Pearls (tama-jewels), Plants and Elixirs and their Place in the Quest for Immortality

Myths of China and Japan” by Donald Alexander Mackenzie … who spells out the significance of the tama-bead and pearl for Japan

“In Japan, ginsengs mushroom, and fungus are, like pearls, promoters of longevity, and sometimes, says Joly, “masquerade as phalli” : they are “Plants of Life” and ” Plants of Birth “, like the plants searched for by the Babylonian heroes Gilgamesh and Etana, and like the dragron-herbs of China.

In Shinto, the ancient religion of the Japanese, prominence is given to pearls and other precious jewels, and even to ornaments like artificial beads, which were not, of course, used merely for personal decoration in the modern sense of the term ; beads had a religious significance. A sacred jewel is a tama  a name which has deep significance in Japan, because mi-tama is a soul, or spirit, or double.
Mi Is usually referred to as an ” honorific prefix ” or ” honorific epithet”, but it appears to have been originally something more than that. A Japanese commentator, as De Visser notes, has pointed out in another connection^ that mi is “an old word for snake”, that Is, for a snake-dragon. Mi-tama^ therefore, may as ” soul” or ” double” be all that is meant by “snake-pearl” or “dragon-pearl”.

The Chinese dragon, ICUh-lungy originated from a sea-plant called hai-lu. De Visser, The Dragon in China and Japan  p. 72.

“The Dragon in China and Japan”  p. 137.

‘The temple of the Mexican dragon- and rain-god, TIaloc, was called “Ep-coatl”, which signifies “pearl-serpent” or “serpent-pearl”. Young children sacrificed to TIaloc by being thrown into the whirlpool {j>an tit Ian) of the lake of Mexico, were also called “Ep-coatl”. This sacrifice took place at the water festival in the first month of the Mexican year. The infants were sacrificed at several points, some being butchered on holy hills, including the “place of mugwort”, sacred to the mugwort and gem-goddess Chalchihuitlicue, wife of TIaloc. But only the children thrown into the lake were called “Ep-coatl”,

The pearl, as we have seen, contained “soul substance”, the “vital principle”, the blood of the Great Mother, like the “jasper of Isis” * worn by women to promote birth, and therefore to multiply and prolong life ; in China and Japan the pearl was placed in the mouth of the dead to preserve the corpse from decay and ensure longevity or immortality. The connection between jewels and medicine is found among the Maya of Central America. Cit Bolon Tun (the ” nine precious stones “) was a god of medicine. The goddess Ix Tub Tun (” she who spits out precious stones”) was ” the goddess of the workers in jade and amethysts”. She links with Tlaloc’s wife.

Accordinor to Dr. W. G. Aston ^ tama contains the root of the verb tahUy “to give”, more often met with in its lengthened form tamafu. ” Tama retains its original significance in tama-mono a gift thing, and toshi-dama^ a new year’s present. Tama next means something valuable, as a jewel. Then, as jewels are mostly globular in shape,^ it has come to mean anything round. At the
same time, owing to its precious quality, it is used symbolically for the sacred emanation from God which dwells in his shrine, and also for that most precious thing, the human life or soul. . . . The element tama enters into the names of several deities. The food-goddess is called either Ukemochi no Kami or Uka no mi-tama.” Phallic deities are also referred to as mi-lama. The mi-lama is
sometimes used in much the same sense as the Egyptian Ka : it is the spirit or double of a deity which dwells in a shrine, where it is provided with a shintai (“god body”) — a jewel, weapon, stone, mirror, pillow, or some such object.

The jewels [tama) worn by gods and human beings were not, as already insisted upon, merely ornaments, but objects possessing “soul substance”. These are referred to in the oldest Shinto books. In ancient Japanese graves archaeologists have found round beads [tamd)^ “oblong perforated cylinders ” or “tube-shaped beads” (kuda-tamd) and “curved” or “comma-shaped beads” (maga-tama).

According to W. Gowland, ” the stones of which maga-tama are made are rock-crystal, steatite, jasper, agate, and chalcedony, and more rarely chrysoprase and nephrite (jade) “. He notes that ” the last two minerals are not found in Japan “.

Henri L. Joly, writing on the tama, says  it is also ” represented in the form of a pearl tapering to a pointed apex, and scored with several rings. It receives amongst other names Nio-i-HojiUy and more rarely of Shinshi^ the latter word being used for the spherical jewel, one of the three relics left to Ninigi no Mikoto^ by his grandmother, Amaterasu!” The necklace of Shinshi^ mentioned. in the
traditions, was lost, and in its place a large crystal ball, some three or four inches in diameter, is kept and carried by an aide-de-camp of the Emperor on State occasions.”

The pearl (tama) is “one of the treasures of the Takaramono, a collection of objects associated with the Japanese gods of luck, which includes the hat of invisibility {Kakuregasa)  a lion playing with a jewel, ajar containing coral, coins, &c.; coral branches (jangoju)  the cowrie shell (kai)  an orange-like fruit, the five-coloured feather robe of the Tennins, the winged maidens of the Buddhist paradise, copper cash, &c.” But although the tama may correspond to the mani of the Indian Buddhists, it was not of Buddhist origin in Japan ; the Buddhists simply added to the stock of Japanese “luck jewels”.

The tama of jade has raised an interesting problem. Nephrite is not found in Japan. “It is difficult”, says Laufer, ” to decide from what source, how and when the nephrite or jadeite material was transmitted to Japan.”
Referring to jade objects found in the prehistoric Japanese graves, he says: “The jewels may go back, after all, to an early period when historical intercourse between Japan and China was not yet established ; they^ represent two yearly distinct and characteristic types, such as are not found in the jewelry of ancient China. If the Japanese maga-tama and kuda-tama would correspond to any known Chinese forms, it would be possible to give a plausible reason for the presence of jade in the ancient Japanese tombs ; but such a coincidence of type cannot be brought forward. Nor is it likely that similar pieces will be discovered in China, as necklaces were never used there anciently or in modern times. We must therefore argue that the two Japanese forms of ornamental stones were either indigenous inventions or borrowed from some other non-Chinese culture sphere in south-eastern Asia, the antiquities of which are unknown to us.”

The tama is of great importance in Shinto religion. At Ise, “the Japanese Mecca”, which has long been visited by pious pilgrims, a virgin daughter of the Mikado used to keep watch over the three imperial insignia — the mirror, the sword, and the jewel {tama) — which had been handed down from Mikado to Mikado. There were no idols in the temples. The Shintai was carefully wrapped
up and kept in a box in the “holy of holies”, a screened-off part of the simple and unadorned wooden and thatched little temple.


* Note:  Jasper of Isis – source: British Museum

In ancient Egypt, green was symbolic of regeneration. The amulet was linked with the goddess Isis, and also known as the knot-amulet or girdle of Isis. It consists of a loop of cloth, from the tied lower end of which hung two folded loops. It may represent a cloth used during menstruation.

According to Spell 156 of the Book of the Dead the amulet bestowed the protection of Isis against ‘whoever would commit a crime against him’. The spell, invoking the goddess’ blood, power, and magic, was to be recited over the amulet, which was moistened with the juice of various fruit. This example is inscribed with Nefer’s name, to ensure that the spell would be specifically applied to him.”

C.A.R. Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

C.A.R. Andrews, Eternal Egypt: treasures from, exh. cat. (Hong Kong, Museum of Art, 1998)

Red jasper tit amulet of Nefer

Red jasper tit amulet of Nefer, from Egypt, New Kingdom, about 1250-1100 BC

The protection of Isis

The tit amulet was one of several which was placed on the neck of the deceased at the time of burial. It is first mentioned in funerary papyri and first appears on mummies in the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1550-1295 BC). From then on it was considered vital.

This example is made of red jasper, as prescribed in the Book of the Dead, though many examples were of other red materials such as glass or carnelian

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