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Enter the Mystic World: An Overview of Onmyōdō


There’s been a surge of interest in magic on BFF lately, and by that I mean magic in general: Kidō, Gintō, Onmyōdō, etc. Now, I’m no expert in magic myself, but I figured it would be beneficial to both me and others to do some research on onmyōdō. Why? Because I am using it as inspiration for how one of my characters uses Kidō, and I know several others will be or already have been doing the same. At a glance onmyōdō can sort of be overwhelming. Its history is complex and, like the mystical art itself, rather esoteric. To that end I am hoping to provide some clarity on the subject, but I’ll try to be as concise as possible since I know how valuable all of our respective times are.

Now, onwards! Into the abyss!!!

What is Onmyoudou Anyway?

In case you have no idea what we’re even talking about (and just clicked on this blog to… I don’t know, look at the pictures or something) onmyōdō is, in a nutshell, a historical system of Japanese occult magic. I would say it’s similar to medieval European alchemy or witchcraft— and it is, and at the same time definitely isn’t. Can I be more confusing?

Onmyōdō literally translates to the “Way of Yin and Yang.” It is technically considered to be an esoteric cosmology: which is a mix between actual science and occultism. Particularly, astrology and geomancy. It is based on Wu Xing, and is similar in many ways to Feng shui in application. But more on that later. Astrology meaning divination: or telling the future based on the movement of celestial bodies. Geomancy as in harmonizing with the five, traditional elements of Wu Xing: earth, metal, fire, water, and wood. Essentially, onmyōdō is an eclectic blend of different kinds of magic. It deals with “forces” such as the flow of energy and the forces of nature, “rule” magic, as in prescribed sets of spells, incantations and talismans that achieve a desired effect, and “theurgy,” the practice of rituals performed with the intention of invoking or evoking the presence of one or more gods in order to unite with the divine. If it’s still unclear to you, you might recognize Onmyōdō more easily by thinking of those guys in the GIGANTIC kimono (called a karanigu) running around with little white paper tags and exorcising demons. You know:

Randomonmyouji

A random onmyōji.

Yeah, those guys.

Brief History

A long time ago (in the 5th and 6th centuries, to be precise), the principles of Yin and Yang and Wu Xing (the Five Elements) came to Japan along with Buddhism and Confucianism during the all-things-Chinese-hungry Heian era. Soon, practitioners of onmyōdō (mainly Buddhist monks who could read Chinese) became famous as fortunetellers, and over time they came into high demand by members of the imperial court who believed that divination could help them in making decisions. Onmyōdō’s popularity skyrocketed in the 7th century, and laity (or non-monks) began to practice the art.

In fact, after the legal reforms in the 7th and 8th centuries, onmyōdō was actually placed under the jurisdiction of a bureau, known as (duh) the Bureau of Onmyō. The bureau was responsible for appointing onmyōji (a practitioner of onmyōdō) and overseeing divinations, as during the Heian era onmyōdō obviously had quite a bit of political clout: The skills of an onmyōji were believed to avert disaster and they thus had no small influence over the personal lives of the Emperor and court. Along the way onmyōdō gradually spread from court society to Japanese society as a whole, merging with other beliefs and occultism. It became a complex syncretism: a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism, melding and blending until it grew into its own distinctive practice.

Originally, the duties of a government-commissioned onmyōji included keeping a calendar, astronomy, the reckoning of time, divination, protecting the capital from evil spirits, and observing for harmful and auspicious signs from the earth (such as earthquake detection). Under the Fujiwara clan their responsibilities expanded to include necromancy and the placation of dead souls to avoid the birth of vengeful ghosts.

Two Famous Dudes

  • Kamo no Yasunori: This guy was the premier onmyōji during the Heian era and an advisor to the emperor. According to a popular tale, at the age of ten Yasunori accompanied his father to an exorcism where he could perceive the demons involved, which was a sign of natural talent. Yasunori later taught the even more famous Abe no Seimei, and the latter became his successor in astrology and divination. For several centuries the Kamo clan became the hereditary keepers of the calendar. More interestingly, Yasunori was an important plot element in a kabuki play where he is the owner of the Kin’u Gyokuto Shū, a book of divination passed down from a Chinese wizard. The rest of the play involves the changing ownership of this book.
  • Abe no Seimei: Seimei has a prominent role in both Japanese history and folklore. As Yasunori’s successor, he worked as an onmyōji in the Heian governement in calendar-making, spiritual advising, and praying for the well-being of the emperor and government officials. He also made several important predictions based on astrological events. His lifespan was extraordinarily long and he lived in good health, which in those days contributed to the legend that he possessed mystical powers and was not entirely human: While his father was said to be human, his mother was rumored to be a Kitsune, and by the age of five he was able to control small Oni. Many of Seimei’s stories focus on his infamous rivalry with Ashiya Dōman, who was apparently always attempting to usurp his position. Seimei’s influence became great enough that the Bureau of Onmyō was controlled by the Abe clan for hundreds of years after his death.
    Seimeishrinewell

    Lucky Star Well at the Seimei Shrine.

    He even has a shrine dedicated to him, and the mystical symbol of the equidistant five-pointed star (aka, the pentagram) is known in Japan as the “Seiman,” or the seal of Abe no Seimei. Onmyōdō thrived under the control of the imperial government of the Tsuchimikado family until the middle of the 19th century, at which point it became prohibited as superstition. We can assume, however, that onmyōdō was simply pushed underground for a time until it eventually became nothing more than a myth to be frequently referenced in pop-culture, manga, and fanfiction authors. Heh.

How it Works

The subtle forces that flow in the earth and heavens are as mysteries as they are powerful. These dual cosmic forces comprise the very foundation of creation, the ever-shifting balance of light and darkness, and it is from their copulation that all things arise, it is believed that from this union that the world itself emerged from. Scattered across the physical and spiritual world are currents that carry these energies, they stretch and crisscross from one realm to another, for all things are connected. Magic is the art of tapping into these forces, drawing upon the collective consciousness that pervades the energies born out of the ideas, thoughts and souls of the living, encapsulated and manifested in those-who-are and those-who-have-yet-to-be.

Void

The chief influences that gave rise to onmyōdō, as already mentioned, came from China. So before we look at onmyōdō specifically, it would be helpful to go back to take a look at its roots:

Fivephasecycle

Wu Xing

Wu Xing: If you understand Wu Xing, you will understand onmyōdō. Wu Xing, which translates to “Five Elements” or “Five Phases,” is a philosophical concept system that was used traditionally to explain a wide range of phenomena: from planetary circles to the circulatory system. The five phases include Wood (木), Fire (火), Earth (土), Metal (金), and Water (水). Basically it was asserted that these five elements drove the movements of the universe either through overcoming each other or succumbing to each other in mutual and eternal cycle. It’s based on the balance of Yin and Yang, and each element has its own particular characteristics, movements, cardinal direction, etc. Eventually Wu Xing was adopted into fields as disparate as military strategy and feng shui. I could go on and on about what Wu Xing is and how to use it and such, but in the interest of time I’ll let you do your own research. (Hah hah). Wu Xing’s influence is still seen today in traditional Chinese medicine (acupuncture, etc), some forms of martial arts, and Naruto. (I’m only half-kidding about the Naruto part.) Wu Xing is also intrinsically connected with Bagua, a system of eight trigrams used in Taoist cosmology to “represent the fundamental principles of reality.” Also firmly based on the concept yin and yang, the trigrams are associated with astronomy, astrology, geography, geomancy, and anatomy.

Baguaelements

Eight Trigrams of Bagua.

  • Feng shui: Also referred to as “geomancy,” Feng shui is a philosophical system connected with Wu Xing and the Yin and Yang that focuses on harmonizing with the surrounding environment. Historically, feng shui practice chiefly concerned architecture and the placement of buildings in line with the invisible force known as qi in order to ensure the most auspicious orientation. It is called geomancy because feng shui determines the locations of these qi currents by the location of spiritual sites, bodies of water, and anywhere else that qi might pool or flow in a good direction. As to how this relates to onmyōdō, during the Heian period in Japan, nobles tended to organize their lives around "lucky and unlucky directions", which depending on the season, time of day, and other circumstances, a particular direction might be bad luck or good luck for an individual. This expanded beyond building houses to include tea ceremonies, the colors you could wear in a particular season, and even the direction of travel one would take. This was also a good way to provide a convenient excuse if you just so happened to decline the invitations or summons of another, higher-ranking noble. Heh heh.

While onmyōdō incorporates yin and yang, the Wu Xing and Bagua, it combines them with Shintoist folk occultism that has led to a practice distinct from its Chinese ancestors. That being said, it is still heavily based on Wu Xing: the ways of conflicting states of yin and yang and the understanding of all things by the circulation of these differing energies. Historically, it was by this knowledge that one was thought to be able to divine the future and make forecasts. But onmyōdō is also concerned with the capturing of energy and spirits in order to aid the onmyōji in battle. That being said, I’m going to list some of the most important concepts in onmyōdō here and how they work to hopefully give you a better picture of what it’s all about:

Seiman: One fundamental concept in onmyōdō is that of the Seiman. The pentagram in Japanese culture is a symbol of magical power, as it is the diagram of the “overcoming” cycle of the Five Phases. As a seal it is frequently used as a focal point of channeling magical energy during a spell, such as summoning Shikigami or marking a point to set up a ward.

Tokyobabylonseiman

Now THOSE are some Ninja Stars.

What is important to note about the Seiman is that it follows the cycle of elemental “overcoming,” which is basically which phase is “stronger” than the other, and which one is weaker than the other. Wood overcomes earth, earth overcomes water, water overcomes fire, fire overcomes metal, and metal overcomes wood. In onmyōdō this mainly determines which spells overcome which, so if you’re in the middle of an onmyōdō battle you don’t want to pull out a metal spell when the other guy is using fire, just saying.

Kuji: There are a variety of mantras used in onmyōdō known as kuji, which means “nine syllables.” And here they are:

Rin (臨), Pyō (兵), Tō (闘), Sha (者), Kai (皆), Jin (陣), Retsu (列), Zai (在), Zen (前).

If the nine cuts of kuji-kiri* are then made the syllable Kō (行) is sometimes spoken afterwards.

Kuji-in Hand Seals

Diagram of Hand Seals, in case you enjoy self-torture.

The hand seals associated with the hand seals are known as kuji-in, and the syllables and seals can be combined in different ways to accomplish different goals. There is also something called *kuji-kiri, which as opposed to the fingers to focus energy as in kuji-in, kuji-kiri employs a grid system of nine lines drawn from the heavenly stems in Taoism. There are five horizontal and four vertical lines that represent the finger signs and attributes. The right hand is used to trace between various points (like a “password” on an Android) while the syllables are recited. This is typically considered to be faster and thus is used in more direct usages, such as exorcisms or spiritual combat.

Kuji kuri diagram

Kuji-kuri grid.

Ofuda: In addition to hand seals there are also talismans or amulets known as Ofuda, which are actually issued by a Shinto shrine to be hung in the house for protection. These are made by inscribing the name of a kami and shrine on a representative piece of paper, wood, cloth, or metal. These tags can be attached to doors, pillars, ceilings, or placed inside private shrines, and they are believed to protect the family of the house from harm. Typically these shinpu are to be renewed once a year, usually before the end of the year. I think I actually talked about this in my new years blog almost a year ago. In onmyōdō, however, ofuda usually refers to the powerful spells that are inscribed on paper. These spells cover a wide range of effects, from direct attacks, protective wards, and even the summoning of the Shikigami. The utility of the ofuda is limited only by creativity on the part of the onmyōij and the energy used in charging the tags.

Ofuda

Ofuda tags, which are always written in Cloud or Chinese script for onmyōdō.

Shikigami: Shikigami are perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of onmyōdō. Assumed to be spirits of gods, animals, ghosts, or other spiritual beings, they are said to be invisible until banned inside of a small paper manikin.
Shikisweep

Marshmellow Shikigami. Wouldn't these little guys be nice for chores?

They emerge only for the duration of their task or until they sustain significant damage, at which point the revert back to the paper they were summoned from. In order to conjure them a complex ceremony is required in which the power of the Shikigami is connected to the spiritual force of the master. If the evoker is skillful or is well-experienced the shiki (式, literally meaning “formula”) can possess animals and even people to manipulate them. If careless, however, the shikigami may break free of his control, gain its own will and consciousness, and attack its own master to kill him in revenge. In legend and myth, shikigami were normally summoned in order to carry out risky missions, such as spying, stealing, and tracking enemies. Shikigami can be designed to take up any form, but tend to fall back on standard, folklore-based appearances. In fact there are actually twelve basic forms for shikigami in tradition, which are as follows: 天一, Tenitsu, 腾蛇, Heavenly Snake, 朱雀, Vermillion Bird, 六合, Rikugo, 勾陈, Kōsan, 青龙, Green Dragon, 天后, Queen of Heaven, 太阴, Taiin, 玄武, Genbu, 太常, Taijyō, 白虎, White Tiger, and 天空, Tenkū. Some of these are pulled from the four symbols, or mythological constellations in Taoism. As for the rest of them though, I have no idea where they came from so good luck. Heh heh.

Onmyoudou Meets Pop-culture

Now for the fun part. I’m going to list all the shows and manga I can think of that deal with onmyōdō or onmyōji. If you think of any more or have suggestions for me, go ahead and list them in the comments. I’ll be sure to check them out.

Onmyoji cover

Onmyōji: I listed this manga as No. 1 on this list since, well, onmyōdō is kind of the point of the whole story. It’s based on a novel series of the same name and was even made into a film a while back. Onmyōji follows the story of a master in .. well, onmyōdō, and while I can’t say if it’s good or not since I haven’t read it yet, it is definitely on my list of "Things to Read."

Kekkaishimasaofuda

Kekkaishi: I’ve mentioned Kekkaishi in my blogs before, and as it was one of the first anime I ever saw it is also the first place I saw Shikigami being used in a story. While set in modern middleschool Kekkaishi actually sticks pretty close to what you would associate traditionally with onmyōdō. Not only that but, unless I’m mistaken, Kubo himself cited the series as one of his inpirations for Bleach, which is probably most evident in the way Kidō looks, but who knows. It’s the reason I was originally interested in it, anyway.

Nuraonmyou

Nurarihyon no Mago: So the main character might be half-yōkai, but (one of) the main love interests in an onmyōji, from an onmyōji family, descended from Abe no Seimei himself and who use Shikigami to battle evil spirits! This also sticks very close to the tried-and-true cultural depiction of onmyōdō.

Shounenonmyoujicover

"Someday, someday I will catch them all."

Shōnen Onmyōji: I haven’t seen this at all but apparently it deals with the grandson of Abe no Seimei. I’ll probably check it out later to see if it’s worth watching, but it DOES involve onmyōji and onmyōdō, obviously.

Kantarousingsjazz

I swear that's kuji... even though it looks like jazz.

Tactics: This show had a surprising amount of reference to onmyōdō. Now I’ve talked about Tactics before, and while it may not be the BEST show out there it does show Kantarō, a “folklorist” using the kuji to exorcise demons. Which I found slightly useful, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Gintamaonmyouji

Gintama: Okay, okay. So there was really only ONE arc in Gintama that dealt with onmyōdō, but in my opinion, it was one of the best and most humorous arcs in the show. Plus it seems to be one of the most orthodox depictions of onmōdō in anime, surprisingly. There are Shikigami, enslaved Oni, an Abe no Seimei clone, Ashiya Dōman, and a tournament that somehow resulted from forecasting the weather. Not sure if it’s accurate at all or helpful at all, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Where to Start

Well if you want to use onmyōdō in Bleach-related stuff, the first place I suggest you go is to Wu Xing. As I stated before, understanding Wu Xing is crucial to understanding onmyōdō. Mainly in the way the phases interact with each other, the directions, seasons, colors and animals all associated with these phases, etc. Why? Because Wu Xing is a treasure-trove for spell ideas. I also suggest you get some inspiration by either reading or watching series or stories about onmyōdō to get inspired. Lastly, probably one of the biggest things is figuring out a way to reconcile onmyōdō within the universe that is Bleach. I tried my hand at it with Xiemaibo, Void uses onmyōdō on Tsuchimikado Shikizaki.

Whatever you decide to do with it, may the (five) forces be with you. Get it? Mwah hah hah hah.

Vadersurrendertheforce
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