The sweetest holiday

beehives 14th century

Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?

In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.

Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.

St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.

A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.

bees on clover

Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.

This year I will be:

  • Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
  • Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
  • I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
  • I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.

What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:

  • Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
  • Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Meditate on bees.
  • Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
  • Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
  • Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
  • Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
  • Give your ancestors some honey.
  • Do some food magic with honey.
  • Launch a “swarm” of sigils.

Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.

Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).

Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.

Bees Attend Keeper's Funeral

For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems.  In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:

“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”

I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.

The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.

 

*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.

**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.

Advertisements

Revisiting the topic of deities

Jareth
Do the gods get tired of living up to our expectations?

I seem to get some of the most in-depth comments as replies to posts I write about deities. Often these comments are challenging, but I welcome them. Some of them disagree with me on perfectly valid grounds but I also think I haven’t made my ideas completely clear, which is probably because they aren’t very clear to begin with. So I’m revisiting the topic today to make clear my deity manifesto, partly to better understand my own thoughts and partly to make it explicit where I stand, in case it isn’t already.

I’m not trying to tell you what to think

First and foremost. I hope this goes without saying, but sometimes people seem to react as if I’m saying they need to realign their personal gnosis of Deity X to fit with my (typically historical, intellectual, and abstract) suggestions. Nothing could be further from the truth, because…

I have no idea what deities are

Beyond saying that deities seem to be powers bigger than what we usually call “spirits” and smaller than the full totality of all that exists, I sincerely do not know what they are. I have been in the presence of some big powers, in places that were supposed to house or represent deities. And it is manifestly clear that when people dial a god/dess’ number, someone answers. But who is on the other end of the line? This is part of why I’m a polytheist–I believe, as much on the basis of probability than for any other reason, that more than one of these entities exists–but I’m not a devotional polytheist. I don’t know what or whom I would be devoting myself to.

In fact, I’ve arrived at the point where I find the words god and goddess pretty much useless. It is pretty clear that as abstract conceptual categories, they are not at all helpful, as I have argued before (also here). These words are packed full of so much baggage, yet at the same time they don’t really explain anything; every time I use them I feel I should specifically define them, which would take ages. I think from now on they have to be put in problem-quotes like “Celtic”.

I have no idea what deities want

I don’t even know that they “want” anything as we understand that, but what I mean is, who the hell knows what they are up to? Dogs will sooner understand algebra than we will understand deities’ motives. This was actually one of the most disturbing realizations I’ve ever come to. It took me probably a year to stop feeling creeped out all the time (now I’m just creeped out when I think about it).

I’m certainly not going to tell deities, whatever they are, what they can and can’t do. I am very cognizant of the fact that there’s no such thing as coincidence in magic, and maybe no such thing as an accident either. If you accept the proposition that deities exist, you have to also accept that they have agency and consciousness; to what extent, then, are they involved in changing perceptions of them?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know our history/myths

Nevertheless I guess I’m just not postmodern enough to feel ok with wholesale embrace of any and all UPG and rejection of historical accuracy such as we know it. It drives me crazy when fundamentalist Christians spout nonsense that is diametrically opposed to the Christian theology they claim to believe, evidently out of rank ignorance if not anti-intellectual know-nothingism. We should do better. For too long in the neo-pagan community the same ideas–e.g., ones from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess–have been recycled, frequently plagiarized, over and over. Perhaps it is the case that Mór Rígain is happy to be conceptualized as a war goddess; but even if that is true–and I for one have no idea if it is–does that mean we shouldn’t be aware of earlier conceptualizations/representations of her? I wrote a post on my herbal blog a couple years ago about how the caduceus came to replace the asklepian as the symbol of medicine, and a commenter suggested that maybe it was no accident, as Hermes could reasonably be considered a patron of the healing arts. And indeed, I agree that is possible and a legitimate way to interpret the history–but I would still argue that we should know what the facts are (to the extent that we can–I realize history has its problems).

Also, I like to study and analyze myths. I have since I was in the 4th or 5th grade (to answer the question Gordon asks his podcast guests, “Were you a weird kid?”–yes, yes I was). Myths don’t tell us what the deities are, but they have many layers and facets and if we squeeze them we get wonderful new insights into the Nature of Things (and what is history but another kind of myth?). That’s all I’m doing with these posts.

What are the implications?

That’s it. That’s the question, the whole reason I keep nattering on about deities in the first place. If we accept that deities are real, what does it say about Reality that they seem to be more responsive to our expectations than they are to facts?

(I am reminded of the scene in Labyrinth where Jareth says, “Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”)

What does it mean for us if our calls are always answered, but we don’t know by whom? What does it mean that no two people’s UPG is the same? Shouldn’t we be concerned when we find ourselves getting defensive or unsettled in the face of someone else’s conflicting experience of a deity? (I know I sometimes do.) On the grand scale, the historical facts mean nothing compared to the potential implications of these, but for me they provide a necessary reference point against which to frame the questions.

I don’t have anything invested in making people agree with me on deities because I’m interested in dialogue. You might be surprised to know–given how much I’ve blathered about them and how much I love myth–that for the most part Working with deities doesn’t play a big role in my life (though like everything else this may change). I don’t usually feel the need to put names or personalities on forces of nature and landscape, and when I address them I just use the commonly accepted name of the phenomenon or species (e.g., “wind”, “rock”, “oak”).

So I don’t need a unified theory of deities, I don’t need for the mysteries to be solved, but I do crave some philosophical conversation about them. Why do we say “armchair philosophy” like it’s a bad thing? I don’t see why we can’t philosophize in comfortable furniture. So let’s do!

An interesting juxtaposition

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun–which motive seems to be imputed to me every time I say this–but I don’t care about seeing the new Star Wars movie and I would rather pretend it doesn’t exist. I discussed this with several people on Facebook, and it was interesting that with maybe two exceptions, everyone seemed to think I was saying that I thought the movie would be bad.

Instead, what I was saying is that I do not think this nostalgia that prompts us to relive movies over and over says anything good about our (American/Anglophone) society and its cultural projects. When I want to revisit the Star Wars universe, I watch Star Wars again. (Yes, it will always be “Star Wars” to me and not “A New Hope.” I know, I’m aging myself. It seems an appropriate way to celebrate finding my first grey hairs this month. You damn kids get off my lawn.) Don’t get me wrong. I get nostalgic like anyone else, and I enjoy a bit of escapist action cinema. Man, if I could recapture the sense of empowerment and inspiration I got from watching She-Ra as a kid I would not only magically leverage the hell out of it (something I am trying to figure out how to do), I would bottle and sell it. But I do not feel the need to constantly revisit-but-with-slight-cosmetic-changes-“improvements” the experiences of my youth. I certainly do not feel the need for a J.J. Abrams version of Masters of the Universe. I’m actually a little afraid that by having put that idea out there into the universe it’s going to happen. Please don’t let that happen.

Well, maybe if Wes Anderson had directed the new Star Wars, with Bill Murray as a jaded and cynical Luke Skywalker and Owen Wilson as Chewbacca…I might have gone to see that. But I digress.

My main complaint about the Star Wars prequels–which I refuse to acknowledge in my universe–is not that they were “bad” in so very many ways, but that they betrayed the whole worldview, philosophy, and cosmology of the original movies. I mean, midichlorians? Talk about selling out to scientistic-materialism. I know it’s not the ’70s anymore and the New Age is looking a bit tarnished and beat up, but it was so sad to see something mythic reduced to the merely fictive. So I want nothing to do with any further Star Wars elaborations, and the same goes for Star Trek (the Abrams version of which similarly betrayed/abandoned the mythos of the original–or to paraphrase some dude I don’t know on Facebook, Abrams made a good action movie, but he didn’t make a Star Trek movie), Tarzan, Point Break (not making that up), and all the other remakes, retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. I swear every time another Marvel superhero movie comes out an angel commits harakiri. Can we at least agree not to remake a movie until 25 years have passed since the original came out?

Setting aside my cantankerousness, I actually am dismayed by the way nostalgia has grown so out of control. I read an interview with Simon Pegg when The World’s End came out which I can’t find anymore, but basically he was complaining that

“…the growing consumerism attached to genre films that has preyed on audiences’ nostalgia for youth. Citing the philosophies of cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, Pegg explains how society has become infantilized to distract us from the real horrors of the world. ‘There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the “The Force Awakens” and the “Batman vs Superman” trailers,’ Pegg writes, ‘than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.'”

It’s ironic, if not maybe just a teensy bit hypocritical, that these words are coming from a guy who starred in both the new Star Treks and the new Star Wars, but I agree with what he’s saying here and for better or worse, the Cornetto Trilogy are among the very few films pointing out the extremes to which nostalgia has been leveraged by marketers and the mindlessness of the general populace in consuming it.

So anyway, that is my bad attitude to the whole thing. I feel a little vindicated that less-than-fawning reviews of the new Star Wars are beginning to appear. That (in part) is why I clicked on this link when a friend posted it on Facebook:

From “A New Hope” to no hope at all: “Star Wars,” Tolkien and the sinister and depressing reality of expanded universes

The next thing I saw in my news feed was this link from Gordon:

Empire of Chaos preparing for more fireworks in 2016

The juxtaposition of the two is interesting. The subtitle of the first article could with equal truth be appended to the second: “When fantasy sagas never end, we see the cycles of brutality and totalitarianism that fuel them don’t, either.”

American exceptionalism and EU/ECB/IMF/NATO’s various politico-economic just-so stories are our fantasy saga. In light of that, read this synopsis of America’s current chapter of the saga:

Give Me Only Good News!

I realize this comes off as awfully pessimistic. I don’t want to make things harder for you this Bickanytide*. As when I first suggested to my Facebook acquaintances that perhaps a new Star Wars doesn’t really warrant pants-wetting levels of enthusiasm, I am only suggesting we widen our perspectives a bit to look at bigger patterns and maybe just maybe have a good think about it. But what am I saying? If you’re reading this, you are already my kind of weirdo. I wish you a happy midwinter and a wond’rous feast of St. Bickany!

*Totally stealing that from Gordon. Too perfect to pass up.

Are you listening to Story Archaeology yet?

Boann by Jim Fitzpatrick
Boann, by Jim Fitzpatrick

Seriously you guys, are you listening to the Story Archaeology podcasts? If you have any interest in “Celtic” mythology and/or spirituality, Irish myth and/or folklore, or Celtic or Druidic reconstructionism or revival, you really should be listening.

I’ve been interested in all kinds of myth and folklore since I was in elementary school, and got particularly into “Celtic” myth and folklore starting around age 12 I’d guess. It’s been an abiding interest, although I had to set it aside (along with everything else that wasn’t directly dissertation-related) for most of the decade* I was in grad school. So I was excited when a friend of mine pointed me toward the podcast after I had finished my degree and actually had time to read/listen to things out of pure interest. I used to know the Irish stories a lot better but forgot a bit over the years…

But I have been blown away by how Story Archaeology has changed and deepened my perspective on the values, social norms, cultural/mythic information (for lack of a better term), and persons represented in the stories. Chris Thompson (a storyteller and mythologist) and Isolde Carmody (not sure what her specialty is but she reads and translates Old and Middle Irish), the titular “archaeologists,” shy away from referring to any of the characters as gods or goddesses in order to try to break out of a Classical-style-deity framework that has for so long been awkwardly imposed on Irish myth by neopagans and academics alike. As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts this is something I strongly endorse. The content isn’t 100% academic, as each podcast usually involves a retelling by Thompson of the story in question, and both she and Carmody engage in plenty of speculation that will never be refuted or substantiated academically simply for lack of evidence. Much of that speculation is pretty persuasive though, at least I think so.

For me, they have been able to connect a lot of dots that would have forever been unconnected since I don’t read Old and Middle Irish. One of the things that Carmody does is to translate the meaning of people’s names; many of those names are allegorical, and by knowing what they mean you gain a sense of who that character is in a nutshell and it can totally change the meaning of a story. More importantly, when the names are etymologized and translated you see that what superficially appear to be different characters may in fact be just one who is called by synonymous or closely related epithets in various texts. I think this latter is important for two reasons: First, because I think we are all aware at this point of some of the excesses of neopaganism, specifically the tendency to ascribe god/dess status to every name that appears in any myth or folktale. Worse yet, to make them “god/desses of” this or that. And second, because you begin to see connected story arcs–real myths–rather than just isolated stories. This has been sorely lacking in Irish and Welsh literature (not for lack of trying on pagans’ parts though) because the versions we have of these stories were written down by Christians who no longer remembered the old myths.

Just to pique your interest, here are some examples of things that piqued mine:

  • The story of Airmed–usually called a “goddess of herbal medicine” or some such silliness–may actually be a version of a John Barleycorn-type tale about the agricultural cycle of cereals. You only see this if you know what the names mean.
  • What seem to be various characters called Eithliu, Ethlinn, Eithne, Étain, Boand, and possibly also Bé Find may in fact all be one person. I’m always wary of being reductionist, but I think we should regard god/dess (and ancestor figures’, culture heroes’) names as epithets in most if not all cases, and in that light, these are at the very least people who share the same epithet and their roles within their respective stories overlap significantly. And what they have in common is really interesting. I think this is a likely legit goddess, frankly, though your mileage may vary.
  • When you consider all the texts in which she appears, there is actually not much indication that Mór Rígain (Morrigan) is a “battle goddess,” even less a “fertility goddess.” Though she does appear at times of battle and offers aid to warriors, there is something else going on with her that I can’t quite put my finger on. The main themes seem to be prophetic poetry and shapeshifting. When you take all her textual appearances together, you get a sense of sorcery much more than of war or death. Almost (but of course not really) Hekate-like. Another one I think is a legit goddess. Similarly, there is virtually nothing to connect Macha with battle, but a lot that connects her with the fertility of livestock.
  • Some of the stories featuring Manannán mac Lir may have originally been about Midir. Thompson and Carmody show that Midir (his name means “Judge”) was closely connected with Irish concepts of fair distribution, right behavior, and those of course underlay the institution of kingship. They speculate that possibly Midir started being edged out of the stories in the middle ages at least in part because he stood for values incompatible with those of Norman rule.

Oh, and also–you can finally learn how to properly pronounce some of those names with their confoundingly counterintuitive spelling (from an English-speaker’s perspective).

*I would just like the record to reflect that a decade is still less than average to get a Ph.D. in anthropology in the U.S.

Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival

Tanabata streamers and wishes.
Tanabata streamers and wishes.

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.

Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way

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.”

Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard's tail.
Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard’s tail.

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.”

tanabata streamers

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”