An Offering To The Gods: Poem Number 24

November 21, 2012

Shinto gohei

Hi folks, after a long break due to work obligations, I am back and happy to post this excellent poem by my favorite author in the Hyakunin Isshu:

このたびは Kono tabi wa
幣もとりあへず Nusa motori aezu
手向山 Tamuke yama
紅葉のにしき Momiji no nishiki
神のまにまに Kami no mani mani

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

This time around
I couldn’t even bring the sacred streamers
—Offering Hill—
but if this brocade of leaves
is to the gods’ liking….

The poem is signed as Kanke (菅家), which is the Sinified (Chinese) way to read the Sugawara Family name (lit. “House of Sugawara”). You see similar names used for the Taira Clan (e.g. Heike 平家) and Minamono Clan (e.g. Genji 源氏) in later times. Anyhow, the author is none other than the famous poet/scholar Sugawara no Michizane who in later generations was deified as a sort of god of learning after he was wrongfully exiled through political intrigue.

The poem was composed by Michizane after going on an excursion with his patron, Emperor Uda, and because he had little time to prepare, he couldn’t make a propering offering to the gods for a safe trip. The term nusa (幣) means a special staff used in Shinto ceremonies. But Michizane, admiring the beautiful autumn scene on Mount Tamuke, hopes that this will make a suitable offering instead. Sadly Michizane would be disgraced and exiled only a short time later.

My interest in Sugawara no Michizane mostly comes because I admire him as a fellow scholar. I visited one of his shrines in Tokyo a couple times over the years, and usually try to pay respects. The real life Michizane was no god of learning, but his real-life contributions to poetry and Chinese literature in Japan helped the culture flourish at that time, and earned his place as a trusted adviser to the Emperor, despite his more humble background. This also helped explain his status centuries later as a god of learning. Every year in Japan in April, students pay respects hoping that they can pass entrance exams, and it’s nice to see his legacy carry on so many years later.

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