Japanese tale #39 – The Moon Spirit

moon spirit

Once upon a time, the moon was inhabited by a divine spirit. Beautiful as it was, glowing pale as the purest jewel, the spirit felt very lonely. Up in its remote hiding, a world of silvery rocks and limpid silence, it longed for a companion.

Far below, the earth was full of life. Each time the moon spirit looked down it could see humans and animals, climbing the tallest mountains, riding the deepest seas. In forests and fields, shores and caves, mortals beings thrived.

The more it looked, the more the moon spirit felt forlorn and its curiosity kept rising:

– They look so happy down there. Oh, they don’t realise how lucky they are!

One day, the spirit could not take it anymore. Veiled in silky mist, it jumped from the moon.

The descent was exhilarating: falling and falling down, it crossed twinkling stars and soft clouds. And finally the spirit landed on earth.

Everywhere around, was a dark forest, both a familiar and foreign vision. So faraway from the gentle glow of moon, night was pitch black and huge trees spread their gloomy silhouettes like a cage.

The air was cold and still. Reality struck the spirit hard. Under its silky veils, it shivered.

– Earth seemed a much nicer place seen from above…

The spirit took a hesitant step, then another. In this alien world, everything looked weird and amiss. As it walked and walked, its radiance grew dimer and dimer. Until it finally faded completely.

The spirit’s belly rumbled:

– Oh, I am so tired and hungry!

On the moon, one only had to think about feeling replete and content.

– How can mortals bear this?

The spirit sat on a wide stone, hugging itself tightly. Its pretty veils had been torn by nasty thorns and were now all ragged and muddy. Once beautiful and fair, the spirit now looked like a true beggar.

Suddenly, something moved in the shadows. The spirit recoiled as a voice rose from bushes:

– Oh no don’t be afraid little one.

A fox appeared on gentle paws, its russet fur shining warmly. Another voice echoed from a nearby tree:

– We mean you no harm.

Perched on a low branch, a monkey eyed the spirit with plain compassion. And third voice added:

– You do seem in trouble, are you okay?

A rabbit came to sat on the rock, its eyes full of sympathy.

At this moment, the spirit’s belly rumbled again, loudly. The spirit whispered, quite embarrassed:

– I am very hungry…

The three animals looked at each others and nodded, resolute. The rabbit patted its knee :

– Don’t worry, we’re gonna bring you something to eat

The spirit had not utter a word that all had disappeared back into the shadowy woods. The divine apparition smiled to itself and mused while looking up at the wide inky sky:

– Those creatures are so nice. Maybe earth is not such a bad place after all…

The monkey was first to return. Swinging from branch to branch, he gracefully jumped in front of the spirit. In its arms, the clever animal had gathered ripe and juicy fruits.

– This will revive you!

The spirit was truly touched by this genuine offering. Yet before it could thank the monkey, the fox reappeared, a fat silver fish glittering in its mouth.

– Here, eat your fill!

And the spirit laughed, its heart swelling with joy:

– You are such charitable souls! And such skilled hunter and gatherer!

From under the bushes, the rabbit cringed shamefully at those words. The poor thing had not had the same luck as its fellow friends. It had searched and searched yet had come back to the spirit with empty paws. Ears down, the little animal lamented:

– I have to do something to help this unfortunate beggar. But what ?

Finally, the rabbit came back to the spirit and said to the monkey and the fox:

– My offering is not ready yet. Could you please help me build a fire? This sweet creature seems frozen to the bones.

The animals did as asked and soon, a bonfire burnt and cracked in front of the spirit, warming up its icy hands

The rabbit sighed and stood courageously in front of the blaze. It bowed and said, its voice quivering:

– Pardon me poor beggar, but I don’t have anything to offer you but myself… So, I am going to jump into this fire… I’ll be quickly cooked and you be able to eat.

Its companions didn’t have time to react: true to its words, the rabbit swiftly jumped and disappeared into the flames.

The spirit rose to full height, its divine glow returning in a flash:

– No, this wasn’t meant to be!

A gesture of its hand and a wind, cold as moonlight, rose and blew out the fire. Nestled in the ashes, laid the rabbit, barely breathing.

The divine spirit took the little creature gently in its arms:

– So selfless and so kind ! And now because of me you are dying! You don’t deserve this, you shouldn’t have hurt yourself on my behalf…

The spirit paused and looked at the rabbit tenderly:

– Would you be okay, joining me up in the moon? There you’ll live forever and ever with me, my gracious friend.

The rabbit nodded faintly. The spirit smiled, bright as full moon, as silky veils appeared from thin air. Under the amazed monkey and fox, a soft wind carried them up and up and up in the night sky, until they finally faded between clouds.

And, today still, if you look closely at the moon, maybe you’ll catch a rabbit silhouette, prove that once the moon spirit came to earth to find a mortal friend.


Notes:

I’ve covered it before, many Asian countries see rabbits in the moon markings and tsuki no usagi (the rabbit in the moon) is a very popular character in Japan.

Thanks to their high fertility, rabbits have been associated with the moon, itself symbol of prosperity, for centuries. The selfless rabbit is a famous story which probably appeared in India and then spread to all over Asia, and each country added its own tidbits.

The Hindu/buddhist tale helps us understand the self-violent act of the rabbit: killing an animal and eating meat was very taboo, so, by killing itself, the rabbit was protecting fellow creatures from a terrible act.

The Chinese version, the “Jade rabbit”,  was linked to the immortality brew legend. This explains why the rabbit in the moon is linked to the spirit of the moon (here the goddess Chang’e) but also to mortar and pestle.

Those tools in turned became tightly associated with this animal in Japan, at the exception rabbit was not mixing medicine anymore… but making mochi paste!

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]

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