A Brief History of the Gion Festival
The Gion Matsuri originated in 869 C.E., a ritual designed to stave off a terrible plague. Then, as now, July in Kyoto was unbearably hot, extremely humid, and prone to torrential downpours. These were ideal conditions for outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, malaria and other epidemics, particularly prior to modern sewage and medicine.
After one such outbreak in the 9th century, the emperor ordered that 66 halberds be sent to supplicate malevolent spirits, believed to cause such calamities and their related illnesses. The halberds represented the 66 regions of the country.
Apparently the ritual worked, because the next time pestilence struck, another ritual was ordered. The city’s annual rains and floods ensured that the ritual became tradition, and by 970 C.E., it became an annual event. As time passed, the supplication of malevolent spirits eventually became an extremely elaborate purification ritual.
Gradually the halberds began to include banners and umbrellas, and eventually they morphed into more elaborate floats. The festival also expanded or shifted to supplicate the Shintō gods of pestilence Gozu Tennō and that of storms, Susanō no Mikoto, his consort and their children; these are all resident deities worshipped at Yasaka Shrine, in the nearby Gion neighborhood.
By the 14th century, each float had become an opportunity for local kimono merchants to flaunt their secular success and cultural erudition, thus thumbing their noses at the classes kept “above” them by Japan’s rigid social strata. Each neighborhood vied with one another to possess the most extravagantly decorated – and exotic – float. Kyoto was one of the ends of the Silk Road, and international influence meant power.
Meanwhile, regular illnesses related to the summer rains and destruction from frequent fires razing Kyoto’s wood-and-paper-construction ensured that the festival remained both a prayer for protection and a celebration of the ephemeral beauty of this world.