Trees in Japanese Mythology: Noh Theatre, Shinto Traditions, and the Takasago Pines

Guest blog post by Amelia Starling

Living in Japan, it is impossible to ignore the influence of trees. In spring, you will be invited to attend Hanami, the cherry blossom viewing festival. This is one of the biggest social events of the year, when everyone gathers together to share food and sake beneath the trees, and appreciate their fleeting beauty before the petals disappear. In summer, you can send wishes to the gods on bamboo trees during Tanabata, the Star Festival. In autumn, hike into the mountains and immerse yourself in cascades of saccharine momiji leaves.

Of all the seasonal trees, it is the winter pines which are especially meaningful. Aside from their tidy beauty when wearing their snow ropes, pine trees have spiritual and cultural significance. Bundles of pine branches are used to make kadomatsu (literal translation ‘gate pine’), which are traditional Japanese new year decorations. These are placed in doorways to attract prosperity for the year ahead, particularly for marriages. But the importance of pine is not only confined to this season. In Shinto belief, pine trees hold great power. It is said that the kami (Shinto gods and goddesses) use the branches of pine trees to descend to earth, and therefore many of their spirits reside within them. In the grounds of every Shinto shrine, you will find at least one pine tree. Some larger shrines use them to mark their entire perimeters. Their presence wards off negative energy and spirits, and invites messages from the kami. It is customary to purchase omikuji (paper fortunes) at shrines, and tie the bad ones on or near the pine trees to negate their effects.

Omikuji_yasaka

Omikuji tied to ropes on a pine branch at Namba Yasaka Shrine, Osaka Prefecture (photo by Amelia Starling)

In the town of Takasago in Hyogo Prefecture, pine trees hold extra meaning. Their needles cover the ground on almost every street, and the town mascot is eve a pine cone. He adorns buses and shop windows. According to Japanese mythology, Takasago is the location of a pair of pine trees which were planted by the kami. They grow in the grounds of Takasago Shrine, and can never be parted. As such, they have become symbols of love and marriage. These pines feature in a well-known Noh play called Takasago, which is about two lovers who express their relationship through the legend of the trees.

Traditionally, the backs of Noh stages are decorated with murals of pine trees to pay homage to the kami and thank them for giving people the gift of Noh. The Noh pine is said to be modelled on the Yogo pine tree in the grounds of Kasuga Shrine in Nara Prefecture. According to legend, an old man was seen dancing beneath this tree. In actuality, he was the human form of the tree’s spirit, and his dance was to express the bond between humans and kami. Having a depiction of a pine tree present during Noh performances is a way of remembering and celebrating this bond.

Itsukushima_Noh_stage

Pine mural on the Noh stage at Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture (photo by Amelia Starling)

Takasago falls under the category of kami mono (god plays), which are Noh plays that tell mythological stories of Shinto shrines and kami. They often feature kami disguised as humans, who do not reveal their true identities until near the end of the performance. In Takasago, the two lovers fulfil these roles; at the end they reveal themselves to be the spirits of the pair of pine trees.

The folk tale ‘The Wind in the Pine Tree,’ featured in the book Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James, is a prose retelling of Takasago. It details how the pine tree was planted by a kami, and became a sacred place where spirits of nature came to play. It also attracted ‘the mysteries, the sounds and scents of the dark’ from Yomi, which is the land of the dead in Japanese mythology. The combined energies of the spirits made the tree ‘holy and haunted,’ and the sound of the wind in its branches spread feelings of happiness and nostalgia throughout the town.

It was this mystical wind which drew the two lovers together. The maiden was from Takasago, and spent her days weaving in the shade of the pine tree. The boy was a rice farmer from a distant province, away over the sea. A crane flew to him, and after seeing it he was compelled to follow the ‘voice in [his] heart.’ The crane led him over the ocean to the pine tree, where he met the maiden. Soon they were married, and lived a peaceful life together. When they were elderly, they visited the pine tree once more to hear ‘the song of the wind.’ They lay beneath it together and died, and their spirits were received by the branches. The story ends by repeating how the spirits of nature and from Yomi inhabit the pine tree, and that lovers walking near it pause to ask one another ‘do you hear the wind in the pine tree?’

 

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Pine trees lining the path to Kibitsu Shrine, Okayama Prefecture (photo by Amelia Starling)

In Japanese folklore, pine trees are also symbols of longevity. In this story, the Takasago pine brings people together and watches over their lives. They are fleeting, but the pine tree remains steadfast and continues to be so even after human lifespans end. It is a guardian for both the living and the dead, and is the heart of a sacred space where beings from all planes of existence can find joy. It is a Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, and how it is treated determines whether it becomes benevolent or malevolent. Since it invites so much love and is treated well, the Takasago pine’s spirit is also good and it maintains a cycle of continually collecting and emanating positive energy.

In contrast to this are the trees in Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji with a long history of murders and suicides. Over the years, the trees of Aokigahara have witnessed a myriad of deaths. As a result, they hold all of that negative energy in their roots and branches, which contributes to the unsettling atmosphere of the place and in turn attracts more sorrow to it. It is no coincidence that Aokigahara is renowned for being inhabited by rei, wrathful ghosts of people who die in traumatic circumstances. Aokigahara is also known as 樹海 (Jukai), meaning ‘Sea of Trees,’ because it is so densely packed. This adds to the intensity of the trees’ energy, cultivating the dark atmosphere of the place. Aokigahara’s spirits died in trauma and cannot rest, unlike the pine tree lovers who died peacefully and whose spirits contribute to the happiness of Takasago.

 

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Trees in Aokigahara, Yamanashi Prefecture (photo by Guilhem Vellut on Wikimedia)

It is true that there are two pine trees, side by side, in the grounds of Takasago Shrine, and that they have been there since before the time the shrine was founded. Their nicknames are ‘Jo’ and ‘Uba,’ which mean ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ respectively. They are revered as ambassadors for a happy marriage, and many couples visit to pay homage to them. Whether these trees are inhabited by the spirits of the lovers from the Noh play, the written folktale, the kami themselves, or even all three, makes little difference. Whichever you choose to believe, there is no denying that these trees are special and contribute to the prominence of pine trees in Japanese culture. If you ever visit Takasago, stand beneath them. Listen carefully. Perhaps you too will hear the mystical wind in the pine tree.

Fukusa

Fukusa (type of Japanese cloth used for gift wrapping) embroidered with Jo and Uba beneath a pine branch, early nineteenth century, Wikimedia

References

 

Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in creative writing, and is a content editor for Folklore Thursday. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales, with particular interest in witchcraft, Japanese folklore, and the ocean. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize, and visit her blog at http://thewillowweb.com.

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Neil Gaiman’s ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’: Rewriting the Landscape of ‘Little Snow White’

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 22 February

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.411

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Linda Jo Bartholomew continues our discussion of Trees & Forests with a session on Neil Gaiman’s reworking of ‘Little Snow White’

LittleSnowWhite

Little Snow White, print by Ludwig Emil Grimm for the 1825 ‘Little Edition’

 

This week, we will consider Neil Gaiman’s 1994 short story—his radical reworking of the Grimm brothers’ tale—in light of various motifs common to both fairy tale and myth: e.g., the abandonment, incarceration, and/or murder of children (in forests, on mountains, by riverbanks); the violent interplay of beauty and power; the boundaries between a known world and the Outside or Void beyond.  In the session, we will discuss Gaiman’s depiction of the forest, his use of mythic references, and his reimagining of the hostile territory that underpins so many folk tales.

In addition to the set texts [Gaiman’s ‘Snow, Glass, Apples, and ‘Snow White‘ by the Grimm brothers], we are providing a list of sources for further reading.

ALL WELCOME

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Sacred Groves

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 15 February

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.411

We are very pleased to announce that Jeremy Solnick continues our discussion of Trees & Forests with a session on ‘Sacred Groves’

The Golden Bough exhibited 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), The Golden Bough, Tate Britain

The sacred grove is deeply embedded in our mindscape and used as a central theme in literature and the visual arts. From Turner’s painting to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the grove of trees in a forbidden place appears again and again. In this meeting of the myth reading group, we will discuss ‘Sacred Groves’ using as reference points three texts widely separated in time: the finding of the Golden Bough from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid in the translation by Seamus Heaney; part of the opening Chapter of J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough and the opening verses of Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros.

References
Frazer, J. G., ‘The Arician Grove’ in The Golden Bough (New York & London: Macmillan, 1894), Chapter I, pp. 8-13 [available on Project Gutenberg]
Virgil, Aeneid: Book VI, trans. by Seamus Heaney (Faber: London, 2016) [ll. 171-203]
Walcott, D., Omeros (Faber: London, 1990) [Book I, pp. 3-5]  

 

ALL WELCOME

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Tree imagery & symbolism in Herman Hesse’s Pictor’s Metamorphoses

 

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 08 February

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.411

We are very pleased to announce that Eirini Apanomeritaki continues our discussion of Trees & Forests with a session on Herman Hesse’s Pictor’s Metamorphoses

HessePictorMetamorphoses

Illustration from the series of watercolours produced by Hermann Hesse to accompany his tale “Pictor’s Metamorphoses” (1923), from the Italian edition of the collection: Hermann Hesse. Le metamorfosi di Piktor – Una fiaba d’amore, trans. Carmen Margherita Di Giglio. Kindle Edition.

The two stories selected this week are taken from Herman Hesse’s Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies (1981 [1922]), a collection of fantasy tales which portrays varied degrees of engagement with the natural landscape.

In “The Man of the Forests” which echoes the fall of man and exile from Eden, Hesse describes a tribe of men who live in the darkness of a forest and have never seen the sun, “the white Void beyond”, until one of them disobeys the priest and is exiled to live outside the protection of the trees. In “Pictor’s Metamorphoses”, however, the protagonist is stepping into Paradise wishing to become part of the natural landscape through metamorphosis. In this session we will look at the symbolic and allegorical imagery of trees and forests and discuss how mythical, spiritual, and religious elements find their way into Hesse’s storytelling.

References

Hermann Hesse. Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski, trans. Rika Lesser. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981.

Extracts from the collection: “The Man of the Forests” (pp. 83-92), “Pictor’s Metamorphoses” (pp. 114-120).

ALL WELCOME

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Rings & Ripples: A Mythic Structure of Growth in Denise Levertov’s ‘A Tree Telling of Orpheus’

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 01 February

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.411

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Anita Klujber continues our discussion of Trees & Forests with a session on Denise Levertov’s ‘A Tree Telling of Orpheus’

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Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853-1919), Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon (1907)

‘When words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination’, wrote Essex-born poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) in her essay ‘The Poet in the World’. The transformative power of the blended domains of myth, poetry, and music comes to life in her poem ‘A Tree Telling of Orpheus’ (1968), exhibiting some of the ways in which poetry carries the seed of myth and myth carries the seed of poetry. Levertov used the central image of this poem to reflect on the role of myth in poetic creation in her essay ‘The Sense of Pilgrimage’: ‘The poet must have as vivid a relation to any myth as if he were a tree that had followed Orpheus.’

The poem resonates in harmony with the musical semantics of The Lost Steps, discussed last week at Myth Reading Group. The cosmic dance of trees, the steps taken back to our origins, the ring structure of the journey, the power of the creative Word, the mythic wholeness of enchantment and terror, the dissolution of boundaries, all these and much more are made into song by the poet’s lyre that is described in the poem as ‘both frost and fire’.

Set text: ‘A Tree Telling Of Orpheus‘.

References

Levertov, Denise, ‘The Poet in the World’, in The Poet in the World (New Directions, New York, 1973 [1960]),107-116; 114.
——–‘The Sense of Pilgrimage’, in The Poet in the World (New Directions, New York, 1973 [1960]), 62-86; 72.

ALL WELCOME

 

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The Dance of the Trees: the backward flight of time in The Lost Steps

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 25 January

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.411

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Leon Burnett, founding and former Director of the Centre for Myth Studies, opens our discussion of Trees & Forests with a session on Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps

MaxErnstTheGreatForest

Max Ernst, La grande forêt (The Great Forest) (1927), Oil on canvas, 113.8 x 145.9 cm., Kunstmusuem, Basel © ProLitteris, Zürich

The material for the first meeting of the Myth Reading Group this term is taken from Chapter Four of Alejo Carpentier’s novel, The Lost Steps (1953), a reverse Odyssey which invokes European archetypes such as Prometheus and Faust yet remains resolutely Latin American in technique and temperament.

In it, the first-person narrator undertakes a journey into the interior of a South American jungle, retracing the path of humankind in a series of steps to its point of origin: the world of contemporary civilisation is displaced by a succession of receding historical vistas, which are, in their turn, supplanted by what one may categorise as the “mythical sublime” – marvellous landscapes of increasing strangeness that seem to negate time itself.

Selected passages [sections 19-20 (pp. 143-151) & 22-24 (pp. 160-168)] are taken from Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps; translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

Los Pasos Perdidos appeared in 1953 and the English translation was first published by Victor Gollancz in 1956.

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The visual language of (Hesiod’s) creation in children’s books

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 14 December

3.15pm-5.00pm in Room 4.204

We are delighted to announce that Dr Katerina Volioti (University of Roehampton) will lead a discussion of the visual language of creation in children’s literature as part of her research for the international project Our Mythical Childhood

Zeus with thunderbolt Drawing by K Volioti

Zeus with thunderbolt. Sketch drawing of early fifth-century BCE statuette © Katerina Volioti

In the Theogony, Hesiod puts order on chaos, explaining the creation of the world through the emergence of a matriarchal figure (Gaia) and the supremacy of the Olympian gods. In this session, we shall embark on an exploratory journey of the Theogony, discussing its place in ancient and modern culture, and as rendered in children’s literature. Using Philippos Mandilaras’ The Twelve Gods of Olympus (illustrated by Natalia Kapatsoulia, trans. by Alison Falkonakis. Athens: Papadopoulos Publishing, 2016), we shall examine the visual language of creation narratives in contemporary books for preliterate children, focusing on Gaia and Zeus.

In the session, we will consider an extract from Mandilaras’ book, and Ken Dowden’s chapter on “Telling the Mythology: From Hesiod to the Fifth Century” (in Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone, eds., A Companion to Greek Mythology. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 47–72.

For further information on Dr Katerina Volioti’s research at the University of Roehampton for the international project Our Mythical Childhood led by Professor Katarzyna Marciniak, University of Warsaw (Principal Investigator at Roehampton: Dr Susan Deacy), see the project’s blog, and Facebook & Twitter accounts.

The event will be followed by drinks

ALL WELCOME

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