(Essay 1) Making the Gynocentric Case: Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia, and Her Tradition Magoism by Helen Hwang

Making the Gynocentric Case:

Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia,

and her Tradition Magoism[i]

This study documents and interprets a substantial body of primary sources concerning Mago [麻姑, also known as Magu or Mako] from Korea, China, and Japan. Much of this material has never been brought to light as a whole. In working with these various and sundry data including folklore, paintings, arts, literature, poetry, toponyms, rituals, historical and religious records, and apocryphal texts, I encountered an organic structure that relates these seemingly unrelated materials and named it Magoism. Magoism refers to an anciently originated gynocentric cultural and historical context of East Asia, which venerates Mago as supreme divine. Although “Magoism” is my coinage, its concept is not new. Magoism is referred to as the Way of Mago, the Origin of Mago, the Event of Mago, Reign of Mago, Heavenly Principle, or simply Mago in historical sources. In the West, its partial manifestation is known as the cult of Magu within the context of Daoism. One of the earliest verified records, the Biography of Magu (Magu zhuan) written by Ge Hong (284-364) dates back to proto-Daoist times.[ii]

Crane and Yeongji mushroom (symbols of longevity), Chimney, Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul Korea
Crane and Yeongji mushroom (symbols of longevity), Chimney, Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul Korea

Nonetheless, “Mago” remains largely forgotten and misrepresented to the world especially in modern times. More incisively, her sublime divinity is made invisible despite strong evidence. No scholarship in the West has treated Mago as a topic in her own right. Mago’s multiple identities ranging from the cosmogonist to a grandmother, from the progenitress to the Daoist goddess, from the sovereign to a shaman/priestess in Korea, China, and Japan remain unregistered in modern scholarship. When mentioned, her transnational manifestation is not recognized cogently. She is often lumped together with other parochial goddesses from China. Other times, she is fetishized as a Daoist goddess of immortality. She is also known, among other representations, as the giant grandmother (goddess) who shaped the natural landscape in the beginning of time among Koreans. In any case, Mago is not deemed on a par or in relation with Xiwangmu (the Queen Mother of the West in Chinese Daoism) and Amaterasu, (the Sun Goddess of the Japanese imperial family), both of who represent the East Asian pantheon of supreme goddesses to the West.

I hold that the paramount significance of Magoism lies in the fact that it redefines the female principle and proffers a gynocentric utopian vision to the modern audience. Its utopian cosmology is no free-floating abstract idea but imbedded in the mytho-historical-cultural reality of East Asia. I suggest Magoism as the original vision of East Asian thought. Put differently, Magoism is an East Asian gynocentric testimony to the forgotten utopian reality. In the sense that Magoism presents an East Asian gynocentric symbolic system, this study is distinguished from Western and androcentric discourse. In other words, its gynocentric universalism should not be subsumed under the discourse of Western or patriarchal universalism. Magoism prompts an alternative paradigm of ancient gynocentrism that redefine major notions of the divine, human, and nature in continuum. Mago, the great goddess, is the unifying and at the same time individualizing force in this system. Magoism enables a macrocosmic view in which all individualized parts are organically co-related and co-operating. As a religious system, it is at once monotheistic and polytheistic. That is, Mago is the great goddess in her multiple manifestations. Underlying the patriarchal edifices, the Magoist principle is the Source from which the latter is derived.

My task is to explicate the Magoist utopian vision within its East Asian context. Difficulty is manifold. Complexity and immensity warrant an open-ended ongoing assessment. To say the least, this project explores uncharted territory. I draw upon feminist studies, religious studies, and goddess studies and link them with the area studies of Korea and East Asia. Thus, this study is necessarily interdisciplinary and cross-cultural. I have named this study the mytho-historical-thealogical study of Magoism.[iii] One may call this an experimental study that tests out new possibilities seen from an East Asian feminist perspective. This paper discusses the following three issues: Unveiling Magoism as a trans-patriarchal and transnational reality, reconstructing Korean Magoist identity, and claiming the Budoji (Epic of the Emblem City) as a principal text of Magoism.[iv]

Unveiling Magoism as a Trans-patriarchal and Transnational Reality

I begin with defending the legitimacy of naming Magoism as a trans-national mytho-historical-cultural system. I argue that at the core of the issue is the gynocenric symbolic system that Magoism embodies. In other words, Magoism is a system that attributes the gynocentric principle represented by Mago to the (pro-)creative force from which human civilizations are derived. Mago is both the progenitor and cosmogonist. Magoism encodes the Origin Myth in which Mago is portrayed as the progenitor and the cosmogonist at once. The story of Mago’s beginning is the Archaic Memory that humans all times must not forget for their survival and prosperity on Earth.

The hard fact is that the Magoist female principle is made invisible in modern scholarship. However, the dynamic is reciprocal: The Magoist principle knows of neither the patriarchal ideology of female subordination nor modern Western hegemony. More to the point, Magoism ascribes the female principle to power, intelligence, and equilibrium in ultimatum. Mago is the Way, Heaven, and Source. As such, the Magoist gynocentric principle is antithetical to the patriarchal mind where female is defined as dependent and derivative. In this regard, it is not surprising that the large corpus of primary data concerning Mago has been left in the dark.

The name “Mago” is the primary defining factor to identify her transnational manifestations in Korea, China, and Japan. 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 transnational context of Magoism. However, like her multiple manifestations, “Mago” has many derivative names. While “Mago” is the most frequently used, she is also referred to as “grandmother” (halmi) or “female immortal/transcendent” (seonnyeo). “Mago” is also called “Hwago” (Huagu, flower goddess), “Maego” (Meigu, plum goddess), and “Seongo” (Xiangu, transcendent goddess), all of whom are better known as Daoist goddesses.[v] Korean folkloric sources avail us of other derivative names such as Magu, Magui (demon), Nogo (ancient woman/goddess), Nogu, Gomo (goddess mother), Seolmundae, and Samsin (triad deity). These names are distinguished from others in that Mago is depicted in them as the nature-shaper or progenitor. Like her name, her toponyms have multiple derivatives such as Mt.Nogo and Mt. Goya. Some other names reflect her negotiated and mutated identities. Dense and yet fluid, her many names suggest the enduring and adoptive qualify of Magoism.

"Magu, the goddess of beauty and eternal youth, serving reishi, schizandra, and a “peach of longevity” to her immortal friends." http://www.notastelikehome.org/index.php
“Magu, the goddess of beauty and eternal youth, serving reishi, schizandra, and a “peach of longevity” to her immortal friends.”
http://www.notastelikehome.org/index.php

In modern times, she is reduced into a cultural fetish associated with immortality in China. This perception proves to be problematic, however, given a close investigation. Mago’s origin or identity remains unknowable among the Chinese throughout history. In fact, partial aspects of Magoism are fairly well-documented by a group of Daoist scholars in the West. It appears that these scholars whose assessments I will discuss below have paid close attention to the topic of Mago within the context of Chinese Daoism. However, they all arrive at the conclusion that Mago’s origin or identity is unknown. Wolfram Eberhard details the list of topological centers such as Mt. Magu or caves of Magu across China as well as fragmented folkloric data to say that even her legends “do not help much in identifying her.”[vi]

Edward H. Schafer goes further to describe “the cult of Miss Hemp” in his book dedicated to Ts’ao T’ang, poet of the Tang (Dang) Dynasty. Nonetheless, his assessment does not elucidate its pre-Dang history, as it states:

Indeed, a personal cult of Miss Hemp [Mago] flourished in T’ang times, associating her with rocks, mountains, mysterious grottoes. On the level of popular religion her name was given to a cliff at Mount T’ien T’ai, the holy mountain of Chekiang: The Precipice of Miss Hemp (Ma Ku Yen) was believed to be the very place where she condescended to visit the home of Ts’ai Ching, and in Sung times there was still an old statue of her standing in a grotto there. But in the arcana of Highest Clarity her petrological associations were even more refined: The twenty-eighth of the thirty-six “lesser” grotto-heavens, called “Heaven of the Cinnabar Aurora” (Tan hsia t’ien), was believed to lie beneath the mountain in Kiangsi that bears her name, on which the commemorative stele with an inscription composed by Yen Chen-ch’ing was placed.[vii]

Schafer’s brief sketch helps recognize a host of Mago data from China within the context of Daoism. What Schafer spells out above is indeed resourceful to assess the coherency of Magoist transnational data, a discussion to be made in a separate space.

Robert Ford Campany also provides, among other data, some legends from which he observes that her cult is attributed to its existence in Chin times (221 BCE-206 BCE) and even older times. Campany estimates that Magu was possibly “a theriomorphic deity (snake-headed) who gradually metamorphosed into a human being.”[viii]This suggests Magu’s origin in the Stone Ages as animal headed deities are thought to originate in those times. It should be noted that contemporary scholars’ assessments of Mago’s origin and identity only echo what the ancient Chinese text of Magu represented by Ge Hong (284-364) and Yan zhenqing (709-785) conveys.[ix] In other words, the Chinese have adumbrated but not articulated her non-measureable origin and identity. Furthermore, it is in fairness to say that the Chinese have anguished to know about her mysterious origin and identity throughout history.

The Daoist approach to Magoism is ultimately limiting in that “the cult of Magu” antecedes the foundation of Daoism. It may as well be said that Mago has never been fully entrenched in Daoism. Daoism could neither embrace nor eliminate the supreme divinity of Mago. Her situation parallels the Christian conundrum of the supreme divinity of Mary, which could neither be embraced nor eliminated by the church. Unlike Christianity, however, Daoism coped with this dilemma by forging a different name for the great goddess, Xiwangmu, whose origin is also unknown.[x] Thus, that early Daoist schools extensively borrow the central premises of Magoism goes undetected.

Translated as the “Miss Hemp” or “Hemp Maid” in English, “Mago” (麻姑) is further diluted in the West. The logographic meaning of “Hemp Maid” misdirects one’s perception to some sort of a parochial deity from China. Linking hemp with Mago leads the researcher to a meandering dead end. Wolfram Eberhard rightly concludes that hemp is not directly associated with Mago.[xi] Logographic meanings of a word are often irrelevant to the meaning of the word. It is common that specific Chinese characters are taken to express the sound of the word not its meaning.[xii]

An etymological discussion of “Mago” is rather prolix.[xiii] In sum, I posit that “Mago” is an old word referring to the great goddess: “Ma” in “Mago” refers to “mother” or “goddess” and “go” to “goddess” or “woman.” Reinstating “Mago” as the great goddess sheds light on the hidden or forgotten meaning of a series of female-identified words. When the old meaning of a female-connoted word is dis-covered, it in turn brings back the once highly deemed status of women. For example, “go” is known as a female sibling of father or “mother-in-law” for modern East Asians, it is elevated to a goddess-referral within the context of Magoism. This suggests the idea that women in the family were once deemed as divine-like beings.[xiv] Magoism also re-apotheosizes the Korean word “halmi,” a favored epithet of Mago. Known as “grandmother” or “crone” for modern Koreans, “halmi” is the old referral to the great mother (hal means great and mi means mother). This suggests the idea that “grandmother,” “crone,” and “goddess” were closely co-affiliated terms in ancient times.


[i] I dedicate this article to Mary Daly (1928-2010) who have walked with me for the last sixteen years of my journey as Friend and Sister-Sojourn. Her influence is enormous in the formation of my thought on Magoism. I wrote this article in her presence that death can’t diminish. Thank you Mary and I love you as always.

[ii] Ge Hong’s account of Magu is neither the earliest nor the original. It is unknown how much of the Magu zhuan (Biography of Magu) written in the Shenhsien zhuan (Hagiographies of Immortals) by Ge Hong is originally attributed to his authorship. As to its earlier versions, Robert Ford Campany suggests three fragments from the “Arrayed Marvels, a late-second or early-third century collection of anomaly accounts credited to Cao Pi (187-226).” See Robert Ford Campany, To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth (University of California Press, 2002), 268.

[iii] See 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 Graduate University, 2005), 35-67.

[iv] Keum Bak. Budoji (Epic of the Emblem City), tr. by Eunsu Kim (Seoul: Doseo Chulpan Hanmunhwa, 2002).

[v] These names are crucial in assessing how Magoism is partly filtered through Daoism.

[vi] Wolfram Eberhard. The Local Cultures of South and East China. Leiden: E.J. Brill, (1968), 123-6.

[vii] Edward H. Schafer, Mirages on the Sea of Time: The Taoist Poetry of Ts’ao T’ang (University of California Press, 1985), 94-95.

[viii] Campany (2002), 269-70.

[ix] Hwang (2005), 335-342; 354-6.

[x] A cross-examination between Xiwangmu and Mago as well as an in-depth study of Daoist Magu sources is an interesting topic to be discussed elsewhere. I have discussed in part in my dissertation. See Hwang (2005), 353-372.

[xi] Eberhard (1968), 125.

[xii] For more detailed discussions, see Hwang (2005), 18.

[xiii] See Hwang (2005), 19-25. Linguistic evidence strongly suggests that “Mago” is associated with ancient Korean people and culture. The phonetic of “ma” not its meaning (hemp) is, according Jungpyeong Noh, derived from “sam” in Korean, a homonym for “three” and “hemp.” This deliberation hinges on the ideas that Mago is also known as the Triad, Samsin (Triad Deity), and that the etymology of “the Triad” linguistically precedes “Mago.” Noh Jungpyeong. Go Choson ui Jonggyo Hyeokmyeong (Religious Revolution of Old Choson). Seoul: Daehan (2003), 41. While Noh’s theory that “ma” comes from the homonym “sam” is plausible, it fails to note that the stem “ma” is shared in “mama” or “mother.” Scholars maintain that the stem ma indicates not only mother but also goddess. The mother-syllable, “ma,” is found in many names of goddesses from around the world. Barbara G. Walker. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row (1983), 560-1. Matilda Joslyn Gage goes further to say, “The word ‘ma’ from which all descendants of those peoples derive their names for mother, was synonymous with ‘Creator.’” Matilda Joslyn Gage. Woman, Church and State. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company (1983), 23. The link between mother and “creator” is corroborated in Magoism whereby Mago is the cosmogonic goddess.

[xiv] In the Korean language, “ma” or “mama” is a referential term to respect a person of the royal family or high status. Such words are sanggam mama for the ruler, king, daebi mama for the mother of king, and ma nim for a noble lady. See the Hangukhak daebaekkwa sajeon (Encyclopedic Dictionary of Korean Studies). (Seoul: Eulyu munhwasa, 1991, c1972), 468.

[The essay, “Making the Gynocentric Case: Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia and Her Tradition Magoism” by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang was first published in She Is Everywhere! Volume 3: An anthology of writings in womanist/feminist spirituality (iUniverse 2012), co-edited by Mary Saracino and Mary Beth Moser. Used with permission.]

(To be continued in Part 2 and Part 3.)

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and her other posts.