Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Peaches (Yum!)

(Today's blog post comes to us from Laura. Thanks Laura!)

As we read in the tenth chapter of the Kojiki, Izanagi was able to fend off the hags of hell using only three peaches; in the text, it appears that the author took this action to be perfectly acceptable, since no further explanation is provided. For most Western readers, however, it seems that a bit more background information is necessary in order to really understand this incredible and unexpected power of the peach.

The idea of peaches as possessing some special power seems to originate in China, where there is a tale involving the Queen Mother of the West, who grows peaches that extend the life of anyone lucky enough to eat one by 3,000 years (Anderson 201). In China, peaches are therefore typically associated with longevity or immortality, and are often imaged as being carried by gods or immortals to symbolize their long lives (Rubin). As we know, much of Japanese religion was shaped by ideas and traditions which were introduced by contact with the Chinese, so it’s not unlikely that the peach would have a similar symbolic role in Japan.

One of the seasonal festivals, or sekku, a tradition which seems to have been introduced to the Japanese by China, is actually named after the peach. Momo-no-sekku (Momo means “peach”, and sekku means “seasonal) is a festival in which people pray for young girls’ health and growth; it is also frequently called Hinamatsuri or “doll’s festival” (Blankestijn). This is one of five seasonal festivals which are intended to eliminate misfortune and evil spirits. Peaches are associated with this ability because, as we saw in the Kojiki, it was believed that they had spirit-banishing qualities (MacKenzie 360).

During the festival, miniature dolls are created and arranged or seated in certain hierarchical orders, typically with peach blossoms nearby (Marsh). Peach blossoms are specifically used, because they were thought to signify feminine traits: gentility, composure, and tranquility. Since this festival is commonly referred to as “girl’s day” in modern Japan, this seems like a fitting decoration. During the festival, small cakes are given as offerings to the dolls, which are decorated with pale pink symbolizing peach blossoms (as well as white to represent snow, and green for grass) (Marsh).

One of the most important peach references in Japanese culture is in the myth of Momotaro, or the “Peach Boy”, which has now become one of the most popular children’s stories in Japan. In one version of the story, a childless couple find a peach floating down a river, which conveniently contains a boy who later goes off to fight demons and have various other heroic adventures (Antoni). In another version of the story, an old woman finds the peach, but instead of containing a child it restores youth to her and her husband after they eat it. After being thus rejuvenated, they make love and produce Momotaro. In this version of the story, the peach is depicted as producing fertility as well as longevity. It is also significant that Momotaro’s great quest is to fight and destroy demons, which reflects the Japanese conception of the peach as having some sort of demon-destroying ability.

Who knew there was so much more to peaches than just a delicious taste!

~guest blogger, Laura Wilson