In Chinese mythology, Shennong (神農) is a deity credited with the creation of agriculture, the preservation of seeds, and irrigation, as well as the invention of the ax, well, and hoe. He is considered to be the father of traditional Chinese medicine, in part because of his detailed catalog containing 365 different botanical medicines.
Known for trying many of his own herbal cures, Shennong met an untimely death after ingesting a particularly poisonous plant. Also called Yán Dì (炎帝), he is the second of the “Three Kings,” a group of ancient, legendary emperor deities. He’s considered to be an ancestor of Huangdi (皇帝), the Yellow Emperor, perhaps even his father.
Shennong’s most common name is made up of the characters for “god” or “deity,” shén (神), and nóng (農), which means “peasant” or “farmer.” Therefore, Shénnóng literally means “farmer god.” He’s also known as Wǔgǔshén (五穀神), the “God of Five Grains,” or Wǔgǔxiāndì (五穀先帝), the “First God of the Five Grains.” Shennong is also thought to be Yán Dì (炎帝), the second of the three legendary kings of China. This title, however, is most commonly translated as “the Emperor of Fire.”
One of the most peculiar things about Shennong is that he’s “bull-headed.” In some artistic representations, he merely has horns or subtle bumps on his head, but in others, he literally has the head of a bull. Shennong is also said to have a forehead as hard as bronze, a skull as hard as iron, and a transparent stomach, which he used to observe how the herbs he ingested affected his body. He usually dresses in a simple robe made from leaves and foliage, sporting long hair and an overgrown beard, and is often depicted in his signature pose—sitting while munching on a branch.
Shennong is said to be the progeny of a beautiful princess and a dragon, though the names of his parents are not clear. Shennong is also believed to be the father or ancestor of Huangdi.
Although he’s arguably one of the most eccentric gods in the Chinese pantheon, Shennong is a beloved folk figure who is credited with the discovery of many herbs that are still used in traditional Chinese medicine today. Shennong also helped humans transition from a miserable diet of clams, meat, and fruit to a diet based on grains and vegetables. Through his self-administered herbal tests, he discovered tea—one of the most important plants in Chinese culture.
Shennong was born in what is modern-day Shaanxi province on the banks of the Jiang River, southwest of the Qi Mountains around 28 BCE. It was clear that there was something special about Shennong since the day he was born. The most obvious sign? He was born with two horns upon his head and a transparent stomach. Shennong gained the ability to talk within three days of his birth and could plow entire fields by himself by the age of three.
As Shennong grew older, he realized that most of the people in his village were sickly, weak, or starving and soon came to the conclusion that it was because they subsisted on a poor, scavenged diet of clams, fruit, and the occasional bit of meat. Deciding to help them, he put his transparent stomach to use and began eating all the different types of plants around him to experiment with their effects on his body.
Shennong categorized the plants into three different categories: superior (non-toxic and edible), medium (plants with mild ill-effects, but with medicinal use), and inferior (poisonous). After taking a year to try hundreds of different kinds of plants, Shennong shared his findings with his neighbors and taught them how to farm, so they would have a steady source of nutritious food. After learning to cultivate plants and medicinal herbs, the health of the villagers increased exponentially and they went on to share their newfound knowledge with neighboring towns.
Shennong’s contributions earned him a god-like status among the villagers. In some interpretations of his myth, he would later become known as Yan Di, or the “Emperor of Fire” (since fire was an important symbol to the people of his home village), who is considered to be one of the three mythological kings of China.
Death and Deification
Unfortunately, Shennong’s luck ran out when he ate a particularly poisonous plant that caused his intestines to rupture before he was able to drink an antidote. It is believed that he died in what is now known as “Shennong Cave.” As a reward for his selfless and heroic deeds, Shennong was awarded a place in the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court.
Even today, Shennong, popular among practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and herbalists, is considered to be the patron god of farmers and rice merchants. Although it would be hard to find one of his temples in a city, shrines dedicated to Shennong can easily be found throughout the Chinese countryside.
Shennong’s birthday is celebrated on the 26th day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar with sacrifices of farm animals like sheep, oxen and pigs. In Hubei province, an area known for its wealth of natural resources, rare plants, and agriculture, there is a nature reserve named after the god called Shennongjia. There have even been sightings of a wild man or “yeti” in this park.
Shennong is also considered to be the author of the Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng (神農本草經), or The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, one of the first ever almanacs detailing the herbs used in Chinese medicine. Shennong also plays a significant role in the Yì Jīng (易經), or The Book of Changes.