Island Gorilla


Adventures in the mist

the ongoing literary and wider exploits of A. Nicholson

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Alex finds religion to be noisy and peculiar.
Scott Pilgrim

So I've not been in Taiwan terribly long now -- just over a month, in fact. But one thing that's become apparent is that they really love their festivals. The latest celebration to rear its head was the Mazu Pilgrimage.



Mazu is a goddess in Taiwanese Chinese mythology. She is kind of the patron god of fishermen, and by extension the island of Taiwan for reasons I'll get into later. The story goes, in the 10th century on Meizhou Island, Fujian, a girl was born, the seventh daughter of a fisherman. She would wear red to guide fishing boats home, even in dangerous weather. I guess lighthouses weren't really a going thing in Meizhou.

Anyway, there was a terrible typhoon which caught her father and brother at sea. Mazu prayed desperately that her family be spared. In the version of the story I like best, she fell into a trance in which she was transported to her father's side and was able to save him. Unfortunately, her mother woke her from her trance before she was able to retrieve her brother, who was lost to the sea. Nevertheless, her father told the islanders that a miracle happened, and thus her fame grew.

At some point, she evidently took a level in Incredible Badass, because she is typically depicted with a crew of two hardcore demon general bros called Thousand Miles Eye and With The Wind Ear. ok so theyre not quite as catchy as melchior or lucifer but whatever its cool ok

Not pictured: hardcore demon bros

She totally conquered those bad boys and forced them to be her bodyguards. Interesting... Then she turned into a goddess by climbing a mountain and flying to heaven, which shows all sorts of positive traits that you'd want in a goddess. Principally initiative, perseverance, and a goal-orientated attitude.

After her ascension, people started praying to her out of respect for her deeds saving her father and watching over the fishermen. And because she was seen as more compassionate and protector-ly than the majority of aquatic deities at the time, she rapidly grew in popularity, to the extent that throughout much of East and Southeast Asia, one of the first things colonists would do after settling on an island would be building a shrine to Mazu to thank her for their safe journey and pray for a prosperous new start. Perhaps because her shrine was often the first to be constructed, or perhaps due to her perception as a maternal figure, certain groups began to pray to her for more general aid. Taiwan in particular took Mazu very much into their collective busom, particularly in the 20th century, when they started praying to her on matters of health, career, farming, relationships, and everything else.


So yeah, she's a big noise in these parts, and every year she's escorted around the country by a whole bunch of pilgrims (there are apparently two official statues that do the rounds). She's borne on a big old palanquin, which are predictably pimped as hell for trawling the streets of Taiwan. And when I say the streets of Taiwan, I mean pretty much the entire island. There were villages getting into scraps over which one got to have Mazu pass through. Not for nothing, either: I'm told it's considered lucky to have the palanquin pass over your head.

Fireworks! How novel.


If there's one thing more important than Mazu to the Taiwanese, it's fireworks. So it will surprise precisely no-one for me to make the astonishing reveal that there were fireworks all the hell up in this bizzle from here to Christmas. It was serious business out there, people. I've not seen fireworks like this since the Festival of Light for Hogmanay in Edinburgh, and that was a one-off. This was wall-to-wall firework displays, sometimes simultaneously, and rating pretty highly on the 'ooooooh' factor. Obviously it's difficult to convey the magnitude of the occasion through pictures and my woefully inadequate and disjointed prose, so you will just have to believe me that as the night drew on and Mazu hit up all the temples in the city, the cloud of gunpowder and miscellaneous firework discharge swelled so big it looked like nothing so much as a bomb had just gone off and engulfed much of the town. Which I guess was more or less the case.



National Geographic, I heard, calls the Mazu National Tour the third biggest pilgrimage on the face of the planet. Now, considering the first two represent the two largest religions in the world, and the third is a pagan knees-up on an island way the hell out at the end of a continent, I think that's a pretty big achievement.


In fact, since I last put pen to paper, she passed through again, on her way back. This time, her path took her straight past my apartment building, and the fireworks were even more amazing, if only because they were close enough to my balcony for the backwash from the explosion to sting my face. I did my best to get some decent shots -- getting the right level of exposure is next to impossible, as far as I can make out, but I think these are probably the best of the lot.

It's actually very intimidating feeling the heat from the explosion so close to your face. The trouble I go to for you people...

I'd been pre-warned, of course, on the grapevine, although lord knows there's no such thing as approval for procession routes here. It just happens, and you get swept along or rolled over. I could see plainly from my ninth-floor seat at one point, the firework display in the street below, where at least three hundred people were gathered, went somewhat awry. A whole section of rockets went off pretty much at street level in one of the front sections of the crowd. Needless to say, they scattered pretty sharpish and no-one appeared to be hurt. But there were children in that crowd, dammit. You didn't need to be at street level to see they were terrified. You'd think at least one of the temples involved in this procession would show some responsibility and make sure this kind of thing didn't happen. Oh well.


It wasn't just Mazu out last night. I saw a group of folk indulging another element of Taiwanese folklore. Ghosts are an important part of Taiwanese superstition: apparently, until a generation or so ago, a disproportionately high amount of Taiwanese people couldn't swim, despite growing up on an island. This was due to the belief that ghosts live in deep water and will drag you down to drown should you come across them.

Ghosts in general are fickle sorts, but ghost ancestors are often respected and given tribute with ghost money. These sheaves of paper are apparently transferable to your ghost of choice by burning them, in kind of a similar manner to Catholic indulgences. Unlike indulgences however, ghost money is apparently very cheap, since people burn it as freely as if it's fiddling kids at the swimming pool.

This does raise more questions, like what exactly would a ghost do with all that money, especially if they're going to be spending so much time underwater waiting to drown swimmers, but I suppose it's not really my place to ask.

Making a deposit into Grandpa's trust fund.

Ghosts, by the way, hate fireworks. Which does go some way to explaining why they're set off after dark. But I will never understand why it's considered good sense to set them off during the daytime. Really, Taiwan? Really? Well, it's your money you're blowing up. Everyone has their vice, and at least theirs doesn't actively poison them.



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