Soybeans and Shadows: Myths of Spring


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“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”  ~ Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

truth

It’s indeed strange how myths East and West can and do converge.  Take, for instance, the idea of the end of winter and beginning of spring, which for each direction, basically comes down to soybeans and shadows.

Let me explain.

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

Setsubun bean throwing festival at Zoujouji Temple3Setsubun is a traditional Asian ceremony with origins from the Chou Dynasty of China (introduced to Japan in the 8th/9th centuries), designed to dispel demons at the end of winter/beginning of spring, and is usually observed on 3 February.  The practice of scattering roasted soybeans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away any malcontent demons that might have been lurking during the cold winter months is one of a number of magical rites performed to ward off evil in Japan.  The term setsubun originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節), but has come to be specifically applied to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which also corresponds to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient lunar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring.  Since risshun and the traditional celebration of the New Year fell at about the same time, setsubun became associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season.  Mamemaki originally began as an imperial event, but later mixed with indigenous customs of throwing beans at the time of rice-seedling planting during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).  To this day, in many places in Japan, setsubun rites include those associated with forecasting the year’s crop and spells for a plentiful harvest.

Sounds crazy and superstitious, right?  But no more than our own Groundhog Day….

I chose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

I choose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

Groundhog Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on February 2nd, just one day apart from its counterpart in the East, and is to a harbinger of spring.  Amazing how ancient time-keepers managed to independently align these events based on the sun and moon!  According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a gopher emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early (he doesn’t see his shadow); if it is sunny, the gopher will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.  Given this tradition, setsubun seems not so silly, and, in fact, seems to be a lot more fun!

setsubun-mask

P5211316ONIDuring setsubun soybeans are roasted (peanuts are becoming more popular) and placed in a small wooden box of the type used for measuring rice or sake.  The “fortune beans” are scattered inside and outside the house or building by the male head of household to the common chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (鬼は外! 福は内! “Out with demons!  In with good luck!”) and the sound of slamming doors.  It is customary for family members to eat the same number of beans as their age for good luck, and then one more for the year ahead.  In more recent years, especially in the Kansai region of Japan, famous temples and shrines host well-known personalities born under the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year that help throw beans at evil spirits during “demon dances.”

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than...say...top hats.

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than…say…top hats.

The celebration of Groundhog Day in America began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has origins much deeper into ancient European lore wherein a sacred badger or bear was used as the prognosticator of the weather, in preparation for the planting season…much like setsubun is tied to early farmers!  By the way, it also bears (pun intended) similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc, the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar (lunar-based, just like that of China), which is celebrated on February 1 and also involves weather forecasting.

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So, spring this year – and each and every year – comes down to customs and traditions East and West:  Soybeans and Shadows.  But, if we take a step back and really look at culture, custom, tradition, and even religion, we can find many more similarities than differences.  It seems that the human condition is inescapable; we all, ‘round the world, live around the same physics, share the truly international language of math, endure all the same trials and tribulations of life, and embrace very similar metaphysical wants, hopes and dreams.  We all need to strive and remember that we all much more the same than we are ever different.

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Punxsutawney Phil, however, seems to be accurate only 39% of the time since 1887 on the length of winter.  I, for one, will embrace the myth of throwing soybeans to ward off evil rather than depend upon the myth of a shadow for the warmth of spring.

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.  That myth is more potent than history.  That dreams are more powerful than facts.  That hope always triumphs over experience.  That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”  ~Robert Fulghum

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