An Offering To The Gods: Poem Number 24

An example of a nusa, more formally a gohei (御幣) “wand” used in Shinto religious ceremonies, with the paper streamers used for purification. Photo by nnh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 waThis time around
幣もとりあへずNusa motori aezuI couldn’t even bring the sacred streamers
手向山Tamuke yama—Offering Hill—
紅葉のにしきMomiji no nishikibut if this brocade of leaves
神のまにまにKami no mani maniis to the gods’ liking….
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

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 named “Tenjin” after he was wrongfully exiled through political intrigue.

The term nusa (幣) means a special wand used in Shinto religious ceremonies. At this time in history, according to the Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten, small nusa were often made from thin strips of paper and cloth and offered to the gods for a safe journey.

The poem was composed by Michizane after going on an excursion with his patron, Emperor Uda. Compare with another outing made years later by (then retired) Emperor Uda later in poem 26. In this case, Michizane had little time to prepare, and couldn’t make a proper offering to the gods for a safe trip. However, admiring the beautiful autumn scene on Mount Tamuke, he 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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