Chinese myth

All posts tagged Chinese myth

A to Z: Xi Wangmu

Published April 27, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

This one is daunting, but after the last few, it’s refreshing to know that when the post is over, I’ll sit back and say “that is way too lacking in information” not because there isn’t any information, but because there’s too much of it.  Um, naturally, it’d be better if I didn’t sit back and say that at all, of course, but…I’m up to X.  Of course I’m experiencing a little burn-out…

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Xi Wangmu has been a pretty frequent inclusion in the more recent MegaTen games, but she didn’t start appearing until the PS1 era.  Dunno why.  Anyway, this is her compendium entry from the two Devil Summoner games:

A goddess revered in ancient China who grew popular during the Han Dynasty.  Her palace was said to be atop the mythological Mt. Kunlun.

She is mostly human in appearance, with a distinctive headdress, as well as the tail of a panther and the teeth of a tiger

Originally she was said to govern the Five Calamities, but later came to be depicted as a beautiful sage and enshrined as the ruler of Mt. Kunlun.

Among her legendary encounters was Sun Wukong, who stole and ate the Peaches of Immortality.

And a more abbreviated entry from the Shin Megami Tensei IV games:

An ancient Chinese goddess who ruled over the Kunlun mountains.  She was worshipped during the Han Dynasty.

She looks like a human, but is said to have the teeth of a tiger and tail of a leopard.  She kept the peaches of immortality, which Wu Kong stole and ate.

Admittedly, the biggest difference there is that one says tail of a panther and the other says tail of a leopard, but…

Let’s move on to the real Xi Wangmu!

Er, to a small sliver of the real one, anyway.  There’s a lot there.  (Like, whole books of it.)

It should come as no surprise — given that the games tend to be at least relatively accurate, and that they get more accurate the closer to home things are — that what the game says is pretty much correct.  It leaves out a lot, but it’s not wrong about anything, as far as I can tell.  For about the first thousand years (give or take a couple of centuries) of her known existence, she was ferocious, and had…well, the Wikipedia page only mentions the teeth of a tiger, but I doubt the game simply made up the tail.  After she became part of Taoism, though, that’s when she became the “Queen Mother of the West” that she’s been ever since.  (“Queen Mother of the West” being the translation of Xi Wangmu, btw.)

Pao-Shan Tomb Wall-Painting from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). Wikimedia Commons

This painting could easily be an influence on the game art, don’t you think?  (Well, maybe not.  But the colors are very similar!)

Anyway, after she ceased to be a dispenser of pestilence, then she did indeed become known as “the dispenser of prosperity, longevity, and eternal bliss” at about the time that China was prospering due to the added trade from the Silk Road, and the different regions were better able to get to know each other.

According to legend, she met with countless famous figures, including a long list of emperors, a number of heroes, and even the father of Taoism…and in one account, it was actually Xi Wangmu who wrote his famous Dao De Jing, one of the foundations of Taoism.  (Or is Daoism the correct way to write it?  The various pages on Wikipedia are inconsistent on that score…and I’m so tired I actually wrote “correction” instead of “correct” just now…)

Her home was not always said to be on Mt. Kunlun, but that seems to have become the default after a while.  Likewise, sometimes she was said to grow the Peaches of Immortality, other times different peaches that only extended life, and other times they were merely nearby.  She’s known for serving them to her guests, though, regardless of where they grew.  (In that respect, she could be compared to Idun or Hebe, with their golden apples and ambrosia respectively…)  And yes, Sun Wukong did steal them from her once, though I had to go through about five different Wikipedia articles to confirm that!  (It was my own fault, though.  When Xi Wangmu’s page didn’t say that, I should have just looked his up straight away.)

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Bah.  I need to stop writing these posts at night when I’m tired from work.

Q is for Qat

Published April 20, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

Q

Qat is a multi-faceted figure from Melanesian myth.  In most ways he’s a god, or at least a spirit, but in another he seems more or less human.

Qat was born from a stone — one shaped like a vagina, according to one of my sources — which either split open or completely burst apart.  He made islands and created humanity by carving them from wood, and using music to bring them to life.  In this aspect, he’s clearly a creator god.

There are a large number of tales of Qat, but I want to focus on this one:


 

One day, Qat came across a number of bathing sky maidens.  Because the water might have damaged their wings, the maidens had removed them.  Seeing the pile of wings, Qat took a pair and buried it, forcing one maiden to stay behind when the others departed back to the skies.  Left behind with nothing and no one, the sky maiden was helpless, but Qat approached her to console her.  Soon enough, he began wooing her, and made her his wife.  They lived together for many years, seemingly happily, until Qat’s wife accidentally uncovered her buried wings.  As soon as she saw her wings again, she replaced them on her back, and flew away to the skies without a moment’s hesitation.

Qat wasn’t ready to give up his wife so quickly, though.  He knew where to find the roots of the banyan tree in the sky — upon which, apparently, the sky maidens lived.  He tied a rope to an arrow, and fired it into the roots of the floating banyan tree.  Qat climbed up the rope into the sky, and recovered his wife.  But the root his rope was connected to wasn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of both Qat and his wife.  It broke, and Qat plummeted to his death, while his wife simply flew away.


 

Obviously, in that particular story, Qat is anything but a god.  There are also other versions where he doesn’t die from the fall, but sails away in a (flying?) canoe, promising to return someday.

It’s mostly that story I want to talk about in the comparisons (obviously), but I’ll address the earlier parts first, just for a moment or two.  Qat is certainly not the only one to be born from a rock:  while there are probably a vast number of such births, the one that really leaps to my mind is Sun Wukong, probably better known to the English-speaking section of the world by his Japanese name, Son Goku (after whom the Dragonball character was named).

I can’t think of any other creation tale — off-hand — that has humanity carved from wood, but it’s common enough for humans to be the work of handicraft…but actually I’m going to be addressing this again later this month, so I’ll just move on to the main part of the post.

So, the tale of the winged maiden probably struck you as familiar as you were reading it, even if you’re not terribly well versed in folklore or mythology.  And if you are well versed in folklore, you probably thought of a large number of similar tales as soon as you read the first sentence.

These tales are common across the world.  The two that first leapt to my mind as I read the story of Qat’s sky maiden wife were that of the heavenly maiden and that of the selkie…even though with selkies there are no wings, but a seal skin, as the unearthly bride is an oceanic spirit who normally takes the form of a seal.  (The basic story is the same, though, except that the seal skin is usually hidden in a chest in the house, rather than buried.)

As to the heavenly maiden, the story originates in China, and thus has variant versions in Japan and Korea.  (So naturally my familiarity with the subject comes from Japanese and Korean pop culture.  Because how else.)  In the Chinese original, the maiden in question is Zhinü, a daughter of the Jade Emperor.  She has no wings, but a magical robe that allows her to fly between her heavenly home and the earthly realm.  Again, her husband-to-be — in this case a cowherd — comes across her bathing, and hides her robe so she can’t return.  (Why the daughter of the Jade Emperor would want to fly down to earth to bathe in a lake where any old yutz could come across her and see her naked is a question that is likely never answered to anyone’s satisfaction.)  Now, Zhinü does come to love the cowherd, but she also misses her home and her father.  So when she comes across her hidden robe, she decides to put it on and go home for a visit.  However, her father — having been (quite understandably) enraged by the cowherd’s actions — caused a river to flow between the heavens and the earth so that she could never return to earth.  This river appears on earth as the Milky Way.  Zhinü is so broken-hearted at being parted from her beloved husband that even her father feels sorry for her, and once a year he allows the two lovers to meet.  But then he parts them again, because how could the Jade Emperor have a cowherd for a son-in-law?!

This tragic romance has festivals dedicated to it in China, Japan and Korea…but if you’re familiar with the version normally told about the parted lovers for the Japanese Tanabata festival, you won’t notice much in common with this one, apart from the fact that he’s a cowherd, and that they’re separated by the Milky Way.  (Zhinü is actually always a weaver, like in the standard version of the Tanabata tale.  It’s just that it didn’t come up until now, because she’s weaving clouds, and it just seemed a bit unconnected.)  The original version has become a minor variant in Japan.  Because that’s the way folklore works; the more a tale is told and retold, the more it changes, being adapted to the local culture.  (That is, of course, a large part of what makes it so fascinating to study!)

But that’s only one of the parallel stories.  In European traditions, there’s the tale of the swan maiden.  Or rather, there’s the trope of the swan maiden:  there are so many variations that it’s impossible to recount them all.  (Particularly in a single blog post.)  The basic story is the same, but the details are slightly different from the Asian and Melanesian versions.  What the man steals is a robe of swan feathers, which is what allows the swan maiden to fly (and/or to transform into an actual swan), and it’s usually the interference of their children (intentionally or not) that allow the swan maiden to find her robe and fly away from the husband she’s never loved.  Sometimes the husband tries to find her again, but generally he doesn’t bother, due to the impossibility of the task.

There are also all sorts of “animal bride” stories, as well as faerie spouses (male as well as female), but then you start getting into slightly different stories, particularly in terms of how the spouse is gained, and what the human does to lose them.  (At their core, though, they tend to reinforce a “stick to your own kind unless you want to be miserable” lesson that would have been crucial back in the Middle Ages.)

Before I hit “Schedule” on this post (since I’m pre-writing), I want to take a brief moment to address the gender issues of these stories.  Whether the man is Qat, the cowherd, or the random European guy with the swan maiden, in all these tales, he’s won his wife through treachery, deceitfully placing her in an artificial situation where she’s left utterly helpless (and frequently literally naked) and has no choice but to marry him.  Now, on the one hand, most of the versions do specify that the woman falls in love with her husband, but if that’s the case, why would she abandon him at the first opportunity?  (There are exceptions, of course.  In Zhinü’s case, she isn’t abandoning him, as she fully intended to return.  In most of the swan maiden tales, she’s constantly mournful and crying, as she does not love her husband.  And in the case of the selkies — as in most of the faerie tales — it’s more the rules of her people that make her leave when she finds her robe again, rather than an actual desire to leave.)  It’s interesting to note that in the first place I came across the heavenly maiden version of this story — the Korean manwha Faeries’ Landing — when the story was related to the (self-labeled) “tough guy” male lead, his reaction is to be appalled at the behavior of the cowherd, and to say how he can’t blame the poor heavenly maiden for fleeing as soon as she could.  (He says this unaware of the fact that the girl he’s talking to is the offspring of that union, of course.)  It’s aimed at a female readership, of course, so maybe he was only made to say that in order to endear him to the readers, but even so it didn’t feel the least bit unbelievable that even a modern man (er, teenage boy) would be so disgusted by it.  Forcing a marriage like that, in today’s world, is morally reprehensible, even if there aren’t necessarily any laws being broken.  (Depending on how it happened, you could probably call it a form of rape, though.)  That’s probably why the Tanabata myth became something so different, in order to make the cowherd into someone morally praiseworthy, since he’s at the center of such an important and uplifting event.

I don’t really have any strong point to make here; I just didn’t want to post these stories without saying something.  Because on the one hand, what the men in these stories do is reprehensible to our modern mindset.  But on the other hand they’re the product of a different time, a different place, and a different culture, so it’s important not to apply our own mores to them too heavily.  Of course, it’s very possible that the man’s actions were always intended to be seen as indefensible, and that’s why he almost always ends up either alone or dead; folklore often punishes the wrong-doer, after all.

F is for Fei Lian

Published April 7, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

F

Fei Lian is a Chinese wind spirit of monstrous appearance, though my sources have contrasted greatly on just what his monstrous appearance actually looks like.  “Deer” and “snake” came up in both, but the former came up in different places.  (Honestly, I think the description of him as a dragon with the head of a deer and the tail of a snake sounds a bit more authentically Chinese than the description of him as having the body of a deer, the head of a sparrow, the horns of a bull and the tail of a snake.  But what do I know?  I was dazed most of the day today (I think I accidentally took one of my medications twice) and could be typing upside down and inside out for all I know.)

Regardless of what Fei Lian looks like, he keeps the winds in a bag, so that he can let them out to do his bidding whenever he wants.  However, he is also rebellious, and once rose up against Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor.  He was, of course, brought down, and forced to toe the line.  (Or perhaps hoof the line, if he does indeed have the body of a deer.)

So, it’s not a terribly great comparison — that’s starting to be a running theme, I’m sorry to say — but I know of another individual who could keep the winds in a sack:  Aiolos, who put all the winds but Zephyros into a sack and gave them to Odysseus so he would have smooth sailing to get back home again…which obviously didn’t work out too well, due to the greed of Odysseus’ crew.  (Or so Odysseus claimed, anyway.  How much of the tale he told to the Phaiacians we should take seriously is a difficult matter to determine.)

Obviously, there are huge differences.  Aiolos would not normally keep the winds in a sack, and only put them there as a special favor to a mortal he had taken a shine to — or to curry favor with that mortal’s guardian goddess, whichever — and even then it wasn’t all the winds, merely all the ones that would interfere with Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.  And Aiolos is one of those characters who may well have been created for the story in which he is now found, as opposed to a character whose stories all post-date him, as Fei Lian almost certainly is.  And Aiolos is not the least bit rebellious, either.

So really the only strong comparison between them is that they both keep the winds in a sack.  And there are probably others who do that as well,  who I just didn’t encounter.

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Ugh.  I swear, at some point I am going to start putting out some of these that don’t suck.

It just may take me a while!

(Okay, no, actually, tomorrow’s shouldn’t be too bad.  It’s got a bit more meat to it, at any rate.)

B is for Bacab

Published April 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

B

The Bacabs are four Mayan deities — or the aspects of a single quadripartite deity — who were associated with the cardinal directions.  Each was also associated with a color:  the northern Bacab was associated with white, the eastern Bacab with red, the southern Bacab with yellow, and the western Bacab with black.

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of myth associated with them, apart that they held up the sky, and had escaped when the world was destroyed in a flood.  (Guess I missed them yesterday, lol!)  Of course, if they were holding up the sky, then they obviously couldn’t do much without dropping it, and that would be bad…so they probably featured in a lot of now-lost stories of destruction at the ends of the various ages of the Mayan calendar.  (Or maybe they wouldn’t have; maybe there weren’t even such stories in the first place.  I didn’t have as much time to research as I wanted, due to class work and work work.)  In any event, the one myth I saw mentioned that featured them was one of upheaval on a truly massive, “I think we should call the Avengers” scale.  (Okay, that sounded totally out of left field, but…it’s less crazy than you think, between my post for today on my other blog and between my plans for today IRL.  And, now that I think about it, gods like these (but fictional ones, not ones stolen from a real culture) would make a pretty sweet opponent for a superhero team…)

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex.  Wikimedia Commons.

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

As the gods who held up the sky — and had associations with weather, particularly rain — the Bacabs probably had a much larger ritual presence than a mythological one.  All the more so since the Maya had another set of four gods, the Chaacs, who had pretty much the same function, and who were closely associated — perhaps even somewhat conflated — with the Bacabs.  (And yes, the Chaacs had been in the running for Monday’s post.  But I had fewer good options for B, so the Bacabs won.)

Okay, so that seemed a bit light, I know.  But now we get to the comparative side!

Obviously, an easy comparison is Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek mythology.  ‘Cause, you know, they both hold up the sky.  But that’s actually a pretty weak comparison.  After all, Atlas isn’t associated with any of the cardinal directions (in fact, his location was never quite certain and changed from version to version) and he isn’t associated with any colors as far as I know.  So let’s look for some better matches!

  • The Four Symbols.  Chinese (and Korean and Japanese).  This is very common in Japanese (and Korean) popular culture, so this was the first thing I thought of when I came across the Bacabs!  These four spirits are associated with colors and cardinal directions.  They also have animal forms and are not holding up the sky, but they are associated with constellations, so they are at least associated with the sky.  The northern spirit is the Black Turtle (Xuán Wū, or Genbu in Japanese), the eastern spirit is the Azure Dragon (Qīng Lóng, or Seiryu in Japanese), the southern spirit is the Vermilion Bird (Zhū Què, or Suzaku in Japanese), and the western spirit is the White Tiger (Baí Hǔ, or Byakko in Japanese).  None of the colors line up, but three colors are represented in both cases.  These four spirits are associated with the seasons, so that’s another tie to the rain and weather functions of the Bacabs, though again it’s not a perfect comparison.
  • The Four Heavenly Kings.  Buddhist.  This was the second comparison I thought of when I read about the Bacabs.  (Admittedly, I thought of them because I know their Japanese names from video games, but…ahem.  Moving on.)  They’re protective gods, and they don’t hold up the sky.  But they are associated with colors and the cardinal directions:  north (Vaiśravaṇa, or Bishamonten in Japanese) with yellow or green, east (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, or Jikokuten in Japanese) with white, south (Virūḍhaka or Zochoten in Japanese) with blue, and west (Virūpākṣa or Komokuten in Japanese) with red.  A number of the colors are the same, but not lined with the same direction.  (Which is hardly surprising.)  And their functions are different, so this is definitely a weak comparison when you get right down to it.
  • The Four Sons of Horus.  Egyptian.  Not a strong comparison, I’ll say that right now.  These four sons of Horus are each associated with a cardinal direction, but their primary role was as the heads on the canopic jars that received the Pharoah’s internal organs, and the jars were then left facing in the direction associated with the son of Horus in question.  (Though early canopic jars had the Pharaoh’s own head depicted on them.)  I saw an image on Wikimedia — a modern drawing of canopic jars — that depicted each jar a different color, and three of the four lined up exactly with the colors on the Four Heavenly Kings, but I don’t think that had anything to do with ancient Egyptian belief, and was modern cross-pollination of ideas, or whatever that might be called.  (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m no Egyptologist.)
  • The four dwarves who hold up the dome of the sky.  Norse.  Now this is a pretty good comparison!  They’re holding up the sky from the four corners of the world, just like the Bacabs.  They don’t have colors associated with them, and they probably didn’t see much in the way of worship (especially considering Norse dwarves turned to stone when hit by sunlight) but they’re still a pretty strong parallel.  Their names translate to Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western, and they’re believed to be associated with the four winds.

I didn’t find any perfect comparisons for the Bacabs — apart from the Chaacs, and even that’s a flawed comparison since they’re both Mayan — but there are several strong points of comparison between four cultures that are all quite distant and different from the Mayan culture.  (And also I found a Hindu comparison that I elected to leave out because it wasn’t four gods associated with the four cardinal directions, but eight gods associated with eight directions.)

Of course, the four cardinal directions are pretty universal.  Or rather, they’re always there, whether a culture comes to acknowledge them as important or not.  (Whether or not they are, in fact, important is a metaphysical speculation that I don’t really have time for right now.)  And colors are present in every culture, no matter how they’re named or recognized.  Beings holding up the sky…are also not uncommon.  After all, you cannot personally touch the sky (unless you’re on some really psychadelic medications) so it has to be far away, and before the advent of modern science, coming to the conclusion that it’s a dome of air and the color we see is the way it refract the light is not likely.  So some other explanation had to be arrived at, and some god(s) — or monster(s) — holding up the sky is as likely an explanation as any other, perhaps even a more likely explanation than any other.  (As silly as Aristotle’s crystal dome may sound to us now, it was actually an amazing leap forward in scientific thought at the time.)

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