About 8.000 years ago, hemp seeds were used in China as food. 6.000 years ago, the Chinese cultivated a predecessor of what is nowadays known as Cannabis Sativa, for fiber and used it for making cordage and weaving into textiles. We also know that parts of cannabis were used for treatment of various health conditions 5.000 years ago in China. At least 3.000 years ago, hemp seeds were widely used in rituals as offerings throughout Central Asia and further (cannabis flowers were also found in tombs). Cannabis was widely used as incense, which could affect anyone who inhaled it. Cannabis Indica has become more established in the Indian subcontinent for rituals and in medicine. It spread to Europe and North America much later.
ANCIENT CHINA AND MA
Throughout its long history in China, cannabis found itself in every part of people’s lives in China. It clothed Chinese from head to toes, gave them a material to write on, and became a symbol of power over evil.
Ancient China was also the first culture to mention cannabis. In 2.737 B.C., Emperor Shen Neng of China recommended cannabis tea for treating the gout, rheumatisms, malaria, and poor memory. Before, only symbolic writings about cannabis existed. Historians discovered that the emperor Fu Hsi, who lived around 2.800 B.C., created the first Chinese letter for hemp. It is the Chinese letter Ma, which represents two cannabis plants hanging upside down to dry. This is also the oldest known name for hemp.
In ancient China, Ma was the name of the deity resident in hemp, extremely useful fiber, which comes from cannabis stem. Both male and female plants hanging from a shed are depicted on the pictogram (cannabis is a dioecious plant, which means it produces male and female flower on separate plants). You can read more about cannabis here.
Cannabis has been a plant of fundamental utility for hundreds of generations of humans. Ma was therefore the spirit of she who grows, she who clothes us, she who binds, she who ties it all together. Textile and cordage species are essential to human cultures and hemp was appreciated as the most useful species since the wild, ancient nomadic times. Even thousands of years to come, when European ships set sail in search of the world’s wealth, hemp was still the key material (back then Europeans who used fibers for ropes, sails, and flags, of course were not interested in natural deities in hemp).
In folk etymology the name often signifies long-term respect and the fender that a culture recognizes in a plant.
MA AND MAGU
A well-established religion, which cherished cannabis was Taoism of ancient China. The Chinese even had a caretaker of this herb, goddess of longevity Magu. Cannabis was named the elixir of life long ago. The name Magu is made of two parts. First is Ma, which means hemp, and the second part gu, which stands for maiden, priestess, goddess. Direct translation of Magu is difficult and connected to the interpretation of the second part of the word.
The Story of Magu
Magu’s father was a horse breeder, who owned slaves and exploited people. On contrary, Magu wanted to help people and regain their freedom. One specific experience especially left a mark on her. On her way home, Magu ran into an elderly woman who collapsed due to exhaustion. She offered her a peach and rushed home to cook some porridge and save her from starvation. However, her father returned home before she could bring the meal to the old lady. He locked her as he did not want her to give food to strangers. Magu managed to escape, however she could no longer find the old lady.
Symbolically, she planted a peach tree in that place. A few months later, a large tree had grown and Magu gifted all the fruit to the poor and elderly. For this reason, the goddess is portrayed with peaches and earned the respect of a goddess who helps and heals.
Then Why Goddess of Hemp, Priestess of Hemp?
Magu did not only help the poor and elderly, but she was also the protector of a mountain. Mountain Tài Shān in Shāndōng province. Not only is Tài Shān one of the five sacred mountains of Daoism, it also has one of the largest temple complexes in China. It also includes a temple specifically dedicated to the goddess Magu. Furthermore, due to perfect climate for growing cannabis, cannabis plants grow in the wild at the foot of the mountains. Consequently, Magu is also the goddess of hemp, as tradition claims she knew the healing effects of cannabis and used them to heal people. That is how Ma and Magu lived hand in hand.