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Honors Thesis Archive

Author Brittany Brockman
Title Spirit Possession, Exorcism, and the Power of Women in the Mid-Heian Period
Department East Asian Studies & Languages
Advisor Tanya Maus, Cynthia Richards, Jennifer Oldstone-Moore
Year 2011
Honors University Honors
Full Text View Thesis (234 KB)
Abstract Although the incorporation of religion and ideas from China and Korea reduced the political and social power of women in the Japanese system of government during the Nara period and into the Heian period, a few of these practices also allowed women to assert some power over men in the highly patriarchal social system of the mid-Heian period. Due to the new emotional restrictions of the Heian period, an indirect means to protest against unfair treatment began to gain popularity: spirit possession, specifically that of the vengeful spirit, and its exorcism. The idea of spirit possession that women often used, which allowed the possessor to be a living person, was rooted in native beliefs about the soul, illustrating that women were still deriving power from the ancient shamanic traditions, though diluted by the influence of mainland religions. That incorporation is visible in the religious components of the exorcism ritual called yorigitō in which a male ascetic uses a medium, who is usually a young woman, to draw out the spirit, identify it, and subdue it. The ancient indigenous practice of female shamanism is supposed to have had an influence on the use of females as mediums in this later exorcism ritual. Through them, noble women could express their protests and desires while distancing themselves from the negative social stigmas associated with those feelings, which could damage their relationships and reputation, as noted in examples from the tale of Genji. In this interpretation, the loss of power of women due to the incorporation of mainland ideas and religions uses these very same practices to give them a voice in a male-dominated social order supported by the recently assimilated Buddhist and Confucian ideologies.

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