This article, “The Quest of the Goddess,” discusses one of the earliest examples of Chinese poetry we have, the Ch’u-tz’u. The author of this article argues that the poet of this work, Chu Yuan, was not making any novel poetry but instead taking ancient ritual religious oral poetry and making it more secular. The purpose of this ancient poet’s work was to revive a dying form of poetry by secularizing it for the benefit of the royal court at the time.
In the poem “The Quest of the Goddess” studied by the author, it describes a religious rite of a shaman going out onto the water to offer jade to the river goddess. The poem is overshadowed by the poet’s personal intent, but it is still clear that the poem is based on a religious rite. The people watching still cheer on the shaman even though the goddess has eluded him and not appeared. In ancient times, it was common practice to worship ancient river deities by dropping precious things into the water such as jade and food. We know that this poem was given orally because of the many repeated formulas throughout it. Perhaps these formulas were the original words of an ancient shaman’s ritual.
The poems of the Ch’u-tz’u consist of basically two types of poems; the first types of poems are the trista poems that deal with the sadness and sorrows of a shaman when he deals with the rejection of society. This is exactly what the poem quest for the goddess portrays; the Shaman tries to go find the Goddess but is unsuccessful. She always eludes him, and he is ashamed in front of the people, even though they still cheer him on.
The other types of poems are ilineraria, which is a shaman’s or a wizard’s journey to obtain power. This journey usually leads them on a spiritual path around the cosmos, slowly gaining more power over the elements until he has ultimate power over the universe. This kind of poetry was used to flatter the king and his court, because the king did not need to go on such a spiritual journey to obtain such power.
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