Madison Morrison's Web / Sentence of the Gods / This


Madison Morrison


In Japanese mythology the two deities Izanagi (The Male Who Invites) and Izanami (The Female Who Invites). Mars and Venus. Are the creators of Japan and its gods, the kami. Temples were dedicated to both gods, of War, and of Love. In one important myth they descend to Yomitsu Kumi, the Underworld and land of darkness. In the Roman Forum Augustus built a single temple to the two gods together. Stories about Izanagi and Izanami are inscribed in two works, the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan). Consciously related in design to the Forum of Julius’ Temple to Venus but larger again by half, the Temple to Mars Ultor rose from a high podium, with eight columns on three sides, backed against the precinct wall and flanked by two porticoes.

According to legend, after their birth Izanagi and Izanami stood on the floating bridge of heaven and stirred the primeval ocean with a jeweled spear. Constructed largely of Luna marble from the quarries at Carrara, which Augustus was the first to exploit, both the temple and the forum realize his boast, related at Suetonius xxviii, that he had “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.” When they lifted the spear, the drops that fell back into the water formed the first solid land, an island called Onogoro. Indeed, the white marble of the temple exterior and colored marbles of its interior and porticoes, which had not been used so extravagantly before, must have been one reason why Pliny regarded the forum to be one of the most, if not the most, beautiful building in the world.

Izanagi and Izanami descended to the island and became husband and wife. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus offers many suggestions for improving men-women relationships in couples by understanding the communication styles and the emotional needs of the opposite gender. Their first child was deformed, and the other gods said that it was because Izanami spoke before her husband during their marriage ceremony. An inscription in Ephesus honored Julius Caesar as “a revealed god, offspring of Mars and Venus, and universal savior of the human race.” The couple performed another wedding ceremony, this time correctly. Harmonia was also regarded as the offspring of Mars and Venus. Izanagi soon gave birth to eight lovely children, who became in turn the islands of Japan.

As for the origins of Rome, some say that Roma was the daughter of Italus (the son of Telegonus, who was the son of Circe or Calypso, and Penelope, the wife of Odysseus) and Leucaria, Latinus’ daughter. Izanagi and Izanami then created many gods and goddesses to represent the mountains, valleys, waterfalls, streams, winds. Or, by another account, of Telaphus, Hercules’ son. And other natural features of Japan. That she was married to Aeneas, or, according to others again, to Ascanius, Aeneas’s son. However, during the birth of Kagutsuchi, the fire god, Izanami was badly burned. Some tell us that Romanus, the son of Ulysses and Circe, built it. As she lay dying, she continued to create gods and goddesses, and still other deities emerged from the plentiful tears of the grief-stricken Izanagi.

But others tell us that it was Romus, Emathion’s son, whom Diomede sent from Troy. When Izanami died, she went to Yomi-tsu Kuni. Yet others, that Romus was king of the Latins, who, after driving out the Tyrrhenians had come from Thessaly into Lydia, and thence into Italy. Izanagi decided to descend into the Underworld and bring his beloved back from the land of darkness and death. Yet others again say that it was Phorbus, Aeneas and Dexithea’s son, who was, with his brother Remus in their infancy, carried into Italy, and being on the river, when the waters came down in a flood, all vessels were cast away, except for those with the young children, who, being gently deposited on a level bank of the river, were both unexpectedly saved, and so from them the place was called Rome.

Izanami greeted Izanagi from the shadows as he approached the entrance to Yomi. But others say that Aemilia, daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia had him by the god Mars. She warned him not to look at her and said that she would try to arrange for her release from the gods of Yomi. Augustus may have added the figure of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father, to the temple’s statuary group of Venus and Mars, as an expression of filial piety. Again she warned him: “Do not look at me; I will try to arrange my release from the gods of Yomi.” If so, it would be a fitting balance to the Temple of Venus Genetrix (“Venus the Mother” of the Julian clan) in the Forum Julium, where an altar relief from Carthage shows Mars flanked by Venus and a heroic figure that probably represents the divine Julius.

Desiring his wife, Izanagi lit a torch and looked into Yomi’s soul. Meanwhile a waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of Teratius, with command to destroy them. Horrified to see that Izanami was a rotting corpse, Izanagi fled. Tarchetius, a most lawless and cruel man, King of Alba (Italy), was visited with a strange phantom in his house, namely a phallus rising out of the hearth and remaining there many days. Angry that Izanagi had not respected her wishes, Izanami sent hideous female spirits, eight thunder gods, and an army of fierce warriors to chase him. An oracle said to Tarchetius that a virgin must have intercourse with this phantom, and that she should bear a son most illustrious for his courage, and of great good fortune and strength.

Izanagi, however, managed to escape and blocked with a huge boulder the pass between Yomi and the land of the living. Tarchetius then bade one of his daughters to consort with the phantom, but the daughter sent a handmaid in her stead. Izanami met him there, and they broke off their marriage. When the handmaid gave birth to the twins, Romulus and Remus, Tarchetius gave them to Teratius with orders to destroy them, but he carried them to the river-side and laid them down on the bank. Izanagi felt unclean because of his contact with the dead, and he took a bath to purify himself. Then a she-wolf visited the children and gave them suck. As he bathed, more gods and goddesses, both good and evil, emerged from Izanagi’s discarded clothing. Later Romulus and Remus killed Tarchetius.

First the sun goddess Ameratasu appeared from his left eye. Then a cowherd, spying them, drew nearer, and took up the children and saved them. Next the moon god Tsuki-yomi appeared from his right eye. Whilst the infants lay there a she-wolf nursed them, and a woodpecker fed and watched them. Finally Susano-ô emerged from his nose. These creatures are esteemed holy to Mars, and the Latins still worship the woodpecker. Proud of his three noble children, Izanagi divided his kingdom amongst them. Which things gave credibility to what other children said, that their father was the god Mars, and though some regard it as a mistake put upon her by Amulius, who himself had come to her dressed in his armor, others say that Faustulus, Amulius’ swineherd, brought up the children.


The Emishi’s ultimate weapon was the mounted archer – a man using a long bow, which was held asymmetrically with the hand close to the lower end. The commanding general’s deputy, a legatus, or legate, usually led a legion, the standard army unit. This left the bow itself towering above the wielder but allowed a man to fire from horseback without tripping over himself. The legate also had at his disposal a number of military tribunes, staff officers recruited from upper-class families. The samurai soon adopted the tactic themselves. A legion officially had a strength of between four thousand and six thousand men. This style of bow use, however, still encumbered the samurai, forcing the average mounted archer into a relatively small field of fire to his left hand side. Although in practice it could be smaller.

It remained difficult to swing one’s bow hand over to the right while one was on horseback, an encumbrance that often forced samurai to face their opponents obliquely, riding around them in an anti-clockwise direction. The legion was divided into ten cohorts, which in turn were subdivided into six centuries commanded by centurions. Such considerations placed the emphasis on speed and maneuverability. These junior officers were the legion’s backbone. Samurai archers were vulnerable on their right side to other samurai archers shooting at them and would need to jockey and reposition themselves constantly to keep their enemies in their field of fire. The first cohort always stood in the front row at the right end of the line (the most honorable position) and was sometimes larger than the others.

The Emishi also used long, curved blades, designed so that a rider might slash downwards at infantry, or clash with mounted opponents. Men signed up for at least six years’ service. Similar blades have been found in the graves of northern Japanese colonists and appear to have been adopted by most veterans of the Emishi wars. Each legionary carried on his back a large quantity of equipment, weighing at least 65 pounds. In the years that followed, as veterans returned to their provinces with stories and skills from the north, the curved blades spread throughout Japan and entirely supplanted their straight predecessors. This included sixteen days’ worth of rations, a cooking pot, tools for digging, two stakes for the camp palisade, two javelins to throw in battle, clothes and personal possessions.

It was also during the wars against the Emishi that the government discontinued the construction of iron armor plates and instead mandated that armor would henceforth be fashioned solely out of hardened leather, as this was less liable to rust, easier and quicker to manufacture and more durable. On the march, Roman soldiers resembled not the smart upright legionnaires of Hollywood movies but beasts of burden. The iron plates stayed in use but faded from sight due to wear and tear. A soldier’s armor consisted of a bronze helmet, a cuirass of leather or metal, an oblong or oval shield made of sheets of wood covered by ox-hide, a pilum or javelin (the head was designed to break off, so that it could not be thrown back), and a short, two-edged thrusting sword called the gladius.


The customers love to have young maiko attend the banquets. Egypt’s gods started life as independent totemic local deities. This is Kyoto, after all. Soon they were linked by an intricate mythology designed to explain the otherwise inexplicable. Having a maiko pour sake for you really makes you feel you’re in Kyoto. Matters that today we explain by science. So in her last year of junior high school Midori left her mother’s house in Miyagawa-cho to move into the house called Hatsuyuki in Pontochō. To address the fundamental need for understanding, to explain creation and death, each priesthood devised a myth featuring their own particular god. At sixteen she became the pampered pet of the other two geisha who lived with her there. Hathor was celebrated as the daughter of the sun god Re.

Midori called the mistress of the Hatsuyuki, a 55-year-old woman who had once been a geisha herself, okasan. This “Lady of Perfume” was an uninhibited goddess of motherhood, music, love and drunkenness. Like most of the mothers of teahouses in Pontochō, this woman’s knowledge of etiquette, speech, feminine deportment, classical dance and music – that is, her knowledge of those things necessary for a geisha to know – is firsthand. In some tales she assumed the role of the Golden One to accompany Re on his daily journey across the sky. As a geisha in her early twenties, she had found a patron and as usual in such affairs, he was a much older man. In others she was the gentle cow who suckled the king of Egypt. She became his mistress, retiring from geisha life to live in relative ease.

At Memphis she was the Mistress of the Sycamore, who sustained the dead with food and drink. But when he died, she was left with a young son and barely enough money to purchase a small teahouse. At Thebes she became the compassionate Mistress of the West, who cared for the dying sun. In Pontochō she had earlier worked as a geisha, and now she began this second phase of her life in the geisha world by managing the Hatsuyuki, slowly building up a clientele and eventually bringing in geisha to train. When she was roused, mild-mannered Hathor transformed into Sekhmet, the Powerful One, an uncompromising lion-headed goddess who breathed fire, was armed with pestilence and served as the protector of Egypt’s kings, who worshipped her in Egypt’s dominant female cult.

The “mothers” of the teahouses, where geisha are employed, are the real businesswomen and entrepreneurs. Isis, several centuries younger than Hathor, is first named as the protective goddess, the great “Mother,” in the 5th dynasty Pyramid texts, where she appears as one of the nine original gods (the Ennead) of Heliopolis. The geisha are the “daughters” of these “mothers,” living their private and their professional lives as older and younger sisters to each other. Aset, her name in the original Egyptian, is represented by the sign of a throne, and Isis herself often appears with a small throne sign topping her crown. There are a few positions for men, but only for those whose services are necessary: the lone wig stylist, the kimono dressers and the hired accountants of the registry office.

Alternatively Isis could be identified with the uraeus worn on the royal brow. Every geisha I have ever met is an enthusiastic Kabuki fan, and they know all the actors. As the dynastic age progressed Isis grew in status and power, absorbing the roles and accessories of other Egyptian goddesses, including those of the once-dominant Hathor, so that by the start of the Ptolemaic age Hathor and Isis were virtually indistinguishable in appearance. The close ties between geisha and Kabuki players go back several hundred years, to the origins of both professions, which have much in common. Both were beautiful women who wore the tall cow horn and solar disc headdress, and both carried the sistrum or sacred rattle, whose rhythms could stimulate the gods. Both are in the entertainment business.

Outside Egypt the cult of Isis was spread by merchants and travelers who regularly sailed the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, using the Greek island of Delos, home to a flourishing cult of Isis, as a trading post. Curiously both have changed their appeal in similar ways over the centuries. Herodotus, writing in 450, was tolerably familiar with the goddess: Kabuki actors were once common, faintly disreputable entertainers, and in the nineteenth century even poor students could visit the geisha quarter. “All Egyptians use bulls and bull-calves for sacrifice, if they have passed the test for ‘cleanness,’ but they are forbidden to sacrifice heifers, on the ground that they are sacred to Isis.” Gradually, the appeal of these arts became a much more refined pursuit, requiring money and a taste for the recherché.

Just as she had absorbed Hathor, Isis gradually assimilated the attributes and appearance of several Greek goddesses. The popular entertainment of a century ago, Kabuki and geisha have become enshrined as symbols today of a Japanese tradition. The earth mother Demeter, the wise Athene, the sister-consort Hera, the virgin huntress Artemis and, most particularly, the beautiful and loving Aphrodite all donated aspects of their mythology. That they have much in common may account for the remarkably high incidence of marriage between geisha and Kabuki actors. This allowed Isis to develop into a versatile, powerful, universal goddess with an appeal strong enough to make her, in the 1st century AD, a serious rival to the cult of Christianity. Shop talk for these people is dance.

The first reference to a cult of Isis in mainland Greece comes from Piraeus, the port of Athens, and pre-dates Alexander’s arrival in Egypt. They have the same dance teachers. The second reference dates to the 2nd century BC. They draw on the same repertoire. In Rome the first temple to Isis was raised on the Capitoline Hill in 80 BC. They cultivate the same sensibilities. It was destroyed almost immediately, then quickly replaced. Kabuki actors, however, hardly ever go to teahouses for enjoyment. Successive temples were destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) in 58, 53, 50 and 48 and in AD 19. “All we do is talk about work, so I certainly wouldn’t visit geisha to relax.” Julius Caesar barred Isis’ priesthood from entering Rome, but the triumvirate permitted them a sanctuary in Egypt.


The best information that we have about Murasaki’s life at court is the diary, though there are considerable gaps in what she is prepared to reveal. Sonpi bunmyaku states that she was Michinaga’s concubine, but there is no evidence to support this. By her own admission she was somewhat retiring and even severe. Any joie de vivre was carefully balanced by a pervasive melancholy. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that her contemporaries never ranked her poetry very highly. Poetry was a social activity, and the reason why she does not appear in a number of important poetry competitions where one might expect to see her name may simply be that she did not wish to participate.

Ovid had read his Roman epic predecessors, especially Lucretius and Virgil, but models for the Metamorphoses had to be sought elsewhere. At the source of the tradition of mythological epos stood not Homer but Hesiod. His Theogony, on the genealogy of the gods, and its continuation, the Catalogue of Women or Eocae, were particularly influential examples of the “collective” or catalogue poem: assemblages of legendary material rather than unified, continuous narratives such as the Iliad or the Odyssey. The form of discrete episodes strung on a thread of poetic editorializing had been adopted by Callimachus in his Aetia (Causes).

There is a remarkable lack of any record of correspondence or poetry exchange between Murasaki and her major female contemporaries. Sei Shonagon, her principal rival, had already dropped out of court circles with the death of Teishi in 1000, and we have no way of knowing whether she was alive at this point or not, but Akazome Emon certainly was around; she had been in the service of Rinshi Michinaga’s main wife, for some considerable time. Izumi Shikibu, too, joined Shoshi’s entourage in the spring of 1009, but Murasaki’s reference to her in the diary suggests a very distant relationship indeed. As in most cases of women writers of this time, her later years are clouded in uncertainty.

The Aetia was an elegiac poem in four books, totaling some 7,000 verses. Also considered an epic by the ancients, it expounds the legendary origins of various historical Greek rites and customs. Callimachus seems to have been the first to make systematic poetical capital out of a general interest in local history and etiology, and his poem, with his views on poetics expressed in its famous Proem, was extremely influential. Many of the stories in the Metamorphoses end with or embody some such explanation or aetion. Callimachus too offered hints for the management of transitions. Both writers also used a dinner-table setting for stories that they had learned of while eating.

Shingon flourished throughout the Heian, but in the longer run Tendai proved the more influential of the two, with monks from Enryakuji, the Tendai headquarters atop Mt. Hiei, initiating the major sectarian movements of later centuries. In part this unique fecundity reflected Enryakuji’s closeness to the elite, which gave it access to talent and opportunity. But in part it is traceable to Tendai’s central text, the Lotus Sutra (Hokekyo), with its richness of parables, encouragement of learning and support of diverse practices: meditation, textual study, good works, and faith. These qualities helped Tendai proponents appeal to a broad range of followers and adapt to social change.

At the end of this main record, seven tenths through the Diary, we have a transition to a more concentrated analysis of Murasaki’s own immediate circle. The last dateable event is on Kanko 6 (1009).1.3, and then we shift imperceptibly into a discussion of her fellow ladies-in-waiting, from the point of view of their looks and then of their characters. This is followed by criticism of the dullness of Shoshi’s entourage in general, the timidity of the Empress, and the spinelessness of present-day courtiers, which is set in train by the chance sight of a letter in which Murasaki and her colleagues offer ridicule. There follow tart descriptions of Izumi Shikibu, Akazome Emon and Shei Shonagon.

The most characteristic technique applied by Ovid to his sources is combination. In Nicander’s version of the Pierides the verdict on the songs of the competitors was pronounced by nature: when the girls sang, the skies lowered; for the Muses, rivers stood still; and Helicon swelled heavenwards for joy until Pegasus at Poseidon’s orders stopped it with a hoof stroke. An example of combination at its happiest is seen in the story of Acis and Galatea, where motifs from Homer, Theocritus and Virgil (himself dependent on Theocritus) are intertwined to produce a wholly serio-comic tour de force without parallel in ancient literature.

Apollo, even so, had come from overseas
To join our shrines; but Caesar is a god
In his own city here. He was supreme
In war and peace; though not his great campaigns
Triumphantly concluded, nor his feats
Achieved at home, his glory gained so fast,
Made him a star, a comet new in heaven,
Rather his son. For nothing he achieved
Was greater than to sire this son of his.

Yorimichi intended Phoenix Hall’s idiosyncratic design as “a three-dimensional representation of the Visualization Sutra,” an important Amidist text. The Hall consisted of a modest Amida chapel flanked by two long wings resting on high, openly framed pillars and a central corridor extending to the rear. Its many paintings represented scenes from the Visualization Sutra, but they deviated from established religious iconography, by including brightly colored panels of Amidist imagery in scenes influenced by “the Four Seasons (shiki) and Famous Places (meisho),” a theme derived from T’ang antecedents but central to the Heian court’s own secular painting tradition.

“I, Venus, wounded by the lance of Diomede,
Confounded when great Troy’s defenses failed,
Tossed on the seas and visiting the abodes
Of the dark silent shades and waging war
With Turnus or, in fact, if truth be told,
With Juno. Why recall now ancient wrongs
That wracked my family? This fear of mine
Forbids the memory of former griefs.
Look! Do you see? They whet their wicked knives!”

The most remarkable product of this new approach to history was Eiga monogatori, which appears to have been written in the 1030s by Akazome Emon, a now-obscure court lady. Writing in wabun, Akazome started her narrative where the last official history left off, in 887, the accession date of Uda tenno. Akazome described the efflorescence of Fujiwara power, focusing on the triumphs of Michinaga. In effect she wrote a biography with explanatory background, but in the process she described court life in unprecedented detail, focusing on courtly marriages, births, deaths and rivalries in the Imperial harem, and on festivals and religious pilgrimages to shrines and temples.

“Prevent them, I beseech you! Stop this crime,
Nor ever by the blood of her high priest
Extinguish Vesta’s flame!” To no avail
Distracted Venus cried her loud alarms
All over heaven. The gods were moved, but
Gave decrees, in portents unmistakable,
Of future sorrows. Battles in the clouds
With clash of arms and horns heard in the sky
And trumpets sounding fear foretold the crime.

Poesy led to prose by way of anthologies. The compilers of those anthologies gave overall coherence to their projects by organizing the poems according to one or another set of principles and by inserting head notes that provided readers with information about a particular poem’s provenance or import. Some 10th century authors in effect expanded the head notes to create poetry-laced diaries or narratives, such as Tosa nikki, which evidently was constructed by Tsurayuki from diary entries that he made during a Tosa-to-Heian boat trip in early 935. His nikki amounts to a poem-studded, semi-fictionalized, day-by-day narrative of that two-month voyage.

Even so the gods’ forewarnings failed to foil
The treason and defeat the march of fate.
Into the sacred edifice drawn swords
Were brought for that foul crime, that bloody deed
In the whole city no fit place sufficed
Except the senate-house! Then Cytherea
With both hands beat her breast and strove to hide
That scion of Aeneas in a cloud, as once
Paris had been rescued from Menelaus.

According to Tsurayuki, Henjo masters style but is deficient in substance. Ariwara Narihira tries to express too much content in too few words. Fun’ya no Asuhide is skillful, but his style is inappropriate to his content. His poems are like peddlers tricked out in fancy costumes. The language of the Ujiyama monk Kisen is veiled, leaving us uncertain about his meaning. Ono no Komachi’s poetry is moving but lacking in strength. It reminds us of a beautiful woman suffering from an illness. Its weakness is probably due to her gender. The style of Otomo Kuronushi’s poems is crude. They are like a mountain peasant resting under a flowering tree with a load of firewood on his back.

Dear Cytherea, he for whom you toil
Has now fulfilled his span, the years he owed
To earth are done. That he should reach the sky,
A god in heaven, worshiped as divine,
You shall achieve, you and his son, the heir
Of his great name, who all alone shall bear
The burden and, most valiant to avenge
His father’s murder, count us on his side
In battle by the favor of his powers.

Courtly mastery was no joking matter, and this was especially so for courtly women. Doubtless the reluctance of court men to use wabun left an opening for women writers, and doubtless court ladies had the leisure time to engage in composition. But accomplishment requires more than opportunity. The very organization and values of court life equipped women to write and gave them cause to do so. Marital arrangements, with consorts often not resident in their husband’s household and with transient liaisons common, served to give these women a rich array of acquaintances, an abundance of personal experience and a not necessarily reassuring view of human affairs.

Pompey shall be mastered in Sicilian seas.
Th’Egyptian consort of a prince of Rome,
Trusting in wedlock to her cost, shall fall —
Vain then her threats to make my Capitol
The thrall of her Canopus. Need I count
Barbarian lands and peoples by the shores
Of Ocean, east and west? His writ shall run
Wherever men can live, in every land;
The sea likewise shall bow to his command!

Success in that social enterprise meant outshining other women engaged in the same task, and the key to victory was the mastery of the courtly arts, which included the composition of verse and prose, plus an enormous range of other social and aesthetic skills. The importance of such mastery may in turn explain the ubiquity of two associated courtly recreations: competitions and the preparation of lists. In one popular courtly game the challenge to competitors was to identify and complete a famous poem after reading or hearing the first few words. In another, players prepared incense and had to identify one another’s ingredients and compare their various olfactory merits.

When peace and justice are bestowed upon
The world, he’ll then look forward to the future
And grandchildren to come, he’ll bid the son,
Born to his hallowed wife, assume his name,
His cares of state, and not till his old age
Has equaled Nestor’s years shall he attain
Th’abodes of heaven and touch his kin the stars.
But meanwhile you from Caesar’s murdered corpse
Must seize his soul and make it a bright star.

Originally lists and poems served more exalted purposes but once they had become available, they quickly came to serve as “crib sheets,” which then raised the level of competition, making mastery more difficult and prompting the invention of new competitive categories. The Pillow Book may be our best indicator of how demanding games had become by Shonagon’s day. Considering how unforgiving courtiers were of social lapses, it is difficult to imagine a more clever but rigorous means of inducing people to memorize minutiae or develop the agile wit of clever repartee, qualities invaluable to a woman making her way up the courtly ladder or recording her thoughts for posterity.

His words were hardly done, when Venus stood
Within the senate-house, unseen of all.
And snatched from Caesar’s corpse the new-freed soul
Before it could dissolve into the air,
And bore it up to join the stars of heaven,
And, as she bore it, felt it glow and burn.
She launched it from her bosom. Up it flies
Above the moon, a tress of flaming fire
Streaming behind, and shines a bright star.

The elements of late-Heian syncretism were long established in ritsuryo religion. In the later Heian, however, two concepts were invoked with particular frequency to explain combinative practice. One was the concept of hoben or “expedient means,” which held that depending on a person’s level of religious understanding, differing praxis would best expedite the quest for enlightenment. The other was the concept of honji suijaku, which held that a phenomenon had both a true nature (honji) and one or more manifestations or “traces” (suijaku). This proposition served to associate someone recently dead with a god or Buddha or a virtuous forerunner, most commonly Prince Shotoku.

Now seeing the achievements of his son,
He grants them greater than his own, well pleased
To be surpassed. Although the son would wish
His father’s feats preferred above his own,
Fame that is free and bows to no commands,
In his despite, prefers him and defies
This once his will. Even so did Atreus yield
To Agamemnon’s claim of honor, so
Aegeus to Theseus, Peleus to Achilles.

Kanamajiribun, which combined the boldly simplified characters of the wabun syllabary (kana) with the extensive use of Chinese characters (kanji), came to predominate. Less easy to write than waban, it was more amenable to refinement. The use of kanji permitted adoption of new words, without the confusion created by homophones, which otherwise would have become increasingly common as more and more new words entered the language, most of them pronounced in modified forms of monosyllabic Chinese. Consequently kanamajiribun empowered Japanese authors to accommodate social and cultural change and still write with nuance and precision.

Jove rules the firmament and all three realms
Of the immense three-natured universe;
The earth Augustus governs, each of them
Father and Leader. Hear my prayer, ye gods
Who led Aeneas safe through fire and sword,
Ye gods of our dear homeland, Romulus,
Our city’s founding father, and great Mars,
And our Apollo, and great Jupiter,
High-throned upon Tarpeia’s citadel.

In the Tendai shrines engi functioned as totemic images, and meanwhile emakimono became a major vehicle for the Yamato-e painting style with its distinctive “bird’s-eye” view of a scene and its use of fine brushwork and stylized representations of face and figure. Like the histories, biographies and other literary works of the insei-dyarchy centuries, these hand scrolls contributed to a romanticization of the classical epoch and to the definition of classic virtues, a perennial requirement. These definitions in turn shaped the culture of later generations, continuing to influence Japanese values as they have from Nara’s founding through the Kamakura on to the present.

Now stands my task accomplished, such a work
As not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword
Nor the devouring ages can destroy.
Let, when it will, that day, that has no claim
But to my mortal body, end the span
Of my uncertain years. Yet I too will
Be borne, the finer part, above the stars,
Immortal, and my name shall never die.
My fame shall live to all eternity.


The tale that most dramatically illustrates the poles of fixity and flux is the weaving-contest between Minerva and Arachne. From earliest times, Rome was divided into haves and have nots. This story also affords key insights into the poem’s conceptions of art, into its ways of talking about the gods and divine power, and will therefore repay some attention. The ancient families of prestige, such as the Fabian, Cornelian and Julian clans, were known as patricians, while the mass of the common people were called plebians or plebs. In “Bi no Setsumei” Nishida turns his attention to Kant’s notion of the “disinterestedness” of beauty, which Nishida regards as “a pleasure apart from the self,” one “forgetful of advantages.”

The plebians were freeborn and often owned a small plot of land or their own business, but they could never hope to rise to the lofty heights of the patricians. The Arachne story follows on from Book 5, whose last portion is concerned with genre, as Minerva listens to the Muses’ account of their singing competition with a mortal. We cannot say that the interpretation of Kant’s “disinterestedness (Interesselosigkeit) as a forgetfulness of advantages and disadvantages” is a total misunderstanding. Most patricians and plebeians saw this sharp division of society as the normal order of the world. Nishida’s explanation might well be more fitting than his decision to translate the German word with the Japanese for “indifference” (mukanshin).

Arachne’s superlative craftsmanship is described in terms which not only establish her credentials as a mistress of neoteric art but also align her with the mundi fabricator and hence with Ovid himself. The problem is this: as soon as a western word is translated into an eastern word, eastern expressions and the images associated with them come to the fore as if they were attracted to a magnet. A plebian could even benefit from the system if he attached himself to a patrician as his client, one of the fundamental relationships in Roman society. Beginning with the same rude, unwrought material as does the demiurge, she forms it into a globe. “Forgetfulness” suggests “selflessness” (muga) and “salvation(gedatsu).

During the brief years of Cinna’s rule before the return of Sulla from the East, young Julius Caesar came of age and began his public life. Pallas’ work, however, is described first, marked out as artistically and morally weighty, symmetrical and accessible. Sulla marched freely into Campania and defeated one army sent against him. Thus “beauty” in this context is linked to Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist expressions — which would have amazed Kant if he could have heard Nishida’ language. Sulla was determined to restore the preeminence of the senate at the expense of the common people. Then she becomes yet more neoteric, making the opus soft by drawing it out to a length, turning the smooth spindle with a light thumb.

“Experience” is always mediated by a rule that cannot be experienced; it cannot be “intuitive”; nor can it be “pure.” Among Sulla’s reforms was a housecleaning of Cinna’s appointees, including Caesar as flamen dialis. When Pallas “simulates” an event on her tapestry, it is no dissimulating lie but the event itself. His life in danger as a son-in-law of Cinna, Caesar received merciful treatment from Sulla, who merely demanded that he divorce Cinna’s daughter. Therefore, from Kant’s point of view, an experience — as Nishida says — “without the least addition of any deliberate discrimination” does not exist. Whereas Minerva’s work is a picture of divine epic decorum, Arachne’s is a picture of neoteric divine abandonment.

It was assumed that Caesar would follow this reasonable order. Even “the moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound” participates in the mechanism that separates it from a different color and sound. Yet Arachne depicts nothing about the gods that was not already present, however faintly, in epic tradition. Caesar, however, looked Sulla in the eye and refused. Minerva’s reading is too epic, glossing over the difficulties of divine action, which had been present in epic from the beginning. We cannot experience the “pure” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, “Transcendental Logic”). Sulla and his followers were stunned, for in doing so Caesar was defying a man who had ordered the murder of thousands and was now marked for death.

Nishida argued that Mach’s “senses which perceive directly” were not “really pure experience” but “indirect notions processed by concepts.” This is not to say that Arachne’s craft might not be, in the end, closer to the poem’s dominant mode. Moreover, his displeasure with James derived from the “total confusion” of James’ “pure experience,’ which in Nishida’s opinion was nothing but material for reflection. Caesar was reunited with Cornelia, yet it seemed the better part of valor quickly to absent himself from Sulla’s Rome and, amidst rumors of homosexuality, he allied himself with Nicomedes, a prominent figure, to manage his escape to Spain, Mytilene and Egypt, thence to return and rise in power with Crassus and Pompey.

In the last resort Ovid is a human artist, like Arachne, and not a god. He saw experience from the standpoint of the universal. Arachne corresponds to one archetype of the artist: obsessive, naïve, destroyed (like Ovid) by direct encounter with the power of the world that she is trying to describe. In this sense, Nishida stood on the transcendental ground of German idealism, since pure experience is behind “the actualization of the individual.” Caesar offered his young daughter to Pompey, and though the marriage was hastily arranged, Julia soon came to love Pompey, just as he became a devoted husband. Her metamorphosis was a sickeningly appropriate punishment for Minerva to devise.


Roman consuls inherited the ceremonial grandeur of the Etruscan kings whom they replaced when the Republic was founded in 509 BC. A consul wore a distinctive toga decorated with a broad purple hem, and the high scarlet shoes of royalty. He sat on a special chair of state, the sella curulis, inlaid with ivory, and was always accompanied by an official bodyguard of twelve lictors. Each member of this escort carried the emblem of state authority, an ax bound with rods; this was called the fasces, which symbolized the consul’s absolute power, or imperium. When a consul visited a house, the lictors stood guard at the front door and would instantly arrest anyone whom he pointed out as posing a threat.

The imperial edict abolished the venerable arbiters who had defined proper clothing and color combinations since the 15th century. Their expertise became obsolete, after high ceremonial costume was imported from European haberdashers. By contrast to such outmoded schools Japanese producers of the new, mixed genre flourished. Not every official could afford to be outfitted in Europe. Foreign suit makers and their apprentices in Yokohama were busy, occasionally constricted by their customers’ misgivings. A white linen frock coat from the early Meiji looks like a faithful copy of a western style for men, yet embroidered at its back seam is a family crest of sparrows and bamboo, as one would expect on a formal kimono.

Octavius’ seventeenth birthday fell during the festival of triumphs. Caesar invited Octavius to accompany him in the parade. The day of the triumph will have been one of the most exciting in Octavius’ life so far. Here were fame and glory manifest, the ultimate prize to which a Roman could aspire. The ceremony opened in the Campus Martius, the field of the war god, Mars, an open space northwest of the city that included the temple of the goddess of Bellona, the sister of Mars. On the day of the triumph Caesar arrayed himself in attributes of Jupiter, king of the gods and protector of Rome. His face was smeared with red paint like Jupiter’s statue on the Capitoline and dressed in a gold tunic with palm leaves.

Meanwhile, on the feminine side, there was a great proliferation of kimono, each with its appropriate social and seasonal level. Pattern and color exploded and multiplied, stimulating a renascence of exuberant design. From roughly the turn of the century to the start of World War I, kimono made its last stand as the primary clothing for women. Women’s wafuku reflected class divisions in how it was worn, lines that can still be discerned even today, but one trend gained ascendance. The future of kimono lay in the style worn by women of the growing urban middle class, who had been most affected by the rational hairdo movement, by reformed dress in school, and perhaps even briefly, by corsets. They all wore kimono during the last years of Meiji.

The young man now received an even more extraordinary piece of news. Unbeknownst to him, Caesar had written a new will during the brief Italian holiday on his return from Spain in 45 BC and had lodged it with the Vestal Virgins (who ran a safe deposit service for important confidential documents). Three days after Caesar’s death, his father-in-law read out the testament at the house of the consul Mark Antony on the Palatine Hill. Caesar named as his chief heirs his sister’s two male grandchildren, one of whom was Octavius. He was advised to take no steps to secure Caesar’s bequest; if he wanted to live safely, he should steer clear of politics. Already, however, Octavius had his eyes on great things.

The modern eye looks back on the clothing of early Meiji as unutterably drab. There was blue, blue, more blue, black, brown, indigo, grape, slate, seaweed, beige, gray, and blue again. There were narrow stripes, narrower stripes, narrowest stripes, fat stripes, fat and narrow stripes, arrow stripes, narrow arrow stripes, waterfall stripes, bonito stripes, and a dozen variations on straight and perpendicular lines. The fancier dyed silks for formal wear, especially the silks known as yuzen, were more colorful, but they paled in retrospect next to the yuzen silks of late Meiji, which used powerful chemical dyes. Early Meiji yuzen dyed silk had come in one of two styles, carrying on the schizophrenic late Edo tradition of subtlety and unrestrained flamboyance.

In 43 BC Octavian married the daughter of Publius Servilius, a member of Rome’s most ancient nobility, but the union lasted only a few months, for Mark Antony and Octavian, uncomfortable colleagues, agreed that it would be wise to cement their political deal, enshrined in the Second Triumvirate, with a family bond. Antony’s wife, Fulvia, had a daughter only just of marriageable age and too young to have sex, but a match was arranged. A girl could be betrothed if she was old enough to understand what was being put to her. We are told rather more about Octavian’s sex life away from the marriage bed. His girlishly attractive appearance led to accusations of his being a homosexual “queen.”

As women began to assume more active social roles, reformed dress announced its intention of being taken seriously. Wafuku looked like a western two-piece suit, if one donned a long-sleeved blouse under the kimono and a shirt-like hakama over it. Yojuku sensibility elevated western white collars over decorated native collars. Now Yukufu influenced women’s use of the haori jacket as a formalizing accessory, analogous to the way in which a western jacket formalizes a woman’s suit. In the ceremonial realm, too, the sensibility spread. Brides began to appear in outfits of solid white, whose purity was traditional in bridal wear (but so were felicitous scarlet, gold and silver). Achromic layers of kimono topped by a white uchikaka robe came into fashion.

In classical times the sea was a frightening place. Ships were vulnerable to bad weather, and sailing was largely avoided during the winter months. Roman war fleets consisted of rowing galleys, many of them triremes and quinqueremes. We cannot know exactly how they worked. A trireme either had three banks of oars or one bank with the oars grouped together in threes and one man per oar. Quinqueremes probably had one bank of oars with five men pulling each oar. There were often non-Roman oarsmen but no slaves chained to their oars. Warships had brass battering rams on their prows, and the usual tactic was to ram the side of an enemy ship. The Romans fought sea battles as if they were on land.

The cultural underpinnings of Japanese clothing dictate that every kimono and obi ensemble must take into account distinctions on the following levels: life and death, man and woman, formal or occasional, young or old, taste or class. The egregiousness of clothing mistakes corresponds to this list. At the extreme, a corpse cannot be faulted for a lapse of taste, but a living person in solid white kimono and obi could only be an actor in the role of a ghost. Likewise, to mistake gender would be so odd as to redefine the entire social situation. A person dressing in kimono of the opposite sex is either proclaiming transvestitism or play-acting. Outside such oddities, wearing kimono at the wrong level of formality is the most excruciating clothing mistake possible.

Antony and Cleopatra renewed their friendship at the respective ages of 45 and 33. Egypt’s resources were placed at the triumvir’s disposal, and in return Cleopatra received substantial territories. Back in Rome nobody saw anything especially scandalous about these developments. As a onetime appendage of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra was familiar to the Romans, if they did not particularly like her. Octavian, however, found the renewal of the liaison disagreeable and threatening. It was an insult to his sister, Octavia. Being illegitimate, Anthony’s children by Cleopatra had no hereditary status, either Roman or Egyptian, but their new cognomens, Helios and Selene, gave them a quasi-divine prestige.

When most people dress for funerals, they consider what the mourners, not the corpse, will wear, yet culturally important distinctions between kimono for the quick and the dead exist. Although nowadays the deceased is dressed in clothing preferred in life, the traditional corpse will still wear a pure white kimono. Significantly, the only person besides a corpse who wears a white kimono is a bride. Bridal white is relieved by the gold and silver brocade of the obi, and a bride may wear a colorful padded robe over the white exterior. Despite the gilding, however, there remains an undeniable similarity between brides and corpses; both have ended one life and are embarking on another. Ideally, sins from former existences should not color lives to come.

His preparations for war were nearing completion; soon it would be time to move west from Ephesus to Greece. For the first time since Alexander the Great, one man controlled the entire sea power of the east. In early 32 BC it became obvious to everyone that Antony and Cleopatra had made an important and highly controversial decision. Octavian cordially disliked Cleopatra, refusing to address her as queen and calling her simply by her name. He strongly advised Antony to send her back and await the outcome of the war in Egypt. At one point Antony did order her back home but then relented, taking the line of least resistance. There were even reports that he was growing frightened of her.

The celebrations for the evening of the fifth day were arranged by His Excellency. It was the fifteenth of the month, a bright moon in a cloudless sky. Even the sight of the lowest menials, chattering to each other as they walked round lighting the fire baskets under the trees by the lake and arranging the food in the garden, seemed to add to the sense of occasion. Torchbearers stood everywhere at attention and the scene was as bright as day. Standing here and there in the shadow of the rocks or under the trees were those whom I took to be retainers of visiting nobles. They were wreathed in smiles and looked very pleased with themselves, as if they somehow felt that their own private prayers for the birth of this bright light into the world had come to fruition.

In May or June, Anthony finally divorced Octavia and told her to quit his house in Rome. The impact of the divorce on Roman opinion was serious for Antony. It was not simply that he had behaved cruelly to a loving wife, but that he had done so in favor of a foreign queen. The decision to send her away drew attention to Cleopatra. The dinner tray seems a picture of the most delicate order: it is a frame containing, against a dark background, bowls, boxes, saucers, chopsticks, tiny piles of food, a little gray ginger, a few shreds of orange vegetable, a background of brown sauce, and since these containers are numerous, it might be said that the tray fulfils the definition of painting as a demonstration of surfaces.

The Romans had an antique ceremony for declaring war. Octavian went to the Temple of Bellona in the Campus Martius. On a strip of land in front officially denominated as foreign territory stood the small columna bellica, or column of war. Bellona’s priests, called fetiales, threw spears, smeared with the blood of a sacrificed pig, into the ground. Rome was officially at war. Such an order, delicious when it appears, is destined to be undone, recomposed according to the very rhythm of eating; what was a motionless tableau at the start becomes a workbench or chessboard, the space not of seeing but of doing; the painting was actually only a palette (a work surface), with which you are going to play during your meal.

In its basic essentials the promontory of Actium on the coast of western Greece, and the inland Ambracian Gulf that it guards, look today much as they did two thousand years ago. It would be a dull, even slightly dreary place, but for the spectacular mountains that crowd the distant skylines; like the steep seats in a Greek theater, they look down on a stage. When the order was given for the food to be brought in, a procession of eight ladies dressed in white, their hair done up with white ribbon, carried in a series of white trays. The sight of thirty or more ladies sitting in rows in the double span area to the east of the dais was most impressive. In the moonlight were servants, kitchen staff, hairdressers, maids and cleaners.

By the end of 32 BC, the body of Antony’s fleet was based in the safety of the Ambracian Gulf. The ships had spent much of the summer and autumn ferrying the army to Greece and then establishing a defensive line down its Adriatic coast. By occupying southern Greece, Antony may have wished to make it clear to all that he had no intention of invading the Italian peninsula. Many people, including his own supporters, would have opposed such an enterprise so long as Cleopatra had accompanied him. The thought of a foreign queen marching into Rome at the head of an army was universally and totally unacceptable. Antony’s plan can only have been to tempt Octavian to transport his army into Greece.

I tried reading the Tale again, but it did not seem to be the same as before and I was disappointed. Those with whom I had discussed things of mutual interest – how vain and frivolous they must consider me now, I thought; and then, ashamed that I could even contemplate such a remark, I found it difficult to write to them. Those in whose eyes I had wished to be of some consequence undoubtedly thought of me now as no more than a common lady-in-waiting who would treat their letters with scant respect; that they were unable to fathom my true feelings was only to be expected, but nevertheless it rankled, and, though I did not break with them entirely, there were many with whom I ceased to correspond as a matter of course. Others no longer came to see me.

The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfect discourse (a contradiction denied to western art, which contests meaning only by rendering itself incomprehensible). To our eyes the haiku is neither eccentric nor familiar: it resembles nothing at all: readerly, it seems simple, close, known, delectable, delicate, “poetic” — in short, offered to a whole range of reassuring predicates; insignificant nonetheless, it resists us, finally losing the adjectives which a moment before we had bestowed upon it, and enters into that suspension of meaning which to us is the strangest thing of all, since it makes impossible the most ordinary exercise of our language — commentary. What to say of this: “Full moon / and on the matting / the shadow of a pine tree”?

Octavian had the smaller of the two armies, 80,000 soldiers to the enemy’s 100,000. The difference was mainly accounted for by the number of Antony’s auxiliary or light-armed troops. His legions were more experienced than Antony’s mainly eastern levies, since they had been bloodied in the Illyrian campaign. The next step would be for Octavian to transport his forces from Brundisium to somewhere near the Via Egnata in the North, then to march south at once with all speed out of the confined area of Actium into central Greece, where he would be free to harass and perhaps outmaneuver Octavian. This was a hugely daring plan, for it meant moving a fleet across the open Mediterranean.

Lady Saisho is so easily dismayed as to seem always about to expire. Miya no Naishi is also very attractive, just the right height, so that, seated, she has a most imposing air about her. Though not the kind of woman whose attractiveness can be ascribed to any one feature, there is a freshness in her countenance and air of distinction in her face; the contrast between her pale skin and black hair sets her apart from the rest. Everything, the shape of her head, her hair, her forehead, surprises with its beauty and gives an impression of openness and candor. She acts quite naturally, is kind to others and never gives the slightest cause for any misgivings. So perfect in whatever she does, she could be a model for all, entirely free from any airs and graces.

As it turned out the enterprise was crowned with total success. Octavian transferred his army across the Adriatic. The first news of these events to reach Antony and Cleopatra was that the enemy had landed at Toryne, the Greek word for ladle. In a sign of nervousness, the queen cracked a seriously bad joke: “What is so bad about Octavian having got hold of a ladle?” Lady Shikibu, Miya’s younger sister, is chubby — fat even. She is a pale woman but has delicate, well-formed features. Her hair has a magnificent sheen, but it cannot be that long, for she comes to court with an additional hairpiece attached. I remember her plump little figure as being really most charming. She has pretty eyes and is very winsome when she laughs.

Antony arrived from Patras in a couple of days, together with Cleopatra, who lived with him in the camp. He transported his army from Actium to the northern peninsula and built a new camp facing Octavian’s. He was ready and eager for battle. But Octavian was no longer looking for a fight, since the indispensable and indefatigable Agrippa had captured the island of Leucas, giving him a safe harbor on Antony’s doorstep and making it extremely difficult for supply ships from Egypt — which would already have run the gauntlet up the west coast of Greece — to gain entry to Actium. This was a terrible blow.

With the plum, pine and bamboo, the cherry blossom has been assimilated into the life of the Japanese people, from art to literature to hanami. It was obvious that Antony was preparing for an engagement. Hanami is the name given to the cherry-blossom-viewing parties that begin in southern Kyushu and continue northward through the archipelago as warm weather ushers in spring. The question facing Octavian — or more precisely, Agrippa — was how to react. The pale, perfectly formed blossoms last only a week or so. Octavian and Agrippa agreed not to let Antony’s fleet through the blockade without opposition. For the Japanese they are synonymous with the transitory nature of life itself and the brief duration of youthful beauty.

The balance of forces at sea decidedly favored Octavian. People who think so much of themselves that they will, at the drop of the hat, compose lame verses, are quite odious and rather pathetic. Antony was forced to delay whatever move he planned, for on August 29 the fine weather broke. Sei Shonagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. Four days of storm, and inactivity, followed. She thought herself so clever to litter her writings with Chinese characters. Agrippa loaded eight legions and five praetorian cohorts onto his ships. But if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Antony divided his fleet into four squadrons, ordering his captains to take their sails with them, so that no enemy ship should escape.

The walk to and from the tea ceremony forms no less a part of the experience than the tea ceremony itself. As anticipated, the ships emerged from the strait, rowing in file, and deployed in two lines that stretched between the headlands. The essence of the tea ceremony is harmony, and the tranquility unfolds with each step that the guests make. There followed a very long pause, which lasted all morning. In the teahouse the guests kneel in silence on the tatami mats facing the tea kettle. The two fleets rested on their oars. The hostess then arranges the utensils in a harmonious pattern. Agrippa drew up his fleet in two lines. The participant observes that the teaspoon, caddy and bowl are immaculate. Antony’s ships responded by edging northward.

After two hours of battle the wind suddenly changed, allowing Cleopatra’s squadron to speed south. Ancient sources wrongly suppose that she lost her nerve and fled out of cowardice, and that Antony followed her because he was besotted with love. Quite clearly, this was not the case. The stowing of the sails, the order of battle (with the queen’s ships kept in the rear, fresh and clear of the fighting), and the timing of the breakout to catch the afternoon wind indicate that the couple were acting out, with complete success, a carefully laid plan. Some of Antony’s ships gave up, others withdrew into the Actium strait. At daylight Ocavian assessed the outcome: Antony had escaped with Cleopatra for Egypt.


How know what happened thereafter? Unless clairvoyant, or reincarnated, we must read an historical text or consult with someone who has (for no informants remain who had experienced the events). Despite our bland, quotidian assumption that a text is transparent, its meaning literal, obvious and unambiguous, the reflective reader knows otherwise. Likewise the sophisticated author, who exploits such potential for ambiguity, as did Girolamo Vida when he superimposed his Christian meaning on the very words of Roman Vergil, as did Raymond Roussel, when he typically transformed his own texts through outrageous paranomasia, as with the words of his title, Nouvelles impressions d’AfriqueFurther Impressions of Africa, into More Printings at My Expense.

Similarly my text, which represents a kind of extended double entendre. We read the words of an author (Plutarch, Ovid or Antony Everitt, writing of Romulus, Caesar or Octavian; Lady Murasaki, or a Japanese historian or a student of the Samurai) not only as theirs but also as mine, their words neither quoted verbatim (how could they be, in English, if they are Plutarch’s, Ovid’s and Murasaki’s?), nor in any sense plagiarized (for my artistic intention in juxtaposing them is a far cry from the historian’s goal of expository clarity) but instead deployed to illustrate This and That, Japan and Rome, the two sides of a coin, two casual things (see “this and that”) compared and contrasted and yet in another sense one in the same. Notoriously words can be nothing but signs.

How to know what happened thereafter? In ancient Rome, or medieval Japan? In the realm of the senses, or the mind of the author? In the world of actuality, or the account of history? By reading more stories, or fewer? By judging, or not? I return to Roland Barthes (whom I had quoted on the haiku and the dinner tray), not to his opening chapter, “Faraway,” where he says, “If I want to imagine a fictive nation, I can . . . isolate somewhere in the world a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics) and out of these features deliberately form a system . . . , which I shall call: Japan,” but rather to his final chapter, “The Cabinet of Signs.” As Edmund White remarks of Empire of Signs, “Barthes is not analyzing the real Japan but rather one of his own devising”:

In any and every site of this country there occurs a special organization of space. [I am] brought to the . . . limit without the notion of grandeur, without a metaphysical reference. From the slope of the mountains to the neighborhood intersection, here everything is habitat, and I am always in the most luxurious room of this habitat; the luxury is created by the fact that the place has no other limit than its carpet of living sensations, of brilliant signs; it is no longer the great continuous wall that defines space, but the very abstraction of the fragments of view (of the “views”) that frame me; the wall is defined beneath the inscription . . . of instantaneous events that accede to the notable in a flash so vivid, so tenuous that the sign does away with itself . . . .

The most vivid near-contemporary interpretation of Cleopatra is a fictional account. On a display of seven steps that have been draped with a piece of red cloth, one might see the following collections. When, in 29, Publius Vergilius Maro started work on his twelve-volume Aeneid, he determined to create a modern epic that would both glorify Rome and celebrate Octavian’s rule. On the top step there may be a doll house resembling a palace, but more often there is a folding golden screen decorated with paintings of pine, plum or bamboo. Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and founder of Rome, was to be equated with Octavian, descendent of Venus and of Aeneas and founders of the Roman Empire. In front of this sits as a doll the Emperor.

Underpinning the Aeneid’s first six books is the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. Dressed in a red, twelve-layer kimono. The eponymous hero. On the second step are three court ladies. Fleeing by boat from devastated Troy. Below these is a five-member band composed of a singer, three drummers and a flautist. He is desperate to reach his ancestral homeland. On the fourth step are rice cakes, in pink, white and green. He runs into a storm, however, and washes ashore on the North African coast. On the fifth, attendants bearing slippers and umbrellas. Here he meets Dido, founder and queen of Carthage, who is compelled by the gods to fall in love with him. On the sixth step may be various pieces of furniture. The two enter into a form of marriage.

Finally may occur a carriage or a palanquin and miniature models of flowering cherry or orange trees. Dido recognizes the vows as legally binding but Aeneas, it soon transpires, does not. The scene calls to mind a wedding or banquet; the furniture and carriage suggest the dowry of a girl marrying into a noble family. Happy in their love for each other, they forget the outside world. While each individual piece is quite beautiful, the total effect may appear rather cluttered. But Aeneas is a moral character, obedient to the will of the gods. The effect is caused by the way in which individual pieces have been added to the display over a period of time. Faced with a choice between pleasure and duty, he chooses duty, and deserts the queen.

Doll displays are set up about a week before the March 3 Festival, Hina Matsuri. Furious and despairing, Dido curses her former lover. Children take great pleasure in assembling the dolls, putting their headpieces on or instruments in their hands. Then, rather than facing life alone. When the child is still too young to do it, the mother sets up the doll collection. Commits suicide by throwing herself on a pyre fueled by the bed that she had shared with Aeneas. She may have her hands full keeping the children from disturbing the display and damaging the dolls. First eviscerating herself with her lover’s sword. The dolls are there to be admired but not to be played with. Parallels with the stories of Caesar and of Antony are obvious. They are not toys.

The tale of Masakado offers a grotesque window into the superstitions and savageries of combat during the tenth century, not merely in his behavior but in that of his opponents. (Masakado’s father had been a general in charge of maintaining peace in the North, the second successor to the role previously held by the great Sadamori.) In one of the story’s sidebars we hear of Sadamori’s quest for a male fetus — the crucial ingredient in a magical cure for a bad wound that he has sustained. (He was thus a man of considerable wealth in the North, and an even larger sense of entitlement). He first orders his pregnant daughter-in-law to give up what she is carrying and is only thwarted by a doctor who tells him that his unborn grandchild would not be suitable.

The subversive Augustan poet Sextus Propertius writes longingly of his feisty mistress Cynthia. Instead, he slices up a pregnant kitchen maid, although her fetus is female and hence useless. He, like Mark Antony, has been ensnared and to a certain extent emasculated by a powerful woman, and he is not afraid of admitting it. Only after another death among his retinue does he finally obtain the fetus required. In answer to the question, “Why do you wonder if a woman controls my life?” he lists examples of famous unnaturally dominant women, including the Amazon Penthesilea, Omphale, queen of Lydia, Semiramis and, of course Cleopatra, the whore queen of Canopus.” The horrific story may be merely an invention.

Later he provides a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Octavian at Actium. Its details, however, are true to folk remedies of the period. Clearly Propertius is aware of the irony of a Roman man celebrating a great victory over a mere woman. In which powdered fetus. But like Vergil before him, he sensibly sees no need to labor this delicate point. Was indeed used as a cure for battle wounds. In this he is joined by his contemporary Horace, who seems happy to reduce Cleopatra to the status of a madwoman drunk on power, yet who also gives a surprisingly sympathetic account of her death: It alludes poetically to samurai feeding upon their own. “Fiercer she was in the death she chose, as though she did not wish to cease being queen.”

The Tale of Genji is interesting to the samurai historian for its lack of relevance. Roman historians, writing later than the poets. Lady Murasaki’s Kyoto is a world away from the seacoast. Preserve a more rounded impression of Cleopatra. Where pirates burned their enemies alive. She is seductive and unnatural, yes. Or the brutal tallies of samurai in the provinces twisting off their opponents’ heads to compare their battle prowess. Nonetheless, we also catch glimpses of an educated, intelligent woman. Murasaki’s characters, while more privileged than the samurai, are, however, still a product of the same concerns. History, though, was not the strict discipline in Rome that it is today. Genji himself, the “shining prince,” is a good example.

Sparse historical “facts” were woven into a coherent narrative with large helpings of personal opinion and guesswork. He is arguably a prime candidate for the kind of rustication that so troubled the samurai of the era. Stories were selected in order to make a moral or political point. The son of a former emperor’s concubine, he is downgraded to commoner status and given a Minamoto surname, as he barely clings to a court position. Of course, the Roman historians concentrated on Cleopatra’s interaction with the Roman world while ignoring her life in Egypt. We might readily imagine a second- or third-generation descendant of Murasaki’s protagonist falling on times so hard that life in the capital would no longer be a possibility.

The two most influential of Cleopatra’s “biographers” are Plutarch and Dio. A new life and new opportunities, however, awaited them on the frontier, by marrying into one of the powerful provincial clans. From their works came the Cleopatra described by later classical authors: Class — what we might call the difference between old and new money — is a permanent obsession for Murasaki’s characters. The Roman writer Suetonius (The Divine Julius and The Divine Augustus). Behind the opulence of brocades, the gossip and furtive romances. And the somewhat unreliable Alexandrian Greek Appian (The Civil Wars). Hovers the ever-present shadow of a savage world far beyond the capital, where peaceful pursuits are out of the question.

In Shinto, the original Japanese religion, he word kami designates divine spirits, considered “superior” to the human condition. According to tradition, there are 88 million of them (the number signifying infinity). Shinto mythology distinguishes several types of kami: those who are “heavenly” (amatsu-kami), such as Amaterasu-Omikami, and those who are “earthly” (kunitsu-kami), such as Okunishushi no Mikoto. Exceptional human beings are also sometimes considered kami, being divinized after death, such as Sugawara no Michizane and Ojin Tenno. By extension, the title kami is given to people who are considered exceptional for their talent or works. Kami, who are usually venerated (not adored) in shrines, are usually found inhabiting natural sites.

Yoshimoto led forces from the Minamoto clan on Go-Shirakawa’s orders across Kyoto to arrest Fujiwara Yorinago, on suspicion of intrigues against the throne. Our best account of the battle, the Hogen monogatari, differs from earlier war tales. Whereas former samurai sagas invariably took place on the distant frontier, the civil war arising from the 1156 succession dispute took place in the capital itself, with the court actively employing its samurai vassals in an internal struggle that broke out into open warfare on the streets of Kyoto. The Hogen monogatari is noticeably more dramatic and confused. It accreted over many decades of telling and retelling, and its narrative often flies off on tangents to recount various inconsequential deeds by those long forgotten.

Works Quoted

Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983)

Jonathan Clements, The Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite (London: Constable & Robinson, 2010)

Lisa Crihfield Dalby, Geisha (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1998)

Lisa Dalby, Kimono: Fashioning Culture (London: Vintage, 2001)

Anthony Everitt, Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor (New York: Random House, 2006)

D.C. Feeney, The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1991)

Louis Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, trans. Käthe Roth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.P., 2002)

Philip Freeman, Julius Caesar (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008)

A History of Modern Japanese Aesthetics, trans. Michael F. Marra (Honolulu: U. of Hawai’i Press, 2001)

The Diary of Lady Murasaki, trans. Richard Bowring (New York: Penguin, 1996)

Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A.D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1992)

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Romans, ed. Edmund Fuller (New York: Dell, 1959)

Introduction to Japanese Culture, ed. Daniel Sosnoki (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1996)

Conrad Totman, A History of Japan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)

Joyce Tyldesley, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (London: Profile Books, 2008)