Conceptualizing and Manipulating Nature: Mythical Beasts, Trees, and Auspicious Sites

Van Goethem, E. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


References to the mythical beasts guarding the primary directions first entered the Japanese archipelago in the early centuries CE as imagery on the backs of bronze mirrors imported from China. Although practical guidelines on how to divine these guardian deities in the landscape may have been transmitted earlier, the Nihon shoki informs us that the first treatises on telluric divination were officially introduced in the sixth century. By the late seventh and early eighth centuries, we find more evidence that the practice of site divination had taken root in Japan as the four mythical beasts appear on tomb walls, on banners used at court ceremonies, and in written references to the site selection process preceding the relocation of the capital. What remains uncertain, however, is how the presence of these mythical beasts was visually translated in actual site divination processes.
By the Heian period, the divinatory techniques started to gain prominence in popular cosmology. Moreover, locally produced texts in which nature is conceptualized and manipulated present an increasingly rigid interpretation of ideal sites that incorporates (esoteric) Buddhist concepts. At this stage, the evaluation of a landscape became codified to the extent that it effected a reimagination of history and selection of earlier sites. This process of reinvention continues to modern times.
This presentation thus examines the assimilation, transformation, and increasing orthodoxy of notions of an ideal landscape, including both its underlying systems of thought and its visible features, from the sixth century to the present.
PeriodMar 21 2013
Event typeConference
LocationSan Diego, United States