On the Life a Saio Lived…

Beloved readers, here comes our third article to foster your knowledge on Shinto… As anticipated, we’ll be explaining what life was like for a saio : feasts, rituals, prohibitions, travels, legends, selection and more. But before swimming into this… 

Historical Context :

Few decades after the first half of the Yayoi period (350 BC – 300 AD) in Japan, Shinto goes through an unstoppable revolution that changes it forever : the prophetess Yamatohime-no-Mikoto marks the perimeter along which the core of the holiest shrine, Ise Jingu, shall then be constructed and the order of the saio is first established; the center of Amaterasu-Omikami’s worship is transferred from Kasanui to Ise itself and prince Ousu receives the holy sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi. 

Who Were the Saio?

The term “saio” indicates the highest authority in service at Ise Grand Shrine under priesthood, after all the shrine needed a spiritual leader after having been established by Yamatohime-no-Mikoto. All saio, to be chosen as such, had to be virgin, unmarried, young and of noble origins (ideally she would have been a princess daughter of the emperor). But the process for selection relied on the will of the Kami as well : priests enacted divination rituals (kiboku) by burning turtle shells and deer shoulder bones to help find the fittest girl for the role. Indeed, depending on how heat shaped the cracks on those, the Kami’s inclination could be interpreted. In spite of Yamatohime-no-Mikoto being the first saio, already in service in the first half of the 1st century AD or according to other sources since 4 BC, there is no conclusive evidence of who succeeded to Her in that role until the priesthood of princess Oku (661 – 701 AD) who served from 673 to 686 AD. The last saio was princess Sachiko who served just from 1333 to 1334 AD. The tragic end of the saio system in the early 14th century was caused by the emergence of another imperial court as a rival to the house in power and by general inner turmoil in Japan. 

Life of a Saio

Once called into service, a will-be saio had to abstain from meat and hen eggs. She moved to the imperial palace where to spend a year in purification, then to a minor palace close to the capital in which she could live up to another year; her life was based on abstinence and rituals of purity. After this period, she performed sacred ablutions and came back to the imperial palace in the capital. Therein the future priestess and the emperor met in a solemn ceremony : he, dressed in white and looking to the east, would bless her and put a wooden comb in her hair. The noble girl would then leave after an exchange of ritualistic phrases, without being allowed to look around before she was out of the palace. Finally, the saio departed for Ise Grand Shrine with a colossal procession; the travel lasted six days by foot. Once taken full service there, a saio lived in the village of Saiku, located 10 km (6.2 miles) from Ise Grand Shrine, which was inhabited by her huge retinue of up to five-hundred individuals. Saiku’s borders were caressed by two small rivers, its holy terrain was gently blown by sea-scented wind, its territory was nestled in the most peaceful of forests. Saio dwelt in a solemn complex of buildings also known as “bamboo palace”. They traveled to Ise Grand Shrine to pray or to lead feasts on important days of celebrations for Shinto. Sometimes, instead, they visited the nearby sea and took a trip by boat. Saio enjoyed picking up shells of marine creatures from the beach and composing (or reciting) delicate verses of waka poetry. However they were allowed to leave the holy area only in extraordinary instances, for example to pay one last visit to a dying family member. When an emperor died or abdicated, the saio currently in service was called back to the capital and their role got transferred to someone else. A former saio could marry, in fact it was an honor without comparison to marry one. 

Another journey of ours came to an end, a sincere thank you for who took the time to read it all. Hopefully one day the order of the saio will be put into service again, let’s pray for it to come true.