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

Part 2 Gynocentric Study of Mago’s Visual Representations

[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.]

Mago [麻姑, also known as Magu or Mako] remains underrepresented if treated in modern scholarship. Little attention has been given to the topic of Magu in its own right. In the West a handful of scholars have mentioned Mago within the context of Daoism. Her transnational and trans-temporal manifestations in Korea, China, and Japan are largely unrecognized. That Magu is known as multiple identities throughout history in East Asia has gone unnoticed. In my study of Mago, that Mago’s supreme divinity as the Great Goddess has been rendered unintelligible over time under the rule of patriarchy offers a crucial insight leading to a befitting method.

First of all, the perception of Her as the Great Goddess enables one to recognize a large volume of primary sources, otherwise left unattended, from across national, regional, temporal, and typological boundaries. Secondly, the primary materials in turn allow one to assess the supreme nature of the Great Goddess, Mago, apart from the theological framework of the monotheistic male god. By being a non-Western and non-patriarchal tradition, Magoism warrants a distinctive thealogy characterized by self-equilibrium and interdependence of components, part of which was discussed in Part I. Thirdly, a trans-disciplinary method is corollary in processing a variety of multi-genre materials that would not be neatly categorized in a mono-disciplinary data-pool. To say the least, it liberates itself from the tyranny of monolithic methodology, which dissects to take only a portion of data from the whole and treat it as if it is a single independent entity. In short, methodology and thealogy, being mutually supportive, lead the researcher to a rather unexplored conceptual territory, which I call gynocentrism.

Gynocentrism takes the female principle as an operating system. Its system has been thwarted within the discourse of androcentric perspectives. Gynocentrism is a submerged mode of thinking in the patriarchically indoctrinated psyche. Made to be subliminal, the gynocentric mode of thinking elicits the Mago (Great Goddess) consciousness. Consequently, Mago consciousness upholds the infrastructures of gynocentric thinking. What distinguishes gynocentrism from feminism is that it redefines the male as a derivative of the Female. Gynocentrism reflects the principle of all mothers of living beings.

In that sense, my study of Mago is a gynocentric endeavor to chart an alternative paradigm of doing thealogy within the context of East Asian history, mythology, and culture. It is a misunderstanding that Magoist thealogy or Magology (the study of the Great Goddess) concerns the divine only. Gynocentric thealogy is not locked into a separate domain apart from humanity, nature, and the universe. Put differently, Magology is not a mere conceptual tool that explains the divine. It summons gynocentric histories, myths, and cultures that are to be restored and rewritten. It calls for rethinking everything in a fresh light.

In the sequels to follow, I bring to light a series of Mago’s visual representations expressed in paintings, ceramics, embroideries, woodprints, sculptures, and topographies, and examine Her multivalent identities in light of the large corpus of Magoist written and oral texts. Mago’s visual icons are beyond one’s documentation. They, especially those from China, are still a favored item in modern day’s auction markets. Several hundred images that I have documented are simply incomplete. Some sample images are chosen to show an array of historical/cultural/social productions, once honored and valued highly by many. Through the economy of commodification, these images have carried the cultural memory of the Great Goddess.

While a number of her visual icons are undated, many are from the Yuan (1271 to 1368), Ming (1368 to 1644), and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties of China, the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) of Korea, and certain historical periods of Japan. Also, many are from modern times. In them, Mago/Magu/Mako is depicted as:

(1) An immortal/transcendant (仙 xian or seon, immortal or transcendant).

Magu seated on a deer, 18th C, Qing dynasty China, Oriental Museum, Durham University, UK
Magu seated on a deer, 18th C, Qing dynasty, China, Oriental Museum, Durham University, UK

(2) A mendicant.

Magu with two female companions, fan painting, Ming dynasty China, Philadelphia Museum
Magu with two female companions, fan painting, Ming dynasty, China, Philadelphia Museum, USA

(3) A sea goddess.

Magu on the Sea
Magu, Hsiang Kun, British Museum

(4) A mountain goddess.

Mago Halmi in Mt. Jiri
Mago Halmi in Mt. Jiri, Korea

(5) A crone.

Mago Halmi, cover image in the Sukhyang-jeon (Story of Sukhyang), late Joseon Dynasty Korea
Mago Halmi, cover image in the Sukhyang-jeon (Story of Sukhyang), late Joseon dynasty, Korea

(6) The ancestor of shamans.

Gurang (Nine Maidens) also known as Gyeyang Halmi, Mago and Eight daughters
Gurang (Nine Maidens) also known as Gyeyang Halmi representing Mago and eight daughters

And (7) A non-anthropomorphic identity or giantess as the nature-shaper or cosmogonist of local topographies such as mountains, rocks, caves, and seas. The notion of a giantess is employed to describe Her transcendental nature. In this case, Mago-named topographies alongside folk stories describe Her feature/identity of immeasurability.

Rock of Mago, Donghae, Korea
Rock of Mago, Donghae, Korea

Needless to say, these identities overlap and merge, making up an overall picture of Mago as the Great Goddess. That is, She is each and all. These visual icons, stylized with symbolic objects, respectively demonstrate specific Magoist cultural memes once prevailing and favored among East Asians. A throng of objects such as medicinal herbs, especially lingzhi mushrooms, flowers, hoes, baskets, vessels, and animals, forms the coded syntaxes of the arcane language. In particular, a troupe of animals including deer, crane, dog, and monkey highlights the drama. Also, colophons carry not only the cultural meme but also prestige and authority for its producers and possessors.

(To be continued in Part 3. Read Part I here.)

[i] I have discussed this in detail in Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, Seeking Mago, the Great Goddess: A Mytho-Historic-Thealogical Reconstruction of Magoism, an Archaically Originated Gynocentric Tradition of East Asia, Ph.D. dissertation (Claremont: Claremont Graduate University, 2005), 335-342; 353-361.
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Donna Snyder

I read this a couple days ago and enjoyed it very much. The images are excellent, as well. Very intriguing. Thank you for sharing your erudition.


Reblogged this on She Who Is and commented:
Part two of this excellent blog…