Magatama beads are authentically Japanese and date back to the Jomon period (14,000 BC to 400 BC). Magatama, meaning “curved jewel” or “curved spirit/soul” are comma shaped beads typically made of jade, glass, rocks and various semiprecious stones. These beads do not only have an aesthetic appeal to the Japanese, but have a long history of being incorporated into their religious practices including shamanism and Shinto.
The magatama beads have several possible origins. It is believed that they developed from hunters wearing the animal paraphernalia (claws, teeth, bones) from their game as mementos (Holtom 32). Another possible origin is that magatama beads are representative of the crescent moon, a fact supporting this is “the use of jewels in Old Japan as devices wherewith to magically control the tides”, like the moon (Holtom 34; 33-5). Some scholars also believe that these beads are derived from the Chinese ying-yang symbol, as they are visually similar (Schumacher, Arnheim).
Some of the earliest religious uses of magatama beads were in Japanese shamanic practices. Here they were used as tools to draw a kami spirit into a shaman, who would serve as a medium between kamis and humans (Matsume 18-19). The beads were also used in spirit pacification rituals to “call back the spirit of the deceased and then to bind it and/or transfer it” (Ebersole 96). This was possible because the magatama beads are believed to be a lure to the kami as well as a temporary residing place for them (Blacker 106). These ideas are given further solidity when looking at the Kojiki story of coaxing Amaterasu out of the cave. Ame-no-uzume (the kami that causes the laughter) is thought by scholars to be a shaman who becomes possessed by Amaterasu while performing a spirit pacification ritual where she is reviving Amaterasu's soul (bringing it back from the dead and binding it in the world of the living by using magatama beads tied on a sakaki tree) (Ebersole 98; Matsume).
The most important magatama beads are called the yasakani no magatama and is one of the imperial regalia objects. In this context the beads are believed to possess the soul of a person wherein it can be passed on to others as a means of passing one's authority or power to its receiver. Izanagi's gift of these beads to Amaterasu is so important because in doing so, “Izanagi ceded all of his spiritual power to Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kami” to rule with (Philippi 71). This is because Izanagi had previously put his soul into the beads by shaking them (indication of a spirit pacification ritual) (Philippi 71). The transfer of power and authority to rule Japan has been handed down in this way - through the yasakani no magatama beads - from Amaterasu to her descendants, right up to the present emperor and continues to be done through the imperial accession ceremony (Ebersole 96).
Finally, magatama beads are believed to be beneficial to their owner. According to Schumacher they are for the “'avoidance of evil'”, the “'magic of good fortune'”, or “growth, longevity, and prosperity”. This is depicted again with Izanagi giving the beads to his daughter, as he wanted to grant her longevity (Philippi 71). So, next time you're in Japan, get some magatama beads as they might bring you luck, long life or even a kami.
~guest blogger, Lauren Forbes