The Heron Maiden is one of those old stories about the uncanny which is richly allusive and replete with mythical associations. The story itself, at least on one possible level, is about concealment and revelation, but it uses concealment and revelation as a device to communicate its content. Myths and folk-tales are exceptionally suited for conveying nuanced and paradoxical content in a way that may appear to be deceptively simple. This is in part due to their use of a rather sparse narratives style to tell of fabulous events. Myths and folk-tales, tend to place a particular frame around their content, alerting us to the fact that nearly everything in the story will turn out to be more than it seems.
There is a passage in the Bible that enjoins us to be ready to ‘entertain’ strangers, – because in doing so, people have unknowingly entertained angels, and both strangers and angels can appear in many different shapes and forms. One might for instance ‘entertain’ a stranger by offering hospitality, or by doing him or her an act of disinterested kindness. But one may also ‘entertain’ a stranger when one takes in a wounded animal or bird in need of human help. Such acts often have unexpected outcomes: In taking a chance, so to speak, one seems to be given one.
The Hindus have a saying ‘The guest is God’, by which is meant that when offering hospitality to a stranger, the greatest care must be taken to treat him or her with alertness, kindness and respect. There are many stories about how Devi, Rama, Krishna and Siva have appeared ‘incognito’ to their devotees. We might find such stories quaint and fanciful, but I for one am always careful to treat with awareness the people who come to my door, asking for a sandwich or a blanket… one never knows that such an act might not have an unanticipated consequence, so it is best to be cautions.
The man who delivers food from my local Chinese restaurant is from Thailand, and he always wants to talk to me about Buddhist ‘sutras’, and asks me to repeat to him parts of the ‘The Five Precepts’ in Pali. He then memorises them, and repeats them to me when he brings my next delivery. I always feel the lurch in my solar plexus while we conduct this little ritual, and when we bow to each other in friendly formality as he leaves. I am aware that the door to the preternatural is always pushed open a crack, and sense that something ‘secret’ has passed between us. Admittedly in this case it is a small secret – one having to do with all the things we know without saying, that are about our origins in predominantly Hinayana Buddhist countries, and our lives as ‘transplants’ here in the U.S.
But in the encounters between strangers such as the Heron Maiden and her lover, there is often sure to be a much larger secret that must be kept, or an absolute prohibition that must be heeded. The faculty of ‘knowing’ without ‘seeing’ is one that goes beyond the five ordinary senses. It is also an encoded way of speaking about intuitive knowledge.
In the Japanese folk- tale of The Heron Maiden, a young man comes across a wounded heron, and he takes it in and nurses it back to health. When the heron has regained the use of its wings, he releases it, and the heron flies away.
Time passes and the young man meets a beautiful young woman with whom he falls in love. They get married and begin living happily together. The young wife weaves a particular kind of silk brocade in which the designs appear in relief. The young man sells the fabric, and the two are able to support themselves in this way.
But the young woman places a constraint upon the man: He must never observe her while she is weaving her fabric. Of course the young man cannot resist the temptation to look, and when he does he sees a heron at the loom.
Under his gaze the heron is transformed into a beautiful woman – she is his wife.
Now that the secret has been exposed, The heron Maiden’s happy life with the young man must come to an end. The young woman bids her husband a fond goodbye, and flies away with her heron companions.
This is of course a sadder ending than the Russian story on which the the ballet Swan Lake is based. Both are folk tales, based on human-bird love affairs in which the males are human and the females are beautiful large white aquatic birds.
Of course the story which to my mind most closely resembles that of the Heron Maiden is the story of Cupid and Psyche: The pair are permitted to have their relationship on the condition that Psyche is never able to see what Cupid looks like. Since he only comes to her at night – and this is the night of myth – when nighttime meant darkness – she is never able to see him.
Psyche is of course tricked into holding a lighted lamp above Cupid in order to see what he looks like. As she gazes at him, transfixed by his beauty, a drop of oil drips from the lamp and falls on Cupid. He wakes up to see that Psyche has broken her promise, and the two have to part.
But there is also a deeply psychological component to these stories: What is it we wonder, that could be so fatally destructive about seeking to satisfy the hunger of the eye, that spells the end of love? What is it that is so irresistible about the desire to spy on secrets, that we succumb to the temptation to do so regardless of the fact that we are fully aware ahead of time that the direst consequences will ensue?
In our culture ‘seeing’ is synonymous with all the many faculties that have to do with cognition. When we understand something we say “I see”, we have ‘points of view’, we ‘look’ at the facts, we ‘see the light’ we make ‘vision statements’, and so on.
But in our remote past it was the faculty of hearing that was of paramount importance. In the thousands of years during which we humans were pre-literate, we learned by listening, and more importantly by memorizing.
The ability to know something ‘by heart’ rather than by eye, results in a completely different type of ‘knowing’. If we just think about the things we know by memory, we are instantly able to discern the qualitative difference between them and the things we ‘know’ from having read about them. Just try to recall a poem, and it will become clear from what a different part of the brain the memory has emerged. These memories are recalled. One ‘calls’ for them, and they obey the summons.
Hearing is one of our first senses to develop, and the last to leave us when we die. People sometimes continue to hear what is being said by the people around them even as they lie unconscious on operating tables, and even when they are in deep coma. But for most of us ‘hearing’ is a much undervalued sense, and one that pleases us less than the delights of sight. Visual voracity is our predominant impulse, and sight is the sense we seem to trust the most.
Perhaps it is an overly broad generalization to claim that while vision is a tool of the intellect, hearing is much more closely allied with the intuition. Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows how much easier it is to learn by sight – comprehend by reading rather than by listening – and how much more difficult it is to to learn by hearing alone. This is because our hearing faculties are quite atrophied and attenuated in comparison to our visual ones. But it is only when the ‘hearing’ part of language acquisition has been mastered that one can begin to feel at ease, and so in the end, how well one speaks a new language depends on how well one has ‘listened to’ and ‘heard’ it.
We read poetry rather than listen to it, and except when it comes to song lyrics, we have little tolerance for rhymes. We remember and retain song lyrics much more easily than poetry, because we learn them by listening. This is because hearing is a much more durable acquisition system than sight. Poetry used to be an art that integrated dance and music. Now there are very few art forms that keep the three together.
Nearly all advanced civilizations make the shift from valuing listening and speech to reading and writing. By the time the changes have taken permanent hold we are so used to them that we fail to notice that something rather significant has been lost. Now we even write without hearing our words – which I think is why for the most part writing has come to sound so dry, and why most people find it so difficult to write dialogue. Writers who have mastered dialogue are invariably good writers all around, and they are particularly good writers of fiction – in other words, they appeal to our imagination and our intuition. Most scholars and critics ‘however’ never quite seem to be memorable in quite the same way, and they are never able to engage us as memorably and indelibly as writers do. This, I suppose, is indicative of what could be the essential difference between an art and a discipline.
So, did the stories of Cupid and Psyche and The Heron Maiden end so sadly because of an inability to hear? To trust what was heard? Or because the desire to ‘see’ was so overwhelming and irresistible? True, neither Psyche nor the Heron Maiden’s husband knew that something quite disastrous was going to happen if they succumbed to the temptation to ‘see’, but shouldn’t they have trusted their beloveds and heeded their spoken imperatives?
We too, by our deep preference for ‘knowing by cognition’ and our corresponding neglection of ‘knowing by intuition’ are frequently induced to make the kinds of mistaken choices that result in the sources of our joy and welfare leaving us. We then resort to the solitary pursuit of reading and writing, further condemning ourselves to an existence in which there is no one left with whom we can speak, and so we are left to live with the singular over the plural, the secluded over the social and the solitary over the companionable life, because we have thoughtlessly compelled our lovely Heron Maidens to regretfully leave us and fly away.
About the Picture:
Accession number93.3.56 TitleHeron maiden Series TitleNew Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts.
Artist: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.
The following information is extracted from this source:
A woman with a large yellow and black umbrella (open) is accompanied by three white herons. The relationship of the animal kingdom to the world of
human beings is close in rural societies. People feel a kinship with the wild creatures around them. As a result, birds and animals, even trees and insects, are perceived in anthropomorphic terms. This was especially true in premodern Japan, where as early as a thousand years ago the cultured Heian society had developed a consciousness and love of nature. Japan is rich in tales of animals magically taking human form to work mischief or to repay good turns that people have done them. This design is an example.
…The print is as tranquil as the story, the maiden standing quietly with her umbrella in the snow, motioning to a pair of sister herons. Her brocade robe and the birds’ feathers have been given a raised texture. This is called kata-zuri, “empty” or inkless printing, an extra step in the printmaking process in which a pattern is permanently embossed into areas of the paper. The technique is often referred to as gaufrage (waffling), a reminder that many of the earliest ukiyo-e scholars were French. The dance-drama Sagi Musume of 1762 was based on this folk tale. Harunobu, the artist credited with inventing multicolored woodblock prints, used the story, in a famous design of a girl walking with an umbrella in the snow, to represent winter in his series “Beauties of the Four Seasons” of 1767 was based on this folk tale. Harunobu, the artist credited with inventing multicolored woodblock prints, used the story, in a famous design of a girl walking with an umbrella in the snow, to represent winter in his series “Beauties of the Four Seasons.”