Posts tagged Shōnagon

Pillow Talk

The word “pillow” (枕 or ‘makura’) seems to have been a popular metaphor in Japan. We have the concept of a pillow book, a ‘public journal’ prose form conceptually similar to a modern blog, the most famous of which is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. There’s also various pillow-related imagery in Japanese poetry, for example the idea of a ‘grass pillow’ as a temporary bed while traveling. Finally, there’s the pillow word (枕詞 or ‘makura-kotoba’), the topic of tonight’s discussion.

Pillow words are conceptually similar to the epithets used in classical Greek and Roman epic poetry. They were descriptors with a fixed form frequently applied to certain words. In a Roman poems, you wouldn’t just talk about the dawn; you’d often say something like “rosy-fingered dawn”. Similarly, in Japanese poetry, you might talk about the “red-shining sun” (あかねさす日/akanesasu hi).(CJAG:364)

These descriptors share some of the same purposes as classical epithets. Epithets were chosen to fit into the strict meters of epic poetry; similarly, pillow words are generally 5 syllables, to fit easily into Japanese forms, almost always made up of 5- and 7-syllable lines. In addition, they let you show off your familiarity with poetic traditions, remind your audience of the associations of a place1, and simplify the poetic process by providing solid ready-made material. Unlike classical epithets, pillow words are rarely applied to people or gods; they more frequently are used with elements of nature, places, or other poetic imagery.Movie Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Pillow words first show up in the Man’yōshū, the oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry, dating to the Nara period. Most makura-kotoba that show up in later poetry are taken from Man’yōshū poems, since the set forms and strong tradition behind these descriptors was their main purpose. In fact, because these phrases are so old and were held constant as the language evolved, the exact intended meanings of many are unclear. This and the fact that their primary purpose was not a denotative meaning can present challenges when translating poems with makura-kotoba.(en.wp:Makurakotoba)

To close, here is an example from Hundred Poets, Hundred Poems. Read the rest of this entry »

Following Directions

A few weeks ago, I talked about Rokuyō, the six-day calendar cycle of varying auspiciousness. Another key part of Japanese astrology, or Onmyōdō1, was concerned with auspicious and inauspicious directons.(en.wp:Onmyōdō) Which directions were auspicious or inauspicious for a given person, along with monoimi (personally inauspicious days), were determined by Onmyōji, professional diviners licensed by the court. They depended both on the calendar and on the time of day, in a similar way to the Rokuyō.

These divinations weren’t limited to cardinal directions; 24 directions were used, associated with animals in the Chinese zodiac, the 10 calendar signs (each in turn a combination of one of the 5 elements2 and yin or yang), and one of the eight trigrams of the I Ching.(ja.wp:干支) These associations were often mapped out with ornate compasses along the lines of the following.
Read the rest of this entry »