The Hemp Lady, Daoist Cannabis Goddess
The Hemp Lady [Magu] was the younger sister of the immortal Wang Fangping. Under Emperor Huan of the Han dynasty, Wang descended from heaven to visit the family of Cai Jing.
He told him: ”You have the ability to go beyond the world. This is why I have come today to teach you. However, your energy is low and your flesh is strong. Therefore you cannot ascend bodily into heaven, but rather have to prepare yourself for deliverance from the corpse.”
Wang duly gave him essential instructions and left again.
Later Jing developed a fever that seemed to burn his entire body. After three days his flesh began to dissolve so that his bones were sticking out. Lying down in his bedroom, he covered himself with a blanket, when he vanished all of a sudden. His relatives looked in and found only a shell under the blanket, somewhat like the skin of a cicada.
Over ten years later he unexpectedly returned to his family. He told them: ”On the seventh day of the seventh month, Lord Wang will grace our house with his presence. We should prepare several hundred pitchers of wine to feast him.”
On the appointed day Wang indeed arrived, floating down from heaven. He was sitting in a carriage drawn by five dragons. Preceding and following him were attendants carrying banners and flags, as if he was a five-star general. As soon as he had landed, the entourage vanished.
Jing and his family duly paid their formal respects to the visitor. After that, Wang sent off someone to invite his sister, the Hemp Lady. When she arrived, all found her a young girl of about eighteen years. She wore her hair tied into a topknot on the top of her head, but some strands were left untied and flowed down well to her waist. She wore a robe of brocade and a wide embroidered skirt, with colors so bright and radiant they dazzled the eye. When everybody had taken their seats, a fantastic banquet on dishes of gold and jade was served, including such delicacies as unicorn meat.
At the time Jing’s wife had just given birth. When the Hemp Lady saw her, she immediately said: ”Ah! Please stop and don’t come near me!” Then she asked for a bit of rice, which she spread all over the floor. As soon as it hit the ground, every grain turned into cinnabar.
Wang laughed when he saw this. “Oh, my dear sister,” he said, “you still play the games of a child!”
“Well, after all,” the Hemp Lady responded, “since we’ve last seen each other the Eastern Sea has only changed three times into mulberry fields. And now the waters around Penglai are already growing shallow again!”
“Indeed,” Wang agreed. ”All the sages are saying that the sea is turning to dust again soon!”
The Hemp Lady had hands that looked like the claws of a bird. Seeing them, Cai thought to himself, “If one had an itch on the back, wouldn’t it be nice to be scratched by these claws!”
Wang immediately read his thoughts and was furious. He turned to whip his host, scolding him: ”The Hemp Lady is a divine personage! How could you even think of her claws scratching your back?”
Soon after, Wang left and the Hemp Lady too took her leave.
–from the Illustrated Immortals’ Biographies, ZengXiang LieXian Zhuan, as found in The Taoist Experience, edited by Livia Kohn, page 357
This story of the Hemp Lady comes from a Yuan Dynasty text, around 1300 CE, but goes back centuries before that. Time distortion on a geological scale and reference to Penglai, the Island of Immortality where the Herb/Mushroom of Immortality grows makes this fable a dreamy introduction to the little-known role of cannabis in Daoist lore. [Note: I've given up trying to be consistent with Romanizing Chinese such as Taoist/Daoist, due to the various texts I quote using many systems from Pinyin to Wade-Giles. I intentionally vary some terms now to help readers looking find my posts more easily.]
Going back further to the origins of Upper Clarity Daoism (Shang Qing/Shang Ch’ing) we have a more factual Daoist lady connected with Cannabis trances. Eva Wong, in the Shambhala Guide to Taoism (page 47), writes:
Shang-ch’ing Taoism was reputed to have been founded by Lady Wei Hua-ts’un during the early part of the Chin dynasty. Lady Wei received a revelation from the Guardians of the Tao (the deities) and recorded their teachings in a book titled Shang-ch’ing huang-t’ing-nei-ching yü-ching (The Yellow Court Jade Classic of Internal Images of the High Pure Realm) in 288 CE. …
Lady Wei is reputed to have been the founder of Shang-ch’ing Taoism, but it was Yang Hsi who was responsible for spreading its teachings. The Shang-ch’ing texts tell us that Yang Hsi received a vision from Lady Wei (who had become an immortal) and then “wrote” the scriptures under the influence of a cannabis-induced trance.
Eva Wong’s description of Upper Clarity Daoism’s history shows that it was tightly tied to the other two main forms of early Daoism at the time, Spiritual Treasure (Ling Bao) and Supreme Clarity (Tai Qing). Lady Wei was an initiated priestess of the Celestial Teachers Daoist sect (her father was a priest as well), which relied heavily on talismanic magic and exorcisms, following in the earlier demonological medical traditions of the early Chinese shamans. Upper Clarity Daoism also used some talismans and incantations, but more to assist visualizing/invoking gods inside the body during meditation and “flying to the stars” through the astral journeys of self-hypnosis.
Shang Qing Daoism was fractured with political unrest and its texts became scattered, lost, and later embellished, so it’s hard to know if the originals mentioned Cannabis rituals. Physician and alchemist Tao Hong Jing (T’ao Hung Ching) who settled on Mt. Mao Shan to write and carry out his government-funded alchemical experiments, collected and organized the Shang Qing texts as well as the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing). This materia medica is the most important early Chinese herb text. Authorship is attributed to the legendary Shen Nong/Divine Farmer from 2000 BCE or so, but traces of it are not found in writing until about 100 CE. Tao Hong Jing is the most important documented author of the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, around 500 CE, though even his version was lost and later recreated. Wong cautions us to not confuse Tao Hong Jing’s earlier Mao Shan sect with the much later Mao Shan sorcery sect, though where the line is drawn is unclear.
Cannabis shows up in the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica as a superior class “cereal” herb along with sesame seed. Here is the entry from one of the only English translations, by Yang Shou-Zhong (page 148):
Ma Fen (Herba Cannabis Sativae) is acrid and balanced. It mainly treats the seven damages, disinhibits the five viscera, and precipitates the blood and cold qi. Taking much of it may make one behold ghosts and frenetically run about. Protracted taking may enable one to communicate with the spirit light and make the body light. The seed [Semen Cannabis Sativae] is sweet and balanced. It mainly supplements the center and boosts the qi. Protracted taking may make one fat, strong, and never senile. [Herba Cannabis Sativae] is also called Ma Bo (Hemp Erection). It grows in rivers and valleys.
Current Traditional Chinese Medicine materia medica texts generally only have reference to Cannabis seed, mainly used to lubricate the intestines to treat constipation due to dryness and deficiency. The fiber and essential fatty acids support this use. It is clear from this older listing that the other parts of the hemp plant, being leaves and flowers, were used in a more psychoactive sense.
An important earlier herb text, “Recipes for 52 Ailments” from about 200 BC mentions burning of a mugwort-wrapped marijuana joint as the earliest form of moxibustion. This is the very first mention of using mugwort for heat therapy. Today’s moxa rolls are usually all mugwort, or have a few other non-psychoactive herbs included to help with the warming. The mixing of cannabis with mugwort for early moxa therapy is not a well-known historical fact; in the Ma Wang Dui text, it’s used to blister the top of the head to get rid of hernia-causing demons. Searching for ‘cannabis moxibustion’ mainly pulls up references to the fact that burning mugwort smells very similar to marijuana. I know of an acupuncturist who had the police called on him by other tenants of his building due to this unfortunate similarity.
Hemp has several names in Chinese medicine. It was one of the Sacred Five Grains that
the Divine Farmer taught people to cultivate, and thus has is called “Great Hemp,” Da Ma. I first learned Hemp Seed in TCM as Huo Ma Ren. This literally translates to “Fire Hemp Seed.” As it is neither spicy nor “hot” in terms of function (like ginger or cinnamon), it seems reasonable to conclude that this refers to burning of hemp.
The Chinese terms for “narcotic” and “anaesthetic” also pay reference to Cannabis.
This hearkens back to the Han Dynasty Daoist physician Hua Tuo (140-208 CE), regarded as the Father of Anaesthesia and Surgery. While Hua Tuo had a political falling-out which shortened his career and led to the burning of most of his writings, his use of an anaesthetic wine prior to surgeries is well known.
The precise formula is lost, but it is speculated it contained Cannabis and Datura, and is called Ma Fei San (麻沸散) which translates as “Cannabis Boiled Powder.” However, the term Ma is also used for Numb, so some scholars are unconvinced of its inclusion of cannabis. As Chinese herbal formulas more commonly refer to an herb name than a function in the formula title, I see no reason to doubt that Cannabis was a primary ingredient.
Greek historian Herodotus clearly wrote of an intoxicating Cannabis ritual practiced by the Scythians in his The Histories around 450 BCE. Scythia was just north of India and not too far from the Chinese–certainly within trading distance. Cannabis flowering tops were burned in an incense censer inside tents. Men would hang out in the tents, possibly doing deep breathing exercises or chanting rituals, until they broke out into laughter, dance, and song. Cannabis had a revered role in their funeral rites and for spiritual trances. The Scythians also made clothing from hemp, as did the early Chinese.
The Scythians then take Cannabis and creeping under the mats (small tents) they throw it on the red hot stones and, being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour bath.
The Encyclopedia Britannica reports on the Scythian “hot boxes”:
These cauldrons varied in size from quite small examples to others weighing as much as 75 pounds. An overwhelming majority have a solid base, shaped like a truncated cone, around which the fire was heaped. The upper section is a hemispherical bowl… with handles (shaped like animals) fixed to the rim opposite each other… at Pazyryk, small cauldrons filled with stones and hemp seeds were found standing beneath leather or felt tentlets with three or six supports.
Taiwan has the longest archeological history of hemp use, as hemp cord impressions were
found on pottery dating back to 10,000 BCE. Apparently a site in Central Asia dating to 27,000 BCE has a similar find.
Hemp textiles have definitely been found in Shang Dynasty (about 1600-1000 BCE) sites. The Shang culture is particularly noted for its bronzes, which include many ritual incense burners.
I just realized when juxtaposing these images that the early glyph for Cannabis looks a lot like these early incense burners with their upturned handles. Typically described as cannabis plants drying in a shed, there is a chance it actually refers to burning cannabis in incense vessels inside a small shelter, certainly a ritual the ancient Chinese could have shared with the Scythians.
The Island of the Immortals (Peng Lai) shows up in the early Han Dynasty (200 BCE) with the incense burner called the Bo Shan Lu. The lid of this style of bronze censer represents the island of the immortals, where the mushroom and herbs of immortality grow, off in the Eastern Sea (Pacific Ocean, or a mythological version of it). The holes in the lid let the smoke curl around the mountain, looking like clouds. The Phoenix Bonsai page on Bo Shan Lu as an early “miniaturized landscape” artifact states:
Now, it is said that the people of the Zhou dynasty (late 11th cent. – 221 B.C.E. ) burned Artemisia. By means of southernwood and mugwort the ancients communicated with the spiritual beings…
When the incense was lit, curls of smoke seeped out among the tiny crags and lid perforations like scented mist. Shrinking himself in the mind’s eye, a scholar could then imagine that he was among those mysterious islands. The presence of ashes in several excavated vessels suggests that they were also used to burn incense at least in the burial setting. Analysis of the ashes verifies the use of fragrant grasses and other plants, some of which appear in medicinal remedies or were used to communicate the spirits. It has also been suggested that the incense burned includedCannabis sativa, marijuana, for increased communication effectiveness.
The use of cauterization/moxibustion (before the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic put forth the concept of the acupuncture meridians and points still used today) was still rooted in the demonological theories of medicine. Burning the demons out of the body with special herbs predated acupuncture, though lancing and draining swellings was also used. Since the first recorded use of Artemisia/mugwort was as a wrapping for Cannabis “refuse” (i.e. leaves and flowers after the seeds and fibers were removed for food and clothing), it is reasonable to assume that fumigation with cannabis was a practice dating back before the Han dynasty.
Bo Shan Lu incense burners are very beautiful and forms are found also in Korea and Japan. More pictures are available here, some including inlaid gold and gems. The Wikipedia entry on Censer features some Bo Shan Lu and references Cannabis via another book I have, _Science and Civilization in China_ (Volume 5:2) by Joseph Needham (page 150):
What concerns us here even more however is the possibility that the ancient Taoists generated hallucinogenic smokes in their incense-burners… The addition of hemp (ta ma, huo ma, Cannabis sativa= indica) to the contents of incense-burners is clearly stated in one Taoist collection, the Wu Shang Pi Yao (Essentials of the Matchless Books), which must place it before +570. That the psycho-pharmacological properties of the plant (commonly called hashish, marijuana, etc.) were known in the Han or before is clear from the statement in the Shen Nung Pen Tshao Ching under ma fen (hemp seeds):
“To take much makes people see demons and throw themselves around like maniacs (to shih ling jen chien kuei, khuang tsou). But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits, and one’s body becomes light (chiu fu thung shen ming, chhing shen).”
The same entry gives also the synonym ma pho, a technical term which may have embodied within itself a warning of the effects of hemp, for pho often means an unpredictable and sudden change of mood, as happens in those under the influence of psychotropic drugs. Later on, ma hua, ‘hemp flowers’, became yet another synonym…
The text just quoted belongs to the -2nd or -1st century rather than the Later Han, and the knowledge was probably current among the Naturalists in the late Warring States period, for the word fen, applying only to hemp-seeds, is in the -3rd century Erh Ya. One suspects that its origin lay in the conviction of the proto-Taoists of the Chou period that for the attainment of longevity and immortality one should abstain from cereals (chüeh ku) and live up on all kinds of unlikely plants and vegetables.
In a footnote, Needham writes:
Li Shih Chen [circa 1596 CE in the Ben Cao Gang Mu] quotes Thao Hung-Ching [Tao Hong Jing, circa 500 CE] as follows: ’Hemp-seeds are very little used in medicine, but the magician-technicians (shu chia) say that if one consumes them with ginseng it will give one preternatural knowledge of events in the future.’ Characteristically, Li Shih-Chen comments that this preparation may well cure forgetfulness or absent-mindedness, but to believe that it will reveal coming affairs would really be going too far.
I always appreciate records of skepticism being expressed in traditional China. It’s important to note that saying “the Chinese believed…” is an overgeneralization that ignores a long history of critical debate about the supernatural and the theories of systematic correspondence such as the Five Phases/Elements.
Needham continues regarding Cannabis as an incense ingredient:
For these ‘psychedelic’ experiences in ancient Taoism a closed room would have been necessary, and precisely the ‘Pure Chamber’ of the oldest Taoist rites was available; indeed a text of the _4th century suggests just this:
‘For those who begin practising the Tao it is not necessary to go into the mountains….Some with purifying incense and springling and sweeping are also able to call down the Perfected Immortals. The followers of the Lady Wei (Hua-Tshun) and of Hsü (Mi) are of this kind.’…
Something might also be gained by pursuing mythological connections with the Hemp Damsel, Ma Ku, goddess of the slopes of Thai Shan, where the plant was supposed to be gathered on the seventh day of the seventh month, a day of seance banquets in the Taoist communities.
[note that is the same day referenced in the Ma Gu fable that opened this post]
Thus all in all there is much reason for thinking that the ancient Taoists experimented systematically with hallucinogenic smokes, using techniques which arose directly out of liturgical observance. There may well have been a close connection here with the fungal hallucinogens already discussed… [teaser for a future post on mushrooms!] At all events the incense-burner remained the centre of changes and transformations associated with worship, sacrifice, ascending perfume of sweet savour, fire, combustion, disintegration, transformation, vision, communication with spiritual beings, and assurances of immortality. Wai tan [External Elixir alchemy] and nei tan [Internal Elixir alchemy] met around the incense-burner. Might one not indeed think of it as their point of origin?
A pill for immortality containing “much hemp” is referred to in a footnote. It targets the Three Worms, and dates to around 400 CE (from Biography of the Adept of the Purple Yang). The next footnote entertainingly states:
It is remarkable that the injunction ‘don’t look round!’ (wu fan ku) is frequent in the directions for doing obeisance to the incense-burner in the Pure Chamber oratory. This might suggest the need for concentration on the hallucinogenic smoke. Our attention to this was kindly drawn by Mr Michel Strickmann…
Considering my new theory that the character for Cannabis specifically refers to burning it in an enclosed chamber, let’s look at the characters for incense, incense smoke, and incense burner:
The character for ‘incense,’ also used for ‘fragrant,’ has a capped wood radical ‘mu’ on top of what looks like a footed cauldron (it looks like the character for Sun with feet). The top is also a character for standing grain, most commonly referring to rice, but hemp is also one of the top 5 grains.
It’s interesting that Mu also is used for Numb. This could be due to the sensation of a stiff, numb area of the body as being like wood, but does suggest the character for Hemp also having the meaning “numb.”
The secondary meaning of ‘ancestral sacrifices’ could refer to the funeral rituals burning hemp. The character Yan, for smoke, is the fire radical next to the character Da/Great in a box/room. This could refer to Da Ma, one of the oldest names for hemp, being burned and inhaled in a room. The character Yan is used specifically for smoking tobacco:
These other associations with incense and smoke give credence to the possibility that the character for hemp specifically refers to it being burned as a fragrant smoke in an enclosed space. This is a more consistent use of the wood radical than to imply that it represents plants drying in a shed. The character for ‘dry’ as in ‘dried food’ (Gan) doesn’t have the wood radical in it.
The Hemp Lady’s Mobile Kitchen
Alchemist Ge Hong, who wrote the “Master Who Embraces Simplicity” (Bao Pu Zi) around 320 CE, referenced the Hemp Maiden (another translation of Ma Gu) as a goddess who brought a spiritual banquet table called the “Travelling Canteen” to an adept in a meditative trance. Certainly fantasies of food are commonly related to marijuana intoxication.
In _Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face_ Christine Mollier writes:
Ge Hong also describes the sumptuous Kitchens that the “Hemp girl” (Magu), another mythological celebrity, shared with her guest, the diviner (fang-shi) Wang Yuan:
“When they were both seated, they called for the Traveling Kitchens. 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 and out.”
The power to “cause the Mobile Kitchens to arrive while [one is] sitting [in meditation] continued to be one of the spiritual goals of the Taoist adepts of the early Shangqing movement. Accessible to those who mastered the techniques of visualization of divinities residing in cosmic space as well as in the human body, the summoning of the Kitchens permitted them to control these spirits and to accomplish wonders: to become invisible, release thunder, and produce rain.
Connecting the character for Cannabis to the supernatural, we first look at the character for Ghost:
What happens when you inhale so much marijuana that you see ghosts?
As the “Skeptical Alchemist” this reaffirms my notion that ghosts and demons are mostly hallucinations, often seen when people are on drugs or in similarly induced altered states of consciousness. Then again, perhaps the ghosts just want to get high, so they track down the potheads…
There is no mention in the Chinese medical or esoteric texts about Cannabis helping with nausea/vomiting or reducing intraocular pressure in glaucoma. It’s interesting that they say it helps prevent senility when the common perception is that it is detrimental to short-term memory.
In summary, there is a long history of Cannabis use in Taoist practice. Similar to the Scythians, hemp flowers have been used as an incense in enclosed spaces, during meditative rituals undoubtably including deep breathing. This led to both inspired writing of sacred texts and dramatic visualization of magical banquets and “astral travel.” There is a definite connection between cannabis use and seeing ghosts attested to in the Chinese herbal materia medica as well as the in the Chinese character for demon spirits. The character for Cannabis/hemp itself may make reference to its use as an incense in a closed room, though it is more conventional to say the character just refers to it being dried in a shed.
Ma Gu is one of the only traditional Cannabis Goddess in the world, and is specifically a Taoist figure, probably going back to at least 200 BCE. More info is in the Hemp Maiden’s Wikipedia entry. There are even two mountains named after her in China (Magu Shan), which would make an interesting pilgrimage (I haven’t found any good pictures online).
Kevin’s climbing up on the soapbox for a few minutes…
As an American practitioner of Chinese medicine with a strong interest in Daoist mysticism, I must conclude this post by stating clearly that the ongoing prohibition of Cannabis in the United States does a disservice to the concepts of religious freedom as well as medical freedom. Continuing to claim that Cannabis has “no known medicinal properties” only serves to undermine faith in anything else the government says about drugs. Requiring police officers to arrest people for non-violent marijuana crimes does more to fracture society than to prevent any real damage. Since the beginning of marijuana prohibition in the 1930′s, racial minorities have been the main victims of this anti-freedom policy which was created largely to give the Federal alcohol prohibitionists job security after the repeal of Prohibition. The fact that it took a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit alchol, but Cannabis prohibition was snuck through via the Commerce Clause suggests that it doesn’t really have a strong legal basis.
How can the First Amendment’s clear statement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” be reconciled with a ban on a relatively safe sacrament with a clear place in many religions, from Rastafarianism to Taoism? It is a shame that a plant that I saw freely growing in an “oppressive Communist” society is so strictly banned in the USA. Even when individual states vote to legalize its medicinal use, the Feds continue to crack down in the form of a totalitarian police state, asserting their central authority over State’s rights (which is clearly not “regulating interstate commerce”). Any official statements about diversity, multiculturalism, and respect for non-Christian religions sound like hypocritical blather to the millions of Americans who live in fear of having their lives ruined by being busted with Cannabis. The huge proportion of prison inmates who are minorities in jail for non-violent Cannabis crimes shows that this fear is justified. Countless families have been ruined by marijuana prohibition, and yet countless more people have chosen to defy the laws and use marijuana for personal spiritual and medical reasons. While it can be habit-forming and, like anything, can be unproductively used in an excessive fashion, it is not addictive in the manner opiates and tobacco are. Many people I’ve met who have chosen to use Cannabis have described it as an important part of their spirituality, which was certainly a feature of the “hippy” movement of the sixties.
The fact that a huge number of upper-middle class people have admitted to using marijuana and yet have still been productive members of society just emphasizes the unfair hypocrisy of this issue. From President Barack Obama to Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger in the political arena to Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman in the scientific world, one must wonder how many other brilliant people have chosen not to pursue a life of social contribution because they are afraid of being found out as Cannabis users. Certainly marijuana prohibition continues to hurt the economy and erode honest patriotism in more ways than most people realize. It isn’t a liberal versus conservative issue–many Republicans like my father would prefer to see it “legalized and taxed,” and most libertarians like Ron Paul are not waiting to “spark joints” but still loathe the Drug War for the invasion of personal liberties it is.
Years ago when I was partying with Carl Sagan, Timothy Leary, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes, I’m joking, but what a party that was!), I wouldn’t have dared to write anything so direct as this–that is the Chilling Effect that the Drug War indirectly has on Free Speech. Now that I’m older with nothing more psychedelic in my home than our book collection, it feels appropriate to speak openly and clearly about this important issue.
Thank you for reading this far, dear reader. I hope it’s been a fun trip. Perhaps you’ve never left a blog comment before, but I encourage you to leave a comment for me here. Perhaps you have more tidbits about Cannabis in mystical practice, perhaps you know someone who is in jail for growing weed, perhaps you disagree with my stance on decriminalization. Whatever it is, please share–you may make up a name and remain anonymous, it doesn’t matter to me.