Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Queen Mother of the West

Yesterday was a long and gruelling day of edits, so here's a Wednesday goddess post on a Thursday, better late than never! A question came in asking for today's topic: Oh great guru of Mythology, enlighten us about the wonders of Xi Wang Mu, please! You got it, friend!

Xiwangmu - or Xi Wang Mu, Xi Wangmu, Hsi Wang Mu, and a few other romanizations of her name - is the Queen Mother of the West, the keeper of the Tao, the goddess of righteousness and the giver of prosperity. Although she is an extremely important goddess in modern Taoism, as the guardian of the Tao itself, she is also ancient; she predates any of the formally organized Chinese religions, and inscriptions on ancient artifacts suggest that she may have been worshiped as far back as four thousand years ago.

As an ancient goddess, it's hard to tell exactly what Xiwangmu represented or did, since we have very few records of that time period, but we know that she was incredibly important. Inscriptions refer to her as the mother of the west or the guardian of the west, sometimes in contrast to a guardian of the east (the identity of whom has been lost to time), implying that she is the gatekeeper or overseer of half the world. The Shan Hai Jing, which is both an ancient geography text and one of the oldest textual sources of Chinese mythology, says that she could cause plagues and blight crops if angered, which might explain why her sacrifices were of such high quality that we're still able to find and puzzle over them millennia later.

She had various sacrifices offered in her name, most likely in a request for protection, and was considered fearsome and even terrible, depicted with tiger fangs, a panther's tail, and sometimes even fur or claws. Later, after she was adopted into the Taoist pantheon which wanted to "civilize" her for its own purposes, she became more commonly depicted as a graceful lady sans-teeth, but even then she sometimes appears accompanied by tigers or panthers, reminding those who see her of her ferocious origins.

(Interestingly enough, the language used to describe Xiwangmu by the Shan Hai Jing is gender-neutral, so it's difficult to tell what gender, if any, her older incarnation might have been presumed to be. The term wangmu specifically means one's paternal grandmother (with a secondary meaning suggesting that she is deceased), so this is why we generally presume that she was always female, but the fact that this very old text doesn't clearly say one way or the other is some food for thought.)

Xiwangmu's role as the Queen Mother of the West (a term that means both "queen" and "mother" of the west, not "queen mother" in the sense that we sometimes use it in the west to refer to the mother of a king) in Taoism usually involves her ownership or understanding of Tao and the scriptures explaining it; in various myths, it is Xiwangmu who created or discovered the Tao Te Ching, and who then passed it down to those precious few members of humanity who were deemed worthy to understand and perpetuate it. Laozi, the mortal philosopher who wrote the TTC, is often said to have received it from Xiwangmu herself, who allowed him to visit her so she could explain it in person and then sent him off to bring it to humanity; later myths that seek to elevate Laozi as the author of the TTC sometimes reverse this story and claim that he went to her home to share it with her, but in either case, she is certainly central to the entire idea. In fact, she is so central that she becomes a gatekeeper of that enlightened knowledge, deciding whether or not to bestow it on various famous mortal heroes who try (and usually fail) to meet her standards for righteousness, intelligence, and general not-being-jerksness.

For example, the story of her doomed romance with king Mu of the Zhou dynasty, a mortal king desperately seeking enlightenment, has remained perennially popular. Mu was a powerful warrior king who conquered most of his neighbors, drove away the attempted invasions of the Huns, marched into and captured even his allies' kingdoms when they insulted or snubbed him, and basically ruled most of the known world with a fairly competent fist. He eventually decided to turn his eyes toward the mysterious west, and while traveling happened to pass through Xiwangmu's kingdom, where she welcomed him and gave him a banquet. He was immediately smitten with her, and she with him, both impressed by the other's obvious awesomeness at ruling everything and everyone. Because he knew that she could bestow upon him boundless wisdom as well as immortality, he wooed her with great fervor and gave her various important national treasures of his kingdom that he really probably shouldn't have given away, but when messengers arrived to tell him that one of the kingdoms he conquered was rebelling, he left immediately to go put down the unrest. Xiwangmu warned him that if he left now he would never achieve immortality, but his love of his own power proved too strong, and he left to go die old and unhappy as a ruler while she remained in her paradise. (Much is made sometimes in Chinese poetry about how heartbroken she was that he left, but it kind of sounds like he got the way worse end of that breakup.)

Although the search for immortality through Xiwangmu is framed in that story as possibly being a product of her great wisdom and connection to Heaven, which she could have shared with Mu, she also has a very concrete and famous connection to eternal life: the Peaches of Immortality, which allow those who taste of them to live forever. Depending on the version of the story, sometimes the peaches, which Xiwangmu grows in her own private heavenly orchard and shares with only the worthy, are simply magical and confer other benefits on those who eat them, while immortality actually comes from an elixir only Xiwangmu knows how to make out of them, but either way, both mortals and gods have a great reason to want to respect her and her awesome fruits regardless of her philosophical powers.

Xiwangmu's ability to confer immortality on other people causes quite a few problems in Taoist mythology, although this is not strictly her fault - rather, it's the fault of all these immortality-seekers who keep coming to her house, raising a ruckus, and then somehow being surprised when she tells them they're not worthy. Most seekers of the magical fruit are turned away, with Xiwangmu ruling them unfit to even see it, let alone eat it, but of course the greatest of shenanigans are always perpetrated by other gods. The peaches are no exception, much to Xiwangmu's (presumably eternal) annoyance. Of course, she holds banquets for the gods to come and feast on the peaches, thus remaining young and vital, but some gods just aren't satisfied with her largesse.

In one myth, the hero Hou Yi, an archer without compare who had already saved the world from overheating thanks to shooting down the extra solar birds that were cluttering up the place, climbed the nigh-unclimbable Mount Kunlun to reach Xiwangmu and beg her for some immortality for himself and his wife. Since he had been so heroically impressive, and he managed the mythically almost impossible feat of getting to her in the first place, Xiwangmu agreed and granted him two doses of immortality, one for each of them. Unfortunately, this all went tragically wrong when Hou Yi got home, although how exactly depends on the teller of the story; in some, he hides both doses but doesn't tell his wife what they were, which leads to her discovering them and curiously consuming them, while in others she knows what they are and eats both to make sure she has enough immortality for herself, and in still others she overhears him planning to withhold her dose from her and takes the initiative to beat him to it first.

In any case, the wife, Chang'e, eats both doses of immortality and becomes super mega OVER immortal, which causes gravity to no longer affect her so that she goes floating off to the moon, unable to stay on the ground, while she and her husband sob and reach for each other and everything is generally tragic. In some versions of the story, Hou Yi dies shortly thereafter of grief, while in others he returns shamefacedly to Xiwangmu and she allows him to become the sun god so he can pursue his wife who is now the moon goddess, presumably rolling her eyes all the while.

The other, and most famous, altercation involving Xiwangmu and her fruits is with the ever-exasperating Monkey King, Sun Wukong, whose shenanigans are thoroughly detailed in the Xi You Ji (better known to us as Journey to the West). Once he had been allowed into Heaven, the gods had to do something with him, so he was appointed Guardian of the Peaches, a post that they hoped would keep him out of the way of everyone and unable to do much harm. Unfortunately for Xiwangmu, he turned out to be smarter than she had anticipated, and realized what the peaches he was guarding actually did; he immediately gorged himself on one, and then when he was about to be caught as she arrived to gather peaches for the annual feast of the gods, he hid inside one of the peaches to avoid her. Needless to say, she was not amused once he was discovered, and he was fired from his post pretty immediately.

While there are about a thousand other stories of dudes annoying Xiwangmu with requests for things and then proving unworthy of them when she actually pays attention to them, her most important role doesn't usually have a lot to do with them; rather, she is considered especially related to women, since as the queen of heavenly ladyness she is the most transcendent of women herself and embodies the Taoist female principle of yin. Scriptures claim that she is the goddess of women especially, and that all women who correctly find themselves on the path of Tao (or are even just giving it a good try) are in her care.

In fact, some scholars have made studying Xiwangmu's link to women specifically their lifelong work; there are tons of mentions of her in poetry, prose, and manuals for the behavior of women throughout Chinese history, and in contrast to later Confucian ideals of women as quiet and submissive to men, she comes from origins in which she was savage, powerful, and very clearly the boss of any dude foolish enough to bother her. It's no wonder that she appeals to worshipers of Shenism, Taoism, and Buddhism alike, or that she's such an enduring character in so many tales.

So, if you journey in the west and you choose to seek enlightenment and immortality, be careful who you ask it from. Xiwangmu will listen, but she won't put up with even an ounce of shenanigans, and many who come before her unworthy end up returning to their lives much more unhappy than if they had never come at all.


  1. Hmm...badass Queen AND Mother of the universe who is the ultimate embodiment of femininity (which translates in this case to kicking ass) who is the keeper and giver of liberation and the source of very important religious texts, AND who rides around on a Big Cat...clearly I have a type :)

    That being said, IS there any connection between Xiwangmu and Durga?

    1. P.S. I love being able to post comments here on the blog again :D

    2. I love having comments again, too! :)

      I don't know of any direct connection between Xiwangmu and Durga, but I feel like they would totally get along, or at least nod in respect of one anothers' power as they pass in the hall.