Ivan Morris in his
fascinating book The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient
Japan says of Shintoism that its "...central themes are joyful
acceptance of the natural world and gratitude for its bounty, coupled with a
horror of illness and death, which are regarded as the source of all
pollution." (1) Morris states that at the time of Heian period
Shintoism "...had not philosophical, speculative, or ethical elements; no
elaborate ritual or priestly hierarchy; no saints, martyrs, or even a
founder; no scripture or exegesis; no interest in education and art - in
fact, no positive, constructive aspect whatsoever. So vague and amorphous
was the native religion that not until Buddhism appeared in Japan did it
even acquire a name - Shin-to ('the way of the gods'), as opposed to Butsu-dō ('the way of Buddha')." (2)
On the left is a very
small detail from a pentaptych by Hokusai of a New Year's celebration at the
Ōgi-ya house in the Yoshiwara. Included among the various images rich in
symbolism such as the shi-shi, i.e., lions and the multiple Daruma dolls are
the two saké containers atop a lacquer table greeting us at the top of the
steps. Adorning each of the vessels are the origami butterflies, both
male and female.
Several years ago I
wrote a Shinto scholar who teaches at a major American university. I asked
this professor about the significance of the male and female paper
butterflies attached to saké containers. The professor was stumped and
perhaps a bit dismissive and said I should ask one of my competitors.
Obviously I had not piqued this person's interest - at all. But finally,
after years of waiting, and generally giving up I have run across a passage
which may give us the answer.
"The formality of
the marriage consists in drinking sake after a particular manner. The sake
is poured out by two young girls, one of whom is called the male butterfly,
and the other the female butterfly, - appellations derived from the susu,
or sake-jugs, each of which is adorned with a paper-butterfly. As these
insects always fly about in pairs, it is intended to intimate that so the
husband and wife ought to be continually together. The male butterfly always
pours out the sake to be drank [sic], but before doing so, turns, a little
to the left, when the female butterfly pours from her jug a little sake into
the jug of the other, who then proceeds to pour out for the ceremony."
Hildreth's "Japan as it was and Is": A Handbook of Old Japan, by Richard
Hildreth, Ernest Wilson Clement, Published by K. Paul, Trench, Trubner,
1907, p. 179.
Note: So far I have
been unable to find the term susu which Hildreth says translates as
In another passage
in Japanese Life, Love and Legend: A Visit to the Empire of the "Rising
Sun Maurice Dubard (Published by Ward and Downey, 1886, p. 83) notes:
"...two matrons take the phials of saké, each surmounted with a paper
butterfly. These insects, naturally, are of each sex - the Japanese never
overlook this circumstance, even in their paper puppets. The pair of
butterflies are then placed on the floor one above the other."