White heron (“crane”) dance: Shirasagi-no-mai and heron symbolism

Shirasagi-no-mai
Held on the second Sunday of April annually

 Shirasagi-no-mai


Shirasagi-no-mai, White Heron Dance in the compound of Sensoji Temple, Taito ward, Tokyo

The Shirasagi-no-mai or the White Heron Dance embodies the elegance of the Heian Period (794-1192). Eight “cranes” (dancers wearing white heron costumes), 19 musicians, and samurai warriors dressed in traditional attire,  1 pole carrier, 1 feeder, 1 parasol carrier, as well as guardian children also dressed in traditional costumes, perform while parading through the grounds of the temple every year on the second Sunday in April.

The one thousand year old white heron ritual dance was originally performed to drive out the plague and to purify the spirits on their passage to the next world. Karl Grohn has more at his Shirasagi-no-mai page on the symbolism of cranes:

“People love the beautiful snow-white figure of heron and crane (tsuru) as a symbol of peace. According to religious belief pure white cranes inhabit the Isles of the Bless and their powerful wings are able to convey souls to the Western Paradise.

Many old tales tell about white big birds which have been admired in Japan for their noble and graceful appearance. There is an old story about a lonely farmer who saved a crane’s life. The bird turned into a beautiful woman and became his wife. One day she asked the husband to build her a weaving room and promise never to peek inside. The wife wove beautiful thousand-crane patterned fabric from which the farmer could make a lot of money. They had been living happily but due to the wife’s diminishing health the farmer looked into the room and saw a crane weaving cloth by picking up beautiful feathers from her body. After becoming aware that the farmer had discovered her true identity the crane flew to heaven.

In old days white cranes were regarded divine birds which started rice farming bringing grains from far away. They are known as the birds of happiness and are associated with fidelity because they mate for life. They are also symbols of longevity and are often drawn with pine trees, tortoises, stones and bamboos, which are all symbols of long life. The cranes are also associated with good fortune and prosperity. So they are often painted with the sun, which is a symbol of social ambition.”

 

Where to see the White Heron Dance dating to the Heian Period(the late 8th to the late 12th century):

Venue: Sensoji Temple, 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Date: The Second Sunday in April every year

The “crane” dance is performed in front of the main hall of Sensoji Temple twice at around 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Venue: Senso-ji Temple
Access: 5 minutes on foot from Asakusa Station via the Ginza or Toei Asakusa Subway Line to Asakusa Sta. (G 19, A 18)

 

For more photos, see this page as well as the website: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/taito/event/sirasagi.html

The white heron symbol mostly likely arrived as part of the cultural baggage during the transference and importation of Chinese learning to Japan during the Nara Period, one of the earliest evidence of this was an outline painting of a heron symbolizing longevity on a bamboo mokkan plaque.

It remains an important charm and symbol of longevity and path (to heaven or good fortune) for both Chinese and Japanese today (see Hidden or implied meaning of Chinese charm symbols). In later ages with Buddhist symbolism and art, the white heron was also associated with purity, like the lotus (see “White Heron and Lotus” painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and meant wishes for an upward path.

Curiously, heron and egret symbolism in East Asia closely resembles that of the Egyptian heron, the Benu bird’s funerary, calendar and solar symbolism, which poses the question of whether the idea diffused through trading peoples between the Middle/NearEast and The Far East. According to the Dictionary of Symbols, the heron carried for Egyptians a favorable meaning of the dawn, of spring and of the generation of life. Heron, egret and crane symbolism of longevity, good fortune seem to have been similarly conflated from China to the Black Sea to the Mediterranean…and perhaps even beyond to a funerary association as a bird that transports souls to the Afterlife world (see Maori myth, The Styx). In Monsters of Greek Mythology, Hermes turned humself into a heron and was reminded by Zeus of his important role in escorting the souls of the corpses on battlefields to the Afterlife and Underworld.

The associations of the heron from Egypt may have influenced Greek myths (or vice versa) which associate herons with messengers of the deities, and specifically with Athene (10.274 Stewart, Michael. “Athene”, Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/athene.html (November 15, 2005) or Aphrodite, which in turn explains why the heron symbol often accompanied female figures on Greek and Attic ceramics and black pottery of the 6th -4th c. B.C and why herons were often presented as pets or erotic gifts to women (see Girl with a Heron: Women and Animals on Greek seals and Attic vases of the 6th-4th c. B.C. by Nicolas  Siron).

Heron symbolism in different cultures and civilizations:

“The Heron or Egret is symbolic in many cultures. Here are a few highlights about the symbolism of the heron.

In Egypt the Heron is honored as the creator of light. A double headed Heron in Egypt is symbolic of prosperity.[see also its funerary associations Egypt: Ancient symbolism, form and function, Egret symbolism and The Benu Bird as the first life form to emerge from the watery chaos upon the priemval mound – Egyptian mythology]

As a Chinese symbol the Heron represents strength, purity, patience and long life.

In Africa, the Heron was thought to communicate with the Gods.

Most Native American tribes took note of the heron’s inquisitiveness, curiosity and determination. As such this set the heron as a symbol of wisdom in that this creature seemed to have good judgement skills.

Specifically, the Iroquois tribe held the blue heron as a very good omen, a very lucky sign. They recongnized the heron as an expert fisher/hunter. As such, they believed that sighting a heron before a hunt was a sign that the hunt would be a good one.

As a water creature the heron is also a symbol of going with the flow, and working with the elements of Mother nature rather than struggling against her.

The heron is a beautiful creature, exhibiting grace, and noble stature. It’s no wonder the Native Indians and ancients honored the heron throughout the centuries. …

More thoughts on animal symbolism can be found here:

Haiku by Matsuo Basho:

A flash of lightning:
Into the gloom
Goes the heron’s cry.”

– Source: “Symbolism of the Heron or Egret” by  Avia Venefica, Symbolic Meanings Blog for Whats-Your-Sign.com” article, Avia Venefica. More in the same vein on the variable associations and meanings of The Dartmoor Heron.

The White Heron is the symbol of Himeji City and of Himeji Castle. The city flag “White Heron” which displays hope of the city is designed to look like the katakana character “ヒ”. This flag expresses hope and dynamism, freedom, and progress.

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