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SYMBOLISM #4: Circle of Life

Concept of Yin/Yang

Asian Cultures strongly emphasize the connectivity of all living things and their societies are built upon this concept. The circle of life is the relationship of life and death, implying without one you can't have the other. This interrelationship is Yin and Yang. In order to survive, the predator must have prey, but likewise if prey are not kept in check then their own survival will be threatened. An overabundance of prey can overtax and destroy the habitat in which they thrive, eventually destroying all. Sickness can more widely spread if the infirmed are not culled. Sick animals are easy targets for predator and therefore are more quickly eliminated. Thus predator and prey live in a check and blance system. Both predator and prey are interrelated demonstrating the concept of Yin and Yang. Without the predator/prey relationship there could be no environmental or world harmony. So it is no surprise that on sword fittings we find predators depicted with their prey . Mantises are often shown with other insects they prey on like the cicada, crickets, grasshopper, wasp, bee, butterfly, bell insects and beetles. Depicting them together is depicting the circle of life as well as the concept of Yin and Yang.

Examples in fittings:

Fig. 9: Menuki, Mantis w/ Cricket & Bell Insects
Fig. 10: Tsuba, Mantis chasing Cricket?

Immortality

We can even take this a step further through deductive reasoning to state that the circle of life in essence equals immortality. After all, the continuation of the life cycle means that we are achieving immortality. However this can only be achieved with a balanced relationship. If there becomes an imbalance, then the cycle is interrupted. Thus, it is in the nature of japanese culture to remain in harmony. Most western cultures associate the mantis with women power. In nature, the female mantis has been noted to eat the male mantis if he hangs around after copulation. While in practical terms that also insures the circle of life by providing nutrients for the next generation. This threatens the western man as a symbolic reference to women having power and using it to undue man. The western man can be scared of the concept of women holding power. Ironically in human behavior the exact opposite is true, running away or leaving directly after copulation will result in the male head being chewed off by the female species, so it is best that he remain. In western culture, the crescent moon is a feminine symbol, however the Japanese usually use it as a masculine symbol. The mantis under the crescent moon in European cultures would represent a female’s menstruation (I didn’t make that up). In doing research for this article, I discovered that in the 1920’s European symbolism had crept into the Japanese culture and female “sanitary pads” were advertised with crescent moons depicted on the women’s kimono. However, this symbolism had not reached Japanese society when the following tsuba was done. In actuality, the use of the crescent moon in this tsuba is echoing the circle of life/immortality theme.

Examples in fittings:

Fig. 11: Tsuba Mid-Late Edo. note crescent moon

Autumn

In art, it is not uncommon to use symbolism as part of the pictorial story. The Japanese like most other cultures have defined symbols. In Japanese symbolism, the Mantis represents the season of autumn. Kobayashi Issa, one of the four prominent forefathers of haiku7, used the mantis as a symbol of autumn in his poems. Often mantises are also depicted with Pampas grass, vines, kiku and chrysanthemums (referred to as autumn grasses), and other symbols of autumn. Therefore, when we see a Mantis with these other autumn symbols, we see the circle of life being represented, in particular, Autumn, the season of harvest.

Examples in fittings:

Fig.12: Tsuba, Mantis w/vines
Fig. 13: Kozuka, Mantis w/autumn grases

Symbolism #1: The Mantis as a Fighter

Symbolism #2: Bravery and Know Thyself

Symbolism #3: Being Too Short Sighted

Symbolism #4: Circle of Life

Symbolism #5: The Mantis as Samurai

Final thoughts

Go to Symbolism #5: The Mantis as Samurai

Go Back to Symbolism #3: Being Too Short Sighted


7 http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/grads/rdunn/issa.htm

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