Vegder's Blog

May 7, 2009

Gourds 瓢箪 Hyōtan

(Spirit) Possession is 9/10ths of the Law – especially for gourds – and everything else

Above is my doctored image taken from a great woodblock print triptych by Toyokuni III from the collection of Mike Lyon.

The first mention of gourds in Japanese literature was in the Nihongi (日本紀: 720 A. D.) where it relates an account of a story which ostensibly took place in 379. The people who lived near Kahashima River were being terrorized by a large poisonous snake which lived in its waters. A hero was needed so one was called upon – the warden of the district, “a man of fierce temper and great bodily strength.” He looked down and “flung into the water three whole calabashes, saying: ‘Thou art continually belching up poison and therewithal plaguing travellers. I will kill thee, thou water snake. If thou canst sink these calabashes, then will I take myself away, but if thou canst not sink them, then will I cut up thy body.’ ” The calabashes did the trick, of course.

This story is interesting on a number of levels. As for credibility one needs only to read the accounts of the evening of August 21, 1986 when a cloud of carbon dioxide was belched up from the bottom of Lake Nyos (ニオス湖) in Chad (チャド). It rolled down the hillsides and into the valleys nearby as  a silent killer. By dawn 1,700 people had suffocated – not to mention a slew of cattle, dogs  and wildlife in the immediate vicinity. When it erupted it was thought to have sent a jet of water as high as 260′ into the air and to have traveled at a speed of 45 mph taking about 12 minutes to reach local villages. And Nyos has not been the only lake to act this way. Perhaps the snake demon of the Kahashima River was more real than we could have imagined. (Above is a photo of Lake Nyos posted on the web at commons.wikimedia by Frédéric Mahé.)

Nyos may be atypical because it is thought to contain approximately 1,600 times the amount of CO2 found in most lakes. Worldwide special sirens have been set up around volcanoes to go off when the levels of carbon dioxide get too high. Perhaps these  might not have helped but a few of its victims. Then again … if only they had had such devices back in 379 in Japan those three gourds might not have been necessary and gourds might have gone unmentioned for another few hundred years. Who knows?

Now on a personal note: Calabash is a red flag word for me. I can’t hear without thinking about Jimmy Durante. If you are old enough you know why. Also… the words calabash and gourd are often used interchangeably while at other times one means a plant grown on a tree and he other on a vine. But even there it is not so simple. Sometimes it is the other way around. Sir Walter Raleigh used the words as synonyms. To top that off – if it wasn’t already confusing enough – the word calabash may have its root in the Persian word for melon.

Gourd man

Gourd man

The lowly gourd has high significance in both Chinese and Japanese cultures. In China it meant something to both the Taoists and the Ch’an Buddhist sects. The connections between the two cultures is often tenuous, but always there to some degree. Not only did it have spiritual and mystical significance, but it also came to stand for Hideyoshi, the great unifier of 16th century Japan. A man of humble birth who chose the gourd as one of his heraldic signs.

Hyōtan Courge_encore_verte_Pixeltoo_7瓢箪
The Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) Stanley
or bottle gourd
Dower tell us that no family adopted the gourd as a crest because it of its baseness since it was often used to carry saké and saké led to licentiousness. Source: The Elements of Japanese Design by John W. Dower, pp. 54-5. Despite what Dower says about the humble gourd Hideyoshi took it as one of his signifying crests. Of lowly birth his family was well below the level of families which would use a crest or mon. “…when, in 1575, [Hideyoshi]… obtained a command, he adopted a water gourd as his emblem, and added another one for every victory he gained, until the number grew into a large bunch, and he was called The Lord of the Golden Water Gourds.”Quoted from: The Story of Japan by R. Van Bergen, published by American Book Company, 1897, p. 74.Nikolai Gogol tells us in “The Diary of a Madman” that “There are plenty of instances in history when somebody quite ordinary, not necessarily an aristocrat, some middle-class person or even a peasant, suddenly turns out to be a public figure and perhaps even the ruler of a country.” So the story of the peasant Hideyoshi rising to top and unifying Japan on the way is not absolutely unique. The first Han emperor was said to have been born a peasant. And while Napoleon wasn’t born of common stock he wasn’t in line to rule an empire until he crowned himself. Since then many madmen have thought they were Napoleons or at least the movies would make us believe so. Gogol’s madman was a lowly clerk but he believed himself to be the King of Spain. Perhaps that is why we could say he was out of his gourd. (The madman also thought dogs could talk and that he read their written correspondences.)To the left is a beautiful photograph of a gourd taken by Pixeltoo. This was placed in the public domain at

The Death of Buddha – with a gourd as a ‘stand-in’ for the reclining Shakyamuni. There is a fairly rare sub-genre of Japanese woodblock prints which shows the historic Buddha surrounded by his devotees and members of the animal kingdom. Remember that in the scheme of things there are belief systems that say all living things are related. The point of the death of Buddha is that he is breaking the cycle of birth-death-birth-death or near-eternal suffering. In fact, Nirvana is based on the concept of ‘blowing out’ or extinguishing and by extension becoming one with the universe. This universe, of course. There are others. Below is an example of the death of Buddha by Shigenaga from the ca. 1730s to 40s. It comes from the Allen Memorial Museum Collection at Oberlin College in Ohio. Below that is an image I found at a Ritsumeikan University site showing a reclining gourd as Buddha surrounded by his followers. Great stuff, eh?!!!

Oberlin_Shigenaga_ca._1730s_7b   Allen Memorial Art Museum, The Ainsworth Collection, Oberlin College

Ritsumeikan_gourd_as_dying_Buddha_7b   Ritsumeikan University

An ‘Aha!’ Moment! Sometimes it just amazes me how dim I can be. The print shown above which represents the nehan or transition of a living creature from this world to Nirvana, isn’t just a gourd substituted for the historical buddha, Śākyamuni, but it is a gourd standing in for the recently deceased (1859) kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VII standing in for the historical buddha. The fantastical, human and animal creatures all represent his grieving fan club.

Besides that, the gourd became one of his families crests when Danjūrō II was given a gourd once owned by Matsuo Bashō, the great haiku poet. He had carried rice in it.

In China one of the Eight Immortals (八仙) of Taoism is Li T’ieh Kuai, 李鐵拐, whose symbol is a gourd. “From it clouds of vapour rise, denoting his power of freeing his spirit from the body to wander at will.” Often he holds it out from his body and smoke spirals upward showing his powers of releasing spirits. While in Japan the simple gourd took on significance as a Zen concept. The early fifteenth century artist Josetsu (如拙/じょせつ: 1394-1428) was tasked with painting “Catching a catfish with a gourd.” The meaning was clear: this is a nearly impossible task. It can’t be done. (Below is a detail of Josetsu’s painting which I found at commons.wikimedia.)

And yet the Japanese played with this theme over the next few centuries. Some of this had to do with the catfish itself which was believed to be the cause of earthquakes and destruction. Quelling the catfish would mean controlling one of the most frightening forces of nature. A near impossibility  Other creatures were brought in by artistic satirists/humorists like Kuniyoshi in the early to mid-19th c. Below is a detail from one of his prints showing a monkey who has succeeded where others have failed. Seen with the monkey is a demon representing the thunder god, but its inclusion in the scene is incidental and in no way connected as far as I can tell.

The Monkey, et al., the Catfish and the Gourd

The monkey caught the catfish

The monkey caught the catfish

There are two great 19th century netsuke in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in which the carvers dealt brilliantly with this theme. In the first it is a monkey, but in the second it is one of those impish, trouble-making kappa (河童). Nasty little bastards. Of course, I am referring specifically to the kappa, not the monkey. Both come from the Avery Brundage Collection.

Asian_Art_Museum_SF_catfish_gourd_netsuke_7   Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Below is a Toyokuni III print of a catfish and gourd from the Mead Museum of Art, Amherst.

Mead_Art_Museum_Amherst_catfish_gourd_monkey_Toyokuni_III_7b   Mead Museum of Art, Amherst.


Kuniyoshi’s wit didn’t stop there. He created a whole series of utterly fantastic images of tanuki which – if one can get past the anatomical features of these creatures – are among the most exciting pieces ever produced anywhere. In the image we have posted a typically endowed tanuki is clubbing an irksome catfish with his rather prodigious gourd-shaped scrotum. Don’t be misled: concentrate on the gourd-nature of the tanuki‘s anatomy. That is the important thing to remember here. Note that the man made of gourds near the top of this post is also by Kuniyoshi.

Making the best use of one's assets.

Making the best use of one’s assets.

Squishing humor – There are quite a few humorous variations on the catfish/gourd motif. One particularly striking surimono by Gan Rei (岸礼) – an artist I had never heard of before now – dating from sometime in the 19th century shows a ponderously huge gourd flattening an improbably small catfish. There has to be a message in there somewhere. If only I could read and understand the text… If only…
© Trustees of the British Museum

The gourd as a decorative motif –

There is  a mid-19th century triptych in the British Museum by Toyokuni III of beautiful women on a river outing. One of them is wearing a gorgeous kimono decorated with white gourds against a deep blue ground. Fortunately we are able to show it to you here courtesy of that museum.

Toyokuni III print detail of a beauty wearing a gourd patterned kimono.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Toyoyama of Okamatoya house by Eisen wearing a robe with a gourd motif.

An Eisen print from ca. 1820-30 showing an oiran wearing a robe with a gourd and catfish motif –

    © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The risk of portraying Hideyoshi and his gourds

A gourd standard as imagined for Hideyoshi as shown in volume one of the Ehon taikōki. I have added the colors and blocked out the surrounding areas.

Henri L. Joly gives a wonderful account of how Hideyoshi came to adopt this gourd-ian standard. True or not, it doesn’t matter because it makes for a good tale: “Hideyoshi having no standard to carry before him, improvised one by plucking a gourd plant by its roots and using it as a pennon. After beating his opponent he adopted the gourd as a standard, vowing that he would add to his banner (Umajirushi) one gourd for each victory he won thereafter. This incident is said to date from circa 1550…”

In a book from 1904 by Walter Denning there is a footnote that says that umajirushi originated in the time of Oda Nobunaga. I can’t vouch for this. However, the note goes on to say that the banner of Hideyoshi “…consisted of a large number of artificial, gilded gourds. It was known as the Sen nari hisago (the thousand gourds), and it is said that as time went on when an enemy perceived Hideyoshi’s five-coloured flag and his Commander’s thousand-gourd ensign he often beat a hasty retreat or sent a herald to sue for peace…”

Prior to the rise of the Tokugawa clan under the leadership of Ieyasu there was Hideyoshi. For historical reasons the Tokugawas had issues with the glorification of their predecessors. They even worried about how they themselves were and would be portrayed so they tried to control all and any ‘propoganda’ which might undermine their authority. In fact, “…Hideyoshi remained a dangerous topic and for most of the Tokugawa period books on this subject had been circulated in manuscript.” However, it wasn’t until 1797 and the publication of Okada Gyokusan’s (岡田玉山 1737-1812) illustrated Ehon taikōki (絵本太閤記) “…which launched the fad for books and prints concerning Hideyoshi and the battles of the late sixteenth century…” that the government sat up and began to take action. “In 1804 an edict sought to put an end to the publication of these works by banning all references to warriors active from 1573 onwards and all pictorial representations, including crests [like that of multiple gourds used by Hideyoshi illustrators], in prints. And it is reported that Ehon taikōki was banned and that Utagawa Toyokuni, Kitagawa Utamaro and other print artists spent 50 days in handcuffs as punishment for their productions during these years.”

These quotes are from The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century by Peter Kornicki.

You know a motif has entered the national psyche when it appears on a manhole cover – Below is an image of a manhole cover from the grounds of the park at Osaka Castle. Gourd-geous, isn’t it!

On tsuba – While researching gourds I found two wonderful tsuba or sword guards at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that are too similar not to be connected somehow. One is by Hirayama Yoshinaga (平山美壽) and shows an oni or demon playing a shamisen while sitting by a giant gourd with a capped top with a leafy branch coming out of it. The other one is by Nitta Yukimitsu (行光) and has almost exactly the same design, but the top is off of its gourd and a frightening spectre has emerged – similar to Aladdin’s lamp and its genii. Compare them for yourself.  You’ll be amazed.

On a kashira or pommel cap – There is a kashira in the collection of the Walters Museum in Baltimore which shows a horse inside a gourd. The expression “like a horse coming out of a gourd” is used to mean something completely unexpected, even unbelievable.

   Walters Art Museum

There is a wonderful surimono in the British Museum designed by two great artists – It would seem that Kuniyoshi, who frequently used a gourd cartouche for his signature, and Zeshin collaborated on this work in 1849. In the ‘foreground’ are two portraits of two famous actors. From the looks of it this is the Kuniyoshi part. Behind that is gourd motif. That, I would assume, is by Zeshin. Take a look.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子) and the miraculous gourd – Recently I ran across another Kuniyoshi curiosity. In ca. 1840 he produced an odd print which relates the a legend about the birth of Shōtoku (574-622). The example below is from the British Museum, but there is also another example in the collection of the University of Kansas where they describe the subject as “The miraculous gourd guarded by sacred snake which appeared in the garden of Emaro in Sanuki province around the time of the birth of Prince Shotoku”.

Before you proceed, I want you to know that I don’t know anything more about this story, but will try to look into it and if something comes up I will get back to you later. Stay tuned.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

China/Japan – gourd and horse

© Harvard University – This painting showing Chōkarō Sennin releasing the horse from the gourd was painted by Kano Tsunenobu (狩野常信: 1636-1713).
Kunisada print showing an otsu-e painting insert in the upper right of a horse emerging from a gourd.

There is a similar print  with a similar layout by Kuniyoshi from the collection of the Edinburgh Central Library.

   Edinburgh Central Library

The gourd motif in China

On porcelain snuff bottles –  Not only is there a long tradition of using gourd motifs in Chinese art and crafts, but there has been a great use of wit and creative invention. Below are two double gourd-shaped porcelain snuff bottles from the time of the Qianlong dynasty (1736-1795). The shape alone would be enough to evoke the organic sense of this fruit, but then the men who designed them covered their forms with a gourd decorations. A double whammy. Not only that, but the snuff on the left also has red bats painted on it. (See my ‘bats’ post.)

     © The Trustees of the British Museum

A clear and present influence – There is a remarkable piece of blown, carved, overlaid, enameled, gilded and etched glass which is just a shade over 9″ tall is now in the Corning Museum. It is in the shape of a gourd and was made in the 19th century at Thomas Webb and Sons in England. The East Asian influence is unmistakable. See for yourself. Not only is it a masterpiece, but clearly it is also an homage to its Chinese predecessors.

   Corning Museum of Glass

If you find the pitted-look of the glass vase shown above at variance with the arguments I have been making about cross-cultural borrowing then take a gander at a 19th century inrō case in the collection of the Met.

On glass snuff bottles – Below is another Chinese snuff from the British Museum collection. It dates from the 19th century. Unlike the snuff shown above the form is not gourd-shpaed. Chinese craftsmen created astounding glass snuffs in the 18th and 19th centuries. This one is made from red glass layered over white glass where the red is carved away to show the white base. Such snuffs are brilliantly masterful and look so damned modern. The stopper is green jade.

     © The Trustees of the British Museum

What might not be immediately obvious is the similarity between the glass snuff bottle shown above and, what I believe is its source inspiration, Mughal jades. There is a particularly fascinating oval box made of jade inlaid with gold and precious stones. Even the Met is unsure as to whether this item was made in Mughal India (1526-1858) or QingChina (1644-1911). What they do seem confident of is that it was created in the 18th century. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Its beauty is undeniable.

All that is glass gourds is not snuff bottles – There is a small Chinese vase, 9 7/8″ tall, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It dates from the time of the Qing dynasty and shows blue bats, peaches and flowers. The ground is a sort-of burnt orange color overlaid with blue cut through to provide the decoration. Masterfully done too.

Just because it is so beautiful – I have been a fan of the work of Qi Baishi (Ch: 齊白石: 1863-1957) for years. While researching gourds I found that he had produced a number of stunningly beautiful painting of these plants. While Westerners may look at these on simply an aesthetic level they may well have meant much, much more to the artist considering his own cultural milieu.

Please keep in mind that in the broadest terms there is very little separation which can be found between the artistic approaches of the Japanese and Chinese when it comes to commonly shared motifs.

   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

It is common knowledge that kappas, those nasty little creatures, love melons, cucumbers and pumpkins, but hates gourds. There is a story, the kappa muko or The Kappa Bridegroom, as related by Michael Dylan Foster. In it a farmer is suffering from a drought so he offers his daughter to anyone who can bring water to his fields. A kappa does this and the farmer, true to his word, gives him the hand [and all the rest] of his daughter to be his wife. Naturally the woman is appalled and says she will be docile and obedient if the kappa can keep some gourds submerged. Try as he might he can’t and exhausted by the whole affair wanders off.  So does the marriage. (Below is an image of a kappa swimming along happily holding his pickle.)

The Kyūri vs. the Hyōtan – the Cucumber vs. the Gourd – 黄瓜 vs. 瓢箪: A Freudian Interpretation

Michael Dylan Foster, mentioned above, posits a completely Freudian approach to why kappa like cucumbers and are put off by gourds: Cucumbers are 98% water while gourds are hollow and dry. “In shape and in moisture content the cucumber clearly represents a fertility symbol…” while the hyōtan is a threat to that potency. Another possibility is that both plants represent fertility because “…kyūri is a symbol of the male aspect while the hyōtan, with its womb-like nature (and the fact that hyōtan often contain seeds), represents the female aspect. Just as the kappa loses its potency upon spilling the water in its sara [the bowl-like shape at the top of its head], so the hyōtan, as a dry vessel that can contain and carry away liquid, may also represent to the kappa a potential loss of moisture and potency. The same sort of wet-dry…” hypothesis appears among the Indo-European and Semitic cultures. I am not taking sides here. I am only reporting.

Sèvres glorious Sèvres – People who don’t like porcelains will never understand why I am so passionate about them. In the history of European manufacturing Sèvres ranks high. It started out as a royal prerogative. It produced almost exclusively for the Louis(s) and their crowd at the beginning. In fact, their first identifying mark was a pair of interlaced ells. Below is an example from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was created in 1775, just eighteen years before that ugly “off with their heads” incident.

   © V&A Images

But being headless didn’t stop this exquisite factory from going on through a number of incarnations over the next 100 plus years. Below are two Art Nouveau vases which I found while searching for material for this post. Both are by the same potter, Léon Kann. The first one is from the collection of the Met and dates from 1900. The second one is from the Les Arts Décoratifs and may date from a year later or so. I am going to go out on the limb here and say that the East Asian influence is obvious. What do you think?

Xrz_Betty_Boop_rose_2016_(7d) Today is May 28, 2016 and I am now revisiting this page on gourds, the first one I ever posted at this web log. While looking things over I realized, maybe for the first time, maybe not, that these two Sèvres vases are both from exactly the same mold, but glazed in completely different ways. Wonderful isn’t it? Marvelous. The only other difference is that they were photographed from slightly different angles. See.

   © Les Arts Décoratifs

You think you really know someone well and then they surprise you – For years I ate, slept and drank in all of the art I could, especially focused on the European masters, and thought I knew much of what there was to know about artists like Dürer, Rembrandt, et al. Then I started looking at the subject of gourds more closely and guess what… there in a famous Dürer print of St. Jerome in his study is a huge gourd hanging from the ceiling. Who would have thought? [That’s a rhetorical question, you know. I suspect I already knew about it, but had forgotten.]

        Both examples shown here are from .

Now I am going to go all biblical on you

In the Book of Jonah God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh to tell the people there that they are going to be punished for their iniquities. But Jonah didn’t wanna so he tried to escape by sea. So, God sent a great storm which frightened all of the sailors on the boat and they prayed to their gods for salvation. Just as a precaution they threw everything they could spare overboard in order to lighten their load. Through all this tumult the captain found Jonah sleeping peacefully in the hold of the ship. The captain woke him and told him to pray to his god too, for good measure. But the storm just kept getting worse. So, the sailors drew lots to determine who was the cause of this and everything pointed toward Jonah. He admitted as much and told them to cast him into the sea and that then storm would stop. They did and it did. Then God sent a giant fish to swallow Jonah so he could live in its belly for three days until God ordered the fish to spit him out – which it did. Then God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them that they were going to be destroyed in 40 days.

Jonah was pissed, but he did what God told him to do. When the people of Nineveh heard what was going to happen to them they repented and God decided they could be spared. This did not sit well with Jonah. By this time and after all he had been through he wanted them annihilated and he let God know this in no uncertain terms. God was unable to reason with him so Jonah went off to the east in a huff and built a shelter so he could sit in the heat and still watch for the destruction from there even though he had been told the whole retribution thing has been canceled. But Jonah wouldn’t listen so in the sweltering desert heat he sat and watched. “Then the Lord God ordained that a climbing gourd [some say it was a castor-oil plant] should grow up over his head to throw its shade over him and relieve his distress, and Jonah was grateful for the gourd. But at dawn the next day God ordained that a worm should attack the gourd, and it withered; and at sunrise God ordained that a scorching wind should blow up from the east.” Jonah was miserable and wanted to die. God asked him if he felt that way because of the gourd incident and Jonah said that had made him ‘mortally angry.’ To which God basically said “Live with it.” [My words.]

The reason I have added this part  is many fold, but mainly for its folkloric elements. The religious significance of both the gourd and the worm are striking. Both of these also play a role in Japanese lore. However, they are major differences. Go to our entry on tachibana on our other web site to read about a ‘false worm-god’ and its relationship to a different plant – the mandarin orange. You will find it toward the bottom of that entry. Still… isn’t it odd that worms and gods should play such a prominent role in two such divergent and unrelated cultures?

Is that the fish that swallowed Jonah or just a stand-in for Christ? – There is another remarkable piece of glass at the Corning Museum dating from the 4th century. It shows a large fish swimming below a bunch of gourds. It is of a type known as sandwich in which the design is gold leaf held between two pieces of glass. The gourds would appear to be an obvious reference to Jonah, but the interpretation of the fish is up in the air.

   Corning Museum of Glass

Now I’ll go all linguistic on you

In an article called JONAH AND THE “GOURD” AT NINEVEH: CONSEQUENCES OF A CLASSIC MISTRANSLATION by Jules Janick at Purdue and Harry Paris in Israel they note that the entire Book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur (יום כיפור), the Day of Atonement. It is very short, but instructional. The plant that God grew to make a point is called one thing in the original Hebrew version and another in the King James. But let’s not be so quick to blame the early 17th century English when the problem seems to go back to an early Greek translation from the 3rd century B.C. about two thousand years earlier.

The Hebrew word is qiqayon which is the castor-bean plant (Ricinus communis of the spurge family – the Euphorbiaceae). The confusion first came with qiqayon sounding like the Greek kolokynthi (Κολοκύνθη) or colocynth, to some early scholar/zealot was translated incorrectly. This word, in turn, the kolokynthi, was translated into the Latin as cucurbita, our gourd – perhaps because those words were relatively close sounding.Is it any wonder I make so many mistakes?

Below on the left is a photo of a castor-bean plant with somebody’s hand for scale. This was posted by Shu Suehiro on his site: The one to the right is a a colocynth plant and was posted by H. Zell at

A point that Janick and Paris make is that the colocynth do appear in the Old Testament in the Second Book of Kings. In the passage one of the followers of Elisha had mistakenly gathered the fruit of this plant – also referred to the almost inedible bitter melon – and cooked them with other ingredients in a soup-like concoction. When the other followers began eating they all thought they had been poisoned and cried out that “…there is death in the pot…” But Elisha knew better and saved the day by adding some flour and voilà – they ate it.

Of course, there is a “What were you thinking? moment here when we ask how someone could have confused the bitter melon with a castor-bean plant – let alone the issue of g-o-u-r-d-s. I suppose an ancient Greek writer living in Alexandria, Egypt might have known the word Κολοκύνθη but might not have known much if anything about the nature of that plant which not only does not climb but couldn’t possibly provide shade.

As if you weren’t already confused enough colocynths were often confused with other gourds like the Lagenaria siceraria (Molina) during the Renaissance. That is the same as the bottle gourd shown further up this page. This is the plant closest to the word chosen for the reference to Jonah in the Qur’an – yaqtin.

St. Augustine vs. St. Jerome and their hair-splitting Jonah controversy

St. Jerome was a brilliant eccentric and highly opinionated writer. For example, he discouraged early Christians from bathing because he felt that they should be ashamed of their naked bodies. If they must they shouldn’t bathe more than once or twice a year and virgins should never bathe if possible. (Cf. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies by J. N. D. Kelly) I am not making this stuff up. For Jerome filth was next to godliness. But that is not what troubled Augustine. He quarreled with Jerome’s scholarship. Jerome was a brilliant linguist and he was the first Christian to translate the Hebrew bible directly into Latin giving us the Vulgate version. According to Jerome the plant sent by God to shelter Jonah was an hedera or ivy. Augustine disagreed. I am not sure that we have a record of the original correspondence but in 405 A. D. Augustine had written to Jerome: “Wherefore, as to that shrub in the book of Jonah, if in the Hebrew it is neither ‘gourd’ nor ‘ivy,’ but something else which stands erect, supported by its own stem without other props, I would prefer to call it “gourd” as in all our Latin versions; for I do not think that the Seventy would have rendered it thus at random, had they not known that the plant was something like a gourd…” The year before Jerome had answered an earlier (lost?) letter from Augustine: “I have already given a sufficient answer to this in my commentary on Jonah. At present, I deem it enough to say that in that passage, where the Septuagint has “gourd,” and Aquila and the others have rendered the word ‘ivy’ (kissos), the Hebrew MS. has ‘ciceion,’ which is in the Syriac tongue, as now spoken, ‘ciceia.’ It is a kind of shrub having large leaves like a vine, and when planted it quickly springs up to the size of a small tree, standing upright by its own stem, without requiring any support of canes or poles, as both gourds and ivy do. If, therefore, in translating word for word, I had put the word ‘ciceia,’ no one would know what it meant; if I had used the word ‘gourd,’ I would have said what is not found in the Hebrew. I therefore put down ‘ivy,’ that I might not differ from all other translators.”

To me this is an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a pin problem. My point: If you think all of this is superfluous you might be right, but if on the other hand, you begin to see how difficult it is to work from any original source material – let alone translations – then maybe you will understand how hair-pulling it can be to try to ascertain the ‘true’ meaning of any culture ‘fact’ – Japanese or otherwise. It just can’t be done – at least not to 100% certitude.

Methinks, thy head-gear is some scooped-out gourd! 

This is a line from a poem from 1884, Ferishtah’s Fancies, by Robert Browning (ロバート·ブラウニング: 1812-1889). It is in a section called The Mellon-seller and deals with a man from Ispahan – now Isfahan, one of those cities which might get bombed in an attack on Iran because of its nuclear development program. The image below is from a print in the British Museum dating from ca. 1874. It shows a Hawaiian wearing a gourd mask/helmet. The Browning poem reminded me of it.

   © The Trustees of the British Museum

Browning, one of my favorite poets – not that I read much poetry these days – mentions gourds again in another poem, The Englishman in Italy:

With lasagne so tempting to swallow
          In slippery ropes,
A gourd fried in great purple slices,
          That colour of popes.

An ancient Chinese proverbVenerable Heaven does not destroy the big fool gourd. This is said to mean “Heaven cares also for the half-witted.”

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. […] representing the prosperity of Osaka, which faces the ocean. The shape of the garden is based on a Sennari gourd (千成瓢箪; Sennari hyōtan), which Hideyoshi used as his battle flag insignia (Uma-jirushi; […]

    Pingback by Japan Day 1 pt. 10 – Hokoku Shrine · David Kennard Photography — September 13, 2011 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  2. Came across this while looking for info on the horse and the gourd. Unbelievable photos as always and so informative. Thank you.

    Comment by marilynn bloom — February 28, 2016 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  3. I’m so impressed with the information here that I don’t even know what to ask. Have you published any of this. I am a collector and student of gourds. I grow a few every year and am always looking for unusual seeds. I hope you are still studying gourd art and mythology.

    Comment by Thomas Andres — January 5, 2017 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  4. […] Gourd is very old plant and have always been depicted in Japanese art, literature and religion, conducting spiritual and mystical significance. I had no idea until today what a wide subject gourds are. Who would have thought gourds could be so captivating and refreshing? Find out more about the topic on this super informative blog with lots of anecdotes and incredible pictures: here ! […]

    Pingback by Eating Japan’s cutest cucurbitaceae, or, gourd :) – Journal of A True Food Adventurer — May 11, 2017 @ 7:22 am | Reply

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