End Of An Affair: Poem 63

The inner sanctum of Ise Shrine, photo by Yanajin33, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the sadder poems to share, but does have an interesting historical point to share as well:

今はただIma wa tadaNow, the only thing
思ひ絶えなむOmoi taenanI wish for is a way to say
とばかりをTo bakari woto you directly
人づてならでHitozute nara de—not through another—
いふよしもがなIu yoshi mo ga na“I will think of you no longer!”
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The poem was composed by Fujiwara no Michimasa (992-1054), who was the son of Korechika (Korechika’s mother wrote poem 54), the same man who had Sugawara no Michizane (poem 24) exiled. In any case, Michimasa’s family was on the losing side of a struggle with Fujiwara no Michinaga who employed Lady Murasaki (poem 57) and Lady Ise no Tayu (poem 61). Michimasa, according to Mostow, spent the remainder of his life in “elegant retirement”. Suffice to say he was well-connected.

According to Mostow, the story behind this poem was a famous affair involving Michimasa and the High Priestess of the Ise Shrine. This affair has been found in Japanese literature for the ages. In any case, news of the affair angered her father, the Retired Emperor Sanjo (poem 68) and the retired emperor subsequently assigned guards at her gate to prevent Michimasa from seeing her again. As you can see, Michimasa is lamenting that he can’t even say goodbye to her in person anymore.

The Ise Grand Shrine is probably one of the most sacred, if not the most sacred, in all of Japanese Shinto religion. Due to its connection with the Imperial Family, who were said to be descended from its primary deity, Amaterasu Omi-no-Kami, the Imperial Family always had one member serving as the High Priestess or saigū (斎宮). Usually this was the reigning Emperor’s daughter, and when that Emperor stepped down, she would return to the capitol. This tradition still continues to this day in some form or another in that the Imperial Family still assigns one member to serve as priest/priestess, though I am not sure if they still have the same requirements as before.

In those days, the High Priestess was a vestal virgin, similar to the ancient priestesses of Rome, and was supposed to remain so during her tenure. However, as other writings of the time showed, such women still corresponded with men from time to time and kept a social circle of women around them. Lady Murasaki lamented that the social circle around the High Priestess of her time was more affluent than the social circles around the Court itself.

Nevertheless, the life of High Priestess was very demanding and required strict purity, due to Shinto notion of purity before coming into the presence of the gods, especially in more sacred sites. Thus, the woman who had the affair with Michimasa apparently went too far and Emperor Sanjo’s reaction was quite harsh.

A sad fate for two lovers, nevertheless.

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