“Goddess of wealth, good fortune, rivers and water”, “Bestower of language and letters”, “Patron of music, poetry, learning and art”, “Defender of the nation” and “Protector of Buddhist law” – Not a bad CV. The legendary Benten boasts a plethora of titles to rival another famous dragon riding Queen. This International Women’s Day we are celebrating this legendary Deity of Japanese mythology.
Benten depicted on a Silver and multi-metal box from our collection of Japanese metalware
Benzaiten (often shortened to Benten) is the only female God of the lucky seven. She is one of Japan’s most widely worshipped deities. In fact, every major city has a temple dedicated to her and there are countless personal shrines in palaces and homes alike around the country. She is worshipped across many religions including esoteric Buddhist, Shinto and Shugendo.
Although highly revered by the Japanese she did not originate from Japan. The Benten that we know today is an amalgamation of many Gods and differing beliefs. Her earliest origins can be found in the Hindu river Goddess Sarasvati. In Sanskrit her name refers to an ancient mythical Indian river thus making Sarasvati the Goddess of everything that flows: music, poetry, learning, love, writing, wisdom and the arts. This association has carried through to the modern incarnations of Benten in Japan.
A beautiful Okimono of Benten (Japanese, Circa 1880)
Over many hundreds of years Benten has taken many forms, ranging from a female musician playing a biwa (Japanese lute) to an eight armed vengeful deity. She is even sometimes described as a three headed snake! Benten has also been depicted as a divine representation of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess and mother of the first Emperor of Japan.
The Sun Goddess Amaterasu, depicted on a fine Satsuma vase by Kinkozan
Due to her occasional Snake form and affinity with water, Dragons and Snakes are closely associated with Benten. The white snake is her messenger and in Japanese art she is often seen riding on the back of a large dragon. She is also sometimes seen riding with a female white fox (Inari). In this form she carries a jewel used to bestow blessings on those deemed worthy.
Benten entertaining the other 6 Lucky Gods as she plays her Biwa
One interpretation of Benzaitens name in Chinese is “Goddess of Eloquent Discourse” and the legend of “The Creation of Enoshima Island” is a great insight as to how she earned that name….
The Creation of Enoshima Island
Once on the bank of lake Fukasawa there was a small village named Tsumura, it was plagued by an evil five headed dragon who made the lake his home. For many years he tormented the villagers, swooping down upon them, destroying their homes and eating their children. The dragon did not stop at Tsumura, taking his reign of terror further throughout the eight lands, the elders of the lands came together and decided that a female child must be sacrificed to appease the dragon.
That night as they prepared to sacrifice the girl, dark clouds covered the sea and large earthquakes shook the ground for a day and a night. A bright goddess appeared above the clouds, flanked by myriad spirits – dragon spirits, the spirits of water, fire, thunder and lightning as well as mountain spirits, demons and the ghosts of the dead. Together they conjured great boulders from the clouds and made rocks and sand rise up from the sea, lightning flashed and flames burned in the churning waves of the lake.
The next day the clouds dispersed revealing an island, and on it in a golden grotto. The manifestation of Benzaiten, adorned in her finery with a large jade pendant and playing the most beautiful music on her biwa. She shone like the Autumn moon.
A celestial Benten appears on this wonderful Satsuma vase by Chikusai
The dragon was mesmerised with the Deity and wanted Benten for his own, he professed his desires to her, to which she replied “I have made a pledge of compassion and pity for all creatures. But you mercilessly and rapaciously end their lives. In body and heart we are complete opposites and that is all the more reason that your desire makes no sense!”
The shamed dragon pledged to follow her teachings, faced south and turned himself into a large hill.The villagers named it Dragon Mouth Hill. And from that day they lived happy peaceful lives, the island of Enoshima is still there to this day and many people make the pilgrimage there to pay their respects to the Goddess who saved them.
A majestic wood-carved Okimono depicting Benten sitting on a natural throne
We hope you enjoyed this read. You can peruse other blogs and articles inspired by our collection of Chinese and Japanese Fine Art and Antiques by clicking here and you can see last years’ International Women’s Day blog here.