The Magic, Mystery and Mythology of the Cherry
Updated: Apr 21
24th November 2020
In keeping with our favourite fruit of the Eastern Free State I re-worked an article I wrote a few years ago that delves into magic, mystery, history and mythology of this succulent fruit and the enigmatic cherry tree - Bon Appetit!
Image: Cherry Chapstick Girls - emilycswanson.wordpress.com
In Japan, the ‘Sakura’, or cherry tree is representative of good fortune, new beginnings and revival. The short-lived blossoms are not only a symbol of beauty and innocent pleasures but also of the briefness of life which increases our appreciation of the short time we share together with loved ones.
The Hanami festival is held annually in Japan to celebrate the coming of the cherry blossom in Spring. Friends, family and loved ones congregate amongst the cherry trees to celebrate and reflect on their happy relationships together.
Eastern mythology gives the fruit of the cherry tree the status of containing the elixir of life which gives the gods their immortality. Chinese law believes that the phoenix slept on a bed of cherry blossoms to bless it with immortality and regeneration.
Buddhist stories claim that the cherry represents fertility and femininity. According to legend, the mother of Buddha was supported by a holy cherry tree as she gave birth. The symbol of the cherry fruit is said to bring good fortune and future happiness in the coming days.
On researching this information I came across a fascinating, but sobering, article tracing how the cherry blossom has been used in rituals and ceremonies over a 1000 year timeline. This is taken from the pbs.org blog site. Held above all other flowers by the rulers of Japan, Ohnuki-Tierney writes the cherry blossom or sakura has been a symbol of “the cycle of life, death and rebirth, on the one hand, and of productive and reproductive powers, on the other” throughout the history of Japan. The trees have been used as symbols for everything from predicting successful harvests of rice to giving the World War II kamikaze pilots courage for their one-way missions.
Hanami: Blossom Viewing Party.
Kitao Shigemasa (1739 – 1820)
AD 710-794: Ritual cherry blossom viewings begin and trees are transplanted to towns.
"Cherry blossoms are connected to Japanese folk religions,
a symbol of reproduction and new life"
During this period, the Japanese begin to transplant cherry trees from the mountains to areas where people lived. The cherry trees were connected to beliefs in Japanese folk religions; many Japanese would go into the mountains during the spring to worship the trees. The trees were seen as sacred since they were considered to carry the soul of the mountain gods down to humans.
Ohnuki-Tierney says that every spring, the mountain deity travelled down to the fields on the falling petals of cherry blossoms and transformed into the deity of the rice paddies, a critical crop for Japanese agriculture and productivity. Cherry blossom viewings, therefore, began from religious rituals.
While the Chinese prize the plum blossoms, the aristocracy of Japan raised the cherry blossom to a new status. The ritual of hanami — elaborate cherry blossom viewing ceremonies and celebrations with singing, dancing, and drinking — began at the imperial courts, practiced by elite classes, but commoners also celebrated in rural areas.
The “Kojiki,” a compilation of oral accounts of the origins of Japan, was commissioned by Empress Gemmei. The Tang Dynasty of China was at its height of cultural, economic and military influence. The empress, threatened by Chinese culture seeping into the country, sought to establish a unique Japanese identity that proved Japanese culture developed autonomous to other regions. Thus, the book described what came to be known as the “Japanese spirit.” (Image - AD 712: First written reference of cherry blossom recorded in the “Kojiki”)
1192: The Samurai class rise to political power:
"Cherry blossoms exemplify the noble character of the “Japanese soul” —
men who do not fear death."
Yoritomo and the Minamoto clan seized power from the aristocracy establish a military government in Kamakura. Minamoto no Yoritomo defeated other powerful Japanese families to seize control of certain functions of the government and aristocracy. Minamoto then established a feudal system, with a private military known as the samurai who also had some political powers.
Constantine Vaporis, professor of history at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that as seppuku (ritual suicide) became a key part of the samurai’s Bushido code, the samurai “identified with the cherry blossom particularly because it fell at the moment of its greatest beauty, an ideal death.” The daimyo (or warlord) Asano Naganori captured this sentiment before committing ritual suicide: “Sadder than blossoms swept off by the wind, a life torn away in the fullness of spring.”
Vaporis also said that the Samurai decorated their military equipment with emblems of the cherry blossom, especially sword guards.
1868-1912: Meiji Restoration promotes imperial nationalism
"Cherry trees reflect the sacrifice of Japanese soldiers in service to the state of Japan"
Emperor Meiji reclaimed all the governing authority from the position of the shoguns (military leaders) and asserted that the emperor held supreme authority, establishing the Empire of Japan. The samurai lost their social status and privileges. After universal conscription, a new Japanese imperial army was created and all of its soldiers were bestowed with the Japanese spirit or soul, which Ohnuki-Tierney documents as “an exclusive spiritual property of the Japanese that endowed young men with a noble character, enabling them to face death without fear.”
Ohnuki-Tierney writes that these soldiers were told: “You shall die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor.” This idiom was only one part of the new Empire of Japan’s imperial nationalist goals and guided Japanese colonial efforts.
Cherry blossoms are planted at the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial specifically devoted to fallen soldiers since the Meiji period that the emperor visits occasionally. The cherry blossoms were supposed to console the souls of the soldiers.
(Image: Emperor Meiji in 1872, Silver print by Uchida Kuichi/Wikimedia Commons.)
1912: Japan gives U.S. 3,000 cherry trees.
"Cherry trees represent friendship and political alliances"
The Japanese government sends cherry trees to Washington on behalf of the people of Japan. The gift came after William Howard Taft was elected president and took office. Prior to the presidency, Taft served as the Secretary of War; he visited Japan and met with the prime minister so that they could affirm each other’s stakes and claims to colonized regions in Asia. Japan has given cherry trees to many other countries besides the U.S., including Brazil, China, Germany and Turkey.
1945: Thousands of kamikaze pilots fly to their deaths defending Japan
"Cherry blossoms represent Japanese soldiers who died during World War II"
Nearing defeat, Japanese vice-admiral Onishi Takijiro launched kamikaze operations as a last-ditch effort to save the Japanese homeland and the Japanese spirit. Tokkotai pilots affixed cherry blossom branches to their uniforms, with painted blossoms on sides of their planes.
2011: A tsunami strikes Japan March 11
"Cherry trees symbolize hope"
In the 2012 Oscar-nominated short documentary “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” a Japanese man reflects on the strength of the cherry trees to live on past the devastation. “This was all killed by the tsunami,” he told film director Lucy Walker. “But now, a month later, there are new shoots. The plants are hanging in there, so us humans had better do it, too”. For many Japanese the cherry trees were part of the life they knew prior to the renewal and rebuilding in the face of so much death and destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami.
On a different note, cherries have taken on a sexual identity over the years and apart from being a euphemism for losing one’s virginity, the roots go far deeper.
These juicy extracts from the https://broadly.vice.com blog site tell us:
It wasn't until the 15th century that domestic cherries were widespread throughout Europe. By the 17th century, cherries joined peaches, pears and apples in the early transatlantic voyages to America. This was the start of what is now a billion-dollar industry in the USA.
From this culinary history arose the cherry's legacy as a sex symbol. In ‘A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature’, Gordon Williams traces the cherry's cultural influence back to the 16th and 17th centuries, referring to some of the notable ways Europeans were using the fruit to talk about sins of the flesh.
Poets Josuah Sylvester and Robert Herrick liken "Cherrielets" to "niplets" and "teates" in multiple works; Charles Cotton compares a "Garden-plot of Maiden-hair" to black cherries in Erotopolis (1684), and John Garfield refers to sex as "playing at Bobb-Cherry" in the erotic pamphlet Wandering Whore II (1660).
Painting attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis
One of the most notable acknowledgements to cherries is one of the earliest. In the poem "There Is a Garden in Her Face" (1617), Thomas Campion likens the fruit to what is most commonly symbolizes today: the sex appeal of a pure, virginal young woman. During the 17th century, English cherry vendors would call out "cherry ripe" to alert potential buyers to the fruit, which Campion refers to here: "There is a garden in her face... / There cherries grow which none may buy / Till 'Cherry-ripe' themselves do cry." Sadly for Campion, the poem suggests his beautiful virgin isn't quite ripe for picking.
t wasn't until the late 19th century that this figurative meaning started to become widespread. "The image [of the cherry] is based on an idea of ripeness—and thus the virginity tends to be seen as something that, sooner or later, is due to be lost,"
As you see, the cherry as a sexual symbol isn't new but is still as popular a symbol in pop culture. The cherry is a regularly used pattern on pyjamas and adolescent girls' clothing, which considering its connotation of both purity and sex appeal, is questionable! Cherry references have also been used (and overused) in song lyrics by everyone from Neil Diamond to Joan Jet and ZZ Top.
But perhaps the fruit hit its peak of sensuality in the famous scene from the cult TV series ‘Twin Peaks’ (David Lynch 1989), when Audrey Horne slips a cherry between her bright red lips, eating the flesh and tying the stem with her tongue. In this one sequence she epitomised nearly every erotic thought that artists have labelled the cherry with over the years. She was drippingly sexual but also innocent and pure, and therefore ripe for entering the infamous brothel, One-Eyed Jacks.
The fruit itself is innately sexual—after all, it's defined as the enlarged ovaries of flowering plants—but cherries have always been on top!
I hope you have enjoyed this look at cherries through the ages. Remember, the season is quite short-lived so get eating/preserving/baking!
Words © Andrew Knapp 2020
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All images sourced from the internet.