Friday, March 7, 2008
Chasing the Devil
For centuries there’s been a way to get rid of the devil on Miyako Island, a far-flung speck of earth in the Pacific between Okinawa and Taiwan. The devil’s name is Paantu and a flock of priestesses could chase him away by shaking branches of the camphor tree and shouting, “Hoi! Hoi!”
It’s not so easy anymore. A recent article in the New York Times provided a glimpse into the pending disappearance of a once-vital ritual. The island has survived millennia of typhoons and even Japanese conquest during World War II, but nothing has proven so destructive to the ancient religion as newfound affluence and a more westernized culture.
Priestesses are particularly important as guardians of the sacred forests, springs and wells in Miyako's nature and ancestor-based religion. In one village, some 60 women traditionally served as priestesses. Today there are 10 and even that number is threatened. Young women in the village say they’re too busy. “Young people now have jobs,” Tadashi Nakama, director of the Nishihara District Community Center, told the Times. “In the past, there was only farming, so everybody participated.”
According to the devil-ridding Paantu ritual, the priestesses would march in a procession to a house where a baby had been born during the past year or a house that had been recently built. There they would encourage the devil to keep moving on. “But there weren’t any (babies) this year,” Ikuko Tokuyama, an assistant to the chief priestess, said. “And there weren’t any newly built houses either. Really, what shall we do?”
Even the selection of Paantu himself is becoming problematic. A group of boys played rock/paper/scissors, but the loser refused to wear the Paantu mask. So Takuya Sunakawa, 12, was drafted over his protests of “I don’t want to.” (That's him in the NYT photo with the Paantu mask.)
So, the ceremony to oust the devil occurred once again, this time with a reluctant Paantu and far fewer priestesses chanting “Hoi! Hoi!” as the world’s rituals continue to disappear.