The pentagram (J. gobosei) is a powerful symbol over 5000 years old, primarily associated with Europe and the Middle East. In contemporary Japan the pentagram is closely connected to Abe no Seimei, the Heian-era Onmyodo practitioner popularly known as the ‘Wizard or Master of YinYang‘. Depending on the source, Seimei is credited with having either independently created the pentagram around 1000 years ago or adapted/borrowed it from Daoist charts in currency at that time. Elsewhere I’ve read that the symbol was introduced to Onmyodo through Tantric Buddhism, with the original source going way back to the Pythagoreans. My principal interest in the pentagram is its representation of the five elements/phases (J. gogyo) of Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. As well as exploring the connection with Seimei, this brings Kampo (a form of traditional Japanese medicine) and fusui (the Japanese way of Feng Shui) into the mix. The challenge to research, describe and interpret the origin, history and symbolism of the pentagram in Japan has been great and is ongoing. The purpose of this exploratory post is to share progress with the intriguing and mysterious puzzle so far and discover if readers can contribute additional pieces.
My study of the elements in Japan began in earnest in 2016. At that point I created a mind-map with two symbols on it to guide my explorations. One was the gorinto (five-ring pagoda) representing the five Buddhist elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space/Void (J. godai); the other a gobosei (pentagram) representing the five Chinese elements/phases of Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood (J. gogyo). The pentagram in Japan is less well known than its European counterparts, receiving only brief and generic attention in descriptions of the symbol.
The symbolism, significance and evolution of the gorinto is a subject I’ve covered in several blogs and two published articles. The story is relatively straightforward with several reputable sources to draw on, albeit spread across a wide range of media. In contrast, the origin, history and representation of the gobosei in Japan, especially in relation to Abe no Seimei, consists of many interpretations, contradictions and unsubstantiated claims. The subject would benefit from serious scholarship, which may be available in Japanese. My previous blogs about the pentagram and gogyo are in the context of fusui (aka Feng Shui) and Kampo (a form of traditional Japanese medicine). This is the first post where the pentagram is the star of the show. The sub-headings are designed to help navigate the many pieces to the puzzle and break this lengthy post into manageable sections.
Setting the scene – the five Chinese elements/phases come to Japan
Official material related to inyo gogyo (yinyang and the five elements/phases of Earth, Wood, Fire, Water and Metal) entered Japan around the 6th century where it was studied and incorporated into Japanese culture. Following the enactment of the Taihõ Codes in 701 AD (Taihõ 1), the Onmyõryõ (Bureau of YinYang) was established as a special office under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Central Affairs. The five Chinese elements hence became an essential part Onmyodo practice well before Abe no Seimei was born. From the ninth day of the eleventh month of 757 AD, instructional texts were specified for four categories of students (see Shinʾichirō, Elacqua and 増尾伸一郎 2013). Those who were studying yinyang were prescribed four books, including the Wuxing dayi. Translated as “The Great Meaning of the Five Agents” the book is a philosophical treatise written by the Sui-period (581-618 AD) master Xiao Ji (d. 614 AD).
In 1991 Mark Kalinowski published a monumental translation of the Wuxing dayi into French. In his introduction, the cycle of yinyang, the five phases, the seasons and the solstice/equinox are illustrated with Earth in the centre surrounded by the four elements of Fire, Water, Metal and Wood. Six plates are associated with Chapters in the book itself, illustrating a landscape with rivers and mountains, three diagrammatic plates including the representation of the big dipper, and illustrations of a python and a raisin plant. Onmyodou practitioners had access to this detailed analysis of the five phases from the beginning of the official Bureau of Yinyang, with no apparent association with the pentagram at that stage.
Having set the scene, off to a good start….
When my explorations of the gobosei started, the story seemed straightforward. I read, and wrote, that the symbol had been created independently in Japan by Abe no Seimei around 1000 years ago. Many online sources indicate that the Seimei pentagram represents the five Chinese elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal and was used as a protective symbol by Onmyoji, the Masters of Yin Yang. Some sources write that it became the main symbol of the Onmyoji; another that the Seimei pentagram represents the overcoming cycle of the five Chinese elements/phases. To add to the story, the Abe no Seimei mon, or family crest, is the shape of a pentagram, although there is some debate about whether the five-pointed star represents a bellflower or gogyo or both. Today the pentagram is prominent at the Seimei shrine in Kyoto where it appears on ema, roof-tiles, the torii, a sacred well and in amulets for sale. The official souvenir shop in front of the shrine has even more items graced by the pentagram, gogyo, and increasingly the modern inyo (yinyang) symbol.
Another common representation of the Seimei gobosei is the protective symbol known as the seiman-douman, a combination of the pentagram (seiman: the seal of Abe no Seimei) and a lattice shaped symbol (associated with Seimei’s arch-rival, Douman). These dual symbols have provided an ongoing source of protection for Ama divers, Ninja, Shugendo practitioners and no doubt others. A popular contemporary song, with an entertaining video, features animated dancing Onmyoji singing about the douman-seiman and it is possible to buy many Ama-related items with the two protective symbols online.
So there you have it….. Until you start digging deeper.
That’s when the questions start to build up. There are some significant pieces of the pentagram puzzle missing, at least in English.
Firstly, two established authors and some online sites propose that Abe no Seimei did not independently create the pentagram as some other online sites indicate. Instead he is said to have “borrowed” or “developed” the symbol from Daoist sources. For example, Nisa Ryan writes on the Ancient Origins website:
Abe also made famous the use of the Seimei Kikyō (晴明紋) a mystical symbol of the five-pointed star referred to in the West as a pentagram. It was developed from the Tao practice of drawing a Wu Xing (五行) chart for divination via natural elements and Abe is credited with its creation as a magical element in ritual.
And Laura Miller, in her blog ‘Popanth Hot Buttered Humanity‘ wrote in 2012:
The pentagram, a Taoist symbol meant to represent the interaction of the Five Elements, was one of Seimei’s favourite signs.
This information leads to Question 1: How were the five phases (wu xing) depicted in Daoist charts or related imagery prior to or around 1000 AD when Abe no Seimei was alive? After an extensive search I have been unable to find sources that associate the five phases with a pentagram at this point in time. Instead, the representation of the five elements/phases (wu xing) in China, either written or illustrated, presents Earth in the centre at least until the 12th century – as illustrated in the ‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate‘ below. This Daoist and Neo-Confucian representation of wu xing, and the flow of energy between the elements, preceded the pentagram version most commonly used today. When this change occurred has yet to be solved, as addressed in the next question.
Before we move onto question 2, for the sake of completeness, my investigations sourced and searched copies of two books attributed to Abe no Seimei for potential images of a pentagram. The first book, Senji Ryakketsu (The Summary to Judgements of Divinations), which is available online and thought to be from Seimei’s hand, contains six thousand forecast and thirty-six fortune-telling techniques based on divination through use of shikigami. The second book was the Zoku Gunsho Ruiji version of the Hoki Naiden (a treatise on divination), considered to be written after Seimei died. Associate Professor Ellen van Goethem from Kyushu University, who I refer to in my post on fusui, generously scanned and sent me a copy for which I am grateful. Neither book has been translated into English. While I was unable to read the ancient kanji, neither book contained images of a pentagram. This does not rule out the symbol being referred to in the text.
Question 2: At what stage did the representation of the five Chinese elements/phases change from having Earth in the centre to the five pointed star with an element at each point?
If Seimei derived the pentagram symbol and/or association with the five elements/phases from Chinese sources, then discovering the answer to this question is a key piece of the puzzle. After approaching two experts on Chinese cosmology, and sourcing academic and popular literature and imagery related to ancient Chinese cosmology and the five phases, identifying the timing of this significant change is no closer.
Some contemporary practitioners of Chinese traditions have decided to go the other way – reverting to the original symbolism of the five elements/phases with Earth in the centre (illustrated below). Wu and Wu (2016) write that the pentagram is inherently flawed as a symbol for the five elements principle as it fails to establish the pivotal role the Daoists placed on Earth. This observation places greater uncertainty on the origin of the Seimei pentagram and five phases from Daoist sources, unless Seimei converted the Chinese diagrams from an Earth-centred to a pentagram form. That seems unlikely.
But what about the Seimei family crest? (I hear you say)
The comprehensive book ‘The Elements of Japanese Design‘ (1971), written by John Dower, contains illustrations of over 2700 crests by Kiyoshi Kawamoto. Crest number 2671 is called the Abe no Seimei han – literally meaning the seal of Abe no Seimei. Dower writes that this symbol is identical to the pentagram and was a talisman used in yin-yang geomancy. Specific dates are provided for some of the illustrated crests, although one is not available for the Abe no Seimei seal. Dower does say however that the gradual emergence of patterns and designs as a mark of family identification among the Heian aristocracy took place after 1027 AD and was not of great importance to anyone’s life at that stage. As this period is after Abe no Seimei was alive, it would be helpful if a definitive date was available for the origin of his family crest.
Another crest illustrated in Dower’s book (no. 205), representing a bellflower (kikyo) is also in the shape of a pentagram although has wider lines than the Abe no Seimei crest that is illustrated. As noted, there is some debate about whether the Seimei crest may represent a bellflower, although Dower did not consider that so.
This leaves two unanswered questions from this line of enquiry: If the Seimei seal was created when he was alive, what was the origin of/inspiration for the symbol?; and did it represent the five phases at that stage, and/or a more general protective pictogram, and/or a bellflower? For example, Yutaka Yishiyama (2013), in his paper on odd and even number cultures, writes: “The “gobosei,” also known as the pentagram, is well known as forming the five-petaled bellflower family crest of Abe Seimei (a noted fortune-teller in Japan).”
Intriguingly, kikyo, the name of five-petalled bellflower (Genus Platycodon) in Japanese, translates as pentagram. Hence Seimei’s seal is often called the Seimei kikyo. Used in traditional medicine for at least 2000 years, and one of the Seven Flowers of Autumn, according to atozflowers.com the bellflower was popular in aristocratic gardens in the Heian period. So if the Seimei seal is 1000 years old as implied, could the flower be the origin of the shape?
The Seiman-douman and its connection to Abe no Seimei
Examples of the Seiman-Douman protective symbols, have been discovered in my searches in the Edo period (1603-1867 AD) but no earlier. Illustrations in relation to their use by Ninja are found in ‘Invisible Armor‘ by Serge Mol (2008) and in research related to Shugendo (such as by George Klonos, along with examples of the pentagram on its own). The combined symbols continue to be used in contemporary times as protective charms by Shugendo groups such as Wani-ontakesan and Ama divers.
The protection given by the pentagram is related to the ability to draw the symbol with a single stroke and hence being “closed”. Emily Corrine Tucker, in her 2015 article titled ‘Diving into the Past‘, writes that “for the Ama divers the symbolism means returning safely to the same point they began; for them the latticed pattern of the Douman symbol implies many eyes watching out for danger and a difficult shape to find the entrance and exit.” The multiple intersections in both the pentagram and lattice shape/kujikiri create many ‘knots’ or eye spaces and are thus seen as ultimate protective talismans (Riko Schroer, pers. comm).
The questions that comes to mind here are: when was the connection between these symbols, and Seimei and Douman, made?; and does the pentagram in this case represent the five phases in addition to/as part of being a powerful protective symbol? Emily Tucker also writes that “It is believed that during trips made by Ama in the 8th century to the Kyoto area, bringing fresh seafood to the monasteries, that a Shinto priest, Onmyoji (Master of Yin-Yang), gave them the Seiman or five pointed star symbol.” A translated article titled Seyman Dorman on the website of the Seimei Shrine in Kyoto is less certain, saying: It is unclear when these patterns began to be used and why they came to be called “Seyman Dorman”, but someday the mysterious powers of the pentagram and Seimei’s tales were transmitted to this area. Eventually, the ama who wished for safe fishing and abundant fishing would have come to rely on that power. (this quote was generated by the Desktop version of Google Translate).
It seems that the time, place and circumstances when the seiman-douman symbolism came into being in Japan is likely to remain an unsolved piece of the puzzle. At the back of my mind I have also wondered when and why the Taoist lattice-shaped symbol of the kujikiri (nine symbolic cuts) became associated with Seimei’s adversary Ashiya Douman? So many questions! 🙂 There is no doubt though that the two symbols, individually and together, are believed to provide powerful protection from ill fortune.
Seimei and the pentagram in contemporary Japan
The Onmyoji boom, referred to earlier, started in the mid-1990s when a novel series about Onmyoji and Abe no Seimei was released. The books were followed by successful movies, anime, manga and many Apps featuring the magical, supernatural exploits of Seimei in Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) and beyond. Several academic papers and the book ‘Japanese Mythology in Film‘ (by Yoshiko Okuyama 2015) describe the modern multi-media phenomenon of Seimei and Onmyoji in detail. The modern representation of Abe no Seimei as a young demon-quelling wizard, and has use of the protective, supernatural powers of the pentagram, appeal to both contemporary Japanese and overseas audiences. As Laura Miller describes in her 2008 paper, the Heian era wizard has had an extreme makeover. The decision by Yuzuru Hanyu, the record-breaking and award winning Japanese ice-skater, to base his 2015-2016 free-skating routine on Seimei boosted the popularity of the Wizard and the pentagram to a new level.
The pentagram as a large-scale barrier to evil
The theme of the pentagram as a protective symbol continues in a 2018 book published by Narumichi Abe, a modern-day descendant of Abe no Seimei who practices Onmyodou in Tokyo. The book, shown on the left in the image below, describes a number of spiritual, regional scale pentagram-based barriers across Japan that keep evil and evil things out. The book on the right published in 2020 has a similar focus.
One famous large-scale pentagram in Tokyo, called the Goshiki Fudo, is said to connect five temples containing statues of Fudo Myoo, each with different coloured eyes representing the five elements. The blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai provides greater detail. Purported to be established by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 17th Century as a protective barrier for Edo, the pentagram was chosen as the symbol of the Onmyoji. The first reference to the Goshiki Fudo occurs however around 250 years later in the Meiji period. Possible origins may arise from a mystery novel or a tourist campaign from around that time. Wherever the idea originated, it provides a fascinating example of a connection between the Seimei pentagram and the five elements that has captured people’s imagination.
Abe no Seimei’s influence has a long reach. After his death the Abe clan (which started using the family name Tsuchimikado in the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD)) played a continuing and complex role in the Onmyoryo (Bureau of Yinyang) until it was disbanded by the Meiji government in 1870 AD. The fandom website of the Tokyo Ravens has some captivating (albeit unreferenced) material on the Tsuchimikado Clan and the use of the pentagram and five phases in contemporary Onmyodou. For example, the site says:
“In the last 100 years, the most famous or infamous figure from this family was Yakou Tsuchimikado, who created the Imperial Onmyodou system, from which his followers eventually developed the Modern Magic system used by current onmyouji, referred to as Common Style of General Onmyodou. “
The site goes on to say that the Common Style uses a method known as The Five Elements Mutual Generation technique that utilises the creation cycle to bolster the power of the next spell. It also shows the pentagram as the Tsuchimikado family crest.
The intense interest in Abe no Seimei, Onmyoji and magical spells that has grown over the last 2-3 decades in Japan has led to many interpretations of the significance and use of the pentagram and five phases in Onmyodo practice. Establishing the veracity of the different components is a challenge. Regardless of what actually happened, the different perspectives on the symbol and its meaning are informative in themselves. Where, for example, did the inspiration and ideas for the Goshiki Fudo and the Five Elements Mutual Generation technique originate? Further exploration is required.
Other expressions of the pentagram and five elements in Japan
As previously covered in ‘Elemental Japan’, the pentagram is used to depict the five Chinese elements/phases in Kampo, a form of Traditional Japanese Medicine, and fusui (the way of Feng Shui in Japan). This reflects the embedded nature of the five phases in Japanese culture. Up until recently I had only seen modern representations of the pentagram and the five phases associated with these traditions. Then, thanks to The Melikian Collection in the US, an antique book on the care of Japanese horses revealed a pentagram associated with the five elements/phases, five directions and five colours. Published in 1859 AD, using the original 1759 AD woodblocks, this is the earliest representation linking the pentagram to the five phases I’ve seen in Japan.
The character in the middle of the pentagram in this image has been translated as ‘nature’ (of the horse). The phases (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) and directions (East, South, Middle, West and North) are shown at the tips, and five colours within the points of the pentagram (sky blue, red, yellow, white and black). Several of the other kanji relate to horses. The way the pentagram was printed, it has two points at the top, an orientation that is connected to dark magic in the European tradition. This association does not appear to have been made in Japan until modern times.
This exciting discovery means that the change from Earth represented in the centre of the other four elements (as illustrated in the taijitu), to the five elements being represented at the points of the star (as illustrated in this diagram), occurred before 1759 AD. The question still remains, when did this significant change occur? I also wonder what relationship, if any, this diagram has to the use of the pentagram in Onmyodo?
To add another fascinating dimension to the story, in her 1995 book ‘The Gods Come Dancing’ Irit Averbuch refers to a Haguro henbai pattern in the shape of a pentagram with a dot in the middle ( illustrated below, adapted from Figure 3). She was informed that in Shugendo practice it represented the six great elements of Esoteric Buddhism. Irit writes in her book that the symbol appears “quite frequently in yamabushi texts of magical charms and divination”. Further elaboration was provided by Irit in April 2021 via the Mountain Religions Facebook page where she wrote: “In Mt. Haguro ritual this special step was considered “leg-mudra”, sacred step called henbai with the magical effect of subduing evil spirits and awakening vital forces. A kind of power-mandala to revive the world. Yamabushi magic rites always combined Onmyodo and esoteric Buddhist practices and interpretations. They are combinatory practitioners, on the whole…”
In this instance it appears that both the ‘great’ elements of Esoteric Buddhism and the five elements phases connected with Onmyoji are associated with the pentagram in yamabushi combinatory practice. From my perspective the question still remains, at what stage did the pentagram become associated with the elements in Japan and used as a powerful talisman? Given the originally secret and sacred nature of these practices the answer may not be possible to reveal.
Some reflections on the Seimei pentagram and the five phases from Takafumi-san
In my quest to solve the pentagram puzzle in connection with Abe no Seimei I approached my friend Akiko Murikami to see if she could find additional material in Japanese. She pointed me to a blog titled ‘Meaning of the five-pointed star (Pentagram, Seimei family crest (hanmon)) – Why is it so amazing?’, and generously acted as a go-between and translator with Takafumi-san, the blog author. He describes the location of several pentagrams in Japan, drawing on the 2007 book by Okada Yasuzo “Encyclopedia of Magical Remedies” (published by Maruzen Corporation; the 2008 World Edition is illustrated below). Based on his research Takafumi-san considered that the pentagram, as a powerful protective symbol, was used as an amulet in Japan as early as the Nara period (710-784 AD). He believes that the Seimei seal represents a bellflower, and that the association of the pentagram with the five elements occurred after the Heian period – that is, after Seimei died. As for the Seiman-Douman connection, Takafumi-san considers that it did not spread until the Kamakura period (1185-1333 AD). I was impressed with the scope of his investigations.
Another source of information in Japanese, to help try and solve the pentagram and five phase puzzle, is of course Seimei Shrine in Kyoto. My blog on gogyo in contemporary Japan highlighted the importance of the five phases to the Shrine. The concept is up-front and central, the website URL even has the word ‘gogyo‘ in it. The Shrine’s web magazine, GOGYO, is based on the concept of “opening the calendar and opening up your life.” “Many aspects of the calendar are derived from the Yin-yang five elements theory that Seimei Abe, the deity of Seimei Shrine, learned as an Onmyoji.” (both quotes generated by the Desktop version of Google Translate). The creation of calendars to guide everyday decisions was an essential role of Onmyodo practitioners. It would be interesting to know how/if the contemporary calendar and pentagram are related. Based on my regular visits, the representation of the five elements in connection with the pentagram in the items for sale at the Shrine appears to be more common over time.
The ongoing puzzle of the pentagram as a symbol of the five phases in Japan
If I was drawing my mindmap for Elemental Japan again today it would still include a symbol of the gorinto to represent the five Buddhist elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space, and a pentagram/gobosei to represent the five (Chinese) elements/phases of Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood.
Writing this post has made me appreciate the similarities and differences between the two sets of elements and their symbols. They both represent forms of energy, the universe and our connection to it. Both sets of elements are associated with other features – like the seasons, colours, directions and parts of the body – in a system known as correlative thinking/cosmology. The Buddhist elements in Japan have a strong and specific religious context whereas the five phases permeate Japanese culture, from calendars to traditional medicine and the tea ceremony.
While the five Buddhist material elements have their origin beyond Japan, their three-dimensional representation as a gorinto is uniquely Japanese. The sacred geometry and meaning has been consistent for around 1000 years. In contrast, the original and long-standing representation of the five phases (which have been embedded in Japanese culture since they were introduced over 1500 years ago), with Earth in the centre, has changed. In my mind, the big missing piece of the puzzle is still where, when and how the five phases became associated with the pentagram in Japan in its different guises.
From my explorations so far, the pentagram in Japan has become a fundamental component of fusui and Kampo, as a representation and symbol of the five elements/phases. During the Edo period it was also part of the care of horses, animals that were revered and given special treatment. These traditions incorporate the controlling and supporting cycles of the five phases. This does not appear to be the case with the Seimei kikyo and Onmyodo, from the evidence at hand. Where the five phases are mentioned in relation to magic spells, only one of the cycles is referred to. In relation to the use of the pentagram as a powerful protective symbol in Japan, and its association with the kujikiri lattice symbol, this may have developed independently of its connection to the five elements/phases. Then there is the connection between the pentagram and the six elements of esoteric Buddhism to consider. The story is a complicated and convoluted one. It reminds me of my attempt to better understand the symbolism and significance of yinyang in Japan. Any additional material that readers believe would help solve either puzzle would be most appreciated.
While the philosophy of inyo-gogyo setsu (yinyang and the five elements/phases system) was fundamental to the Bureau of YinYang from the beginning, the search continues for evidence that the pentagram was historically used as a representation of the five phases by Abe no Seimei and became the symbol of the Onmyoji. Webpages, opinions and theories abound. Playing the devil’s advocate, it seems within the realm of possibility that the links between Seimei, the pentagram and the five elements/phases were created long after the Heian period. Perhaps it was even influenced by Japan’s exposure to the European pentagram, either during the Edo period or early Meiji? Whatever the case may be, the association between Seimei, the pentagram and the five phases are now firmly part of Japanese folklore and contemporary culture.