Last updated: 05/16/2020
Chapter one of Journey to the West describes Sun Wukong‘s birth from stone (fig. 1).
There was on top of that very mountain [Flower Fruit Mountain] an immortal stone, which measured [36 feet 5 inches (11.09 m) in height and 24 feet (7.31 m) in circumference]. Though it lacked the shade of trees on all sides, it was set off by epidendrums on the left and right. Since the creation of the world, it 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).
So why was Monkey born from a stone? Ancient Chinese fertility cults placed stones on altars dedicated to creation goddesses because the earth element symbolized the fertile, creative forces of nature. For example, one such goddess, Nuwa (女媧), is said to have fashioned mankind from mud and mended the heavens with five magic stones. A few such fertility cults are also associated with Yu the Great (大禹), a legendary sage emperor of the Xia Dynasty, via his marriage to Nuwa (in some traditions), and it is this connection that culminated in stories from the Han Dynasty claiming that Yu was born from a stone. An ancient tale said to be from the Huainanzi (淮南子, c. 139) states the same happened to his son:
Yu went to appease the floods. He pierced through Huanyuan Mountain, and transformed himself into a bear. [Earlier] Yu had said to Tushan [土山, his wife], ‘At the sound of the drum, you would bring me food.’ Yu jumped on a piece of rock, and thus hit the drum by mistake. Tushan [brought the food and] went. She saw the transformed bear. Feeling embarrassed and distressed, she went away as far as the foot of Songgao Mount where she was transformed into a stone. Yu said to her, ‘Return my son.’ Facing north, the stone split open and gave birth to Qi [啓, fig. 2] (Wang, 2000, p. 54).
What I find interesting about this is that Yu and his son Qi went on to become great heroes and rulers after their births from stone. This parallels Monkey’s birth, enthronement, and later adventures. In a way, this makes Monkey a sort of literary spiritual successor to Yu. The compiler-author of JTTW may have wanted to literally cast Wukong from the same mold as the flood conqueror by giving him a similar origin. This then would explain why Monkey comes to wield Yu’s cosmic ruler, the gold-banded cudgel, the means by which the future Xia emperor put the world into order, as a weapon.
Also of interest is the fact that a later alternative name for Qi (啓) is Kai (開). Both of these names mean “open”, which no doubt refers to his legendary origins (Strassberg, 2002, pp. 169 and 219).
Thanks to my friend Jose Loayza on twitter, I was surprised to learn that there is a Western counterpart to Sun Wukong’s supernatural birth. The Persian-turned-Roman god of light, Mithras, is often depicted being born from a stone, sometimes called the 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 uploaded 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. 3] 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 sungod 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. 4] which is represented both as such and by the shape of the zodiacal ring (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 70).
Fig. 3 – An example of Mithras’ serpent-wrapped birth rock from Austria. A larger version is available on Wikicommons; Fig. 4 – 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.
Like Yu the Great, Mithras’ son is said to have also been born from a stone.
An unidentified writer of the second century ad, for convenience termed Pseudo-Plutarch, relates the following story (De fluviis 23.4). Mithras spilled his seed onto a rock, and the stone gave birth to a son, named Diorphos, who, worsted and killed in a duel by Ares, was turned into the mountain of the same name not far from the Armenian river Araxes (Clauss & Gordon, 2001, p. 62).
Jong (1997) comments this tale is part of a wider story cycle present in many cultures.
The hero (good or evil) born from a rock is a recurring topos in a cycle of myths that has known a wide circulation in the Caucasus. These myths are usually connected with the song of Ullikummi known from Hittite and Hurrian sources. 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. 5) (p. 292).
Fig. 5 – A chart showing the existence of the rock-born son trope from other cultures (larger version). From Jong, 1997, p. 293.
By presenting this information, I am by no means suggesting the birth of Mithras directly influenced that of Monkey. Far from it. This just shows the supernatural life-giving stone is a concept that has popped up in other cultures throughout the centuries. Therefore, it’s not unique to China. Such a story arising is only natural given that the earth can be used to grow crops, as well as shape pottery and figurines. In other words, the element can be used to both give life and imitate it. And since ancient people no doubt used earth to make effigies of their gods, it’s not a huge stretch to suggest they believed it could also give birth to supernatural beings. This means the idea could have arisen independently many times.
Sun Wukong wishes you a Happy Mother’s Day! Photomanipulation by me.
“Happy Mother’s Day, mom!” (larger version)
Figure five above lists the hermaphroditic, monstrous god Agdistis as another figure from Western mythology born from stone. Vermaseren (1966) presents his myth reconstructed from multiple sources by previous scholarship:
In Phrygia there is an enormous rock … near Pessinus known by the name of Agdus which took the form of the Great Mother. While she was sleeping Jupiter wanted to make love to her … but the Goddess refused and Jupiter, struggling to obtain … her, lost his seed … According to Pausanias, however, Zeus lost his seed while sleeping. The Goddess is the petra, the mountain, the venerable Terra Mater. Now, against her will, in the tenth month she brings a bisexual being into the world whose name, Agdistis, is derived from Agdus. We must note that Agdistis, like Mithras, is born from the rock (petra genetrix). In the legend this monstruous person is distinct from the goddess Agdistis, whose cult has left some traces in Asia Minor.
Because of his bisexual character the new creature has the power to create by himself, to have offspring without the aid or intervention of any other being—he may be divine or mortal. Hence Agdistis has an insana et furialis libido et ex utroque sexu.  He does not worry about the gods or mankind and he believes that he is the most powerful being in the world. In many respects he has the traits of evil god[s] in Iranian and Indian literature and the jealous gods now use similar tricks against him. When the other gods in the divine council are too fearful and hesitate Liber, or Bacchus,—possibly in order to obtain immortality (though this is not stated)—arranges to tame him … The water in the spring where Agdistis drinks is mixed with wine. When Agdistis sinks into a deep sleep … after having drunk this mixture, Dionysus ties Agdistis’ virile parts to a tree with ropes …, wakening the wild god. From the blood the earth conceived a pomegranate tree with fruit (Arnobius), or an almond tree which bore fruit in due time (Pausanias) (pp. 3-5).
Both Monkey and Agdistis are sired by the union of heaven and earth—the “seeds of heaven and earth” in the case of Sun Wukong and the semen of Zeus (heaven) and the rock goddess Agdus (earth) in the case of Agdistis. These stone-born monsters share a superiority complex, believing they are more powerful than the gods. The deities fear their power and therefore seek ways to tame them—Monkey is placated for a time with celestial posts before ultimately being imprisoned by the Buddha, while Agdistis is striped of his manhood (and thereby his power). I must admit the number of similarities between the two are fascinating.
Again, the presence of stone-born deities in both Eastern and Western mythologies is interesting. This speaks to the generative power of earth in world myth.
Birrell (1999) discusses the mythography and historiography of the previously quoted story describing the stone birth of Yu the Great’s son Qi / Kai (see the first entry above). She reveals Qi’s birth is referenced in early 4th-century material and that it’s a later addition to Tushan’s tale from the Han. Furthermore, she discusses scholarly debate over the age of the myth and notes its sparing use of words and ancient syntax:
The account of the birth of Yu’s son, Qi, is similarly archaic in form and content. The laconic narrative contains several motifs that have resonances with other myths of deities and heroes. Yu’s metamorphosis into a bear links him with his father’s dead spirit (in that version of the Gun myth which relates that Gun’s corpse turned into a bear). The motif of food and drum music connect this myth with the narrative of Jiandi, marking the Yu episode as his nuptial feast with the woman who was to bear his son. His son is conceived by an error, when Yu makes a sound like a drumbeat as his feet pound a stone in rhythmic ecstasy before his marriage. It is worth noting that ancient Chinese drums were made of stone, among other materials. The second metamorphosis in the narrative when Tushan girl turns into a stone links the birth of Qi to music and connects it to the myth of Qi ([Also] known as Kai) receiving the gift of music from God. Other motifs are the godlike command of Yu that his son be brought forth from his mother’s stone womb, and the miraculous splitting of the stone mother to reveal the child god. There is also the linked motif of Yu’s error of pounding the stone and his later lameness, called “the Yu walk.”
The source of this myth is significant for mythography. 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 (Mathieu 1989, 125). 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. The question the mythographer and mythologist must decide, therefore, is whether to reject the text of the myth supplied by Yan Shigu because it does not appear in extant editions of the putative source, or whether to accept it as authentic on the assumption that Yen was citing an edition of Huainanzi which is no longer extant but was available to him in the early Tang dynasty. It will be recalled that most extant editions of the classics were fixed in orthodox versions in the Song dynasty, four centuries after Yan. Karlgren concluded in “Legends and Cults in Ancient China” that because Yan appears only to refer to the text in question rather than citing it verbatim, and because Han and post-Han commentators in general fail to cite the passage, it must be rejected as a valid mythic text of the late second century B.C. (1946, 310). On the other hand, Wolfram Eberhard, in his critical review of Karlgren’s methodology in that article, countered Karlgren’s rejection of the Yan Shigu passage with this general principle of mythographic methodology: “All Ethnologists and Sociologists accept the fact that a myth, a custom or a cult reported earlier than a second myth, custom or cult, must not be a priori older or more primitive than the second; otherwise no Ethnology would be possible! A myth reported only in a later text, may very well represent a form, reflecting quite an early state of development” (1946, 360). Additional support for Yan’s text of the myth resides in its intrinsic style: its syntax is archaic, it lacks consecutive narrative links, it is laconic, and it lacks the explanatory material typical of later narratives. Of course, the text could be a forgery of the early Tang era, but stylistically it is quite different from the Tang mode of narrative (p. 122-123). 
1) “a furious, raging libido and of both sexes”.
2) I have changed the Wade-Giles to Pinyin.
Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Clauss, M., & Gordon, R. (2001). The Roman cult of Mithras: The god and his mysteries. New York: Routledge.
Jong, A. (1997). Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin literature. Leiden; New York: Brill.
Strassberg, R. E. (2002). Chinese bestiary: Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. University of California Press.
Vermaseren, M. J. (1966). The legend of Attis in Greek and Roman art. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Wang, J. (2000). The story of stone: Intertextuality, ancient Chinese stone lore, and the stone symbolism in Dream of the red chamber, Water margin and the journey to the West. Durham [u.a.: Duke Univ. Press.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2013). Journey to the West, Revised Edition, Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.