Taotie and Kirtimukha

Tony Gerard Dolan

Shang Dynasty


Kanji characters are first used in the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600-1050BCE) to record oracles and their interpretation. A notable feature of this civilisation was the manufacture of magnificent three legged, often bronze, sacrificial vessels. The front of these vessels frequently depict a feline creature with no lower jaw, devouring an apparently willing victim who embraces rather than flees the creature. The rear of the vessel may also depict a similarly terrifying face.

Diagram of Taotie Characteristics

Tāotiè is often translated as meaning gluttony. Indeed if we break down the two kanji to their component parts we note that the lower part, common to both kanji means food or eating. The upper two parts on the left kanji denote a tiger. The upper parts of the rightmost kanji denote bones on the left and hair on the right which is generally what is left after an animal has been devoured - or all that remains after a corpse has decomposed. So a gluttony doesn't quite tell the tale. The components of the tāotiè face can be illustrated on the left.

If we travel across the Pacific to the Olmec Culture (circa 1200 ~ 400BCE) the Olmec sarcophagus below was recorded before being destroyed. In this instance the feline represented is the jaguar. Joseph Campbell in his work The Mythic Image (p117-128) points out that symbolically tigers are representative of the receptive, female, yin ( shaded, damp bank of a river) principle in nature and are associated with earth, and by extension, there is a suggestion in the tāotiè of the earth taking life back back to its bosom through the agent of a consuming animal / sarcophagus.

The particular vessel (for fermented drinks) that Joseph Campbell did his analysis on can be seen at the Cernushi Museum in Paris.

Food, Glorious Food!

Following Campbell's argument if we move back to India we perhaps find in the Taittirya Upanishad the world sensibility behind this motif:

Olmec Sacrophagus in the form of a Jaguar
Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful!
I am food! I am food! I am food!
I am a food-eater! I am a food-eater! I am a food-eater!
I am fame-maker! I am fame-maker! I am fame-maker!
I am the first born of the world order,
Earlier than the gods, in the navel of immortality!
Who gives me away, has indeed aided me!
I, who am food, eat the eater of food!
I have overcome the whole world!
He who knows this, has a brilliantly shining light.
Such is the mystic doctrine!

Specifically in India there is the origin tale of the curiously named Kirtimukha (Face of Glory). A motif found over the entrance of Hindu temples from India through SE Asia as far as Java. The tale told is as follows:

Kirtimuka - The Myth

Kirtimuka - Face of Glory
An ambitious king, Jalandhara by name, by virtue of assiduously practicing yoga acquired such supernatural powers that he was able to overthrow the gods themselves in their heaven. In his hubris at this success he decided that Shiva's consort, Parvati, should properly be his queen. To this end he summoned forth a great demon, Rahu, the Seizer - whose more normal night time job was to catch the moon and eclipse it - to act as his emissary on this considerable errand. When Rahu confronted Shiva with his request the latter, unperturbed, let blast a flash of light from his third eye, conjuring forth a leonine headed emaciated demon which was non other than ravenous hunger incarnate. Rahu realising his probable fate if he were to confront this horror, cast himself upon Shiva's mercy and implored forgiveness. Appeased, Shiva granted him protection from the terrible monster who however now demanded from the god another victim that his hunger might be temporarily satiated. With the wit of a supreme godhead, Shiva suggest the monster eat himself, which he did until only his upper face remained. Shiva delighted by this act granted the vestigial terrifying face the compliment of:
You shall be known henceforth as Kirttimukha, Face of Glory, and shall abide forever at my door. No one who fails to worship you will ever obtain my grace.

We learn from Campbell that the Face of Glory is the epitomization of the self consuming mystery that is life. He rounds out this fascinating discussion by noting that the Greek word, sarkophagus (σαρκοφαγος) comes from the combination of the words flesh and eat respectively.1

1 Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image (Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 118–21.