It's customary in Japan to visit a shrine or a temple on New Year's Day to pray for good luck, or to go on a mini-pilgrimage to places of worship dedicated to the so-called seven lucky gods. (I wrote about the Fukagawa pilgrimage in this post.) This year I'll walk the Asakusa pilgrimage, and I wouldn't be surprised if Benten-dō – dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten – is the most popular place to visit during this excursion. I also predict a longer than usual queue at other Benten-dō across Japan.
That's because 2013 is the year of the snake, and Benzaiten's messengers or avatars are serpents or dragons. Benzaiten (弁才天, 弁財天) was originally a Hindu river goddess named Sarasvatī. She was introduced to Japan via China in the seventh century, and over the years she became associated with a Japanese kami called Ugajin (宇賀神), who was the kami of water, agriculture and good fortune. He was usually depicted as a white snake with the head of an old man.
Thus Hindu goddess and Shinto god merged to become Benzaiten, a (mostly) Buddhist goddess of everything that flows – music, art, poetry, water, fertility, fecundity, wealth. Nowadays she's usually portrayed as a woman playing a biwa (a short-necked fretted lute), but you can often spot snakes in the drawing or on the statue. Her temples are always near water, and she remains a major inspiration for artists, a powerful agricultural deity and the only woman among Japan's seven gods of good fortune.
It's not all sweetness and light, though: this female can be nasty. It's believed that she becomes very jealous when happy couples visit her, and it's therefore advised that couples should pray to her separately. I get the impression that many worshippers take this very seriously: I've stood at several Benten temples, watching couples split up as they approach.
Incidentally, I refer to Benten temples, but there are as many Benten shrines. She's another perfect example of the cross-over between religions in Japan. The most famous Benten-dō near Tokyo is probably Enoshima Jinja, followed by Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Jinja in Kamakura (where you can wash coins in water to ensure wealth). Closer to home I'd rate the Benten-dō at Shinobazu Pond the highest, followed by the one at Inokashira Park.
I kept a tight rein on myself while writing this post. There's an old Chinese saying that reads 画蛇添足. It's pronounced as huà shé tiān zú in Chinese; as gadatensoku (がだてんそく) in Japanese. It means to add feet to the drawing of a snake, in other words, to add something superfluous, to gild the lily. I would be adding feet to a snake drawing if I tried to say anything more about Benzaiten, because Mark Schumacher's site covers every possible point about this complex myth. If you're interested, read more here.
I tried to find out what's predicted for 2013, the year of the water snake, but as per usual predictions disagree so completely that it's probably best to expect anything, everything or nothing.
Whatever awaits you, I hope it's not this …
|South African luislang (Python sebae natalensis) throttling an antelope.|
Photo credit: sareptiles.co.za
|A luislang can swallow huge prey. You can read the story here,|
but I'm afraid it's in Afrikaans.
Happy 2013, everybody. I hope the year of the snake will be splendid, superb, sterling, sublime, sumptuous, superlative and seriously sensational!
|Shinobazu Benten-dō in lotus season|
|Shinobazu Benten-dō in summer|
|Shinobazu Benten-dō in spring|
|Shinobazu Benten-dō in spring. If you look carefully, you might spot the biwa|
(lute) behind that big white sign.
|Long lines waiting to pray at Shinobazu Benten-dō on New Year's Day|
|Inokashira Benzaiten in spring|
|Above is Inokashira Benzaiten, and below are two New Year's posters with snakes|
Edit added on 3 January: Here's an interesting recent article in The Daily Yomiuri about snakes in Japan.