Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

A Portrait of Abe No Seimei

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

A Portrait of Abe No Seimei

Article excerpt

Abe no Seimei is one of the most famous figures in the history of Onmyodo, with many tales attached to his name that attribute to him special powers and accomplishments. This article looks at the historical records concerning Abe no Seimei and tries to reconstruct what can be known historically of his life and actions. The records show that Abe no Seimei did not reach prominence and a high rank until late in his life, well over sixty years of age. The article concludes that if the onmyoji Abe no Seimei had not lived a long life, he probably would not have achieved the unusual fame that developed in later periods.

KEYWORDS: Abe no Seimei-henbai-demons-onmyoji-ritsuryo code-shikigami-festival rituals

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During the time that Abe no Seimei ... (921-1005)1 was active, there was a nobleman, Fujiwara no Yukinari ... (972-1027), who was one of the three outstanding calligraphers of his day. We know from his diary, Gonki ... (Choho 2 [1000].10.11.), that Seimei was regarded at the time as the "preeminent practitioner of Onmyodo" (michi no kesshutsusha ...).

On the eleventh day of the tenth month of Ch.ho 2, the reconstruction of the Imperial Palace, which had previously been destroyed in a fire, was finally completed. On that day, Emperor Ichij. (980.1011, r. 986.1011) moved from his temporary residence into the new palace building, at which time Seimei performed the magical step called henbai ... According to Yukinari, this was the first time henbai had been performed on such an occasion. Formerly when the emperor had entered a new palace, a ritual act involving the scattering of uncooked grains of rice (sangu ...) had been made, a rite that came under the purview of the Onmy.ry. ... (Bureau of Yin and Yang), the government office in charge of divination, calendars, astrology, and time-keeping. So in 1000, Abe no Seimei not only performed a rite different from precedent, but it was done by someone who was not an officer of the Onmy.ry.. As to why this was permitted, Yukinari wrote, "It was because Seimei was the preeminent practitioner of (onmy.)d. that he attended on the emperor" (Gonki, Ch.h. 2.10.11).

The henbai that Seimei performed on that occasion was a series of special steps used to tread the ground accompanied by incantations. An example of its use prior to 1000 appears in the diary of Taira no Chikanobu ... (945.1017), Chikanobu-ky. ki, in an item dated Ten'en 2 (974).2.9. A prominent onmyoji ... called Kamo no Yasunori ... performed henbai on behalf of Minamoto no Michisato ... who was leaving for the province of Sanuki to which he had been appointed Provisional Assistant Governor. It is easy to imagine that this was done to ensure him safety on the road. For people of the time, henbai seems to have been a magical device to guarantee personal safety when going to an unknown place or a place perceived as dangerous.2

Thus, it was not strange that henbai should have been used when the emperor was moving into a new palace. A new residence truly was an unknown space. In fact, the nobility of the time would not have occupied a newly-built dwelling until a complex series of rites focusing on the new building, including the performance of henbai by onmyoji, had been undertaken. For example, Fujiwara no Michinaga ... notes in his diary Midokanpakuki, in an entry dated Kanko 2 (1005).2.10, that he had waited for Abe no Seimei at the gate of his new residence. It seems that Seimei, who was supposed to perform the rites for the newly-built mansion, was somewhat late in arriving.3

Several tales in the twenty-seventh fascicle (Honcho reikibu) of the Konjaku monogatari shu suggest that people in the Heian period considered not just new dwellings but any kind of house as a potentially dangerous space occupied by spirits and demons. Even when the nobility began using a residence after a period of disuse, they would have an onmyoji perform henbai before occupying it again. …

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