[Excerpts from “Mago, the First Mother of East Asia,” Creatrix Media Live (CML) Roundtable Radio Talk with Dr. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang. May 23, 2011]
Welcome Helen, I was fortunate to read some of your research and I applaud you because, we in the Western WSE movement have long needed to hear more from Asian women spiritual leaders and feminists and your reference to the Neolithic timeline…
For our listeners and participants online, let’s lead with the question of who is Mago, was she a mother figure, what is Magoism, does any other deity pre-date her?
Helen Hye-Sook Hwang:
*Mago is the great goddess known to East Asians throughout history. She is the first mother of all, cosmogonist, and ultimate sovereign/ruler. She has many names. Among them are Triad Deity (Samsin), Grandmother (halmi), Auspicious Goddess (Seogo), Evil (Magui), and Old Goddess (Nogo). She is also known as the Giantess who shaped the natural and cultural landscape. Her manifestations are so multivalent that one may think they do not refer to the same goddess. She was well loved, given high esteem, celebrated by East Asians in the past. She was almost completely forgotten, however in modern times, up until the 1980s in Korea, when the principle text of Magoism, the Budoji, re-emerged.
*Mago is a mother figure in the sense that she bore two daughters, Kunghee and Sohee, and managed her household called the Castle of Mago, the primordial paradise of humanity. She is the ancestor of all races. She takes care of everything on earth via the equilibrium of cosmic music/sound/vibration.
*Magoism is the term that refers to the totality of culture/civilization venerating Mago as the great goddess. It is a tradition largely unnoted but co-opted and distorted in major East Asian religions. The concept of Magoism helps one identify and understand Mago’s multivalent manifestations that are found trans-nationally. It also makes possible to name the female-centered original/primal civilization that gave birth to the forthcoming East Asian civilizations and religions.
*Whether Mago is the earliest deity known to East Asia is unknown. In fact, there are goddesses unearthed from “pre-historic” archaeological sites without their names. The life-sized goddess statue was unearthed in the site of Hongshan Culture, northeastern region of present China dating from 4,700 to 2,900 BCE. The heavy use of jade along with the partly bear-figured female icon is congruent with the account of Magoism in the Budoji. Also, of course, there are numerous female figurines called dogu excavated in Japan’s “pre-historic” times.
The ancient origin of Mago or Magoism has a merit to explain some facts that remain a mystery, so to speak. Korea is also known as the land of dolmens. Half of the world megaliths are populated in the Korean peninsula. There are numerous pyramids found in mainland China. There is a documentary film about the sunken temple beneath the sea of Okinawa Japan, etc. dating to 10,000 years ago.
*Then, how early does Mago date to? It is difficult to date the earliest evidence of Mago or Magoism simply because written history does not exist in pre-patriarchal times. As you see here, when we talk about the earliest of something, everyone assumes it is of Chinese. So let me follow this line of thought: Ge Hong’s record on Magu from China dates to the early fourth century CE (Ge Hong 283—343 CE). However, Daoist scholar Robert Ford Campany states that the cult of Mago dates back to the Stone Age.
It is more difficult to date Mago in Korean records simply because ancient written records did not survive. Two books, the Budoji and the Handan Gogi, alleged to have been written in the late 4th or early 5th century and subsequent later times, which refer to Mago otherwise known as Samsin (Triad Deity) remain controversial. Considering that the name Mago is embedded in Korean language as in “gom,” “geum,” and “gam,” whose meaning indicates ruler, sovereign, and head, the origin of Mago is as old as these words. Likewise, most materials that recount Mago as cosmogonist are of folklore, place names, literature, arts, and debris of historical and religious records, most of which are difficult to date for its origin.
Thank you Helen, you have done much academic research and hold several degrees, can you explain to us how your education or experience informed you regarding Mago?
*I would say that encountering Mago as a doctoral research topic is ultimately prompted by my intellectual quest as a Korean feminist. Following radical feminism of Mary Daly, I wanted to seek spirituality that is not only non-patriarchal but also East Asian and Korean. This made me study feminism and East Asian religions, histories, and cultures, etc. I end up with so much to study over the past decade and a half.
I did not take up graduate studies as a means to develop an academic career. I loved reading and studies from youth. This kind of attitude is not that practical in the job market.
However, I believe this is the right path for me. To look back, I did not follow the ready-made conventional path of life. I was a dreamer and idealist. I still value those qualities in myself and others.
I used to think to myself, if I had remained a Christian, I would not have sought Mago. How could I? Likewise if I had resorted to Buddhism, I would not have encountered Mago. Because I wanted to carve out my own spiritual path as a Korean feminist, I was able to encounter Mago.
Another factor at work in my study of Mago is the cultural or spiritual tradition of cultivating the Dao, the Way, in East Asia. I wanted to find out what the truth was, how I could make the most out of my life and etc. So I tried the shoes of a Catholic overseas missionary for a while.
Leaving Christianity behind, however, helped me realize the cultural heritage that I have within. It was the Dao, we say Do in Korean, that I was following after. I found the Way of East Asians in Magoism.
Helen, can you tell us what is the difference or similarity found in the Korean account is to Chinese or Japanese accounts of Mago? And is she found elsewhere?
*Mago is called Magu by the Chinese and Mako by the Japanese. Not only her name but also her toponyms such as Mt. Mago, Mt. Goye, and Rock of Mago are the indicators that she is the pan-East Asian goddess.
*There appears a conspicuous difference between Korean and Chinese sources, however. Japanese sources are sort of in between them in characteristics. In Korean sources, Mago is depicted as the first mother, cosmogonist, and ultimate sovereign, whereas in Chinese sources her origin and identity are unknown. She is often represented as a Daoist goddess of immortality. However, this is a mis-representation if not a distorted one. She is the pre-Daoist goddess, so to speak. Focusing her will redefine Daoism.
*Because Magoism is so old and pervasive that it explains the origin of the East Asian civilization and the formation of East Asian states and peoples. The merit of Magoism for feminists is in that it makes it possible to trace the onset of patriarchal monarchies in East Asia. Also it potentially controversial because it rewrites pre-Chinese Korean histories and cultures while East Asian civilization is known to have begun with the Chinese. In short, pre-Chinese history of Magoism reconstructs ancient history of East Asia as a whole.
Koreans have been subject to foreign invasions throughout history, from the north China and Mongolia, and from the South Japan. I believe it is Magoism that has kept Korean identity intact to this day for both South and North Koreans.
* The cult of Matsu in Taiwan, Macau, and southwestern region of mainland China appears to be a relatively newer manifestation of Mago evolved around a historical woman called Matsu. I found Siberian-Magolian goddesses paralleling to Mago in many ways. Moreover, the triad and parthenogenesis, the two paramount themes of the Magoist myth, are found literally in ancient cultures and religions all over the world.
What is the a) Relationship to Daoism, Buddhism and Shamanism b) is Magoism a religion or practice and c) how does one join Magoism?
- When I say Magoism, it does not refer to religion only. It is a totality of civilization that includes historical, cultural, and social fabrics. That said, Magoism is the primordial matrix from which Daoism, Buddhism, and Shamanism are derived. This is a statement that needs tons of research to support. I have done only a modicum of it but it is so interesting and compelling in my view.
- It appears that Shamanism known in Korea is a misnomer of Magoism as a religion. I see that what we call Korean shamanism is a religious expression of Magoism.
- The foundation of Buddhism appears to be related to Magoism. The Buddhist cosmology of Mt. Sumi is highly reminiscent of the Magoist cosmogonic myth. Magoist influence is found in Buddhist architecture, folklore, and symbols.
- Early Daoism is the second closest religion to Magoism as a religion. In fact, I was able to trace the female linage of Daoist priestesses from the 4th century CE to about 9th or 10th century CE.
*Magoism is a conceptual tool to understand Mago within the context of East Asian histories, cultures, and religions. It includes religious practices and manifestations that took forms, changed, and revived throughout history. This does not mean that Mago was not the actual deity to whom her devotees prayed. Up until 1970s, Korean women prayed to Mago halmi (Mago grandmother). She was also venerated in every household of Korea people at the time of the ancestral memorial ceremony.
*Currently, the awareness of Mago among Koreans is on the rise. Artists, writers, scholars, and individuals as well as Shamans are rediscovering Magoism in Korean customs, histories, thoughts, arts, literature, cultural and natural sites such as megaliths, mountains, rocks, and topographies. Unfortunately, there is little scholarship or writing about Mago available in English. This is likely so because I am one of the few persons who write about Mago. However, to become the devotee of Mago, all you need to know is this: 1. Know the cosmgonic myth of Mago, which is available in English. 2. Take to your heart the three thoughts of ancient Magoism: Hae-hok bok-bon (Remove confusion and restore the origin), Hong-ik in-gan (Benefit people of the whole world) and jae-se i-hwa (Let existing things become according to the cosmic principle). If you would like to join Magoism, you are in right time of reviving Magoism once again for the world. You can be the first Magoist in your area. I know there are some followers in the U.S. and Italy.
Helen comments on something inspirational about Mago:
The world needs a new order other than the one ruled by modern patriarchal powers. I pass this question along from ancient Magoists: How can the leaders of society or state assume responsibility and sacrificial love instead of privilege? Ancient Magoists showed that they could do it like a mother or grandmother, the mother whom I know from my own culture and most indigenous cultures, to children. I offer Magoism as a historical frame in which we can work toward the oneness of us all. It is the Epic of Magoism, the mythic account of Mago, that tells us that the ancient were united under the banner of the Great Goddess!!! Can we bring Her to our time? Let us do that!
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