Hemp has long been part of the medicinal and spiritual practices of various cultures throughout history. One of the religions that valued cannabis was Taoism in ancient China. The Chinese even had a guardian for this herb: Magu.
Considered in ancient East Asia as the equivalent of the divine ambrosia of the Greek gods, hemp has long been called the “elixir of life”. The association of the goddess Magu with cannabis lies mainly in its use as a medicinal plant.
The majority of Magu’s mythological stories revolve around how she helped the poor and sick, either as a goddess or as a priestess of an unnamed healing deity. In ancient Korean literature, Magu plays a more distinctly divine role, but the essence of her personality remains relatively the same.
In China, Japan and Korea, Magu (or Ma Gu MaKu, Mako) is depicted as a beautiful young woman in her twenties. Her youth and beauty are symbols of the health and healing of the universe she is meant to protect.
Magu is the guardian of vitality throughout East Asia, not only in the mortal world but also in the cycles of the earth. Magu is regularly considered to discount winter in favor of flora and fauna. In Korea, Magu’s role is elevated from goddess to creator god, and her abilities are extended to the creation of the world and mankind.
Several versions clash on his earthly life. The most consistent states that Magu lived a poor life in the war-torn 5th and 6th centuries CE, and worked as a seamstress. One day, Magu received a peach from one of her customers. But instead of taking the peach home, she gave the sweet fruit to an old woman and decided to prepare a bowl of porridge for her.
When she returns, her father, furious that she has given up, locks her up. When Magu is finally freed, she goes in search of the old woman she intended to cook for, but she only finds the pit of the peach where the woman was.
Legend has it that Magu planted this peach pit, which grew into an incredible tree, bearing healing fruits, which she used to heal the sick and infirm in her village. This is how Magu was immortalized as a goddess possessing the elixir of life.
The goddess who healed with cannabis
Although this tale is only one of many recounting Magu’s existence, it reveals the main strengths of her cult: namely, caring for the sick and poor and cultivating the natural world.
Here, Chinese writers depicted her “elixir of life” in the form of peaches, as evidenced by Magu’s symbols in ancient Chinese art, but Cannabis has also been closely linked to her healing abilities, although on a spiritual plane rather than a physical one.
Records of Taoist practices mention that eating hemp seeds protects against demonic possession and increases “second sight”, while burning the seeds was performed in purification rituals. Often it was Magu who was invoked during these times, associated with Mount Tai on which hemp grew in abundance at the time, as if the gods handed the plant directly to the priests and priestesses of the Taoist religion.
The implications of Cannabis use in ancient Asia may not yet be definitive, but it is evident that the plant has long played an important role in East Asian history. Hemp was used in the decoration of ancient Taiwanese pottery as well as on the Shinto staffs of the first Japanese priests. A recent study also suggests that Cannabis was domesticated 12,000 years ago in China.
This incorporation of the plant into these other activities reveals the great value that hemp has evidently had in Asian cultures since very early times.
At a time when herb magick was common and gods were believed to roam the natural world, the association with the “powers” of hemp and the goddess of healing align effortlessly. Only a highly esteemed goddess would be entrusted with the care of such a powerful and transcendent herb.