following these superstitious traditions, a person is actually ensuring their health and long life.

February 6, 2007 Posted by | asashoryu, Blogroll, demons, devils, festival, folklore, Groundhog Day, japan, life, mythology, Setsubun, Spirits, spring, sumo, tokyo, tradition, travel, vampire | 16 Comments