The Tale of Genji APPENDIX II

The Vestal Virgins of Ise and Kamo.

So important a part do these ladies play in the Tale of Genji that the reader may perhaps wish to know exactly what they were. I may say at the outset that I have used the term ‘vestal’ merely for convenience. These Virgins were not guardians of a sacred fire.

Ise.—Upon the accession of a new Emperor, a princess of the Imperial House (preferably a daughter of the Emperor) was sent to be priestess of the great Shintō shrines at Ise. According to the Nihongi (Bk. V; Emperor Sūjin 6th year1) ‘The gods Amaterasu and Ōkunidama were formerly both worshipped in the Emperor’s Palace Hall. But the Emperor Sūjin was frightened of having so much divine power concentrated in one place. Accordingly he entrusted the worship of Amaterasu to the Princess Toyosuku-iri, bidding her carry it out in the village of Kasanui in Yamato.’ Subsequently Amaterasu expressed a desire to be moved to Ise.

The Virgin was usually about twelve years old at the time of her appointment. Cases however are recorded in which she was an infant of one year old; or again, a woman of twenty-eight. Her office lasted till

(1) The Emperor died or resigned

(2) She herself died or became disabled

(3) Either of her parents died

(4) She misconducted herself.

Thus in a.d. 541 the Vestal, a certain Princess Iwane, misconducted herself with Prince Mubaragi and was replaced. The process of preparing the Virgin for her office lasted three years. She was first of all, after a preliminary purification in running water handed over to the City guards. Meanwhile, just outside the Capital, a special place of purification was built for her, called the Palace-in-the-Fields. After a second River Purification she took up her residence in this temporary Palace and stayed there till the time came for her to settle at Ise. Before the journey to Ise she was again purified in the River, and she appeared at the Imperial Palace to receive at the Emperor’s hands the ‘Comb of Parting.’ No Virgin of Ise was appointed after 1342.

Kamo.—The Virgin of Kamo, first instituted in a.d. 818 was a replica of the Ise Virgin. She too had her Palace-in-the-Fields, three years of purification, etc. The practice of sending a Virgin to Kamo was discontinued in 1204.

Upon both Virgins curious speech-taboos were imposed. Thus they called

death, ‘recovery’

illness, ‘taking a rest’

weeping, ‘dropping salt water’

blood, ‘sweat’

to strike, ‘to fondle’

a tomb, ‘an earth heap’

meat, ‘vegetables’

All words connected with Buddhism were taboo. Thus Buddha himself was called ‘The Centre’; Buddhist scriptures were called ‘stained paper’; a pagoda, ‘araragi’ (meaning unknown); a temple, ‘a tile-covered place’; a priest (ironically), ‘hair-long’; a nun, ‘female hair-long’; fasting, ‘partial victuals.’

To both Virgins was attached an important retinue of male officials. These were appointed by the Emperor and no doubt acted as his agents and informers in the districts of Ise and Kamo.

Probably the Ise Virgin was a very ancient institution which later proved useful for political ends. The Virgin of Kamo, who does not appear on the scene till the ninth century, was presumably instituted simply as a means of spreading Court influence.

1 92 b.c. according to the usual chronology, which is however purely fictitious.