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Editor's Note:  Mark asked if I thought this article and the second part which will follow next week, is too esoteric. My answer is that it might not be as interesting to some as to others. The Summary and Conclusion section can be found in the next article. All readers should find that very interesting.

A-UN, Alpha and Omega, the Name of God Intoned by Koma-inu

at Japanfs Shinto Shrines -Part 1

Mark A. Riddle

(February 2010) 

On either side of the entrance to a Japanese Shinto shrine, and/or at other important points along the approach to the inner sanctum of a Shinto shrine, can be found a matched pair of koma-inu, stylized creatures, almost but not quite enantiomorphic (mirror images of each other).  The word koma-inu means eKorean lion-dog.f  They are also sometimes referred to as kara-shishi, which means eChinese lion,f but they are not realistic representations of dogs, lions, or any other natural creature.  They are clearly intended to be understood to be composite, mythical beasts.  They are the Japanese version of the two guardians of the gate, a symbolism which goes at least as far back in time as the Sphinxes of Egypt. 

The Japanese koma-inu are almost enantiomorphs, but the subtle differences are important.  They sometimes differ by sex, a male and a female, or color.  And often one of the pair is a unicorn with a single horn.   But the most important difference is that the creature on the right (facing and entering) has its mouth open, saying (it is said) the syllable A. And the creature on the left has its mouth closed and is said to be uttering the syllable UN.   These two sounds, A and UN, are the sounds of the first and last letters of the Siddham Sanskrit alphabet.[i]   So, A-UN  is an Asian equivalent of the Greek eAlpha and Omega,f one of the names of Jesus Christ. 

The Japanese koma-inu actually embody two of the oldest and most widespread symbolic expressions of meaning in world history—(1) apotropaic creatures at entranceways and (2) alphabet cosmologies.  I will discuss both of these traditions and propose both an origin and a meaning for this unique conjunction of symbols.

* * * * * * * *

Lion and Unicorn 

From Etruscan Italy eastward, and across the length and breadth of Asia, and for thousands of years, two lions or lion-like creatures stand guard before tombs, thrones, temples and palaces.  Examples include: 

*the bronze lions guarding the entrance to the Babylonian temple of Dagon at Mari, Syria (18th century BC).[ii] 

*Winged and crested griffins created by the Phoenicians are found on Syrian cylinder seals, ivories from Megiddo and Cyprus, and on frescoes in the throne room of Minoan Knossos (1700-1400 BC). [iii] 

*The impression of a signet ring found at Knossos shows the Mountain Mother, the only Greek divinity certainly known to be of pre-historic origin, standing atop her mountain, flanked by two guardian lions (c. 1500 BC).[iv] 

*Lion figures guarded Hittite doorways when the Hittite Kingdom was at its height (1450-1200 BC).[v] 

*A Canaanite lion statue made of basalt was discovered in the 1950s by Yigael Yadin near Rosh Pina in northern Israel is believed to have sat at the entrance to a royal palace (15th or 14th Century BC).[vi] 

*In the Bible, winged composite creatures called cherubim stand sentinel over the way to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24), are set over the Ark of the Covenant in the temple (Ex 25:18-20; I Kings 6:23-28), and even flank the Throne of God (Ps 80:1, 99:1; Isa 37:16; 960 BC).  These cherubim may be compared to the gwinged sphinxesh which flanked the throne of King Hiram of Byblos, as shown in bas relief on his sarcophagus.[vii] 

*A pair of lions stood on either side of Solomonfs throne, and another 12 lions stood on either side of the six steps leading to Solomonfs throne (I Kings 10:20; 14 is the gematria number for eDavidf). [viii] 

*Winged lions with human faces guarded the gates of Assyrian Ashurnasirpalfs palace at Balawat, near Nineveh (c. 850 BC).[ix]   

*The Terrace of the Lions on the sacred isle Delos, dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos about 600 BC, featured squatting, snarling marble guardian lions along the Sacred Way to the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The lions created a monumental avenue comparable to Egyptian avenues of sphinxes.[x] 

*The processional way leading to Babylonfs Ishtar Gate was lined with walls decorated with 120 lions on glazed bricks (575 BC).[xi] 

*The eTreasure of the Oxusf included a bronze Bactrian elion-griffinf (4th  Century BC).[xii] 

*Two lions stood guard on either side of the bimah of the Roman-era synagogue at Sardis, in Lydia (Turkey), the largest disaspora synagogue.[xiii]  Opposing lions are a motif seen in the parokhet and other items of Jewish art.[xiv] 

*Chimerical bi-xie (giant winged and horned leonine creatures with serpentine tails. made of stone) guarded royal tombs of Chinafs Southern Dynasties (420-589 AD).[xv] 

*The Chinese eSpirit Road,f is an approach to an imperial tomb, a long avenue flanked by pairs of enantiomorphic stone statues of various kinds of creatures and beasts, including stylized lions.  One prominent example is Qianling, the tomb of a Tang-era Emperor and Empress near Xian.[xvi] 

*The famous Lugou Bridge, or eMarco Polo Bridgef near Beijing, described by Marco Polo (1254-1324) as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world, rebuilt by the Qing Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), has a opposing lions left and right atop each of scores of balustrades (photo in possession of the author).

The Seventeen Arch Bridge across Kunming Lake, at the Summer Palace in Beijing, has the same feature. [xvii]

 

*A pair of snow lions (kangseng) appear on the Dalai Lamafs personal seal.[xviii] * * * * * * * * 

Large stone figures placed before tombs are first encountered in China in the 2nd Century BC.   Art historians, beginning with Osvald Siren in 1938, have pointed out gvery striking and curious parallelsh  between some Chinese stone lions of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and others made as early as the 13th to the 10th Centuries BC in the Hittite and Aramean empires.   

 gSiren has pointed out some of the most likely sources that hark back to the fabulous beast combinations of Mesopotamian art which, through Babylon and Assyria to Achaemenid Persia and thence by way of Bactria, found their way across Central Asia to China.h [xix] 

Art historians Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper point out that Chinese sources provide a clue to identify the Central Asian Indo-European people known as the Yue-zhi (who were settled in the Gansu Corridor in the 3rd Century BC) as likely transmitters of this symbolic and artistic tradition to China. [xx] 

The earliest form of this long tradition certainly appears to be the sphinx.  The oldest known sphinx was found in Gobekli Tepe, Turkey, dated to 9,500 B.C.  The first Egyptian sphinx appears at the time of the 4th Dynasty (2723 – 2563 BC).  The Avenue of the Ram-headed Sphinxes at Karnak in Luxor is surely somehow a precursor of the Chinese Spirit Road.[xxi] 

Next come the Akkadian shedu and lamassu (< Sumerian alad and lama), winged lions or bulls with human faces found at either side of the palace entrance in ancient Mesopotamia.[xxii]  Next, in Hittite Anatolia, lion statues were used to protect the gates of cities and palaces.[xxiii] 

We must mention also the Cerberus (L < Gk. έσÃσς) guardian dog of the gates of Hades and likely somehow a precursor of our Japanese eKorean dog.f  Cerberus is said to be the esiblingf of: the Lernaean Hydra (from which descends the Japanese eight-headed dragon Yamata-no-orochi); the Nemean Lion (here we have an early conjunction of the dog and lion); the Sphinx; the Ladon (another multi-headed serpent/dragon); and the Chimaera (the original composite creature)—all these symbols were no doubt related, in an ancient system of meaning. 

The link between West and Central Asia is provided by griffin found at Pazyryk, in the Altai (Siberia), which can be connected with particular Iranian interpretations of the griffin.[xxiv] 

The Chinese xie-zhi  獬 廌  is a composite creature with roots deep in Chinese pre-history but also influenced, it seems, by West Asian symbols—the ox, the sheep, and especially the unicorn.  It is one-horned, and like the unicorn, a lover of righteousness and justice.  In ancient China judges, prosecutors and other officers of the law wore a xie-zhi symbol sewn into their caps and robes.[xxv]  The Chinese xie-zhi seems to be the origin of the Korean hete, but because the Korean hete is not horned,[xxvi]  whereas one of the Japanese koma-inu pair—the dexter, on the left (facing), the UN  (Omega)-intoning lion-dog—is often horned, I favor the Chinese xie-zhi as one proximate point of origin of the koma-inu despite the meaning of the name, eKorean lion-dog.f 

The lion-dogs are said to first appear in Japan after the 9th Century, in the palace, before the Emperorfs throne.  The first recorded reference to the presence of koma-inu at Shinto shrines dates to the early 11th Century. They are widely considered to be of Central Asian origin.[xxvii]   One prototype for the Japanese form combining the dog and the lion can be found in Scythian art.  Early Scythian artifacts from the Black Sea area (6th – 5th Centuries BC) combine the eagle/lion griffin with the features of a dog.  Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound, refers to the Scythian griffins as gsilenth (unbarking) dogs.[xxviii]   The Scythian dog seems to have come to Japan via Manchuria and Korea—Gogureyo Tomb 12 at Jian, for example, has a pair of painted dogs guarding the entrance.[xxix]  

The oldest Japanese lion-dog and unicorn (a lion-dog with a single horn) pair still extant, dating from the 12th Century, has been preserved at the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto.[xxx]    To find a predecessor for this Japanese combination of the lion-dog and the unicorn we must turn to Jewish art and lore.  The motif of the opposing lion and unicorn is found in Jewish art.  For example, a face-to-face confrontation of a lion and a unicorn is found in a 15th Century German edition of Meshal ha-Kadmoni, a book of animal tales by the 13th Century Spanish author Isaac ibn Sahula.[xxxi]   The Bible associates the lion with Judah (Gen 49:9—Jacobfs blessing on the head of Judah) and the refev (KJV eunicorn,f RSV ewild oxf) with Joseph—Ephraim and Manasseh (Deut 33:17—Mosesf blessing on the twelve tribes) and the combination of lion and unicorn with Jacob/Israel (Numbers 23:22-4 and 24:8-9—Balaamfs oracle).  The Midrash says the unicorn was the emblem on the standard of the tribe of Manasseh,[xxxii]  so, interpreted in terms of Biblical symbolism, the lion and unicorn paired together indicates the conjunction of Judah and Joseph.


[i]     The Siddham (Japanese Shittan) syllabary (actually not an alphabet but an abugida or alphasyllabary) was the Sanskrit script used from about 600 AD to about 1200 AD in India.  It spread together with Tantric Buddhism throughout East Asia, and is said to have been brought to Japan by the monk Kuukai when he returned from China in 806.  The first and last letters/sounds of the Japanese syllabary, attributed to Kuukai, are A and N.

[ii]    Photo at Tyndale Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1980) I:355

[iii]   Encyclopedia of World Art (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1959-1968) I:877; hereafter cited as EWA

[iv]    Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1908-27), s.v. eMountain-Mother,f with illus.

[v]    EWA XIV: 946

[vi]    Archaeology Online News, July 27, 1997; accessed 02/22/99; printout in possession of author

[vii]    For re-creations of Hiramfs cherubim, see Tyndale Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1980) I:132; for a good view of the depiction of Hiramfs throne on his sarcophagus, see http://phoenicia.org/temple.html

[viii]  Jewish lore has Pharaoh struck down and rendered lame by these lions when he attempted to sit on Solomonfs throne—Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (1967) IV:283.

[ix]   Photo at Tyndale Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1980) I:297

[x]    See Wikipedia, eDelos.f  Mycenae has a famous Lionfs Gate: the great gateway to the citadel has two lions in relief, rearing face to face, symmetrically (Mircea Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) I:38

[xi]    Wikipedia, eIshtar Gatef

[xii]    O.M. Dalton, Treasure of the Oxus (British Museum, 1964) Plate XXV

[xiii]   Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) XI:263, with photo

[xiv]   Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) XI:266, 273, 274; IV:1338

[xv]   Elsie P. Mitchell, The Lion Dog of Buddhist Asia (NY, 1991) pp.83-4; bi-xie means eto ward off evil spiritsf

[xvi]  See Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, Chinese Imperial CityPlanning (1999), p.18 for a diagram of this tomb-Spirit Road complex.  For a full-length treatment of the Spirit Road phenomenon in general, see Ann Paludan, The Chinese Spirit Road: The Classical Tradition of Stone Tomb Statuary (1991).

[xviii]   Mitchell (1991) p.120

[xix]   Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China, 3rd ed. (Yale, 1971), pp.61- 65, citing Siren, Studies in Chinese Art... (London, 1938)

[xx]  Op. cit., p.476 n.62; the people known in China as the Yue-zhi were known in the West as the Tocharians

[xxi]   Wikipedia, eSphinxf

[xxii]   Wikipedia, eSheduf

[xxiii]   1800-1000 BC; EWA VII:573 and Plate 280

[xxiv]    EWA XIII:397 and Plate 192

[xxv]   in Japanese, with photo: http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%AB%E3%82%A4%E3%83%81#.E9.96.A2.E9.80.A3.E9.A0.85.E7.9B.AE . In Medieval European lore, the unicorn is identified with Jesus Christ (EWA X:261).  Another form of the xie-zhi concept is the lu-duan, the pair of pot-bellied creatures with broad, impish grins which stood on either side of Qing-era thrones in China.  With ears like long open pipes, they heard everything heard at court and could distinguish good and evil; their presence symbolized the emperorfs wisdom (photo of the Qianlong-era [1736-1795] throne room display at the Shenyang Palace Museum, Shenyang, Liaoning Province, in the possession of the author).

[xxvii]  See Mircea Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (1987; hereafter, ER) XIII:291; and Grove Dictionary of Art (1996) XVII:31-2.  On the other hand, a wooden koma-inu preserved at Kyotofs Shimogamo Shrine is said to date from the Hakuhou Era (645-710; photo in the possession of the author).

[xxviii]  See Grigory M. Bongard-Levin and Edvin A. Granovsky, gShamans and Shamanismh UNESCO Courier (Dec 1976):43-47, p.43.  Jewish lore has Egyptian magicians stationing two golden dogs at Josephfs coffin; they barked if anyone approached—see Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (1967) III:5; for other stories on this theme, see also VI:1, II:332, 334.

[xxix]   Sarah M. Nelson, Archaeology of Korea (Cambridge U., 1993) p.214

[xxx]   A. Akiyama, Shinto and Its Architecture (2d ed. 1956), photo facing p.118; in Japan the unicorn is always dexter, UN or Omega; the lion is sinister, A or Alpha.

[xxxi]   Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) III:19

[xxxii]   Midrash, Numbers Rabah;  Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (1967) III:238; see also III:459.  British Israelites interpret the combination of lion and unicorn on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom as the reconciliation of Judah with Joseph—see Edward Hine, 47 Identifications of the British Nation with the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel (London, 1874) pp.34ff.  LDS astronomer John Pratt has a more complex  argument involving these symbols as star constellations—see his gThe Lion and the Unicorn Testify of Christh at: http://www.meridianmagazine.com/sci_rel/011205royal.html .


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