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The History of the Tatara


Kanayago-kami (the deity Kanayago) is enshrined at tatara in the Chugoku mountains. While the main shrine dedicated to this deity (whose name is written with characters that literally mean “child of the metal worker) is located at Nishihida in the city of Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture. Devotion to Kanayago-kami is widespread, centered on the Chugoku region but extending from Kyushu and parts of Shikoku to the distant Kanto region and parts of Tohoku. The ritual deities celebrated at present are Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto and Kanayama-hime-no-mikoto with origins in the Yamato line (see section 2.1.3 for background), but originally it was Kanayago-kami, more familiarly called “Kanayago-san” throughout the region. Worship of Kanayama-hiko and Kanayama-hime (male and female, respectively) dates almost certainly to early modern times. This is believed to have been aimed at increasing the authority of the shrines.

There is a shrine dedicated to Kanayago at the Hitachi Metals Yasugi factory.

The story of Kanayago-kami is as follows.

In the distant past, Kanayago-kami decided from the heavens to a place called Shiso-no-kori (Shiso County) in the province of Harima (in what is now southern Hyogo Prefecture, in the San'yo district). She taught the people there how to make iron, and made an iron kettle out of rock. Since then, that place has been called Iwanabe (“rock kettle”), which is in the vicinity of the town of Chikusa, Shiso County, Hyogo Prefecture. However, as there were no mountains nearby where she could live, Kanayago-kami declared, “If I am to be the deity who rules the western reaches, I will proceed to the west and live in a suitable place there.” So saying, she climbed on a white heron to travel to the mountains of Okuhida in Kurota in Nogi County of the province of Izumo (around Nishihida in Shimane Prefecture). The heron alit upon on a katsura tree to rest, and Kanayago-kami then taught the technique of making iron in that region to the members of the Abe clan.

Since then, Kanayago-kami has continued to be worshipped by the descendents of the Abe clan. The Abe clan involved itself not only with priestly affairs, but also with traveling around to instruct others in tatara techniques.

There are a variety of curious taboos associated with Kanayago-kami. Among them:

Kanayago-kami hates dogs, ivy, and hemp. She favors wisteria.
According to the legend in Hino County, Tottori Prefecture, a dog howled at Kanayago-kami when she descended from the heavens. The deity tried to escape by climbing a vine, but the vine broke. She was attacked by the dog and died as a result. The version of the story told in I'ishi County, Shimane Prefecture, is that, rather than ivy, she became entangled in hemp or flax and died. The legend in Nita County, Shimane Prefecture, holds that the ivy did indeed break, but she then grabbed onto a wisteria tree and was saved. She may be a deity, but in this humorous story she is a rather human character. Such legends are the reason why dogs are not allowed near tatara and hemp is not used for any tatara tools or equipment. Also, katsura trees are not burned in tatara because they are regarded as divine.

Kanayago-kami hates women.
Kanayago-kami is a female deity so she hates women. A murage will not enter the tatara when his wife is menstruating. He shuts down his tatara temporarily just before and after his wife gives birth. If work is at a point that he cannot put it aside, it is said that he will not go home nor look at the face of his newly born child. It is also said that murage are especially strict about not getting into a bath if a woman has used it.

Kanayago-kami likes corpses.
The disciples of Kanayago-kami did not know what to do with their tatara when she died so suddenly. It is said that just as they were praying to and beseeching her for help, just when the iron could not be brought to birth no matter what they did, they received an oracle calling for them either to stand a dead body up against the tatara's four supporting pillars (Nita County) or bind the bones of a murage to the four pillars (the village of Yoshida, Shimane Prefecture). There similarly appears to have been no taboos about death in tatara in other locales, either. They apparently made coffins in tatara when a person died in Aki or Yamagata in Hiroshima Prefecture, while in Futami county in the old Bingo province (around Hiroshima today) people would carry a coffin around the tatara when holding a funeral.

Actually, it is unclear as to whether or not Kanayago-kami is meant to be a male or female deity, but in the tatara the deity has been said to be female. Masaya Abe, a descendent of the Abe clan and chief priest at Kanayago Shrine, writes, “Kanayago-kami is usually held to be a female deity. However, that is because it was a woman who enshrined it. The deity was originally a youthful male.” Details about Kanayago-kami turn up in various stories, including those related to such other deities as Yawata-kami, Ama-no-hiboko, Takuso-susano-no-mikoto, and Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto. In all cases, Kanayago-kami was the patron deity of blacksmiths, worshipped from the start by people involved in metalwork. These artisans spread devotion to Kanayago to many locations, and the present form of that worship was probably created by the Abe clan.

Festivals are held at the shrine Kanayago-jinja in the spring around the middle of the 3rd month and in the autumn early in the 10th month, the dates being determined according to the Chinese zodiacal calendar. In the past, the Kanayago festival at Hida was an event to which tatara masters and blacksmiths would come from distant provinces, as well as from Izumo and the neighboring province of Hoki.

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