The Sea Angel; Lady of Heaven;
Princess of Supernatural Favor; Heavenly Mother;
Grandmother Ruby; Princess of Tides
Also known as: A-Ma; Matsu; Ma Zhu; Mazu; Tien Hau; Thien Hau; Tin Hau
Ma Zu (960–987 CE) currently claims over one hundred million devotees. There are over fifteen hundred Ma Zu temples worldwide with over four hundred in Taiwan alone. Her shrines in homes, businesses, offices, and aboard boats are genuinely countless.
Before she was a goddess, Ma Zu was a girl named Lin Mo from a fishing village on Meizhou Island in Fujian. Her spiritual gifts manifested early. Local people called her the Dragon Girl because of her psychic ability to predict changes in weather. Sailors sought her advice before putting out to sea. At age thirteen, she began training with a Taoist monk who gave her charms and taught her secret lore. (She is also described as a devout Buddhist who began praying and burning incense twice a day when she was ten, but this may be a later attempt to bring a Taoist goddess into the Buddhist fold.)
This much-loved goddess bears several names:
• Her family named her Lin Mo.
• As a local goddess, she was called Ma Zu.
• When incorporated into the official Chin ese pantheon, Ma Zu was granted the title Tien Hau or “Empress of Heaven.” Devotees call her Tien Hau and Ma Zu interchangeably.
At age sixteen, Lin Mo was praying for her father and brothers who were caught in a typhoon at sea when she fell into a trance. Her soul traveled out to sea where she manifested to them and helped them stay afloat. Meanwhile, her body lay at home in a trance so deep that her mother thought she was dead. Grief stricken, she shook Lin Mo, rousing her. (Alternate legend: Lin Mo’s soul could not bear her mother’s grief and flew back to comfort her.) Lin Mo had time to rescue her brothers who later described their experiences, but the trance did not last long enough for her to save her father.
When Lin Mo was sixteen, she and a girlfriend gazed at their reflections in a well and saw a Fairy looking back. The friend panicked and ran away but Ma Zu knelt in reverence. The Fairy emerged, gave Ma Zu a copper scroll inscribed with mystic symbols and taught her the magical art of life saving.
In 987, people saw Ma Zu ascend to Heaven from Mount Meifing on Meizhou Island accompanied by an escort of Fairies. Ma Zu may have become an Immortal without dying, or her ascension may have followed her death. There are different versions of her possible death:
• She committed suicide at twenty-seven ra ther than submit to an arranged marriage. (She may have taken a vow of chastity.)
• She drowned at age sixteen while searching for her father’s drowned corpse.
Rather than resting in peace or dallying in Heaven, having departed the mortal plane, Ma Zu became even more active. Over the years, an ever-increasing number of eyewitnesses have claimed to see her apparition mysteriously appear in the middle of the sea to perform emergency rescues. Initially many of those rescued were local men who recognized her. They began venerating her image and seeking her protection. Many testified to her miracles; shrines were built and veneration spread. Eventually her protection extended to mandarins (government bureaucrats). By the twelfth century, she was incorporated into the official Chinese pantheon.
Because she protects seafarers, Ma Zu was a favorite goddess of Chinese immigrants, who built shrines for her wherever they traveled. Ma Zu is venerated worldwide. Considered an exceptionally active and responsive goddess, Ma Zu protects travelers on the seven seas as well as on the turbulent seas of life and love.
Riding clouds or traveling over oceans at high speed on a kind of magic flying carpet, Ma Zu can save people anywhere:
• If you are caught in a violent storm, call out Ma Zu’s name, ideally with incense in your hand.
• If she rescues you, throw a feast in her honor. Invite guests, tell your story, and offer a portion of the food to Ma Zu.
Although she began as a goddess of sea safety, Ma Zu has evolved into an all-purpose goddess, fulfilling all her devotees’ needs. She performs miracles of healing and fertility and has dominion over commerce. Ma Zu banishes ghosts and evil spirits. She spiritually cleanses areas where tragedies have occurred. For example, following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a statue of Ma Zu was broughtto Thailand’s hardhit Phuket Island to purify the atmosphere, allay any restive ghosts and reassure would-be tourists hesitating to return to the stricken region.
Favored people: Sailors, maritime merchants, those who fish, travelers on the sea
Manifestation: Those rescued by Ma Zu consistently describe her as dressed in red. During storms she sometimes manifests as a fire ball traveling up or down the mast:
• Up is not auspicious as it’s perceived that Ma Zu is leaving the ship.
• Down is favorable; Ma Zu is arriving and help is at hand.
Iconography: Ma Zu is often depicted with a black face like a Black Madonna.
Spirit allies: Ma Zu and Kwan Yin are compatible and will share altar space. Among the spirits traveling in Ma Zu’s entourage is Me Sanh, Chinese Goddess of Childbirth. Me Sanh frequently has her own shrines within Ma Zu temples.
• Her birthday on the twenty-third day of the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
• Her ascension to Heaven on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.
Sacred sites: A comprehensive list of Ma Zu shrines would fill a book. This is but a sampling:
• Heavenly Empress Palace on Meizhou Island, a temple complex built where she ascended to Heaven.
• Tien Hou Temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown, established in 1852, is the oldest Chinese temple in the United States.
• Chua Thien Hau Temple in Los Angeles’ China town was established in September 2005.
• A-Ma Temple in Macao (Macao is named for Ma Zu as are the Mazu Islands near Taiwan).
• Thian Hock Keng, the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore.
• Thien Hau Pagoda in Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.
Offerings: Incense, fresh fruit, objects expressing marine or nautical themes: model ships, anchors, and rudders, for instance. To invoke her powers as a fertility goddess, offer images of animals playing with their babies.
MA ZU SEA SAFETY Ritual
Place ashes taken from before her image into a red bag. Ashes may be taken from an official shrine, if appropriate, or you can create your own by burning incense and paper offerings before an image of Ma Zu.
Carry the bag or place the ashes like a talisman on your boat for protection, prosperity, and good fortune. If you have a shrine on board, the ashes may be placed before Ma Zu’s image, but in that case they should originate in a temple.
See also: Black Madonna; Dragon Queens; Fairy; Eight Immortals; Kwan Yin; Ma Gu; Miao Shan; Stella Maris and the Glossary entry for Apparition
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.