Monday, August 10, 2009

Know your gods: Mazu

Taiwan’s most prominent diety, Mazu (媽祖) is said to have been born Lim Vo’g Niu (林默孃; in Mandarin, Lin Mo-niang) in Meizhou, a fishing community in Fujian, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month in 960. By the time she was in her early teens she had an excellent grasp of Buddhist and Confucian texts; she used her powers to heal the sick and exorcise evil spirits (often the same thing in those days).

Her most famous achievement came at the age of 16 when her father and brothers, then far away on a fishing expedition, were caught in a tremendous storm. She slipped into a trance just as the storm was at its fiercest. After she regained consciousness her father and brothers returned home safely, swearing that Mazu had projected herself out into the ocean to save them. (An alternative version has it that she saved her brothers, but because she was disturbed during her trance she let go of her father who then drowned; yet another legend says she swam out to sea to search for her father, drowned and was washed away in the Matsu Islands). She was revered as a rainmaker and also persuaded two mischief-making demons to ‘go straight’ and become her servants. Altars dedicated to Mazu are very often flanked by human-sized statues of these two: Shunfenger (‘ears that hear the wind’) and Qianliyan (‘eyes that see a thousand leagues’).

At the age of 26 she told her family she was going to leave this world. After climbing a nearby mountain, she ascended to the heavens. Fujianese migrants sailing to Taiwan very often carried effigies of Mazu with them to ensure a safe crossing. Both Koxinga and Shi Lang brought icons with them. Over time, Mazu has become much more than the patron saint of seafarers. Nowadays many Taiwanese who venture nowhere near the ocean seek her blessings in times of plenty and her aid in times of distress. Her eminence is made clear by one of her alternative names: the Queen of Heaven. Many of the 800-plus shrines dedicated to her around the ROC are called ‘Queen of Heaven’ temples, often romanised as 'Tianhougong' (天后宮).

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