The Catalpa Bow by Carmen Blacker

The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan
Carmen Blacker
Routledge, 1999
384 pages

The Catalpa Bow is a gold mine for lesser known Japanese religious practices, and it’s a shame that this book is often overlooked. Unlike a lot of books that pertain to Japan and its religions, The Catalpa Bow doesn’t pull any punches and the author doesn’t sugar coat or hide her data behind any amount of political agendas as so many books seem to do. The Catalpa Bow discusses a variety of religious practices within Japan, but Blacker mainly focuses on the practices surrounding various mediums and ascetics.

The book starts out with a brief overview of the Japanese religious structure. Blacker goes over the way that religion changed within Japan, covering the basics of Shinto origins and how those practices morphed once Buddhism was introduced into the country. She also goes into some depth regarding how later government influences changed the topography of the Japanese religious landscape and the impact that the government had as a whole.

Once she has set up a foundation to work on, she goes into detail about the various roles and powers that mediums and ascetics are said to have in Japan and the methods and trials that people go through to gain and maintain these powers. Blacker then wraps up her book with methods of how the Japanese might do spirit work or perform spirit journeys as well as discussing oracle methods and exorcism methods. All in all, the book is incredibly informative and is written with a lot of respect for the culture and the people that are the subject of Blacker’s research. Additionally, unlike a lot of authors, Blacker experienced a large portion of her topics first hand- going through some of the same trials and procedures that the other ascetics and mediums were going through (such as fire walking, fasting, sutra recitation, etc).

This book is definitely written with an academic slant, though I don’t think that it’s dry in its approach. Blacker does a good job of giving you a wide foundation of terms and background information so that you should be able to pick this book up and follow along even if you don’t have a lot of pre-existing knowledge of Japan or its religious practices. Blacker discusses a lot of things that I have never seen mentioned in any other book, and I definitely would recommend this book to others, as I feel it captures a glimpse of Japanese religion that just doesn’t exist in very much capacity in the modern era. I feel like her book peels back the layers of time and shows you a glimpse of Japanese religion before the modern era took over and it definitely has left me wanting to learn more about pre-WWII era Shinto. Additionally, a lot of the topics discussed in the book have applied to my current religious practice and have given me ways to reconsider and re-evaluate some of the stuff I do when interacting with gods.

Here are some excerpts from the book that I found interesting:

The term yorishiro also describes a wide variety of objects used as temporary vessels for the kami. Many yorishiro were long and thin in shape—as a tree, a banner, a wand—as though the numinous presence, like lightning streaking down a conductor, could be induced by such means to descend from his higher plane to ours. Thus trees, particularly pine trees, have always been a favourite vehicle for the kami’s descent. (p. 20)

The power-giving qualities of seclusion in darkness have been interestingly explained by Origuchi Shinobu. Sacred power is often manifested in Japan, he writes, inside a sealed vessel. In the darkness of this vessel it gestates and grows, until eventually it bursts its covering and emerges into the world. … Before sacred power, as manifested in a being from the other world, can buist its skin and appear in our world, it must pass a period of gestation in the darkness of a sealed vessel. Likewise the ascetic who wishes to acquire sacred power undergoes a period of gestation in the nearest he can find to an utsubo vessel, a cave or darkened room. In this womb-like stillness he undergoes his fasts and recites his words of power, emerging only to stand beneath his waterfall. (p. 77)

5 pawprints out of 5.

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2 Comments

  1. elnigma said,

    September 25, 2013 at 9:36 am

    beautiful book 🙂

  2. March 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    […] Read the full review […]


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