Today I celebrated Setsubun (節分), a yearly festival in which we celebrate the beginning of Spring. Setsubun literally means ‘seasonal division’ and is also associated with the Lunar new year, so is often thought of as a ‘new year’ before Spring!
Note: I use the term ‘demon‘ here to translate the Japanese term ‘oni’. This is simply to get a clear idea of what this particular type of oni are associated as – they bring poverty, illness and misfortune, but they are not equivalent to or associated with the Christian idea of a demon.
Traditionally in Japan, a bean-throwing ritual called mamemaki (豆撒き) takes place. This is a purification ritual in which soy beans are thrown at people wearing oni (demon) masks, while the participants chant “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! (鬼は外! 福は内!)” (Demons out! Good luck in!). Although this ritual seems pretty bizarre to many, the purpose is to purify ones ‘demons’ from the previous year as soy beans are symbolically believed to have purifying properties.
In fact, the West still does something similar at New Year – fireworks! Fireworks for New Year are believed to be an ancient custom most likely from China, where loud noises around the time of the New Year were believed to scare demons away from following us into the next year. This is probably also the reason it’s customary to sing loudly during new year festivities!
Although Setsubun is primarily known for it’s bean-throwing, I didn’t do that ritual today. This is partially because I didn’t have any soy beans and partially because I did a solo ritual and I feel it would be a waste! So instead I did some other acts as a way of recognising Setsubun and the turning of seasons.
Norito and Offerings
Above you can see a photo of my kamidana from today. I made offerings of water, rice and salt, as well as some holly branches from the garden. Holly is associated with setsubun through a type of amulet called a hiiragi iwashi (柊鰯). This is a holly branch with a sardine head that is placed at the front door of a home to ward away demons. As demons are known to dislike the smell of sardines and are scared to get their eyes poked out by the sharp holly, this is an effective way to keep said demons out.
As I do not eat sardines and again wanted to avoid waste, I made my charm with just the holly, and also placed some holly in the offering vases for Inari-Ōkamisama.
I recited the norito Ōharahi no Kotoba (The Great Words of Purification), Inari Shin Paishi (Divine Inari Prayer) and also some personal prayers in English. I also opened the kamidana doors today – something I only do on major Shinto festivals.
Another custom associated with setsubun and various other Shinto events is the use of a hitogata. This is a person-shaped paper ‘doll’ which our name and age is written on. These are usually gotten from priests at shrines but it is also common for Shinto practitioners to create their own.
The hitogata is then rubbed on ones body and then blown on to transfer our kegare (pollution) into it. Depending on the shrine and tradition the doll is then burned ritually, placed in a river or pond to purify it.
As I do not live near a shrine, I created my own hitogata today and burned it outside. I found the process very spiritual and so I plan to do it again in the future. For those of you who would prefer to have a hitogata be ritually burned by a shrine,Shusse Inari Shrine of America do a yearly Setsubun celebration in which you can print, cut out and send in your hitogata for them to purify.
Aside from the above, I also went volunteering on a litter pick in the local woodland. One of the most important things to me when it comes to my own personal faith is to care for the environment. I have signed up to continue to do this throughout the year as I find that walking through woodland on a Monday morning is a great start to my week!
Happy Setsubun everyone! I hope that you are able to move on without your demons and move into a positive and prosperous year!