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Faith in Paper: Printed Talismans and Inscribed Oaths in Premodern Japanese Religion: Religious Studies Colloquium with D. Max Moerman


March 9
12:00 pm - 1:20 pm
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Religious Studies Colloquium with D. Max Moerman (Barnard College and Columbia University). For Religious Studies faculty, graduate students, and Stanford-affiliated guests. Co-sponsored by the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies.

This presentation examines the articulation of religion within the social domain through an analysis of the ritual, legal, visual, and material culture of oaths inscribed on printed talismans produced at temples and shrines in premodern Japan.  Such talismans were affixed to buildings to protect them from fire and burglary, worn on persons to protect them from all range of misfortune, and burned and ingested while taking an oath. The veracity of these oaths was often demonstrated in ordeals such as plunging one’s hand in boiling water or grasping a rod-hot iron.  Their most common use, however, was in the writing of contracts.  Inscribed on the reverse side of many of these talismans were written pledges which if broken carried the threat of not only legal but also divine retribution. Such punishments included disease in the present life and rebirth in hells in future lives.  Blood was often used to sign these documents and occasionally to write them out as well. These talismanic contracts were used by people of all classes in performing acts of truth and asserting legal claims, by warriors to swear their allegiance to commanders, by merchants as promissory notes, by farmers in pledging unity during peasant uprisings, by prostitutes and prostitution houses to document economic and sexual servitude, and by those same prostitutes as pledges of undying devotion to their patrons. This rich but largely unstudied body of material will be explored for what it might reveal about the relationship between religious, legal, political, and economic practices.