Immortal, transcendent, associated with the elixr of life, Magu is a symbolic protector of women in Chinese mythology.
A beautiful young woman with long birdlike fingernails.
Magu's name compounds two common Chinese words: ma "cannabis; hemp" and gu "aunt; maid".
Ma—the modern Chinese character for which is 麻, deriving from a Zhou Dynasty bronze script ideograph that shows 林; 'plants' drying in a 广; 'shed; shack'—originally meant "hemp, Cannabis sativa". Cannabis has been continuously cultivated in China since Neolithic times; for example, hemp cords were used to create the characteristic line designs on Yangshao culture pottery and the fibres were used to produce cloth prior to the introduction of cotton. Ma has extended meanings of "numbed; tingling" (e.g., 麻醉; mázuì; 'anesthetic; narcotic'), "pockmarked; pitted" (麻子; mázi; 'hemp seed; pockmark'), "sesame" (芝麻; zhīma), and an uncommon Chinese surname.
Gu (姑, combining the 女 "woman" radical and a gu 古 "old" phonetic) is primarily used in female Chinese kinship terms for "father's sister" (e.g., gugu 姑姑), "husband's sister" (dagu 大姑 "elder sister-in-law"), and "husband's mother" (wenggu 翁姑 "husband's parents"). Gu can also mean "young woman, maiden, maid" (guniang 姑娘 "girl; daughter; prostitute"), and religious titles (daogu 道姑 "Daoist priestess", nigu 尼姑 "Buddhist nun").
Translating Magu into English is problematic, depending upon whether her name is interpreted as a "maid", "priestess", or "goddess" of "hemp", "marijuana", or something else. Victor H. Mair proposed that Chinese wu (巫 "shaman"), pronounced *myag in Old Chinese, was a loanword from Old Persian *maguš "magician; magi", which is hypothetically comparable with Magu.
Chinese Magu (麻姑) is called Mago in Korean and Mako in Japanese. Mago (마고, 麻姑) is a cosmogonic goddess in Korean creation myths. Hwang Hye Sook calls her "the Great Goddess" and proposes "Magoism, the archaic gynocentric cultural matrix of East Asia, which derives from the worship of Mago as creatress, progenitress, and sovereign." According to the pseudo historical work Budoji, Korean mytho-history began with the "Era of Mago." Japanese Mako (麻姑) is usually a literary reference to the Chinese story (below) about Magu's long fingernails, for instance, Mako sōyō (麻姑掻痒 "Magu scratches the itch") metaphorically means "things going like one imagined".
While Magu folktales are familiar in East Asia, the sociologist Wolfram Eberhard was the first Western scholar to analyze them. He categorized Magu under a cultural chain of Yao love songs and festivals. Based on references in Chinese texts, Eberhard proposed two centers for the Magu cult, in the present-day provinces of Jiangxi and Hubei. Evidence for an "original cultic center" near Nancheng (南城) county in southwestern Jiangxi includes several place names, and, among them, two mountains'. The famous Magu Shan (麻姑山 "Magu Mountain") is located in Nancheng, and Taoists regard its Danxia Dong (丹霞洞 "Cinnabar Cloud Grotto"), as the 28th of 36 sacred dongtian (洞天 "Grotto-heavens, heaven-reaching grottos"). The famous Tang Dynasty Daoist calligrapher Yan Zhenqing visited Mt Magu and inscribed the Magu Shan Xiantan Ji (痲姑山仙墰記 "Record of the Mountain Platform where Magu Ascended to Immortality"). A second Magu Mountain is located in Jianchang county (建昌, near Nanfeng 南豐). Magu Wine (麻姑酒) is made in Jianchang and nearby Linchuan. In addition, Magu is an alternate name for Huagu (華姑 "flower maid") Mountain in Xuancheng county of Anhui. Evidence for a secondary area for the Magu cult in Hubei includes the Song dynasty temple near Hankou, along with the Magu Temple on Mount Heng. Several early folktales from Sichuan province associate Magu with caves and one describes a shaman who invoked her. Regarding the traditions that she was born in Jiangxi and became an immortal xian in Shandong, Eberhard says, "This ascent to heaven, typical of Taoists, connects her with the immortal saints, and indeed she is regarded as a symbol of long life and rebirth, and therefore in the Chinese drama, appears a good omen during birthday celebrations."
Campany provides details of Magu mythology in his annotated translation of Ge Hong's Shenxian zhuan (神仙傳 "Biographies of Divine immortals", ca. 317 CE). He compares four Chinese textual variations of Magu stories.
The Shenxian Zhuan Daoist hagiography of Wang Yuan (王遠, or Wang Fangping 王方平) and Magu has the longest early descriptions of her. Wang was supposedly a Confucianist scholar who quit his official post during the reign (146-168 CE) of Emperor Huan of Han and went into the mountains to become a Daoist xian. Later, while traveling in Wu (modern Zhejiang), Wang met Cai Jing 蔡經, whose physiognomy indicated he was destined to become an immortal, and taught him the basic techniques. After Cai had been gone for "over a decade", he suddenly returned home, looking like a young man, announced that Lord Wang would visit on the "seventh day of the seventh month" (later associated with the Cowherd and Weaver Girl lovers' festival), and ordered preparations for a feast. After Wang and his celestial entourage arrived on the auspicious "double-seven" day, he invited Magu to join their celebration because "It has been a long time since you were in the human realm." She replied by invisible messenger. "Maid Ma bows and says: 'Without our realizing it, more than five hundred years have passed since our last meeting!'" After apologizing that she would be delayed owing to an appointment at Penglai Mountain (a legendary island in the Eastern Sea, where the elixir of immortality grows), Ma arrived four hours later.
She appeared to be a handsome woman of eighteen or nineteen; her hair was done up, and several loose strands hung down to her waist. Her gown had a pattern of colors, but it was not woven; it shimmered, dazzling the eyes, and was indescribable – it was not of this world. She approached and bowed to Wang, who bade her rise. When they were both seated, they called for the travelling canteen. The servings were piled up on gold platters and in jade cups without limit. There were rare delicacies, many of them made from flowers and fruits, and their fragrance permeated the air inside [Cai's home] and out. When the meat was sliced and served, [in flavor] it resembled broiled mo, and was announced as kirin meat.
Maid Ma declared: "Since I entered your service, I have seen the Eastern Sea turn to mulberry fields three times. As one proceeded across to Penglai, the water came only up to one's waist. I wonder whether it will turn to dry land once again." Wang answered with a sigh, "Oh, the sages all say that the Eastern Sea will once again become blowing dust."