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Magu: The Hemp Goddess Who Healed Ancient Asia

"Cannabis" and "criminal" are synonymous in many countries. While cannabis has been steadily weaving onto the "right" side of the law in recent years, the "high" people get from the plant is still often associated with negativity. Yet the "criminal" side of cannabis itself is rather new; hemp, as it is also called, has long been part of medicinal and spiritual practices in various cultures throughout history. A prominent religion that valued cannabis was Taoism (or, Daoism) in ancient China. The Chinese even had a caretaker for this herb; her name is Magu.

Considered in ancient East Asia to be equivalent to the divine ambrosia of the Greek gods, hemp has long been named an "elixir of life".  The goddess Magu's association with cannabis primarily lies in its use as a healing plant - as the majority of Magu's mythological stories revolve around the ways in which she aided the poor and the sick either as a goddess outright, or as a priestess of an unnamed healing deity. Magu takes on a more definitively divine role in the ancient literature of Korea, however the core of her person remains relatively the same.

Portrait of Magu - the Immortal Hemp Maiden.

Japanese goddess Amaterasu emerging from a Cave , "ORIGIN OF IWATO KAGURA DANCE."

While Magu has many ethnic followers, Chinese writers appear to have been the most determined in preserving her mythology. Magu is more prominently displayed in the art of China as well, allowing one to understand her Chinese persona and thus compare her to her other forms. Though Korea considered her a creator deity, Chinese Taoists believed Magu had a mortal upbringing. The most cohesive version of this tale states that Magu lived a poor life in the war-torn 5th and 6th centuries AD, working as a seamstress. There is no mention of her mother, but her father was a horse breeder and he and Magu worked together to make ends meet. One day, Magu was given a peach by one of her clients, but instead of sharing it with her father, she passed it along to an even poorer elderly woman in the street. Magu then made the woman some porridge out of her own cupboard.

Unfortunately, Magu was unable to deliver the porridge in a timely fashion as her father arrived home and locked her in her room. When she finally managed to escape to see the old woman, the woman was gone - a peach stone was all that remained in her place. Magu planted the stone and cared for it as it grew into a vibrant peach tree, and later gave away the fruits freely to those in need. Before long, Magu's peaches were said to be healing, and Magu was immortalized as a goddess possessing the elixir of life.

Magu's peaches were said to be healing.

The Goddess Who Healed with Cannabis

Though this tale is only one of many relating Magu's existence, it reveals the primary emphases of her worship: namely, caring for the sick and poor and cultivating the natural world. Here, Chinese writers depicted her "elixir of life" as peaches, evidenced further by early Magu's symbols in early Chinese art, but cannabis has also been intricately tied to her healing abilities - though on a spiritual rather than physical level. Records of Taoist practices have listed the consumption of hemp seeds as protecting against demonic possession and increasing the "Second Sight", while burning the seeds was pertinent in purification rituals. Often, it was Magu who was invoked during these times, and she came to be associated with the Taoist landmark Mount Tai for its heavy growth of the plant.

Temple on Mount Tai.

Having a goddess whose healing abilities are specifically tied to cannabis is not as unusual as it may sound to westerners. The likelihood that cannabis was first farmed in ancient China is strong due to the earliest discovered historical references from the region. In fact, in the world of Classical Greece, early China was occasionally referred to as "The Land of Mulberry and Hemp." This also likely influenced the naming of Magu—or perhaps the naming of the plant, depending on the answer to "which came first: the goddess or the plant?"—as her name has often been translated as "hemp." Magu's name does have other connotations, such as "maiden" and "aunt", but these also align with her youthful and naturally protective capabilities. Further, that hemp appeared to grow so plentifully on Mount Tai, it may have even seemed that the gods were handing the plant directly to the priests and priestesses of the Taoist religion.

Top of a flowering hemp plant.

The implications of cannabis-use in ancient Asia may not be definitive yet; however, it is evident that the plant has long played a relevant role in the history of East Asia. There is even evidence of hemp used in the decoration of ancient Taiwanese pottery as well as on the Shinto staffs of early Japanese priests. This incorporation of the plant in these other endeavors reveals the extensive value hemp evidently held across Asian cultures from an early date. Magu's association with the plant, therefore, is enlightening.

In a time when herbal magic was common and it was believed that the gods walked among the natural world, the association with the "powers" of hemp and the goddess of healing effortlessly align. Only a heavily valued goddess (or priestess) would be entrusted with the care of such a potent and transcendent herb.

Magu, the goddess of hemp.


Booth, Martin. 2005. Cannabis: A History. Macmillian.

Christensen, Thomas. 2014. River of Ink: An Illustrated History of Literacy. Counterpoint.

Jia, Jinhua, Xiaofei Kang and Ping Yao. (eds.) 2014. Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity and Body . SUNY Press.

Li, Hui-lin. 1974. "An archaeological and history account of cannabis in China .Economic Botany . Vol. 28.1 pp. 437-447.

Monaghan, Patricia. 2014. Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. New World Library.

Shimkhada, Deepak and Phyllis K. Herman. 2009. The Constant and Changing Faces of the Goddess: Goddess Tradtions of Asia. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Szirom, Tricia. 2015. "Goddess Mago, Ma_Ku, Magi: Goddess of China, Korea and Japan." Gaia's Garden . Accessed August 19, 2017.

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