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Pangu: The Creator God of Chinese Mythology

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Pangu is one of the most fascinating and foundational figures in all of Chinese mythology.

In this article, I will dive deep into the origins, attributes, legends, and cultural impact of Pangu, sharing my personal journey of discovery and the insights I’ve gained along the way.

In this article, you will learn:

  • The meaning and etymology behind Pangu’s name
  • The key attributes and depictions of Pangu in Chinese mythology
  • The major legends surrounding Pangu, including the cosmic egg, the separation of yin and yang, and how Pangu’s body created the earth
  • The real-world origins of the Pangu myths and how they relate to other Chinese creation stories
  • Pangu’s role in Bouyei culture and modern worship
  • Pangu’s influence and appearance in popular culture

The Etymology of Pangu’s Name

The name “Pangu” (simplified Chinese: 盘古; traditional Chinese: 盤古) provides intriguing clues about this mythical figure’s origins and significance. The first character, “pan” (盘), can mean “plate” or “to coil.” Many scholars believe this refers to how Pangu was curled up inside the cosmic egg before the creation of the world.

The second character “gu” (古) means “ancient,” signifying Pangu’s status as the first living being and the genesis of all creation.

So the name “Pangu” could be translated as something like “Ancient Coiled One” – an apt name for a primordial god-beast who emerged from a cosmic egg.

Interestingly, the etymology may also hint at some of the real-world origins and influences behind the Pangu myths, which I’ll explore more later on. But for now, suffice it to say the name itself paints a vivid picture of this mythical being.

Attributes of Pangu

So what did this “Ancient Coiled One” look like? How has Pangu typically been depicted in Chinese art and literature? Most often, Pangu is portrayed as a primitive, hairy, horned giant – a far cry from the wise, regal depictions of later Chinese deities.

Here is how Pangu is usually shown:

  • Primitive and bestial in appearance, with the body of a man but covered in thick hair or fur
  • Giant in size, usually towering over mountains and reaching up to the heavens
  • Horned head, resembling a buffalo, ox, or even dragon-like being
  • Holding an axe, hammer, and/or chisel – the tools he used to separate heaven and earth
  • Accompanied by ancient Chinese symbols like the bagua, yin-yang, and mythical creatures

To me, Pangu’s rough, wild appearance perfectly symbolizes his role as the raw, primeval force behind all of creation. He represents that initial spark and limitless vitality that brought form to the formless and separated the fundamental forces of the universe.

Family of Pangu

Since Pangu is considered the first living being in the universe, he is not typically portrayed as having family in the conventional sense. There are no tales of Pangu’s parents, siblings, spouses, or children – he is very much a singular, self-generating being.

However, in some of the more elaborate Pangu myths, he is accompanied by a entourage of mythical creatures who aid him in his world-building work. Most notably, these include:

  • The Dragon 龙 (lóng)
  • The Qilin 麒麟 (qílín)
  • The Phoenix 凤凰 (fènghuáng)
  • The Turtle 龟 (guī)

So while Pangu may not have family in the literal sense, he could be said to have a “spiritual family” of ancient mythical beings and creative forces.

The Legends of Pangu

Now we get to the really juicy stuff – the legends themselves.

There are many different versions of the Pangu creation myth found throughout Chinese literature, folk tradition, and oral lore. Here I’ll share three of the most well-known and evocative tellings, along with some of my personal commentary.

The Cosmic Egg

In the most famous legend, the universe began as an enormous black egg, within which the primordial forces of yin and yang were perfectly contained and balanced. Within this egg, Pangu slept for 18,000 years, growing and preparing to awake.

When Pangu finally awoke, he stretched his limbs and cracked open the egg. The heavier parts (yin) sank and became the earth, while the lighter parts (yang) rose and became the sky. And so heaven and earth came into being.

I love the symbolism in this story of the universe as an egg. It speaks to the notion of all of creation gestating and developing in a self-contained way before hatching into glorious being. And Pangu’s role is that of the catalyst – the one who brings the potential into manifestation.

The Separation of Yin and Yang

Another version provides more detail on how Pangu separated the primordial yin and yang energies. In this telling, the universe was an infinite expanse of swirling yin-yang vapor when Pangu appeared.

With his mighty axe, Pangu cleaved through the chaos, separating the pure yin and yang. He then stood between them, his head holding up the heavens (yang) and his feet grounded on the earth (yin). With each passing day, the distance between heaven and earth grew by tens of thousands of feet, and Pangu grew along with it. This continued for another 18,000 years.

To me this legend really drives home Pangu’s role as the one who brought order and structure to the universe by separating and balancing the opposing forces. His axe could be seen as representing the power of mind and discernment.

Pangu’s Body Creates the Cosmos

The final major variation describes how Pangu’s own body became the physical universe. In this legend, Pangu died after separating heaven and earth, having expended all his energy in this monumental task.

But Pangu’s influence didn’t end there. His body then transformed into all the elements of creation:

  • His breath became the wind and clouds
  • His voice the thunder
  • His left eye the sun, right eye the moon
  • His head the mountains
  • His blood the rivers
  • His muscles the fertile land
  • His hair the stars and planets
  • His sweat the rain
  • The fleas on his fur became animals

Literally every speck of Pangu’s being provided the substance for our physical universe.

The Real-world Origin of the Myths

While the Pangu legends are undoubtedly ancient, pinpointing their exact origins has proven challenging for scholars. The earliest known written record of the myth comes from around the 3rd century AD in the writings of Xu Zheng. However, most scholars agree the oral traditions likely predate this.

  1. One theory, put forth by Senior Scholar Wei Juxian, is that the Pangu myth derives from stories in the Western Zhou Dynasty period (1046-771 BC). He cites the “Chuyu” section of the Guoyu classics, which contains a tale of two figures, Zhong and Li, separating heaven and earth – not unlike Pangu. This is traced to an even earlier conversation between King Mu of Zhou and Luu Xing in the lost classic “Zhou Shu,” dating back to around 1000 BC.
  2. Another perspective, advanced by Derk Bodde and others, is that the Pangu myth originated with the indigenous Miao and Yao ethnic groups of southern China. Professor Qin Naichang argues the “original” story featured a brother and sister surviving a great flood in a gourd, then producing offspring – a prototypical Pangu myth.
  3. There are also intriguing parallels to creation myths from other cultures that some believe influenced the Pangu legends. Comparative religion scholar Paul Carus noted similarities between Pangu and the Babylonian primordial goddess Tiamat, whose body was divided to create heaven and earth. The Norse cosmic giant Ymir exhibits similar parallels to Pangu. And the Chinese “Fire Man” Sui-Jen bears a striking resemblance to the Greek Titan Prometheus.

So while we may never know the definitive “source” of the Pangu myths, what seems clear is they emerged from a rich cross-cultural tapestry of influences, both indigenous and external to China. The Pangu tales likely evolved over centuries, combining strands of history, ethnic folklore, political allegory, and even far-flung mythologies.

In this sense, the “real origins” of Pangu are less about pinpointing a singular moment of invention, and more about appreciating the vibrant, complex cultural ecosystem from which the myths sprang.

Other Chinese Creation Myths

To understand Pangu’s significance, it’s helpful to put him in context with other important Chinese creation myths and cosmologies:

  • Shangdi – The supreme sky deity who created and rules over lesser gods. May have originated as the ancestral deity of the Shang dynasty.
  • Nüwa – Ancient mother goddess who created humans and repaired the broken sky. Often depicted as having the tail of a snake.
  • The Jade Emperor – The ruler of heaven and earth, who judges human affairs and metes out punishment and reward. A later imperial addition.
  • Yin-Yang and Five Elements – The fundamental substances and principles (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water) that make up all of creation. Associated with Taoism.

What’s clear is that Chinese mythology is a rich tapestry woven from many different threads – and Pangu is but one of those threads, albeit a major and vividly colored one.

Pangu in Bouyei Culture

While Pangu is a significant figure throughout China, he holds a special importance for certain ethnic minority groups, particularly the Bouyei people of Guizhou province. The Bouyei have their own unique version of the Pangu myth with some fascinating variations.

In the Bouyei telling, after creating the universe Pangu came down to earth and married the daughter of the Dragon King. Their union gave rise to the Bouyei people, making Pangu their great ancestor. The Bouyei celebrate this event every year on the 6th day of the 6th lunar month.

The legend continues that Pangu’s son disrespected his mother, causing her to leave earth forever. Grief-stricken, Pangu later died on the same 6th day of the 6th month. The Bouyei commemorate this with ancestor worship rituals on that date.

Modern Worship of Pangu

Speaking of rituals, Pangu worship is still very much alive in modern China. While not as well known as other Chinese folk deities like Guanyin or Matsu, Pangu has a devoted following especially in southern China and among Taoist practitioners.

The most famous Pangu temple is the Pangu King Temple (盘古王庙) located in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. Originally built in 1809, this impressive complex features traditional Chinese architecture, Taoist symbols, and a 7.8 meter tall statue of Pangu. Every year pilgrims gather to make offerings and prayers to the ancestral creator.

Other important Pangu temples can be found in Fujian, Hubei, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces, as well as in Taiwan. At these temples, Pangu is honored with incense, food offerings, divination rites, and on his birthday, parades and dragon dances.

Pangu in Popular Culture

Mythology has always been a fertile source of inspiration for popular culture, and Pangu is no exception. Here are some notable examples of how this ancient creator god has been featured in modern media:

  • Video Games – Pangu appears as a playable character in the game Smite, as well as an easter egg character in Minecraft. There are also several mobile games based on the Pangu legends.
  • Comics and Animation – Pangu has been featured in the Chinese animated series Lotus Lantern, as well as numerous Chinese web comics and graphic novels retelling his myths for a new generation.
  • Literature – Countless Chinese novels, short stories, poems and essays reference Pangu and his creation of the universe. He’s a common allusion in works meditating on the nature of existence.
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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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