The Polestar

Someone new is in my life…I think? I’m not certain, as it could simply be My Lady in another one of her many guises. The entity in question, anyway, is the Sino-Japanese star deity known as Myōken.

Myōken is most often said to be the deity of the polestar, but his identity is quite fluid, hence my confusion. He is known by many other names, and is associated with many other deities in Japanese culture. Japanese polytheism (which is not limited to Shinto by any means) is complex and syncretic, and you can never be sure which deity you’ve got hold of.

I came to My Lady Saraswati via her Japanese persona Benzaiten-sama. Yet Benzaiten-sama is not only Saraswati; she is seen as the Bodhisattva Kannon, the Devi Sri, and various others. Her iconography overlaps with Oinari-sama, Dakiniten, and most importantly here, Myōken. Both Myōken and Benzaiten are associated with dragons and magic jewels, for instance.

Currently, the cultus I give Myōken is limited to observing the actual stars in the sky, and his shrine is a homemade paper talisman taped to the ceiling above My Lady’s shrine. I feel She has called me to the star god for a reason, if only to gain a greater understanding of Her.

My Favorite Benzaiten

Benzaiten UkiyoeAoigaoka Keisei, “Benzaiten Seated on a White Dragon”
Edo Period woodblock print, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is one of my favorite images of Benzaiten-sama. It is (I believe, though I am not sure) a scene from the famous medieval epic Heike Monogatari. Benzaiten-sama was said to be the patroness of the Heike clan (better known in historical sources as the Taira). Yet she is sometimes said to have withdrawn her support of the Taira due to the hubris of Taira no Kiyomori, the clan patriarch. This in turn led to their defeat by the newly ascendant Minamoto clan, who would establish the first permanent shogunate.

Teishi Monogatari

TRIGGER WARNING: CHILD MARRIAGE

One of the most tragic stories in the annals of the Japanese Imperial Court is that of the Empress Teishi (b.977 – d.1001), the first consort to Emperor Ichijō (980 – 1011, r.986 – 1011). Teishi was the loser in a Heian Japanese version of The Game of Thrones (the Japanese Game of Thrones, you will recall, was written by Jane Austen).

Teishi was brought into the Palace as a consort for the child emperor Ichijō when she was thirteen and he only ten. They were first cousins, sharing a common paternal grandfather in the recently deceased Regent Fujiwara no Kaneie. Their similar age and close kinship seems to have created a companionate bond between them, as contemporary sources relate stories of them playing childlike pranks on courtiers and servants alike. They were allowed to be the children they were.

And then, the whole world fell apart.

In 995, Japan was struck by an epidemic of what was likely smallpox. Teishi’s elegant and ebullient father Michitaka died suddenly. It was widely suspected – stated openly, even – that his death had been due to his drinking. Though Michitaka had pressured Ichijō into naming Teishi’s charming but reckless elder brother Korechika regent during his initial illness, the appointment had only been temporary, and despite Korechika’s charm, he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way… Including his aunt.

Ichijō’s mother.

The Imperial Lady Senshi threw her full weight behind her favorite brother – her baby brother. Michinaga. He was given the post, and set about making Teishi politically and socially obsolete, with the help of his sister.

Teishi was soon even more alone when her stupid, reckless brother Korechika wasted the second chance he’d been given after an altercation with a retired emperor, by trying to curse Senshi. He tried to curse the Emperor’s mother. The curse rebounded upon him. He and his own baby brother Takaie, who had started the altercation with the retired emperor (ever loyal Takaie, who had too much sense for any of this!) were sent into exile.

Of course, Korechika and Takaie had never had any influence. It had always all been on Teishi, all on her…and her womb. Did she fail? Of course not. It took a couple of tries, but she gave her childhood playmate his first son. The first prince. His name was Atsuyasu.

By then it was too late. Ichijō had someone else to play with, someone new…someone young. Another cousin. Her name was Shōshi. Empress Shōshi. She was twelve when she entered the Palace, but this time Ichijō was twenty. Teishi died that year, in childbirth, or perhaps of a broken heart.

But Shōshi? She outlived them all.

Value

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This jar is nothing of importance to anyone but myself.

I found it at a local antique store the day after I returned from Japan. It’s hand-painted, with highlights in gold ink. The attention to detail is heartbreaking. It was only $12, being sold as a piece of Occupation-era kitsch.

Was it that unimportant?

I wonder who made it. The subject matter doesn’t seem right for something that was made for the US GIs to take home. The Shichi Fukujin cavort across its body and play across the lid. My goddess Benzaiten-sama is there with them of course, as she is one of their number.

It is a beautiful piece of art, taken from its maker and sold for a fraction of its worth. Is it that unimportant?

Is anything that unimportant?

Inokashira-Jinja

Kichijōji’s main tourist draw is the Ghibli museum. It’s certainly the only thing that most Westerners I’ve spoken to are likely to recognize (though most admittedly don’t realize what it is until I mention Spirited Away and/or a few other of Miyazaki-san’s works). It’s not surprising that the neighborhood isn’t a big attraction; it’s a residential area and quite a nice one. It’s not meant to draw foreigners.

However the area is well worth a visit even if you are largely indifferent to anime and manga and have no intention to visit the Ghibli Museum. Inokashira park is simply beautiful, and it is home to my favorite shrine, one to Benzaiten-sama.

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I have posted this picture several times on this blog, and it is actually my desktop background at the moment. The Inokashira Jinja is and always will be very dear to me.

Inokashira-Jinja’s history dates back to the tenth century, when a court aristocrat was shipped off to what is now Tokyo, but what was then the middle of nowhere. He brought with him an icon of the goddess Benzaiten-sama. The shrine itself has been in its present location since the end of the twelfth century; it was built under the orders of none other than the very first shogun Minamoto Yoritomo. That first shrine was completed in 1197, though it has been remodeled and even totally rebuilt a number of times over the centuries.

In the Edo period, the shrine was immensely popular with the leading actors of the day, and even during the Meiji era and on through WWII, when other shrines to Benzaiten-sama such as that at Enoshima and in Ueno were shut down or rededicated to native kami, the shrine in Kichijōji remained unopened and undamaged. To this day, it is a hidden jewel worth seeking.

The Wonderful and Mysterious Inari-sama.

Inari Okami

Hanazono Inari Shrine, in Ueno Park

Inari-sama is believed to have over 30,000 shrines in Japan. This makes him (or her) Japan’s most popular kami, if we judge by box office returns. The odd thing, though, is that no one knows where she (or he) came from. He doesn’t appear in the Classical texts Kōjiki or Nihongi, and no Buddhist origin can be pinpointed either. Her cult appeared quite suddenly in the records, in 711 CE when the famous Fushimi Inari shrine was founded in Kyoto.

Of course, any observer of Japanese history can see the threads that coalesced into Inari-sama’s present cult. Stories of fox spirits were imported from China, and merged with native animistic beliefs. These beliefs, along with the cults of the fox-riding deity Dakiniten and native Japanese deities of foodstuffs, came together to form the Inari cult that we know today.

While the cultus of Inari-sama has been heavily influenced by native beliefs, Chinese fox-lore, and Buddhism, it is also animated by the spirit of something (someone) far greater: Inari-sama. Himself has a gentle and playful presence that stirs the heart and puts one up for any sort of mischief He wishes to devise. Reading about Inari-sama in books or online does not and cannot prepare one for encountering him. This includes what you are reading now.

鷺娘の精 (The Spirit of the Heron Maiden)

Rekishi Nippon

鷺娘の精 (The Spirit of the Heron Maiden) woodblock print by Taniguchi Kokyo (1864-1915), dated 1925; from my collection. Oban tate-e (27.0 x 42.5 cm).

“Sagi Musume no Sei,” the “Spirit of the Heron Maiden.” A kabuki hengemono dance (one actor/many roles) wherein the spirit of a heron changes into a girl and then back again.

A summary from http://www.kabuki21.com/sagi_musume.php :
“The set is a frozen pond in the middle of Winter. The music from the geza is the classic sound effect for falling snow. The spirit of the heron appears on a platform, dressed in white, solitary and silent. This dance is a series of transformations, done through costume changes using either the bukkaeri or the hikinuki techniques to switch the roles. The first change turns the dancer into a young maiden in love, dressed in a beautiful red kimono, who dances the joy of love in a lively atmosphere…

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