Moon Goddess and Shrine Maidens: Women in Ancient Ryūkyūan Warfare

Note: The following article is composed from three individual parts that first appeared in my out-of-print “Karate 1.0” (2013). 

As an example [of arms and armor found in Shuri castle], an unearthed helmet of Japanese style exhibits ornamental adornments of an original Ryūkyūan design, displaying clouds, moon, sun and stars. [1] This helmet was brought to light in the excavation of the Kyō no Uchi storehouse of Shuri castle, which had been destroyed by fire during a conflagration in 1459 and had been in possession of the royal court for probably sometime prior already. Twenty-nine fragments furnished to the front part of a helmet bowl (kabuto-mae tate-kazari) produced during the Ryūkyū Kingdom era were restored, although their gilding had been destroyed by the fire. The helmet is of three-horn variety (mitsu kuwagata-dai). From the organization and design of the ornamental metal fittings attached to the center (haraidate), and after academic consultations, it was named The Pattern of the Auspicious Cloud, the Sun and the Moon, and the Stars (Zuiun Nichigetsu Hoshimon). Its design had been unraveled as follows:

The Pattern of the Auspicious Cloud, the Sun and the Moon, and the Stars (Zuiun Nichigetsu Hoshimon).

The Pattern of the Auspicious Cloud, the Sun and the Moon, and the Stars (Zuiun Nichigetsu Hoshimon).

  1. the Clouds: according to the characteristic Okinawan belief and ideology of Nirai-kanai, i.e. the paradise across the ocean, a lucky omen brings about a cloud, resembling the Buddhist and Taoist idea of as one wishes. This is expressed by auspicious cloud.
  2. the Moon: the deity of the moon. The moon as a goddess is known as Tsukishiro and is also seen as the personification of Tsukishirono Ōnushi, the Great God of the Moon.
  3. the Sun: god of the sun. The Ryūkyūan idea of Tīda. It is also a representation of the coming into existence of a unified state by means of the regional Anji.
  4. the Stars: standing for the North Star, the Big Dipper, the three stars of Orion and other star-beliefs. The pattern is maybe a representation taken from the large square star arrangement of the Pegasus constellation. Stars are considered in relation to sailing voyages and agriculture.
  5. a Plant: representing a prayer for a good harvest of rice, wheat, and other agricultural products.
  6. the hoe-shaped helmet crest: The origin of the hoe-shaped helmet crest is a deer antler. In Japan, buckhorns were used since antiquity as an ornament for helmets. Deer are considered to symbolize the longevity of a hermit and are also related to Fukurokuju, the tall headed god of happiness, wealth, and long life.

No similar instance of such a decoration design can be confirmed for mainland Japan. On the other hand, products found at the Iri no Azana excavation included fittings and gilded fragments of a helmet decoration of the same auspicious cloud and moon form and size as those of the Kyō no Uchi excavation mentioned above, and besides tuyère, metal shears, melting pots, and casting molds were found. That’s why this armor design should be considered an original Ryūkyūan style design.

Next, let’s think about the user of this Auspicious Cloud, the Sun and the Moon, and the Stars helmet, a hint to which we may find in poems recited in Volume 1 of the Omoro-sōshi.

Omoro-sōshi, Vol. I, Poem 5

The high priestess Kikoe Ōgimi wore a red armor, wore with it a congenial sword at her hip. In the whole country, her praised name resounded, and she had a huge influence on the ruler. As the vanguard, the moon goddess (Tsukishiro) advances, As the vanguard, the shrine maidens advances…

Omoro-sōshi, Vol. I, Poem 25

The Kikoe Ōgimi rises to the vanguard of the battle, proceeds to the battle, and subjugates the enemy; she’s the person with extreme spiritual power…

From the above two song poems, it is easy to perceive that the Kikoe Ōgimi on occasion of holding a ceremony in the court in front of the main palace would make use of a red armor and a sword. Judging on the basis of the above-mentioned Omoro, the Kikoe Ōgimi prior to a battle performed a prayer for being victorious. And this might even have given birth to the Okinawan proverb, women are at the fore of the battle.[2]

BTW, this might surprise you but as regards the ladies in old Ryūkyū, in a 1462 description by Koreans at the court in Shuri it is said that court ladies armed with swords stood ready as the king’s bodyguards[3] and escorted the king. As regards the guards of the castle gates: the eighteenth century work Nyōkan Osōshi[4] recorded that court ladies of the royal palace performed duty as castle gateguards. Therefore “court ladies” and female bodyguards apparently continued as an official post from at least the fifteenth to the eigteenth century.

The above-mentioned Kikoe Ōgimi was the chief priestess of the country and selected from among the sisters of the king. Onarigami, i.e. a sister in whom a divine spirit dwells, protected the country’s king. In the ballads of the Omoro the term Onarigami is used as a synonym for Kuseserikyo, i.e. a mystical person that proclaims the divine will. Comparable to the Japanese Empress Jingū, she tightened armor and helmet and strapped the two swords on to her waist in order to enter the fray. The Nyokan Gosōshi reports that in 1500, i.e. the 24th year of King Shō Shin’s reign, a certain Akahachi from the Yaeyama islands raised the flag of rebellion. Shuri’s divine oracle, a priestess called Chinpē from Kumejima, was sent as a vanguard in order to subdue the gods of that island. And, as the story goes, the gods submitted completely and with that also the soldiers, and thus the island was conquered with ease by means of the participation of the Chinpē in the military service. The Okinawan term Chinpē I believe resembles the Japanese Shinpei, i.e. a soldier dispatched by a god, or a soldier under the protection of the gods.

A similar event can also be found in the Japanese ancient classic Kojiki, and ever since there was the belief that gods of war betake to the battlefield in order to protect their people. Still during the Russo-Japanese War the god of war Hachiman was hailed in the native prefectural shrines, and with a portable sedan-like shrine figuratively carried to war in the dead of the night.[6]

In fact, on January 30, 1932, Iha Fuyū received a letter from linguist Kindaichi Kyōsuke (1882-1971).[7] In the following, the contents of the letter are summarized.

Every night statues of the Hachiman deity are appealed to, praying for Japan’s military success in Manchuria. In addition, formerly in the dead of night, but now at the time from about 9 or 10 o’clock, the theatrical Shintō dance called Kagura commenced. Gods are appealed to in many places, from the prefectural shrines to the village shrines to the Kami-sama in each and every home, and this constituted a considerable number. The Noro, or hereditary caste of female holy women in Okinawa, are just the same as these gods appealed to in prayer of Manchuria. Since earliest times this religious belief had not changed at all and the Hachiman is undoubtedly the same religious belief as that of ancient Ryūkyū. In order to comprehend this, first of all the religious belief called “the deity must subjugate the enemy” needs to be understood. That is, the deity must first conquer the enemy by its divine spiritual power. Only then the Ryūkyūan proverb “Woman are at the vanguard of war”[8]  can be understood in connection with the old custom of temple maidens, the Kikoe Ōgimi, and the holy women below her, as well as the names they are designated with. This is the ancient conception that courageous military commanders would lose all their power by the curse of a sorcerer, the idea of wizardry as a deadly affair, which puts the primitive man in fear and terror.[9] 

Kindaichi thus likened the Japanese protective deity of war called Hachiman to the Ryūkyūan belief in holy women as war heroes. Close perusal of the Omoro poems reveals that there is no lack of descriptions of armed daughters or wives of noblemen, military protection by a tutelary goddess, female shamans advancing as vanguard at the forefront of a campaign, as well as the performance of ceremonies at the palace of the Kikoe Ōgimi with the purpose of spiritually subduing the gods of hostile countries. The moon goddess mentioned in the above Omoro is the tutelary moon goddess called Tsukishiro. She was the guardian deity of the villages (ufusunagami) during the 1st Shō-Dynasty. And still at the end of the Ryūkyū kingdom armor and weapons were displayed in front of the altar in the residence of the Kikoe Ōgimi, as the elderly knew to report still at the time of Iha Fuyū. These were handed down ever since the 1st dynasty and have to be regarded a symbol of the kingdom’s self-image at the time. Ceremonies to spiritually subjugate the enemy prior to a campaign and holy female warriors advancing to the battlefield as a vanguard, took place at the time of the subjugation of Yaeyama in 1500. Iha conjectured that this practice was already in use since the Sanzan era through to the 1st Shō Dynasty, but left this open to some question.[10]

The following Omoro tells about the military campaigns of the time, the ability of the Kikoe Ōgimi to spiritually protect the whole army, and the triumphant return after a campaign:[11]

The Kikoe Ōgimi, the noble lady ruling over the nation, pushed aside the hostile army, pushed aside the hostile army, and the reputation of the ruler and his kingdom shone resplendently. The beloved mistress of the south wind, victoriously returned after her conquest of the island, after her conquest of the country. After conquering the island by cumulated might, the warriors returned home. After conquering the country, numerous keen men, their hearts unified, returned home. After conquering the island, the warriors of each and every ship returned home; after battle, the numerous keen men of each and every ship returned home, and from heaven to earth the echo of their homecoming resounded.

The term ‘mistress of the south wind’ found in the poem is written by using the phonetic ideograms Kimihae, which is a re-corruption of the Okinawan word Chinpē, which in turn is nothing else than Shinpei, or a soldier dispatched and protected by, and equipped with divine authority.[12] In this way the organization of priestesses protected the kingdom as divine soldiers.



[1] Okinawa Kenritsu Maizō Bunka-zai Sentā (2011), II: 11-13.

[2] Winagō ya ikusa nu sachibi「女や戦の先走ぃ」. On the military role of the Tsukishiro and other holy women in old Ryūkyū, see Iha 1938: 319-67.

[3] Joseon Wangjo Sillok , entry 1462, Bo Sugo and Chae Gyeong. Cf. Makishi 2012: 163. 「凡そ王挙動するに、女官剣を杖して侍衛す」(凡王擧動女官杖劍侍衛, 闕内常無軍士, 只於城外軍士更日直宿。)

[4] Cf. Nakahara Zenchū Bunko Gazō Dētabēsu, Nr. 133-135.

[5] Vol. I, poem 5: Shō Shin Ō Jidai no Omoro 尚眞王時代のオモロ, Cf. Iha 1938: 298-99.

[6] Iha 1938: 299.

[7] Living in Iwate Shiwa-gun Hizume chō at that time.

[8] Onna ha Ikusa no Sakugake 女は戰の魁.

[9] Iha 1938: 300.

[10] Iha 1938: 300-301.

[11] Vol. I, chapter 35, as given in Iha 1938: 301-303.

[12] On the military role of the Tsukishiro and other holy women in old Ryūkyū, see Iha 1938: 319-67.

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