Seimei Shrine is not your usual Shinto shrine. Located near the remains of the Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace, the shrine immediately sticks out because its door and ornaments are covered with pentagrams, including pentagrams inside a burning circle.
This may have anyone that has ever seen a horror movie desperately searching for the holy water but don’t worry. Lucifer and his dark minions aren’t secretly overrunning Japan. Instead, the pentagram story is one of the oldest mystic traditions in Japan that has influenced everyone from the figure skater Hanyu Yuzuru to the video game Fate/Grand Order.
Why are Pentagrams at a Japanese Shrine?
Although many people are familiar with evil pentagrams of horror movie fame, in many cultures, such as ancient Greece, the pentagram was considered a protective and mystical symbol. The pentagrams in Japanese temples have a similar positive connotation.
At the time that the shrine was built, the influence of Chinese mysticism was strong in Japan. The pentagrams represented the five elements— wood, fire, earth, metal and water—considered important in Chinese philosophy as the fundamental elements of everything.
The pentagram’s points represent each of these five elements, and their intersections represent harmonious interaction between them. When all five are in perfect harmony, as represented by a pentagram in a circle, the perfect balance wards off evil and misfortune.
In Japanese, a pentagram is called a gobousei. However, the pentagrams at Seimei are named Seimei kikyou (Seimei’s bellflower, named after a flower that has a similar shape). This tells a lot about the symbol’s origin, as the Seimei part, also in the shrine’s name, is the name of one of the most mystical figures of ancient Japan, a man named Abe no Seimei.
Like many mystical figures, it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction when discussing Abe no Seimei. Abe no Seimei was a legendary figure in Japanese history and folklore who most likely lived during the Heian period from the late 10th to early 11th century. However, appropriate for such a mystical figure, even his existence is a matter of dispute, as some historians have argued that he may be an amalgamation of many influential mystics of the time.
Regardless of the truth, there is no doubt that whoever Abe no Seimei was, he was highly influential, as the closeness of his temple to the palace area will attest. Many emperors would use his services to communicate with spirits and predict future events.
Ironically, for horror fans, he was also an exorcist, so his pentagram was more likely to be seen in the fight against evil rather than for it.
Abe no Seimei was associated with pentagrams as part of a unique blend of esoteric practices and beliefs that he practiced and would become the figurehead of, called onmyodo.
Onmyodo is a traditional esoteric cosmology in Japan based on the yin and yang concept imported from China. The system was an assortment of mystical influences that combined practices as diverse as astrology, divination, geomancy, magic and spiritual practices into a stew of esoterica.
For modern people, it is hard to appreciate how influential onmyodo was on society at the time. The imperial court and most aristocracy in the Heian period were indebted to the mystical arts. Its practitioners, called Onmyoji, were attributed magical abilities as diverse as understanding omens, predicting the future, blessing, and even performing exorcisms.
As his spiritual power influenced court life, so did the culture of the capital influence Abe-no-Seimei, and there are reports of him spending his later days writing poetry and both being the subject of art and composing art.
Appropriately for a person that loved art, he still appears in art to this day, appearing in novels, manga, anime, and video games. Many plays, especially noh plays, feature Abe-no-Seimei as a symbolic figure for the ancient way of Japan or as a mystical figure battling spiritual evil. Modern gamers may have encountered him in video games with ancient Japanese settings, such as Fate/Grand Order and Onmyoji.
One of these art pieces would even influence the world-famous figure skater Hanyu Yuzuru who performed one of his routines to the soundtrack for the film Onmyouji: The Yin-Yang Master. The figure skating program performed is even called the “Seimei program” and is considered his most iconic performance. Hanyu himself has spoken about how deeply the themes of the Seimei program resonated with him.
One of the fascinating things about Japan is how a little thing like a strange symbol on a shrine can lead you to a deep exploration of a different time, culture, and the important figures of that era.
What interesting or esoteric things have you seen in temples or shrines in Japan? What did you find out about them? Let us know in the comments.