Presented here is a retelling of an old Japanese legend about butterflies and the human soul from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul. In this work it was titled the The White Butterfly.
The Butterfly Soul
In old Japan there was a belief that the souls of people alive or dead could take the form of a butterfly. Therefore any butterfly that entered a house was treated respectfully. It may be that people whose loved ones had departed this world looked for and welcomed the presence of a butterfly and silently prayed, “Oh, come butterfly and I shall sleep tonight, where the flowers sleep.”
A very old legend tells of a poor old man by the name of Takahama. His home was just behind the cemetery of the temple of Sōzanji and never seemed to go far from it. Sadly, it is a trait of human nature that sees people who do not behave in what is considered a normal way to have some degree of madness. He was by all accounts the most affable and amiable person you could wish to meet and all his neighbors greatly liked and respected him though they considered him a little mad. This madness appears to have come from the fact that he never took a wife or was known to have considered taking one. Furthermore, he was wrongly believed to have had no intimate relationship with a woman.
It so happened that one bright summer day the most affable Takahama fell sick. So sick that he sent for his sister-in-law to come and take care of him. She duly arrived bringing her son with her to bring what help and comfort they could in his final hours. While they kept vigil over him there fluttered into the room a beautiful white butterfly that rested gently on the sick man’s pillow. Fearful that it might disturb his final hours the young man attempted to carefully drive it out without harming it. Each time he drove it through the door it returned. This happened three times as if the butterfly was reluctant to leave the dying man.
At last the young man grew more forceful chasing it out the door and into the nearby cemetery where it fluttered over the tomb of a woman before mysteriously vanishing to where he did not know.
The young man was puzzled and intrigued. On examining the tomb he found an inscription with the name “Akiko” and a brief account of how she had died when she was 18 years old. This indicated her death had happened some 50 years earlier. The tomb was very well maintained with fresh flowers and water provided. Intrigued but unsure what he had found the young man returned to the house to find Takahama had passed away.
The young man told his mother about the butterfly and what he had seen in the cemetery. His mother sat down with tears in her eyes and told him,
“Not many people know but your uncle was once betrothed to Akiko. He was very much in love with her but just before the wedding day she died of consumption. Understandably, he was heartbroken and vowed that he would never marry or have any kind of a relationship with any other woman.
He stayed close to her grave and prayed over it daily, no matter if the sun was shining and the day was fair and pleasant, or burning hot. No matter how cold the rain or how thick the snow, or wild the wind, he would grit his teeth and pray, ‘Oh, come, butterfly, come!’
Maintaining her grave, keeping weeds at bay and ensuring there were alway fresh flowers all through the long lonely years he kept his vow. In his heart of hearts he kept clean and shining all the loving memories of his only love. As he lay dying he no longer had the strength to perform his labor of love and Akiko from beyond saw this and came to him. The white butterfly was her tender, loving soul that came to guide him to the Land of the Yellow Springs where they will be reunited once again.”
For Takahama his passing prayer may been words such as the following poem written by Yone Noguchim many, many years later. Just maybe the writer was thinking of the old man when he wrote,
Insects and humans are a strange mix and yet in In Japanese folklore the human soul sometimes appears as a butterfly. Maybe it is something about the way they flutter from place to place or the fact that they have gone through metamorphosis to transform into a such a beautiful creature. When we look deeply into the populous and industrious colonies of ants many people see a microcosm of a human cities and society. Indeed, from above our cities often seem to be teeming with myriads of ant-like creatures.
In reality the idea of humans being insect-like in any way may seem absurd except in our dreams in which reality can be suspended, twisted and turned on its head and time has a completely different duration. In such dreams we may believe ourselves to have lived for years in a certain place but awake to be told that we have only been asleep for a few minutes. But what if when we return from the dream to the waking world we find evidence that there may indeed be some basis for the idea we actually existed in our dream – what then?
Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale originally called, The Dream of Akinosuke, from a collection of tales, called Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn which has some strange things to say about ants, butterflies and dreaming humans.
THE DREAM OF AKINOSUKE
There once lived in the district of Toichi in the Yamato Province of old Japan a goshi named Miyata Akinosuke. These were feudal times and in such times goshi were a social class having certain privileges. They were soldiers and freehold farmers who owed their position and allegiance to an overlord. Akinosuke was just such a man and as a freeholder he had a very beautiful garden with an ancient and spreading cedar tree. He was very fond of his tree and during the hot, sultry days of summer he liked to recline and relax in the coolness of its shade.
One hot afternoon he was relaxing in the shade of his tree with two of his fellow goshi. They were having a very pleasant time drinking wine and conversing amicably on different topics and enjoying each other’s company. Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the warm sultry afternoon or maybe it was both, but Akinosuke grew very drowsy. He grew so sleepy that he asked his friends to excuse him while he took a brief nap. Teasing him they told him the wine had gone to his head, but agreed to excuse him and he lay down at the foot of his beautiful cedar tree and very soon he was dreaming a dream like no other.
In this dream he saw a great and grand procession of people coming over the crest of a nearby hill and he stood up to get a better view. It was indeed a very grand procession the likes of which he had never seen before. There were very many men and women all dressed in the finest of silks carry banners and flags and marching to the beat of a drum. There were so many in the distance it looked like a long line of ants coming over the hill.
At the heart of the procession was a carriage that was borne aloft proudly. Akinosuke watched and was surprised to see that it was making directly for his dwelling. As it drew nearer he could see that the carriage was richly decorated with silks of blue and gold and obviously carried someone who must have been very important indeed. The procession proceeded unerringly to his gate and stopped. The carriage door opened and a tall, thin man dressed in the most exquisite finery got out. In a mostly stately way he approached the surprised and bemused Akinosuke, who awestruck, bowed low while the visitor greeted him thus,
“Most honorable Miyata Akinosuke you see before you an envoy and servant of the King in Tokyo. I am commanded to greet you in the name of the King and put myself entirely at your service. He has commanded me to inform you that he seeks your presence at his palace and has tasked me to escort you into his esteemed presence. Therefore, please enter this most honorable of carriages that he has sent for this purpose and allow me to be your personal guide to his royal presence.”
With that the messenger stood aside holding the carriage door open, gesturing for the bewildered Akinosuke to step inside. He wanted to make some kind of fitting reply but was too astonished and overwhelmed. Instead, he meekly obeyed and stepped into the carriage and his guide sat down beside him. With a word of command the carriage proceeded to the King’s palace.
They traveled at surprising speed and within a short time were outside the palace gates. The envoy announced he would go and inform the King of Akinosuke’s arrival and he was to wait here until sent for. Presently two noblemen wearing the purple silks and caps of high rank arrived. They greeted him with all due respect and escorted him through a most beautiful garden, the vastness of which appeared to extend in all directions for many miles.
At last they entered the palace and Akinosuke was shown into a most splendid reception room with many ornate carvings and works of art upon the walls. He was seated in a place of honor while two servants brought him food and drink. After he had taken refreshment the two nobles in purple bowed low and speaking in turns said to him thus,
“It is our duty and pleasure to inform you that the reason you have been brought here is because the King, our most noble master, desires greatly that you become his son-in-law. It is his greatest wish that this will happen today. Therefore, you will marry his daughter the August Princess this day. When the time comes we will escort you to your wedding, but first we will provide you with appropriate apparel for such a splendid and important ceremony.”
Having finished their speech the two nobles went over to a great gilded chest and lifting the lid drew out various items of clothing. These were of the finest and richest silks and styled for royalty and were indeed most suitable for the bridegroom of a royal wedding. After he was dressed in the very finest of fashions befitting such a special occasion he was led into a hall where the King and his highest dignitaries and nobles awaited the arrival of Akinosuke.
Akinosuke saluted, bowed and knelt before the King who greeted him graciously and spoke to him thus,
“You have been informed that it is my desire that you will become my son-in-law and the husband of my only daughter – the August Princess. We shall now proceed with the wedding.”
With that he clapped his hands and the sound of joyful music filled the hall and a long line of beautiful ladies of the Royal court appeared. Solemnly they escorted Akinosuke to another hall where his bride awaited dressed most beautifully for her wedding.
The wedding hall was huge and richly decorated and despite its size it was barely big enough to seat all of the guests who swarmed everywhere. Everyone stopped and bowed as he entered escorted by the ladies of the court and he took his place kneeling on a cushion facing his bride. In her gorgeous silk wedding dress the color of the bluest summer sky she looked indeed the August Princess.
The marriage rites were performed with great ceremony and dignity and afterwards the newly married couple were escorted to a special suite of apartments especially prepared for them. The King and all the guests were overjoyed and Akinosuke and his wife radiating happiness received many wonderful presents and the blessings of everyone.
Although they had not met each other before or heard of one another in the past, Akinosuke and his wife were very happy together enjoying the company of each other. The days passed joyfully and presently Akinosuke was summoned to appear before the King. He feared he had done something wrong but instead the King spoke to him thus,
“The island of Rashi lies in the southwestern part of my realm and I have decided to appoint you the Governor of Raishu in my name. The people of the island are very loyal and peaceful but their laws have never been brought into alignment with the laws and customs of my realm. I am entrusting you with this task and with improving their lives and social condition as much as is possible. It is my desire that you rule them with kindness, justice and wisdom. All the preparations for the journey and your arrival have been made and you will leave in the morning.’
The Island of Raishu
The next morning Akinosuke and his wife left the palace with a great escort of nobles, palace officials and courtesans who accompanied them to the harbor. There he and his wife boarded one of the King’ s own ships to take them to Raishu and take up the governorship of the island. They had a good wind and fair weather and soon arrived safely in the harbor of the island to find the people had all come out and were lining the shores to welcome them.
After a warm reception from the people Akinosuke began his governorship and put his heart and soul into the task. In the first three years he reformed the laws to align with those of the King in Tokyo. He was lucky to have the help of wise counselors who knew the people very well. This helped him considerably and he never grew tired or bored with the task. When it was all complete he found he only had a few active duties to carry out and most of these were of a ceremonial nature.
The island was very fertile and grew all the crops the people needed and they also fished the seas. The weather always seemed to just right so there was never famine or starvation. The people were hard working and peaceful never broke any laws so there was little for him to do.
Akinosuke lived and ruled on the island for another twenty years making twenty three in total and in that time he was happy. He grew to love his wife and she him and they were very close and happy together. She bore him seven fine children – five strapping sons and two beautiful daughters.
In the beginning of the twenty fourth year of his governorship his beloved wife fell sick and died. Akinosuke was grief stricken but as tradition required he made sure she was buried with all the dignity and ceremony befitting her status. He had her buried on a beautiful hill with a fittingly splendid monument raised over her. Unfortunately and understandably her death had left him devastated and he no longer cared for himself or wanted to live.
After the customary period of mourning was complete a ship sailed in from Tokyo bearing a royal messenger from the King. The messenger hastened to Akinosuke to deliver a message of condolence directly from the King telling him thus,
“The King our lord and master sends his deep condolences to you and your children. You have worked hard and done a splendid job on Raishu but it is now time you returned to your own country. Have no fear for your seven children for they are also my grandsons and granddaughters and I will look after them.”
Akinosuke on hearing this order submissively prepared to leave the island. When all was made ready for his departure and all necessary rituals and ceremonies were completed he said goodbye to his children, councilors and officials and was escorted in a grand procession to the harbor where he took the ship for home.
The ship sailed out of the harbor into the blue sea and towards the blue sky of the horizon. Akinosuke turned to look at the island in a last farewell and watched as it’s shape turned to blue and then, grey and vanished forever from his sight – and at this point he woke up to find himself lying in the shade of the cedar tree in his very own garden. For a moment or two he was dazed and bewildered and rubbed his eyes. Looking around he saw his two friends sitting nearby drinking wine and chatting happily to each other and he cried out loud,
“How strange this is!!”
His two friends looked over to him and laughed when they heard him. “Ha!” laughed one, “Our friend, Akinosuke has been dreaming! Tell us your strange dream my friend.”
” I think the wine got the better of him,” teasedthe other, “but do tell us!”
Therefore, Akinosuke told them his strange dream and how he had spent over twenty three years living on the island of Raishu in the realm of the King of Tokyo. He told how he was married and of his children and finally how his beloved wife had died.
His two friends were astonished at his tale and insisted he had only been asleep for a few minutes at the most. One of them told him that while he had been asleep they had witnessed a very strange thing and he spoke thus,
“While you were asleep we saw a very strange thing happen.A small yellow butterfly appeared and fluttered and hovered over your face for a brief moment or two. We watched and saw it settle on the ground beside you as you lay close to the cedar tree. Almost immediately an exceptionally large ant rushed from a hole by the tree and seizing the butterfly ran back down the hole carrying it with him.
Just before you woke we saw the same yellow butterfly crawl out of the hole and flutter up to hover before your face before suddenly vanishing. I do not know where it went but it was gone.”
The second nodded in agreement and then he spoke,
“Maybe it was our friend Akinosuke’s soul. I thought perhaps it flew into his mouth but even if it was our friend’s soul it does not explain the dream.”
The Realm of the Ants
“Maybe the ants explain it,” said the first, ” they are peculiar beings and there is a large ant’s nest by the hole of the tree.”
Akinosuke jumped up and cried, “Let us investigate!” And rushed off to fetch a spade.
On his return he set about gently clearing the soil away to carefully reveal that the nest had been excavated and built in the most surprisingly complex way. The huge population of ants that lived there had turned the colony into a miniature world with some similarity to that of humans. There were tiny buildings made from straw, clay and stems that gave the nest the look of scaled-down versions of human towns and cities.
In the very center of the colony was a structure larger than all of the others which contained a swarm of small ants appearing to work around the body of one very large ant that had a black head and pale yellow wings.
” Look! There is the King in the palace of Tokyo that I saw in my dream! How amazing and extraordinary! If that is so, the island of Raisu should lie somewhere to the southwest – and there it is by that root … now can I find the green hill and the tomb of my beloved wife – Yes, there it is – how remarkable!”
Looking closely, Akinosuke saw the small hill in the nest and on top of the hill was a worn polished pebble very similar in shape to the monument he had placed over the body of his wife. Gently lifting up the pebble he was astonished to see covered in clay the dead body of a female ant.
Ants, Humans and the Butterfly Soul
There are some people who see parallels between ants and humans. Such philosophers see similarities in the two societies while comparing the differences. The cities humans build and live in are seen in parallel with the ant colonies and the two societies compared. In human cities the swarms of humans may all appear to be busy working for the greater good of their society. However, on closer inspection it is found that this is so only as far as it does not encroach upon their own selfish needs and desires which may be at odds with the well-being of their society and even their own butterfly soul.
Ants are seen to be regimented and industrious giving up or not possessing such selfish needs and desires working entirely for the good of their society. These same philosophers argue that humans with their selfishness damage the good of their society while the ants give up the wants of the self in favor of maintaining the good of their society and their butterfly soul – assuming ants have any kind of soul at all. Therefore, they claim ants are superior to humans and their society further evolved. Such philosophers are not renowned for their sense of humor, but personally I always think it one of the greatest of human attributes, though I am not sure ants have one. I wonder though, what do you think of these strange matters of ants, dreaming humans and the butterfly soul?