Goddess Xi Wang Mu and the Chinese Shamanesses

Nov 2016
Assuming the validity of the shamanism theory (cave painter = shamans), the religion of the Chinese Shang-, Zhou-, Chu- and Han-periods provides indirect indications for Prof. Dean Snow's hypothesis about the gender distribution among the cave painters (most of them were probably feminine). This is about the goddess ´Xi Wang Mu´, who can be understood as a shaman in the shape of a goddess, and about ´Wu´, the Chinese shamans of both sexes. The following argumentation does not deal with cave art (which never really developed in China), but with the gender of the earliest shamans. The conclusion is then applied to Snow's hypothesis.

As to the Wu:

The earliest evidence for this term is the Wu character on an oracle bone around 1500 BCE (Shang Dynasty). Animal shoulder bones were used in China as a medium for messages from ´Geistern´. In this divination method, dancing shamans (= Wu) in trance created the cracks ´interpreted´ by placing a bone in boiling liquid. An example of an interpretation is the following inscription on an oracle bone: "Bone tears on the ninth day of the ninth month; we have interpreted: If we offer sacrifices to the Eastern mother and the Western mother, we will receive consent".

Some experts (e.g. J. Ching 1993, S.M. Nelson 2008, L.W. Hurtado 1990) are convinced that the Wu were exclusively women in prehistoric times, of which there is no proof, but some indications pointing to it. According to G. Boileau (2002), the religious sphere in China until the Shang dynasty was dominated by women and the political sphere by men; only the Shang kings had assumed an additional priestly role, but without female Wu being abolished. In the following Zhou period, according to Boileau, the reputation of the shamans declined; they were said to be close to impure spirits and even to black magic. But for Nelson it is certain that the Wu were integrated into the administration during this time and became bureaucratized: instead of ecstatic trance, strict ritual acts served to create oracles. I think that both findings do not contradict each other: The uncomfortable shamans were brought under control by bureaucratization.

As for the goddess Xi Wang Mu, Despeux and Kohn (2003) consider her to be the oldest Daoist deity. That Xi Wang Mu is a shamanistic goddess results from her characteristics.

* She is represented in early texts as a human being with animal attributes (tiger teeth and leopard tail). This is typically shamanic, as shaman costumes in China and Central Asia show.

* She is surrounded by helpful spirits in animal form, not unlike shamans.

* Her hair is confused and snow-white, which can be interpreted as an expression of shamanic ecstasy. According to E. Leach it also stands for unbridled sexuality.

* Her crown is either an equivalent of the shaman's headdress or a symbol of dominion. A crown-like headdress is found in Nepalese shamans.

* She resides on a mountain, which for Mircea Eliade is generally a symbol of the axis mundi (= connection between the three realms of the shamanic cosmos: underworld, human world and overworld).

During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) Xi Wang Mu was regarded as the saviour of mankind from terrible plagues and, like the gods of the western mystery cults, as the lender of immortality. For this reason, according to the Han-Shu texts from the 1st century CE, processions of thousands of singing, dancing and hashish smoking people often took place in honour of the goddess through the whole country towards the capital. The same behaviour was practiced by those who remained in their villages. Many of them wore their hair just as wildly as Xi Wang Mu.


The importance of female Wu suggests that prehistoric Chinese shamanism was practiced exclusively or at least also by women. The importance of the shamanistic goddess Xi Wang Mu as well as the fact that no male god in China is even nearly as shamanistic as Xi Wang Mu is characterized, is also an indication of the original femininity of shamanism.
Oct 2018
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