In Norse Mythology, when we cast our minds to the Goddess of the Sea, we think of Rán. With her net, a present from Loki to help her catch fish, she ensnares men to her undersea world laden with gold.
Rán is known for her many amourous adventures with sea farers and other Norse gods. She is a symbol of unpredictable weather conditions and an epitomé of death associated with sea travel.
In Chinese mythology, Rán’s counterpart is Mazu, Goddess of the Sea. She is Mother Ancestor, protector of sea-farers and sea merchants living in the coastal areas of China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Chinese diaspora as far as San Francisco, pay homage to Mazu.
The legend of Mazu begins with the story of her birth. She was born in the Song Dynasty (c.960-1279 C.E.) to the Li family on Meizhou island, in the Straits of Taiwan. Her birth is said to be down to the benevolence of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Upon her death at the age of 28, she was deified and became Mazu, benefactor and patron goddess of sailors. A temple dedicated to her can be found on this island and homage is paid to her annually. Meizhou Island has been declared a UNESCO Heritage site of Culture.
Mazu’s given name was Mo Niang which means the “silent girl” since she cried very little as a child. However, she was unusually alert.
When she born, it is said that the room filled with an emanant light and the fragrance of blossoms permeated the air. It became apparent soon enough that Mo Niang was a talented child. She had a photographic memory and was also very spiritual. During her first visit to the temple of Guanyin, she was given her “second sight”. Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, endowed Mo Niang with the ability of clairvoyance.
There are many legends telling of Li Mo Niang’s bravery and pious faith and of how her magical and mystical abilities developed. One legend ascribes these powers to her having accepted a piece of bronze disc from a sea creature. Henceforth, she began to develop mystical powers that grew stronger each day.
How did she become so beloved by sea-farers and sea merchants? Well, with her gift of clairvoyance from Guanyin and her new found set of mystical powers from the sea creature’s bronze disc, she could predict the changes in weather patterns. Sailors and fishermen started to ask her advice for a good time to go to sea. Her popularity grew as each prediction of weather changes came true.
Marine folklore has it that she is often seen standing on a cliff wearing red to alert returning sailors and fishermen from the treacherous waters ahead. It is also said that she appears as a red light in troubled ships just in time to calm a storm and rescue the sailors onboard. Seafarers were told that the invocation of her name would bring her to their rescue.
One of the many mystical powers that Mo Niang has is the ability to go into a trance and have her spirit leave her body. The most poignant story of her life refers to this out-of-body ability that became a pivotal moment for her.
One day whilst weaving, she fell into a deep trance like sleep. She could see a storm raging and the lives of her father and brother in danger. She transported herself to their rescue. Her father and brother were tossed at sea upon her arrival. She brought her brother safely to shore and returned to help her father. Clenching his shirt sleeve between her teeth, she swam for shore. However, at that precise moment, her mother shook her gently awake, breaking the trance. This caused Mo Niang to let go of her father’s sleeves, resulting in his death. Grief stricken, she vowed to continue saving endangered lives at sea.
Her dedication to save lives meant that she took a vow of celibacy. However, she had a fair share of suitors. It is said that two warriors of great fame lusted after her and each asked for her hand in marriage. The ever intelligent Mo Niang challenged the warriors to a duel. They were each to fight her until their deaths; her only condition was that if they lost to her, they would have to serve her for all eternity. As the legend goes, the two warriors died at this duel since Mo Niang who was tutored in in the Buddhist art of Kung Fu outwitted them in her superiority. They have remained her celestial guardians since.
The goddess Mazu is always flanked by these guardians: “Thousand li Eyes” and “Wind Favouring Ears”, who both symbolize clairvoyance and deep knowledge as one can see far ahead and the other can hear all that the wind brings.
The cult following of Mazu reached new heights during the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qianlong awarded her the title of “Heavenly Empress” as he attributed the many battles he had won to her. To the shamanistic practising Manchus, Mazu is seen as a female shaman due to her ability to travel to, communicate with and influence the spirit world.
Mazu plays a significant part in Singapore’s history. When Chinese indentured servants arrived on the shores of Temasek, they would stop off at the Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street
to pay their respects and give thanks for a safe passage.
Telok Ayer Street in the 1800s was right by the shoreline of Temasek. New arrivals from Fukien would find their way along the shoreline to Thian Hock Keng temple to give thanks to Mazu. The temple was the focal point for the Hokkien community where the men gathered, prayed and found work. Construction of the temple started in 1839 and was completed in 1842 with the help of funds from the Hokkien philanthropist Tan Tock Seng.
Mazu’s statue was shipped from Amoy (Xiamen) to Singapore and the Straits Times featured an article of the procession that took place in April 1840 to consecrate a “very elegant temple, according to Chinese taste” that was “built in the town for her reception”. The procession was organised to carry the “divinity herself…..in a very elegant canopy chair, or palanquin, of yellow silk and crape, and was surrounded with a body guard of celestials, wearing tunics of the same colour.”
In 1907, Qing Emperor Guang Xu dedicated a calligraphy plaque that he had written himself with the words ‘Bo Jing Nan Ming’ – Gentle waves protecting the South China Seas – which bears witness to the temple’s stature and the importance of Mazu as a deity and goddess.
Mazu is held in great esteem in the Chinese pantheon of gods and goddesses. Although her origins are derived from folklore, she is linked to Buddhism in many ways: the myth of her conception as being granted by Guanyin and her vow of celibacy lend her Buddhist leanings. However, it is important to note that she is neither Buddhist nor Daoist but a syncretic mix of both.