A miko (巫女) is a Shinto term in Japan, indicating a shrine (jinja) maiden or a supplementary priestess who was once likely seen as a shaman but in modern Japanese culture is understood to be an institutionalized role in daily shrine life, trained to perform tasks, ranging from sacred cleansing to performing the Kagura, a sacred dance.
The traditional attire of a miko would be a pair of red hakama (long, divided trousers) or a long, red, slightly pleated skirt tied with a bow, a white haori (kimono jacket), and some white or red hair ribbons. In Shintoism, the color white symbolizes purity.
Traditional Miko tools include azusayumi (梓弓 or “catalpa bow”) the tamagushi (玉串 or “offertory sakaki-tree branches”) and the gehōbako (外法箱 or the “supernatural box that contains dolls, animal and human skulls ... [and] Shinto prayer beads”).
The miko also use “bells, drums, candles, and bowls of rice” in their ceremonies.
The Japanese word miko or fujo — “female shaman; shrine maiden” — is usually written 巫女 as a compound of the kanji 巫 "shaman", and 女 "woman; female". Miko was archaically written 神子 (lit. "kami/god child") and 巫子 ("shaman child").
Miko performed in Japan throughout history. The term Miko means possession by gods and spirits, and while originally perhaps all Mikos employed ecstasy, the term gradually came to include many groups which did not use ecstasy. Mikos performed both within the shrines and outside of the shrines, divining, driving out evil spirits, performing sacred dances, etc., the purpose of which was to serve mankind by preserving life and bringing happiness to man.
miko once performed spirit possession and takusen as vocational functions in their service to shrines. As time passed, they left the shrines and began working independently in secular society. Miko at shrines today do no more than sit at reception counters and perform kagura dance. In addition to a medium or a miko (or a Geki, which is a male shaman), the site of a takusen may occasionally also be attended by a sayaniwa who interprets the words of the possessed person to make them comprehensible to other people present. Kamigakari and takusen may be passive, when a person speaks after suddenly becoming involuntarily possessed or has a dream revelation; they can also be active, when spirit possession is induced in a specific person to ascertain the divine will or gain a divine revelation. 
Miko are known by many names; Fairchild lists 26 terms for “shrine attached Miko” and 43 for “non shrine attached Miko.” Other names are ichiko (巫子, "shaman child", or 市子, "market/town child", both likely instances of ateji) meaning “female medium; fortuneteller”, and reibai (霊媒) meaning “spirit go-between, medium”).
In English the word is often translated as shrine maiden, though freer renderings often simply use the phrase female shaman (shamanka) or, as Lafcadio Hearn translated it, “Divineress.”
Women played an important role in a region stretching from Manchuria, China, Korea and Japan to the Ryukyu Islands. In Japan these women were priests, soothsayers, magicians, prophets and shamans in the folk religion, and they were the chief performers in organized Shintoism. These women were called Miko, and the author calls the complex "Mikoism" for lack of a suitable English word.
History of Mikoism
Miko traditions date back to the ancient Jōmon era of Japanese history, when female shamans who would go into “trances and convey the words of the gods” (the kami), an act comparable with “the pythia or sibyl in Ancient Greece.”
The earliest record of anything resembling the term "miko", is of the Chinese reference to Himiko, Japan's earliest substantiated historical reference (not legendary), however it is completely unknown whether Himiko was a miko, or even if miko existed in those days.
The early Miko was an important social figure who was “associated with the ruling class.” “In addition to her ritual performances of ecstatic trance,” writes Kuly, “[the Miko] performed a variety of religious and political functions.” One traditional school of Miko, Kuly adds, “claimed to descend from the Goddess Uzume.”
In 780 A.D. and in 807 A.D. official bulls against the practice of ecstasy outside of the authority of the shrines were published. These bulls were not only aimed at ecstasy, but were aimed at magicians, priests, sorcerers, etc. It was an attempt to gain complete control, while at the same time it aimed at eradicating abuses which were occurring.
The Miko was forced into a state of mendicancy as the shrines and temples that provided her with a livelihood fell into bankruptcy. Disassociated from a religious context, her performance moved further away from a religious milieu and more toward one of a non-ecclesiastical nature. The travelling Miko, known as the aruki Miko, became associated with prostitution.
During in the Edo period (1603–1868), writes Groemer, “the organizational structures and arts practiced by female shamans in eastern Japan underwent significant transformations.” Though in the Meiji period (1868–1912), many shamanistic practices were outlawed:
After 1867 the Meiji government's desire to create a form of state Shinto headed by the emperor—the shaman-in-chief of the nation—meant that Shinto needed to be segregated from both Buddhism and folk-religious beliefs. As a result, official discourse increasingly repeated negative views of Miko and their institutions.
There was an edict called Miko Kindanrei (巫女禁断令) enforced by security forces loyal to Imperial forces, forbidding all spiritual practices by miko, issued in 1873, by the Religious Affairs Department (教部).
The Shinto kagura dance ceremony, which originated with “ritual dancing to convey divine oracles,” has been transformed in the 20th century into a popular ceremonial dance called Miko-mai (巫女舞) or Miko-kagura (巫女神楽).
Modern miko are often seen at Shinto shrines, where they assist with shrine functions, perform ceremonial dances, offer omikuji fortune telling, and sell souvenirs. Kuly describes the contemporary miko: "A far distant relative of her premodern shamanic sister, she is most probably a university student collecting a modest wage in this part-time position."
The ethnologist Kunio Yanagita (1875–1962), who first studied Japanese female shamans, differentiated them into jinja miko (神社巫女 or "shrine shamans") who dance with bells and participate in yudate (湯立て or "boiling water") rituals, kuchiyose miko (口寄せ巫女 or "spirit medium shamans") who speak on behalf of the deceased, and kami uba (神姥 or "god women") who engage in cult worship and invocations (for instance, the Tenrikyo founder Nakayama Miki).
Researchers have further categorized contemporary miko in terms of their diverse traditions and practices. Such categorizations include blind itako (concentrated in north and east Japan), mostly blind okamin (north and east Japan), blind waka or owaka (northeastern Japan), moriko (north and east of Tokyo), nono (central Japan), blind zatokaka (northwest Japan), sasa hataki who tap sasa ("bamboo grass") on their faces (northeast of Tokyo), plus family and village organizations. Others have divided miko or fujo by blindness between blind ogamiya (尾上屋 or "invocation specialist") or ogamisama who perform kuchiyose and spirit mediumship and sighted miko' or kamisama who perform divination and invocations.
In the eclectic Shugendō religion, male priests who practiced ecstasy often married miko. Many scholars identify shamanic miko characteristics in Shinshūkyō ("New Religions") such as Sukyo Mahikari, Oomoto, and Shinmeiaishinkai.
In popular culture
In the 1985 bestselling historical fantasy novel Teito Monogatari (Hiroshi Aramata), the heroine Keiko Tatsumiya is a miko who serves the guardian spirit of Taira no Masakado. She channels the power of the bodhisattva Kwannon to contend with harmful spirits who threaten her family and Tokyo.
Manga and anime typically portray a miko as a heroine who fights evil spirits or demons. Miko are frequently ascribed with magical or supernatural powers, especially divination, and are skilled in the Japanese martial arts.
In eastern role-playing games, miko sometimes correspond with clerics or white witches. Some romantic bishōjo video games and visual novels portray miko as attractive, prim girls. Fictional kuro miko (黒巫女 "Black/dark miko") are an evil counterpart to traditional miko; for instance, the manga Shrine of the Morning Mist depicts kuro miko as proficient in demonology and black magic. The character Rei Hino from Sailor Moon is a miko in her civilian form and is shown to use Shintoist shamanistic abilities such as dispelling evil forces with an ofuda and divining the future. In the manga and anime series Inuyasha, the characters Kagome and Kikyo are miko, capable of shooting sacred arrows and erecting magical barriers. Reimu Hakurei, arguably the main character of the Touhou Project series of dōjin soft games, is a miko. Furude Rika from Higurashi no naku koro ni is also the miko from the Oyashiro-sama Temple.
In the Ninja Gaiden series, Kureha and Momiji are said to be Shrine maidens. In the storyline, Kureha dies during an attack and Momiji starts training under main protagonist of the series, Ryu Hayabusa.
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- Miko, Encyclopedia of Shinto entry