Thursday, October 19, 2006

Sea Gods/Messengers (Glossary)

Stephen Oppenheimer has suggested that the "amphibious" nature of certain ancient mythical sea gods and sages might be linked to the extreme maritime adaptation of migrating Nusantao.

The Nusantao themselves could certainly have envisioned themselves as fish-like in nature, which when combined with totemic beliefs may have given rise to the composite theo-zoomorphic (god-animal) and anthropo-zoomorphic (man-animal) imagery found in the related myths.

In China, the pantheistic and totemic Pangu takes the form of a dog in many myths associated especially with the South. "Earlier than nearly all of these traditions are Chinese accounts of eastern seas, or more properly speaking, southeastern seas," says David Gordon White referring to Central Asian and Siberian myths of a land of dog-men, Amazons and the "Kingdom of Women."

"This third center for Chinese Dog-Man/Amazon traditions points to China's southern barbarians, as well as to related peoples from Indochina."

(White, p. 138)

...the location of this land off a southeastern coastline corresponds to that of a certain Dog Fief Country to which P'an Hu, the canine ancestor of the southern Man Barbarians, was sent together with his wife."

White notes that across the seas from southern China one also finds myths of dog ancestry.

Fishy sages

Fu Hsi and his consort Nu Gua are commonly represented with fish/serpent lower bodies and human upper bodies. A similar representation is found far away in India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.

The ancient Mulberry Tree Tradition of the Zhou period tells of Xihe of the "Southeastern Sea" who bears the Ten Suns through the god Jun Di the "East Wind. The Ten Suns, portrayed also as ravens, are born at the location of the Fu-sang or Mulberry Tree (from which bark cloth is made) and the Boiling Water Valley.

Jun Di is probably the same as the "Black Bird" of the Shang Origin Myth who gives rise to the Shang clan through Jian Di. According to Sarah Allan, the name "Jun" may be related to the Phoenix bird.

In the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, it is Wang Hai who is the ancestor of the Shang, and the name is written in the inscriptions accompanied by the pictograph of a bird. In the historical tradition Jun equates with Emperor Shun and the Ten Suns with the Dan Zhu (Ten Sons).

Boiling Water Valley or Tang-gu, is related by the Zhou with Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty whose name is written with the same water radical as "Tang-gu."

Sang-lin, the "Country of Mulberry Trees" appears at times, as in the myths of Emperor Yu, to speak of the same place where Xihe gives birth to the Ten Suns. It is at Sang-lin, that suns are born and rise at morning. Yu's unnamed mother and his wife Tu-shan ("Earth Mountain") come from Sang-lin and a state called Sung.

Sang-lin is also located in the South. The southern love songs were composed in Sang-lin and Sung, considered excessively bold by the Confucians.

Southern influence

That the Shang should claim southern ties is not surprising in light of the archaeological record. Many southern items start turning up at northern sites in the Dawenkou and Lungshan periods that were ancestral to the Shang dynasty.

Some have attempted to explain the presence of elephant, rhinoceros, sea turtle, Indo-Pacific shells, whale bones and other similar items as evidence of warmer climates in northern China during early times. However, research suggests that the region was only slighter warmer in the Neolithic, not nearly enough to support these tropical species.

Also the spotty record before the Shang suggests the tropical items were imported. For example, there is some evidence of elephant remains in Dawenkou sites, but these disappear from the same region during the Lungshanoid period.

The Shang, carrying on from the previous Lungshan culture, established the dominance of rice agriculture in northern China.

Dawenkou and Lungshan culture are linked archaeologically at least to some extent by Solheim's theory to Nusantao presence in coastal and riverine Shandong during the Neolithic. The trading contacts seemed to have intensified during the Shang dynasty with large hoards of southern trade artifacts found in Shang burials.

Sea Dragons

The sea dragon/serpent theme also has negative aspects opposite those of the beneficient deity/sage.

In the Avesta, Atar, the god of fire, banishes Ahi Dahaka, the three-headed serpent to the bottom of the Vourukasha Sea where it remains until the final cosmic battle when it will return to fight the forces of light.

In latter Persian literature, it is Thraetaona who battles the three-headed serpent. In Vedic lore, including the Rgveda, Trita slays the three-headed dragon Visvarupa. Trita and Thraetaona have some common motifs in their myths:

* In their names is the root for the number three
* Each is the third of three brothers
* The brothers undertake a quest to a far-off land apparently in search of elixir
* Both Trita and Thraetaona are betrayed by the other two brothers
* Both become trapped in a well or pit
* Both slay a three-headed serpent/dragon in the subterranean location

Trita has been analyzed by some as a god of the sea, and the entire theme is similar in some respects to the Mesopotamian myths of Tiamat.

In the Mahabharata, the Rgvedic tale of Trita and his brothers journey to a far-off land becomes specifically a voyage to Svetadvipa and the Milky Ocean. These lands as noted earlier in this blog were envisioned as located in the East and in the tropical clime.

Such geography is reinforced by the Shahnameh where Trita/Thraetaona become known as Feridun and the serpent Azhi Dahaka is named Zohak. The Vourukasha Sea in this work is equated with the "Sea of Chin" i.e., the seas off the coast of South China, or the present-day northeastern Sea of China.

This is not surprising as we have already seen that the medieval Persians and Muslim Indians had located the mythical messianic fortress of Kangdez in the same general area of the far East Indies.

The quest of Trita and his brothers to Svetadvipa and the Milky Ocean should be seen in the light of the pilgrimage journeys of the rsis (rishis) and also the epic heroes to the same region to visit Narayana, the quintessential sea deity who spends much of his time floating on a bed of snakes in the Milky Ocean, according to classical tradition. This Narayana is directly related to the Rgvedic Purusa, the pantheistic being from which the world is created.

Sea Bull

The sea bull theme also appears widely in ancient times from East Asia to Sumer to the Mediterranean and beyond. It seems that the sea bull mutates also into the sea goat from which we obtain the modern image in Western astrology of Capricorn.

In the Classic of the Mountains and Seas, traditionally credited to the legendary emperor Yu, a buffalo or ox name Kui is described that lives in the Eastern Ocean. Kui appears related to a mountain spirit known as Hui, that is shaped like a drum. Kui is sometimes said to have a belly shaped like a drum which he beats to make thunder-like sound. The Yellow Thearch slays Kui and uses his hide to make a drum:

In the East Sea is the Flowing Wave Mountain. It is submerged in the sea to a depth of 7,000 leagues. At its summit is a bovine animal with a bright blue body, but no horns and only one foot. When it comes in and out of the water there is always wind and rain, and its glare is like that of the Sun and Moon. This animal makes thunder sounds and its name is Awestruck (Kui). The Yellow Thearch captured Kui and made a drum from its hide. For a drumstick the great god used a bone from the Thunder Beast. The sound of the god's drumming could be heard for 500 leagues and so it frightened all beneath the sky.

Although the setting is different, the story of Kui reminds us also of the Indian legend of great buffalo demon Dundubhi ("Kettledrum") slain by Valin. Dundubhi was said to resemble Mount Kailasa and his bones were also said to have formed a mountain. Also, like Kui, Dundubhi makes drumming sounds, but in his case a drum-like roar.

In the buffalo sacrifices of South India, drumming and dancing to drums plays an important role. The buffalo sacrifice has much in common with the Rgvedic horse sacrifice, which may itself have originated from an earlier ritual involving water buffaloes.

After the South Indian sacrifices, the goddess analogous to Kali, is said to be widowed. The allusion here is that the buffalo represents a form of Siva, the husband of the goddess. In Indian myth, Kali kills the buffalo demon Mahishasura, which may be seen as a form of the common Indian theme of the "murderous bride."

In the Rgvedic horse sacrifice, the chief queen is known as Mahisi "Water Buffalo Cow" and takes part in a ritual with the sacrificed horse, the latter playing the part of her consort.

Both the buffalo and horse sacrifices had royal connections even when the former were conducted by lower castes or tribes. In both cases, a goat or sheep was also sacrificed, usually before the main sacrifice. The goat was identified as the "younger (royal) brother" of the buffalo (king).

Trita in the Rgveda is involved in the first horse sacrifice, which involves the horse of Yama, said to come from the sea. This horse with 17 rib-pairs, a tropical breed, was first harnessed by Trita and first mounted by Indra according to the Rgveda. Interestingly, in Greece, Poseidon, the sea god, is credited with first taming horses. These connections of the horse sacrifice with the sea may also extend to the buffalo sacrifice.

In ancient Sumer and Akkad, Alf Hiltebeitel has linked the sacrifice of the Bull of Heaven with the loss of the sacred mikku and pukku (drumstick and drum), both of which, in different traditions, precede the death of the hero Enkidu.

According to Akkadian texts, in a rite similar to that of the Indian buffalo/horse sacrifice, temple drums were made from the hide of a black bull that was sacrificed in conjunction with a sheep!

Paul Kekai Manansala


Hiltebeitel, Alf. "Rama and Gilgamesh: The Sacrifices of the Water Buffalo and the Bull of Heaven," History of Religions, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Feb., 1980), pp. 187-223.

Von Glahn, Richard. The Sinister Way: the divine and the demonic in Chinese religious culture, University of California Press, 2004, p. 90.

White, David Gordon. Myths of the Dog-Man, University of Chicago Press, 1991.