- Images of the Sacred
Most of the images in Living Spirit are from Hahatachi no kami: Ryūkyūko no saishi sekai (Maternal Deities: The World of Sacred Ritual in the Ryūkyū Arc), a collection that photographer Higa Yasuo was preparing for publication at the time of his premature death in 2000, at age sixty-one. In 2010, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, in Naha, honored Higa by exhibiting 162 of the images he had planned to include in this book. The images were then displayed at the Izu Photo Museum, in Shizuoka Prefecture, through May 2011.
With the generous cooperation of Higa’s widow, Higa Nobuko, and that of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum’s staff, we are able to feature a small selection of the images. This brief essay, compiled by the editors of Living Spirit, is based largely on notes and commentary produced by the curators of the exhibition, which was titled after Higa’s proposed book, Maternal Deities.
For over three decades, Higa documented and studied ancient and sacred festivals and rituals that are held throughout the Ryūkyūan Archipelago. As other commentators have remarked, he did an extraordinary service to the field of ethnography. But he was above all a fine photographer and was passionate about honoring Ryūkyūan rituals. He believed them to be the living continuum of past and present time, the passageway connecting this world and the afterworld, and the fundamental means for understanding what it means to be human in Okinawa and in the world.
Higa planned to divide his volume into chapters, and we have retained his organization and sequence: each photograph is accompanied by a caption that indicates the section where he intended to place the image.
The majority of the photographs depict the most sacred festivals, which are held on Kudaka and Miyako Islands, and therefore provide extraordinary insights into the spirituality, temperament, and worldview that have made Okinawa such a culturally and artistically important place. These timeless photographs of timeless rituals also greatly enhance our understanding of even the most contemporary prose and poetry in Living Spirit. [End Page 147]
In creating this groundbreaking work, Higa realized that at the heart of Ryūkyūan cosmology was a deep belief in maternal forces and principles. As Hirotaka Makino, Director of the Okinawan Prefectural Museum, wrote in his introduction to the exhibit catalogue, the maternal principle “constitutes the bedrock of the Okinawan spirit.” And it was Higa’s conviction “that culture stemming from the maternal principle provides clues to understanding the present age.”
From ancient Ryūkyūan times, women occupied an extraordinary position in the spiritual affairs of their communities, and as a consequence, highly trained priestesses were the principal mediators between humans and the gods.
The writer Asato Eiko recounts a conversation she had with Higa in which he described the place of women in Okinawan society. While men and women both feel a love and attachment to deceased ancestors and to children, Higa said, it is mothers who
during their lifetimes devote themselves absolutely to protecting their children. After they die, it follows that the mothers’ protection continues into the other world, and this continuity is the origin of what we mean by the word “god.” Maternal protectiveness brings gods into being.
According to traditional Okinawan religious beliefs, souls are transported after death to the spirit world of Nirai Kanai. There, the souls are reborn as protectors of the living. They may remain in Nirai Kanai or live in sacred places, such as groves of trees, streams, rocks, and shrines. By means of religious ceremonies, the spirits are invited to return to this world and are asked to bless the living and to pass on their protective powers to female children. Thus, the spiritual essence is kept alive through the female line.
Religious ceremonies vary by village and island. The following sections from Higa’s proposed book roughly represent the stages in many of the sacred Ryūkyūan festivals.
Inviting and Greeting the Gods (Kami-nkē)
In the Ryūkyūs, a person’s spirit (mabui) is believed to go to a realm that exists...