Ch’ang-O, the Moon Goddess

Our Coming of Age class took a field trip to the Asian Art Museum to see images of divinities. There we saw a beautiful jade sculpture of Ch’ang-O (Pinyin: Chang-e), the Moon Goddess. It’s just a few inches tall, but highly detailed: Ch’ang-O is smiling beatifically, and she is accompanied by her rabbits, one of whom is grinding something in a mortar and pestle:

Ch’ang-O is still honored in Chinese popular culture, at the Mid-Autumn Festival which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month. More than one version of Ch’ang-O’s story is told, but the general outlines of the various versions are similar:

Ch’ang-O is an immortal being; she and Houyi are sweethearts. One day, ten suns appear in the sky, the sons of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and these ten sons cause much damage; Houyi takes up his bow and arrow and shoots down nine of the ten in order to save the earth. Ch’ang-O loses her immortality by offending the Jade Emperor in some way. Houyi obtains a concoction that will make one person immortal (in some versions the pill could be split between Houyi and Ch’ang-O, making them both very long-lived, but not immortal), and this concoction is formed into a pill. Ch’ang-O takes the entire pill herself, either mistakenly or on purpose, upon which she not only becomes immortal, but she begins floating upwards towards heaven. At last she lodges permanently on the moon.

The Rabbit in the Moon

The reason there must be rabbits in the Moon is simple. In the West, we look at the moon and see the Man in the Moon, but in East Asia it is common to look up and see the Rabbit in the Moon; the Rabbit has a mortar and pestle in which it grinds herbal medicine, rice cakes, or mochi (depending on who tells the story). The body of the rabbit corresponds to roughly lunar landscape features as follows: left ear — Mare Fecunditatis; right ear — Mare Nectaris and Mare Tranquilitatis; base of ears — Mare Serenitatis; head — Mare Imbrium; body — Oceanus Procellarum. The mortar which the Rabbit uses for grinding is centered on the Mare Cognitum. For Westerners, here’s a sketch of the Moon Rabbit:

To help you find the Moon Rabbit next time you look at the moon, remember that the crater Tycho is just to the right of the Rabbit’s mortar.

How divine is Ch’ang-O?

Something we ask Coming of Age participants to consider when they look at images of deities is where they would place that deity on the following rough scale:

1. Ordinary human
2. Extraordinary human (prophet, sage)
3. Semi-divine (more than human, not quite a god or goddess)
4. Human who became divine
5. God or goddess with a non-human form
6. God or goddess that acts like a human
7. God or goddess that is far above humans
8. God or goddess so divine that humans cannot know it

In the stories about her, Ch’ang-O started out as — perhaps — semi-divine (more than human, not quite a goddess); then became completely human; then became immortal once more; and finally wound up as the Moon Goddess. Most Westerners, influenced by the strongly Western tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, tend to think of a deity as unchangeable, the “Unmoved Mover”; but far more human cultures have deities that can change in response to events. Thus Ch’and-O serves as a perfect counter-example for Westerners (both theists and atheists) who dogmatically assert that God is perfect and does not change.

Ch’ang-O in popular culture

The story of Ch’ang-O doesn’t leak out much beyond the boundaries of the Chinese American community (or other East Asian communities). But once in a while, the story of Ch’ang-O makes it into Western popular culture. The most notable example of this was just before the first humans set foot on the moon.

Here’s the Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, from July 20, 1969, not long before the Lunar Module landed on the moon:

03 23 16 18 CC [Capsule Communicator, i.e., Mission Control]:
…The “Black Bugle” just arrived with some morning news briefs if you’re ready.

03 23 16 28 CDR [Commander, i.e., Neil Armstrong]:
Go ahead.

[some material omitted]

03 23 17 28 CC:
Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

03 23 18 15 LMP [Lunar Module Pilot, i.e., Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; this was latter corrected to Michael Collins]:
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription,” Tape 61/3 page 270 [Houston, Texas: Manned Spacecraft Center, July, 1969], pp. 178-179.)

— And don’t let the conspiracy theorists fool you: the Apollo astronauts saw no sign of Ch’ang-O, nor of any rabbits, nor of a cinnamon tree (actually a cassia tree in the myth).

 

Updated 3/7/18 with revised drawing and Apollo 11 transcript.

Guteel

In a Tlingit myth, Guteel was a being who lived on human blood. He was larger than humans, and semi-divine, so in English translations of the myth he is referred to as a “giant” or a “monster.” I found a few different versions of the myth — as you’d expect with an oral tradition — but the central plot remains much the same: Guteel is killing too many humans, so the humans figure out a way to kill him. As they destroy him, he prophesies that they will never kill him completely. The humans burn his body, but the ashes turn into mosquitoes which suck blood from humans, thus rendering Guteel’s prophecy true.

At Sitka National Historical Park, there is a Mosquito Legend Pole carved before 1900, which once belonged to Hattie Wallace of the Kaigani Haida village of Sukkwan. Even though it was in a Haida village, the pole shows the Tlingit Mosquito Legend. The traditional Watchman figure is missing from the top of this pole; so now Guteel sits at the top, a giant with a beak that looks like a mosquito proboscis.

We probably would not include monsters or giants like Guteel in the category of deities. Yet a being like Guteel is in some sense a lesser deity: he is immortal, he is powerful, he is part of the order of existence. Not all deities are benevolent.

More information:

Info about the replica Mosquito Legend Pole at Sitka National Historical Park

Versions of the Tlingit Mosquito Legend: a brief versionversion with photos of old totem poles

Tlingit myths and Texts

A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.

An Asian Mary

On a recent visit to the Asian Art Museum, I saw a beautiful mixed media sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The body of the sculpture was made of wood, the head and hands of ivory, a crown of stars of metal, and the hair of actual human hair.

When Westerners think of Asian religious art, they tend to think of Buddhas and Ganeshas and Guan Yins, forgetting that Christianity has had a presence in Asia for more than 1900 years. So of course there are Asian Christs and Asian Marys.

This Virgin Mary was made in the Philippines, to whence Christianity was brought by European Christians about five hundred years ago. The sculpture cannot be precisely dated, but was made sometime between 1650 and 1800.

Anyone familiar with European Christian art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will recognize the iconography of Mary standing on a crescent moon. But some of the details feel Asian. Mary’s facial features do not look stereotypically European, and according to the wall label next to the sculpture, “Early Spanish reports describe artists of Chinese descent as well as Filipino artists carving these images in the Philippines.” The treatment of the draped fabric feels non-European to me, especially Mary’s blue robe, which takes on a life of its own in a way that European Renaissance sculptures, based on classical models, never do; it feels more like the flowing, moving fabric found on some Chinese sculptures, or even on some Medieval European sculptures. I particularly like the use of human hair, a material that anchors Mary in the human realm, and keeps her from drifting into a realm of inaccessible transcendence.

In short, here is a deity that incorporates European iconography with Asian forms and sculptural traditions; she is a globalized deity who also links the human to the transcendent realms.

Agni

Agni, the ancient Vedic deity of fire, has always appealed to me. But until today, I’d only met Agni through poetry, like this hymn to Agni, the fifth hymn of the third book of the Rig Veda, as translated by Ralph Griffith:

Agni who shines against the Dawns is wakened;
the holy Singer who precedes the sages:
With far-spread luster, kindled by the pious,
the Priest has thrown both gates of darkness open.
Agni has waxed mighty by songs of praise,
to be adored with hymns of those who praise him.
Loving the varied shows of holy Order
at the first flush of dawn, he shines as envoy.
Midst mortal’s homes, Agni has been established,
fulfilling with the Law; Friend, germ of waters.
Loved and adored, the height he has ascended;
the Singer, object of our invocations.

Thus I was pleased to finally see a visual depiction of Agni at the Asian Art Museum this afternoon. He was part of a painting from the Ramayana, protecting Sita during her trial by fire, as imagined by a Balinese artist c. 1850-1900. Since this was a traveling exhibit, photography was not permitted, so I drew a quick sketch of Agni — leaving out Sita, Rama, the army of monkeys, the tongues of fire, and everything else in this detailed painting:

Agni, pencil on paper, 3-1/2x5 in.

Washington, D.C., to West Concord, Mass.

Sometimes, when you’re driving along one of the highways of the Washington-to-Boston megalopolis, you look around and it feels like there’s nothing there but paved highways.

BlogJul0716a

Obviously there’s more to the Great American Megalopolis than highways. On this trip, just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the well-loved green chair and ottoman in a porch where Russell sat next to L.E.W. Smith’s Twelve Poems Reconsidered and looked out at the birds in his garden. Also just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the small garden at E’s house where she picked a squash which she cubed and cooked and mixed with pasta and ricotta cheese.

As we drove along, I thought about the welded steel sculptures made by David Smith that I had seen at the National Gallery. Eight foot high circles on bases that look like feet, with appendages welded on that look like arms, these painted sculptures feel like they’re almost animate, as if they’re going to move at any moment, like some kind of large fanciful animals.

David Smith sculptures, East Wing, National Gallery, US

Actually, maybe they’re more like representations of mid-twentieth century North American deities. Maybe highway signs, also made of brightly painted metal, are close cousins to these sculptures, pragmatic deities that are also akin to ancient Greek cairns in which the god Hermes hid to guide passers-by. Maybe this was what Frank Stella was getting at in his book Working Space. This became a confused train of thought, and I know I dozed off because when Carol said, “Should we stop here for lunch?” I snapped awake.

After lunch, Carol wanted me to read aloud. I finished a book that she had been reading aloud the last time we were driving, The Egyptian News by Scott Steedman, a children’s book with ancient Egyptian “news stories” like an investigative report into Tutankahmen’s death (“Boy King Murdered?”) and an interview with an embalmer. At a rest stop, we bought a copy of the New York Times, and I read aloud the front page news, and several other articles including the very entertaining story about Donald Trump explaining to a crowd how the graphic accompanying his social media post against Hillary Clinton was not anti-Semitic, and how he was mad at his staff for removing it from the Web. I read some chapters from the novel we’ve been reading aloud off and on during this whole trip. My voice finally gave out about thirty minutes before we arrived in West Concord, Massachusetts.

Isis

Isis is a well-known Egyptian goddess who needs little introduction. This beautiful little sculpture of Isis dates from a period when the Romans ruled Egypt; so Isis is wearing an Egyptian headdress, but she’s also wearing Roman clothing.

Isis, c. 100-200 BCE

Above: Isis with sistrum, from Roman Imperial period, c. 100 BCE to 200 CE; bronze. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 04.1713.

She is shaking a sistrum, an small percussion instrument that was used almost exclusively by women. Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, interprets the sistrum in terms of sexuality: “The sistrum was a kind of rattle — a wooden handle supporting bars of metal, each piercing small rings that clanged together when the instrument was vibrated. The sistrum itself represented human sexuality — round objects penetrated by a phallic rod holding them in place” (1). This interpretation could be accurate, but it could be overly influenced by Freud and Co., and therefore anachronistic.

The archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley offers another interpretation; she says the sistrum, which “was played only by women,” was “a rather large loop-shaped rattle with a long handle, often featuring the head of Hathor [another Egyptian goddess], which had initially represented the papyrus reeds of the Nile Delta where, mythology decreed, Hathor had been forced to hide with her young son. Eventually the sistrum lost all trace of its original meaning and instead started to serve as a religious symbol for life itself. It consequently become absorbed by other deities, and was particularly identified with the cult of Isis at the end of the Dynastic period.” (2) And this sculpture in fact does date from the end of the Dynastic period, the time when Isis had taken over the sistrum form Hathor.

Thus in this sculpture, we see the goddess Isis at the end of some three millennia of change and development. She is wearing the flowing robes of Rome rather than the simple sheath dress of Dynastic Egypt. She wears a headdress that identifies her as Isis, though it is not the older stepped headdress of Isis seen in sculptures from 500 years earlier (see, e.g., the sculpture of Isis below, from c. 685-525 BCE). And she has taken over the sistrum from Hathor and other goddesses.

Although their adherents may say otherwise, art and material culture does not show gods and goddesses as unchanging and fixed; instead, they grow and evolve over time.

Isis, Dynasty 26

Above: Isis mourning Osiris, from Dynasty 26, c. 685-525 BCE; wood. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 72.4172.

Notes:

(1) Kara Cooney, The Woman Who Would Be King (New York: Broadway Books, 2014), p. 39.
(2) Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 139.

Taweret

Taweret is one of the deities who was a fairly common presence in ancient Egyptian households. Sculptures of Taweret have the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a female human being, and the arms and legs of a lion (note 1); though of course the physical manifestations of ancient Egyptian deities were not thought to adequately represent the actual deity. Sculptures of her “held the attribute of the sa [an ancient Egyptian symbol of magical protection] in her hands and sometimes also the ankh or a torch, the flame of which was supposed to expel typhonic forces” (note 2).

A statue of Taweret would typically stand in a niche in a house, with perhaps an offering table. A Taweret sculpture might also be placed in bedrooms, to prevent sleeping humans from being assaulted by demons or ghosts. According to some accounts, she was married to the god Seth (note 3).

Below is a fine tiny sculpture of Taweret, made of faience sometime in Dynasties 26-30, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (accession number 64.2252). She is holding the sa, and you can see her hippo head, human body, and lion limbs. She is fearsome enough to give you a measure of assurance that she will indeed protect you, as a household god should; but she also appears friendly enough that I would not mind having her in my household.

Taweret

Notes:

1. Garry J. Shaw, The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Thames and Hudson, 2014), p. 155.

2. Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt [Thames and Hudson, 1980/2006], English language edition of Gotter und Symbole der Alten Agypter, rev. and enlarged by Peter A. Clayton, p. 119.

3. Shaw, pp. 152, 158, 55.

Aphrodite

Aprhodite’s nature and deeds are well enough known that they don’t need to be repeated here. This head of Aphrodite, carved between 300 and 300 BCE, is sometimes called the “Bartlett Head.” It was once attached to a complete figure, and likely would have been part of a temple; many Greek sculptures from this era were painted. Now the temple and the rest of the figure are lost, and this isolated head is on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is worth remembering that when we see religious art in museums, what we are seeing has been removed from its original religious setting and purpose, and put into a completely secular context where it has no purpose except to be gazed at for its presumed artistic beauty.

Aphrodite

Ma-ku

Ma-ku is a Taoist deity of longevity. In the image below, she can be identified by her hoe and a basket of the fungus of immortality. This Ching dynasty porcelain presentation dish was made sometime in the eighteenth century, and is now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (accession no. B60P376):

Ma-ku

Today in the West, Ma-ku’s name is sometimes translated as “Hemp Maiden,” which has led a number of Westerners to misappropriate her as the patron deity of pot smokers; you can find plenty of Web sites that state this as an absolute fact. Note, however, the iconography of Ma-ku often shows her, not with marijuana, but with a basket of the fungus of immortality. And so, not surprisingly, other Western writers have jumped to the conclusion that Ma-ku is not the goddess of marijuana, but rather the goddess of psychoactive mushrooms. Obviously, psychoactive mushrooms do not produce longevity, but we Westerners do love to superimpose our own meanings on the gods and goddesses of other times and other cultures.

Rather than imposing Western values on Ma-ku, I’m more interested in learning her role and place in Chinese culture. I found it difficult to locate good solid information about Ma-ku in English. But Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany (1899), though not a scholarly work and probably biased by a colonial outlook, has a useful entry on Ma-ku under the general heading of Gods and Goddesses:

MA KU

Ma Ku: A Taoist immortalised female saint or Hsien Nu; a portrait of Ma Ku is very popular as an emblem of longevity, and is one of the very best presents a person can make to his superiors on the occasion of a birthday feast.

During my stay in Kuei-chou, I received several such presents, in the form of a portrait of Ma Ku with a pilgrim’s staff and a basket of flowers over her shoulder, the whole embroidered in fancy coloured silk floss, on a scarlet satin tablet some 8 or 10 feet long by about 3 feet wide.

Mayers writing of Ma Ku says that she is “One of the female celebrities of Taoist fable. She is said to have been a sister of the immortalized soothsayer Wang Feng-ping (see Wang Yuan), and like him to have been admitted into the ranks of the genii [i.e., the immortals]. It is related that once when Fang-ping revealed himself in the presence of Ts’ai Ching, whom he chose as his disciple and taught, by corporeal sublimation, to free himself from the bonds of death, the genii was accompanied by his sister Ma Ku, who appeared in the semblance of a damsel of eighteen or twenty, arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and who waited on her brother and his pupil with strange viands served in platters of gold and chrysoprase.

“The wife of Ts’ai Ching was newly delivered of a child, seeing which Ma Ku took some grains of rice and threw them on the ground, where they at once became transformed into cinnabar (the magic of the alchemists). Fang-ping seeing this exclaimed with a smile, ‘Sister, do you still indulge in child’s play?’ to which the damsel replied: ‘Since I have been our handmaid, thrice has the eastern sea become fields where the mulberry grows!’…

“Hence the Tsang Sang Chih Pien, signifying the cyclic revolutions of nature and cataclysms occurring upon the earth’s surface such as beings of immeasurable longevity alone are priveleged to witness more than once.” It is on this account that the image or portrait of Ma Ku is so highly prized by the Chinese as an emblem of extreme long life and happiness.

— William Mesny, ed., Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese, vol. III, (Shanghai: Shanghai Mercury, 1899), p. 286.