The Fire-fly's Lovers
Source: Japanese Fairy World
In Japan the night-flies emit so brilliant a light and are so beautiful
that ladies go out in the evenings and catch the insects for amusement,
as may be seen represented on Japanese fans. They imprison them in tiny
cages made of bamboo threads, and hang them up in their rooms or suspend
them from the eaves of their houses. At their picnic parties, the people
love to sit on August evenings, fan in hand, looking over the lovely
landscape, spangled by ten thousand brilliant spots of golden light. Each
flash seems like a tiny blaze of harmless lightning.
One of the species of night-flies, the most beautiful of all, is a source
of much amusement to the ladies. Hanging the cage of glittering insects
on their verandahs, they sit and watch the crowd of winged visitors
attracted by the fire-fly's light. What brings them there, and why the
fire-fly's parlor is filled with suitors as a queen's court with
courtiers, let this love story tell.
* * * * *
On the southern and sunny side of the castle moats of the Fukui castle,
in Echizen, the water had long ago become shallow so that lotus lilies
grew luxuriantly. Deep in the heart of one of the great flowers whose
petals were as pink as the lining of a sea-shell, lived the King of the
Fire-flies, Hi-[=o], whose only daughter was the lovely princess
Hotaru-hime. While still a child the hime (princess) was carefully kept
at home within the pink petals of the lily, never going even to the
edges except to see her father fly off on his journey. Dutifully she
waited until of age, when the fire glowed in her own body, and shone,
beautifully illuminating the lotus, until its light at night was like a
lamp within a globe of coral.
Every night her light grew brighter and brighter, until at last it was as
mellow as gold. Then her father said:
"My daughter is now of age, she may fly abroad with me sometimes, and
when the proper suitor comes she may marry whom she will."
So Hotaru-hime flew forth in and out among the lotus lilies of the moat,
then into rich rice fields, and at last far off to the indigo meadows.
Whenever she went a crowd of suitors followed her, for she had the
singular power of attracting all the night-flying insects to herself.
But she cared for none of their attentions, and though she spoke politely
to them all she gave encouragement to none. Yet some of the sheeny-winged
gallants called her a coquette.
One night she said to her mother, the queen:
"I have met many admirers, but I don't wish a husband from any of them.
Tonight I shall stay at home, and if any of them love me truly they will
come and pay me court here. Then I shall lay an impossible duty on them.
If they are wise they will not try to perform it; and if they love their
lives more than they love me, I do not want any of them. Whoever succeeds
may have me for his bride."
"As you will my child," said the queen mother, who arrayed her daughter
in her most resplendent robes, and set her on her throne in the heart of
Then she gave orders to her body-guard to keep all suitors at a
respectful distance lest some stupid gallant, a horn-bug or a cockchafer
dazzled by the light should approach too near and hurt the princess or
shake her throne.
No sooner had twilight faded away, than forth came the golden beetle, who
stood on a stamen and making obeisance, said:--
"I am Lord Green-Gold, I offer my house, my fortune and my love to
"Go and bring me fire and I will be your bride" said Hotaru-hime.
With a bow of the head the beetle opened his wings and departed with a
Next came a shining bug with wings and body as black as lamp-smoke, who
solemnly professed his passion.
"Bring me fire and you may have me for your wife."
Off flew the bug with a buzz.
Pretty soon came the scarlet dragon-fly, expecting so to dazzle the
princess by his gorgeous colors that she would accept him at once.
"I decline your offer" said the princess, "but if you bring me a flash of
fire, I'll become your bride."
Swift was the flight of the dragon-fly on his errand, and in came the
Beetle with a tremendous buzz, and ardently plead his suit.
"I'll say 'yes' if you bring me fire" said the glittering princess.
Suitor after suitor appeared to woo the daughter of the King of the
Fire-flies until every petal was dotted with them. One after another in a
long troop they appeared. Each in his own way, proudly, humbly, boldly,
mildly, with flattery, with boasting, even with tears, each proffered his
love, told his rank or expatiated on his fortune or vowed his constancy,
sang his tune or played his music. To every one of her lovers the
princess in modest voice returned the same answer:
"Bring me fire and I'll be your bride."
So without telling his rivals, each one thinking he had the secret alone
sped away after fire.
But none ever came back to wed the princess. Alas for the poor suitors!
The beetle whizzed off to a house near by through the paper windows of
which light glimmered. So full was he of his passion that thinking
nothing of wood or iron, he dashed his head against a nail, and fell dead
on the ground.
The black bug flew into a room where a poor student was reading. His lamp
was only a dish of earthenware full of rape seed oil with a wick made of
pith. Knowing nothing of oil the love-lorn bug crawled into the dish to
reach the flame and in a few seconds was drowned in the oil.
"Nan jaro?" (What's that?) said a thrifty housewife, sitting with needle
in hand, as her lamp flared up for a moment, smoking the chimney, and
then cracking it; while picking out the scorched bits she found a roasted
dragon-fly, whose scarlet wings were all burned off.
Mad with love the brilliant hawk-moth, afraid of the flame yet determined
to win the fire for the princess, hovered round and round the candle
flame, coming nearer and nearer each time. "Now or never, the princess or
death," he buzzed, as he darted forward to snatch a flash of flame, but
singeing his wings, he fell helplessly down, and died in agony.
"What a fool he was, to be sure," said the ugly clothes moth, coming on
the spot, "I'll get the fire. I'll crawl up inside the candle." So he
climbed up the hollow paper wick, and was nearly to the top, and inside
the hollow blue part of the flame, when the man, snuffing the wick,
crushed him to death.
Sad indeed was the fate of the lovers of Hi-[=o]'s daughter. Some hovered
around the beacons on the headland, some fluttered about the great wax
candles which stood eight feet high in their brass sockets in Buddhist
temples; some burned their noses at the top of incense sticks, or were
nearly choked by the smoke; some danced all night around the lanterns in
the shrines; some sought the sepulchral lamps in the graveyard; one
visited the cremation furnace; another the kitchen, where a feast was
going on; another chased the sparks that flew out of the chimney; but
none brought fire to the princess, or won the lover's prize. Many lost
their feelers, had their shining bodies scorched or their wings singed,
but most of them alas! lay dead, black and cold next morning.
As the priests trimmed the lamps in the shrines, and the servant maids
the lanterns, each said alike:
"The Princess Hotaru must have had many lovers last night."
Alas! alas! poor suitors. Some tried to snatch a streak of green fire
from the cat's eyes, and were snapped up for their pains. One attempted
to get a mouthful of bird's breath, but was swallowed alive. A carrion
beetle (the ugly lover) crawled off to the sea shore, and found some fish
scales that emitted light. The stag-beetle climbed a mountain, and in a
rotten tree stump found some bits of glowing wood like fire, but the
distance was so great that long before they reached the castle moat it
was daylight, and the fire had gone out; so they threw their fish scales
and old wood away.
The next day was one of great mourning and there were so many funerals
going on, that Hi-mar[=o] the Prince of the Fire-flies on the north side
of the castle moat inquired of his servants the cause. Then he learned
for the first time of the glittering princess. Upon this the prince who
had just succeeded his father upon the throne fell in love with the
princess and resolved to marry her. He sent his chamberlain to ask of her
father his daughter in marriage according to true etiquette. The father
agreed to the prince's proposal, with the condition that the Prince
should obey her behest in one thing, which was to come in person
bringing her fire.
Then the Prince at the head of his glittering battalions came in person
and filled the lotus palace with a flood of golden light. But Hotaru-hime
was so beautiful that her charms paled not their fire even in the blaze
of the Prince's glory. The visit ended in wooing, and the wooing in
wedding. On the night appointed, in a palanquin made of the white
lotus-petals, amid the blazing torches of the prince's battalions of
warriors, Hotaru-hime was borne to the prince's palace and there, prince
and princess were joined in the wedlock.
Many generations have passed since Hi-mar[=o] and Hotaru-hime were
married, and still it is the whim of all Fire-fly princesses that their
base-born lovers must bring fire as their love-offering or lose their
prize. Else would the glittering fair ones be wearied unto death by the
importunity of their lovers. Great indeed is the loss, for in this quest
of fire many thousand insects, attracted by the fire-fly, are burned to
death in the vain hope of winning the fire that shall gain the cruel but
beautiful one that fascinates them. It is for this cause that each night
insects hover around the lamp flame, and every morning a crowd of victims
drowned in the oil, or scorched in the flame, must be cleaned from the
lamp. This is the reason why young ladies catch and imprison the
fire-flies to watch the war of insect-love, in the hope that they may
have human lovers who will dare as much, through fire and flood, as they.
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