Exploring Xi wangmu, Queen Mother of the West and the associated immortality motifs

Who was Xi Wang Mu?

Tomb Tile with the Queen Mother of the West (detail), Eastern Han dynasty, 2nd c.
Stamped earthenware tile, Sichuan Provincial Museum © 2000, The Art Institute of Chicago.

This tomb tile shows the Queen Mother of the West in her palace on Mount Kunlun, a sacred mountain. One of the most important goddesses of the Taoist pantheon, the Queen Mother of the West was believed to be the supreme matriarch who governed all other female deities. This tile comes from Sichuan province, heart of the Way of the Celestial Masters – the earliest religious movement to lay the foundation for religious Taoism. The tile dates to the very time that this movement was first coming to power. Way of the Celestial Masters  was the first formal Taoist religious organization, founded in the late Han dynasty by Taoist master Zhang Daoling, who claimed to have received teachings from the deified Laozi. Members of the Celestial Masters sect addressed the spiritual needs of the community. Communal rites were performed regularly, especially during seasonal changes. The Celestial Masters sect was also responsible for healing, which required the recording of misdeeds on a paper addressed to one of the Three Officials (heaven, earth, or water). The movement remains active in China to this day.

Many early legends tell of mortals, especially rulers, who traveled to Mount Kunlun to meet with the Queen Mother of the West and to be entertained at feasts hosted by her. Since this tile was excavated from a tomb, the feast shown on it may represent the afterlife. As a feminine image, the Queen Mother of the West is associated with yin energy; the location of her palace on Mount Kunlun, toward the west, is also associated with yin. Here she is seated between a tiger and dragon, symbols of yin and yang that represent her transcendence of these two energies.

To her left, a hare holds a candelabra while a toad dances in front of her. These animals symbolize the moon, yin counterpart to the yang sun.

The significance of the hare:

“Rabbits and hares are also obviously excellent fertility symbols (frogs and toads are also highly fertile, as anyone who has collected frogspawn will know)” — The Toad and the Hare

Osiris was sometimes called Wepuat or Un-nefer, and portrayed with the head of a hare

Hare-headed manifestation of Egyptian sun god – interior of the coffin of Bakenmut, divine father of Amum, c. 950 BCE, British Museum

The badge of the tin miners of Devon and Cornwall has three hares – “a pagan origin for the Tinners Guild is not totally inconceivable. Tin Mining is possibly Britain’s oldest industry: Greek and Phoenician merchants came to the South West of Britain (which they called the Cassiterides, or “Tin Islands”), to obtain tin. The Tinner’s link to the Birmingham Lunar Society, through Rudolph Erich Raspe is also interesting.” — Tinner’s Rabbits

The (strangely androgenous) Saxon goddess of spring and the moon, Oestre, was portrayed with the head of a hare, or with a hood representing the ears of a hare (click here for a picture). The words “Easter” and “oestrus” are related to “Oestre”. The hare was also said to lay an egg at Easter. This legend probably originates from the similarity between the lapwings nest (little more than a hollow in the grass) and a Hares form (resting place). ( Robert Graves had a lot to say about the Lapwing, but I’ll leave it to him to say it). This is probably also the origin of the Easter bunny, although folklorists have been unable to find references to the Easter Bunny any earlier than “Scribners Illustrated Magazine for boys and girls” in 1909******[7]
Some experts say that the hare was sacred to the ancient Britons (Julius Caesar said as much in Gallic wars V 12), while others say that it was introduced by the Romans (As Charles Fort wrote: “For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert”). Generally, these legends are taken to refer to the Brown Hare, and this is the variety which may have been introduced, but there is also a type of hare native to Ireland, and the Mountain Hare of Northern England and Scotland which changes from white to blue/grey with the seasons. Perhaps it was the mountain hare which was sacred

The Kimbundu tribe of Angola tell the following story:
Once upon a time, there was a king of the whole world, who had only one son. When the time came for his son to marry, the son declared that he would only marry the daughter of the king of the moon.
No one knew the path to the moon except for the frog, who offered to travel to the moon with a letter.
The frog knew that the Moon king’s daughters descended to earth every day, to gather water from a clear spring on a wooded hill.
The next day, when the daughters of the moon king went to gather water, the frog hid in one of their buckets, and was carried up to the moon. The frog delivered his message and returned carrying a letter from the moon king, agreeing to the marriage, a large dowry of gold coins, and the title of “Mainu, Ambassador to the court of the Moon King”.
When the frog returned he feasted on pork* and chicken. Secretly though, no one really trusted the frog, but two days later, the Moon Princess descended on a thread woven by the spider who lives in the moon [3]. (The crater “Tycho” has streaks of impact debris around it, making it look rather like a spider hanging on a thread).
The Machiguenga of Peru have a legend that the Moon once descended to earth and aquired a taste for corpses (The moon is often associated with death and resurrection).

These are two of many legends in which the moon is associated with a frog or toad. There are several reasons for this: Toads are amphibious, spend the first part of their lives underwater and shed their skins, all of which are symbolic of resurrection. The main reason, however becomes clear if you look at the full moon. The body of the toad is formed from the Oceanus Procellarum, the Mare humorum and the Mare Nubium, with the Mare Imbrium marking its head (Click here to see the toad in the moon)

Source of image

In China it is said that the toad was once a woman who had given away the dew of immortality (see the link below for more on Chinese moon legends).

George Ewart Evans and David Thomson [12] comment that “….the moon and the hare occur together in myth and folklore – in India, China, Africa, Mexico, North America and Europe; and the immediate question we have to answer is: why is it the hare rather than any other creature that is so identified?” They devote a whole chapter to this question, but fail to find the correct answer.

There is an old African legend, found in many different versions in different parts of Africa, which goes something like this:
Shortly after the creation of the world, the moon goddess decided to make mankind immortal, and so she sent a wise but slow toad down to earth, with the following message:

“People will not die for ever, but come back to life like the moon”
The toad wandered off and 14 days later reached earth. However, in the mean time, the moon goddess grew impatient, and began to wonder if the toad had got lost along the way, and so she sent the fast but foolish hare after him with the same message. The hare rushed off before he had memorised it properly, overtook the toad and delivered the message:
“The moon says that you will all die forever”
The toad arrived later, but the damage was already done, and from that day forth, we have all been mortal. The Moon Goddess hit the hare with a stick, splitting his lip. The hare ran off and is still running to this day**. [3].

In many African legends, the hare plays a “trickster” role.

There are also legends of a hare or rabbit in the moon from China. Chang Ki’en (reached the moon by sailing up the River Huang Ho)… When he got there he met the god of love and marriage, Wu Kang and a hareis said to have seen the hare when he visited the moon. In Shanghai, on the 15th day of the 1st Lunar month, is the Yuanxiao lantern festival, in which lanterns, mostly in the shape of rabbits are carried through the streets.

In Japan, the hare is called Tsukiyomi ( Moon-counter or Moon-bow ), and is said to have killed Ukemochi the rice goddess [4]. (perhaps this represents the harvesting of rice with a sickle****). Tsukoyomi is often portrayed pounding rice in a pestle and mortar. The characters for “moon” and “pounding rice” are similar in Japanese. This may be a pun, or the connection between the moon, the hare and rice may have influenced the development of the written language*****. In many legends from around the world, crop plants are believed to have originated in the moon. The Machiguenga imagine, manioc, potatos and maize to be the daughters of the moon [5]. The Mayans often pictured the moon goddess accompanied by a hare. For more on this subject, click here

Source: The Toad and the Hare

In Japanese legend, the god Izanagi descends, like Orpheus, into the underworld to seek his beloved Izinami. When he finds her, she is monstrous to behold, and he flees in terror. When he reaches the mortal world, he washes the tears from his eyes. The sun is formed from the drops of water from his left eye and the moon from drops of water from his right eye (I think I’ve got this right!) [3].
Shinto priests considered it unlucky to look at the moon directly, and would always use a mirror – Source

Model reconstruction (Source: Butuzou Museum)

According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto:

Consort of the kami Izanagi. The name Izanami has been understood in various ways, but most interpretations agree that iza means “invite” (izanau), while mi means “female.” As the kami responsible for the birth of various other kami representing the land and its contents, Izanami has strong connotations of an “earth mother” goddess.

Burning her genitals as she gave birth to the god of fire, Izanami fell sick and then died after passing the gods of metal, earth, water, and wood.

Izanami was the first kami for which funeral rites are described, and her burial was said to be in Mount Hiba at the border of Izumo and Hōki (according to Kojiki), or in Kumano (an “alternate writing” quoted in Nihongi).
Traveling to the land of death (Yomi) to bring Izanami back, her consort Izanagi broke a taboo (kinki), and was shocked by the putrefying appearance of his dead wife, whereupon he fled from the place and spoke words of divorce. Angered by this betrayal, the dead Izanami threatened to kill one thousand persons each day, but Izanagi stated that he would respond by giving birth to fifteen hundred persons, a story said to symbolize the origins of human life and death. Kojiki relates that as a result of this event, Izanami was called the “great kami of Yomi” (Yomotsu ōkami)…

According to Hisanori Kontani, the “Iza” of the sacred name Izanami-no-Mikoto means “scales” while “na” means “without” and “mi” means “white snake.” Therefore, Izanami-no-Mikoto is a white snake with smooth skin without any scales — Kontani, Hisanori. My Lecture on the Koki, the Divine Record, p. 18  Izanami-no-Mikoto is represented by the stars of the Tanabata Festival[6] (specifically Vega).– 中山正善 Nakayama Shozen. 『こふきの研究』 Koki no kenkyu, p. 124.

Despite Izanami-no-Mikoto’s ancient association with the Geku or the Outer Shrine of Ise, the Kojiki account also portrays Izanami as being unrelated to the birth of the “three noble children” (Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susanoo), and thus unrelated to the ancestral kami of the imperial family.

“According to Kojiki and Nihongi, one of the two kami (together with his consort Izanami) principally responsible for the formation of the world. Various theories have been proposed to explain the name, but it is usually assumed that iza means “invite” (izanau), while the suffixes ki (or gi) and mi mean “male” and “female” respectively, thus alluding to the divine marriage of these two deities.

The two kami formed the seventh generation of the “age of the kami” (kamiyo), but were the first to be described with concrete activities. According to the myth, the two kami first stood on the “floating bridge of heaven” and used a spear to stir the sea below, whereupon the brine dripping from the spear’s point congealed and formed the island of Onogoro. The two kami then descended to the island and created the island of Awaji and others in the “great eight-island country,” finally giving birth to various other kami.”

According to the main text of Nihongi, the “three noble children” Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susanoo were also produced at this time, but Kojiki and an “alternate writing” quoted in Nihongi state that the three were produced in a different way. According to these two records, Izanami died as the result of giving birth to the kami of fire, whereupon Izanagi Izanagi followed his dead wife to the land of Yomi and disobeyed her taboo (see kinki) not to look upon her. Fleeing from the pollution of death, Izanagi then performed lustration (see misogi) which resulted in the birth of the three noble children.

In contrast to Izanami as “earth mother,” Izanagi is thought to have characteristics of a “heavenly father.” According to Kojiki, Izanagi “hid away” (i.e., died) in Taga of Ōmi, while Nihongi states that he died either in the province of Awaji or Hi no Wakamiya. “– The Encylopedia of Shinto article “Izanami”

The first wedded couple in the age of the gods (the seventh generation of deities). They gave birth to the terrestrial regions (Oyashimaguni), mountains, rivers, seas, plants, animals, and men, and became the gods of the earth and of all things on earth. Izanami died giving birth to the God of Fire and became a goddess in the land of Yomi. Izanagi went to visit her there but broke a taboo and was forced to part with her. Having come in contact with pollution, he feared that misfortune would result, and so went to the sea and purified himself. (See misogi.) He is thus regarded as the founder of the practice of harae. The three most important deities born to Izanagi and Izanami are Amaterasu Ômikami, Susanoo no mikoto, and Tsukiyomi no mikoto —Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University

[Another moon myth recounted from the same source:

The Minyong people of northern India have the following creation legend:
The sun and the moon were originally two sisters called Bong and Bomong. In the beginning they both radiated equal amounts of light and heat as they travelled across the sky. This caused problems, because the plants and animals had no respite from the continual heat. Eventually a frog shot Bomong, the moon, with an arrow, allowing the earth to cool down at night. Bong was so upset by her sisters death that she hid herself away and pined to death. The nurse of the two girls also died of grief, and the world was plunged into darkness. A carpenter exhumed the corpse of the nurse, and saw Bong and Bomong still reflected in her eyes. This enabled him to carve effigies of Bong and Bomong, which he sent to travel across the sky as the sun and moon. (I think I’ve remembered this correctly, I don’t have my source to hand at the moment) [3].

***

Xi wang mu was the Queen Mother of the West, according to Cultural China. A more detailed description is as follows:

The Queen Mother of the West is an ancient Chinese goddess whose origin can be traced back to oracle bone inscriptions of the fifteenth century B.C.E that record sacrifices to a “western mother”. Even though these inscriptions illustrate that she predates organized Taoism, she is most often associated with Taoism. From her name alone some of her most important characteristics are revealed: she is royal, female and is associated with the west. The growing popularity of the Queen Mother of the West, as well as the beliefs that she was the dispenser of prosperity, longevity, and eternal bliss took place during the second century BCE when the northern and western parts of China were able to be better known because of the opening of the Silk Routes.

Her official Taoist title is Yaochi Jinmu, or the Golden Mother of the Shining Lake. Historical (Tang Dynasty) biographers name her: Chin mu yuan chun, The Primordial Ruler, Metal (Gold) Mother; Metal (Gold) Mother of Tortoise Mountain, She of the Nine Numina and the Grand Marvel; and the Perfected Marvel of the Western Florescence and the Ultimate Worthy of the Grotto Yin. Commoners and poets of the Tang Dynasty referred to her more simply as Queen Mother; Divine Mother; or by the ancient, familiar expression for “mother” or “nanny”, Amah.”

Originally, from the earliest known depictions of her in the “Guideways of Mountains and Seas” during the Zhou Dynasty, she was a ferocious goddess with the teeth of a tiger, who sent Pestilence down upon the world. After she was adopted into the Taoist pantheon, she was transformed into the goddess of life and immortality.

One of the earliest written references to the Queen Mother comes from the writings of the Taoist writer Zhuangzi (c. 4th century BC):

“The Queen Mother of the West obtained it…” (_the Dao) “…_and took up her seat at Shao kuang. No one knows her beginning; no one knows her end.” (Benard, 2000)

Zhuangzi describes the Queen Mother as one of the highest of the gods, meaning she had gained immortality and celestial powers. Zhuangzi also states that Xiwangmu is seated upon a spiritual western mountain range, suggesting she is connected to not only the heavens but also to the west.  The Queen Mother became an extremely popular figure in Tang dynasty period poetry. Her mythology was recorded in the poems of the Quan Tang Shih, (“Complete Tang Poetry”) a collection of surviving poems (of an estimated 50,000 written during the period) from the T’ang dynasty.

After the fall of the T’ang dynasty, (around 910 – 920) a Shang ch’ing Daoist master and court chronicler named Tu Kuang – t’ing wrote a hagiographical biography of the queen mother as part of his text “Yung ch’eng chi hsien lu” (“Records of the Assembled Transcendents of the Fortified Walled City”). This account represents the most complete source of information about T’ang society’s perceptions of Xīwángmǔ.

The key to her origins may be in … the peaches!

The Queen Mother of the West is usually depicted holding court within her palace on the mythological Mount Kunlun, usually supposed to be in western China (a modern Mount Kunlun is named after this). Her palace is believed to be a perfect and complete paradise, where it was used as a meeting place for the gods and a cosmic pillar where communications between gods and humans were possible. (Dien, 2003)  At her palace she was surrounded by a female retinue of prominent goddesses and spiritual attendants. Although not definite there are many beliefs that her garden had a special orchard of longevity peaches which would ripen once every three thousand years (Dien, 2003), others believe though that her court on Mount Kunlun was nearby to the orchard of the Peaches of Immortality. No matter where the peaches were located, the Queen Mother of the West is widely known for serving peaches to her guests, which would then make them immortal.

She normally wears a distinctive headdress with the Peaches of Immortality suspended from it.

In Tu Kuang-t’ing’s text and account, Xiwangmu plays the role of Laozi’s superior and is credited with the ultimate authorship of the Dao De Jing. This dichotomy of Xiwangmu as the superior is a characteristic of Shang Ch’ing Daoism, a Goddess worshiping sect of Daoism of which Tu Kuang-t’ing was a master. There is also an account of a meeting between Xiwangmu and Laozi in T’ang poetry (CTS, 1708.) This account however, being of traditional Daoist thought, has the Queen Mother taking an inferior role to Laozi, calling him “Primordial Lord” (the title of his highest manifestation) and pays homage to the sage.

Because she was the embodiment of yin, highest goddess, and ruler of female Transcendents, The Queen Mother was seen to have had a special relationship with all women. In the beginning section of Tu Kuang-t’ing’s hagiography, he lists the most important functions of the Queen Mother:

“In heaven, beneath heaven, in the three worlds, and in the ten directions,
all women who ascend to transcendence and attain the way are her dependents.” (CMYC)

The Queen Mother of the west was said to care for all women Daoists in the universe, both perfected and aspirants. T’ang writers frequently refer to her in poems about Daoist women. In accordance with the Shang Ch’ing vision expressed by Tu, she appears as teacher judge, registrar, and Guardian of female believers. Her forms reflect Tu’s definitions. The queen mother was held in especially high regard by Chinese women who did not represent the societal norm of the submissive woman. To these women, The Queen Mother of the West was seen as “a powerful, independent deity representing the ultimate yin controlling immortality and the afterlife.” (Cahill, 1986).

The Xunzi, a 3rd century BCE classic of statecraft written by a follower of Confucius, wrote that “Yu studied with the Queen Mother of the West”. This passage refers to Yu the Great, the legendary founder of the Xia dynasty, and posits that the Queen Mother of the West was Yu’s teacher. It is believed that she grants Yu both legitimacy, and the right to rule, and the techniques necessary for ruling. (Bernard, 2000)

Probably one of the best known stories of contact between a goddess and a mortal ruler is between King Mu of the Zhou Dynasty and the Queen Mother of the West. There are several different accounts of this story but they all agree that King Mu, one of the greatest rulers of the Zhou, set out on a trip with his eight chargers to the far western regions of his empire. As he obtains the eight chargers and has the circuit of his realm, it proves that he has the Mandate of Heaven. On his journey he encounters the Queen Mother of the West on the mythical Mount Kunlun. They then have a love affair, and King Mu hoping to obtain immortality, gives the Queen Mother important national treasures. In the end he must return to the human realm, and does not receive immortality. The relationship between the Queen Mother of the West and King Mu has been compared to that of Taoist master and disciple. (Bernard, 2000: 206) She passes on secret teaching to him at his request and he, the disciple, fails to benefit and dies like any other mortal.

Qin Shihuangdi had the opportunity to meet the Queen Mother of the West and attain greatness from her, but instead wasted it (Bernard, 2000:207) and died without the Mandate of Heaven or a dynasty. His story of not jumping at the chance to meet the Queen Mother serves as a warning to later men, as despite huge and costly efforts to pursue immortality, and the missed opportunity for immortality is recorded in the 9th century poems by Zhunag Nanjie.

***

As legend tells Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Han Wudi the “Martial Emperor of the Han” (r. 141–87 BC) and the Queen Mother of the West met during the height of Wu’s reign, when she visited him during the night of Double Seven, the night for encounters between mortal men and divine women.(Bernard, 2000) When the Queen Mother of the West visits Emperor Wu she shares a banquet with him, grants him special teachings, and then departs. Emperor Wu just like King Mu before him fails to follow her teachings, and fails to put them into practice, and therefore he inevitably dies. The whole story of their meeting is described in Li Qi’s long work the “Songs of the Queen Mother”.

“the book establishes the Goddess as the most persistent feature in the archaeological record of the ancient world. A symbol of the unity of all life in nature, her power was in water and stone, in cave and tomb, in animals and birds, in hills, trees, and flowers. Her main functions were life-giving, death-wielding, and regenerative. “

The Goddess is the most potent and persistent feature in the archaeological records of the ancient world. She was a symbol of the unity of life in nature, and the personification of all that was sacred and mysterious on Earth. Here, in this pioneering and provocative volume, Marija Gimbutas resurrects the world of Goddess-worshipping, earth-centred cultures, bringing ancient matriarchal society vividly to life. She interweaves comparative mythology, early historical sources, linguistics, ethnography and folklore to demonstrate conclusively that Goddess-worship is at the root of Western civilization. — The Language of the Goddess by Joseph Campbell, Marija Gimbutas

Who was this Queen Mother of the West? Where in the West did she hail from?

Since Xiwang Mu is closely associated with her tending of the garden of peach trees, and her Headdress of Peaches of Immortality (see The peach as a kami and Mother goddess, and symbol of fertility and immortality) , and it can be established that the Chinese coveted most the gifts of golden peaches from Sarmakand or Persia, we can deduce that the immortality queen is probably of Iranian (perhaps Parthian or Sassanian Empires given King Wudi’s dates) origin.

The demon-peach immortality motif and the shared theme of protective peaches in the legend of Izanagi’s journey to the Underworld to look for Izanami — where peaches are seen as the ultimate charm or amulet against death suggest that we should look for an origin of immortality and Underworld tales somewhere where peaches are domesticated, cultivated or highly valued.

We are told that golden peaches of Sarmakand were apparently the most coveted and precious gifts to the Tang dynasty Chinese court (even though studies show that peaches were domesticated in China):

“The Greeks and the Romans knew that certain fruits that had entered the Mediterranean world were Persian in origin or came via Persia. The most famous of these was the peach, known to the Romans as Amygdalus persica, and its tree was known as Melea persike or simply Persike (Pliny xv.44).1

In fact, most European languages associate the peach with Persia. And not only did the Mediterranean world associate the peach with Persia, but so did the Chinese. Golden peaches sent to China from Samarkand was considered the proxies of all exotic goods in medieval China.”

The key in Xiwangmu’s identity may in the end be found where peaches were grown in those times.  See The peach as a kami and mother-goddess and symbol of fertility and immortality for more on this.” — Touraj Daryaee’s “What fruits and nuts to eat in ancient Persia?

Samarkand is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan and the capital of Samarqand Province. The city is most noted for its central position on the Silk Road between China and the West, and for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study.  Given the protective peach imagery, the Japanese version may have emerged out somewhere along the Central Asian Silk Road, or out of the Indo-Iranian-Saka Northwest – Northeast belt of the Indian subcontinent, or out of Southwest Asia or Western China’s Xinjiang/Gansu/Yunnan/Sichuan regions, in other words the route by which Persians were known to have traversed in order to bring their exotic gifts, including their golden peaches of Sarmakand to the Tang dynasty Chinese court… See Touraj Daryaee’s “What fruits and nuts to eat in ancient Persia?” and The peach as a kami and mother-goddess and symbol of fertility and immortality for a detailed exploration of the peach motif.

Sources:

Golden peaches of Sarmakand

Touraj Daryaee’s “What fruits and nuts to eat in ancient Persia?

Taoism and the Arts of China: Sacred Mountains and Cults of the Immortals. Art Institute of Chicago 2000. (retr. Oct 16, 2012)

Esoteric Hares (Aztecs at Mexicolore website – retr. Oct 16, 2012)

The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson, Faber and Faber, 2002.

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