Category Archives: Pillow Book

No One Likes a Lazy Exorcist

There are times in life when one hires a religious figure to complete a ceremony or needed task. Whether it is a priest, pastor, rabbi, or shaman, sometimes a spiritual authority is needed and thus summoned. We expect the figure to behave with the requisite solemnity or authority of someone in such a post. However, at times this is not what happens. A minister at a wedding stumbles over the vows, or a priest sneezes from an excessive amount of incense. Hateful!

So goes another anecdote from Sei Shonagon’s Most Hateful List:

“Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcising too many evil spirits lately, for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful!”


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Filed under exorcism, Pillow Book, Shonagon, superstition, Uncategorized

Make Strange Wagers with Your Boss

Though gambling is one of the remaining taboos in American culture, it was an every day amusement in Heian Japan. Betting was common, whether over competitive games such as Go, who could come up with the best poem, or every day events in nature over which one had no control.

One anecdote in Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” involves Heian-era gambling at its best. Sei boastfully declares that a certain mountain of snow will certainly not melt before a particular date that is weeks off. The Empress whom she serves, amused by the proclamation, takes her up on the wager. This leads to a great deal of stress for Sei. Initially confident, she finds herself spending weeks obsessively checking up on the snow mountain.

How many weeks will it take to melt?

How many weeks will it take to melt?

Her knowledge of nature and its ways ever sharp, Sei finds that while snow on the ground continues to melt, the snow mountain is still rather large. It melts further and further as times passes, however, and the last few days of watching an waiting are the worst for Sei.

Finally, the night before the final date of the wager, a relieved Sei notices there is still a tiny mound of snow left.  While she would not have lost a good deal of money had she lost, the mockery and laughter to which she would have been subject would have been totally merciless.

The next morning, as Sei arises, the mountain is GONE. Totally! Suspecting some sort of sabotage, she goes to the Empress, who bursts out laughing in her face. While Sei had won, the Empress ordered men to destroy and haul off the remaining snow in the night just to see the look on Sei’s shocked, distressed face.

There’s a lesson here. Don’t make weird bets with your boss you can’t absolutely control. While it may be tempting to wager that a leftover slice of cake won’t be eaten two weeks after an office birthday party, your boss might secretly bribe a glutton with low standards to eat it when you’re not looking. Offer a bet like that, and you might just be the laughing stock of the office. Think about it.


Filed under gambling, Literature, nature, Pillow Book, Sadako, Shonagon

Demand Poems from All Your Friends

In one of the many anecdotes that characterizes Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, Sei, a lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako, (who is the wife of Emperor Ichijo and a niece of Michinaga) goes with the other ladies in waiting to see a particular type of bird by a pond. They pile into a carriage and risk attack from robbers outside of the city. Heian Kyo, (current day Kyoto) or the city of peace and tranquility, was a walled city that only the aristocracy or gentry and royal court were allowed to enter and live in. As a result, leaving the city could result in danger from bandits on isolated roads. Nevertheless, the ladies in waiting to Empress Sadako had to see that bird, which was some type of relative of a Kookibura, and so ventured out during the evening to observe it by a pond.

Upon their return to the royal court, they were met with a singular demand by Sadako: Where are your poems?
Writing, sending, and reciting poems was extremely important in Heian society. One sent them to lovers, friends, and relatives, and memorized the most popular ones for recitation contests at the royal court. When one had a sorrowful, spiritual or beautiful experience in nature, one wrote a standard three line poem to express the emotions felt. However, Sei and her cohorts failed to do this, after having told EVERYONE at court that they were specifically going to see this lovely bird with a haunting cry in the evening by a lake. What could inspire poetry if not that scene?
The ladies all sit and immediately try to recapture the moment, but alas, it’s too late. No one writes a poem of which she can be proud, or which she wishes to share with all of the court. They all feel deep humiliation and shame.

When your friends tell of you their experiences, sights, or feelings, indignantly demand a poem. And how did that NOT inspire you to write a three line poem with the standard conceits?, you’ll ask incredulously. Show me the poems!


Filed under Michinaga, Pillow Book, poetry, Sadako