Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Last updated: 06-26-2022

DEATH BATTLE! is a youtube show that pits famous fictional and (now) mythological characters against one another to see who is the strongest. The outcome of each fight, usually ending in death, is supposedly based on research comparing the combatants’ respective canonical strengths and weaknesses. There are in total nine seasons with 161 episodes. The 162nd episode (episode 7 of season 9) will feature a battle between the hero Hercules from Greco-Roman myth and Sun Wukong from the Chinese Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter) story cycle. I only learned about this upcoming fight a little over a week ago when I noticed via my website analytics that a DEATH BATTLE! staff member had linked to my research blog on their external site. Very little concrete information about the battle was released until a few days ago, so I’ve been scrambling to finish this article in preparation for the episode on June 20th, 2022. It can be watched here:

This may not seem very important to some of my followers and lurkers, but DEATH BATTLE! has 5.05 million subscribers, and their last video received 1.7 million views in just a week and the one before got 5 million in just 3 weeks! Therefore, the battle is likely to introduce many, many people to the Monkey King. For example, the primate hero’s fighter preview gained nearly 220,000 views in the first 24 hours, 260,000 as of June 18th, 2022. And as of the same date, Hercules’ fighter preview has 287,000 views.

Win or lose, the purpose of this article is to present accurate information about Sun Wukong. I will correct any mistakes that appear in the video. I will also present a list of surprising parallels shared between Hercules and Sun Wukong, suggesting that they might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. See also my articles comparing Monkey with the Water Margin hero Wu Song and the historical Buddha.

Before continuing, I want to note that I know the original name is Heracles (or Herakles), but I will use Hercules throughout as this is the name chosen by the staff of DEATH BATTLE!

1. Analysis

1.1. The Death Battle

I will add my comments and corrections (in blue) to the official battle transcript:

An ancient scroll unfurls onscreen as a painted mountain manifests. An unseen narrator begins his story.

1. This was an interesting concept.

Muse: Our tale begins up top a great mountain, where the mighty Heracles sought a gift from the Gods.

As narrated, the legendary demigod finishes his trek up the mountain and calls out to the nearby Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who is sitting atop his Nimbus cloud and holding a divine fruit in his hand.

2. Just a tiny nitpick: The Nimbus cloud is not from JTTW but the Dragon Ball franchise. The novel refers to this skill as the Cloud-Somersault.

Hercules: Ho there! I’m in need of that apple. Relinquish it.

Wukong turns to face the hero and explains his own need for it.

Sun Wukong: Sorry, I’m supposed to find my master some vegetarian food.

3. I really like that the fight starts over fruit. As I note below (sec. 2, #10), both characters steal supernatural fruit (golden apples vs immortal peaches) from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera vs the Queen Mother of the West). So this was a nice nod to both myths.

But in hindsight, Monkey stealing the golden apples to feed his master doesn’t make much sense considering: 1) they are located in a land that’s much further west than the scripture monk’s final western destination, India; and 2) I don’t recall reading that the golden apples were anything other than treasures. To my knowledge, none of the associated myths treat them as foodstuff. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

However, the explanation is ignored. His short temper kicking in, Hercules draws his sword from its scabbard and threatens Wukong.

Hercules: You’ll find it… elsewhere.

With a shrug and groan of annoyance, Wukong passes the apple to Hercules, who catches it.

Muse: But Heracles was not so easily fooled.

4. Legitimate question: Is Hercules known for having supernatural perception? Are there examples of him seeing through illusions in his original mythos? If anyone knows, please leave a comment.

The hero’s satisfaction turns to indignation as he crushes the illusory fruit in his hand, revealing it to merely be strands of Wukong’s hair. With his scheme discovered, the trickster god pulls out a miniaturized Ruyi Jingu Bang from his ear and enlarges it to its standard size. Laughing with glee, he leaps from his cloud and clashes with Hercules’ sword,

5. Another tiny nitpick: The “standard size” in the animation was not large enough. The novel states that Monkey fights with the staff when it’s around 12 feet (3.65 m) long [1] and the width of a bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135, for example). [2] This illustration (fig. 1) shows how big the staff should be in relation to Sun’s body size.

Fig. 1 – Monkey and his religious brothers on patrol (larger version). Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here). Image found here.

Muse: The Monkey King’s strike rang true, but he’d not so easily overwhelm the God of Strength.

Locked in a clash of weapons, Hercules slashes at Wukong, who dissipates into smoke. The monkey flies behind Hercules on his Nimbus and jabs the hero in the gut with his staff, sending him flying into a cliff below. The mighty demigod is hardly phased though and springs back with a powerful dropkick against the advancing Wukong, sending them down another level.

6. I personally thought Monkey relied far too much on turning into a puff of smoke. I think he instead would have preferred to meet Hercules head-on.

As they both land, Hercules attempts to slash him with his sword once again, but Sun Wukong disappears in a smoke cloud and strikes Hercules with his Ruyi Jingu Bang. As Hercules lies on the ground, the Monkey King extends the staff and brings it down on the hero, who raises his sword to block the strike, only for the blade to shatter. Quickly recovering, Hercules grabs the Ruyi Jingu Bang and pulls on it, bringing Sun Wukong down to him.

Hercules: I am Heracles!

With a single mighty punch to the jaw, Heracles sent the Monkey King soaring through the sky, hitting the edge of the scroll and forcing it to go higher up before landing on a nearby cloud. Before the Monkey King has time to even breathe, Hercules shoots an arrow at him, only narrowly missing.

Sun Wukong: Yikes!

As the hero continues his assault, Wukong begins to jump through the clouds in order to avoid all of his shots, and after beginning to fly with one of them, summons several clones with his hairs to try and reach Hercules. However, the God of Strength manages to shoot down almost all of the clones. One of them climbs onto the cloud Wukong is riding and grabs his tail. Wukong spins him around and launches himself and the clone at Hercules. The Wukongs turn into birds to reach Hercules faster, before turning into snakes to restrict his arms. Tired of the monkey’s shenanigans, Hercules breaks free and grabs his rattles.

7. Legitimate question: Does Hercules have unlimited arrows? Please let me know.

Regarding the transformations, this seemed so out of place during the battle as Monkey never uses animal forms offensively. He instead uses them for stealth or, most famously, to hide from from an opponent

Hercules: Die, demon!

The loud noise echoes through the skies, destroying every single Wukong clone. Reeling in pain from the noise, Wukong’s snake transformation comes undone as he tumbles down the mountain into the forest below.

Sun Wukong: Agony, agony!

8. Why would the rattles have any effect on Monkey? I don’t recall his ears being a weakness

Update: 06-24-22

A redditor explained the following: “It’s not so much that Wukong is weak to sound, more so that the krotalas [rattles] are so loud that the noise causes pain to whatever hears them…”

But the original sources don’t make this claim. For example, the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius reads: 

“For not even could Heracles, when he came to Arcadia, drive away with bow and arrow the birds that swam on the Stymphalian lake. I saw it myself. But he shook in his hand a rattle of bronze and made a loud clatter as he stood upon a lofty peak, and the birds fled far off, screeching in bewildered fear” (2.1052).

The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

“Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country round-about. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them” (4.13.2).

And Pausanias writes:

“There is a story current about the water of the Stymphalus, that at one time man-eating birds bred on it, which Heracles is said to have shot down. Peisander of Camira, however, says that Heracles did not kill the birds, but drove them away with the noise of rattles” (8.22.4).

As can be seen, no mention is made of the implements being painfully loud to anything other than the birds (please provide an example if you know otherwise). While uncertain of the true reason why the rattles appear in the story, Aston (2021) posits that they could reference cultic practices or even just the “noisy rattle[s] or clapper[s] … used by farmers to scare birds from their crops (p. 102).

I can understand the rattles working if Monkey was still in bird form, but the clone attacking Hercules had already transformed into a snake at the point. And the rattle subsequently affects all of the clones. This doesn’t make any sense.

The scroll unfurls further, revealing the spot where the Monkey King landed, as he begins to laugh.

Muse: The Monkey King fell into a strange forest, in awe of such a wondrous fight. But should he mistake his fear, he might lose his head.

Hercules comes crashing down, instantly crushing Wukong’s head with his club. But to his shock, the beheaded body of the Great Sage gets right back up.

9. I think it would have made more sense for both heroes to exchange blows with their respective blunt weapons (sec. 2, #4). But of course the olive club would have been easily shattered by the iron staff just like when Hercules broke it over the Nemean Lion‘s head (sec. 2, #2). This brings me back to my previous question about the number of Hercules’ arrows. If he ran out, then he would be weaponless after both his sword and club were destroyed.

So, I think at this point Sun would have placed his staff in his ear and offered to have a boxing match with the Greek hero. Something similar happens twice in JTTW. In chapter two, Monkey confronts a demon that had been terrorizing his children during his quest for immortality. But when the monster sees that the primate is not only small but also unarmed, he offers to fight him barehanded in order to avoid criticism from other demon kings. Sun ends up beating him so badly that the monster rushes to defend himself with his sword (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). And in chapter 51, another demon uses a powerful treasure stolen from heaven to take away Monkey’s staff, leading the latter to challenge the monster to unarmed combat to show that he isn’t useless without his weapon. A poem describing the subsequent battle states that the combatants use real-world punching and kicking techniques, many of which are known and still practiced today. And while said poem claims that they are equally matched, all of the heavenly commanders agree that Monkey’s technique is faster and more polished (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-14)

Seeing Hercules and Sun duke it out, causing the earth to shake and mountains crumble, would be much more entertaining than the latter’s game of hopscotch among the clouds.

Sun Wukong: I haven’t had such fun since I fought all of Heaven! Change!

Wukong transforms into a taller, three-headed and six-armed version of himself, with three separate Ruyi Jingu Bangs included.

Sun Wukong: Behold me, the Immortal Monkey King!

Hercules stares at his opponent’s transformation and laments his misfortune.

Hercules: Huh… Multiple heads. Of course.

10. A nice nod to the Lernean Hydra.

Both warriors begin to trade blows, Hercules managing to avoid a few of Wukong’s strikes before being disarmed of his club and becoming a victim of a staff combo before being kicked away. He shoots out three more arrows at the Monkey King, which seemingly manage to damage him, before his three-headed form dissipates into smoke, and the real Wukong jumps right back up to the clouds, before sending out his staff to hit Hercules once more. The hero merely watches before the staff suddenly grows into an enormous size mere inches away from his face.

11. Monkey does indeed use deceptive magic doubles in battle. One example happens in chapter 4 during his fight with Prince Nezha

“They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, ‘Change!’ It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind [Nezha] and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha] … heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

Hercules: Huh?

He is suddenly crushed underneath the Ruyi Jingu Bang as Wukong sits on top of it and laughs. But the staff suddenly begins to shake, as Hercules begins to lift it from underneath.

Hercules: You’ve had your fun, beast, but I’ve had enough!

Hercules throws the staff away, forcing Wukong to get off it before changing its size once more, and preparing to strike a finishing blow. Hercules sees this and charges towards the Monkey King, clashing with the staff with only his fist. But as the blows make contact, two blue, divine versions of the two warriors can be seen holding the scroll, before preparing their weapons for a clash of their own. The club of Hercules’ celestial body leaves a trail of constellations, while the celestial Ruyi Jingu Bang leaves a trail of names of Four Symbols written in Chinese in its wake.

Muse: The gods watched their earthbound selves, and so joined in battle. The God of Strength mustered the heart of Olympus, while the Great Sage harnessed power equal to Heaven! Thus…

The two celestial bodies swing at each other, with the force of the blows turning the screen a blinding white. Slowly, the light fades away to reveal that Hercules’ celestial body has been impaled by the Ruyi Jingu Bang. The scroll floats back into view, covering the screen once more.

12. I think I understand what the Death Battle staff was going for when they portrayed each character in their celestial form. But this contradicts their promise to not use the heroes’ post-apotheosic versions. Therefore, this also seemed extremely out of place during the fight.

Muse: The Monkey King emerged victorious!

Returning back inside the scroll, Wukong’s attack manages to overpower Hercules, and its might destroys the God of Strength leaving nothing behind.

Sun Wukong: Wow, would you look at that! I struck him so hard he was reduced to nothingness!

13. I think this would have only killed Hercules’ mortal half, releasing the god within and prolonging the fight. While sources vary on what caused his apotheosis (virtus vs the 12 Labors vs Gigantomachy deeds), it’s clear that the son of Zeus become a god upon his fiery death (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021).

Wukong laughs once more and grabs the apple, leaving the forest to rejoin his master.

Muse: With a formidable foe slain, stricken against the mountain’s breast, so ends our great tale of East and West.

14. I was honestly underwhelmed by the ending. It seemed like the staff ran out of time, money, or interest and decided to stop the episode prematurely. It should have gone on much longer since Hercules and Sun Wukong are the first two mythological characters to be featured. I also thought Hercules was splattered way too easily. I’m sure there could have been a different way to end the fight. It would have been more respectful to both pantheons if the heroes had simply come to a draw and, having developed a newfound respect for each other’s skills, parted as bond brothers.

But considering that the show is called “Death Battle!”, somebody needs to die (the fans would otherwise be upset). So, baring that in mind, I thought of an idea five days before the episode aired, but I must admit that it’s not very respectful to the Greek hero. In my scenario, Sun seemingly disappears, but he actually turns into an insect and flies into Hercules’ mouth and crawls into his stomach. There, Monkey beats him up from the inside using the iron staff or even his fists. Then he instantly takes on his 100,000 foot (30,480 m) tall cosmic form, causing Hercules’ mortal body to explode. This “attack from within” tactic appears in chapters 59, 75, and 82 of JTTW, [3] as well as chapter 11 of the late-13th-century version of the story cycle

Lasty, I didn’t think the sprite animation was appropriate for such a mythic showdown. I personally would have liked more dynamic, hand-drawn animation like that from the Omni-man vs Homelander episode.

Update: 06-24-22

The same redditor from above also explained that the show apparently has budgetary constraints on episode length and art style. This explains the seemingly abrupt ending and the sprite animation. Hand drawn animation is apparently only reserved for the very tip of the top-most requested matchups.

This still doesn’t change my opinion, though. This was their first battle between extremely famous mythological characters. The fight should have been more grand.

But this information still doesn’t change my opinion of the episode. Rooster Teeth should have allotted a larger budget and made the episode longer.

1.2. The Results

I will do the same for the official fight result transcript:

Boomstick: Talking about a herculean matchup.

Wiz: Heracles was among the greatest heroes in myth, but the Great Sage Equal to Heaven held many more advantages.

Boomstick: You’d think Sun might not measure up to the God of Strength… you know, strength, but he totally could. remember he carried Sumeru on his back, the mountain holding up the infinite celestial sky, like how Heracles held up the infinite celestial sphere.

1. The Death Battle researchers likely learned about this feat from my article. But nowhere do I write that the mountain upheld the sky. The Abhidharmakośa (Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century) contains an overview of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, and it states that the sun, moon, and stars orbit half way down the exposed portion of the mountain [4] in a whirlpool-like ring of wind (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 460; Sadakata, 1997, p. 38-40). But the source doesn’t associate this ring with any weight.

Conversely, native Chinese mythology views the sky as a solid object that must be propped up by mountains. And if one of these earthly pillars is damage, it will cause the sky to tilt and even tear, requiring divine repair. See, for example, the legend of Nuwa mending the sky (Birrell, 1999, pp. 69-72 and 96-97). But this has no baring on the discussion at hand as Journey to the West expressly describes the world according to Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography.

Therefore, Sun’s feat should be scaled accordingly. But I’m not sure how this would be possible as the Buddhist and Greek concepts of the sky appear to be fundamentally different. I’ll have to read more on the latter concept to be sure.

Update: 06-25-22

I was contacted by a reader who said that the episode’s Sun Wukong researcher responded to me on the Death Battle discord, stating:

“To clarify, the basis for what Sumeru supports comes from the Buddhist cosmology lectures sourced in the character sheet. Though the article Jim wrote was what made me initially take note of the feat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6agAavZTEK0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMQeFiwacbQ” (per a screenshot emailed to me). 

But I’ve watched the videos and they don’t contradict what I wrote. The problem is that the researcher didn’t make a distinction between the “sky” (as stated in the Death Battle video) and “heaven”. I’ve already described the wind ring in which the celestial bodies orbit the midpoint of Mt. Sumeru. So, now I will give a brief and very simplified overview of the Buddhist cosmos to help readers form a better picture of what I’m arguing. As the axis mundi, Mt. Sumeru is located at the center of our earthly realm, with a ring of seven smaller mountains circling it. This landmass is surrounded by four island-like continents, one for each face of Sumeru, that float in a great sea resting on a disc of golden earth (kāñcanamaṇḍala). This is then supported by a disc of water (jalamaṇḍala) and finally a disc of wind (vāyumaṇḍala), each layer generally becoming larger as one descends. This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (ākāśa) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 25-30), sometimes translated as “sky” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 26). There are indeed various layers of heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru, but they appear to be separate from this space/sky (fig. 2). The first two heavens, that of the Four Great Kings and the 33 Gods, are respectively located at the midpoint and summit of Mt. Sumeru. But the following four heavens float above it at varying heights (fig. 3) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 56-62). Therefore, by running with Mt. Sumeru on one shoulder (and Mt. Emei on the other), Monkey would have supported both the landmass and the two earthly heavens, a monumental task to be sure. But he doesn’t support the four floating heavens above or, most importantly, the space/sky that they are located in. 

Having written the above, I want to note that I’m not claiming Hercules’ feat is stronger by default. I just want to present accurate information. My next update will briefly discuss Greek concepts of the sky.

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk. It’s the most simplistic, eye-catching version I’ve seen. The column of red, blue, and purple rings on the bottom represent the various layers of Hell. Fig. 3 – A diagram of the various heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60.

Wiz: As befitting heroes of myth they were on par in that they were both incomprehensibly strong, however, Wukong’s healing abilities meant he could bounce back from Heracles deadliest blows, whereas Heracles did not have a similar option.

Boomstick: But Heracles did have one way of putting the Monkey King down, his arrows dipped in hydra poison.

Wiz: The hydra poison threatened even the gods of Olympus, similar to the scorpion sting. Whether or not it would be fatal is questionable but it could have incapacitated Wukong, similar to how it affected Heracles himself.

2. The novel presents concepts with elemental states beyond heaven and earth. A prime example is Red Boy‘s Samādhi fire, which is considered more powerful than normal or even divine flames. [5] Likewise, the scorpion’s “horse-felling poison” (daoma du, 倒馬毒) likely falls into this separate category, for it was able to hurt even the Buddha! The bodhisattva Guanyin explains:

“Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

The aforementioned monastery is located in the Western Paradise. This suggests that she might have been imbued with “dharma power” [6] over a certain period of time, making her a super powerful foe. Even the bodhisattva Guanyin fears her sting (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72). 

I conjecture that the scorpion’s sting may be stronger than the hydra’s heavenly poison. [7] Therefore, I question if the latter would have the same effect on the Monkey King.

Boomstick: But that is one very specific win condition and we’re looking at this with every possible option in mind.

Wiz: With his variety of clones, transformations and numerous other spells, Wukong’s arsenal was far more versatile.

Boomstick: Like, there was nothing stopping him from making thousands of clones of himself and just sitting back, while they beat up Herc for him. Unsporting been like? Sure. In character? Absolutely.

Wiz: Even then, those arrows would have to actually strike Wukong, which would be extremely difficult. Yes, in some depictions Heracles could potentially shoot the sun of Helios, his arrows flying 90 times the speed of light. However, in his contest with the Buddha, Wukong leap to the edge of the universe in a single second. To do so he had to be moving over 1.4 quintillion times faster than light.

3. But even if the hydra venom was equally potent, there is no guarantee that Hercules’ arrows could pierce Sun’s adamantine hide. The novel is clear that Monkey’s frame is nearly indestructible. For instance, upon his capture, Monkey easily survives execution, leading one official to report the following to the Jade Emperor:

“Your Majesty, we don’t know where this Great Sage has acquired such power to protect his body. Your subjects slashed him with a scimitar and hewed him with an ax; we also struck him with thunder and burned him with fire. Not a single one of his hairs was destroyed. What shall we do?” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

This invincibility follows him throughout the novel. For example, in chapter 75, Sun agrees to a demon lord’s offer to set the monk free if he can survive a blow to his head with a scimitar:

“‘When he heard this, Pilgrim smiled and said, ‘Fiend! If you have brush and paper in your cave, take them out and I’ll sign a contract with you. You can start delivering your blows from today until next year, and I won’t regard you seriously!’ Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

Someone may argue that the scorpion’s sting pierced his face, but refer back to what I wrote about dharma power in comment #2, and see also note #3 below.

Also, the Death Battle crew lists astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated (I make the same critic of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog in my 06-19-22 update). These figures mean absolutely nothing without some sort of explanation.

But since the numbers are used in reference to Monkey’s feat of leaping out of the Buddha’s palm, I want to explain its significance for those who don’t understand (per this reddit post). Sadakata (1997) writes: “[Sun’s feat] reflects the world of the Flower Garland Sutra, where every phenomenon is located within the buddha-world” (p. 155). He goes on to discuss the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana, noting how Buddhist art from all over the world depicts the myriad Buddhas as his emanations. One Javanese example features images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas encircling a stupa dedicated to Vairochana, thereby “express[ing] the Mahayana idea that the buddhas emanate from Mahavairocana and penetrate the universe, that the ‘one’ is at the same time the ‘many'” (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 156-157). Therefore, in essence, the Buddha’s palm in the novel represents the universe.  

Update: 06-25-22

Another redditor wrote:

“[T]he Hydra venom doesn’t need to ‘pierce’ your body to make effect, it just needs to have skin contact, referring to the time Hercules died because he was tricked into using a robe with some hydra venom on it”.

I responded:

“I’m aware of how Hercules dies, but there’s still the question of whether or not the venom would be absorbed into Sun Wukong’s nearly indestructible skin. I don’t recall any similar episode where a substance is absorbed through his skin in JTTW. So assuming that it could is not the same as citing evidence that it would. I’m not trying to split hairs. I’m just a stickler for details”.

But I will concede that artistic license and the need to raise the stakes of the battle could warrant the venom effecting him even if the arrows can’t penetrate his skin. 

Boomstick: Making him way faster than Herc could ever hope to be.

Wiz: Heracles held might of mythic proportions, but barring a lucky shot. Sun Wukong’s versatile magic, similar strength and absolutely absurd speed overcame this foe fitting for heaven’s equal.

Boomstick: When fighting Sun Wukong, Heracles mythed his chance.

Wiz: The winner is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

2. List of Parallels

Here is a list of parallels shared by Hercules/Herakles and Sun Wukong. I noticed several of these myself, but I am also indebted to the similarities posted on the DEATH BATTLE! Wiki.

As of 06-26-22, I am not finished adding cited passages to this section. Please check back later for updates.

1) Origins – Both are born of masculine heavenly forces. Hercules is the half-human son of ZeusHesiod‘s Shield of Heracles reads:

But the father of men and gods [Zeus] wove another design in his mind, how he might fashion for gods and wheat-eating men a protector against disaster. He arose from Olympos by night, pondering a deception in his spirit, longing for sex with a fine-waisted woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonion, and from there Zeus the Counselor trod the peak of Mount Phikion. Taking his seat, he planned wondrous deeds in his heart. On that very night he slept with the slender-ankled daughter of Elektryon [Alkmene]; he fulfilled his desire […] She bore him [Herakles] by submitting to the son
of Kronos, lord of the dark clouds (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 153 and 154).

The Monkey King is born from a stone seeded by heavenly energies. JTTW reads:

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Hinsch (2011) explains that Chinese works as far back as the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (pp. 157-158).

2) Skins – Both wear the skins of big cats. Hercules wears the skin of the Nemean Lion. TheocritusIdylls (25) reads:

The fight ended, I fell to pondering how I could strip the shaggy hide from the dead brute’s limbs—a troublesome task indeed, for when I tried, I could not cut it either with iron or with stone or [otherhow]. But then some god put in my mind the thought to sever the lion’s skin with his own claws; and with these I flayed it speedily and wrapped it about my body to guard me from the rents and hurts of war (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 213).

Sun Wukong wears the skin of a mountain tiger. JTTW reads:

He [Sun] pulled off one strand of hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a sharp, curved knife, with which he ripped open the tiger’s chest. Slitting the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece. He picked it up and tried it for size, and then said, “It’s a bit too large; one piece can be made into two.” He took the knife and cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

3) Weapons – Both are knowledgeable in multiple armaments but often wield blunt weapons in their adventures. Hercules uses an olive wood club (I’m unsure if it has an actual name). Theocritus’ Idylls (25) reads:

I set forth, taking my pliant bow, a hallow quiver filled with arrows, and in my other hand a club, made from a spreading wild olive, close-grained, with bark and pith intact, which I had found under holy Helicon and had pulled up entire with all it’s tangle of roots.

[…]

And I, holding in front of me with one hand my arrows … with the other raised my seasoned club over my head and brought it down on [the lion’s] skull; and full on the shaggy head of that invincible brute I broke the tough olive clean in two (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 209 and 211).

Monkey uses a black iron staff. JTTW reads:

[After a magic iron pillar follows his wish to shrink] He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” [8] … See how he displayed his power now! He wielded the rod to make lunges and passes, engaging in mock combat all the way back to the Water-Crystal Palace. The old Dragon King was so terrified that he shook with fear, and the dragon princes were all panic-stricken (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135).

4) Strength – Both are immensely strong. Hercules (in one version of the myth) holds up the sky. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere<he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should> put a pad on his head. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules (2.5.11).

Sun runs at great speed while bearing the weight of two mountains on his shoulders, one of which is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos and the abode of the gods. JTTW reads:

Knowing how to summon mountains, he [a demon being carried by Sun] resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

5) Submission – Both are subdued with a blow by deities. Hercules is knocked out with a rock by Athena during his murderous rage. EuripidesHeracles reads:

Then in wild gallop he starts to slay his aged father; but there came a phantom [Athena], as it seemed to us on-lookers, of Pallas, with plumed helm, brandishing a spear; and she hurled a rock against the breast of Heracles, which held him from his frenzied thirst for blood and plunged him into sleep (1000-1006).

Monkey is dazed by Laozi‘s magic bracelet during his rebellion, allowing the primate to be captured by heaven. JTTW reads:

[Laozi] rolled up his sleeve and took down from his left arm an armlet, saying, “This is a weapon made of red steel, brought into existence during my preparation of elixir and fully charged with theurgical forces. It can be made to transform at will; indestructible by fire or water, it can entrap many things. It’s called the diamond cutter or the diamond snare … After saying this, Laozi hurled the snare down from the Heaven Gate; it went tumbling down into the battlefield at the Flower-Fruit Mountain and landed smack on the Monkey King’s head. The Monkey King was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Seven Sages and was completely unaware of this weapon, which had dropped from the sky and hit him on the crown of his head. No longer able to stand on his feet, he toppled over (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

6) Punishment – Both are given difficult tasks in order to atone for past transgressions. For killing his family, Hercules is tasked with serving King Eurystheus and completing the 12 Labors. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten [plus two] labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal (2.4.12).

Sun is directed to guard the Buddhist monk Tripitaka for rebelling against heaven. JTTW reads:

Tathagata deceived me,” said the Great Sage, “and imprisoned me beneath this mountain. For over five hundred years already I have not been able to move. I implore the Bodhisattva to show a little mercy and rescue old Monkey!” “Your sinful karma is very deep,” said the Bodhisattva. “If I rescue you, I fear that you will again perpetrate violence, and that will be bad indeed.” “Now I know the meaning of penitence,” said the Great Sage. “So I entreat the Great Compassion to show me the proper path, for I am willing to practice cultivation.”

[…]

“If you have such a purpose, wait until I reach the Great Tang Nation in the Land of the East [China] and find the scripture pilgrim. He will be told to come and rescue you, and you can follow him as a disciple. You shall keep the teachings and hold the rosary to enter our gate of Buddha, so that you may again cultivate the fruits of righteousness. Will you do that?” ”I’m willing, I’m willing,” said the Great Sage repeatedly (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 215).

7) Heavenly aid – Both are aided by goddesses. Hercules is helped by Athena, while Monkey is helped by Guanyin.

8) Enemies – Both face similar enemies: A) supernatural lions (Nemean Lion vs Lion demon); B) opponents that regrow their heads once severed but are eventually defeated with fire (Lernaean Hydra vs Bull Demon King); C) supernatural deer (Ceryneian Hind vs Great Immortal Deer Strength); D) supernatural boars (Erymanthian Boar vs Zhu Bajie); E) supernatural birds (Stymphalian birds vs Great Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles); and F) supernatural bulls (Cretan Bull vs Bull Demon King).

9) Horses – Both tame supernatural horses. Hercules tames the man-eating Mares of Diomedes. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding-troughs of those horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control (4.15.3).

Sun serves as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. JTTW reads:

Never resting, the [Monkey King] oversaw the care of the horses, fussing with them by day and watching over them diligently by night. Those horses that wanted to sleep were stirred up and fed; those that wanted to gallop were caught and placed in the stalls. When the celestial horses saw him, they all behaved most properly and they were so well cared for that their flanks became swollen with fat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

10) Women lands – Both visit locations peopled entirely by women. Hercules visits the Amazons to get the heavenly war belt (zoster) of their Queen Hippolyte. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

The ninth labour he [Eurystheus] enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail …

[After taking part in a small war elsewhere, Hercules finally arrived at his destination]

Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy (2.5.9).

Monkey and the other pilgrims travel through the “Woman Kingdom of Western Liang” (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國) in chapter 53 on their way to India (both Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant from drinking magic water while there). In chapter 54, the group enters the capital in order to have their travel rescript signed by the queen, but she has other plans for the head monk:

The queen said, “This man from the Land of the East [China] is a royal brother of the Tang court. In our country, the rulers of various generations since the time when chaos divided had never seen a man come here. Now the royal brother of the Tang emperor has arrived, and he must be a gift from Heaven. We will use the wealth of an entire nation to ask this royal brother to be king; we are willing to be his queen. Such a sexual union will produce children and grandchildren, and the perpetuity of our kingdom will be assured (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 49).

Sun helps arrange the marriage with the veiled purpose of insuring that their travel rescript is signed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 52-53).

11) Theft of fruit – Both steal supernatural fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses. Hercules (in one version of the myth) steals Queen Hera‘s Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere (2.5.11).

Monkey steals the Queen Mother‘s immortal peaches. JTTW reads:

One day he saw that more than half of the peaches on the branches of the older trees had ripened, and he wanted very much to eat one and sample its novel taste. Closely followed, however, by the local spirit of the garden, the stewards, and the divine attendants of the Equal to Heaven Residence, he found it inconvenient to do so. He therefore devised a plan on the spur of the moment and said to them, “Why don’t you all wait for me outside and let me rest a while in this arbor?” The various immortals withdrew accordingly. That Monkey King then took off his cap and robe and climbed up onto a big tree. He selected the large peaches that were thoroughly ripened and, plucking many of them, ate to his heart’s content right on the branches. Only after he had his fill did he jump down from the tree. Pinning back his cap and donning his robe, he called for his train of followers to return to the residence. After two or three days, he used the same device to steal peaches to gratify himself once again (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162).

12) Underworld – Both travel to the underworld. Hercules goes to Hades to acquire Cerberus, while Sun goes to the Land of Darkness on several occasions.

13) Godhood – Both become deities at the end of their respective story cycles. Hercules joins the gods after death, while Monkey is elevated to Buddhahood.

14) Worship – Both are (were) worshiped. Hercules was worshiped by the ancient Greeks and Romans, while Sun is worshiped as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” in modern Chinese folk religion. It’s interesting to note that both deities are are believed to ward off evil.

These similarities might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. For example, the skin of big cats have symbolized strength in many cultures. Scholars have suggested that Hercules has ties to ancient heroes of the Near East (Ogden, 2021, pp. xxiv-xxv), so perhaps the Indic practices that would come to influence the Monkey King’s iconography were also influenced by the same ancient Indo-European sources.

3. When heroes meet

Hercules and Sun Wukong have technically met before. Religious depictions of the Buddhist guardian deity Vajrapani as a muscular, club-wielding protector were influenced by depictions of Heracles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (modern Pakistan/Afghanistan). In fact, some carvings even portray Heracles as a protector of the Buddha (fig. 1)! Vajra warriors based on Vajrapani interact with the Monkey King at several points in Journey to the West.

Fig. 1 – A stone carving of Hercules protecting the Buddha, Gandhara, 2nd-century (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.


Update: 06-19-22

I’ve been notified by several people that the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog has posted a prediction. This blog is independent from the actual content creators. In a 7 to 6 split, the blog predicts Hercules will win, explaining that he is stronger and faster. While seemingly thorough, portions of their analysis make no sense. For example, the section on speed reads:

As far as speed goes, the demigod also comes out on top. Taking into account Wukong growing his staff from Earth to the Underworld and the Heavens, then scaling that back to his speed, he could potentially move at 800 quadrillion times the speed of light. However, Heracles scaling to Zeus surpasses this by dozens of times, with him being able to send shockwaves across the entire firmament by simply nodding his head. Zeus nodding his head is an act that should have been done with extreme ease – at least more ease than Zeus actually wrestling Heracles – meaning that Heracles should reasonably scale. As the firmament and Olympus are on the outer sphere of the cosmos, which encircle each other, this would have had to cross the entire diameter, putting the feat at 29 quintillion times the speed of light, over 36 times faster than Wukong …

They scale Sun Wukong’s speed not by his Cloud-Somersault (a metaphor for instantaneous travel) or his ability to carry mountains with meteoric speed but by the magic growth of his staff into a pillar of heaven. Why? They also provide astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated, a very common problem with such versus discussions.

In addition, they wrongly state that the 72 Transformations grant Monkey immortality. He actually first attains immortality via Daoist elixir arts. Furthermore, they claim that Sun’s immortality can be taken away from him, referencing his turn in Laozi’s furnace. While the extreme heat was meant to extract the elixir from his body, it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace. But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an “intended result” with an “actual result”. But even if the heat could complete the job, how exactly is Hercules going to defeat Sun’s immortality. Does he also carry around a heavenly furnace? This is never explained in the analysis.

I don’t have time to analyze the entire article. I will reserve this space for the actual fight results.


Update: 06-23-22

I have finished adding my comments to the official fight and result transcripts of the battle (sec. 1.1 and 1.2). If any new evidence comes to light, I will make sure to further update the page.

I’m thrilled to announce that the episode has 1.1 million views after only two days! 925,000 plus of those were in the first 24 hours! I knew this fight would attract a lot of attention. I hope more and more people will finally read the novel and fall in love with Monkey’s adventures like I did oh so long ago.

Notes:

1) JTTW uses two measurement units when referring to the staff, the chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese foot”; 12.52 in / 31.8 cm) and the zhang (丈; 1 = 10 chi) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). Monkey is said to fight with the staff at two lengths, “two zhang” (erzhang, 二丈, i.e. 20 chi) in chapter three and “12 or 13 chi” (丈二三) in chapter 88 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135; vol. 4, p. 196). But twenty is likely a typo for 12 (zhanger, 丈二, 3.82 m / 12.53 ft.) since the pillar was already close to that former size when Sun first saw it in the dragon treasury. Therefore, this correction agrees with the latter measurement.

2) Translation slightly altered. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) writes that it’s the size of a “rice bowl” (vol. 1, p. 135), but this doesn’t appear in the original Chinese.

3) In chatper 59, for example, he invades the stomach of his former bond brother‘s wife in an attempt to procure a magic weapon needed to clear his master’s path to the west:

“I’m now having a little fun in my esteemed Sister-in-law’s stomach! I am, as the saying goes, seeing right through you! I know how thirsty you must be, so let me send you a ‘sitting bowl’ to relieve your thirst” Suddenly he shoved his foot down hard and unbearable pain shot through Rākṣasī’s lower abdomen, sending her tumbling to the floor and moaning. “Please don’t refuse me, Sister-in-law,” said Pilgrim, “I’m presenting you with an added snack for your hunger.” He jerked his head upward, and unbearable pain coursed through Rākṣasī’s heart. She began to roll all over the ground, the pain turning her face yellow and her lips white. All she could do was to cry out, “Brother-in-law Sun, please spare my life!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129).

4) Mt. Sumeru is said to be 160,000 yojanas (1 yojana = roughly 8 miles/12.87 km) tall, with 80,000 below a great ocean and 80,000 exposed above (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 454).

5) Three lines from a poem in chapter 41 read: “It’s not fire from Heaven, / Nor is it a wildfire. / It’s the realized samādhi fire born of the demon’s self-cultivation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 225).

6) “Dharma power” (fali, 法力) is the strongest form of magic in Journey to the West. See this paper for an explanation of the novel’s Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy, which places Buddhist deities at the top.

7) The hydra is the nigh-immortal offspring of the Titanic monsters Typhon and Echidna (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 52).

8) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) uses “pounds” instead of the original jin (斤, a.k.a. catty) (vol. 1, p. 135). During the Ming dynasty when the novel was compiled, one jin equaled approximately 590 grams (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). I will therefore alter Yu’s translation to reflect more accurate measures.

Sources:

Aston, E. (2021). Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 95-106). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hesiod, & Powell, B. B. (2017). The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles. United States: University of California Press.

Hinsch, B. (2011). Women in Early Imperial China. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Jiang, Y. (2005). The Great Ming Code: Da Ming Lü. United States: University of Washington Press.

Ogden, D. (2021). Introduction. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. xxi-xxxi). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Romero-Gonzalez, D. (2021). Deianeira, Death, and Apotheosis. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 266-280). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Sadakata, A. (1997). Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Japan: Kosei Publishing Company.

Theocritus, & Gow A. S. F. (1952). Theocritus (Vol. 1-2). Kiribati: Cambridge University Press.

Vasubandhu (2014). Abhidharmakosabhasyam of Vasubandhu (Vol. 2) (L. de La Vallee Poussin & L. M. Pruden, Trans.). United States: Jain Publishing Company.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations

Last updated: 04-10-2022

One of the most famous episodes from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) happens in chapter six when heaven sends Erlang to confront Sun Wukong during his rebellion. After a prolonged, indecisive battle between the two immortals in their respective humanoid and cosmic giant forms, Monkey loses heart when his children are captured, causing him to flee. He tries to hide in the guise of a sparrow but is soon spotted by Erlang. This leads to an epic battle of magical transformations (video 1):

[…] Erlang at once discovered that the Great Sage had changed into a small sparrow perched on a tree. He changed out of his magic form and took off his pellet bow. With a shake of his body, he changed into a sparrow hawk with outstretched wings, ready to attack its prey. When the Great Sage saw this, he darted up with a flutter of his wings; changing himself into a cormorant, he headed straight for the open sky. When Erlang saw this, he quickly shook his feathers and changed into a huge ocean crane, which could penetrate the clouds to strike with its bill. The Great Sage therefore lowered his direction, changed into a small fish, and dove into a stream with a splash. Erlang rushed to the edge of the water but could see no trace of him. He thought to himself, “This simian must have gone into the water and changed himself into a fish, a shrimp, or the like. I’ll change again to catch him.” He duly changed into a fish hawk and skimmed downstream over the waves. After a while, the fish into which the Great Sage had changed was swimming along with the current. Suddenly he saw a bird that looked like a green kite though its feathers were not entirely green, like an egret though it had small feathers, and like an old crane though its feet were not red. “That must be the transformed Erlang waiting for me,” he thought to himself. He swiftly turned around and swam away after releasing a few bubbles. When Erlang saw this, he said, “The fish that released the bubbles looks like a carp though its tail is not red, like a perch though there are no patterns on its scales, like a snake fish though there are no stars on its head, like a bream though its gills have no bristles. Why does it move away the moment it sees me? It must be the transformed monkey himself!” He swooped toward the fish and snapped at it with his beak. The Great Sage shot out of the water and changed at once into a water snake; he swam toward shore and wriggled into the grass along the bank. When Erlang saw that he had snapped in vain and that a snake had darted away in the water with a splash, he knew that the Great Sage had changed again. Turning around quickly, he changed into a scarlet-topped gray crane, which extended its heel like sharp iron pincers to devour the snake. With a bounce, the snake changed again into a spotted bustard standing by itself rather stupidly amid the water pepper along the bank. When Erlang saw that the monkey had changed into such a vulgar creature-for the spotted bustard is the basest and most promiscuous of birds, mating indiscriminately with phoenixes, hawks, or crows-he refused to approach him. Changing back into his true form, he went and stretched his bow to the fullest. With one pellet he sent the bird hurtling […] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 182-183).

Video 1 – A light-hearted, animated version of the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong. From the 1960s classic Havoc in Heaven.

My friend Irwen Wong over at the Journey to the West Library blog has analyzed this fight, showing that Erlang’s changes are always a stronger response to the Monkey King’s transformations.

[…] 1.3. Round 3

Type: Transformation
Monkey turns himself into a sparrow and flees by flying away. Erlang notices this transformation and turns himself into a sparrow hawk to attack.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.4. Round 4

Type: Transformation
When Monkey now changes into a cormorant to be able to fly higher, out of Erlang’s hawk’s reach. Erlang was aware of this and transforms into an ocean crane to give chase.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.5. Round 5

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey was afraid of Erlang’s powerful transformations and turns himself into a small fish to hide in a stream. Erlang changes into a fish hawk and scans the stream for Monkey’s trace. He cleverly identifies the fish that was Monkey and attempts to catch it.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.6. Round 6

Type: Transformation
Monkey immediately darts out of the water when he sees Erlang and changes into a water snake. Erlang transforms into a grey crane to catch the water snake.
Result: Erlang wins.

1.7. Round 7

Type: Transformation & intellect
Monkey sees that Erlang had turned into a crane to chase him, so he wittily transformed into a spotted bustard to oppose Erlang’s crane.
Result: Monkey wins – Erlang as a crane did not dare approach the bustard.

1.8. Round 8

Type: Transformation & combat
When Monkey changed into a bustard, Erlang was afraid to approach it. Instead, Erlang reverted to his original form and took out his pellet bow. With the bow, he aimed at Monkey’s bustard and succeeded with a strong direct hit.
Result: Erlang wins.
[…]

This magical battle is actually related to an ancient mythic motif involving two warring supernatural beings.

I. Antecedents of the motif

Ioannis M. Konstantakos’ (2016) paper “The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition” explains that the motif can be traced to the Near East of the late-3rd millennium BCE. However, the oldest variants instead depict the combatants transforming objects and not their physical bodies in battle. But the outcome is still the same: one competitor produces stronger responses to the other’s initial attack. For example, the Sumerian tale Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana (c. early-2nd millennium BCE) depicts the two titular characters engaged in a magical battle over the fate of their respective homelands. Konstantakos (2016) writes:

The competition of Sağburu and Urğirnuna consists precisely in the magical fabrication of various animals. Each one of the adversaries throws a certain object of witchcraft into the river and draws out a magically produced creature (or group of creatures). Every time, however, Sağburu’s creations are bigger, stronger, and wilder than those of Urğirnuna, which they seize and lacerate as a result. Specifically, the foreign sorcerer produces in sequence: 1) a big carp; 2) a ewe with its lamb; 3) a cow with its calf; 4) an ibex and a wild sheep; and 5) a young gazelle. The wise witch, on the other hand, counters these creations correspondingly with 1) an eagle; 2) a wolf; 3) a lion; 4) a mountain leopard; and 5) a tiger and another kind of lion. In this way, all of Urğirnuna’s creatures are eliminated, and Sağburu wins the contest (p. 210).

This finds parallels with ancient Egyptian stories and even an event from the book of Exodus (7.8-12) (Konstantakos, 2016, pp. 210-213).

The more familiar version of the motif, which sees competitors transforming their bodies, is found in ancient Greek drama. Konstantakos (2016) describes one such tale involving the lustful adventures of Zeus:

The Cypria offers the most expanded and detailed form of the saga. Zeus was amorously chasing [his daughter] Nemesis, but she was averse to his sexual intentions and ran away. In the course of her flight, Nemesis took the form of various beasts; she became a fish in the sea and swam through the Ocean’s stream; then she changed herself into many kinds of animals on the land, in order to escape. In the end, the goddess was transformed into a bird, the species of which is variously given in the ancient sources. … Zeus assimilated himself to the same species of bird, becoming respectively a gander in the former version and a male swan in the latter one. In this form, the great god finally managed to mate with the metamorphosed and bird-like Nemesis (pp. 213-214).

The body transforming motif came to influence later European stories, many involving a battle between a magician and his arrogant pupil (folklore index no. 325) (Konstantakos, 2016, p. 208).

The Greek version is very similar to the battle between Erlang and Sun Wukong, for both feature a character fleeing under different magical disguises while being chased by an assailant who undergoes stronger transformations in response. Given the link between Greek and Indian philosophy, I’d wager that there’s some ancient South Asian version of this motif that came to influence Journey to the West. I’m just happy that Monkey wasn’t handled like Nemesis in the final product. That would have been awkward for everyone!

II. Archive

Below, I archive Konstantakos (2016). The first half of the paper is fascinating, while the second is quite repetitive. It takes up a great deal of space analyzing a Near Eastern-influenced version of the motif in the Greek Alexander Romance. Please keep this in mind.

Archive link:

Click to access The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_t.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. If you liked the digital version, please support the official release.


Update: 04-10-22

I’ve mentioned in this article (section 3) that the Bull Demon King‘s story arc shares many similarities with Sun Wukong’s. He too has a battle of transformations, but instead of Erlang, his opponent is the Monkey King. Chapter 61 reads:

[…] Unable to enter the cave, the old Bull turned swiftly and saw Eight Rules and Pilgrim rushing toward him. He became so flustered that he abandoned his armor and his iron rod; with one shake of his body, he changed into a swan and flew into the air.

[…]

Putting away his golden-hooped rod, the Great Sage shook his body and changed into a Manchurian vulture, which spread its wings and darted up to a hole in the clouds. It then hurtled down and dropped onto the swan, seeking to seize its neck and peck at the eyes. Knowing also that this was a transformation of Pilgrim Sun, the Bull King hurriedly flapped his wings and changed himself into a yellow eagle to attack the vulture. At once Pilgrim changed himself into a black phoenix, the special foe of the yellow eagle. Recognizing him, the Bull King changed next into a white crane which, after a long cry, flew toward the south. Pilgrim stood still, and shaking his feathers, changed into a scarlet phoenix that uttered a resounding call. Since the phoenix was the ruler of all the birds and fowl, the white crane dared not touch him. Spreading wide his wings, he dived instead down the cliff and changed with one shake of the body into a musk deer, grazing rather timorously before the slope. Recognizing him, Pilgrim flew down also and changed into a hungry tiger which, with wagging tail and flying paws, went after the deer for food. Greatly flustered, the demon king then changed into a huge spotted leopard to attack the tiger. When Pilgrim saw him, he faced the wind and, with one shake of his head, changed into a golden-eyed Asian lion, with a voice like thunder and a head of bronze, which pounced on the huge leopard. Growing even more anxious, the Bull King changed into a large bear, which extended his paws to try to seize the lion. Rolling on the ground, Pilgrim at once turned himself into a scabby elephant, with a trunk like a python and tusks like bamboo shoots. Whipping up his trunk, he tried to catch hold of the bear (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 156-157).

This fight shows that Sun Wukong learned a lot from his encounter with Erlang, for his transformations are far more fierce in comparison.

Sources:

Konstantakos, I. (2016). The Magical Transformation Contest in the Ancient Storytelling Tradition. Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, 26, 207-234. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/25983449/_The_Magical_Transformation_Contest_in_the_Ancient_Storytelling_Tradition_Cuadernos_de_Filolog%C3%ADa_Cl%C3%A1sica_Estudios_griegos_e_indoeuropeos_26_2016_207_234.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Archive #28 – Tripitaka’s Reincarnation and its Connection to Ancient Greek and Egyptian Philosophy

Last update: 04-05-2022

The Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Sanzang, 唐三藏; a.k.a. Xuanzang) is depicted in Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) as the earthly reincarnation of Master Golden Cicada (Jinchan zi, 金蟬子) (fig. 1), the Buddha’s fictional second disciple. This deity is banished to live out ten pious lives in China until the time comes for him to build merit as the scripture pilgrim, thereby gaining reentry into paradise. His crime of not paying attention to the Buddha’s lectures and subsequent exile to the mortal realm is encapsulated in part of a poem from chapter twelve:

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha’s talk,
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man
[…] (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 275).

Fig. 1 – A modern interpretation of Master Golden Cicada as a literal insect by Taylor-Denna (larger version). See here for the full version and the artist’s statement. Used with permission.

I. Similarities to Western philosophy

McEvilley‘s (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought shows that Greek Orphic and Egyptian philosophy also believed in exiling gods from the heavens as a form of punishment. For example, Empedocles (5th-c. BCE) wrote of gods being exiled for ten thousand years for the crime of murder or lying under oath. The fallen deity is believed to reincarnate into every creature of land, air, and sea (fig.3), and when their long punishment is up, they are reborn in their last life as a person of high culture, such as royalty, religious leaders, and scholars. They then return to their former heavenly station upon death (McEvilley, 2002, p. 106). [1] Plato (5th to 4th-c. BCE) specifically mentions the god undergoing ten reincarnations interspersed with thousand-year-long periods of afterlife reward or punishment (McEvilley, 2002, p. 108). [2] The multiples of ten mentioned here fascinate me as they relate to the number of Tripitaka’s incarnations.

image

Fig. 3 – A symbolic painting showing the course of life, death, and reincarnation (larger version). Artist unknown.

McEvilley (2002) continues by tracing these and related Greek and Indian beliefs to the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

The deceased must somehow be regarded as a king or prince before he is eligible to “get thee back to the heights of heaven.” Thus Ani declares, “I am crowned like unto the king of the gods, and I shall not die a second time in the underworld.” Again, the prayer is made, “May Osiris, the scribe Ani, be a prince … and may the meat offerings and the drink offerings of Osiris Ani, triumphant, be apportioned unto him.” “I am crowned,” Ani claims, “I am become a shining one, I am mighty, I am become holy among the gods.” “I am the prince of eternity.” “May it be granted that I pass on among the holy princes,” Ani prays, and he is reassured: “The god Tmu hath decreed that [Ani’s] course shall be among the holy princes.” “Horus,” the Book of the Dead says, “was like unto a prince of the sacred bark, and the throne of his father was given unto him.”

Something very like the doctrine of Empedocles is suggested, and possibly related to it as forerunner. The ba, which was once a god among the other gods, descends to earth, that is, into a body, in order to right some wrong it has done in the past; either it descended as a pharaoh or it has somehow been processed through nature for long ages until it has purified itself sufficiently to be reborn as a pharaoh; after its purification it is ready to return to the company of the gods in heaven, and this is signified by the status as pharaoh. Empedocles said the final incarnation was as a prince, a poet, or a healer. Plato said the last reincarnation was as a philosopher—but he meant philosophers to be kings. They both may be echoing an Egyptian idea either that gods are incarnated only as pharaohs or that the last incarnation is as a pharaoh. A parallel is found in the Hindu caste system, in the idea that only brahmans can attain moksa—that is, “become Osiris”; the soul must reincarnate upward through the castes before it is in position to get off the wheel.

The nature of the primal crime or ancient wrong which the soul “descended on to the earth” to set right is not clearly stated, as it is not in the Greek versions of the myth, where it is either left undefined or ambiguously declared to be either perjury or bloodshed. The Egyptian texts dwell repeatedly on this subject, but with an ambiguity not unlike that of the Greek texts. Various clues in the Greek tradition indicate that the crime which the Orphic was attempting to expiate was either the ancient war of the Titans against the gods, for which they were exiled from heaven and imprisoned in Tartarus, or their rending and devouring of Dionysus Zagreus, or both. (In the Greek tradition, as West says, “The Titans are by definition the banished gods, the gods who have gone out of this world.”) The Egyptian texts may foreshadow the Greek myth of the Titans when they refer to a primal rebellion of one group of gods against another. “O ye gods of the underworld,” Osiris Ani says, “who set yourselves up against me, and who resist the mighty ones …” Again, he says:

Hail, Thoth! What is it that hath happened unto the holy children of Nut? They have done battle, they have upheld strife, they have done evil, they have created the fiends, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble; in truth, in all their doings the mighty have worked against the weak …I am not one of those who work iniquity in their secret places; let not evil happen unto me.

The children of Nut include Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. When Ani claimed “before Isis I was,” he was dissociating himself from this contentious generation of deities in which the primal murder of Osiris by Set occurred, and claiming to have been one among the earlier generation, the “gods of the first time.” But there are also suggestions that the crime might be Set’s dismemberment of Osiris, whom Ani, in his role as Horus, avenger of his father, has to reconstitute to make reparation. Ani, in other words, might be expiating either or both of the Egyptian versions of the crimes of the Titans, and part of his strategy in doing so is to claim that he belongs to the earlier generation of gods (pp.131-133). [3]

So the crime of murderous rebellion or bearing a false oath became inattentiveness to the Buddha’s teachings in Journey to the West. And the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt became a son of Buddha punished to ten reincarnations as a mortal, his last one as a holy monk. This final point mirrors the concept of the last incarnation being a grand one as a king or holy person.

How these beliefs or related proto-beliefs came to China is unknown to me. If pressed, I would venture it involved some Buddhist text containing an ancient Indian arm of this philosophy.

II. Connection to the other pilgrims

I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention how this also relates to the other pilgrims, who are portrayed as former gods exiled from heaven for some offense. In place of several rounds of reincarnation, they are (among other punishments) forced to serve as Tripitaka’s guardians, protecting him from leagues of demons wanting to jump ahead in the cosmic hierarchy by eating the the monk’s flesh and gaining immortality. Marshal Tianpeng (Zhu Bajie) is banished for drunkenly forcing himself on the Moon goddess and reborn as a grotesque pig spirit (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 212) (fig. 2). The Curtain-Raising General (Sha Wujing) is banished for breaking a treasure cup at a heavenly banquet and reborn as a monstrous water spirit plagued by a magic sword that stabs at him weekly (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 209-210). [4] The dragon prince, son of the Western Sea Dragon King Aorun, is banished for burning a heavenly pearl (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 213-214), but in place of execution, he agrees to transform into a dragon horse (a kind of rebirth) and serve as Tripitaka’s mount (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 328). And even Sun Wukong is banished for his rebellion (the divine crime mentioned above) and punished to imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain. It’s interesting to note that one scholar suggests this punishment represents a symbolic death, leading to his eventual reincarnation (see Shao, 1997). (I’d like to add Sun’s additional punishment of eating a hellish diet of molten copper and hot iron balls speaks to a transitional period of afterlife punishment.) And once the pilgrims complete their penance (i.e. the journey), all are welcomed back into heaven, in this case the Buddha’s paradise

Zhu Bajie-Chang'e stamp

Fig. 2 – A Taiwanese stamp featuring Zhu Bajie and the moon goddess.

III. Archive

Below I present a PDF of McEvilley (2002). I converted it from an EPUB, meaning the page count is not the same as the physical edition cited above. I originally intended to just post chapter four, but I was afraid of breaking any internal links, so I instead posted the entire book. This is a very fascinating read. Just know that it is extremely dense and can be hard to follow at times if you lack deep knowledge in Western philosophical history and belief. 

Archive link:

Click to access The-Shape-of-Ancient-Thought-Comparative-Studies-in-Greek-and-Indian-Philosophies-2001.pdf

Disclaimer:

This has been uploaded for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.


Update: 04-05-22

I’ve archived a paper suggesting that Sun Wukong and Erlang’s magic battle of transformations was influenced by ancient Greek (and by extension Near Eastern) stories.

Archive #36 – Sun Wukong and Battles of Magical Transformations

Notes:

1. This appears on page 206 of the PDF.

2. See pages 209-210 in the PDF.

3. See pages 247-249 in the PDF.

4) It could be argued that Zhu and Sha do not reincarnate but simply take on monstrous forms upon being banished to earth because they still retain their memories, weapons, and magical skills. But maybe, as immortals, they are able to affect their own rebirth by directing the final destination of their primal spirit, thereby bypassing the normal mode of reincarnation that results in the loss of memory. An example of this is the rogue immortal Huaguang (華光) from Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記, 17th-c.), who is reborn several times and still has memories of his past and access to his holy weapons.

Sources:

McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth.

Shao, P. (1997). Monkey and Chinese Scriptural Tradition: A Rereading of the Novel Xiyouji (UMI No. 9818173) [Doctoral dissertation, Washington University]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vol. 1). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.