Japanese Folktales: The Butterfly Soul

François Gérard – Public domain

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,

“Where the flowers sleep,

Thank God! I shall sleep tonight.

Oh, come, butterfly!”

© 09/09/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 9th, 2020 zteve t evans

Japanese Folktales: The Goddess of Mount Fuji

Public Domain – Source

Presented here is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Goddess of Mount Fuji, from Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland) Davis and illustrated by Evelyn Paul.

Yosoji

When smallpox hit the village where Yosoji lived it struck down his mother.  Fearing she would soon die he visited Kamo Yamakiko, the magician and begged for his help. Kamo Yamakiko asked Yosoji to describe the symptoms and after listening very carefully told him he must go to the south-west side of Mount Fuji where a stream flowed down its side.  He explained that it was a long and difficult journey and told him, 

 “Follow the stream back to its source.  There you will find a shrine to the God of Long Breath.  You must fetch water from that place for your mother to drink. This is the only cure there is in the world for her.”

The Shrine on Mount Fuji

Therefore taking up a gourd Yosoji set off full of hope to find the shrine at the source of the stream.  It was indeed a long and difficult journey but eventually he came to a place where three paths crossed and he had no idea which one to take. He was tired and hungry and despair washed over him. He thought about giving up but he thought of his mother lying ill and knew he was her only chance and became determined to continue. Nevertheless he still had no idea which way to go, As he pondered upon this problem he was surprised to see a lovely girl step out of the forest.  She beckoned to him bidding him to follow and as he had no idea which way to go he followed her.  

It was not too long before they reached a stream and she led him upwards to its source and just as the magician had said there was a shrine.  As they reached the shrine the girl told Yosoji to drink and then fill the gourd. The water from the stream was cool, sparkling and refreshing and he drank deeply and then filled the gourd.   The girl then led him back to the place they had met and said, 

“You will need to fetch more water for your mother so meet me here in three days time and I will be you guide.”

After she bid him farewell he took the water back to his mother.  The water helped his mother greatly and he also gave some to other people in his village which helped them too. He returned to the sacred shrine five more times for water and each time he met the girl.  After his last visit he was pleased to see that his mother was now back to her normal self and the villagers had all improved marvelously.

Gratitude

Yosoji was made a hero of the village and was greatly praised by everyone for saving them.  Being an honest lad he realized he owed all the thanks to the lovely girl who appeared and guided him to the shrine. Therefore, he went back to find and thank her.

The girl was not at her usual meeting place and after waiting some time he resolved to go on to the shrine.  He was greatly disappointed to find she was not there either. Nevertheless, he still wanted to show his gratitude for helping him save his mother and the villagers.  All he could think to do was to kneel by the shrine and offer a prayer straight from his heart hoping that it would find its way to her somehow.  When he had finished he stood up and looked around and was surprised and delighted to find the girl standing before him smiling.

The Goddess of Mount Fuji

He thanked her for her help from the bottom of his heart  in the most eloquent words he could find and begged her to tell him her name.  The girl smiled sweetly but gave no reply but reaching out a branch of camellia appeared in her hand.  She waved it in the air as if beckoning to some invisible spirit. In answer to her floral signal a small white cloud floated down from the peak of Mount Fuji and settling before her she lightly stepped upon it.

The cloud rose bearing her up and slowly moved up the flank of the mountain before disappearing at the top.  Yosoji was awestruck for he realized that the girl was Sengen, the Goddess of Mount Fuji and he fell down upon his knees.  In his face was rapture and in his eyes light for he knew in his heart that mixed with all the gratitude he felt was a deep love for the lovely girl. As he knelt the goddess looked down and dropped the branch of camellia so that it landed just before him. Quickly, she turned away her face reddening.

From high Mount Fuji,

Camellia from Sengen,

Ah! Goddess blushes

© 20/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 10th, 2020 zteve t evans