China’s traditional Qixi (“Double Sevens”) Festival has been celebrated for at least 2000 years. Since the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE), on the seventh night of the seventh month, young women would work with needle and thread in the moonlight and pray for a good marriage in the future. After an incense burning ceremony, they would then gaze at the night sky for the two stars, Vega and Altair, which are separated by the vast expanse of whiteness of the Milky Way, and make their wishes as children picked wild flowers and hung them around horns of oxen.
In Japan, the annual meeting between the two stars is equally celebrated as the Tanabata (“Weaving Princess”) Festival. Traditionally, a bamboo plant would be brought into the house, and a picture of the two stars would be hung upon it. The Altair star is represented as a farmer leading a cow, and the Vega star is a princess with a loom. These celebrations originated in the ancient story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
In legend, the Vega and the Altair Stars were in love. However, it was forbidden for the stars to fall in love. The Celestial Queen Mother and the Heavenly Emperor heard of their love and became furious. Despite the other stars’ protestations on behalf of the two lovers, the Celestial Queen Mother banished the Altair Star down to earth. The Vega Star was punished to weave the clouds in the sky for all eternity. Because of this, she became known as Zhinu (“the Weaver Girl”). In the legend, clouds in the skies were weaved by the Zhinu with celestial silk. Different colors were weaved according to different times of the day and season.
On earth, the Altair Star was reborn into a farming family. After his parents passed away, he stayed with his brother and sister-in-law, who treated him badly. Eventually, he was chased out of their home with only an old ox and a broken cart. He and his ox were inseparable, plowing and working hard to make ends meet. Because of this friendship, the people in the village came to know him as Niulang (the Cowherd).
One day, the Heavenly Maidens, servants of the Celestial Queen Mother requested her permission to descend to Bi Lian Lake in the mortal world. They took pity on the heartbroken Weaver Girl who had done nothing but work hard on her weaving, and requested for her to be allowed to join them on the trip. The Celestial Queen Mother granted their request.
The Heavenly Maidens, or the Jade Maidens, appear as long-sleeved dancers in the shamanic songs of Chu and some Han poems, as well as a lot of Chinese paintings. They are defined as women who act as intermediary between the heaven and earth by dancing. A Qing dynasty painting shows a woman dancing before Xi Wangmu and her court. In the “Jade Girls’ Song,” poet Wei Yingwu describes their flight: “Flocks of transcendent wing up to the divine Mother.”
Unbeknownst to Niulang, his old ox was the reincarnation of the Golden Ox Star Jinniu, one of the stars who dared speak against the Celestial Queen Mother in his defense. One day, the ox suddenly spoke to him, “Go to Bi Lian Lake today. You will find the coats of heavenly maidens by the rocks, while they are bathing in the lake. Take the red coat and the maiden will become your wife.”
Niulang obeyed. He hid near the lake and, true to the Ox’s words, heavenly maidens gracefully danced down from the sky. The maidens placed their dresses by the rock and stepped into the Lake. Seeing his chance, Niulang took the red cloaks. The maidens were frantic to find there was man near them. Putting on their cloaks in haste, they flew back to heaven. Only one heavenly maid was left in the lake, Zhinu.
Niulang stepped forward and asked Zhinu to be his wife. At this moment, Zhinu recognized him as the Altair Star whom she still loved and happily became his wife. She lived with him on earth and bore him a son and a daughter. However, their joy did not last, as when the Celestial Queen Mother soon deployed heaven guards and soldiers to bring Zhinu back to the sky.
Back on earth, the loyal old ox was dying. He asked Niulang to keep his ox hide well, so that one day Niulang will be able to make a cape of the hide and fly into the sky. Sadly, Niuland and Zhinu peeled the hide and gave the ox a burial. Suddenly, the heavenly soldiers came and took Zhinu away. She could do nothing except to be taken back to the clouds and skies with the soldiers. As she was flying, she heard a voice, “Wife, wait for me!” It was Niulang. Looking back, she saw him flying behind them, wearing the magical ox hide, holding a basket with their two children in it. Soon, she could see the faces of her children and hear their cries for her. When they were almost reunited, the Celestial Queen Mother appeared and with a wave of her hairpin, created the Milky Way between them, separating them forever.
The couple and their children gazed tearfully across the Milky Way at each other. All the stars and gods in heaven cried with them, pained that a loving family had to be separated. Soon, even the Heavenly Emperor felt sorry for them. He allowed the family to stay in the sky and remain as stars, permitting them to see each other once every year on the seventh day of the seventh month. On that day, magpies formed a living bridge to reunite the Cowherd, the Weaver Girl and their two children in the skies.
The legend of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl may have taken elements of ancient Chinese legends predating Taoism. Two of those elements appear in the legend as the Celestial Queen Mother and the Heavenly Maidens descending on to earth.
It is very possible that the figure of the powerful Celestial Queen Mother is based on the legend of Xi Wangmu, the powerful ancient goddess Queen Mother of the West, and her movement of dancing maidens, not unlike the cult of Dionysius in Ancient Greece.
Ancient courtly writers gradually tamed and civilized the shamanic goddess and her ecstatic dancing maiden cult. Her wild hair and tiger features gradually receded in ancient depictions, and were replaced by a lady in aristocratic robes, jeweled headdresses, and courtly ways.
On the celestial level, the goddess also manifests her power through the Dipper Stars which then became a major focus of Taoist mysticism. A Shang Qing text dating around 500 CE says that Xi Wangmu governs the nine-layered Kunlun and the Northern Dipper. Taoist texts also repeatedly associate Xi Wangmu with the heavenly palace and, by extension, with the Heavenly Emperor. The goddess herself is also called Queen Mother of the Nine Heavens or the Celestial Queen Mother.
Although she is said to disapprove of the love between the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, Xi Wangmu herself was no stranger to relationships with men from earth. Legends said that Emperor Mu from the Zhou Dynasty (circa 1000 BC) travelled to Mount Kunlun in search of the Western Mother, finally seeing her beside the Turquoise Pond. The emperor Han Wudi was said to have been granted a similar audience in 110 BC. It is believed that, after creating the Milky Way that separates them, Xi Wangmu watches over the meetings of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, arriving on the festival of Double Sevens riding on a chariot of purple clouds.
The character of the Celestial Weaver in mythology is not confined in East Asia. It is, in fact, a widespread symbol. The Celestial, or Divine, Weaver symbolizes purity, creativity and disciplined power.
The ancient Greeks, especially through the Three Fates, and the ancient Asians seem to agree that the power of the Divine Weaver is a power peculiar to a female deity, in that it is quiet, steady, and hidden in its workings. The myth of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl thus makes a basic distinction between the two lovers. The ethereal woman contrasts the man who is portrayed as physically strong, straightforward and earthy. According to the Japanese Shinto belief, it is possible that the purely physical power of the Cowherd is too unpredictable for the world and that neither heaven nor earth can endure it, which explained his position of not fully fitting into both worlds. Therefore, the Weaver Girl’s function as the more orderly of the lovers is reflected in the symbol of her weaving activity. Indeed, the actions of the deities are told and retold precisely because they are exemplary models for future and often ritual repetitions.
The Vedic gods Mitra and Varuna seem jointly to exercise the same divine functions symbolized by the Weaver Girl. Mitra, is the “knot” who facilitates alliances and treaties among humans; Varuna is disposed also to the “knots” in which he “binds” the guilty, a capture both immediate and irresistible. With respect to character, the two gods also provide the same contrast in character which is approached more delicately in the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. Although all the gods are bound by the moral, ritual and cosmic order, Mitra is described as benevolent, firm and reassuring. In contrast, Varuna is violent and impulsive. This energy of the one and the calm of the other is the tone for a lot of mythological pairings in the world.
There are hints from around the world that the weaving symbol has often been exploited in myths. From the North American Southwest, an area long known for the importance of weaving both economically and religiously, comes a prayer of the Tewa People, a branch of the Hopi, recorded in Herbert J. Spinden’s Songs of the Tewa (1933) in which the cosmos is itself seen as a sacred garment worn by the gods.
“… Thus weave for us a garment of brightness,
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where the grass is green,
Oh our Mother the Earth, Oh our Father the Sky.”
From West Africa comes an example of the process of weaving forming the fundamental metaphor for the entire process of cosmogony. It is believed that language, the very medium of the story of the gods, was created out of the sacred loom.
Another familiar ancient story of weavers comes from the story of Arachne, which has been preserved by Ovid and seems to have the form of a Greek folktale of the great antiquity. Arachne is a girl whose extraordinary skill at weaving draws the attention of Athena, the divine weaver and patron of many crafts, especially in the city that bore her name. Athena then challenged her to a weaving contest. Thus the contest had divine significance. In view of this it seems possible that an earlier form of this tale had a lot to do with the display and celebration of the cosmic symbol of weaving.
Wherever the technique is known, wherever there are weavers, there exists a possibility that a religious valorization of the weaving process might take place. There seems to be a natural tendency to see in the hypnotic effect of a loom being worked, in its motion and its quiet rhythmic sound, a metaphor of cosmos and of both time and space. It may also be that the sacred glow or magic so often associated with loom weaving over the centuries may in part stem from just this mystery, that the machine itself is so simple while at the same time the product is so complex.
There are plenty of legends relating to lovers from different worlds in mythology and folklore. Vietnam has a similar legend as the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, called the legend the Weaver Fairy and the Buffalo.
The stolen divine cloak element of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl also formed a separate legend in Japan in the story of the “Swan Maiden”, where the hero took the cloak of the maiden and married her. However, China was not the source of this legend. The supernatural lovers and the stolen cloak are two very ancient common motives folk tales across the world, though the animals vary. The Italian fairy tale “The Dove Girl” features a dove. There are also the Orcadian Selkies who alternate between seal and human shape, and a Croatian tale which features a she-wolf.
The two major motives used the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl legend, the supernatural lover and the stolen cloak, are legends in their own right throughout much of the world, inhabiting much of Europe, America, Asia and Australia. The divine half of the two lovers are generally the woman, usually represented as a goddess, angel or fairy. The animals associated with the stories are usually those which have strong reputations for beauty, elegance, and powers of divination. Sought in times of legend for their powers, like the Selkie, their feather coats were sometimes held to ransom, in exchange for marriage or other favors.
As Zhinu has done in her story, these supernatural beings must physically put aside their coats to take human shape and if would be a tragedy if these coats were lost, stolen, or destroyed as these coats contain their divine essence and glamor. Small wonder, then, that they were often held to ransom by mortals who stole their coats.
The myth of the Valkyries is arguably one of the oldest stories using these two elements. Aside from the famous love story of Brunhilde (a Valkyrie) and Sigurd (a mortal), a Valkyrie is represented by the raven, thus utilizing both the divine women and the graceful animal motives. The Valkyrie is related to the Celtic warrior, the Morrigan, who likewise may assume the form of the raven. By the third to eleventh centuries CE, the Valkyries, as demigoddesses of death, had their legend combined with the same folklore motif which becomes a part of the legend of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, in that if one could capture and hold a Valkyrie, or her cloak, one could extract a wish from her. Therefore, Valkyries were sometimes known as swan maidens or wish maidens.
The legend the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl can be seen as a story enjoying equal importance as the Greek myths of “Odyssey”, “Jason and the Argonauts” and many others. The romance between the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl has made the Qixi Festival not only one of the oldest, but also the most romantic traditional Chinese festival. Countless poems in Chinese history are in praise of the story, the most famous works including “Far in the Skies Is the Cowherd Star”, an ancient poem of the Han Dynasty, “Qixi” by Du Mu of the Tang Dynasty and “Fairy on the Magpie Bridge” by Qin Guan of the Song Dynasty. Traditional Chinese Opera Companies such as the Beijing Opera and Shaanxi Opera also have performances about the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl in their repertoire.
The legend is very much ingrained in the Chinese consciousness and has somewhat shaped their ideas about the stars and the Milky Way. For centuries, people would bring a little chair outside and enjoy the cool air, gazing at the Milky Way trying to find the Niulang and the Zhinu every year on the seventh night of the seventh month. In Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, every household would kill a rooster on this day, hoping that they would be able to help Niulang and Zhinu be united longer, because without the rooster’s crowing the night will never end.