The peach as a kami and Mother goddess, and symbol of fertility and immortality

Momotaro (Peach Boy) emerging from a peach, a Japanese traditional folktale (Source: Kamishibai.com)

The Symbolism of Peaches in Japan and China from legends and folklore

“The idea that the peach was a kami appears to be connected with the Chinese conception of a peach world-tree, a form of the Mother Goddess, the fruit of which contains her ” life substance ” or shen as do the jewels like the pearl and jade objects; the peach is a goddess symbol as the phallus is a symbol of a god.” — Donald Alexander Mackenzie. Myths of China and Japan.

Peaches also worked as part of the anti-demon arsenal: Immortality and Anti-Demon Symbolisms

“Peaches and objects decorated with peach motifs were considered prized gifts. Travelers along caravan routes carried the peach seed to Persia, from which they were exported to Greece around 400 BCE. Around 300 BCE, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, a botanist and student of Aristotle, gave the peach it’s current name. Not realizing the Chinese origin, he thought they were from Persia and called them “Persikon malon,” -“the Persian apple”- which over time became pesca and then peach.

Peaches were used by ancient Egyptians as offerings to the God of Tranquility. In the first century the fruit is mentioned by Romans who wrote that they imported the fruit from Persia. The Romans, of course, associated the peach with Venus. Sometime around the year 1250 AD, the German philosopher, scientist, alchemist and monk Albertus Magnus, believed that peaches were an aphrodisiac with magical properties….

The seeds, bark, and leaves contain low levels of cyanide which are considered therapeutic, particularly for cancer (tumor) treatment, and has been used for this purpose since at least 25 BC. It is said to be “one of the stronger blood moving herbs”, and therefore has use in encouraging menstruation in females with delayed menses. It also relieves bladder inflammation and urinary tract problems; functions as a mild laxative; has expectorant activity for the lungs, nose and throat; relieves chest pain and spasms. Bark and root extracts contain phloretin, which has antibiotic activity on bacteria. Southern Native American nations applied a poultice of ground peach and grape leaves to skin inflamations and boils, changing the bandage several times a day until healed. In fact, peach leaves appear in many folk remedies all over the world for a variety of ailments.

A surprising fact to note is that a medium peach packs a powerful dose of vitamin A to combat the effects of aging. Further benefits of a medium peach include B vitamins, folic acid, vitamin C, calcium, fiber, potassium, and a little zinc. Their beta carotene also helps build a strong immune system to prevent damage from free radicals, and to avert many skin diseases. Beta carotene is a provitamin that the body converts into vitamin A , “the anti-infective vitamin.” — Peaches

The Moon Goddess , a legend common to China, Korea and Japan

In order to keep their bodies in perfect condition, every three thousand years, gods must eat the peach of long life and drink the elixir of immortality from the Garden of the Western Paradise. This garden is tended by the Queen Mother Wang Mu, an old woman who has the fangs of a tiger and the tail of a panther. She lives alone and is protected by birds of prey and fearsome beasts. She also controls plagues and evil spirits. However frightful her appearance and her powers, Wang Mu is a motherly figure to all the gods in heaven.

In her enchanted garden grow the coveted peaches which she plucks and serves at a sumptuous banquet for the gods. She is an alchemist, or a person who practices the art of combining substances that will transform. Wang Mu can mix many elixirs, or magic potions, including the one that will insure immortality for the gods. In more recent versions of the story, the Queen Mother is shown as a graceful elderly woman.

The fabled Garden of the Western Paradise is thought to reside in a remote section of the Kunlun Mountains.  These spectacular peaks are located in western China between Tibet and Xijiang and soar as high as twenty-five thousand feet. In mythology the mountains are the home of the Chinese gods, as well as the site of life-restoring herbs. Historically, the Kunlun range was part of the Silk Road, a caravan route between China and Persia used for trading silks, spices, and gold.

Because he loved his wife very much, the Grand Hou Yi reluctantly set out on a journey to the Kunlun Mountains where the peaches of long life were grown by Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise. The Hou Yi was unsure of the road, and even less sure of how much strength he had left. When he lived in heaven, Hou Yi had always ridden in the empress’s chariot or straddled the tails of sky dragons to reach the Western Paradise, but now that he lived on earth, he had to walk. He crossed burning deserts, forded cold streams, and trekked over high mountains for thousands of miles.

Finally, Hou Yi arrived at his destination and was greeted by Wang Mu. When Hou Yi told her that his wife wanted a dosage of the elixir of immortality, Wang Mu could only sigh. Unfortunately, she told Hou Yi, the gods and goddesses had just feasted on the last batch of peaches. The next peach crop would not ripen for another three thousand years. When Hou Yi continued to implore her, Wang Mu took one leftover, very imperfect dried-up peach, pounded some herbs and powders, and stirred them together into an elixir. Then the Queen Mother poured the precious liquid into a small vial. “This potion will take both of you to the heavens.

But make sure you take it on a clear night, or you could be trapped halfway between earth and heaven,” she warned.

Carefully, the Hou Yi placed the vial in his leather pouch and knotted the bag tightly around his waist. Again, Hou Yi trudged over the same high mountains, forded the same cold streams, and crossed the same burning deserts to return to his wife. When he lived in heaven, he had not cared about its comforts and luxuries. Because of his status there as a mortal who served the gods, Hou Yi, too, had been invited to sumptuous feasts and had eaten the peach of immortality. The magical potion had enhanced his already powerful body and made him invincible. Now on earth, however, he felt his power slipping day by day. Although Hou Yi did not resent his banishment to earth, he was beginning to resent his decaying mortal body.

When at last the Hou Yi returned home and presented the precious elixir to his wife, Chang’e was delighted. She burned with the anticipation of returning to her sisters in the sky. The goddess begged him to take the medicine immediately, but her husband refused, remembering the warning he had been given by the Queen Mother. Hou Yi said, “I have undertaken a long journey to fulfill your deepest desire. We must be patient and wait for a clear night when the stars can guide us homeward.”

Chang’e agreed with her husband’s clear reasoning, but her desire to be reunited with her sisters was far stronger than her appreciation of his logic. When her husband left for his daily hunt, the goddess stared at the elixir. As the day and night wore on, Hou Yi did not return. As was often the case, Chang’e spent the lonely night waiting for her husband’s return. The Hou Yi often stopped to chat with his neighbors to whom he gave generous portions of deer, rabbit, quail, pheasant, and duck from his hunt.

Chang’e sighed. The goddess knew by its smell that the elixir was already diluted. The dosage was so weak, she reasoned, that the Hou Yi would probably never recover his full strength by drinking his portion, and she would probably never regain her full beauty by drinking hers. Furthermore, they might never even reach heaven.

With these fears in mind, the goddess developed a plan. She would drink both of their portions so that she could return to heaven first, and beg the sun god to forgive her husband for his brashness in having shot down the nine suns. Then she and her sister goddesses could borrow some sky dragons to visit the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise. There, they would persuade her to mix up another dose of the elixir solely for the Hou Yi so he could join his wife in heaven.

As she swallowed the elixir, Chang’e felt its bitterness burn her throat. Immediately, her body became lighter, and she felt dizzy. As she ran out into the night, her body floated upward to the stars. Unfortunately, the night was not clear. Chang’e wandered among the stars and lost her way. She finally came to rest, trapped in the cold moon.

The Hou Yi was just returning when he saw his wife drifting up to the sky. He called out to her and ran after her shadow, but she was too far away to hear him. Hou Yi was heartbroken and wept for days. No one could console the grieving hunter.

The gods took pity on the Hou Yi. Hou Yi had served the gods well and always did their bidding faithfully. The Hou Yi never complained about the countless petty tasks assigned to him by the lesser gods of heaven. Furthermore, Hou Yi had saved the earth from droughts and monsters when the gods could not be bothered.

Therefore, once a year, the gods grant the Hou Yi the right to ascend to the skies to be with his wife. On that one night, the harvest moon shines the brightest and fullest of the year, reflecting the Hou Yi’s love for Chang’e.”

***

Did peach cultivation originate in the West or in the East? 

The book The Golden Peaches of Samarkand by Edward H. Schaferexamined the exotics imported into China during the T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), and gives an account of the foreign influences on Chinese life. During the three centuries of T’ang came the natives of almost every nation of Asia to China, bearing all manner of exotic wares either as gifts or as goods to be sold. Among these, presented in the seventh century by the kingdom of Samarkand (a great city founded in c. 700 B.C. by the Indo-European Sogdians, later conquered by the Persians and then by Alexander the Great of Macedon), were formal gifts of fancy yellow peaches, large as goose eggs and with a color like gold, we are told, to the Chinese court at Ch’ang-an. This recorded gift from a Persian kingdom in northeastern Uzbekistan must have given many scholars the impression that peaches originated from the West.  

Interestingly, peaches feature prominently in the royal myth “Izanami and Izanagi” of Japan:

According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto and recorded in the Kojiki ancient chronicles, Ōkamuzumi no mikoto is the “name given to the peaches that saved Izanagi during his flight from the underworld. As Izanagi fled from the underworld of Yomi, Izanami sent the “forces of Yomi” under the leadership of the “eight thunder deities” (yakusa no ikazuchi no kami). Izanagi waited at the Even Pass of Yomi, the border between Yomi and this world, and when the underworld forces approached, he threw at them three peaches that were growing nearby, thus dispersing his pursuers. As he named the peaches, he told them, “Just as you have aided me, even so aid the manifold people of the Central Land of Reed Plains in their time of distress.” This story is thus thought to have been based on a belief in the magical power of peaches to dispel baneful influences and promote longevity”.

The myth recalls the Greek Orpheus and Eurydice myth but the use of peaches has a Persian (and Chinese) demon-repelling amulet function and the word yakusa here may have had its origins in the Middle Persian “yazad” or Avestan “yazata”.  The Orpheus-Eurydice-like myth should not be surprising, given the Indo-Greek sphere of influence that pervaded Northwest India for around two centuries, following the Greek invasions and conquests of India.

Stephen Oppenheimer in his book “Eden in the East: The Drowned continent of Southeast Asia” suggested that the legend of Izanagi and Izanami resembled the Hindu gods Isani and Iswara in respect of the fertility garden analogy and of the “pillar” fertility mating ritual, and of the Izanagi-Izanami creator deities, that they “perform ritual acts of creation (like Brahma and Vishnu) with and around a spear, which has phallic properties including the production of semen.” During these acts Heaven and Earth separate and the Heavenly bodies are formed.” Others have suggested that the “Tree of Heaven pillar”might be an obvious reference to the Cosmic Tree or Axis of the World. (This Cosmic Dance is danced out elsewhere: the Austro-Asiatic speaking Bengal Oraon and Munda tribes when the time comes for planting out rice seedlings, the young men and women go to the forest to ritually cut down a ‘Karma Tree’ that they bring back to the village where it is planted in the middle of the dancing ground and they dance around the karma tree, not unlike the European practice of dancing around the maypole.) In Flores, a carefully selected Ngadu-tree trunk which is considered hot and dangerous until it is cut down into a Ngadu pole and covered in carvings and placed in the middle of the village, with ‘phallic’ implications, alongside of a bhaga womb house.

Last but not least, a sacred garden (paradise?) is also created for Isani and Iswara in Oedeypoor, Rajputana, like the idyllic residence Izanagi and Izanami build for themselves.  We have at last, we believe, traced the source of the Izanagi and Izanami myth as related to the royal myth of the Rajput-Gehlote-Sessodian clans, to their royal clan chronicling of “Iswara and Isani”.

“Mahadera or Iswara, is the tutelary divinity of the Rajpoots in Méwar; and from the early annals of the dynasty appears to have been, with his consort Isani, the sole object of Gehlote adoration”. — James Tod, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan 

For sources and a more detailed comparison of the elements of the royal myths, see Isani-and-Iswara vs Izanagi and Izanami: Similarities and common Saka-Sassanian-Sila roots of the royal myths of Indian and Japanese tribes. In this article, we also suggest a better parallel than Orpheus-Eurydice is to be drawn between the Izanami-Izanagi myth with the Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi, a hymn of Sumer. These Middle Eastern influences likely entered India via Iran, which is considered “a tricontinental nexus” for migration between Anatolia, the Middle East and the Indus Valley. (Basu and Miroshnik, authors of  2011 “Origin of the Aryan in India and Their Migration to Ancient Japan” 東南アジア研究年報, 52, pp.21-28; 2011, posits an even earlier entrance of Aryans, but this theory is beyond the scope of this current article.)

The scholarly consensus for now is that with the symbolism and associations of immortality of peaches with Xiwang Mu (lit. Western Mother Goddess) the stories almost certainly came from the foreign trade relations with the peoples West of Western and Northwest China. Evidence from genetics (see final section of this article below) suggests that most Chinese cultivars were of Chinese origin, excepting some of the Xinjiang cultivars that were hybrids of European cultivars. 

But given that peaches are soft and cushy to touch and hold, that they should be lethal as grenades or projectiles to the demon-hags of the Underworld seems a little ridiculous, unless … they  contain some kind of magical potency.  Here, we find a little help from Iranian/Persian sources, we learn that the fruit, besides being of such great medicinal value as to revive the dying, they were also figuratively or symbolically regarded as a repository of the sun’s energy and therefore some kind of magical solar weapon in…

“Iran, where apricots are traditionally called eggs of the sun. “In some Persian Palace whose quiet garden hears only the tinkle of a fountain it would seem to find its right setting, fitly waiting on a golden dish for some languid Sharazade,” wrote fruit connoisseur Edward A. Bunyard, in 1927.” — “The Glabrous Apricots of Tajikistan”

Apricots were indistinguishable from peaches, the history and evolution intertwined, and it is entirely possible that the golden peaches may have, in fact, been golden apricots, see excerpts from “The Glabrous Apricots of Taikistan”:

“Seeking some non-R-rated information on glabrosity, I dug deeper into the historical archives. Food encyclopedist Alan Davidson’s passage on apricots led to Berthold Laufer’s Sino-Iranica (1919), which states that the earliest history of the apricot was intertwined with that of the peach. The two prepubescent fruits eloped together from China toward Persia, following the establishment of trade routes by general Zhang Qian in the 2nd century BCE.

Apricots managed to adapt everywhere from the mountains of Northern Pakistan to the schoolyards of Budapest. Glabrous ones evolved naturally, but they aren’t usually seen on this side of Eastern Europe because Hungary marks the Western boundary of the Eurasian Steppe, a vast ecoregion that stretches all the way to Mongolia. The Huns and other nomadic tribespeople crisscrossed the steppe on horseback, dispersing apricot seeds and other crops wherever they went.

Laufer’s book also contains a curious passage about something called the “gold peach.” In 625 CE, and then again two decades later, the kingdom of Sogdiana (a region now split between Northern Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekhistan) sent a diplomatic gift of fancy fruits to the Emperor of China. They were carried from the Fergana valley, over the celestial Tian Shan, across the Taklamakan’s shifting sands, all the way to the court at Chang’an. The Chinese aristocracy had never seen anything like them. “They were as large as goose eggs, and as their color was like gold they were also called ‘the Golden Peaches.’”

A history of peaches

The literature on the origin of peaches suggests that:

“…peaches have originated in China. These were grown in the Northern areas in the early years. Although the scientific name suggest that peaches originated from Persia, there is a different story altogether regarding their origin. Some of the wild peaches such as Maotao or the Yietao are still grown in some of the really remote areas of China. Peaches soon became a symbol of fertility in China and also a way of showing one’s affection. This is probably why brides in China carry peach blossoms.

The Romans named the peaches as the Persian Apples. This happened once the ripe peaches traveled out of China and the Romans probably named them after the country that brought the peaches to the West. The easiest way to increase their cultivation was by transporting the seeds of the peach plant. ” — Peach trees @ Buzzle.com

According to Wikipedia article, Peach production in China :

Peaches are mentioned in Chinese writings as far back as the 10th century BC and were a favored fruit of kings emperors. Recently, the history of cultivation of peaches in China has been extensively reviewed, using numerous original manuscripts dating back to 1100 BC.[4] Peaches play an important role in Chinese mythology and history and were said to have magical powers. Peaches are mentioned in many ancient pieces of Chinese literature and art, such as Tao Yuanming’s The Tale of the Peach-Blossom Spring.

In addition, the results of archaeological excavations in Banpo village, Xian, Shaanxi Province support references in ancient manuscripts to 17 different fruits, mostly deciduous and including peaches, beginning with Shi Jing, an ancient record of songs scripted in 1000 BC. Archaeological finds testify to a well developed agricultural knowledge base in pomology. The Chinese knew about cultivar differences in winter peaches in the second century BC. 

More historical information from Peaches (Factmonster):

Peaches were first cultivated in China 5,000 years ago, and even in ancient times dozens of hybrids and varities were created. According to Chinese mythology, the gods had a peach orchard from which the elixir of immortality was made. Ancient Chinese artwork going back as far as the 10th century B.C. shows the peach as a symbol of longevity, female sexuality, purity and truth. It is the “yin.”

A peach with a leaf attached symbolizes the union of the heart and tongue, hence truth.

“You’re a real peach” originated from the tradition of giving a peach to the friend you liked.

Peaches were mentioned as early as 79 A.D. in literature.

In China the peach is a symbol of longevity and good luck. 

***

The Natural Distribution of Peaches in East Asia, from Western Eurasia, Central Asia to Japan: The Evidence from Genetics

The Japanese sent missions to Tang China (遣唐使, called Kentōshi) in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. Between 607 and 838, Japan sent 19 missions to China. For more on the missions, see “Japanese missions to Tang China“. Since peaches were a symbol of immortality, they made natural gifts for sovereignty and the elite.

Peaches have been shown to have been first domesticated in China 4,000 years ago, cultivated extensively in southern China, but moved to Persia via trading routes. The Persians had, however, developed a golden cultivar that was coveted by the Chinese, and so had them gifted to the Chinese.

***

Sources & References:

The Natural Distribution of Peaches in East Asia, from Western Eurasia, Central Asia to Japan: The Evidence from Genetics

Peaches – prunus persica

Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age

Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, Domestication of plants in the Old World, third edition (Oxford: University Press, 2000), p. 176

The Glabrous Apricots of Tajikistan by Adam Leith http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/glabrous-apricots-tajikistan

Immortality and Anti-Demon Plant Symbolisms by Dr Ong Hean-Tatt from Chinese Plant Symbolism: A Guide to the Symbolic Value of Plants in Chinese Culture

Peaches

Yazata (Wikipedia)

Moon goddess (Legend of Hou-yi, Chang-e and Xiwang Mu’s peaches)

Regueiro M. et al., Iran: tricontinental nexus for Y-chromosome driven migration. Hum Hered 2006;61:132–143 DOI: 10.1159/000093774; See also Grugni V, Battaglia V, Hooshiar Kashani B, Parolo S, Al-Zahery N, et al. (2012).,  Ancient Migratory Events in the Middle East: New Clues from the Y-Chromosome Variation of Modern Iranians PLoS ONE 7(7): e41252. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041252

Basu, Dipak R. / Miroshnik, Victoria, authors of  2011 “Origin of the Aryan in India and Their Migration to Ancient Japan” 東南アジア研究年報, 52, pp.21-28; 2011, Support for this theory could perhaps be found in the 2005 study “Ongoing adaptive evolution APSM a brain size determinant in Homo sapiens of ASPM gene variants“, Mekel-Bobrov et al. found thаt the Kalash people оf Pakistan hаve among the highest rate оf the newly-evolved ASPM haplogroup D, аt 60% occurrence оf the approximately 6,000-year-old allele. See Chart of distribution of Y-chromosome haplogroup D at Ladd and Dediu’s paper. Y-DNA Haplogroups D and O are haplogroups shared between Northeastern tribes of India and Japan. (see DNA Haplogroups)

The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics

The Golden Peaches of Samarkand by Edward H. Schafer

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4 thoughts on “The peach as a kami and Mother goddess, and symbol of fertility and immortality

  1. […] by the skin of his teeth from the Underworld’s demons by throwing peaches at them  (see The peach as a kami and Mother goddess, and symbol of fertility and immortality  Then when the demons come to Uruk, they find Dumuzid the Shepherd sitting in palatial opulence, […]

  2. R. C. says:

    Love this. Thank you.

  3. Erica Burns says:

    WONDERFUL COMPREHENSIVE PRESENTATION. JUST CALL ME PEACHES ; )

  4. David C. Adamson says:

    I am writing a work of fiction, combining the Mako with elements of Chinese folklore. The peach festival and mysteries of immortality imbedded in the power of the peach / peach tree, lead me here. What a beautiful story! Goddesses, Gods , People and Peaches all entwined to somehow produce immortality, fertility, and strength of conviction.

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