In the Beginning, there was Pangu

In the Beginning, there really wasn’t very much.

Now, some people will try and sell you their myths:

In the Beginning, there was…

The Void,

The Singularity,

The Word,

The Glitch

The Matrix,

The Thought,

The Prayer,

The Source

These are all Glorious Answers, but alas, they all miss the mark.

In the Beginning,

There was Pangu

*

Historically, Pangu isn’t officially recorded until the “Three Kingdom” period; specifically there is a tomb mentioning Pangu that goes back to the 2nd century C.E; the oral tradition goes back indefinitely.

So how does this primordial being appear to us mere mortals?

A little rough around the edges, to be honest:

800px-Pangu
Pangu by Wang Qi (1529 – 1612)From a copy of “Sancai Tuhui” from the Asian Library in the University of British Columbia

He is an axe wielding, furry giant with horns on his head.

A little warm and fuzzy…

With a hint of fierce.

Not bad for a creator God…

*

An early 20th century writer, Paul Carus, opined the following in his book Chinese Thought:

The basic idea of the yih philosophy was so convincing that it almost obliterated the Taoist cosmology of P’an-Ku who is said to have chiseled the world out of the rocks of eternity. Though the legend is not held in high honor by the literati, it contains some features of interest which have not as yet been pointed out and deserve at least an incidental comment.

P’an-Gu is written in two ways: one means in literal translations, “basin ancient”, the other “basin solid”. Both are homophones, i.e., they are pronounced the same way; and the former may be preferred as the original and correct spelling. Obviously the name means “aboriginal abyss,” or in the terser German, Urgrund, and we have reason to believe it to be a translation of the Babylonian Tiamat, “the Deep.”

The Chinese legend tells us that P’an-Ku’s bones changed to rocks; his flesh to earth; his marrow, teeth and nails to metals; his hair to herbs and trees; his veins to rivers; his breath to wind; and his four limbs became pillars marking the four corners of the world, — which is a Chinese version not only of the Norse myth of the Giant Ymir, but also of the Babylonian story of Tiamat.

Illustrations of P’an-Ku represent him in the company of supernatural animals that symbolize old age or immortality, viz., the tortoise and the crane; sometimes also the dragon, the emblem of power, and the phoenix, the emblem of bliss.

When the earth had thus been shaped from the body of P’an-Ku, we are told that three great rivers successively governed the world: first the celestial, then the terrestrial, and finally the human sovereign. They were followed by Yung-Ch’eng and Sui-Jen (i.e., fire-man) the later being the Chinese Prometheus, who brought the fire down from heaven and taught man its various uses.

The Prometheus myth is not indigenous to Greece, where it received the artistically classical form under which it is best known to us. The name, which by an ingenious afterthought is explained as “the fore thinker,” is originally the Sanskrit pramantha and means “twirler” or “fire-stick,” being the rod of hard wood which produced fire by rapid rotation in a piece of soft wood.

We cannot deny that the myth must have been known also in Mesopotamia, the main center of civilization between India and Greece, and it becomes probable that the figure Sui-Jen has been derived from the same prototype as the Greek Prometheus.

So let’s look at the myth:

*

In the Beginning, there was Nothing.

Formless, unaware, but still present…

that presence grew;

a Baby in the Belly of Empty

Years passed

a year turned into a decade into a century into a millennium

From millennium to millennia; 18,000 spins around the sun.

18,000 years, and the egg was perfected.

I’m adding this part – but I can’t help but think that Pangu didn’t axe his way out.

The egg broke, and Pangu emerged; what remained was Yin and Yang, in perfect balance.

So what was a Pangu to do?

He swung his axe, and split Yin and Yang apart.

Yin, the Earth, sank below him.

Yang, the Sky, rose above him.

And Pangu stood between them, like the Egyptian God Shu.

Every day, the Sky grew upwards by ten paces.

The Earth grew downwards by ten paces.

And Pangu grew ten paces taller.

In some versions of the story, he is assisted by four mythical beasts:

Turtle, Phoenix, Dragon and Qilin.

[a Qilin, you ask? here is a visual answer]

QingQilin
A qilin statue in Beijing’s Summer Palace.

But helped by the four mythic animals or otherwise, nothing can last forever…

not even Pangu

*

There are other accounts of Pangu’s demise, but I think this one will  serve us well:

After another 18,000 years, Pangu died.

His dying breath?

Those are the winds, the clouds, the dew…

His sweat, the torrents that rain down

His dying words?

That is what we call thunder.

From his left eye, the Sun.

From his right eye, the Moon.

The mountains came from his head;

the rivers, from his blood.

*

The fertile Earth that feeds us, all from his muscles.

His fur, all of the Greenlands; the trees, the shrubs, the bushes.

His bones, the precious things we dig up from the Earth;

His marrow, all that glitters, all that’s gold…

*

As above, so below…

So what of animals, including our variety, and the stars that beckon us?

Well, here’s the answer:

When you look up the at the heavens, you see the last tendrils of Pangu’s beard. The stars, the planets, the Milky Way, just hair swirling in the Yang.

And when you look in the mirror, or at your favorite pet…

You remember that trees came from his fur, right?

It turns out that all animals came from the fleas in his fur…

*

Yes, it turns out that we are merely Pangu’s fleas.

Pangu’s fleas, reaching out for Pangu’s beard.

Give us another 18,000 year, maybe we’ll get there.

But in the meantime, we should probably remember that Pangu

Can scratch us away at any moment…

1280px-Sancai_Tuhui_World_Map
A world map by Wang Qi (1529 – 1612)from a copy of Sancai Tuhui from the Asian Library in the University of British Columbia

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