Originally native to China, the flower known as Lycoris radiata (Red Spider Lily) spread to neighboring regions, including Japan. China was also actively exporting Buddhism – it would be in Japan that the Flower and the Faith would become intertwined.
The Red Spider Lily is a poisonous plant.
Not just the bulbs, the petals or the stems…
Every part induces a violent physical response in humans.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be facing vomiting and diarrhea.
If you’re not so lucky, you’re looking at paralysis, leading to death.
However, this reaction is not limited to humans.
What’s in a name?
Would a Red Spider Lily by any other name smell as sweet?
Here are some other names for the flower:
- Poisonous Flower
- Dead Person Flower
- Ghost Flower
- Abandoned Child Flower
- Hell Flower
There are more; many, many more. Some sources list up to 1,000 names.
Not all of them are quite so dark…
So where does this association with death originate?
Here we have to return to an earlier observation:
Red Spider Lily is a poisonous plant…not limited to humans.
So where did people plant Red Spider Lily?
Wherever they needed animal control…
It was customary in Japan to bury the dead.
However, they didn’t use coffins; it was a natural, earth burial.
Which meant that any vermin could come along and dig up the recently departed, strewing human remains across the cemetery.
Solution: surround/cover the grave with Red Spider Lily.
So, cemeteries became associated with the flower, which in turn became associated with Death. Add to this the flower’s ghostly swaying in the breeze, and a potent symbolic connection was forged.
the Red Spider Lily,
the Hell Flower…
Leave it to the Buddhists to look on the brighter side of Death:
The Lotus Sutra is a fundamental text for many schools of Buddhism, especially those that flourished in China and Japan.
(To understand the significance of this, you need to be aware that there is no central holy text in Buddhism. It was possible to construct a school based on any Sutra, which is why there so many schools of Buddhism)
At one point in the Sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the Gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many Buddhists associate this flower – called Manjushage – with Red Spider Lily; as result, many Buddhist (and Shinto) temples cultivate the flowers.
Higan is a holiday celebrated by many Japanese Buddhist sects during the Spring equinox (shunbun) and Autumnal equinox (shūbun).
Ohigan means “the other shore”. Those familiar with the Heart Sutra might recognize the concept from the Mantra itself – however in this context it refers to the Sanzu river, a Styx like mythical river that separates the lands of the living from the realms of the dead.
Shūbun, the Fall equinox, is marked by the appearance of Red Spider Lily.
These flowers also bloom in the underworld, guiding souls to their next births.
From a mythological perspective, this is the function of a psychopomp, a spirit who guides one to – and sometimes through – the Underworld.
So, the Hell Flower marks graves, guides spirits, figures into Japanese Buddhist mythology while acting as a potent animal repellent (it’s also used to protect crops).
And it still boasts over 1,000 names (I think “Abandoned Child Flower ” is the creepiest).
Whatever its name, it makes only one promise:
to point the way
to that distant shore…