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As noted in several previous blog posts, the Chinese underworld, Diyu, is simultaneously a place of vicious physical tortures AND a particularly nasty and intractable bureaucracy. King Yama presides over this hellish realm assisted by the merciless judge Qin-Guang-Wang who determines how long damned souls must suffer in order to pay off their karmic debts.  Yet, in addition to these big names, there are also many other lesser bailiffs, beadles, demons, ghouls, guards, and torturers who work for the system.  Perhaps the most recognizable of these henchmen (or henchbeings) are the animal-headed duo of Horse Face and Ox Head.  Known together as the Niútóumǎmiàn, Horse Face and Ox Head are the principle bailiffs at the first room of Diyu–the dreadful Hall of Retribution, where initial judgement is meted out to newly dead souls.

Horse Face and Ox Head in the Hall of Retribution

Like Cerberus in Greek mythology, these two immortal demons are the first & worst jailors of the dark realm and act as heavies on behalf of the rulers of the underworld.  Their tasks include  manhandling intractable souls before Diyu’s bench, throwing combative souls into deeper pits of torment, and pursuing would-be escapees.  Horse Face and Ox Head lack human compunctions and mercies, but, crucially, they also lack human guile and can thus be tricked.

I guess it is good to enjoy your work.

In The Journey to the West, the most abstruse and fantastical of the Four Great Classical Epics of Chinese Literature, Horse Face and Ox Head (or legions of Horse Faces and Ox Heads) are outwitted by Sun Wukong, the beloved monkey trickster deity, who then erases his own name and the names of all of his monkey subjects from the annals of death.  Having thus ensured immortality for himself and his simian followers, Sun Wukong proceeds onward to wreak chaos elsewhere.

Most of the visitors to Diyu were not so fortunate, strong, and clever as the Monkey King and were easily dealt with by the formidable doormen of Diyu.  In Japan the duo are known as Gozu-Mezu.  They are also part of the afterworld in various cultures around China like Singapore and Thailand.  For all of their popularity in visual art, there is remarkably little information about the lore and backstory of Horse Face and Ox Head.  It seems that nobody really pays much attention to bailiffs, even when they are immortal animal-headed demons guarding hell itself!

Aww…poor little guys…

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023