Outcasts, Emperorship, and Dragon Cults in The Tale of the Heike

Outcasts, Emperorship, and Dragon Cults in The Tale of the Heike

By David T. Bialock

Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, Volume 13, 2002

”The Imperial Procession to Ōhara”, from The Tale of the Heike (Japanese screen, 17th c., Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Introduction: In this paper, I propose to examine the interplay in medieval culture between outcast performers, royal authority, and the role of the dragon as locus of sacred power, focusing largely on several variant texts of Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike).

Among the Heike variants to be examined, the Kakuichibon (1371) and Enkyôbon (1309-10) exhibit certain symmetries of contrast that make them especially useful for understanding the relationship between sacred authority and manipulations of the defiled other embodied in outcast or semi-outcast performers.

On the one hand, the Enkyô variant, widely held to transmit one of the oldest versions of the Heike narrative, exhibits a strong Buddhist doctrinal viewpoint closely allied to the political interests of powerful religious centers like Mount Hiei’s Enryakuji temple, with portions of its text clearly based on preaching styles and techniques found in handbooks composed by Buddhist priests of the Agui sect (agui-ryû).

The Kakuichi dictated text of 1371, on the other hand, was in the custody of blind itinerant reciters of borderline outcast status, known familiarly as biwa hôshi, who over time established a degree of independence from the large temples (Jiin) after forming their own guild (tôdô). As a work reshaped and transmitted by wandering reciters at the periphery of power the Kakuichi variant consequently exhibits a much different orientation toward space and the ideologies of power that produce it.

The essay is divided into roughly two equal parts. The first part examines the contested nature of royal authority, particularly in the person of retired sovereigns, as it became implicated in the defiled periphery from the late Heian period on. In the second part, the focus shifts to the symbolic nexus centered on the dragon as a powerful mediator of the contradictions in medieval articulations of royal and sacred authority. The second part concludes with a reassessment of the doctrinal and musico-ritual context for understanding the place of the Kanjô no maki (‘The Initiates’ Scroll’) in early medieval Heike recitation.

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