(Mago Essay 3) Toward the Primordial Knowing of Mago, the Great Goddess by Helen Hwang

[The following sequels including this one are a modified version of my paper presented to Daoist Studies, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in 2010.]

Part 3 Daoist Rendition of Mago, the Great Goddess

Being the creatrix, progenitor, and ultimate sovereign, Mago has been addressed by  many names. Her derivative names include Samsin Halmeoni (Triad Grandmother/Goddess), Cheonsin (Heavenly Deity), Daejosin (Great Ancestor Deity), Nogo (Crone/Grandmother), Gomo (Goddess Mother), Magui (Devil), Seogo (Auspicious Goddess), Seonnyeo (Female Immortal), Seonja (Immortal Person), and simply Halmi (Grandmother/Crone/Goddess) especially in Korea. To say the least, these names, respectively embedded in a particular cultural and historical background, reflect a complex and enduring feature of Magoism.

One may wonder: How is it possible to assess that these goddesses with different names refer to the same goddess, Mago? While such a query is legitimate, its answer entails a prolix explication of inferences based on the comprehensive analysis of a large volume of data, a technique that requires all human faculties, not just rationality. Foremost, the name “Mago” is the primary defining factor to identify Her transnational manifestations in East Asia. This name crisscrosses otherwise seemingly unrelated data including folklore, arts, literature, poetry, and religious and historical records. Such toponyms as Mt. Mago, Rock of Mago, and Cave of Mago presently extant in Korea, China, and/or Japan further substantiate the coherence of Magoism in East Asia. Having established the patterns and styles of Mago stories, the researcher is able to identify a common motif that is shared by the stories and place-names of the goddesses with derivative names. In short, these stories are organically interconnected, reflecting the universality and particularities  of Magoist theism.    

Magu gathering medicinal herbs, u.d. China
Magu gathering medicinal herbs, u.d. China

As with Her many names, the researcher or art historian requires the same technique to assess a broad range of Her visual representations. One can begin with a good number of paintings whose colophons designate Mago. Two of the most conspicuous colophons are “Magu gathering medicinal herbs” and “Mago presents longevity.” However, many icons including sculptures and embroideries do not have such an indication. In that case, one can tell the Mago icon by its pictorial themes recurring in the images that are identified as Mago. That said, there is no doubt that the Mago icon stands as the prototype of its numerous variations, which are beyond my documentation at this point.

A large portion of Mago visual representations I have documented is casually referred to as “The Immortal Magu (麻姑仙, Magu Xian or Mago Seon)” by moderns. As such, it is assumed that She is a Daoist goddess. Would the Daoist appropriation of Mago’s visual images be accurate? I hold that the Daoist rendition of Mago is a specious stopgap, leaving many issues unattended. When B is derived from A, B alone can explain neither A nor B. Not only Her pre-Daoist origin but also Her supreme divinity as the Great Goddess remains unexplained. Furthermore, Daoism has offered no framework to explain the transnational dissemination of Magoist material culture in Korea, China, and Japan.     

For many, the conceptual loss of Mago’s supreme divinity has obstructed one’s perception of Mago’s multivalent imagery. Thus, moderns who are informed that Mago is “a Daoist goddess of immortality” do not seem to make a further inquiry. What does that mean? How has Mago become the emblem of immortality? What is the Daoist understanding of immortality? Daoists do not provide answers to those questions. One’s intelligence is kept stunted. An intelligent mind asks what is  not treated and why. Mago’s pre-Daoist origin, even illumined by such Daoist scholars as Robert Ford Campany and Wolfram Eberhard, remains irrelevant. Why is the topic of Mago not taken seriously by scholars?

Here is my answer to the last question. The topic of Mago is a conundrum to the researcher whose perspective is fixated within the context of Chinese Daoism. Ultimately, Mago’s multivalent and transnational manifestations can only be fully explained by re-enthroning Her as the Great Goddess and forging a new befitting method to examine the pre- and supra-nationalist underpinning of Magoism.

Co-relation between Daoism and Magoism is self-evident. Undoubtedly, early Daoist founders co-opted the legacy of Magoism in part and harnessed it into the Daoist pantheon. Put differently, Daoism took over the central tenets of Magoism such as the concept of Xian (Seon, immortal or transcendent) and the triad but castrated its female principle. A cultural and conceptual theft was committed  by Chinese patriarchs. Their plot culminated in the deicide of the Great Goddess. The Mago (Great Goddess) consciousness was hijacked. Daoists washed their hands by sentencing Mago to be subservient to Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West). The two goddesses were made neither to be conflated nor to be confirmed as one. The patriarchs removed evidence and fabricated alibis. No one in Chinese history could utter the forbidden knowledge with certainty.

Daoist founding fathers and their successors underestimated the power of their Mother, Mago. Mago is immortal insofar as the son lives because She lives in him. Chinese intellectuals as well as commoners have never ceased to praise the lost Mother. They stood beyond the reach of established Daoism. They were able to tap into the Mago consciousness in unorthodox ways. A plethora of literature, art, faith, and customs was forged by them throughout history. In that sense, Magoism was far from extinction but resurged time and time again. The genres of literature, legends, art, and customs, unlike the written records, have escaped the censorship of the patriarchal ideologues. In a symbolic language, they make available the Mago consciousness. Mago’s visual representations together with literature and legends have functioned to invoke in people a nostalgic sentiment for the bygone era of Magoism. Or, they are the outcome of people’s longing for the lost era of Magoism.

Magu 'Gathering Medicines' (采药图)
Magu ‘Gathering Medicines’ (采药图)
Mago by Kim, Hongdo, 18th C, Joseon Korea
Mago by Kim, Hongdo, 18th C, Joseon Korea
Mako, u.d. Japan
Mako, u.d. Japan

In the above paintings, known as the paintings of “Magu gathering medicinal herbs,” Mago is rather realistically depicted in the action of carrying a basket of medicinal herbs in her back. By the hoe (pickax) with a long rod held in her hand, we can see that she herself would dig the ground to gather the herbs. In the first painting, she is standing barefooted against the background of the rocky road. Its effect is that she is the giantess who stands above hills and mountains. She appears content with her day’s work, holding a lingzhi mushroom with her fingers as if she relishes the view of it along her walk. Clad in working clothes, Mago is far from the image of a domesticated noble lady, to be contrasted by other paintings to be discussed in later parts. Mago appears as a divine healer or thaumaturgist who dwells in the wild. Strength, wisdom, and charisma characterize Mago in the above paintings.

Who would commission such paintings? Could commoners afford to commission a renowned painter such as Kim, Hongdo (1745-1806) seen in the second painting? Or it may be that the painter himself chose to paint it? I posit that the tantalizing sentiment of nostalgia for the lost era of pre-patriarchal Magoism expressed in literature and folklore made these paintings ever more popular and in demand. In any case, the above paintings suggest that Magoism was favored by the common folk rather than aristocrats. Certainly Mago does not represent a role model for noble ladies or tamed women.

(To be continued in Part 4, read Part 2 here.)

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2 Comments on "(Mago Essay 3) Toward the Primordial Knowing of Mago, the Great Goddess by Helen Hwang"

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Donna Snyder
Donna Snyder


This section of your paper is very accessible and lucid, raised the questions in my own minds, and answered them cogently. The artwork you chose as illustrations live up to the meaning of the word, clearly illustrating content and significance. Thank you for this paper, which brings me closer than ever to true understanding.

Respect and affection to you,