Kagura (“god-entertainment”) is a Japanese word referring to a specific type of Shinto theatrical dance—with roots arguably predating those of Noh. Once strictly a ceremonial art derived from kami’gakari (“oracular divination”) and chinkon (“spirit pacification”), Kagura has evolved in many directions over the span of more than a millennium. Today it is very much a living tradition, with rituals tied to the rhythms of the agricultural calendar.
The epics Kojiki and Nihonshoki describe a folklore origin for the dances. In these texts, there is a famous legendary tale about the sun goddess Amaterasu, who retreated into a cave, bringing darkness and cold to the world. Ame-no-Uzume, kami/goddess of the dawn and of revelry, led the other gods in a wild dance, and persuaded Amaterasu to emerge to see what the ruckus was all about. Kagura is one of a number of rituals and arts said to derive from this event.
Originally called kamukura or kamikura, kagura began as sacred dances performed at the Imperial court by shrine maidens (miko) who were supposedly descendants of Ame-no-Uzume. Over time, however, these mikagura, performed within the sacred and private precincts of the Imperial courts, inspired popular ritual dances, called satokagura, which, being popular forms, practiced in villages all around the country, were adapted into various other folk traditions and developed into a number of different forms. Among these are miko kagura, shishi kagura, and Ise-style and Izumo-style kagura dances. Many more variations have developed over the centuries, including some which are fairly new, and most of which have become highly secularized folk traditions.
Kagura, in particular those forms that involve storytelling or reenactment of fables, is also one of the primary influences on the Noh theater.