From time to time I like to post a fun blog not directly related to (though sometimes informed by) my research. Regular articles will resume after this entry.
I have previously posted a few of my story ideas regarding the Monkey King’s birth and training under Master Subodhi. For instance, this article provides two possible origins for our hero: 1) he is the spiritual offspring of primordial and highly respected ape immortals, who themselves rebel against heaven after a long period of exile; 2) he is the offspring of an ancient, rebellious martial god who wishes to overthrow heaven. This latter origin is tied to another idea where Wukong is a soldier-monk in Subodhi’s immortal monastic army similar to Shaolin. This is where my current idea begins.
During Monkey’s early Daoist training, his mind is subtly corrupted by one of his magic powers, namely his famous 72 transformations (qi shi er bianhua, 七十二變化). Now, I can already hear my readers saying, “What?!” Well, there is a good reason for this idea. The actual name for this power of metamorphosis is the “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數).  It is named after a host of malevolent stellar deities (fig. 1) who are described in various sources as bringers of bad luck and disease:
The Seventy-two malignant stellar gods, called Ti-shah 地煞, enemies of man, and causes of all diseases and ailments (Doré & Kennelly, 1916, p. xviii).
They are described as star generals inhabiting the stars of the Big Dipper, invoked by the Taoists to control evil spirits. But they are also believed to be evil influences on earth causing misfortune and disease (Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293)
Similar to the 36 Rectifiers [tiangang, 天罡], the 72 Terrestrial Killers are frightening gods. In keeping with the link between celestial bodies and earthly spaces and with their function as timekeepers, the Killers originate from disruptive—and usually unexpected—collisions between the courses of time and space. In ritual contexts the 72 Killers are a common occurrence, prominently understood as a possible cause for disease or death. Preying on the 72 “passes” (關 guan) that connect the human body to all aspects of the cosmos, they can cause all sorts of maladies—especially for small children. Daoists commonly apply apotropaic rituals to prevent the working of these “killers of the passes” (關煞 guansha) (Meulenbeld, 2019).
In the novel, Wukong originally learns the transformations in order to hide from three calamities of thunder, fire, and wind sent by heaven as punishment for defying his fate and becoming immortal. In my story, I imagine Master Subodhi would warn Monkey to guard his spirit while mastering the magic power as some individuals might be influenced by the “baleful stars” (xiong xing, 凶星). And this is exactly what happens to the young immortal. The stellar gods exploit a chink in his spiritual armor (possibly due to his background) and feed him small suggestions that have compounding effects on his personality, making him increasingly egotistical and combative. This ultimately leads to his attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. I’m open to suggestions.
1) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) translates the skill as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude”, thus glossing over the 72 Terrestrial Killers (vol. 1, p. 122). Other translations for Disha (地煞) are “Earthly Fiends” and “Earthly Assassins” (Shi, Luo, & Shapiro, 1993, p. 1138, for example; Pas & Leung, 1998, p. 293). I follow the translation from Meulenbeld (2019).
I’ve previously written about the similarities between Sun Wukong and the Water Margin bandit Wu Song. In this article, I would like to explore the similarities shared by the Monkey King and the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Ch: Xidaduo Qiaodamo, 悉達多 喬達摩). I know readers are now collectively scratching their heads in confusion and asking, “How in the world are a 6th- to 5th-century BCE Indian philosopher and an immortal monkey spirit from Ming-era Chinese literature similar?” It’s true that the particulars of their stories are different, but I will show that Wukong and the Buddha follow a similar trajectory in their early lives. Both experience a supernatural birth, produce a radiant splendor upon emerging from the womb, spend early years as royalty, feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life, set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death, and, finally, achieve this goal through spiritual practices. These similarities suggest that the author-compiler of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記) may have borrowed from the Buddha’s story to make Sun Wukong’s early life more familiar to readers.
For details about the Awakened One’s life, I rely heavily on Acts of the Buddha (Sk: Buddhacarita; Ch: Fosuoxing za, 佛所行讚, 2nd-century), a full-length biographical poem that survives thanks to its translation into Chinese from the original Sanskrit (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 150). Information about Monkey will of course come from the standard 1592 edition of the novel.
I. Supernatural birth
On the day of his birth, the bodhisattva’s mother, Queen Maya, feels the urge to go to the garden of Lumbini. There, following the tradition of sage-kings, the young prince Siddhartha is born from her right side (fig. 1):
Whilst she (thus) religiously observed the rules of a pure discipline, Bodhisattva was born from her right side, (come) to deliver the world, constrained by great pity, without causing his mother pain or anguish. / As king Yu-liu [Aurva] was born from the thigh, as king Pi-t’au [Pruthu] was born from the hand, as king Man-to [Mandhatri] was born from the top of the head, as king Kia-k’ha [Kakshivat] was born from the arm-pit, / So also was Bodhisattva on the day of his birth produced from the right side… (Beal, 1883, pp. 2-3).
Chapter one of Journey to the West describes how an immortal stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山) splits open and gives birth to a stone egg, which is transformed into a stone monkey (shi hou, 石猴) by the elements (fig. 2):
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 [benglie, 迸裂], 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) (emphasis mine).
As I’ve previously written, Wukong’s birth is likely based on the sage-king Yu the Great (大禹) and his son Qi (啟, “open”) of Xia, who are stated in various sources to have been born from stone. For example, one 4th-century tale states Yu’s pregnant wife transformed into stone out of shame for having seen her husband’s shamanic metamorphosis into a bear. Yu ordered the stone to release his son, and it split open to give birth to Qi (Birrell, 1999, p. 123). The emphasis on the stone splitting open is related to ancient Chinese stories of sage-kings splitting the chest, back, or sides of their mothers upon birth,  much like the Buddha is born from Queen Maya’s side. For instance, the Genealogical Annals of the Emperors and Kings (Diwang shiji, 帝王世紀, 3rd -century) writes:
“While traveling up in the mountains she [Yu’s mother] saw a falling star piercing the Mao region (of the sky). Then in a dream, she received and felt it, so upon swallowing a divine pearl and Job’s Tears, her chest split open and she gave birth to Yu at Stone Knob” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101).
While Yu’s mother is not a stone in this case, his birth is effected by a pearl (a type of stone) and happens in a place named after stone. Such tales establish a link between split births and split stone births, thereby placing the Buddha and Monkey into the same broader birth myth category.
Fig. 1 – A stone carving depicting the birth of Siddhartha from Queen Maya’s side (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century) (larger version on Wikipedia). Fig. 2 – Monkey’s birth from stone by Zhang Moyi (larger version). Found on this article.
II. Radiant splendor
Upon his birth, the Buddha is said to have “shed in every direction the rays of his glory” (fig. 3) (Beal, 1883, p. 3). Wukong too produces a great light: “Having learned at once to climb and run, this monkey also bowed to the four quarters, while two beams of golden light flashed from his eyes to reach even the Palace of the Polestar” (fig. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101). So just like Siddhartha, Sun “shed in every direction” his splendor.
Fig. 3 – Baby Buddha producing a radiant splendor upon his birth (larger version). Artist unknown. Found on this article. Fig. 4 – Bright beams of light shine from Wukong’s eyes as he bows to the four directions (larger version). From the Japanese children’s book Son Goku (1939).
III. Royal years
Prince Siddhartha (fig. 5) is born into the royal Shakya clan ruled by his father, King Suddhodana (Beal, 1883, p. 1). Shortly after his son’s birth, the king is told by two sages that the new heir is fated to be either a universal monarch or a cosmic sage (Beal, 1883, pp. 8-18). Suddhodana attempts to defy the latter fate by surrounding his son with royal luxury and even finding him a wife with which to have his own son:
‘My son, the prince, having a son born to him, / ‘The affairs of the empire will be handed down in succession, and there will be no end to its righteous government; the prince having begotten a son, will love his son as I love him, / ‘And no longer think about leaving his home as an ascetic, but devote himself to the practice of virtue […] Would that this might lead my son (he prayed) to love his child and not forsake his home; the kings of all countries, whose sons have not yet grown up, / Have prevented them exercising authority in the empire, in order to give their minds relaxation, and for this purpose have provided them with worldly indulgences, so that they may perpetuate the royal seed; / So now the king, having begotten a royal son, indulged him in every sort of pleasure; desiring that he might enjoy these worldly delights, and not wish to wander from his home in search of wisdom (Beal, 1883, pp. 28 and 29).
Following his birth, the stone monkey comes to live with a tribe of primates on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. One day, the monkeys and apes decide to follow a stream to its source in the mountain and find a beautiful waterfall. They state anyone who can discover what is behind the blanket of water will be proclaimed their king. The stone monkey takes up this challenge by leaping through and discovers the “Cave Heaven of Water-Curtain Cave” (Shuiliandong dongtian, 水簾洞洞天), a grotto paradise with a stone mansion and enough room for all the primates to live. After he emerges victorious,
Each one of them [the primates] then lined up according to rank and age, and, bowing reverently, they intoned, “Long live our great king!” From that moment, the stone monkey ascended the throne of kingship [fig. 6]. He did away with the word “stone” in his name and assumed the title, Handsome Monkey King [Mei hou wang, 美猴王] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105).
The prince is born into a royal clan and yet never rules, while Wukong achieves kinghood through a test of bravery and leads his tribe for over three hundred years (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 105). Siddhartha’s lack of authority is of course due to his father’s wish that he indulge in worldly pleasures and forget about leaving to become a sage. But birth tales (Sk: jataka) of the Buddha’s past lives do include several incarnations as rulers, even as a monkey king!
Fig. 5 – A stone carving of Prince Siddhartha as a young man (Gandhara, 3rd-century) (larger version via the Norton Simon Museum). Fig. 6 – The Stone Monkey sits on his throne (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).
IV. Shock at impermanence
One day, Prince Siddhartha wishes to tour the land outside his personal palace for the first time in his sheltered life. Not wanting his son to see anything unpleasant, King Suddhodana has the path cleared of the old, sick, and poor and decorated with beautiful canopies, banners, and curtains (Beal, 1883, pp. 30-32). But a deva raja intervenes to initiate the first of the “four signs” (Sk: caturnimitta; Ch: sixiang, 四相; i.e. old age, sickness, death, and monasticism) to cause the future Buddha to pursue a spiritual path that will ultimately lead to his enlightenment (fig. 7) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, pp. 171-172). The deva raja transforms into an extremely elderly man, and upon seeing the sight, Siddhartha is shaken when his chariot driver reveals that he too will suffer this fate:
The prince greatly agitated and moved, asked his charioteer another question and said, ‘Is yonder man the only one afflicted with age, or shall I, and others also, be such as he?’ / The charioteer again replied and said, ‘Your highness also inherits this lot, as time goes on, the form itself is changed, and this must doubtless come, beyond all hindrance: / ‘The youthful form must wear the garb of age, throughout the world, this is the common lot’. Bodhisattva, who had long prepared the foundation of pure and spotless wisdom, / Broadly setting the root of every high quality, with a view to gather large fruit in his present life, hearing these words respecting the sorrow of age, was afflicted in mind, and his hair stood up right. / Just as the roll of the thunder and the storm alarm and put to flight the cattle; so was Bodhisattva affected by the words; shaking with apprehension, he deeply sighed (Beal, 1883, p. 33).
After seeing the sign of sickness (Beal, 1883, pp. 34-35), the prince witnesses the sign of death:
(Once more) he asked, ‘What is this they carry? With streamers and flowers of every choice description, whilst the followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously.’ / And now the gods instructing the coachman, he replied and said, ‘This is a “dead man,” all his powers of body destroyed, life departed; his heart without thought, his intellect dispersed; / ‘His spirit gone, his form withered and decayed; stretched out as a dead log; family ties broken—all his friends who once loved him, clad in white cerements, / ‘Now no longer delighting to behold him, remove him to lie in some hollow ditch (tomb).’ The prince hearing the name of death, his heart constrained by painful thoughts, / He asked, ‘Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances?’ Replying thus he said, ‘All, everywhere, the same; he who begins his life must end it likewise; / ‘The strong and lusty and the middle-aged, having a body, cannot but decay (and die).’ The prince now harassed and perplexed in mind; his body bent upon the chariot leaning-board, / With bated breath and struggling accents, stammered thus, ‘Oh worldly men! How fatally deluded! Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; / ‘The heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not “all is vanishing!” (Beal, 1883, pp. 36-37).
After the Monkey King rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for more than three centuries, he tells his children:
Though we are not subject to the laws of man today, nor need we be threatened by the rule of any bird or beast, old age and physical decay in the future will disclose the secret sovereignty of Yama, King of the Underworld. If we die, shall we not have lived in vain, not being able to rank forever among the Heavenly beings? (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 106).
The “shock” felt by Prince Siddhartha and the Monkey King upon realizing the impermanence of life is known in Buddhism as Samvega (Ch: yanli, 厭離) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, n.d.). It’s interesting that Siddhartha is led to the reality of impermanence, while Monkey comes to the conclusion by himself. This is no doubt due to the differences in their lives. King Suddhodana ensures that his son lives a protected life, one free from the woes of the outside world, by surrounding him with luxury and young, beautiful palace attendants. However, Monkey rules the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit for over three hundred years, no doubt witnessing the decline and death of many of his companions, as well as the waning of his own youth. After all, the thought of impermanence would weigh heavy on anyone nearing the end of their life. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, when his soul is taken to hell in chapter three, Monkey learns from the ledgers of life and death that he was fated to die at 342 years old (fig. 8) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 140).
Fig. 7 – Siddhartha experiences the “Four Signs” (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 8 – Monkey striking his name from the Book of Life and Death (larger version).From Son Goku (1939).
V. Quest to overcome impermanence
Siddhartha is wracked by constant, obsessive thoughts on the dangers of old age, sickness, and death. After venturing out once more and witnessing poor farmers toiling away in the fields, he proclaims on the spot that he will find some way to oppose life’s suffering. At that exact moment, a deva affects the fourth sign by transforming into a monk (sk: bhikshu), who tells the prince:
Depressed and sad at [the] thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue, but everywhere I find old age, disease, and death, all (things) hasten to decay and there is no permanency; / ‘Therefore I search for the happiness of some thing that decays not, that never perishes, that never knows beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty, / ‘The happiness of one who finds repose alone in solitude, in some unfrequented dell, free from molestation, all thoughts about the world destroyed, dwelling in some lonely hermitage…’ (Beal, 1883, pp. 49-50).
This influences Siddhartha to forsake his royal life to become an ascetic and search for a means of escape from the evils of old age, sickness, and death. Cutting off his topknot, thus severing his royal ties, the future Buddha sets out into the world (Beal, 1883, p. 68). Siddhartha travels the land studying meditation (Sk: dhyana; Ch: chan, 禪) under various sages, pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood for years, and even practicing severe austerities that result in the emaciation of his body (fig. 9). But he eventually forsakes these extreme practices, recovering his bodily strength and vowing to achieve perfect enlightenment via meditation beneath a banyan tree (Beal, 1883, pp. 131-147).
When the Monkey King opines the injustice of impermanence, one of his advisors tells him that only three beings live beyond the reach of Yama:
There are, among the five major divisions of all living creatures, only three species that are not subject to Yama, King of the Underworld.” The Monkey King said, “Do you know who they are?” The monkey said, “They are the Buddhas, the immortals, and the holy sages [shensheng, 神聖]; these three alone can avoid the Wheel of Transmigration as well as the process of birth and destruction, and live as long as Heaven and Earth, the mountains and the streams.” “Where do they live?” asked the Monkey King. The monkey said, “They do not live beyond the world of the Jambudvipa, for they dwell within ancient caves on immortal mountains” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).
Monkey then pledges to find these great men and women and learn their secret means of escape from Yama’s grasp:
“Tomorrow I shall take leave of you all and go down the mountain. Even if I have to wander with the clouds to the corners of the sea or journey to the distant edges of Heaven, I intend to find these three kinds of people. I will learn from them how to be young forever and escape the calamity inflicted by King Yama” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 107).
He sets sail in a makeshift raft and wonders the world for more than ten years, searching the towns and cities of the Jambudvipa continent before sailing to the Western Aparagodaniya continent. There, he is directed to the Cave of the Slanted Moon and Three Stars on the Mountain of Numinous Heart and Elixir Mind (Lingtai fangcun shan, xieyue sanxing dong, 靈台方寸山, 斜月三星洞), an immortal hermitage lorded over by the great Buddho-Daoist Sage Subodhi (Xuputi, 須菩提) (fig. 10). The sage accepts him as a student and gives him the religious name Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or “Monkey Awakened to the Void” (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 108-115).
Both tales show that Siddhartha and Monkey set out on their respective quests thanks to outside influences. The devas intervene numerous times to guide the future Buddha’s path to enlightenment,  proving that the heavenly realm has a vested interest in his fate. Wukong’s journey is instead influenced by the words of his mortal advisor. In this case, the gods have no interest in the fate of such “creatures from the world below” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 102). This of course changes once Monkey starts causing havoc throughout the cosmos.
Fig. 9 – A stone carving of the “Fasting Buddha” (Gandhara, 2nd- to 3rd-century BCE) (larger version). Fig. 10 – The Monkey King becomes Subhuti’s disciple (larger version). From Son Goku (1939).
VI. Achieving a means of escape
The heavenly demon Mara (Mo, 魔) fears that Siddhartha will achieve enlightenment and help mankind break free from his domain, the illusionary world of Samsara, and so he leads a monstrous army against the great rishi. But the army is rendered powerless by Siddhartha’s supreme focus of mind and burgeoning grasp of reality (Beal, 1883, pp. 147-156).  Continuing his meditation further, the rishi perceives his myriad past lives, as well as the karmic punishment of those who covet or perform bad deeds, being tortured in hell or reborn into lower levels of existence, respectively. He then comprehends that suffering arises from clinging, clinging from desire, desire from sensation, sensation from contact, contact from the six senses, and the senses from consciousness. Finally, Siddhartha comes to the realization that breaking each link (e.g. cessation of clinging will end suffering) will stop old age, sickness, and death and ultimately destroy the endless chain of rebirths (Beal, 1883, pp. 156-163). Having achieved perfect enlightenment (fig. 11),
the Buddha then devised for the world’s benefit the eightfold path, right sight, and so on, the only true path for the world to tread. / Thus did he complete the end (destruction) of ‘self,’ as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge; / He finished thus the first great lesson (paramartha); entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared; light coming on, perfectly silent, all at rest, / He reached at last the exhaustless source of truth (dharma); lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth (Beal, 1883, p. 163).
Journey to the West chapter two tells how Wukong serves as a junior monk for seven years before Subodhi takes him as a close disciple. One night, the sage recites him a poem full of flowery esoteric imagery revealing the secret to Daoist immortality and Buddhahood is the cultivation of chaste semen (jing, 精), breath (qi, 氣), and spiritual energy (shen, 神). The poem has a profound effect on Monkey, for the novel states: “At that moment, the very origin was disclosed to Wukong, whose mind became spiritualized as blessedness came to him” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120). Following Subodhi’s instructions, Monkey performs breathing exercises after midnight (zi, 子) and before noon (wu, 午), resulting in immortality after three years of dedicated practice (fig. 12).  I should note that the book borrows from real Daoist practices but leaves much of the process up to the reader’s imagination. As I explain here, historical methods combined the aforementioned breathing exercises with the circulation of chaste semen and spiritual energy to create a spirit embryo (shengtai, 聖胎), or an immortal spirit that is eventually freed from the mortal shell. But in the case of the novel, Monkey’s practice results in an ageless, adamantine physical body, one capable of lifting even cosmic mountains.
Interestingly, the title of chapter two also refers to Monkey overcoming Mara. It reads: “Fully awoke to Bodhi’s wondrous truths / He cuts off Mara, returns to the root, and joins Primal Spirit” (Wu che puti zhen miao li / Duan Mo gui ben he yuanshen, 悟徹菩提真妙理 / 斷魔歸本合元神) (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 116). The title freely associates Buddhist and Daoist concepts, such as Mara and the primal spirit. This synthesis is explained by Darga (2008):
Comparing the development of the embryo to the revelation of Buddhahood is typical of neidan texts of the Ming period. For instance, the Xingming guizhi (Principles of Balanced Cultivation of Inner Nature and Vital Force) uses Body of the Law (fashen 法身, dharmakāya) as a synonym for shengtai. The birth of the embryo represents the appearance of the original spirit (yuanshen 元神) or Buddhahood and is understood as enlightenment (p. 884).
The Buddha’s biography goes on for pages about deep philosophical concepts on the self, suffering, and reality, showing that the means of his liberation was of the utmost importance. By contrast, as noted above, Journey to the West leaves little space for Wukong’s method of immortality. In fact, the hard won moment that he breaks free of Yama’s grasp is not even mentioned in the novel!  So the author-compiler no doubt felt Monkey’s subsequent adventures were far more important. This is understandable considering that, in material as far back as the Song dynasty, Monkey is already an ancient immortal at the beginning of the story.
Fig. 11 – Siddhartha achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha (larger version). Artist unknown. Fig. 12 – Wukong achieves immortality (larger version). Photomanipulation by the author.
VII. A borrowed story?
So did the author-compiler (AC) of Journey to the West base Monkey’s early life on the Buddha’s story? The many similarities discussed above are very suggestive, but if only there was documented evidence of borrowing from other Buddhist personages. And that’s exactly what is found in chapter two. Shao (2006) explains that Wukong’s spiritual intelligence is based on the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (惠能, 638-713):
[Monkey] sets the stage for a striking display of his unusually profound insight when he announces his intentions to become an immortal. This provokes Subhuti to issue him a challenge by refusing to teach him, for he is “some what different from other people.” Monkey may not realize that the master is trying to gauge his spiritual power, but he rises to the occasion with a genuine clarity of vision: “I have a round head pointing to Heaven, and square feet walking on Earth. Similarly, I have nine apertures and four limbs, entrails and cavities. In what way am I different from other people?”
[W]e may look to Huineng’s story from which Monkey garners meaning. No doubt, Monkey’s inspired cleverness is modeled on Huineng’s reply to Hongren, the fifth patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism, in Huineng’s Tanjing (The Platform Sutra). When Huineng announces his intentions to become a Buddha, Hongren pounces upon him with a poignant reminder that he is “from Lingnan,” a “barbarian,” and therefore cannot become a Buddha. Huineng refuses to be intimidated, however. He holds his own with an unparalleled depth of insight about Buddha-nature: There may be “northern and southern men,” but “the Buddha nature fundamentally has no north or south.” Surely Monkey’s phrasing, his unusual insightfulness, and the quickness and aplomb with which he rises to the challenge are reminiscent of Huineng… (pp. 719-720).
Therefore, if the AC borrowed from the life of Huineng, a Buddhist patriarch, then he certainly could have borrowed from the life of the Buddha. I suggest this was done to make Wukong’s early life more familiar to the reader.
Despite the particulars of their stories being different, the Monkey King and the historical Buddha share six similarities. First, they experience a supernatural birth, both splitting open their mother in the same fashion as ancient Chinese sage-kings. Siddhartha emerges from the side of Queen Maya and Wukong forms from a stone egg birthed by a split rock. Second, they produce a radiant splendor upon their birth. Siddhartha’s body shines “in every direction”, while beams shoot from Sun’s eyes as he bows to the “four quarters”. Third, they spend early years as royalty. The prince is born into the royal Shakya clan and Monkey achieves kinghood through a test of bravery. Fourth, they feel a sense of shock upon realizing the impermanence of life. Siddhartha is exposed to the evils of old age, sickness, and death via the “four signs” initiated by heaven. Wukong instead comprehends the fearsome hand of Yama through his observation of time. Fifth, they set out on a quest to find a means of escaping old age and death. The prince travels the land studying meditation and pondering concepts of the body, the mind, the soul, and selfhood. Monkey searches the world for over a decade before he is taken in by the Buddho-Daoist sage Subodhi. Sixth, they achieve their goal through spiritual practices. Siddhartha defeats Mara and achieves perfect enlightenment via intense meditation. Wukong breaks free from Yama/Mara and achieves immortality via Daoist elixir arts. And since the AC borrowed from the life of the Sixth Chan patriarch Huineng, he likely modeled the Monkey King’s early life on the Buddha to make his story more familiar.
1) See Cook and Luo (2017) chapter five for more examples of split-births.
2) Other than the “Four Signs”, another example of the devas intervening in Siddhartha’s life takes place shortly after he forsakes the extreme austerities that emaciate his body. He bathes in a holy river but can’t leave the water due to weakness from malnourishment. That’s when a deva pushes down a tree branch, allowing Siddhartha to pull himself to safety (Beal, 1883, p. 144).
3) For example, one passage reads: “Their flying spears, lances, and javelins, stuck fast in space, refusing to descend; the angry thunderdrops and mighty hail, with these, were changed into five-colour’d lotus flowers…” (Beal, 1883, p. 153).
4) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi [子, midnight] and after the hour of Wu [午, noon]” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). However, this is likely a transcription error as Daoist sources cite the opposite, after midnight and before noon (Kohn, 2008, p. 84, for example). Therefore, I have corrected the information.
5) The moment that Monkey achieves immortality is only alluded to in passing:
Suddenly he [Subodhi] asked, “Where’s Wukong?” Wukong drew near and knelt down. “Your pupil’s here,” he said. “What sort of art have you been practicing lately?” the Patriarch asked. “Recently,” Wukong said, “your pupil has begun to apprehend the nature of all things and my foundational knowledge has become firmly established.” “If you have penetrated to the dharma nature to apprehend the origin,” said the Patriarch, “you have, in fact, entered into the divine substance” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121).
This article is a greatly expanded version of this piece.
One of the many unique aspects about Sun Wukong‘s story cycle is his birth from stone (fig. 1). Chapter one of Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592 CE) describes how the 36 foot 5 inch (11.09 m) tall, 24 foot (7.31 m) circumference rock issues forth a stone egg after absorbing celestial and terrestrial energies over countless eons:
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 [xian bao, 仙胞]. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg [shi luan, 石卵] about the size of a playing ball [yuan qiu, 圓毬]. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).
The description of Wukong’s conception draws on ancient Chinese cosmological ideas regarding the gendered nature of the universe. Works of the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (Hinsch, 2011, pp. 157-158). As quoted above, the stone is “nourished…by the seeds of Heaven and Earth”. This line was likely influenced by philosophical works such as the Yijing which states: “Heaven and Earth come together, and all things take shape and find form. Male and female mix their seed, and all creatures take shape and are born” (Wilhelm & Baynes, 1977, pp. 342-343).
Surprisingly, Wukong is not the only figure from world mythology born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Eliade (1978) comments: “The theme recurs in the great civilizations of Central America (Inca, Maya), in the traditions of certain tribes of Southern American, among the Greeks, the Semites, in the Caucasus, and generally from Asia Minor right down to Oceania” (p. 43). In this article, I will explore eight examples from Asian and Western myth, demonstrating how stone-born figures share certain parallels with Monkey. I will show that, with the exception of creator gods and savior figures, stone-born beings generally have one or more of the following in common: 1) they are the product of masculine heavenly forces and feminine earthly forces (anthropomorphic or otherwise); 2) they violate the natural order by challenging heaven (in one form or another); and 3) they are eventually defeated by the gods. The purpose of this preliminary survey is to better understand an ancient myth cycle that may have influenced the development of the Monkey King’s lore.
Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a demi-god, sage-king, and founder of the Xia Dynasty, is generally portrayed in his mythos either violently erupting from the side or back of his mother or emerging (or being hewn with an ax) from the executed body of his father Gun (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 98-101). However, a few sources briefly note his lithic birth. For example, the Han-era Huainanzi (淮南子, 2nd-century BCE) simply states: “Yu was born from a stone” (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 100). Lewis (2006) explains Yu’s stone birth is tied to ancient Chinese beliefs about the fertile, creative power of stone, as evidenced by the stone altar of the High Matchmaker (Gao mei, 高媒), which was historically prayed to for children by married couples, as well as legends of the mending of the sky with five magic stones by the primordial goddess Nuwa, the High Matchmaker’s mythic prototype.  This naturally has implications for the stone birth of Monkey.
Interestingly, the Jin-era Diwang Shiji (帝王世紀, 3rd-century) states Yu’s mother was impregnated by swallowing magic seeds and a “divine pearl” (shenzhu, 神珠), a type of stone, and even locates his birth in a place called “Stone Knob” (Shiniu, 石紐) (Cook & Luo, 2017, p. 101). While the mother is not a stone, his birth is effected by a stone and happens in a place named stone. In this instance, the divine pearl is an encapsulation of the same masculine heavenly and feminine earthly forces that help create Wukong.
Yu is of course most famous in Chinese myth for his monumental effort in quelling the fabled world flood and then establishing the nine provinces of China (Birrell, 1999, pp. 81-83). Therefore, as a savior figure his mythos lacks the rebellious challenge against the gods and eventual defeat that marks several figures in this list. However, in a twist, his father Gun is known for violating the natural order by stealing God’s “self-renewing soil” in his quest to quell the flood. For this crime, he is executed (Birrell, 1999, pp. 79-81).
1.2. Qi of Xia
Yu’s son, Qi (啟) or Kai (開), both meaning “open” (fig. 2),  is said in an early 4th-century source to have also been born from stone: 
When Yu was controlling the floodwaters and was making a passage through Mount Huanyuan, he changed into a bear. He spoke to the Tushan [土山] girl: “If you want to give me some food, when you hear the sound of a drumbeat, come to me.” But Yu leaped on a stone and by mistake drummed on it. The Tushan girl came forward, but when she saw Yu in the guise of a bear she was ashamed and fled. She reached the foothills of Mount Songgao, when she turned into a stone and gave birth to Qi. Yu said, “Give me back my son!” The stone then split open  on its north flank and Qi was born (Birrell, 1999, p. 123).
Lewis (2006) notes that early texts, such as the Diwang Shiji, claim this daughter of the Tushan clan is named Nuwa (with variations on her given name), proving that Yu and the goddess were married in some traditions (p. 134). This then strengthens the association between marriage, procreation, and stones.
Birrell (1999) explains a text appearing in the Zhou to Han-era Guicang (歸藏) records that he tried to “steal” (qie, 竊) music from heaven, while the Shanhaijing (山海經) states he received it as a gift from the realm above (pp. 83-84). While not directly related to Qi’s stone birth story, this shows at least one tradition believed Qi followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by stealing from heaven and violating the natural order, much like Wukong steals immortal peaches and wine.
Fig. 2 – A woodblock print of Qi of Xia from a Ming-era version of the Shanhai jing (larger version). Plate XLIV from Strassberg, 2002, p. 168.
1.3. The Bodhisattva Hilumandju’s Children
One myth explains the origin of the Tibetan peoples from a magic monkey and a rock-ogress (brag srin mo) (fig. 3). While evidence for it goes back to at least the 7th-century,  the best known version comes from the Mani Kambum (12th to 13th-century). As the story goes, the Buddha charges the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva with converting the evil creatures of the “Land of Snow” (Tibet) to Buddhism. The latter sends his avatar, the Bodhisattva Hilumandju (possibly a reference to Hanuman), a monkey king with great spiritual powers, to meditate on a mountain top in Tibet. A rock-ogress comes upon his hermitage and attempts to seduce him by taking the form of a female monkey and then a human woman, but each time her advances are rejected due to his supernatural focus. As a result, the rock-ogress threatens to mate with an ogre and produce a race of demonic creatures that would devour the world, thereby heaping sins upon the monkey king if he does not take her as his wife. So after seeking council with his master, Hilumandju agrees to become her husband (I have archived the full story here):
“So be it (Laso),” he made answer. Then the monkey Bodhisattva, fearing lest the rock-ogress should destroy herself, departed in all haste for the Abode of Snow, and as soon as he arrived he took her unto him as his wife. When the space of nine months had elapsed she bore him six sons, who participated of the nature of the six classes of sentient creatures subject to birth and death. As their father was a monkey, so their bodies were covered with hair, and as their mother was a rock-ogress, so they had tails; their faces were reddish and they were most unsightly. From the mortal gods, one had gentleness and patience; from the mortal (lit., subject to birth and death) Asuras (lh’a-mayin), one of them derived angry passions and quarrelsomeness. One of them had in part great lusts, and love of worldly riches, which qualities he owed to mortal man. One of them owed to hell’s mortal fiends, hate, and anger, and great hardiness. One partook of the mortal Préta’s (yidag) characteristics in being deformed, from his cravings for food (lit., bad stomach), and his avariciousness. One partook of mortal brute beasts in not being able to distinguish right from wrong, and in having neither comprehension nor cleverness. When born they were ruddy-faced, had a taste for flesh and blood, and hair covered their heads and bodies, and, moreover, they knew how to speak (Rockhill, 1891, pp. 357-358). 
The resulting six offspring mate with monkeys and reproduce in the many hundreds, becoming more and more human with each new generation. When they eat all of their resources and begin to starve, Avalokitesvara gives Hilumandju grain and jewels for his descendants to grow and mine until they are fully human and ready to receive the Buddhist teachings (Rockhill, 1891, pp. 358-361).
The rock-ogress and her kind are portrayed as vicious, blood-thirsty creatures beyond Avalokitesvara’s ability to convert to Buddhism (Rockhill, 1891, p. 359). The rock-monkey children inherit not only their mother’s misshapen appearance but also many of her negative qualities, making them resistant to the teachings. So, in a way, they too violate the natural order.
I obviously can’t continue without commenting on this tale’s interesting parallels with Sun Wukong. Hilumandju is a monkey king who uses his magic powers in the service of Buddhism at the behest of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. And like Wukong, Hilumandju’s children are the product of a masculine heavenly force and a feminine earthly force (the rock-ogress). Wukong is a monkey king who uses his magic powers in the service of Buddhism at the behest of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (the feminine form of Avalokitesvara).
Jong (1997) explains Western myths of stone-born figures “are usually connected with the Song of Ullikummi known from Hittite and Hurrian sources” (p. 292). He continues:
There are many more myths or complexes of myths which largely follow the same pattern: the cycle of Agdistis from Phrygia, the Nart-epics of the Ossetes, the Jewish myths of the monster Armillus and—for some aspects—the Georgian myth cycles of Amirani [fig. 4] (Jong, 1997, p. 292).
Fig. 4 – A chart showing the existence of the rock-born son trope from other cultures (larger version). From Jong, 1997, p. 293.
The aforementioned Hurrian myth the “Song of Ullikummi” (c. 1200 BCE) appears in an extant Hittite cuneiform text comprising three fragmented clay tablets. While named after the eponymous stone monster (fig. 5), the story follows the machinations of Kumarbi, a resentful former ruler of the gods, who wishes to usurp the throne from his son, the storm god Tesub. Kumarbi sets about doing this by bedding a massive stone in an effort to produce a being powerful enough to rout the gods. Upon its birth, the doting father gives the creature a name meaning “Destroy Kummiya” (Rutherford, 2020, p. 147), foreshadowing its intended fate to destroy Tesub’s home (I have archived papers reconstructing the story here and here):
Out of the [rock’s] body like a blade he sprang. He shall go! Ullikummi be his name! Up to Heaven to kingship he shall go, and Kummiya, the dear town, he shall press down! But the Storm-God he shall hit, and like salt he shall pound him, and like an ant with (his) foot he shall crush him! But Tasmisu  like a …… reed he shall break off! All the gods down from Heaven like birds he shall scatter, and like empty vessels he shall break them! (Güterbock, 1951, p. 153).
Fearing that it may be killed by the gods before coming into full power, Kumarbi has the monster hidden in the underworld, where it is placed on the right shoulder of the Atlas-like god Upelluri. The creature quickly multiples in size, growing nine thousand leagues tall, eventually reaching heaven. When Ishtar fails to seduce the blind and deaf monster, the warrior god Astabi leads 70 deities into battle against the lithic menace only to be defeated and cast into the sea below. Tesub abandons the throne and, along with Tasmisu, seeks the aid of Ea, the god of wisdom and witchcraft, who travels to the underworld in search of the creature’s origins. Upon questioning Upelluri, who effortlessly carries the weight of the heavens, earth, and sea, Ea learns a great weight, which turns out to be the monster, pains the titan’s right shoulder. In the end (of the third and final extant tablet), Ea calls for a tool originally used by the old gods to cleave heaven and earth and chisels Ullikummi free of Upelluri’s shoulder, thus breaking the monster’s base of power and leaving it vulnerable to attack by the gods. Güterbock (1951) suggests there’s a missing fourth tablet that describes the monster’s ultimate defeat (p. 140). 
Like Monkey and the other figures listed above, Ullikummi is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Kumarbi) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). Although the assault on heaven is orchestrated by his father, Ullikummi’s challenge to the gods, like that of Monkey, violates the natural order. And his presumed defeat in the end also follows the story cycle of Wukong.
I’d like to add that Ullikummi battling Astabi’s force of 70 gods is similar to Sun fighting the 72 gods called up against him (Koss, 1981, p. 84). Also, King Tesub seeking aid from Ea, leading to Ullikummi’s defeat, is reminiscent of the Jade Emperor asking for the Buddha to intervene, leading to Wukong’s defeat.
The Greco-Roman god of light, Mithras,  is perhaps the best known and studied of the stone-born deities in Western mythology. Researchers often refer to his birth stone using the Latin term Petra Genetrix, or the “Fecund rock”. Manfred Clauss notes the symbolism of the rock is tied to the earth and the cosmic egg (I have archived the relevant chapter section here).
The multi-layered quality of Mithraic symbolism…reappears in the case of the rock: represented and understood not only as the kosmos but also as the earth, on many images it is encircled by a serpent, [fig. 6] a creature associated with the earth (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 67).
We can discern the influence of Orphic speculation in a Greek inscription from one of the numerous mithraea in Rome, on a statue-base dedicated Διi ‘Hλω Miθpa Φávητı, that is to Deus Sol Mithras Phanes. Phanes is the embodiment of unlimited light, an Orphic deity who emerged from the cosmic egg. There is also literary evidence for the syncretism of Mithras with Phanes. In this community, therefore, Mithras’ identification with the sun god grounded an allusion to the Orphic-Platonic ideas current among the intellectual élites. Mithras-Phanes is also known to us in iconographic form: a relief from Vercovicium (Housesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall shows Mithras emerging from the cosmic egg, [fig. 7] which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 70).
Mithras’ position as a solar deity and depiction emerging from a cosmic egg/stone establishes him as a self-born creator god. This is supported by another aspect of his holy narrative: the slaying of the bull. Stone reliefs depict him in a great struggle to pin the animal down and then strike it in the neck with a knife. Since the bull was symbolic of the moon (and thus death), its sacrifice is seen as the creation of life and the cosmos. This is represented by zodiac symbols—the path of the newly formed planets—on the god’s fluttering cloak and by grapes or ears of corn in place of the pooled blood on the ground (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, pp. 78-90). Therefore, like Yu the Great, Mithras’ feat distances him from the rebellion and defeat that mark other figures in this list.
Sun Wukong is similar to Mithras as he too struggles against bovine opponents, including Laozi’s buffalo in chapters 50 to 52 and the Bull Demon King in chapters 59 to 61. However, Monkey’s conception involves the mingling of masculine heavenly and feminine earthly forces, while Mithras is born of a virginal stone.
Fig. 6 – An example of Mithras’ serpent-wrapped birth rock from Austria. A larger version is available on Wikicommons; Fig. 7 – The deity emerging from a cosmic egg surrounded by the western Zodiac symbols (larger version). From the Homesteads Roman Fort along Hadrian’s Wall. Found on this article.
Mithras’ son, Diorphus, is said to have also been born from a stone. Pseudo-Plutarch (c. 3rd-century) writes:
Near to this [the Araxes] river lies the mountain Diorphus, so called from Diorphus the son of the Earth, of whom this story is reported. Mithras desirous to have a son, yet hating woman-kind, lay with a stone, till he had heated it to that degree that the stone grew big, and at the prefixed time was delivered of a son, called Diorphus; who, growing up and contending with Mars for courage and stoutness, was by him slain, and by the providence of the Gods was transformed into the mountain which was called Diorphus by his name (Plutarch & Goodwin, 1874, p. 505).
Diorphus is similar to Monkey, Qi of Xia, and the Bodhisattva Hilumandju’s children as he is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Mithras) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). He and Qi share a further connection as they are both the sons of beings who were themselves born from stone. And much like Wukong, Diorphus violates the natural order by challenging the gods (in this case Mars) and is defeated, being transformed into a mountain after his death. While not exactly the same, the end result brings to mind Monkey’s imprisonment under Five Elements Mountain.
The tale of Diorphus’ conception follows the same tradition as the Story of Ullikummi where a god intends to sire a son with a stone and not a goddess, resulting in a powerful, rebellious offspring.
The god Agdistis is a monstrous, hermaphroditic being sired by Zeus. His story is recorded by Arnobious of Sicca (died c. 330):
Within the confines of Phrygia, he says (Timotheus), there is a rock of unheard-of wildness in every respect, the name of which is Agdus, so named by the natives of that district. Stones taken from it, as Themis by her oracle had enjoined, Deucalion and Pyrrha threw upon the earth,  at that time emptied of men; from which this Great Mother, too, as she is called, was fashioned along with the others, and animated by the deity. Her, given over to rest and sleep on the very summit of the rock, Jupiter assailed with lewdest desires. But when, after long strife, he could not accomplish what he had proposed to himself, he, baffled, spent his lust on the stone. This the rock received, and with many groanings Acdestis (Agdistis) is born in the tenth month, being named from his mother rock. In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars.
Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skillfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree… (Burkert, 1979, pp. 255-256)
Agdistis is similar to Monkey and the above figures as he is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Zeus) and a feminine earthly force (the stone). And like Wukong’s rebellion, the hermaphrodite’s raw, destructive nature threatens the primacy of heaven. As a result, both Agdistis and Monkey share a superiority complex, believing they are mightier than the gods. The deities fear their power and therefore seek ways to tame them. Wukong is placated for a time with celestial posts before ultimately being imprisoned by the Buddha, while Agdistis is stripped of his manhood.
Agdistis’ conception also follows the tradition of Ullikummi and Diorphus. The end result of Zeus’s attempted rape of the stone/earth goddess is a powerful, rebellious offspring.
The Book of Zerubbabel(7th-century) describes Armilus, a Jewish anti-messiah figure, as the spawn of Satan and a world conqueror who will force all to worship his lithic mother. Knohl (2009) presents the section where Zerubbabel learns of Armilus from an angel:
This city is Nineveh, the city of bloodshed, which is the big Rome. And I have said to him: “When would be the end of these awful things?’ And he took me by my hand and brought me to the house of disgrace.
And he showed me there a marble stone in the shape of a very beautiful virgin. And he said to me: ‘What do you see, Zerubbabel?’ And I said: ‘I see a marble stone in the shape of a very beautiful woman.’
And he told me: “This stone is the wife of Belial [Satan], and when Belial sees her, he will lie with her and she will become pregnant and will bear him Armilus, and she will be the chief idolatry. And he (Armilus) will rule over the whole world and his dominion will be from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth. And he will make signs. He will worship strange gods, and will speak words against the Most High and no one will be able to stand against him. And all nations will go astray after him except for Israel.
And he Armilus will take his mother from the house of disgrace and all places and all nations will worship this stone and will make sacrifices and libations to it. And no one will be able to look upon her face because of her beauty. He is Arimolaus son of Satan, and he will become a King in Emmaus, the city of his father, and his fear will fall in all places (pp. 79-81). 
Another tradition explains Armilus will proclaim himself God and, having won the trust of Christians, lead a vast army to decimate Jews who stand against him. In the end, though, God or the Messiah will gather the scattered Israelites and defeat Armilus:
But as Armilus nevertheless insists upon being recognized as God by the Jews, and they cry out to him that he is Satan and not God, a bitter battle breaks out between Armilus with an immense heathen army on the one side, and Nehemiah with 30,000 Jewish heroes on the other. This unequal combat ends in the death of the “Ephraimite Messiah” and a million Jews. After an interval of forty-five days, … Michael will blow his trumpet; then the Messiah and Elijah will appear, gather the dispersed of Israel, and proceed to Jerusalem. Armilus, inflamed against the Jews, will march against the Messiah. But now God Himself will war against Armilus and his army and destroy them; or the Messiah, as one version has it, will slay Armilus by the breath of his mouth (Kohler & Ginzberg, 1906, p. 119).
Like Monkey and the above figures, Armilus is the product of a masculine heavenly force (Satan) and a feminine earthly force (the stone statue). He violates the natural order by proclaiming himself God and even fights against the All Mighty, much like Monkey proclaims himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” and leads an army against heaven. Armilus’ defeat by God is also like Wukong’s subjugation by the Buddha, Diorphus’ death by Mars, and Ullikummi’s presumed besting by the gods.
Armilus’ conception also follows the tradition of Ullikummi, Diorphus, and Agdistis. Satan lays with the stone statue with the intent of creating a powerful, rebellious offspring.
The hero Soslan, also known as Sozryko, appears in a body of legends associated with the Caucasian Nart Saga:
At the sight of the beautiful Satana [the mother of the Narts] washing clothes on the riverbank, a shepherd across the river poured out his semen on a stone from which, nine months later, the child Soslan came forth. When he had grown up, he demanded to be “tempered” in the milk of a she-wolf, a treatment destined to make him invulnerable. The divine smith Kurdalägon dropped him into a trough containing one hundred goatskins of milk, but since the trough was too short, Soslan had to bend his knees, which consequently were not tempered and thus remained vulnerable.
After a long existence devoted to war exploits, mostly miraculous, Soslan insulted the daughter of Balsäg, a kind of celestial spirit, who took his vengeance by discharging at Soslan a living steel wheel that he controlled. The hero was hit by the wheel on all parts of his body successively and threw it back without being injured until, on the advice of the treacherous Syrdon [a figure similar to Loki], the wheel hit him on the knees and smashed them to pieces. According to an eastern Circassian variant, Soslan indulged in a game during which the Narts, again at Syrdon’s instigation, threw a wheel made of serrated steel at him from the top of a hill. It hit the distracted Soslan in the knees (Honigsblum, 1993, p. 264).
Despite the slight difference, Soslan’s parentage still follows the same tradition as Ullikummi, Diorphus, Agdistis, and Armilus. His father is humanoid, while his mother is a stone. The change from deity to lowly human shows that, in this case, even mortal sperm was thought capable of magically fertilizing earth.
Fig. 8 – “Soslan vs Balsag Wheel” by Maharbek Tuganov (larger version).
3. Western influences on Sun Wukong’s story?
Monkey’s birth narrative was likely influenced by that of Yu the Great and his son Qi/Kai considering that our hero wields the sage-king’s cosmic ruler, the gold-banded cudgel, as a weapon. But since his stone birth and later rebellion mirror the tales above, might this suggest the author-compiler of Journey to the West was aware of the ancient myth cycle of a stone-born son who challenges heaven? Many of the cited Western myths show a clear affinity with the Song of Ullikummi. For example, Burkert (1979) notes six similarities between the myths of Agdistis and the stone titan: “(1) The initial situation: the big stone; (2) a god fertilizes the stone; (3) the stone gives birth to a child; (4) the child thus created is a rebel against the gods; (5) the gods gather and plan countermeasures; (6) the enemy of the gods is rendered harmless” (p. 257). Sound familiar? If this circa 12th-century BCE myth cycle spread west from Anatolia to Greece, could not a version of it have spread east and penetrated China by way of Persia? This need not have been the original Ullikummi story but an older protomyth or even a later variation. Of course this begs the question: How would the author-compiler have learned about this story? Needless to say, much, much more research is needed to determine if such a dissemination took place. Similarities alone aren’t enough without some kind of textural, oral, or archaeological evidence. Perhaps in the future a scholar more qualified than myself will pursue this line of inquiry.
4. Monkey’s stone egg and popular culture
Sun Wukong’s stone birth is so well known that it is referenced in the world famous anime Dragon Ball Z (DBZ). The original Dragon Ball series presents the main character Son Goku, himself based on the Great Sage, as a good-natured little boy with bulletproof skin and a monkey tail. However, DBZ reveals him to be a Saiyan, a humanoid alien warrior, who was sent as an infant in a rocket ship (à la Superman) to destroy Earth. This vessel, known as an “Attack Ball” (Atakku Bōru, アタックボール), is spherical in shape and represents the stone from which Wukong is born (fig. 9). It is a fun little twist on the original lore.
This brief survey demonstrates that stone is capable of giving birth to creator gods, protoplasts, savior figures, heroes, and even great monsters. But much like a human egg, a father is needed to fertilize it with sperm. Sun Wukong’s stone is nourished by the seeds of heaven. Qi of Xia was fathered by the demigod Yu the Great and born from a woman-turned-stone. The first Tibetans, born of a rock-ogress, are sired by the Bodhisattva Hilumandju. In almost all cases in Western mythology (with the exception of Soslan), the pater is a heavenly force, an anthropomorphic deity, who begets a son by impregnating a stone in place of a goddess or mortal woman. Examples include Kumarbi and the stone titan Ullikummi, Mithras and the foolhardy Diorphus, Zeus and the violent Agdistis, and Satan and the anti-Messiah Armilus. Misogyny aside, the myths discussed speak to some belief that a son born of stone would pose a threat to the gods. I suggest this tendency towards violating the natural order is a manifestation of their unnatural births.
The number of similarities between Monkey’s early story arc and the Song of Ullikummi might suggest a possible flow of influence from the near east. Both are born of stone, rebel against heaven, rout an army of 70-something gods, and are defeated by a supreme deity. I must stress, however, that these are just surface level affinities. They shouldn’t be accepted as concrete proof of influence until a deeper study providing actual historical evidence is conducted.
I have found a full account of the mythical stone birth of the Nart hero Soslan. It is portrayed as volcanic in nature, with the birth stone growing as it is baked in an oven for nine months. And finally, the child is born glowing red hot, causing a god of blacksmiths to quench and anneal him in water.
There were two brothers, the sons of Sajem. The elder was named Zartyzh, the younger Shawey.
One day Setenaya [Satana] was bathing by the river. On the water’s other side stood one of these brothers, the Nart herdsman Sajemuquo Zartyzh, also called Tezhidada, the “Eldest Ram.” From where he stood he was able to see Lady Setenaya. When that brother saw the beautiful temptress going back and forth, not standing still, strewing her clothes about, he could no longer control his passion. He was enchanted by her beauty and so let loose an arrow of manly fluid.
“Setenaya” It is coming to you.”
“So, let it come, but why did you do that?” said Setenaya.
“Hey, Setenaya! By day I tend the sheep. By night, when I come to you, the lance is always stuck in the ground in front of your house. so how would you have me do it?” said the shepherd.
Heavy steam arose as the bolt skimmed over the water, tracing a path until it reached Setenaya, but the bolt of lust just missed her and instead fell on a stone that was lying beside her on the riverbank. Setenaya picked up the stone, wrapped it in a warm cloth, brought it home, and placed it in the stove. Day by day the stone grew. It lay for nine months and nine days. During this time it grew in size and became very big. Lady Setenaya had her people bring the stone to Tlepsh‘s smithy. There she bade Tlepsh, the god of the forge, to break open the stone.
Tlepsh did as she had bidden him. From inside the stone emerged a baby boy, glowing as bright as fire. The baby fell on the front part of Setenaya’s dress and burned through it until he fell to the ground. Tlepsh seized him with his blacksmith’s tongs, and holding him by the thighs plunged him into the water for the grindstone seven times, thus cooling the baby. Then once again Tlepsh picked up the little child with his metal tongs by his thighs and hardened him seven times, so that the child’s skin became a little bit more flexible. The child became like a human being, but his skin remained tough, like tempered steel. Tlepsh named the baby Sawseruquo [Soslan] and gave him back to Setenaya.
On his thighs, where Tlepsh had held him with the tongs, Sawseruquo’s skin remained soft like human skin, and because his thighs had been squeezed, he was bowlegged (Colarusso, 2015, pp. 52-53).
This story has obvious parallels with the Greek story of Achilles, a mighty warrior with a vulnerable spot on his feet. Interestingly, a character from the Iliad (8th-century BCE) suggests that, due to his unwillingness to help his comrades in battle, Achilles’ parents were not the human couple commonly associated with him but the very sea and a rock cliff. Alepidou (2020) convincingly argues that these are references to the ancient Hurro-Hittite “Story of Hedammu” and the “Story of Ullikummi”. Hedammu, the offspring of Kumarbi and a sea goddess, was a massive sea creature that plagued the earth and sea. As noted above, Kumarbi’s subsequent offspring, Ullikummi, is a stone giant who attacked heaven. The stone titan is defeated when he is chiseled free from his base of power on the shoulder of an underworld god. This weakness of the lower extremities likely influenced that of Achilles and Soslan.
I’m thinking about writing a sequel to this article about characters from world myth trapped under mountains. Here’s the list I have so far:
Sun Wukong (various Journey to the West iterations) – Mt. Huaguo by Guanyin or Five Elements Mountain by the Buddha
108 stars (Water Margin) – Imprisoned in an earth prison under a stone slab by a Daoist master. Jing Wang (1992) suggests the stone slab was likely influenced by the Taishan stone (泰山石).
1) See chapter four, especially the sections “The Mythology of Nü Gua and the Flood” and “Yu, Marriage, and the Body”.
2) Strassberg (2002) explains the variant Kai (開) was used during the Han to avoid conflicting with Emperor Jing’s personal name, Liu Qi (劉啟) (p. 169). Whether Qi or Kai is used, both names reference the story of the stone splitting open to give birth to Yu’s son. See also note four below.
3）Birrell (1999) writes:
It is said by the Tang classical scholar and commentator Yan Shigu (A.D. 581-645) to be a reference he located in a text from Huainanzi, compiled circa 139 B.C. That text, however, does not appear in the extant editions of Huainanzi. The only reference the latter makes to the Yu/Qi myth is: “Yu was born of a stone.” Embroidered versions of the metamorphosis of the Tushan girl into stone begin to appear in the writings of Han commentators such as Gao You (third century A.D.), and Ying Shao (second century A.D.). The fourth-century commentator of The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Guo Pu, however, specifies that the mother of Qi (Kai) metamorphosed into stone and gave birth to Qi on the mountain. Thus the tradition of Qi’s miraculous birth is confirmed by at least the early fourth century A.D. and probably derives from an earlier tradition (p. 122).
I changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.
4) The stone “splitting open” is related to stories of sage-kings erupting from the backs or sides of their mothers, splitting them open in the process (Cook & Luo, 2017, pp. 97-100). See also note two above.
5) Sørensen notes that the myth was depicted in a mural from the famous Jokhang Temple, which was built in the 7th-century (Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, p. 582).
6) Another version of the tale appears in The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies (Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long, 14th-century). An annotated translation can be read in Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan & Sørensen, 1994, pp. 125-133.
7) The vizier and brother of Tesub.
8) Güterbock (1951), pp. 138-140 gives a summary of the tale. The paper also translates the first half of the fragmented epic. Güterbock (1952) translates the other half. Both papers are archived above.
9) I am indebted to Jose Loayza for bringing the stone birth of Mithras to my attention. This resulted in the rest of the Western figures in this article.
10) This references another myth in which, following the great flood, mankind is repopulated by Deucalion and Pyrrha casting the “bones” (stones) of the “great mother” (Gaia) over their shoulders. Thus thrown, the stones soften and take on human shape. See for example Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Ovid & More (n.d.)).
11) Knohl (2009) suggests Armilus’ story is a veiled attack against Augustus Caesar: 1) who is said to have been sired by the god Apollo under the guise of a dragon, the Jewish symbol for Satan; 2) who founded the Greek city of Nicopolis, which brings to mind the biblical Emmaus Nicopolis; 3) and who helped spread the cult of the goddess Roma (a statue of a beautiful woman) (pp. 81-83). So Satan impregnating the stone statue to produce Armilus likely refers to the myth of Apollo siring Augustus.
Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bsod-nams-rgyal-mtshan, & Sørensen, P. K. (1994). The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: An Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Tibetan Chronicle: rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.