Jonathan Thumas explores the Japanese conch shell trumpet associated with practitioners of Shugendo. By studying some different trumpets in museum collections, he argues that their sonic and apotropaic power in rituals and their status in the popular imagination reinforces their use as talismans.
Played at key moments in mountain pilgrimage, the Japanese conch shell trumpet, or hora (horagai) is largely associated with practitioners of Shugendō. In the above video, shot by the author, the hora is being played after a Shugendō fire ceremony (saito goma). This often-contested umbrella term refers to a number of separate mountain-based traditions, inflected by esoteric Buddhism, kami worship, and quasi-Taoist practices. As a symbol of these mountain practitioners (shugenja or yamabushi), the hora adorns lineage seals, ritual altars, (figures 1 and 2) and is commonly carried as part of the quintessential mountain ascetic’s ornate garb. The haunting sound of hora being played can still be heard, day and night, near many mountain temple complexes.
This article is part of a larger examination of the hora, its production, use, and imagining during the late Edo (1603-1864) and early Meiji periods (1868-1912). Such foci illuminate the hora beyond its status as a musical instrument or ascetic’s regalia. The present study considers two 19th century hora, both collected by Walter L. Hildburgh (1876-1955), and now housed in the Walter L. Hildburgh Collection of Buddhist religious materials in the Asian Ethnographic Collections of the American Museum of Natural History. I will present these objects and pay attention to the ways in which they would have been used in religious contexts to reveal their status as ritual tools, as opposed to simply being musical instruments. Representations such as relevant visual depictions will further reveal the place of hora within the popular imagination to suggest that, from at least the early modern period, they were sources of apotropaic power and talismanic tools for warding off danger.
|Figures 1 and 2: Relief of a hora at Ryūsenji in Dorogawa. Photo by author. 2012.|
|Figure 3: 70.0/3894. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.|
|Figure 4: Contemporary hora displayed outside a craftsman’s shop on Mt. Yoshino. Photo by author. 2012.|
|Figure 5: 70.0/3893. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.|
Unlike the smaller example, 70.0/3893’s mouthpiece is a gold-colored brass or copper, painted over with a brown lacquer. This hora is also complete with a symbolic silk umbilical cord, or kainō, which is wrapped around the lip and splits into two tassels. The cord itself is brown, and the tassels were at one time a dark blue or black. Unlike 70.0/3894, 70.0/3893 is made using a Charonia tritonis shell. In this case, the manuscript catalog also notes that this trumpet was used by the yamabushi, which based on its size, accompaniments, and general quality, seems a more probable conjecture. As exemplary of pieces that were meant to be carried and played, just how were instruments such as 70.0/3893 intended to be used?
From Museums to Mountains
Hora production comprised numerous methods, employing a diversity of materials to make a sturdy trumpet with the perfect sound. Once made, hora would be carried into the mountains, hanging from the waist of the ascetic by a silk kainō, and used to mark the beginning of rituals or to signal other pilgrimage groups in the mountains. [xiii] Miyake Hitoshi, a prominent scholar of Shugendō, has noted a diversity of uses, with hora regularly being blown when an ascetic is reciting scripture, giving orders to acolytes, giving directions during pilgrimage, performing sermons, and relaying information across mountain valleys. [xiv] Although its haunting sound is essential to the atmosphere of various rituals, H. Fukui, an ethnomusicologist, raises issues regarding its use as a musical instrument. While the mouthpieces themselves can be manipulated, shells, being animal remains, often significantly differ in size. As a result, there is no standard pitch for hora, and it has thus been difficult to standardize hora as instruments to harmonize perfectly in ensembles. [xv] Furthermore, Fukui notes that lip-vibration instruments such as the hora are not traditionally part of Japanese music ensembles, and it only rarely appears in public performances such as Yamabushi saimon. [xvi] Hora also seem to take a backseat during most public performance arts such as kagura, only being blown when ascetic performance troops enter villages. [xvii] It is also rarely used in most religious hymns and other public vocal arts associated with Tendai and Shingon affiliated Shugendō traditions. [xviii] Rather, it was almost always used solely during rites, while in the mountains, and to a lesser extent, in military settings. As tools for accompanying various rites and changing, the place of hora in contemporaneous religious song texts and in the popular arts suggests that they were held as talismanic objects, for clearing the ritual space of impurity, emitting an apotropaic sound to ward off harmful mountain animals, baleful spirits, and toxins. [xix]
Buddhist scriptures often mention the hora, with its sound when blown being compared to the roar of a lion, representing both the preaching of the dharma and the dispelling of factors hindering awakening as the “voice of the dharma.” [xx] The Lotus Sutra, which became one of the core scriptures for Buddhist culture throughout East Asia, was from early times an important textual basis for both ascetic practices in the mountains, as well as for the use of hora in ritual contexts, describing it to symbolize the power of the Buddha’s law over malevolent forces. This is mentioned in the sutra’s first chapter, likening the sound of the conch to the explication of the dharma. [xxi] Its association with scripture can also be seen outlined in certain sectarian writings, which in addition to likening the blowing of hora to the expounding of the dharma directs the performer to play it in pentatonic scale degrees, which emulates certain mantras and darani. [xxii] This seems to have predicated its use in warding off spirits from ritual settings.
Apotropaic usage of hora can be seen as early as the Heian period in ritual texts such as the rokuji karinhō or “Six-syllable Water-facing Ritual,” the second portion in a larger ritual, rokujikyōhō, a large-scale ritual used to dispel disease. [xxiii] The karinhō portion of this rite was conducted on ritual boats in the water to drive out impurity (kegare) from the body of the ritual patron. Chanting of spells and the playing of a hora, among other instruments, comprised important measures taken during this purification, to “support and intensify the cleansing process.” [xxiv] Although it is difficult to draw broad connections with the hora as it was used in the Heian period to early modern examples, it has clearly seen consistent use in ritual settings, especially at various stages in ritual pilgrimage into the mountains (nyūbu). For significant Shugendō mountain pilgrimage sites, such as Mt. Omine and Kumano, there are various song texts identifying specific points of the pilgrimage where one should chant and sing. These songs are almost always accompanied by the blowing of a hora. Edo period song texts in this genre, specifically focused around pilgrimage on the Omine-Kumano route, include the Buchū hiden, compiled in 1694, as well as Gyōchi’s (1778-1841) Konohagoromo, including many of the same songs, as well as variations of those in Buchū hiden. [xxv] The Buchū hiden in particular was notable for tracing the movement of shugenja through the ten stages of the poisonous mountain womb, through which the ascetic would symbolically die and become gradually reborn along symbolic spots at the mountain pilgrimage, demarcating stages with songs accompanied by the sound of hora. [xxvi]
By the time that Hildburgh’s hora were produced, the ways of using the hora as an integral part of pilgrimage songs had further systematized with theoretical commentaries and concise methods of use being laid out. This field of knowledge was later compiled in the Ryūra hikan by Kimpusenji affiliate Honma Ryuen in 1940, describing the proper way of blowing into a hora, called ryūra. [xxvii] Although this text is significantly later in authorship than both earlier song texts mentioned, and Hildburgh’s trumpets, it is a culmination of prior discourses about the hora, integrating earlier methods and texts from Honma’s Kinpusenji lineage. [xxviii] Honma’s text is a useful platform from which to consider the ways in which hora were viewed largely as tools central to ritual protocol and efficacy. Rather than solely focusing on the method of blowing, however, the methods involved giving equal attention to the use of the body in relation to the trumpet, even before blowing into it:
First, the shell is held with the left and right hands, and then placed in front of one’s chest. One should hold the tassel on the kainō with the fifth and fourth fingers of the left hand, and weave it through the palm of that hand. Then, let it hang down straight from the space between the first and second fingers. While doing this, let out a cry while simultaneously turning the shell, and then lightly hit the mouthpiece towards the left of the lip. [xxix]
Further directions describe how the feet should be positioned, and also on concentrating energy internally within the body in a point below the navel. Following this, the player, who has imbibed this knowledge, can then blow strongly into the hora and raise it to the pitch in various ways by manipulating his mouth around the mouthpiece [xxx].
In addition to transmitting bodily protocol for playing the hora, Honma’s text also introduces a hymn to be chanted when blowing into it. After blowing, the user chants: “the sound of the hora is Samadhi, the mysterious lotus doctrine, that sutra that upon hearing worldly desires are destroyed, and the gate through which the seed syllables enter into the present,” and hits the mouthpieces three times with the palm to signify the three bodies (sanshin) of the cosmic Buddha, Dainichi nyorai. [xxxi] The hora thus becomes essential for entering into Buddhahood, representing “the inner realization of the preaching of the wisdom body of Dainichi Nyorai, ringing forth from the depths of the diamond realm as the Sanskrit ban syllable in its entirety,” a context in which it is likened to a lion’s roar that quiets both dangerous animals and evil spirits (akuma). [xxxii]
In a comprehensive description of ryūra and its use in terms of pilgrimage song texts, Miyake notes that in addition to its functions of clearing the ritual space by being played at points in pilgrimage, the hora seems to have been played at nearly every turning point in the pilgrimage, including leaving resting lodges and eating places, as well as when entering certain locations for the first time. This practice seems to be rooted in the necessity of warding off wild animals and angry spirits to make stopping points safer and more habitable. In most cases that required the hora to be blown then, the reason was less for the sake of harmonizing with ritual songs, but in being blown before and after rites, and when entering and leaving sacred areas, as a mechanism for clearing the ritual space of undesirable presences, both wild and demonic. The apotropaic use of the hora throughout pilgrimages was supplemented by a milieu of ritualized armaments, with mountain ascetics carrying swords and axes, jingling staffs for warding off bears (shakujō), and specially designed headgear (tokin and hangai) to guard them against poisonous mountain vapors. [xxxiii] Although each object in this ritual milieu had important symbolic properties for mediating transformative journeys in the mountains, each was not only symbolic, but actively warded off harmful mountain spirits. Mountains were often viewed as quite dangerous. Merely carrying the hora as part of this ritual ensemble served to protect the ascetic during hazardous mountain treks.
In addition to ascetic mountaineering and song texts, the hora’s apotropaic qualities when carried also appeared on the battlefield. One hora from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), housed in the Arms and Armor Collection and from the Bequest of George C. Stone, numbered 36.25.2997 was carried into battle in a similar way. An officer’s piece, this hora is distinguished by inscriptions in the lacquer surrounding the mouthpiece, which is extended though more than 1/4th of the shell length. Silver characters are overlaid over the lacquer, and the end of the brass mouthpiece itself is engraved with “faint design[s] of [a] plum tree, cranes and [a] tortoise.” [xxxiv] While visually appealing, the catalog card notes that the inscribed images are actually a sort of repair work, being inscribed on a “built-up black-lacquered paper ” explicitly used to repair the shell damage. [xxxv]
While meant to cover up prior damage, the inscriptions on 36.25.2997 provide insight into the original ownership and use of this piece as a protective object. According to the catalog card, a man named Atarashi translated and transcribed the inscriptions on the trumpet into a six-page document. [xxxvi] He deemed the inscription to have been an adaptation of a luopan, or geomancer’s disk or compass associated with Chinese divination practices. According to the analysis of this inscription, the officer that would have owned this trumpet would have used this inscribed disk to divine the location of an enemy camp, as well as interpret “conditions of weather, time of day, month and year,” as well as divining the means necessary for achieving the best movements of his troops and “the most auspicious chances for success” in a given campaign. [xxxvii] Although blowing a hora to avert harmful forces is proscribed in numerous early modern sources, evidence suggests that playing the trumpet in the proper ryūra fashion, and even at all, was not a prerequisite for accessing its protective qualities. It appears that the hora, in its very materiality, was viewed as a protective object able to avert unwanted presences, and even unwanted situations, ensuring victory in battle as opposed to merely being a musical instrument.
Although blowing a hora to avert harmful forces is proscribed in numerous early modern sources, evidence suggests that playing the trumpet in the proper ryūra fashion, and even at all was not a prerequisite for accessing its protective qualities. It appears that the hora, in its very materiality, was viewed as a protective object able to avert unwanted presences, and even unwanted situations, ensuring victory in battle as opposed to merely being a musical instrument.
Dispelling Snakes and Swords
The hora’s functions as a tool for dispelling wild animals and harmful spirits in the mountains, as well as avoiding failure in battle, appear to have permeated the early modern imagination surrounding it. Contemporaneous visual culture suggests that it was broadly interpreted as a symbol of protection. Representations seem to focus primarily on its ability to avert snakes and dragons, probably stemming from its use in ritual settings in mountains, as well as a protective symbol for the battlefield. Such depictions illuminate our understanding of the early modern Japanese imagination, and specifically, the sorts of things hora were imagined to subdue.
One example representing the hora as a protective object can be found in the Drummond East Asian Collection in the Asian Ethnographic Collection of the American Museum of Natural History, catalog no. 70.3/1413 (figure 6). This peculiar piece comes from the Dr. I. Drummond Collection transfer (DAA 1961-73), and is part of a 1961 inventory of okimono from Dr. Drummond’s collection. This ivory piece, described as a “man with rope on conch shell frightened by snake”, measures approximately 6.3cm in length, 4.3cm in width and 12.5cm in height. The ivory is paired with light pigment on the clothing of the man depicted, and as of 11/2/1978, was on display in the AMNH “Shells” exhibit (AMNH, DAA, Manuscript Catalog). It clearly depicts a man standing on a larger-than-life conch trumpet gripping tightly the kainō connected to it, using the massive shell to shield him from a small, but presumably poisonous snake. Interestingly, the man here, although using the trumpet for protection, and further connected to the shell through the umbilical cord-like kainō, is not depicted as a mountain ascetic.
|Figure 6. 70.3/1413. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.|
A further example emphasizing the apotropaic qualities of the hora against serpents can be found in a woodblock print from a set of 33 depicting each of the Kannon from the Saikoku pilgrimage route. This series of prints was a joint effort between famed ukiyo-e artists Hiroshige II (1826-1869) and Utagawa Kinisada (or Utagawa Toyokuni III, 1786-1865). The print concerns the Shingon Buddhist temple Daigoji with its founder Shōbō (832-909) blowing into a hora. According to Max Moerman, a scholar of premodern Japanese religion who also owns this particular print, the legend is that Shōbō killed a giant snake that had been terrorizing the mountain practice site on the temple grounds, but gets bitten in the process and must use the pure waters surrounding Daigoji to heal his wounds. [xxxviii] The Saikoku print depicts the aftermath, and shows the victory of the temple patriarch over the wrathful mountain serpent, marked with the fully garbed ascetic blowing into a conch trumpet (figure 7).
|Figure 7. Saikoku Pilgrimage print. Courtesy of D. Max Moerman, Barnard College.|
In both examples, the inclusion of serpents as a representation of mountain spirits and harmful animals is a curious one. Although the current inquiry does not leave the space for a larger discussion, it should be noted that the trope of a Buddhist monk defeating a snake or dragon as the local manifestation of a water or mountain deity is a prevalent convention, permeating much of Buddhist literature throughout Asia. Such tropes appear as much in Indian narratives of the Buddha’s life as they do in Japanese temple origin narratives, describing wandering ascetics as taming local mountain gods for the purpose of finding suitable places to build a cultic center. [xxxix] Serpents were thus useful tropes for representing both mountain spirits and the venomous dangers lurking amongst the peaks.
In addition to examples of depicting hora as useful for averting snakes, further application of its associated protective significance can be seen in examples from the military arts. Early modern examples are featured in a variety of military helmets adorned with hora, or even fashioned to replicate the shape of the conch trumpet, seemingly drawing from its associations with protection from harm. One example (2014.89) is located in the John Woodman Higgins Collection of the Worcester Art Museum (figure 8), dated to 1618. A second (51.620) (figure 9) dates from the 18th century, and is housed at the Walters Art Museum. Both evoke the talismanic qualities of the hora to protect the wearer without having to actually play a trumpet.
|Figure 8. 2014.89, “Helmet in the Form of a Sea Conch Shell.” Worcester Art Museum (MA), The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection.|
|Figure 9. 51.620. The Walters Art Museum. CC0 license.|
Along with the trumpet from the MET, allegedly used in a military context for purposes of divination, the helmets raise questions both about the relationships and distinctions between military and religious use of the hora. This range of use suggests that both mountain ascetics and warriors owned and used horagai for a variety of purposes. Connecting the hora to other pieces of esoteric regalia and weaponry, and tracing its patterns of use between battlefields and sacred mountains may prove fruitful in examining the conch trumpet in military and religious spheres.
Placing Hildburgh’s hora and others within contexts of ritual use and imagining, reconciles the common depictions of the trumpet as protective. The ways in which hora were played in ritual settings as well as its status in the popular imagination reinforce its talismanic status. Through sound, materiality, and scriptural authority, hora warded off danger, transforming text into apotropaic sound. This seems to be characteristic of what Fabio Rambelli has called “non-hermeneutic” uses of texts in much of Japanese Buddhist practice. [xxxx] Japanese scriptures were often favored for their talismanic functions rather than sources for knowledge, being used in rites of healing, transmission, and exorcism. [xxxxi] As opposed to exegesis or pedagogy, the power evoked when blowing into a hora emits as an apotropaic, voiceless incantation, instead of being a legible text. Scripture, broadly speaking, is called on here more for its raw talismanic power than its doctrinal authority.
Acknowledgments: Jonathan would like to thank Laurel Kendall and Katherine Skaggs at the American Museum of Natural History, who oversaw this research during their Spring 2015 Asian Ethnology Internship Program. Max Moerman, Michael Como, and fellow graduate students also provided helpful comments during the Spring 2015 seminar, “Sacred Texts as Ritual and Material Objects,” at Columbia University.
Notes and References
- [i] Josef Kyburz, “Ofuda: An Overview.” In Ofuda, ed. Josef Kyburz (Paris College de France, 2014), 349-397.
- [ii] American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Division of Anthropology Archives (DAA) 1928 – 58, “Japan,” p.2.
- [iii] AMNH, DAA, Manuscript Catalog.
- [iv] H. Fukui, “The Hora (Conch Trumpet) of Japan,” The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 47 (1994): pp. 47-62.
- [v] Mikkelsen and Neil Landman, Personal Correspondence, 5/8/2015.
- [vi] “Charonia tritonis,” in Guide to seashells of the world (London: Philip’s, 2004). In “conchological terms” these are characterized by a “high, pointed spire; coarse, spiral cords and axial ribs on early whorls. Spiral ribs below suture – two on earlier whorls, three on the body whorl being beaded – are broad and flat with a small, narrow rib between. Outer lip flares to form large aperture and expands to form a low ridge before the lip which recurves. These axial ridges and lips show as varices on earlier whorls, one every two-thirds of a whorl, and therefore line up axially on every alternate whorl. Scalloped lip has about fifteen, spiral ribs running into the interior, posterior ones forming pairs of denticles on the lip. Concave columella is strongly and coarsely lirate. Narrowly umbilicate. Short siphonal canal. Creamy white; purple and brown, rounded, scale-like markings on spiral ribs; lip pinky-white; interior of aperture and inner ribs orange; denticles white; columella orange-pink, purple-brown between the lirae (Charonia, 2004).”
- [vii] Kinoshita Naoko, “Shell Trade and Exchange in the Prehistory of the Ryukyu Archipelago,” Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, Vol. 23, The Taipei Papers, Vol. 1 (2003), pp. 67-72.
- [viii] “T. Pyrum,” in Guide to Seashells of the World (London: Philip’s, 2004). In contrast to tritonis, pyrum has a “Moderate spire of about six whorls with adpressed sutures. Inflated body whorl; malleate surface; corded at the posterior end and on the short siphonal canal. Simple outer lip; columella with four plaits, the posterior one the largest, others decreasing towards the anterior; callous parietal wall. White; edge of lip, columella and parietal callus pale peach. This shell also has a thick heavy periostracum.”
- [ix] Fabio Rambelli, “Secrecy in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism.” The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion, ed. Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 119.
- [x] Fukui, “Hora,” 53; H. Fukui, “A Study of the Hora of the Kinpusenji Temple,” Ongakugaku, Vol. 36 – 1(1990): 29-42.
- [xi] Service Information from the AMNH Anthropology Division Collections Database notes that it was in a case titled “Spiritual,” and removed in March 5, 2001. This case title does not appear on the 1975 photograph, which instead lists the case as “Ritual Power.” Photograph is by Jim Coxe, 1975, Neg. #5907. [xii] DAA 1928 – 58.
- [xiii] Jane Safer Fearer and Frances McLaughlin Gill, Spirals from the Sea: An Anthropological Look at Shells (New York: C.N. Potter, 1982), 175.
- [xiv] Miyake Hitoshi. Shugendō Jiten (Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan, 1986), 397. [xv] Fukui, “Hora,” 51.
- [xvi] Fukui, “Hora”; Nakajima Hiroko, “Saimon,” Kokugakuin Daigaku Encyclopedia of Shinto: http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=1314
- [xvii] Irit Averbuch, The Gods Come Dancing: A Study of the Japanese Ritual Dance of Yamabushi Kagura (Ithaca: Cornell University East Asia Program, 1995), 91-92.
- [xviii] Ouchi Fumi, “ The Lotus Repentance Liturgy of Shugendō: Identification from Vocal Arts,” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie Vol. 18, Shugendō: L’histoire et la culture d’une religion japonaise (2009): pp. 169-193.
- [xix] Miyake, jiten; H. Byron Earhart, A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendō: An Example of Japanese Mountain Religion (Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1965).
- [xx] Averbuch, Gods Come Dancing, 92.
- [xxi] Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic, trans. Gene Reeves (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008), 64-65.
- [xxii] Fukui, “Hora”; Fukui, “Kinpusenji.”
- [xxiii] Benedetta Lomi, “Dharanis, Talismans, and Straw-Dolls: Ritual Choreographies and Healing Strategies of the Rokujikyōhō in Medieval Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 41, 2 (2014): 256.
- [xxiv] Ibid., 278.
- [xxv] Gorai Shigeru, “Shugendō Lore,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Vol. 16, No. 2/3, Shugendō and Mountain Religion in Japan, (1989): 133.
- [xxvi] Miyake, “jiten,” 331. See “Buchū hiden,” Nihon daizōkyō Shugendō shōso Volume I (Tokyo: Kokusho Kankōkai, 2000).
- [xxvii] Fukui, “Hora.”
- [xxviii] Ibid., 50.
- [xxix] Miyake, jiten, 397.
- [xxx] Ibid.
- [xxxi] Ibid., 347 and 397.
- [xxxii] Ibid., 397.
- [xxxiii] Earhart, “Haguro.”
- [xxxiv] Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) Arms and Armor Card Catalog # 105373.
- [xxxv] Ibid.
- [xxxvi] This addition was made in 5/3/2011. I was given access to this document on 5/1/2015 by Donald La Rocca, Curator of Arms and Armor at the MET.
- [xxxvii] Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) Arms and Armor Card Catalog # 105373.
- [xxxviii] Personal Correspondence, 4/19/2015.
- [xxxix] Caleb Carter. Producing Place, Tradition and the Gods: Mt. Togakushi, Thirteenth through Mid-Nineteenth Centuries (Dissertation, UCLA, 2014).
- [xxxx] Fabio Rambelli, Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 89.
- [xxxxi] Ibid.