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Ancient ceremony to repel devils begun on Ishigaki

Date Posted: 2008-07-10

In a prefecture where old time customs and traditions are often being forced to adapt to modern lifestyles, a return to Okinawa’s past is often difficult.

Not always, though, as residents of Okinawa’s southernmost district island of Ishigaki are proving as they resurrect a centuries old ceremony to drive away devils and bring happiness. They see nothing wrong with reaching back into traditional culture to resurrect a bloody, foul smelling ritual that had fallen by the wayside following World War II.

Ishigaki Island residents, who are the first to tell everyone they have a very special life style, are recreating shrines and using raw horse blood to pray devils and evil spirits away, while at the same time calling upon the good spirits to bring happiness to their island. The ceremonial ritual had been practiced for more than 200 years, effectively, according to island elders.

Gathering on bended knees before a recreation of an ancient sailing boat, village residents take a pitcher of horse blood and smear it on the vessel, and on ropes across the island. While the boat is now made from tree leaves and twigs, an imitation boat, the horse blood is real. It’s rotten smelling, too, and that, residents say, is the way it must be.

A foul rotten odor is something devils don’t like, Ishigaki residents say, and devils won’t approach the island when they encounter the smell. It worked decades and centuries ago, and they want the same protections today. Named the Rotten Island ceremony, residents are filling the imitation boat with vermin, daubing it with blood, then putting the boat on the ocean to float away.

“This traditional should be kept on our Islands,” said an elderly resident who argued for restoring the ceremony. “It’s a good custom to protect and promote the islands for us,” he reasoned, and villagers have agreed.

One horse is slaughtered for the ceremony, and nothing, says the village mayor, is wasted. He says the horse meat is good, helping restore weak bodies and protecting against epidemics. The mayor says the horse meat is divided up among villagers, and the blood used for the ceremony and applied to ropes around the island. The blood’s decaying odor will keep the evil spirits and devils away from Ishigaki.

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