Ma Gu's name compounds two common words. ''Ma'' originally meant "hemp, ''Cannabis sativa''" ; but has extended meanings of "sesame" , " numbed; tingling" , "pockmarked; pitted" , and an uncommon Chinese surname. ''Gu'' is primarily used in female Chinese kinship terms for "father's sister" , "husband's sister" , and "husband's mother" ; ''gu'' can also mean "young woman, maiden, maid" , and religious titles . Accurately translating Ma Gu into English is problematic, depending upon whether she was a "maid", "priestess", or "goddess" of "hemp", "marijuana", or something else. Victor H. Mair proposed that Chinese ''wu'' , pronounced *''myag'' in Old Chinese, was a loanword from Old Persian *''magu?'' "magician; magi", hypothetically comparable with Ma Gu.
Chinese Ma Gu is called Mago in and Mako in . Mago is a cosmogonic goddess in . Hwang 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 Budoji, Korean mytho-history began with the "Era of Mago." Japanese Mako is usually a literary reference to the Chinese story about Ma Gu's long fingernails, for instance, ''Mako sōyō'' metaphorically means "things going like one imagined".
While Ma Gu folktales are familiar in East Asia, the sociologist Wolfram Eberhard was the first Western scholar to analyze them. He categorized Ma Gu under a cultural chain of love songs and festivals. Based on references in Chinese texts, Eberhard proposed two centers for the Ma Gu cult, in the present-day provinces of Jiangxi and Hubei. Evidence for an "original cultic center" near Nancheng county in southwestern Jiangxi includes several place names, including two mountains. The famous Ma Gu Shan is located in Nancheng, and Taoists regard its Danxia Dong as the 28th of 36 sacred ''dongtian'' . The famous Tang Dynasty Daoist calligrapher Yan Zhengqing visited Mt Magu and inscribed the ''Magu Shan Xiantan Ji'' . A second Ma Gu Mountain is located in Jianchang county . Ma Gu Wine is made in Jianchang and nearby Linchuan. In addition, Ma Gu is an alternate name for Hua Gu Mountain in Xuancheng county of Anhui. Evidence for a secondary area for the Ma Gu cult in Hubei includes the Song dynasty temple near Hankou, along with the Ma Gu Temple on . Several early folktales from Sichuan province associate Ma Gu 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 Ma Gu mythology in his annotated translation of Ge Hong's ''Shenxian Zhuan'' . He compares four Chinese textual variations of Ma Gu stories.
The ''Shenxian Zhuan'' Daoist hagiography of Wang Yuan and Ma Gu has the longest early descriptions of her. Wang was supposedly a Confucianist scholar who quit his official post during the reign of Emperor Huan of Han and went into the mountains to became a Daoist ''xian''. Later, while traveling in Wu , 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" , and ordered preparations for a feast. After Wang and his celestial entourage arrived on the auspicious "double-seven" day, he invited Ma Gu 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 , 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 and out. When the meat was sliced and served, 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."
When Ma Gu was introduced to the women in Cai's family, she transformed some rice into pearls as a trick to avoid the unclean influences of a recent childbirth. Then Wang presented Cai's family with a strong liquor from "the celestial kitchens", and warned that it was "unfit for drinking by ordinary people". Even after diluting the liquor with water, everyone became intoxicated and wanted more.
Maid Ma's fingernails resembled bird claws. When Cai Jing noticed them, he thought to himself, "My back itches. Wouldn't it be great if I could get her to scratch my back with those nails?" Now, Wang Yuan knew what Cai was saying in his heart, so he ordered him bound and whipped, chiding, "Maid Ma is a divine personage. How dare you think that her nails could scratch your back!" The whip lashing Cai's back was the only thing visible; no one was seen wielding it. Wang added, "My whippings are not given without cause."
Some later versions of this legend say Ma was Wang's sister. The poet Li Bai immortalized two Classical Chinese expressions from this story. ''Ma Gu saobei'' refers to her extraordinary fingernails. ''Canghai sangtian'' means "great changes over the course of time"; Joseph Needham says early Daoists observed seashells in mountainous rocks and recognized the vast scale of geologic transformations.
The ''Lieyi zhuan'' , attributed to Cao Pi has three stories about Wang Fangping.
The third gives a version of the incident of Cai Jing's inappropriate fantasy concerning Maid Ma and her luxuriant four-inch nails. Here, Cai Jing's home is located in Dongyang; he is not whipped but rather flung to the ground, his eyes running blood; and Maid Ma herself, identified as "a divine transcendent" , is the one who reads his thoughts and does the punishing.
Kohn's translation includes a woodblock from the illustrated ''Zengxiang Liexian zhuan''.
The ''Yiyuan'' , by Liu Jingshu , records a story about Mei Gu or Ma Gu, and suggests her cult originated during the Qin Dynasty .
During Qin times, there was a Temple to Maid Mei 梅 – or, as one version has it, Maid Ma – beside a lake. When alive, she had possessed arts of the Dao. She could walk on water in her shoes. Later she violated the laws of the Dao, and her husband, out of anger, murdered her and dumped her body in the lake. Following the current, it floated on the waves until it reached the the temple. A subordinate shaman directed that she be encoffined but not immediately buried. Very soon a square, lacquered coffin appeared in the shrine hall. , at the end and beginning of each lunar month, people there could make out through the fog an indistinct figure, wearing shoes. Fishing and hunting were prohibited in the area of the temple, and violators would always become lost or drown. Shamans said that it was because the Maid had suffered a painful death and hater to see other beings cruelly killed.
Campany reads this legend to describe founding a temple, probably on Lake Gongting, and translates these "shaman" and "shrine" references in the future tense. Compare the present tense translation of Miyakawa who interprets her body floating to an existing temple.
The ''Qi Xie ji'' associates Ma Gu with snakes. It describes her as a commoner from Fuyang, Zhejiang, rather than a Daoist transcendent, who loved raw meat hash. She captured a strange beast resembling a sea turtle and a serpent, and ate it with her companion Hua Ben . When Ma started choking, Hau could see a snake flicking its tongue inside her mouth. She later enjoyed a meal at Hua's house, but upon learning that they had eaten snake meat, she vomited blood and died. Campany concludes.
This story hints at an even older stratum of legend behind the Maid Ma cult: like other territorial gods known to Chinese religious history, she may have begun as a theriomorphic deity who gradually metamorphosed into a human being and finally – the process culminating in Ge Hong's ''Traditions'' narrative – into a full-fledged transcendent. Seen in this light, several details of the ''Traditions'' hagiography might be read as betraying these chthonic origins. Among these are Maid Ma's long nails, the featuring of meat dishes among the fantastic foods served by the travelling canteen, and the scene describing the "summoning" of Maid Ma, which is reminiscent of shamanic invocations of deities to attend spirit-writing sessions.
Ma Gu can be literally translated "Hemp Goddess/Priestess". The Way of Infinite Harmony is a modern Taoist sect that worships Ma Gu and espouses the spiritual use of cannabis.
Hellmut Wilhelm's book review of Eberhard's original German book suggested that Ma Gu was associated with cannabis. Eberhard dismissed this hypothesis in the English version.
I have no indication that the goddess ever was a goddess of the hemp plant as H. Wilhelm surmised . She often wears aboriginal attire, a dress with a collar made of leaves, but not of hemp, which only sometimes has developed, according to a late fashion into a cape of cloth.
Campany mentions the Chinese use of ''ma'' "hemp" fibers as a weaving material.
I know of no attempt to explain the name Ma gu .
The cultural and linguistic origins of Ma Gu remain an open question.