rice in myth and legend
ALTHOUGH they have different histories, cultures and societies, all the countries of east and southeast Asia have rice as a common denominator. It is not simply that these peoples cultivate rice; they all have customs, rituals and myths concerning rice which serve as threads to bind them together. Rice culture is extremely important as the common inheritance of these regions.
Myths concerning the origin of rice take many forms. Some have points in common with myths related to other crops. One of these, which is widely current in such parts of the region as Indonesia and Malaysia, tells how crops originated from the corpse of a murdered god or human being. Myths of this kind often relate that other crops originated at the same time as rice. In Java, according to some versions, fruit bearing plants originated from the corpse of a young girl; dry land rice from the navel; coconut palms from the head and genitals; ripened fruit dangled from both hands, and fruit originated from the legs and ripened in the ground. Among the Manggarai people of Flores Island, it is said that rice and maize originated from the corpse of a murdered child. According to the Japanese classic Kojiki ("Record of ancient matters'), compiled in 712 AD, Susanoo slew the food goddess Ohogetsu-hime. Silkworms came from her head, rice seeds from both eyes, millet from both ears, red beans from her nose, wheat from her genitals, and soybeans from her buttocks.
Many mountain peoples of the southeast Asian mainland and islands sacrifice domestic animals such as water buffalo and pigs as an agricultural ritual. Some plaindwelling peoples of the region, such as the Lao of Laos, also sacrifice water buffalo. The motives underlying this practice are varied. It is believed that the flesh of the animal is presented to the gods in exchange for the gods' gift of an abundant rice harvest. It is also thought that magical power (mana) contained in animal blood promotes the growth of plants.
Given the view that death is a premise of life, animal sacrifice has points in common with myths that relate the origin of crops from corpses. In the southeast Asian islands, myth and sacrifice frequently accompany one another. Yet, on the mainland, despite the fact that animal sacrifice is widespread, myths which relate the origin of rice from corpses hardly appear at all.
Another important form of rice cultivation myth refers to the stealing of crop seeds. These myths are found not only in east and southeast Asia but are also widespread among the agricultural peoples of Africa and the Americas. Furthermore, these myths are not exclusively tied to rice cultivation but are also applied to the cultivation of sorghum in Africa and to maize in America. In Samoa, taro origin myths also take this form. In parts of east Asia, amongst the mountain people of Taiwan, for example, this stealing motif is found in myths concerning the origins of millet.
It is said that the ancestors of the Miao people of Sichuan, China, did not have the necessary seed to sow their fields. They set free a green bird which then flew up to the rice granary of the heaven god and returned with the heavenly rice seed and tare. A myth of the Minahassa region of Sulawesi (Indonesia) recounts how a man went up to heaven and returned to earth with unhulled rice concealed in a wound in his leg.
A conspicuous feature of the rice cultivation rituals of east and southeast Asia is the frequent appearance of the concept of a rice soul. The Lamet, slash-and-burn rice cultivators of Laos, constitute a representative example of ancient rice cultivation rituals which are accompanied by this idea. They perform rituals which include strict taboos at each point in the cultivation process, and their concept of the rice soul is similar to those of many of the peoples inhabiting the islands of southeast Asia.
The rice soul is especially important at harvest-time. The cutting proceeds in such a way that the rice soul does not escape but is sent away to the corner of the field. It flies from field to field, finally arriving at a sacred field near the hut. This sacred field is sown before the other fields and harvested after them. In the other fields, the kernel of rice is simply squeezed in one's hand and the unhulled rice is removed. In the sacred field, however, the rice stalk is gently cut and bundled in sheaves which contain the rice soul. From these sheaves the unhulled rice is taken. It is then used to sow the sacred field the following year. If the rice soul escapes, then the rice will not bear fruit.
Rice cultivation taboos and the concept of a rice soul are widely found in the archaic forms of southeast Asian rice cultivation rituals. In Japan these features are found notably in the Amami Islands. They are not at all prevalent in northern Japan, however. One special characteristic of the rice soul concept of many peoples is the extreme sensitivity and susceptibility to injury of the rice soul. It will quickly flee if injured. This idea extends as far west as the Munda people of central India.
In Japan, one example of the rice soul concept is found in the eighth-century Bungo fudoki ("Gazetteer of Bungo Province, Kyushu'). It tells the story of an area called Tano, which in olden times was broad and fertile. The farmers of this district developed many rice paddies on this land which bore an abundant crop. The farmers made mochi (see article page 20) and used them as targets for their arrows. The injured mochi turned into a white bird and flew to the south. During that year the farmers died and their fields went to rack and ruin.
The idea of the fleeing rice soul is also found among the Khmer, a wet rice cultivating people. They tell the following myth: in ancient times, when rice ripened, it flew through the sky and came to rest in a granary. Thus it did not have to be harvested. But on one occasion, a young husband and wife living near the granary made an unpleasant noise which startled the god of rice. They then uttered indiscreet words which offended the god. The god fled into a narrow opening in a mountain. Because of the absence of the god of rice, the people throughout the land starved. They tried various means of bringing the god back, but in vain. Finally, someone was chosen to serve as an envoy to persuade the god to return, and after many difficulties he accomplished his mission.
A variety of animals appear in rice cultivation myths. A legend in which a crane is the bearer of rice is extremely widespread in Japan. Myths concerning some kind of rice-bearing bird are also prevalent on the mainland and islands of southeast Asia, and tales citing dogs as the bearers of rice are found from south China to Assam. One such legend, from the Han Chinese of Sichuan, speaks of the aftermath of a great flood. The survivors of this flood were without crops and in a state of desperation. They noticed a dog crawling out of the flooded fields, and from the rice seed that clung to the dog's tail they were able to begin rice cultivation. Their feelings of gratitude to this dog led them to give it a portion of the first meal after the harvest.
In east and southeast Asia the connexion between the rice soul and the gods varies widely. In Java, for example, the female deity of rice (sri) is contrasted with the male deity wisnu or sedana. At harvest time these two gods are thought of as bride and groom. Consequently, when the rice buds appear it is thought that the rice is pregnant. When the rice is harvested, the rice goddess and her husband are transported to the rice granary. They enjoy their honeymoon night without being disturbed. Thus a new fertile crop is prepared for. In contrast to this, in Thailand, the rice deity goes to a shed and is requested to remain there until the following year.
Among the Muong people of Viet Nam, rice is given to the ancestors as well as to the honoured spirits at the time of the New Year festival (tet). Afterwards the rice is not only eaten but is also offered to the rice itself. Thus the rice becomes doubly sacred.
All the gods such as the god of rice, the rice soul, and the god of the fields figure largely in these legends. In Japan the gods connected with rice cultivation are usually gods who do not always remain in the fields. They come to the fields only when the rice is growing. Gods of the mountain become gods of the field in spring, when they come down to the rice paddies. In autumn, after the harvest, they once again become mountain gods and return to the mountains for the winter.
This conception of the seasonal comings and goings of the field gods is important in understanding Japanese rice cultivation beliefs. Although I have not come across a similar concept elsewhere in east and southeast Asia, in Laos there is the idea that the spirit of snakes dwells in the fields and puddles during the rainy season and moves to the rivers in the dry season.
But times are changing. In east and southeast Asia rice cultivation rituals which have been performed in many areas and the widespread legends about the origin of rice cultivation are gradually disappearing with the advance of modernization and changes in farming techniques. The death of an elder means the loss of a legend and the discontinuation of one more annual event. It is the important task of anthropologists and folklorists in these regions to record the abundant content of these rice cultures and transmit them to future generations.
Photo: Above and below, harvest folk dances in the State of Gujarat, northwest India.
Photo: In a Burmese village, a sheaf of rice is offered to the guardian spirit of the community. The miniature horses are vehicles in which the spirit is believed to ride.
Photo: In a rice-field in Java (Indonesia) a woman binds into a sheaf the first heads of rice to be harvested. Next she will dress the sheaf in cotton print cloth and carry it home in her arms as if it were a baby.
Photo: Above, a field of rice ripens under a stormy Nepalese sky. Originally cultivated in the humid tropics as a semi-aquatic plant, rice can grow in a diversity of climates ranging from the hot deserts of Pakistan, Iran and Egypt to the high mountains of India and Nepal.
Photo: Below, Thai workers bagging rice in a riverside godown (warehouse) in Bangkok.
Photo: Above, two Harijan women, with their children, outside their house which they have decorated with rice paste to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The design represonts sprays of rice with flowers.
Photo: Below left, legend has it that the first rice to be brought to Japan was a red variety, and even today a red variety of rice is still cultivated in sacred paddy fields belonging to the Takuzu Shrine, in Tsushima, and the Homan Shrine, in Tanegashima. Photo shows a scene from a famous ritual connected with the red rice of Tsushima. In the village of Tsutsu, in Tsushima, there are 15 old families who take it in turns to cultivate the sacred red rice and to elect one of their number as leader of the ritual. Each year, a tanemomidawara, an elaborate rice bale, is woven from the first red rice to be harvested and is hung up in the house of the leader of the ritual. In the middle of the night of the 10th day of the first month of the old calendar, the tanemomidawara is taken down, covered with a ceremonial robe, and carried in procession from the house of the leader of the ritual for the previous year to the house of the new leader. The villagers line the route and kneel to worship the sacred object as it passes preceded by a torch-bearer.
Photo: Below right, rice cakes made from red and white rice.
Photo: On New Year's Day, the chief of a Lisu village in northwest Thailand scatters rice on the assembled villagers, thereby bestowing on them the spiritual virtues traditionally associated with rice.…