Crossing boundaries: a guest feature by Littlestone.

‘Offerings’ at the Swallowhead Spring. Image credit Moss 

The leaving of ribbons, dolls, articles of clothing, crystals, t-lights, even food and drink, at places of historic interest is now generally frowned on in the West and regarded by many as an unwelcome blot on the environment, or at the site of historic interest where they are left. There are, however, countries where the leaving of offerings in the form of ribbons, prayers written on paper which are then tied to the branches of trees or left at the base of stones, is commonplace and forms part of that country’s religion or cultural tradition. In Japan, massive ceremonial straw ropes (shimenawa) are often seen tied round the trunks of old or large trees and these form an intrinsic and deeply embedded aspect of the cultural makeup of the country. Often these trees are not on some secluded mountainside but are found in parks or city centres. Such is the reverence shown by the public towards the spirits that are thought to be, or to dwell within trees, rocks rivers and waterfalls, that it is not uncommon to see passers-by stop, put their hands together and bow respectfully to a tree or stone.

Sacred Japanese oak with shimenawa at the Imagumano Shinto Shrine, Kyoto © Littlestone

In modern Western societies there is a (perhaps) understandable reaction against the neo-pagan tradition of leaving offerings at springs and trees, but we should not look too unkindly on these practices as they seem to be tapping into a pre-Christian tradition and a deeply felt need to revere nature in its more ‘approachable’ manifestations such as trees, springs and stones. What is lacking in the West is a follow-up ceremony for such offerings. In other words, there are few who bother to clean up after an offering has been left at a site. In Japan this problem does not generally arise because, when visiting the grave of a loved one for example, where it is not only customary to take along flowers and burn incense but also to take rice cakes, and perhaps a bottle of sake for the deceased, those offerings are not left behind but taken away after one’s respects to the deceased have been paid. In Japanese this concept is embodied in the wider concept known as kimochi dake itadakimasu. Roughly translated this means ‘I will take only the spirit of your kindness’ and is used for example when thanking (but politely refusing) an offer of help. In practice, no bottles of sake or parcels of rice cakes are left at the family grave; instead they are placed there for a short time while respects to the departed are paid and then they are packed up and taken home to be consumed by members of the deceased family. In other words, only the spirit of the offering is left behind.

The sentiments behind the nature-based Shinto practices of Japan, and the neo-pagan ceremonies of the West, do seem to be broadly similar. What is different between the two cultures is the absence in the West of a ‘Rite of Disposal’ for offerings left at special or sacred places. In Japan there is a ceremony called Dondo Yaki (どんどやき). This is the annual and ritual burning of offerings left at sites throughout the year. To quote from the Let it Burn! blog

If you don’t burn the New Year’s decorations, it’s like holding on to the past. Moreover, holding on to the past is an act that doesn’t help you grow and mature as an individual. It’s a time to say good-bye to the old year and to any old, emotional attachments that might have held you back on a personal or professional level.

Perhaps this is what the West needs for its ever-growing pagan tradition of leaving offerings at sacred sites – an annual burning celebration of the offerings, and worn out dreams, of one year and a clear statement heralding in the next.