I mentioned in my introduction to Inari Ōkami, my patron deity, that He is considered by some Japanese to be rather scary and wrathful. Inari is not the only kami viewed in this way. Throughout history, kami have been as much feared as loved in Japan. That is the reason why so many measures are taken to prevent offending the kami, from the strict etiquette surrounding kami enshrinement to jichinsai rituals conducted before constructing a new building in order to pacify the local kami.
They can even be depicted as rather scary and inhuman – Fūjin and Raijin (pictured above) look like demons. Inari’s most famous symbol is the fox, an animal with a rather sinister reputation in Japan. This is in contrast to some of Japan’s most popular Buddhist deities, including Kannon (Bodhisattva of mercy) and Jizō (Bodhisattva who protects travellers and children). Unlike the Shinto kami, these figures embody unconditional love and forgiveness and are usually depicted as friendly-looking humans.
In all the polytheist and nature-based religions I can think of, the majority of principle deities seem to have some kind of darker, fearsome aspect to them. There is a very good reason for this. They represent the forces of nature.
We have always lived at the mercy of the environment. Nature is both a benevolent giver who blesses us with life, and a destroyer causing pain and death, in equal measure. The same sun, wind, rain and earth that give us the food we eat can also kill us in our thousands. It’s no wonder that the deities of nature-based Pagan religions are frequently neither all-good or all-bad. Just like Nature, Pagan deities are frequently without morals, or follow a morality that is entirely individual to them.
But more recent religions tend to be less to do with nature, and more to do with mankind. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism are based on the teachings of a particular person, and their doctrines are more about how people should treat each other and behave in society rather than living with nature. As such, the figures of these religions – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary, the saints – embody the human ideals of kindness, mercy and love to one extent or another.
I think this is one reason why older Pagan deities came to represent the forces of evil in the new religions. They came to symbolise that which was savage, brutal and untameable – everything that was contrary to the teachings of the prophets and saints, who were advocating a lifestyle that reigned in natural instincts in favour of morals and ethics. You can easily see how the horned god Pan, an deity connected with wildness, madness and animal nature, became the cruel and terrifying Devil in the imagination of the Christians who came along later.
I also think this may explain why some Japanese feel uncomfortable about approaching Shinto deities. The kami can seem both impersonal and terrifying compared to many of the Buddhist deities. But this is only because they represent the fickle way nature both blesses and curses humans. I venerate the kami and Neopagan deities because I accept that Nature is both a creative and destructive force, and have a deep respect for it for this reason. And learning to love and venerate nature for its duality also helps me to come to terms with some of the more troubling aspects of life – change, loss and death.