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Faeries, Dakinis, Nuns, and Mikos, Part Three

Japanese Imperial miko, or Shinto Shrine priestess, dressed for an elaborate Kagura dance. Late 19th century, hand-tinted albumen print. From

The presence of otherworldly female beings in various religions, both in the East and in the West, collectively inspires contemporary research and practice among women from diverse backgrounds, who are making individual sense of these ancient presences. Elemental Celtic faeries, mystical Buddhist dakinis, ecstatic Hindu apsaras, celestial Biblical angels, and wise female meditation deities alike arouse divine activity and center our focus on gravity-defying mystical realms where transformation takes place. These characters belong to magical and mystical traditions that link fertility, healing, meditation, death, divine connection, and wild Nature. 

Correspondingly, there have always been living practices and professions for women (and also for men) who choose to pursue practical facets of wisdom traditions: Christian and Buddhist nuns; Buddhist and other tantrikas, Shinto shrine priestesses; Druid priestesses, practitioners of Authentic Movement, Wicca, and Kabballah, to name a few.

St. Theresa of Avila’s Vision of the Dove, 1612, by Peter Paul Reubens. St. Theresa of Avila, author of the spiritual classic, The Interior Castle, was born Jewish before becoming a Carmelite nun. From

It is my pleasure here to introduce Elizabeth Tinsley, who has dedicated large parts of her life and work to the study and practice of the esoteric arts. Elizabeth is serious scholar with two doctorate degrees, one in Japanese. She is a scholar of Buddhism and, more broadly, of Japanese esoteric traditions, Buddhist and Shinto—and of those places where traditions overlap. Shinto is the ancient, indigenous, shamanic, and animistic religion of Japan. As such, Elizabeth provides rare insights into mysterious and long-lived esoteric traditions with original research and immersive experiences. 

Elizabeth Tinsley

Elizabeth Tinsley

In Japan, Buddhism and indigenous Shinto integrate deeply. Japanese people happily visit both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The seat of esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan is Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. Elizabeth, who is British, studied, researched, and practiced extensively at Mount Koya over several years until finally the abbot invited her to undertake the Shido Kegyo, a ritual training to become a monk there, lasting 100 days, which she successfully completed. This is most unusual, yet an entirely practical exercise after years of scholarly research.

Elizabeth’s interest in Japanese esotericism extends beyond Buddhism to include the dance of the Shinto shrine priestesses known as miko. Miko are exceedingly ancient figures in Japanese religious history, and there are different types of miko lifestyles. Most all of them, however, include dance. Kagura is the most famous dance of the miko. There are different Kagura dances. These dances, one and all, are abstract patterning, with no literal or dramatic intent. The miko always face the direction in which they move, making for a pure and strong flow of basic energy. This type of abstract dance in ancient Japanese ritual is called mai. The dances of the Shinto miko influenced the dance style of Japanese Noh, also called mai.

The Kagura dance performed by a miko character in the Noh play, Makiginu. In the play, a Buddhist priest encounters a Shinto priestess possessed by a god or kami. Main role performed by Ozawa Yoishihisa, Kita Noh Stage, Tokyo, 2005. Image courtesy the Alumni Association of Kanze-Kai, Tokyo University

Older than Noh, Kagura originally channeled the kami, Shinto animist deities. Speaking and dancing as the kami, miko dances were a kind of performed spirit possession and were likely more improvisational than the beautifully stylized dances we see today. Today, the dances are performed in Shinto shrines to worship and entertain the kami. The classical Japanese expression kami no asobi, or “the play of the gods,” is an exalted term deriving in part from the nature of the Kagura dances. Kagura was once a strictly ceremonial ritual art, emerging from existing miko practices of oracular divination (Jp: kami gakari) and spirit pacification (Jp: chinkon). The miko also perform at martial arts demonstrations and competitions held at the shrines. Kagura is danced with implements such folded paper standards called gohei, and clusters of handheld bells called suzu. Miko sometimes dance with swords, and with streamers made of cloth.

A contemporary miko or Shinto priestess. Image from Core of Culture

Beginning in 2008, Elizabeth studied Kagura in the Shinto shrine most closely associated with the esoteric Buddhist stronghold, Mount Koya: Niutsuhime Jinja. Her teacher was Niu Chickae, wife of the head priest of Niutsuhime Shrine. Niu Myojin, a local deity or kami is known as the Cinnabar Goddess; and the kami Kariba Myojin is the Hunter Deity. Together, these two ancient Shinto deities inhabit the area of Mount Koya, embracing the Buddhist and Shinto grounds.

Elizabeth points out that a ceremonial music and dance performance called the Bugkau Mandala was performed at Niutsuhime Shrine from the 12th century until the 19th. For this unusual syncretic performance on the Shinto grounds, esoteric Buddhist monks from Mount  Koya blended courtly bugaku dance with shomyo, a vocal art of esoteric monks. The ritual has been revived in recent years. The integration of Shinto and Buddhism is, in places, profound and mystical, not merely symbolic or social.

The Shinto kami Niu Myujin, Japanese painted scroll, 14th century. This kami, enshrined at Niutsuhime Jinja, is a local deity worshipped at the Buddhist enclave at Mount Koya. From

After some years away from Japan, Elizabeth returned to Niutsuhime Jinja this summer for an immersive, cloistered, dance retreat to learn a Miko-mai and perform it in a ritual. Based on ancient models, the specific Miko-mai that Elizabeth learned was choreographed in the 1930s, during Japan’s expansionist period. These dances were performed in Shinto shrines in Japan as well as in Formosa (Taiwan), and Korea. Elizabeth comments: “Like others, this dance is a choreography of sprit possession, as one scholar puts it. I experience it more as a technology of trance-induction, a phase in the complete transformation of the consciousness. I also understand the dance as a ritual of pacification of the deities.”

Elizabeth Tinsley performs Miko-mai at Niutsuhime Jinja. Summer 2023

Elizabeth explains:

“When I began learning Miko-mai dance, which was by chance, the head priest of Niutsuhime shrine in Wakayama, who I consulted for historical information about the shrine and its main deity, invited me to learn from his wife, a professional dancer. I was attracted to it because I understood that the way we move through the world is what makes us, and makes our environment. Whether we are on a stage before shrines of Shinto gods, guided in our movements by an invisible choreography, or in a city or suburb, we are in a social contract with our built surroundings. In deified nature, and so much more so within a shrine, we are in a sacred contract with power that shapes the way we move through space.

“Miko-mai is a dance form, in the Kagura tradition, full of symmetry and mirroring. The moves of the two or four dancers are performed in exact synchronicity. To the utmost, your teacher will focus on the cleanliness of the lines as you move through the dance. The movements are perfectly controlled. I believe this creates a strong power—the power of one performance multiplied by the number of dancers. What is this power for? Why gather it? There are two reasons: in the past it was very likely a ritual, or part of a ritual, for possession by the gods of the shrine, and today it is an offering to the gods.

“This is why power is amassed in this dance. Hearing from the gods via a figure in a state of possession is something that has become far less common in Japan since the modernizing Meiji period, and is an aspect of the dance that has disappeared from almost all Miko-mai dances. Today it is only the message sent that remains: the offering. Even if they see and hear us dancing, the gods remain silent.

“Today the dance is one of offering. It is an entertainment enjoyed by both humans and gods (Jp: shinjin waraku, 神人和楽), and a solemn offering to the gods of the shrine. Still, as much as we move through the dance, something moves through us too. History imposes on us in this dance, as buildings in a city will impose on a walker: just as we didn’t make the buildings, nor did we make the dance. Miko-mai, via Kagura as a whole, was made by others long, long ago and has been transmitted through the body up to today. 

“When we dance we enact something ancient that even we don’t understand wholly anymore, in the cognitive sense. It’s a message that had to be passed along. And it is still a powerful dance. Control, synchronicity, and mirroring are tiring for the body in training and performance but the physical exertion, together with the bonding created when the group dances together in this way, also produces a certain power. This power, today, is used to purify the sacred space and is also a power offered to the gods.

“How you dance through life, how you move through space, is how life dances through you. That is what I experience when performing Miko-mai.”

Miko prepared to perform Kagura. C. 1885, hand-tinted albumen print by Kusakabe Kimbei

See more

Core of Culture

Related features from BDG

Faeries, Dakinis, Nuns, and Mikos, Part One
Faeries, Dakinis, Nuns, and Mikos, Part Two

More from Ancient Dances by Joseph Houseal

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