Underworld journey movies for kids of all ages

Maybe it’s part of the trend of magic re-entering the mainstream of late, I don’t know. Although the inner shadow-hipster I completely disavow cringes at the idea, I think it’s a good thing that we seem to be seeing a re-injection of proper myth into stories “for kids.”

Cases in point: Spirited Away, The Little Prince, Moana.

(Ok, I know Spirited Away isn’t new, in fact this year is its 15th anniversary. But for precisely that reason some theaters are screening it this month. And to be fair, Miyazaki has been making movies with spiritual/Shinto themes for decades, but maybe now people outside Japan will be able to get that in a way that I suspect they haven’t previously. As a sidebar, Chihiro is way less bratty and annoying in Japanese than in the English-dubbed version.)

Oh yeah–spoiler alert. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Spirited Away (2001)

spirited-away

Spirited Away is the most overtly shamanic of the three films here. It is pretty explicit that the heroine Chihiro and her parents inadvertently cross into an Otherworld when they wander through a seemingly abandoned amusement park. I mean, they should have known, really–transdimensional crossings pretty much go with the territory with abandoned amusement parks, I would think, much like buildings that used to be hospitals (speaks the voice of experience) or are full of antique dolls (shudder) are bound to be haunted. There follow a series of encounters with bizarre spirits out of a really adorable (Japan, amiright?) mushroom trip as Chihiro is stripped of her this-world identity* and must find allies, and her own courage, on the Other side. She does this, in part, through performing services to spirits like the river kami in the bathhouse, Kaonashi (“No-Face,” a kind of wetiko–and indeed, greed is the big villain in this film), Haku the dragon, and Bou the giant baby. What she learns in the Otherworld enables her to return herself and her parents to this world, but now she is not only transformed by the journey but has a posse of helping spirits.

There’s some more theories about the meaning(s) of Spirited Away in this article, but it unfortunately reduces the shamanic character of the story to the more universal but neutered “spiritual.”

*Chihiro’s loss of this-world identity is made explicit when she is renamed Sen. Sen, another reading of the first character in the name Chihiro, means 1000; in other words, she is literally robbed of a name and becomes just a number. That this is done by Yubaba, the greedy mistress of the underworld bathhouse where Chihiro must earn her freedom, could be read as a symbol of the dehumanization we all face in the modern workplace/marketplace.

The Little Prince (2015)

little-prince

The Little Prince, based on the ostensibly-children’s story (really more a tale for jaded adults), was released as a Netflix original. It sets the original story within a framing narrative which is what turns this from a very French meditation on love, loss, and death (seriously, when I read the story I can hear it in my mind’s ear as if it is being read by an ennui-filled Frenchman between slow, cynical drags on a Gaulois) to an underworld journey. I highly doubt this was intentional, but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Netflix had been plugging the movie on its homepage but I had exactly zero interest until I happened to hear an interview about it on NPR while driving to work. Specifically, it was this quote, from the Fox, that happened to be a major sync for me:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Three days later I was looking to kill time while doing laundry and Netflix promoted the movie again, and my primary helping spirit told me emphatically that I needed to watch it.

You can “read” the movie on various levels: as a social critique about how work and school crush our souls; as a parable about death and grief; or as an exploration of “what is essential” in life, e.g., play, spontaneity, love. But the more interesting story, to me, is once again about a journey to the Otherworld and the encounter with helping/tutelary spirits–specifically the Little Prince, the Fox, the Snake, and the Rose. The little girl heroine first acquires her own helping spirit/power animal–a fox (Trickster par excellence), represented/embodied by one of the most shamanic implements I can imagine, a stuffed fox toy covered with glow-in-the-dark stars and filled with jingle bells–and then goes to retrieve her friend the Aviator’s helping spirit, the Little Prince, before stewarding the Aviator into death. In so doing she effects healings/soul retrievals for herself, her friend, her mother, and by extension (if you’re receptive to the idea) the viewer.

For me, this movie was filled with truth bombs, some of which are still waiting to be ignited. My feminists out there will be happy to know that the Rose, who in the book is a two-dimensional and very unflattering depiction of Woman as weak, vain, and naive, is in the movie a tutelary spirit; and as mentioned, the Little Prince is actually not the hero in this version, but rather a little girl.

If you do work with helping spirits, it’s hard to put into words but there is something about this movie that seems to allow them to plug into it and download huge packets of information to a receptive mind. I don’t know, maybe it was just me? Give it a try. For example, if you plug the character of the Rose into the mystical and goddess (Isis/Venus/Mary/etc.) symbolism of the Rose (an example, another–there’s a lot and it’s well worth the dig), and even its medicinal properties, it’s like a cheat code that lets you jump ahead five levels. Then layer it onto this:

Strike, dear Mistress, and cure our hearts. I’ll just leave you with that and let you do your own experimentation.

Moana (2016)

moana

Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of Disney films. Even as a kid I chafed against the message that the most important things I could aspire to were being pretty and falling in love with a rich man. I mean, I get the social context of the films made circa midcentury when that was an accepted “truth,” but Disney has lagged way behind the times in updating that message. As far as I know it wasn’t until Brave (2012) that we finally got a movie where romance wasn’t portrayed as the apotheosis of the story (and thus of a woman’s existence).

Also I hate musicals.

But, again because of an interview I heard on NPR on the way to work–which is interesting because I only switch to NPR these days during commercials on other stations, because as shit as popular music mostly is these days, it’s still better than what passes for “liberal” “news”–I thought I’d give this one a shot. I mean, it has a Trickster (Maui), explicitly identified as such.

Unsurprisingly considering this is Disney, of the three movies under consideration here it’s the most literal and (for me anyway) has the least potential for truth-bomb-downloads. In some ways, this movie is kind of an example of how not to do a movie about Otherworld journeys. It takes the seafaring very secularly and beats one over the head with the usual vapid Disney pabulum about “being true to yourself” and “listening to your heart” and such, and once again the protagonist is a “princess” (in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge on the part of the writers, she rejects that title, but if it walks like a duck…). Being a “voyager” is held up as something wonderful but there is never any reasoning for it; I can’t help but think how cool this movie could have been if the writers had read Star.Ships. Yet it does have ancestor spirits, Tricksters, an animate ocean, and gods, and the classic storyline of seeking a helping spirit, journeying through the underworld, ordeals, performing service to the spirits, and returning home transformed: The eponymous character Moana rebels against custom and authority in watered-down Whale Rider-style to find Maui and force him to fix a mistake he made that is ruining the world for mortals. Although she finds Maui in this world, together they journey to the underworld to retrieve Maui’s magic fishhook.

The underworld act is by far the best part of the movie, in large part because it evokes that boss Trickster, now on the spirit side, David Bowie.

Indeed, of these three movies, this one actually explores the Trickster mythos most deeply, showing how Maui is both a teacher and helper of humans and also something of a bumbling clown who “inadvertently” makes trouble for us. Arguably the story would have been more realistic (at least based on my experience of Tricksters) if at the end we found out that Maui had set up the story’s central McGuffin and all of Moana’s ordeals from the get-go for inscrutable purposes of his own, but I think that’s way too meta for Disney.

Anyway, if you bring the right perception to Moana (he who has eyes to see, let him see) you can still show the kids how to extract its mythic marrow. And for the girl children, they will get another young heroine, one who is happily not on a quest for a socially-advantageous marriage. And it’s a more appropriate entry-level treatment of myth for the littles, where Spirited Away has some creepy nightmare fuel and The Little Prince might go over the head of “kids” who don’t already have some grounding in the concept of spirit journeys.

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A glimmer of coagula

For the past year or so, it’s been all solve and no coagula for me, but I think I’m finally beginning to get a vague sense of solidity. I imagine it like the first dream of the benben stone coalescing within the chaos of Nun, just a slightly denser bit of void, or a twinkle in Atum’s eye. I don’t yet know what shape it will take or whether I will alight upon it, and whatever I write about it at this early stage will probably be embarrassingly rambling, clumsy, and naive. Yet it seems like a good time to try and thrash it out.

At this moment peace of mind is hard to come by, and I look back on easier times and think what I wouldn’t give for a little equanimity. (“Serenity now!”) But just realizing that I want peace of mind actually gets me a little closer to it. Meanwhile, I think magic is becoming more of an ontology for me than a practice per se. Being such a newbie, I never had what you’d call an intensive or adept magical practice, but at any rate, right now simply living magically in an entangled universe is enough. Spells, rituals, offerings, incantations, what have you are all complications I can’t deal with.

serenity now

A question has been bouncing around in my head, not really a question so much as a contrast, between seeking to experience and be in the world with as little abstraction or analytical overlay as possible (i.e., gnosis as I understand it) and seeking to actively participate in the shaping of the world according to one’s desires through magic. Far be it from me to tell you your business, but for me the latter is dependent on the former. My biggest struggle when it comes to magic (as a practice) is that I perceive the universe to be thoroughly entagled, an Indra’s Web, and my mind as I have always known it is a pitifully inadequate tool for navigating such a reality. When I have taken action to improve the circumstances of my current incarnation I get a lot of synchronicities in response that suggest my tiny actions are having bigger effects, and yet I suspect that it may be more due to the change in my consciousness than to the specific actions themselves. (Paging Dion Fortune…) Which is not to say that magic is only about intent or (gods forbid) vibrational level; but perhaps in spite of myself I leveled up in terms of gnosis. It’s just one metaphysical proposition among many, but the only ontology that has ever really made sense to me is that embodied human life as we know it is a virtual reality, or a dream. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the programmers’ code, or half wake up for a moment, but mostly we mistake it for the only and ultimate reality. I see no reason not to dream lucidly and make your incarnational circumstances as enjoyable as possible, but after glimpsing that code (mixing metaphors, sorry), I don’t know…it just feels a little hollow. (Cats in libraries indeed.)

I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, in case it gives me any idea of where I’ll end up next. I often read that the practice of magic is all about power, or at least about self-determination, but what brought me to this point was just the desire to see more of that Code. From an early age I sensed aspects of reality that I felt certain were real but which I couldn’t quite grasp or directly interact with. One form this took was ghosts, another was some kind of mental communication with someone or something who knew things I didn’t, another was apparently feeling others’ emotions. Mainstream ontologies insisted this unseen world didn’t exist, but I knew that was bullshit and became convinced that the unseen was realer than “reality.” I read a lot of mythology and folklore trying to learn more about this elusive Otherworld. When I was about 12 I started making an active effort to communicate with it. I got my first tarot deck. Come to think of it, it might have been some other unique cartomantic deck. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but it had Egyptian deities and the backs of the cards were orange. I saw it behind the counter at Tower Books (aging myself) and eyed it furtively for a long time before finally getting up the courage to ask the cashier to get it out for me, and my mom for money to buy it. In the end I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I had been bitten by the divination bug. I tried my hand at runes, and had especially good success with Yijing (I Ching) casting. A few years later I started with astrology.

We moved to a part of the country with a mostly Latino population and I became interested in curanderismo, but didn’t have any obvious way into that community. At the same time my aunt and cousin kind of got into Wicca. It was all intriguing but I remained an outsider looking in. In retrospect I realize that what I wanted, and what I needed in order to commit, was some kind of incontrovertible response from the Other side. I guess ghosts weren’t enough. I didn’t want power, what I wanted was to have faith. All I knew was, I sure as hell didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat, but I was desperately hoping somebody was. The reality I knew as a teenager was not something I dreamed of controlling, but of escaping. Had I known more about Gnosticism at the time, I probably would have gotten really into it, as I understood the Black Iron Prison at a visceral level.

Anyway, fast forward, I found a copy of The Teachings of Buddha in the nightstand drawer in a Los Angeles hotel and kept it, delved into Buddhist and Advaita philosophy for several years, and had my first encounters with Shinto, got disenchanted by science, made a decision to re-enchant. But now I didn’t want to escape the world but to engage with it more fully. I was still trying to read the code but coming at it from a different angle. Strangely, the virtual world became more poignantly beautiful to me once I had had some incontrovertibly real experiences of the Otherworld.

Would (neo-)paganism get me closer to it? I wondered. No. It lacked an ontology/cosmology/theology that was as concrete as my experiences of the Other, and all these pantheons of gods and goddesses of this or that abstraction, or worse yet “the” God and “the” Goddess, just didn’t feel real. While I’ve always accepted polytheism as the most likely scenario, I struggle with understanding what a theos is. Even now, my experiences with “deities” take two forms–either I have a sense of something like a manner-of-being-or-doing-with-its-own-awareness, or of a very specific and usually very localized powerful noncorporeal entity, similar to the concept of kami in Shinto, which is why Shinto appeals to me so much.

To take a concrete example, Hermes. There’s much talk across these magical internets about trickster deities, among them Hermes, and if you look at his list of attributions he’s certainly a god for the modern age. But the only Hermes I have ever experienced I can sort of approximate as a conscious liminality which is also an Axis Mundi that can be traveled between worlds. Hermes to me is (for lack of a better term) a state of awareness, a mode of experience and of being-in-the-world. Not a god of thresholds, but a conscious Thresholdness. It’s very hard for me to think of making offerings or petitions to Thresholdness, to Liminality. I can’t dial “him” up like a person (I tried); the closest analogy I can think of is it would be more like temporarily plugging into another dimension. It’s that vast. This being doesn’t speak to me in words; “he” simply is present or not present in any given quality of experience. I can’t help but think that maybe people in antiquity had a similar experience, given that, as I understand it, Hermes basically means “Boundary-Marker.” Although not the same being, my experience of Shiva has been very similar in type. I realize the irony as I type this, because language forces me to render this in terms of the very abstractions I’m trying to avoid, yet the experiences are quite concrete.

This way of relating to powers feels very primitive (in the phylogenetic sense of ancestral, of the root) to me, free-form and highly individual in a way that we commonly shorthand as “shamanistic.” However, absent the community service part of the job description, I can’t call myself a shaman. Still, I find this freedom and individuality really appealing, and authentic, and grounded in a way that, for the moment, requires further exploration. It feels like Code. So in practical terms I find myself cycling back to my entry point into magic, meditation. But instead of a discipline it’s now a reprieve.

Mercury Retrograde and chthonic Hermes

Mercury Retrograde and chthonic Hermes | Otherwise
“Axis Mundi” scarf by–who else?–Hermes.

 

Today Mercury goes direct again, leaving its first retrograde of 2016 (though the effects of the retrograde will still be felt as late as mid-February). This year, Mercury spends all or part of each retrograde in an earth sign–the first retrograde in Capricorn-Aquarius, the second in Taurus, and the third in Virgo and Libra–and this seemed like a good opportunity to delve into the chthonic aspects of the Messenger god.

Mercury is a big player in my horoscope, generally forming a team with Jupiter, so I think a lot about its astrological shenanigans, and sometimes feel them quite acutely. (It was classic Mercury Rx when my credit card company decided I was dead, for example.) Although the planets are not the same as the deities, my approach to astrology entails diving deep into myths. This often reveals nuances to the planets and houses that I wouldn’t see otherwise.

Hermes has always struck me as quite unusual among the Greek gods because he has a finger in every pie–there’s hardly an aspect of life that doesn’t seem to fall under his purview. As much as I rail against narrowly constraining what a deity is supposed to be a “god of“, in this case I admit it was hard to connect the dots in a way that would help me better understand the astrology of Mercury. Here is a list, not comprehensive mind you, of things governed by Hermes (also check out the three-part summary of a Hermes-themed conference on the Digital Ambler and see also this list of Hermes epithets):

  • livestock and shepherds
  • athletes
  • gambling
  • theft
  • psychopompery
  • divination by sortilege
  • magic
  • masturbation
  • comic theater, particularly in iambic pentameter and the more low-brow the better
  • communication
  • travel
  • electronics
  • commerce

And there are what seem to me weird contradictions as well. For example, Hermes is associated with seduction, animal fertility, and was often represented simply as an erect phallus (or a head and a phallus), yet unlike other Greek deities he’s not depicted as shagging (or raping) every passing nymph or prince/ss. Furthermore, despite being so intimately connected with things humans love–and being beloved himself as a deity who was particularly friendly to humans and our interests–Hermes didn’t have any big temples or an organized cultus. I always thought it was weird that as a psychopomp, a speedy traveler, and a protector of livestock, Hermes is not associated with horses.

At first I thought maybe we were looking at the vestiges of a syncretic merging of multiple deities way back in prehistory, but I now think it’s more likely that Hermes’ mythos preserves his evolution**, perhaps better than with any other Classical deity. It’s said that Hermes was a late addition to the Olympic pantheon, but he seems to me one of the most “primitive” of the Olympians, or at least to preserve more archaic qualities.

I’m not the first to reach that conclusion. In his essay “Hermes and the Creation of Space”, Murray Stein quotes the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which states that Hermes

“…is probably one of the oldest [of the gods] and most nearly primitive in origin….and signifies the daemon who haunts or occupies a heap of stones, or perhaps a stone, set up by the roadside for some magical purpose.”

This image is vividly animist and reminds me of the stones that serve as god-bodies at Shinto shrines. In what I suspect are the earlier conceptions of Hermes, he is present in liminal places, interstices between the known and unknown, such as crossroads, the mountain slopes where shepherds grazed their flocks (shepherds are always liminal types, being of civilization but rarely in it), and most importantly the boundary between worlds. Through experience people came to know Hermes as a friend in need, and he thus became a guardian of travelers and outsiders; then, by extension, a granter of luck, and in turn a patron of risky pastimes like business and gambling. In modern times, digital communications, electronics, and the postal service were added to his bag of tricks.

While Hermes as we most often see him represented–a beautiful, lithe youth with winged sandals–seems airy and even whimsical, a look at his signature tool and symbol, the kerykeion or caduceus, reveals another side.

The kerykeion is a winged staff entwined by two serpents. It unites a symbol of the sky or heavens–wings–with a symbol of the earth and rebirth–snakes. It is thus a kind of axis mundi. With the kerykeion Hermes could put anyone to sleep or wake them (the space/time between sleep and wakefulness also being his territory of course). With the axis mundi for a staff, an antinomian patronage of all kinds of outsiders and boundary-crossers, the ability to instigate dreaming and to travel between worlds upper, middle, and lower, Hermes starts to look very shamanic* indeed. (And a lot like David Bowie, actually.) One can’t help but notice certain parallels with another antinomian deity represented by a phallus, and associated with the axis mundi: Shiva.

Returning to the vagaries of the planet Mercury, its astrological associations are traditionally more in line with what I think of as the elaborated, evolved form of Hermes the Messenger. The planet governs travel, study and teaching, information, and communications. When Mercury goes retrograde, all these areas can be turned topsy-turvy as Mercury shows his trickster persona. It is often recommended that during Mercury retrograde one should do some introspection, since outrospection (is that a word? It is now! Thanks, Mercury!) is likely to go awry anyway.

Now when it comes to the kinds of experiences we conventionally term “shamanic,” Pluto, Saturn, and Neptune have much greater claim to rule them. Moreover such experiences are more often associated with the 8th house and its associated sign, Scorpio, which belongs to the water element, not earth. However, since 2016’s Mercury Retrogrades will be in earth signs, it seems only appropriate to be inspired by chthonic Hermes***–his psychopomp role/epithet–and dig deep.

Taurus, which Mercury will be reversing through in late April-May, seems an appropriate sign for the god of livestock. Cattle were one of the principal forms of wealth in the ancient (and indeed not so ancient) world, and Taurus is very much concerned with value: determining what is of value and then stockpiling as much of it as possible. The accrual of wealth, in other words. Taurus likes to get (at least metaphorically) fat and sleek in lush green pastures, with everything it needs close to hand and in ample quantities. We can expect this Mercury Rx to call our values into question and perhaps force us to face the death–in Hermetic terms–of our Precious, whatever form it may take. Instead of being lucky for gamblers and businesspeople, this chthonic Mercury might take them on a journey to some shadowy places where they have to confront fears and experiences of scarcity. The more stubborn and bullheaded we are, the harder the lesson will be.

Mercury will enter Virgo in its third retrograde during September. Virgo is traditionally ruled by Mercury. Virgo is the sign of service and helpfulness, and Mercury/Hermes is the only Olympian in service to other deities–he serves his father Zeus as messenger. Even more than service, though, Virgo represents the separation of pure from impure, sacred from profane. That is, Virgo is concerned both with determining what is pure and sacred, and with taking the necessary actions to keep it that way. Contrary to popular astrological claims, I have yet to meet a Virgo who was tidy, and I have known, and lived with, many Virgos. Virgo is not about being neat, it’s about tending the eternal sacred flame of the inner temple–that is the service they give. A keen mind and even keener sight is needed to sort the wheat from the chaff, and Virgo is ever on the lookout for stray chaff that may have sneaked in or been missed by some lackadaisical sign like that awful Sagittarius****. Virgo likes nothing better than to draw boundaries and then police them; Hermes likes nothing better than to cross boundaries and play with them. Chthonic Hermes’ power is in his ability to move between worlds. If you try to contain him within one, he is nowhere. That kind of thing makes Virgo crazy. So when Mercury Rx goes into Virgo we can predict a dissolution of boundaries that causes confusion and unease, as if we suddenly fell through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole. Categories that have always seemed set in stone will suddenly be seen to be arbitrary and fragile. The only way to deal with it is to lean in, let go, and get right with neither-nor. If you’re not willing to meet what’s on the other side, why go to the crossroads in the first place?

 

*I know the term is problematic, but I don’t have time to go into it here, so let’s just use shaman in the conventionally-understood, generalized way.

**There is no implicit value judgment here. Evolved simply means changed over time.

***Hermes Khthonios, “Hermes of the Earth”–by extension, the underworld.

****Said the Sagittarius, speaking from experience.

 

 

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”