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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Not just a load of old bollocks…

Notes from Japan: 2

In Innsbruck there is a memorial to the Emperor Maximilian in which a series of statues, larger than life, clutter the side walls of a little church. They all represent heroes of one kind or another and are cast in gunmetal black. Curiously, one of them is our own – or French, depending on your nationality – King Arthur. What is especially striking about this moral and chaste Head of the Round Table are his well hung orbs. Unlike the rest of the tall effigy, his sacred testicles are golden and are only this colour because of the incessant attention given to them by the furtive fingering of young women, seeking successful conception.

I was reminded of these burnished baubles at a Shinto shrine on the edge of Kyoto. In the woods there are the broken-stone hind quarters of a horse statue. They are wrapped in red cloth, as though to heal them. As I watched, an elderly couple arrived and stood behind the horse, in turn. They rubbed its hind quarters first and then their own thighs. A young couple followed suit. All four crawled under it’s half-belly, having to squeeze awkwardly between stone and earth in a final act of atonement to the god, thus represented, together with (I guessed) a prayer that their own infirmities might be eased.

Nearby there is a shrine with lines of blank wooden foxes’ faces which require its supplicants to inscribe their features, offer coins and prayers. At another a stone ball rests on a ledge and after a monetary appeasement, the believer guesses its weight and wishes for some happy outcome to a current impasse. If it is lighter, the result will be propitious. If it is heavier then the outcome may be bleak. At a Buddhist shrine it is possible to ‘buy’ a a twist of paper, with your fortune written on it. If it’s optimistic you keep it but if the augury is poor, then you can drop further coins in a slot and pin it to a wire where a monkey god will rescind its awkward news.

Throughout time all cultures, whether they be the so-called advanced nations or those patronisingly termed ‘primitive’, have externalised their hopes and fears by creating icons upon which they could project their hopes and desires. Alongside scientific reason, magic and superstition continue happily to occupy the human imagination.


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