Tanabata, or the Star Festival (the 7th day of the 7th month, by either the lunar or solar calendar), is a holiday I was introduced to while staying in Japan. According to legend, on this day each year, two mythic lovers separated by the Milky Way are reunited. In China, where the story originates, the festival is known as Qixi or the Festival to Plead for Skills, and in Korea as Chilseok. When the festival is celebrated according to the solar calendar, it corresponds generally to the beginning of the summer monsoon rains, when the oppressive heat and humidity becomes slightly more tolerable; however, in the lunar calendar it falls around mid-August and was originally the beginning of autumn.
In brief–Orihime (the star Vega), the weaver-princess, was the daughter of the King of Heaven. She fell in love with Hikoboshi the cowherd (Altair). But when they were together, Orihime neglected her weaving and Hikoboshi his cattle, so the King of Heaven cast them apart and created the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) to keep them apart. Orihime was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, so the King of Heaven agreed to let the couple meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. But neither could cross the river, until the magpies, or in some versions the magpies and crows, made a bridge for them.
In one Chinese version of the story, Orihime (or as she is known in Chinese, Zhinu) is the daughter of Xi Wangmu (the Queen Mother of the West, or Great Female Ancestor of the West) rather than the King of Heaven. Xi Wangmu is a very ancient deity, whose cult exploded in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and one that I find particularly fascinating. I am indebted to the webpage “Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China” by Max Dashu for the following information.
Xi Wangmu lives between heaven and earth, in a paradise garden among the clouds on Jade Mountain or She Wu (“Female-Snake-Shaman”) Mountain. In her garden grows the World Tree which bears peaches of immortality. With her are various magical animals, including the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, the rabbit in the moon, phoenixes, and qilin. In a 3rd-century AD scroll, Xi Wangmu describes herself thus: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.”
“Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.”
In the earliest representations of her, Xi Wangmu looks like a human but has the teeth of a tiger and tail of a snow leopard. The tiger is the directional symbol of the west, and may have been since the very dawn of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic. She bears a staff, and wears a sheng headdress marking her as a weaver “who creates and maintains the universe” and controls the stars and constellations. The involvement of Xi Wangmu in the myth of Tanabata might indicate that it was originally a festival in her honor:
“This sign [the sheng headdress] was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, ‘the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.’ [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, ‘when the divine and human worlds touch,’ and cosmic energies were in perfect balance.”
(My emphasis.) After the Han Dynasty, the worship of Xi Wangmu was blamed for inciting ecstatic peasant movements and especially for too many uppity women peasants, so the goddess was “civilized.” Gone were her wild hair and fangs, replaced by royal robes and jewels, and her opposite, the Queen Mother of the East, was replaced by the King Father of the East to balance out what was perceived as an excess of feminine directional power and yin. In some literature she was demoted to mortal human status, or even depicted as a kind of succubus. Nevertheless Xi Wangmu remained beloved by the people, who often referred to her as “Nanny.”
Inspired by a miraculous tale of love, or by the awesome cosmic powers of Xi Wangmu, Tanabata is a day to make wishes for the fulfillment of long-cherished dreams, in particular the desire for new skills. People write these wishes on slips of paper and hang them on tree branches, and colorful streamers decorate the streets. Japanese festivals are open to all comers, being a matter of community participation rather than religious or cultural identification, while the stars are visible from all over Earth (albeit different ones in different hemispheres), so I don’t think there are any issues of appropriation to fear here.
If you wish to celebrate the Star Festival, you can complement the colorful modern traditions with more ancient ones, including:
- Nine lamps dedicated to Xi Wangmu
- Propitiating ghosts and the dead
- Sewing fall/winter clothes, embroidery, weaving
- Offerings of melons and fruit, candles, incense, and miniature clothing, shoes, or furniture in groups of seven
- A “wish-fulfillment banquet”