Heavenly Maidens: Poem Number 12

The Gosechi Dance (五節の舞) by Hokusai

Speaking of moments that we don’t want to end, I thought this poem was an interesting read, and is also one of the more famous ones:

天つ風Ama tsu kazeO heavenly breeze,
雲のかよひ路kumo no kayoijiblow so as to block
吹きとぢよFuki toji yotheir path back through the clouds!
乙女のすがたOtome no sugataFor I would, if but for a moment,
しばしとどめむShibashi todomendetain these maidens’ forms.
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This poem was composed by Sojo Henjo, (816 – 890, 僧正遍昭 “Bishop Henjo”), who served in the Heian Court until the death of Emperor Nimmyo. It was then that he took tonsure as a Buddhist priest. He is one of the original Six Immortals of Poetry as well as the Thirty-Six Immortals.

The poem was composed during the time that Henjo was in the service of the Emperor (and not yet a priest). The occasion for this was the famous Gosechi Dance or gosechi no mai (五節の舞), more formally known as the toyono akari no sechi-é (豊明の節会), a dance that took place in the Imperial Court during the middle of the eleventh month of the old Japanese calendar (roughly December in modern times) to celebrate the harvest.

During the final months of the year, the Imperial Court held several important events to celebrate the yearly harvest, starting with the niiname no matsuri (新嘗祭) when the Emperor would offer part of the harvest to the gods.1 The following day, the Court would celebrate the Gosechi dance at the Shishinden Palace, and the Emperor would partake of the new harvested rice. According to Richard Bowring, the Gosechi festivities last up to four days.

The Gosechi dance involved 4 maidens called otomé (を止め) from high-ranking noble families, and is mentioned by several authors from the era, including Sei Shonagon (poem 62) in the Pillow Book:

[87] At the time of the Gosechi Festival somehow everything in the palace, even the people you see every day, becomes simply delightful. There’s the unusual sight of the bits of coloured fabric that the groundswomen wear in their ceremonial hair combs, rather like abstinence tags. When they seat themselves along the arched bridgeway from the Senyōden, the dapple-dye pattern on the ribbons that bind up their hair stands out beautifully, and the whole effect is somehow quite marvelous. It’s perfectly understandable that the serving women and those who attend the dancers should find it all a splendid honour.

trans. Meredith McKinney

And from the eponymous diary of Lady Murasaki (poem 57):

The Gosechi dancers arrived on the twentieth….I knew full well how hard the young dancers had prepared this year in comparison to normal years when things were worse it must have been for them this year, I thought; I was both apprehensive and eager to see them. As they fully stepped forward together I was, for some reason, overcome with emotion and felt dreadfully sorry for them….And with all those young nobles around and the girls not allowed so much as a fan to hide behind in broad daylight, I felt somehow concerned for them, convinced that, although they may have been able to deal with the situation both in terms of rank and intelligence, they must surely have found the pressures of constant rivalry daunting; silly of me, perhaps. (pg. 39-40)

trans. Richard Bowring

Even now, the Gosechi dance is still performed for the Emperor, at least for special occasions:

Dancers of the Gosechi dance performed in 1928, for the ascension of the Showa Emperor. See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But I digress, Henjo was so mesmerized by their dance, he compared them with heavenly maidens, and hoped that the breeze would keep them on the earth a bit longer. As Professor Mostow notes, the Gosechi dance had a legendary origin involving Emperor Temmu who beheld heavenly maidens in the sky one night, so Bishop Henjo isn’t just making this up.

However, his playful simile has lasted through the ages.

1 This is still observed today in the form of Labor Day in Japan.

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