Megaliths as Ancient Shrines

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(c) Okunomichi 2012

Let’s discuss rocks and stones. We often use these words interchangeably. Are they different? Instead of the common word for stone, ishi, the Japanese sometimes use the word, iwa. If the ishi is a smallish stone, then iwa is a largish rock like a boulder. When we examine the kanji 岩 for iwa, we see the character for mountain over that for stone so it represents a mountain stone.

While megaliths occur naturally, there is evidence that some have been worked on by ancient people. Megaliths were often transported over great distances to special sites on the peaks of mountains (such as megaliths from the island of Shikoku on top of 2599 meter tall Mt Kinpusan in Yamanashi). Megaliths are also iwakura, stone seats for kami deities. The connotation is that kami descend from an unseen world to sit on or in the stones. Megaliths are found within iwasaka, 岩 境 or 磐 境, sacred enclosures, which were probably early shrines. Megaliths can be regarded as iwa no hashira, pillars of rock. The pillar is an important metaphor in sacred literature around the world. It represents a sacred mountain, the center of the world, the world axis.

Why are megaliths sacred? Megaliths connect ki of heaven spiraling down and ki of earth spiraling up. The movements of heaven and earth are celebrated and joined in matsuri, festivals to kami of heaven and earth.

I visited Kanayama Megaliths in Gifu Prefecture at the time of the autumn equinox in September. There are three Shinto shrines in front of the Iwaya-Iwakage megalith grouping, indicating that people have considered this site a sacred place. Let us note that the word, iwaya, 岩 屋, or house of rock, is also translated as cavern or grotto, and even as sanctuary, and Iwakage means the shade of the rock. It feels good to be in Iwaya-Iwakage. The beam of sunlight entering from the “ceiling” was easily revealed by the smoke of burning incense. I sat on the rock on the west side of the “sanctuary” and when I was alone, I felt Iwaya’s beauty and peace. The smoke in the sunbeam was swirling around and it was mesmerizing to watch. It seemed like there was a spiraling energy right here in Iwaya.