The Legend of the Shikigami
The Meaning Behind the Name
Kanji: 式神 (shikigami) or 式の神 (Shiki-no-kami)
The shiki (式) in 式神 means ceremony, while the kami (神) translates to god, so the meaning can be interpreted as a form of god summoned by, or used in a ceremony. They are also known as 式人 (shiki-jin), where the kanji 人 (jin) means person, so a person related to a ceremony.
The Origins of the Shikigami
Shikigami are traditionally thought of as spirits used by onmyoji, users of the art of onymodo. Onmoyoji practiced a form of magic and divination, which involved the summoning and control of spirits: the shikianegami. They serve a role similar to that of a witch’s familiar in western folklore.
Originally, they might have been a tool for divination, as the kanji for shiki, is the same a that used in the word shikisen (a complex form of augury performed by onmyoji in the Heian Era). However, over time the shiki-no-kami became the servant spirits of the onmyoji, taking on a greater role as part of the onmyoji’s mysterious and magical powers.
In the legends, the greatest of all onmyoji, Abe no Seimei, was able to summon shiki-no-kami the precocious age of six years old. As an adult, he is famous for having twelve shikigami, one for each branch of the zodiac.
Shikigami are spirits, controlled by the spiritual power of their masters. In their spirit form they are invisible. However, shiki-no-kami usually possess paper manikins (delicately folded paper that resembles a small person) to obtain a physical form. Depending on the power of their master, they can also possess other physical objects, animals and occasionally, people.
In the form of a paper person, the spirits are relatively harmless. Most stories refer to onmyoji using the shikigami in this form to perform covert acts such as spying or stealing. Nevertheless, in certain cases, if the user of the shiki-no-kami is powerful enough, the spirit can posses or even kill people. There are also references to Abe no Seimei summoning shikigami which were actually powerful oni (oni are a kind of demon or ogre yokai).
Shikigami are entirely lacking free will. As they are completely under the control of the onmyoji who summoned them, the spirits perform whatever action their master asks of them. The use of shiki-no-kami as servant spirits can be dangerous, however. If the master loses control of their spirits, then they will rebel. They might even kill their master for revenge.
Shikigami in Modern Media
Shiki-no-kami are quite common in Japanese media, especially those anime and games which are focused on onmyoji.
- The Ghibli film Spirited Away
- Nurarihiyon no Mago
- Kamisama Hajimemashita
- In the 3D RPG game Onmyoji
- Nurarihiyon no Mago
- Shikigami no Shiro
- Shikigami Danshi
If you know of any other manga, books, games, films or anime that feature shikigami, please let me know in the comments below!
For more articles on yokai, see here.