(Essay) Once in Okinawa by Luciana Percovich

Photo by Luciana Percovitc

It’s a common trait of the most ancient religions in human history, that the cult could only occur in the open air – as still the Celts expressed, “in a space not built by human hands.” This trait is proper to pre-patriarchal civilizations all over the world, as in the Japanese archipelago of Okinawa, studied by J. Herbert in La Religion d’Okinawa.

In what is considered the most ancient form of Japanese religion, the Ryu-Kyu Shinto, where priestly duties are performed exclusively by women, there is no difference between the worshipped divinity and the place of worship (utakis). Since the sacredness of these places are full of divine essence, the divinities themselves are simply called by the name of that place.

In this form of ancient Shinto, where no central authority rules the beliefs, every priestess (noros and tsukasas) enjoys a full independence for what concerns the mythology and the form of cult of which she is the mediator and guarantor. Kinamon, the main divine character, who is also called Nirai-Kanai, is a dual creature, at once male and female, another frequent trait in the most ancient myths of creation all over the world.

Photo by Luciana Percovitch

Nirai-Kamai is not worshipped in a temple but rather in the trees and in the rocks where she originated at the beginning of creation.

As in Australian mythology, where creation rose from the Dreamtime, and every rock or rivulet of water manifests on the physical plane a Dream of an Ancestor/tress, these places are so holy that they cannot be acceded by anybody but the priestesses and only in some occasions. The access to the six main holy places of the archipelago is strictly limited or even forbidden: in the whole island of Kudaka, where the first human creature was created by Ama-mi-Kiu, Nirai-Kanai’s daughter, nobody is allowed to live, and in the western beach of Okinawa where, up to the beginning of the second world war, only the kami-tsukasas were admitted.

Even though a human intervention has been carried out to underline the attention and care paid, the place of cult — be it a holy mountain, a hole, a clearing of grass or sand, a hidden spring in a forest, a cave, a cavern, a stack or a wall of rock, a grove, a single tree or simple thick stones “from which the sun rises,”– must strictly be in the open air.

In Okinawa, the basic form of the “temple” is a small wall of dry stones coming up straight from the floor, not higher than 70 cm, sometimes overcome by a stone slab where oblation is put; it is often surrounded by another small wall or by a set of circular trees as a means of containment or protection. Similar utakis are generally in the open countryside, in a wood or on a beach, though they can sometimes be found near a village, in which case they act as “guardians.” Their function recalls Ala, the great mother of the Ibos, in Nigeria, who used to be sitting inside the porch of a small wooden temple in such a way that all the inhabitants of the village could see her, meaning that her soul was fluttering over the whole community.

Another interesting word to understand the force and width of this sacredness of nature as the place of divine expression (source/soul of the creation and of the perennial creative energy, which needs to be kept whole and pure to ensure its continuity) is ibi which, according to some sources, refers to the divinity itself. In this case other than the place of cult — while according to other sources it is the holiest part of the utaki — Ibi could also include a whole forest or the sea itself.

A modest building can be found near the main utakis, destined to the purification of the noros before the rituals, which further confirms that the holiest place is in the open air, whereas the closed place is a secular construction, used only by priestesses to get prepared for the sacred ceremonies.

In Europe and in the Mediterranean area, the columns of the first temples and of the later sacred architecture were created by imitating the natural environment, the clearing surrounded by the trees: forests of stone where air still flew among the marble trunks. Only later they were enclosed by Christianity with walls – sometimes looking almost temporary or erected hastily: to hide the holy place, to isolate it, to separate it from nature, which starts to get desacralized and finally becomes an inanimate entity to exploit.

This separation can be seen in many churches, from the Jesuits’ one downtown in Lisbon to the Doric temple of Athena, which is now part of the cathedral of Ortigia (Syracuse, Sicily), where the columns are still well visible and powerful, not completely included in the perimeter walls.

The catastrophic drama of the Death of Nature occurs in this passageway, in these enclosures, dealt with by Carolyn Merchant in her homonymous book[1] in which she retraces the crucial centuries terminating in the “Renaissance,” that is the turning point from the magic-holistic to the scientific vision.

But consider that numerous apparitions of Mary took place in a tree. La Madonna di Fatima (Portugal), one of the well known holy places of Christianity, tells us how eternal the holy tree is to people’s imagination. There, the Virgin Mary appeared on a holm oak at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the middle of a grove of olive, oak and fruit trees sloping down to a perennial spring.

Sanctuaries have too often become places where male violence has chosen to explode, as is the case in Okinawa. Today, all over the world, the sacredness of natural places and of the vegetal kingdom have been repeatedly desecrated and without any limits, as in the decayed Italian landscape, once populated by “divine feminine beings, wonderfully skilled in magic and medicine art, the only ones who know the virtues of certain herbs, of certain flowers they arrange in potions and beverages, giving death and life, disease and health in the vast reign of Nature… If we go back in time with our survey, we always find a goddess, Circe, Pasiphae, Medea, Hecate, Agamede or Mestra, who well knows the secret properties of the plants” (Momolina Marconi).

Nymphs, dwellers of water, of irrigated and fertile lands, kami-tsukasas and similar creatures in touch with the utakis left a long time ago. Just as Hecate and Phoebe, Hygeia and Bona Dea, Diana, Flora and many others left their secret gardens, sanctuaries once “replete[d] with vigorous and venerable trees.”

Meet Mago Contributor Luciana Percovitch



Merchant, C. La Morte della Natura. Dalla natura come organismo alla natura come macchina, Milan, Garzanti, 1988.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature. New York, Harper & Row, 1980

De Nardis A. ed., Da Circe a Morgana. Scritti di Momolina Marconi,  Rome, Venexia, 2009.

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Response from Sara Wright: Beautifully crafted essay with such an important focus – the natural world as both context and divinity… “there is no difference between the worshipped divinity and the place of worship (utakis). Since the sacredness of these places are full of divine essence, the divinities themselves are simply called by the name of that place.” I once found churches beautiful – I loved, for example, the stained glass work of St. John the Divine’s in New York just to mention one cathedral. But the split I experienced entering these places began to haunt me as an adolescent… Read more »