The 15 Weirdest Galaxies in Our Universe

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The 15 Weirdest Galaxies in Our Universe

By Stephanie Pappas – Live Science Contributor October 17, 2019

The universe contains somewhere in the ballpark of 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. With numbers that large, you can bet that there are some real weirdos out there. Out beyond our Milky Way, there are galaxies shaped like jellyfish, galaxies that consume other galaxies, and galaxies that seem to lack the dark matter that pervades the rest of the universe.
Here are some of the strangest galaxies out there.
Just like a jellyfish

the jellyfish galaxy
(Image credit: ESA/NASA)
Located in the constellation Triangulum Australe, galaxy ESO 137-001 looks amazingly like a jellyfish swimming amid a sea of stars. The galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy — together, its stars form a spiral shape with a bar-shaped center — with a twist: streamers of stars that seem to drift like jellyfish tentacles.

According to NASA, these stars are forming inside a tail of dust and gas (invisible to the naked eye) that streams off ESO 137-001. This formation process is a bit of a mystery, as the gases in the tail should be too hot for star formation.

Missing matter?

NGC 1052-DF2 galaxy seems to have no dark matter
(Image credit: NASA, ESA, and P. van Dokkum (Yale University))
In 2018, the Hubble Space Telescope spied something never seen before: a galaxy with almost no dark matter.
This discovery immediately raised red flags. Dark matter is a mysterious form of matter that interacts with gravity, but not with light. It makes up more of the total matter in the universe than the matter we can see, so finding a galaxy without any was bizarre, to say the least.
A year later, scientific sleuths solved the mystery: The galaxy, NGC 1052-DF2, was not 65 million light-years away, as originally believed. It’s really only about 42 million light-years away, researchers reported March 14, 2019, in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. That change in distance completely alters the calculations for the galaxy’s mass. Turns out, it’s a pretty normal galaxy after all, and the universe (kind of) makes sense again.

Zombie galaxy

This artist’s concept shows what the young, ‘dead,’ disk galaxy MACS 2129-1 (right) would look like.
(Image credit: NASA/ESA/Z. Levy, STScI.)
The massive, disk-shaped galaxy MACS 2129-1 spins twice as fast as the Milky Way does, but it’s still not nearly as active. Hubble observations of the distant galaxy reveal that it hasn’t made stars for some 10 billion years.
MACS 2129-1 is what’s known as a “dead galaxy,” because stars no longer form there. The discovery of this galaxy was a head-scratcher. Scientists believed that galaxies of this sort had formed by merging with smaller galaxies over time, but MACS 2129-1’s stars didn’t form from these sort of explosive mergers; they formed early on, in the disk of the original galaxy. The findings, published in the journal Nature in 2017, suggest that dead galaxies somehow internally rearrange their structure as they age rather than changing shape because they combine with other galaxies.

Cannibal galaxy

This beautiful satellite image shows the Andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way's closest neighbor at about 2.5 million light-years away, glowing in ultraviolet light.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
As if zombie galaxies weren’t spooky enough, some galaxies are giant cannibals. The Andromeda galaxy, Earth’s largest neighbor, has been devouring smaller galaxies for at least 10 billion years, according to 2019 research. In another 4.5 billion years, the Andromeda galaxy and the Milky Way galaxy will collide, although it’s not yet clear who will devour whom in that cosmic pile-up. (Earthlings, unfortunately, will not be around to see this clash play out, as our own sun is heating up and will likely make life on Earth impossible between about 1 billion and 5 billion years from now.)

Tadpole swims through space

The core of Hickson's Compact Group 98 consists of the two "smudges" at the centre of the image.
(Image credit: N. Brosch/Tel Aviv University)
Three hundred million light-years away, an enormous tadpole swims through space. This “tadpole” galaxy has a tail that’s a whopping 500,000 light-years long, and is 10 times longer than the Milky Way.
What created this odd galactic shape? A cosmic collision, researchers reported in 2018 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Two disk galaxies pulled on a smaller dwarf galaxy, clumping the stars on one end into a “head” and leaving the others to stream out in a long “tail.” This arrangement is for a limited time only, though. In a few billion years, the galaxies will merge together with some others in the vicinity to create one single galaxy.

Luminous thief

Artist impression of W2246-0526, the most luminous known galaxy, and three companion galaxies.

(Image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello)
If it isn’t obvious yet, galaxies frequently interact with one another, squeezing their neighbors into new shapes, stealing stars and carrying on with other shenanigans. The brightest known galaxy in the universe is one of these thieves. In 2018, scientists announced that they’d observed the galaxy W2246-0526 sucking up half the mass of three nearby galaxies.

Astronomers were able to observe streamers of mass connecting the galaxies — at least as they were doing that more than 12 billion years ago, when that light began its journey toward Earth. The observation is the most distant direct snapshot of galactic cannibalism and the only known example of a galaxy siphoning off more than one neighbor at a time.

Doomed Little Cub

This SDSS image shows NGC 3359 (left) and Little Cub (right), a small, metal-poor galaxy that may be a companion of NGC 3359.

(Image credit: Hsyu et al. 2017)
Possibly the cutest-named galaxy ever, Little Cub sits in the constellation of Ursa Major. This dwarf galaxy has been largely dormant since the Big Bang, which means that it might contain molecules unchanged since just moments after the rapid expansion of the universe 13.7 billion years ago.
Little Cub is also doomed. It’s being consumed by its larger neighbor, a Milky Way-like galaxy called NGC 3359. Still, the opportunity to watch NGC 3359 strip the star-forming gases from Little Cub is valuable to science, because astronomers may be able to measure the signatures of those early-universe molecules before they’re gone.

Galaxy in bloom

The ghostly shells of galaxy ESO 381-12 are captured here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, set against a backdrop of distant galaxies.

(Image credit: NASA, ESA, P. Goudfrooij (STScI))
Against the void of space, galaxy ESO 381-12 seems to bloom. This galaxy, 270 million light-years from Earth, is in the constellation Centaurus. It’s a lenticular galaxy, a hybrid between a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way and a stretched-out elliptical galaxy.
What make ESO 381-12 really strange, though, are the uneven, petal-like blooms that ghost outward from the main galactic body. Astronomers aren’t entirely sure what causes these structures, or the clusters of stars that orbit on the galaxy’s edges. It’s possible that the blooms are shock waves from a relatively recent galactic collision that also provided the galaxy with new fuel for star formation.

Pretty Pinwheel

The Pinwheel galaxy, also called Messier-83.
(Image credit: ESO)
Messier 83 is a large, photogenic spiral galaxy with a bar-shaped center, similar to the Milky Way. It sits 15 million light-years away in the constellation Hydra. Messier 83 is weird in a couple ways. First, it appears to have a double nucleus at its center — perhaps the mark of two supermassive black holes holding the galaxy together, or perhaps the effect of a lopsided disk of stars orbiting a single, central black hole. Second, Messier 83 is a supernova supersite. Astronomers have directly observed six of these stellar explosions in the galaxy, along with remnants of 300 more. This puts Messier 83 in second place for supernovas, as only the galaxy NGC 6946 has produced more observable supernovas, with nine).

Cosmic Vermin

The Vermin galaxy begins to align with and pass behind a star sitting nearer to us within the Milky Way.

(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)
The image looks more like a psychedelic bit of dandelion puff than a cosmological phenomenon, but this snapshot captured by the Hubble Space Telescope has nothing to do with botany.
What you’re seeing is a galaxy (the smudge at the lower right) beginning to pass behind a star (the dandelion-looking spiky sphere). The galaxy is nicknamed the Vermin galaxy” by some scientists because its light gets in the way of studying the closer star and its system. In 2020, the star will fully obscure the galaxy. Before then, scientists can study the spectra of light as the galaxy makes its transit behind the star, perhaps gleaning some information about the debris around the star from the light that makes its way through.

The Eye

Strong tidal forces from NGC 2207 have distorted the shape of IC 2163, flinging out stars and gas into long streamers stretching out a hundred thousand light-years toward the right-hand edge of the image.

(Image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI))
Ever feel like you’re being watched? The disk of spiral galaxy IC 2163 seems to peer out into space with an enormous eye. This eye-shaped feature is actually a huge stream of stars and dust, produced when IC 2163 (at right in image) brushed against another spiral galaxy, NGC 2207 (left). These “ocular features” last only a few tens of millions of years, astronomer Michele Kaufman, who reported the discovery in 2016, said in a statement. That’s a blink of an eye (pun intended) in the life span of a galaxy, so discovering one is a unique opportunity.
The researchers found that the gases of the eye feature race toward the center of IC 2163 at 62 miles per second (100 kilometers per second) before crashing like a wave on the shore, becoming more chaotic and slowing as they move toward the galaxy’s center. The deceleration causes the gas to pile up and compress, which could set the stage for the formation of new stars.

Two hearts

NGC 7674, also known as Markarian 533, is the brightest and largest member of the so-called Hickson 96 compact group of galaxies, consisting of four galaxies.
(Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University))
Most galaxies are probably anchored by a supermassive black hole at their center. A few, though, contain not one, but two black holes.
One of these is NGC 7674, a spiral galaxy whose center boasts a pair of black holes a mere light-year apart. The galaxy (400 million miles from Earth) probably collected the spare black hole during a collision and merger with another galaxy. The only other galaxy known to have two black holes at its heart is a supermassive galaxy called 0402+379.

Arrested development

This is a Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy NGC 1277.


(Image credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Beasley (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias))
When you’re a galaxy, you’ve got to consume other galaxies or die. Galaxy NGC 1277 chose the latter. This galaxy, first reported in 2018, is a mere 240 million light-years from Earth. It hasn’t formed new stars for about 10 billion years, making it a dead galaxy.
Astronomers believe that NGC 1277 became stunted because it’s moving too fast to gobble up other galaxies in its gravitational pull. (It’s traveling through space at about 2 million mph, or 3.2 million km/h.) Without gas and dust from alien galaxies, NGC 1277 no longer forms stars. Some astronomers think that most galaxies started out looking at lot like NGC 1277, evolving spiral and other shapes only through later mergers with one another.
Coming our way

Messier 90 and the Virgo Cluster.
(Image credit: WikiSky)
Most galaxies that scientists observe appear to be moving away from Earth, because space is still expanding. Not Messier 90, though. This spiral galaxy is about 60 million light-years away and moving toward the Milky Way.
Astronomers can detect this movement because the light coming from Messier 90 is skewed toward the blue end of the light spectrum. Objects moving away from Earth are redshifted, meaning their light emissions are weighted toward red. Messier 90 is part of a large group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. It can be seen from the Northern Hemisphere in May with a telescope or binoculars, sitting between the constellations Virgo and Leo, according to NASA.

Home, sweet home

The Milky Way Galaxy is organized into spiral arms of giant stars that illuminate interstellar gas and dust. The sun is in a finger called the Orion Spur.

(Image credit: Hubble Space Telescope)
The Milky Way may be home, but that doesn’t make it any less weird. It turns out that the Milky Way has been poaching galaxies from its neighbors.
In research published in October 2019, astronomers reported that four dwarf galaxies and two large galaxies (known as Corina and Fornax) used to orbit the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy about 163,000 light-years away from our own. Now, all six of these galaxies belong to the Milky Way’s orbit. As a bonus, the study also found that the Large Magellanic Cloud is stranger than previously believed. It hosts many tiny dwarf galaxies, some of which are so faint that they don’t even have stars, only dark matter.

Incredible Photos of Peacock Spiders

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Incredible Photos of Peacock Spiders

By Douglas Main August 21, 2013

Amazing display

This is the peacock spider Maratus volans. Jürgen Otto was the first to film this spider's mating dance.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
This is the peacock spider Maratus volans. Jürgen Otto was the first to film this spider’s mating dance, in Australia. The animal got him interested in filming other peacock spiders.

Maratus speciosus

This is the peacock spider Maratus speciosus.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
This is the peacock spider Maratus speciosus.
Showing off

The peacock spider Maratus mungaich. Otto films these spider with the video option on his DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100 mm macro lens.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
The peacock spider Maratus mungaich. Otto films these spider with the video option on his DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100 mm macro lens.

Purcell’s peacock spider

This is Purcell's peacock spider.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
Unlike some of the other peacock spiders, Purcell’s peacock spider doesn’t have as large of a flap to unfurl to impress his mate. But he still does okay.

Tiny spider

The Purcell's peacock spider, like most of its ilk, is quite tiny.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
The Purcell’s peacock spider, like most of its ilk, is quite tiny.

Up close

This is the tail flap of the peacock spider Maratus speciosus.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
This is the tail flap of the peacock spider Maratus speciosus.

Doing the dance

Peacock spider Maratus calcitrans doing his dance in front of a female.
(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
Peacock spider Maratus calcitrans doing his dance in front of a female.

Crouching & showing

(Image credit: Jürgen Otto )
The spots of Maratus harrisi almost look like the eyes of a damselfly.

You’re Not Seeing Things, These Spider Butts Look Like Faces

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You’re Not Seeing Things, These Spider Butts Look Like Faces

By Kimberly Hickok – Reference Editor 10 hours ago
The flashy abdomens of male peacock spiders may serve a very important purpose.

Maratus unicup closeup

This design on the abdomen of a peacock spider resembles the face of a mantis. Do you see it?
(Image: © Jurgen Otto)

AUSTIN, Texas — Male peacock spiders have the ultimate challenge to contend with when it comes to mating: The much larger females would rather kill and eat the male than have sex with him. But the males might have a clever trick up their sleeve, or abdomen, rather.
New research presented here on Jan. 4 at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting suggests that the intricate and colorful designs on the male’s abdomen make him look like a predator, which may stop the female from attacking and eating him and therefore give him a chance to mate.

Male peacock spiders (in the Maratus genus) are well-known for their elaborate courtship dance. The male hops around directly in front of a female, waving his fabulous butt in the air like he just don’t care. Some of these displays are particularly interesting because the designs on the males’ flipped-up abdomens look like the faces of their predators, such as moths and mantises.

A Maratus unicup pair mating.

A male peacock spider (left) begins his courtship of a female (right). (Image credit: Jurgen Otto)

The natural response of these spiders when they see something scary, like a predator, is to freeze and closely watch the potential threat. So, male peacock spiders might be flipping up their flashy rears in front of a female to scare her stiff and stop her from eating him.
“Humans, however, are really excellent at seeing faces where there aren’t faces,” said Olivia Harris, a biologist at the University of Cincinnati and lead author on the study. To figure out if humans are seeing patterns that aren’t really there, Harris used machine learning to compare images of the spiders’ abdomens with images of the spiders’ predators.
The photos were taken by Jurgen Otto, an Australian scientist and photographer, who has created the most comprehensive collection of pictures of peacock spiders and information about the Maratus genus. After training the computer to distinguish between spiders and other invertebrates, Harris had the computer classify different images as either spider, mantis or moth. The machine did a pretty good job, reaching as high as 95% accuracy, she said; but the vast majority of the machine’s mistakes occurred because it misclassified the spider abdomen as a mantis or a moth. The abdomen designs of some of the spider species, such as Maratus aquilus, look so much like a mantis face that the computer never got it right and always categorized it as a mantis.

A mantis face (left) compared to the flipped-up abdomen of Maratus aqulius. The computer classified the abdomen of M. aquilus as a mantis face 100% of the time. (Image credit: Shutterstock (left), Jurgen Otto (right))
The male spiders may use their misleading abdomens to stop a female in her tracks, but “there has to be some moment when the male clues in the female or gets close enough that the female figures out [he’s] not something to be scared of,” Harris said. “That’s important because copulation for these spiders involves female involvement. There’s no forced copulation.” The male just needs the female to freeze and watch his display long enough to convince her that she likes it. That could be why, after startling the female, some males lift a leg on either side, slightly obscuring the image on his abdomen, as if signaling to the female, “But look, I’m actually a great male! Aren’t I pretty?”
“The [males] are always taking a risk, because the females are much larger and will totally eat him,” Harris said. So the next step in this research, she said, is to observe spider-mating behavior in the lab to determine if the males of peacock spider species that have predator-mimicking displays get attacked less often than the species that don’t.

Peruvian Mass Sacrifice

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Peruvian Mass Sacrifice

Pampa la Cruz, Peru
January/February 2020

Top Ten Peru Feather Headdress

(Courtesy Gabriel Prieto)
Child’s feather headdress

Top Ten Peru Sacrificed Child trimmed

(Courtesy Gabriel Prieto)
Sacrificed child
More than 230 children and nearly 400 llamas—along with evidence that suggests they were part of three distinct mass sacrificial events—have been discovered at the coastal site of Pampa la Cruz. The first of these events dates to around A.D. 1250, and is thus the earliest mass child and animal sacrifice in the region. Similar mass sacrifices have been found from later dates in the same area, and have been interpreted as offerings to the gods by the local Chimu people in response to the destruction wrought by El Niño events. But archaeologist Gabriel Prieto of the University of Florida believes the earliest Pampa la Cruz sacrifice may have had a political purpose. “It’s intriguing that this first sacrificial event occurred at exactly the time the Chimu were conquering people such as the Lambayeque, who lived in the valleys to the north,” says Prieto. “It’s fascinating to imagine that the victims may have been Lambayeque citizens brought here to celebrate those victories.”

Another possible interpretation is that the sacrifice was meant to honor Taycanamo, the legendary founder of the Chimu, who is said to have come from the sea and walked south to found the Chimu capital of Chan Chan around A.D. 1000. Pampa la Cruz overlooks the exact spot where he is thought to have landed.

Japan’s Sacred Island

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Japan’s Sacred Island

For centuries, rituals performed on an isolated island played a key role in the emergence of Japan
January/February 2020

Japan Okinoshima Sacred Island

(Mainichi Newspaper)
The island of Okinoshima is home to three goddesses worshipped by followers of Shintoism, and was a destination for religious pilgrims in the first millennium A.D.
The sheer cliffs of the small island of Okinoshima rise abruptly out of the sea some 40 miles off the coast of the Japanese island of Kyushu. Okinoshima’s sole resident is a Shinto priest who serves as the caretaker of small wooden shrines built among huge boulders on its southern half. For followers of Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion, Okinoshima is the sacred home of a trio of goddesses who, among their many responsibilities, ensure the safety of mariners. Fishing communities on the island of Oshima and in the nearby Munakata region on Kyushu still retain beliefs associated with the goddesses that originated perhaps some 2,000 years ago. Like mariners throughout Japan, the fishermen of Oshima may utter a prayer to the deities known as the Munakata goddesses before setting out to sea, and still perform yearly rituals honoring them. These traditions have distant origins in rituals practiced by people on Okinoshima as early as the fourth century A.D. During that time, the Japanese archipelago first came under the control of the Yamato Court, which was ruled by the ancestors of today’s Japanese imperial family, and contact with the kingdoms of Korea and the Chinese imperial state began to intensify. Goods, people, and ideas began to flow from mainland Asia to the Japanese archipelago. Thousands of artifacts unearthed on Okinoshima dating to this period show that the island played a central role in this essential relationship.

For much of the first millennium A.D., no long-distance fishing trip, diplomatic mission, or merchant venture from Japan to mainland Asia was complete without a stop at Okinoshima to observe rituals honoring the Three Goddesses and seek their protection during the dangerous journey ahead. “At that time, if you were traveling to China or Korea, you needed to stop at Okinoshima,” says Sainsbury Institute archaeologist Simon Kaner. “It wasn’t an isolated, remote island at all, but lay on an important maritime route to the Korean Peninsula.” Archaeologists are uncertain just how the rituals played out, but from about A.D. 400 to 900, they clearly involved leaving objects ranging from simple pottery to elegantly crafted bronze dragon figures atop or near the massive rocks that stand close to today’s Shinto shrines. During this period, as the Yamato noble house consolidated central authority in the Japanese archipelago, the practices of Shintoism first became codified. At the same time, cultural and political influence from Korea and China was at its peak and resulted in the introduction of both writing and Buddhism by the seventh century A.D. Since then, Buddhism has been practiced in Japan alongside Shintoism, which can be translated as “way of the spirits.” The religion involves the worship of thousands of different kami, or spirits, who are as diverse as gods, ancestors, and natural forces such as wind, or even islands, including Okinoshima itself. A Shinto institution known as the Munakata Grand Shrine currently oversees Okinoshima, as well as a shrine dedicated to the goddesses on Oshima and another, the Hetsu-miya Shrine, on Kyushu.

Japan Okinoshima Map

(Ken Feisel)

The traditions of Shintoism have evolved over the past 2,000 years, not least because the authority of the central state and local powers over religious matters has waxed and waned. In the mid-nineteenth century, when imperial power was consolidated after a long period of fragmentation, Shinto institutions came under central government control. But in the post–World War II period, so-called State Shinto was suspended and authority returned to individual shrines and other Shinto institutions, such as the Munakata Grand Shrine, which precipitated a revitalization of long-dormant religious practices. In the 1950s and 1970s—despite a strict taboo against taking artifacts from the island—the Munakata Grand Shrine priests allowed archaeologists to excavate a few sites on Okinoshima in order to learn more about the rites practiced on the island in the distant past.

Japan Okinoshima Dragons

(The Yomiuri Newspaper/AFLO)
Two gilt-bronze dragon heads are among the 80,000 offerings archaeologists recovered from the island.
Over the course of two major excavation campaigns, archaeologists recovered some 80,000 artifacts, all of which were then stored on the grounds of Kyushu’s Hetsu-miya Shrine, thus honoring the taboo against removing artifacts from sacred sites. The objects included Korean and Chinese luxury goods, as well as iron weapons, pottery, and bronze and stone figurines of local manufacture. “It’s such a diverse collection of artifacts,” says Kaner. He notes that the majority of the offerings found on Okinoshima date to a period before Shinto rituals were first codified in writing, giving scholars a very rare glimpse of how the precursors to Japan’s indigenous religious system functioned in their earliest forms. In recent years, Japanese archaeologists, as well as foreign scholars including Kaner, have refocused attention on this collection of artifacts in order to provide context for the effort to name Okinoshima and other sacred sites overseen by the Munakata Grand Shrine to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. As they have returned to the study of this massive artifact collection using modern methods of archaeological analysis, they have shown how these objects help tell the story of a 500-year period when, under the watchful eye of both central and local powers, foreign and local traditions combined to help forge the nation of Japan.

Chinese histories dating to the early first millennium A.D. refer to Japan as the semi-mythic Land of Wa, a place that was possibly haunted and certainly difficult to reach. One source states that in A.D. 238, Queen Himiko of Wa, who was likely fictitious, dispatched a mission to China that was sent home with 100 bronze mirrors. Archaeologists working at Okinoshima found many Chinese bronze mirrors lying atop the boulders near the shrine. Dating of the mirrors and other artifacts found there shows that many of the earliest rituals on Okinoshima were carried out on the summits of the boulders, some of which are 30 feet high. Fukuoka University archaeologist Junichi Takesue speculates that the bronze mirrors, which date to the fourth century A.D., may have been first taken as diplomatic gifts to the Yamato Court, which lay far to the east of the Munakata region. Perhaps after being presented at court, speculates Takesue, the mirrors were repurposed as offerings to the Three Goddesses on Okinoshima to ensure the good fortune of another diplomatic or trading mission.

Japan Okinoshima Shrine

(Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
A Shinto shrine on Okinoshima stands near boulders where rituals honoring the Three Goddesses were practiced beginning in the fourth century A.D. Today, a single priest watches over the site.
Chinese histories aren’t alone in recording early contact with the people of Wa. A stela located in the territory of the Goguryo Kingdom, in northern Korea, states that in A.D. 391, the Kingdom of Wa sent warriors to aid the Goguryo Kingdom in its war with neighboring Korean states. Korean pottery sherds dating to this era found on Okinoshima suggest the existence of a close relationship between the peninsula and the Munakata region. Among the artifacts left as offerings atop the boulders are iron ingots imported from Korea and seven iron swords made locally, as well as iron daggers and pieces of armor. That objects related to warfare feature prominently in the early offering caches on Okinoshima suggests to archaeologist Mamoru Saso of Kokugakuin University that they may have been deposited on the island as part of rituals intended to seek divine support for the military expeditions mentioned in the Goguryo stela, and that the ruling Yamato nobles had an early hand in the rituals performed on Okinoshima. Other archaeologists, including Takesue, believe that a local clan of Munakata nobles played an important role in managing international affairs from an early period, and would have carried out rituals on Okinoshima on behalf of the Yamato Court. Whoever supervised the rites, maintaining relationships with the East Asian mainland was critical by the fourth century, and the rituals undertaken on Okinoshima were intended to symbolically protect those relationships. It is possible that ritual observances on Okinoshima were supervised by both the Munakata clan and the central court, and that authority over the island went back and forth between the two over the course of the 500 years during which the island was an important destination for those worshipping the Three Goddesses.

Japan Okinoshima Site

{Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
Fragments of pottery still cover the ground where offerings were made on Okinoshima more than 1,000 years ago.

Other artifacts from the same time that bronze mirrors from China and iron ingots from Korea were being left as offerings atop the boulders have given archaeologists more insight into how the rituals were conducted. Simple pottery vessels recovered from the island dating to this period may have once held food. Fujio Oda, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Fukuoka University who participated in the original excavations at Okinoshima, notes that feeding the kami remains a critical element in Shinto observances today, and that it was likely a key part of these early rites as well. Oda also notes that near the remains of a stone altar atop one of the tallest Okinoshima boulders, his team recovered a series of comma-shaped jade beads. He now believes that the beads may have originally hung from a string that delineated the border of an altar where offerings were left, a subtle detail that speaks to how the earliest people to petition the Three Goddesses may have worshipped them.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, the voyagers practicing rituals on Okinoshima changed how they honored the Three Goddesses. At this point, visitors to the island began to leave their gifts not on top of the boulders but below them, in their shadows. Archaeologists are uncertain why visitors to Okinoshima changed the location of the rituals, but it is evident that an entirely new class of offerings was being left. According to Takesue, the sophistication and value of the gifts to the Three Goddesses increased dramatically. Some locally manufactured items, such as bronze mirrors and iron weapons, were left in the boulders’ shadows, but Korean gold rings and gilt-bronze horse trappings were as well.

Japan Okinoshima Ring Bridle

(© Munakata Taisha, The Yomiuri Newspaper/AFLO)
A Korean gold ring (left) and gilt-bronze horse fittings (right), all found on Okinoshima, are evidence of the island’s role in fostering connections between Japan and the Asian

.Later records indicate that in A.D. 571, a Japanese envoy was sent to the court of Korea’s Silla Kingdom, then one of the most prominent states on the peninsula, and that 40 such missions followed. It is possible that the horse trappings and rings were acquired during these diplomatic trips. Saso, who has studied Okinoshima’s metal artifacts, believes that the appearance of horse trappings in particular may relate to the development of a seasonal Shinto wind deity festival during which a divine horse is saddled with offerings for the gods.

Japan Okinoshima Mirror

(© Munakata Taisha, The Yomiuri Newspaper/AFLO)
A bronze mirror is among the votive objects dated to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. found atop boulders on Okinoshima.
The expense and high quality of these goods suggests to many of the scholars studying Okinoshima that the Yamato Court now played a direct role in maintaining the ritual sites on the island, with the local Munakata clan taking on a supporting role. Nevertheless, the clan was still quite powerful. During this period, large keyhole-shaped earthen tombs, similar to those constructed for the imperial Japanese family, were being built in the Munakata region to hold the honored dead of the clan. These burial mounds, known as the Shimbaru-Nuyama Tombs, stand clustered on a plateau looking out toward both Oshima and Okinoshima, next to land that was once the site of a pair of inlets where the clan’s ships are thought to have docked, a clear statement that the sea was a place from which the clan drew its authority.

As Japan’s contact with the Korean kingdoms and China intensified, the Yamato Court moved to the city of Nara, which became the capital of a centralized state organized around a complex bureaucracy similar to the one that existed in China. During this period, ritual practices on Okinoshima changed once again. Based on the location of artifact caches, it seems that rituals took place both in the shadow of the boulders and out in the open on a flat area of land some distance from the rocks. However, those leaving goods on Okinoshima still seem to have felt that only the best objects would do as gifts for the goddesses. Among the prestigious goods recovered that date to this period are a Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–906) vase and gilt-bronze dragon heads. Visitors also left miniature objects made in imitation of larger ones. These included gilt-bronze musical instruments, such as a five-string zither, and a loom. This last item was perhaps an acknowledgment of the role the Three Goddesses played as the patron deities of silk weaving, which had been introduced from Korea and China around the time the island first became an important ritual site.

Japan Okinoshima Zither

(Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
A 5-stringed bronze zither is one of the many miniature objects visitors left on Okinoshima.
In the early seventh century, the Nara emperors commissioned the earliest histories of Japan, which describe myths that tie the Three Goddesses of Munakata to Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ancestor of the emperors of Japan. According to one legend recorded during this period, the goddesses were born when Amaterasu challenged her brother to a contest of honor. As part of the challenge, Amaterasu ate three pieces of her brother’s broken sword and exhaled the pieces as fog, which transformed into the Three Goddesses. Recording such myths helped codify the Shinto traditions that lay behind rituals such as those practiced on Okinoshima.

These rituals began to lose their international character during the eighth century. Around this time, the Yamato Court stopped participating in wars on the Korean Peninsula, and enthusiasm for mainland Asian culture may have begun to diminish as well. Against the backdrop of these events, around A.D. 750, the location of the religious rites on Okinoshima changed once again. Whoever was now responsible for the rituals practiced them only in the open air, away from the imposing boulders. Although people continued to offer miniature bronzes to the goddesses, including bowls and jars, locally produced pottery and figures crafted from the mineral steatite depicting stylized figures that may have represented ancestors became more prominent among the offerings. The people visiting Okinoshima during this period seem to have been celebrating regional folk traditions rather than international connections. To archaeologists, this suggests that the Munakata clan was now asserting exclusive religious authority over Okinoshima.

Around A.D. 870, Korean pirates began to pose a serious threat to Japanese expeditions to mainland Asia. According to contemporaneous court records, imperial emissaries from the capital of Kyoto were dispatched to pray to the Munakata goddesses for safe voyages. But the long history of intense exchange between Japan and mainland Asia was nearing an end. By A.D. 894, a plan to send embassies to China was canceled. The Yamato Court then suspended the tradition of dispatching envoys to China altogether. Around this time, the practice of leaving ritual offerings to the Munakata goddesses also stopped. “This was a time when Japan was limiting contact with mainland Asia,” says Kaner. “To a certain extent, the country began to look more inward.” Instead of leaving votive offerings in the open air or near boulders, Shinto priests of this period began to worship inside wooden shrines on Okinoshima and Oshima, as well as inside the Hetsu-miya Shrine, an arrangement that has persisted to the present day.

Japan Okinoshima Festival

{Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
Boats traveling from Okinoshima to the large island of Kyushu during the annual Miare festival are part of a ritual intended to regenerate the divine power of the Three Goddesses, who ensure the safety of mariners.

The worship of the Three Goddesses of Munakata is still widespread throughout Japan, but rituals dedicated to them continue to be especially important to the people who live within sight of Okinoshima. The largest and most important of these rituals is the Miare festival, dedicated to the annual rebirth of the goddesses, a version of which has been practiced for 800 years. After the abolition of State Shinto in the wake of World War II and the return of local authority, the Munakata Grand Shrine sought to revitalize the Miare festival. Traditionally, it was a small affair involving Shinto priests and a small group of devotees, but, in the 1960s, the festival was combined with others to create a large event in which the entire community could participate.

The ritual’s set piece is a bamboo flagpole known as the Minagate being brought by boat from Okinoshima to the Hetsu-miya Shrine. Like the goddesses themselves, the Minagate has a mythic history. It is said that in the third century, an empress dispatched an old man to the Korean Peninsula carrying the Minagate. As he neared the coast, he swung the pole and parted the sea. An enemy army then advanced toward the ship, but the old man swung the Minagate again, and the seas swallowed the army. The old man then took the Minagate to Okinoshima in triumph, where he set it up as a marker on the spot where the goddesses are said to descend to Earth. Every October, a fleet of boats bedecked with colorful banners accompanies the Minagate as it is taken from Okinoshima to the shrine on Kyushu, where ceremonies regenerate the divine power of the goddesses. Like the changing rites once practiced on Okinoshima, this new festival combines rituals that are bound to a tradition that dates to a time when Japan was just beginning to emerge as a nation united by common beliefs.

Eric A. Powell is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.