Tag Archives: Mazu

Matres Ollototae and/or Transmarinae


The Matres Ollototae are attested to from inscriptions from Roman Britain. The epithet comes from Brythonic ollo-, ‘all’ and teuta, touta, ‘tribe,’ or in other words “Mothers of All the Tribes.” Unlike most of the inscriptions to the Matres in Britian, at least one inscription was found at a non-military site (Heronbridge, Cheshire).


Another inscription, made by one Pomponius Donatus at Roman Fort Binchester in Durham County, links the epithet Ollotate to the epithet Transmarinae with the word sive, meaning “or.”

I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) et Matribus Ollototis sive Tramarinis Pomponius Donatus, b(ene)f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis) pro salute sua et suorum v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Iupiter, Best and Greatest, and to the Mother Goddesses of All the Peoples, or Overseas, Pomponius Donatus, beneficiaries of the governor, for the welfare of himself and his household willingly fulfilled his vow’

The epithet Transmarinae is also found at Lowther, Plumpton Wall (Cumbria), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Tyne and Wear) and Risingham (Northunmberland). Transmarinus/a/um can mean either “beyond the sea” or “coming from beyond the sea.” But if They can hear prayers from across the sea, then They have in fact crossed the sea Themselves, making a combination of both meanings likely in my eyes. Perhaps, like the Chinese goddess Mazu (“Mother Ancestor”), who is a protectress of sailors and fishermen who has not one but two temples in San Francisco Chinatown, They may also have been seen as facilitating safe passage across the sea.


Jin Xiang Ma statue of Mazu, Lugang Mazu Temple, Taiwan.

At York, an inscription was dedicated to the “African, Italian and Gaulish Mothers,” and at Winchester, one was dedicated to the “Italian, German, Gaulish and British Mothers.” These are clearly in the same vein as the inscriptions to the Matres Ollototae and the Matres Transmarinae.


Link: Precious Scroll of Heavenly Grace

Mazu temple procession, April 20, 2013. Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander

Mazu temple procession, April 20, 2013, Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander.

I’ve had this a link to this blog since the middle of summer, but I revisited it today, and realized that the blog came to its natural conclusion over a month ago. It was written by a Ph.D. student, Katherine Alexander, who just spent a year studying at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy in Taipei, Taiwan.

My specific interest in the blog, unsurprisingly, was in the posts tagged “Chinese religion.” There’s a good mix of first-hand observation of Taiwanese rituals and academic research. Some highlights include:

  • A two-part series about Mazu: Part 1 has some videos and photos of an April 20th, 2013 procession through the streets with firecrackers galore, Part 2 has information about the history of Mazu’s worship. My favorite new story:

    [I]n the 1600s, the pirate lord Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功) (aka Koxinga) was said to have established a famous (but no longer extant) Matsu temple on the spot where his forces landed in Tainan before they successfully defeated the Dutch settlers and took Taiwan for Zheng’s own pirate base (and stronghold of resistance to the Qing).

    Katherine also cites Stephen Sangren’s statement from the 1980s that “Taipei is particularly unsuitable as a center for ritual expression of Taiwanese identity,” leading her to observe that “In the 1980s, pilgrimage to visit Peikang’s Matsu was a statement of Taiwanese identity (defined as the Taiwanese speakers whose ancestors had arrived from China long ago, rather than in the 20th century).” There’s some context required for both quotes, so you should read the entire paragraph, as well as the one following it.

    Tu Di Gong new shrine ceremony, May 31, 2013, Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander.

    Tu Di Gong new shrine ceremony, May 31, 2013, Taipei. Credit: Katherine Alexander.

  • A series about the relocation of a local earth god (Tu Di Gong) into a newly constructed shrine. The story begins in February with the sudden demolition of the old shrine, progresses through the new shrine’s construction in the spring, and ends with a first-hand account (complete with more photos and videos) of the May 31st, 2013 ceremony to welcome Tu Di Gong to his new home.
  • One of Katherine’s research topics at the Academia Sinica: namely, a baojuan (precious scroll) dating from 1855. It is, of course, easiest to just quote her explanation of her own object of study:

    Pan Gong Baojuan 潘公寶卷, presents Pan Zengyi, a philanthropist from the Jiangnan region who lived from 1792-1853, as a powerful deity. He appears in dreams after his death and warns residents of Nanjing of the disaster that awaits them in the imminent attack by Taiping armies.

    The scroll was first published in 1855. Pan Zengyi died two years before that, in 1853. The Taiping Rebellion took over Nanjing in March of the same year. The significance?

    When people told each other stories about Pan Gong appearing in their dreams, when they donated money for the printing and reprinting of this baojuan, the conclusion had not yet been written to the war – there was no guarantee that the Qing would regain control. There was no lens of official interpretation, but there was religion.

    Pretty interesting how quickly a mortal could be deified in 1800s China, and how rapidly religion can respond to current events.

Mazu: The Story of Lin Mo Niang

Today, the 23rd day of the 3rd lunar month, is Mazu’s birthday. I wrote about her on this blog’s first real post.

Laura Zinck wrote an essay, “Inquiry Report on the Chinese Goddesses Hsi Wang Mu and Ma-tsu,” which summarizes much of the Western academic research about both Xi Wang Mu and Mazu.

Regarding Mazu, Zinck tells us that “Her legend of origin tells of a young woman called Lin Mo Niang from a family involved in trade who lived on the island of Meizhou circa 980 C.E”

Zinck relates that Lin Mo Niang was a very unique young woman, and at least certain stories tie her to Buddhism:

She was particularly devoted to the Buddhist deity Guanyin and, following her example, refused to marry, which was a very unusual resolution for a young Chinese woman.”

The main story about her is as follows:

Lin Mo Niang went into a trance during a storm and used her spiritual powers to save three of her four brothers from being lost at sea; she was roused from her trance before she could save the fourth brother (Irwin, 1990). She died soon afterwards (Maspero, 1981).

Zinck summarizes a theory put forth by Lee Irwin that Lin Mo Niang was a “shamaness” of sorts:

Irwin (1990) believes that Lin Mo Niang may have been a shamaness whose fame outlived her; knowledge of distant events through trance and supernatural abilities were associated with shamanism in China.

There is also an interesting observation about what usually happened to an unmarried woman when she died, and how Lin Mo Niang avoided that fate:

Jordan Paper (1989) notes that as an unmarried female, the Lin Mo Niang would have been especially prone to becoming a ghost rather than an ancestral spirit, because she has no one to sacrifice to her. Because of her benevolent spiritual powers, however, she was worshiped as the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers under the name of “Ma Tsu,” or “Grandmother” (Paper, 1989).

Her unmarried status has some obvious potential social ramifications with regards to women’s status and roles:

It is also significant that Ma-tsu refused to marry but was still praised and revered as a goddess; like Hsi Wang Mu, Ma-tsu provided her female worshipers with an alternative model to the traditional roles of women as filial daughters, obedient wives, and self-sacrificing mothers.

Zinck also presents Lin Mei-Rong’s thesis, which deals with the question posed in my last post about Mazu about whether or not it mattered that her worship was being co-opted by political vultures:

Mei-Rong Lin (1996) argues that Ma-tsu will never become accepted as the “national” deity of either Taiwan or China because her worship is based at the local level; Ma-tsu cults in neighbouring areas frequently disagree on such issues as pilgrimage routes, historical precedence, and orthodoxy.

However, her intimate ties at the local level with her worshipers makes her more approachable than many other deities, and thus more popular (Paper, 1989).

So according to Lin, the co-optation doesn’t matter that much because of the exceedingly local nature of her worship–what Zinck describes as “intimate.”

In fact, early in the essay, Zinck lists all of the titles in the divine hierarchy that Mazu received by imperial decree, and says that these decrees partially “civilized and assimilated [her] into the patriarchal social and political culture.” Which is to say, it’s been attempted before.

However, writes Zinck, “In spite of this […] the true power of Ma-tsu lies in her popular worship, which continues to flourish to this day.”

Of course, at the same time that she is a deity with great local variation, she is also international in scope. My previous post about Mazu quoted an estimate of 160 million worshipers in China. According to the Confucius Institute Online, “The belief in Mazu has become a sort of transnational folk belief with more than 200 million worshippers.”

That’s at least 40 million overseas Chinese who worship her. Deng Ming Dao explains the connection: “When emigrants left China by sea, they prayed to Mother Ancestor for protection. Once in their new homes, they gave offerings and erected temples to her in gratitude for their safe passage” (98).

One more story about Mazu is quite interesting. This one comes from Wikipedia, which is…far from a reliable source. It cites Klaas Ruitenbeek’s article “Mazu, the Patroness of Sailors, in Chinese Pictorial Art,” but since I haven’t verified what Ruitenbeek actually wrote.

Mazu is usually depicted together with two guardian generals known as “Thousand Miles Eye” (千里眼, Qianli Yan) and “With-the-Wind Ear” (順風耳 Shunfeng Er). Though their iconography can vary, both are usually represented as demons; “Thousand Miles Eye” is often red with two horns, while “With-the-Wind Ear” is green with one horn.

They are said to have been two demons whom Mazu conquered. The both of them were in love with her, but she said she would marry the one who defeated her. Using her martial arts skills, Mazu defeated them both and they became her friends.

The two guardian generals are definitely often present accompanying Mazu, but I’ll have to do some research to corroborate the backstory at some point. So it’s a “maybe” for now. If it is true, however, this tale both reinforces the fact that she refused marriage, and also portrays her as something of warrior goddess. “They became her friends” sounds like Wikipedia writing, though.

Māzǔ: 10,000 at Festival


In 2010, NPR covered the festival of Mazu’s birthday on Méizhōu Island, her birthplace. Reportedly, 10,000 people attended the festival. There is some interesting political context as well:

  • “Scholars say she has an estimated 160 million followers and 4,000 temples devoted solely to her in China.”
  • In 2006, the Chinese Communist Party government “reclassif[ied] Mazu worship not as superstition — not even as religion — but as cultural heritage.”
  • The worship of Ma Zu has brought people living in Taiwan and people living on Meizhou/the mainland into contact with one another despite the issues between the governments they live under: “Shared belief in Mazu was one of the forces bringing Taiwanese to the area, even when politics made that difficult. In 1987, when direct links were still forbidden, about 275 Taiwanese Mazu believers sailed across the Taiwan Strait to Meizhou on a pilgrimage, setting a trend in which religious believers have spearheaded contacts.”

There are some tricky aspects to the Chinese Communist Party’s new attitude towards the worship of Mazu, of course, namely co-optation towards their own political ends. Since I don’t live there, I can’t say a whole lot more about those issues, but there is something about hearing that 10,000 people were at her festival that is moving.

Mazu has a temple in San Francisco, the Tien Hou Temple.

Image Credit: Ariana Lindquist for NPR.