(Essay 2) Making the Gynocentric Case: Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia, and Her Tradition Magoism by Helen Hwang

[Editor’s note: Numbers of endnotes differ from the original ones in the article]

Reconstructing Gynocentric Korean Identity

Scholars in the West, upon assessing a religion or deity of the non-Western world, tend to pair the topic with a modern nation. Thus, they often project their modern knowledge of the nation or culture onto the indigenous religion or deity they study. Such a methodology betrays the assumption that the modern notion of national identities is time-proven and bias-free. In this process, one’s perception of other people’s cultural expression is molded by Western-made modern knowledge of that people. This kind of knowledge ceases to exist outside the Western mind. Some go further to point out that the religious expression of a non-Western country in point is colored by the air of nationalism that is culturally on the rise in that country. This kind of assessment suggests the idea that a cultural expression fostered by nationalist zeal is inauthentic or impure and therefore of less value for study. While such conclusions are not necessarily wrong, I find it misguided. Done so, it prepares the ground for Western scholars to wield the authority of Western hegemony over the non-Western world. Precisely, it is blind to the fact that no cultural expression in modern times is free from nationalist ethos. Modern life is inherently shaped by the shade of nationalism whether it is in a non-Western world or a Western world. In my view, the question to be asked is: How can we assess a religious expression of a people beyond the modern notion of national identities? Or how can we go beneath the modern notion of national identities in order to assess a religious expression of a people?

I hold that the modern category of national identities in particular causes harm to the study of the goddess. Modern nationalities go hand in hand with the impetus of patriarchal religions that do away with the female principle. There is an unmistakable difference between the male divine and the female divine when their manifestations are found cross-nationally. It is generally assumed that exchange of cultures between nations allows the male divine to be disseminated from one people to another. It is true that patriarchal religions have traveled around the globe and disseminated their gods into other nations. When it comes to the goddess whose worship is widespread across nations, such as the case of Mary in the West, however, this kind of reasoning proves to be inadequate. Antithetical is the idea that patriarchal religions actively promote the transmission of the great goddess from one nation to the other. Thus, the very perception of the transnational goddess is systematically thwarted in the realm of patriarchal religions. Androcentric researchers may choose to either dismiss as anomalous the topic of the goddess whose manifestation is found cross-nationally or treat her as a local deity severing her from her transnational context. This has been done to the topic of Mago.

Budoji (Epic of the Emblem City)
Budoji (Epic of the Emblem City)

While Mago’s manifestation exists across the national boundaries of Korea, China, and Japan, it differs in nature, density, and complexity in these countries. Likewise, primary sources also show different traits according to the country. Korean sources surpass her Chinese counterparts not only in number but also in density and complexity. Mago’s supreme divinity is essentially affirmed in Korean sources, whereas it is treated as unknown in Chinese and Japanese counterparts. More to the point, the Budoji, the principal text that re-emerged in Korea in 1986, asserts that Koreans were the defenders of Old Magoism (Magoism in pre-patriarchal times) against the pseudo-Magoist Chinese regime. How can we understand the primacy of Korean Magoism without resorting to the modern notion of nationalist identities?

To this question, the Budoji offers a compelling reading: Korean Magoist identity precedes the formation of nationalist identities. Its mytho-historical account forges Korean identity within the context of Old Magoism. The Magoist universalist principle is predicated on the idea that individualized group identities (polities) co-exist as a unified force on account that Mago is the origin of everyone and human civilizations. Consanguinity of all peoples is at the root of Magoist universalism. According to the Budoji, tracing Mago’s genealogy was a means to uphold Magoist universalism. Mago’s genealogy was constructed to affirm the consanguinity of all peoples and their languages in pre-patriarchal times. Being the primal genealogy of the human kind, it reifies the Magoist universalist principle proclaiming the Origin of Mago. The Budoji continues to warrant that ancient Koreans were the orthodox compliers of Magoist chronology.

In the Magoist mythological schema, responsibility and leadership are given to the eldest of the community. The eldest devotes her life to the cause of Magoism. One’s sacrificial love for the whole is the hallmark of Magoist leadership. The Budoji focuses on Hwanggung, the eldest grandchild of Mago, the common ancestor of East Asians. Hwanggung is the primal Magoist leader/shaman who set her life as a paragon for forthcoming East Asians to become the oldest civilizers of Magoism.[i] Owing to the leadership of her and her successors, Magoist East Asians were able to become sea voyagers, teachers, philosophers, missionaries, diplomats, astrologists, musicians, mathematicians, and linguists in pre-patriarchal times. They carried out the Magoist mandate to bring all peoples of the world under the unified banner of Magoism. Nonetheless, this undivided identity of East Asian Magoists came to an end in time. Korean identity was perforce forged as the defender of Old Magoism, as Chinese rule rose to overthrow the traditional rule of Old Magoism.

The Budoji makes it possible for us to distinguish Old Magoism from Later Magoism. Standing at the epochal junction from Old Magoism to Later Magoism, the Budoji bemoans the advent of a degenerative time. In this schema, Koreans are identified as the primary and last witness to the universalist rule of Old Magoism on earth. Ancient Koreans are the ones who remembered their ancestors as the civilizers of Old Magoism (Magoism in pre-patriarchal times). The hallmark of Old Magoism lies in its political agency. Old Magoist polities held theocracy, which I call magocracy (societies ruled by Magoist shamans). Old Magoism gradually declined due to the expansion of the Chinese pseudo-Magoist regimes. The birth of ethnocentrism, colonialism, or nationalism, offshoots of patriarchal rule, characterizes the era of Later Magoism. Although Magoism as a political system disappeared into the shadow of history, its memory lived on East Asians for centuries to come. The nostalgic ethos that longs for Mago or Magoism, sentimentalized in many texts and arts from Korea, China, and Japan epitomizes Later Magoism. Later Magoism conveys people’s wish to be comforted in the memory of Old Magoism. As history ran its course, new cultural, religious, philosophical, literary, and artistic tropes began to develop. Later Magoism was widely favored and sustained by spiritualists, intellectuals, and the populace not without the exception of individual rulers and aristocrats.

The Budoji deplores the course of history that runs to degeneration. According to its mytho-historical narrative, two epochal catastrophes respectively brought an irreversible regression in history.[ii] The first catastrophe is called “the disaster of five tastes.” This is the mythic event referring to eating grapes (living organism) by a member of the primal community of Mago’s descendent demiurges. Soon after joined by his/her sympathizers, this event brought a series of consequences. Those who ate grapes left Mago’s Citadel out of shame but soon regretted and longed to return. However, they did not know how. As they dug the ground in search of the milk spring, which had been the source of nutrition for the divine family of Mago, the milk spring was destroyed. All peoples now had to eat some form of living organism for food. They eventually lost the state of immortality and had to depart from the paradisiacal residence for the four corners of the world. In this context, Hwanggung, eldest grandchild of Mago who is the common ancestor of East Asians, made an oath to Mago that she would bring all peoples to the knowledge of Mago’s Origin. To remind everyone of this original event and to build unity among peoples of the world was the political and religious purpose of early Magoist polities.

The second catastrophe refers to the rise of Yao’s rule, better known as one of the legendary Chinese emperors of highest antiquity. The Budoji depicts Yao as an imposter who imitated the principle of Magoism for his own ambition. Yao’s rule aimed to thwart the unified forefront of Magoist polities. This resulted in a confrontation between the traditionally united force of Magoist Koreans and the newly risen pseudo-Magoist Chinese regime. Yao with his successors in time succeeded in disturbing international relations and caused havoc to the lives of ancient peoples. This brought a dispersion of Koreans into peripheral regions in the subcontinent of East Asia.[iii] In my view, the Budoji, without regards to modern feminist discourse, makes a gynocentric argument against the rise of patriarchal rule in East Asia. The Budoji continues to state that, as Magoism lost its political power in East Asia, Magoist Koreans were cast to the mythic realm of the bygone era.


[i] I view that the early Magoist leaders/shamans/sovereigns are female. However, other scholars see them as male. I argue that assigning female gender to early Korean forebears recounted in the Budoji is a more cogent measure that befits the gynocentric principle of Magoism. This requires a separate space to discuss.

[ii] I have discussed these mytho-historical events in detail in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 in my dissertational research. See Hwang (2005), 128-244.

[iii]It is estimated that pre-nationalist Magoist Koreans began in mainland China and gradually migrated eastward to the Korean peninsula in remote antiquity due to the rise and expansion of the Yao (堯) regime. See Hwang (2005), 241-244.

[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 3. Read Part 1.)

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