Thursday, August 27, 2009

Seventh Night

Last night was Seventh Night (七夕), the seventh night of the seventh month in the lunisolar calendar followed traditionally by the Chinese. Because the Chinese calendar usually starts with the second new moon after the winter solstice, Seventh Night usually falls sometime in August in the western calendar.

Seventh Night is associated in Chinese tradition with the story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. In one common telling of the story, a young cowherd by the name of Niulang (牛郎) came across a fairy girl bathing in a lake—a girl named Zhinü (織女). Fascinated by her beauty, and emboldened by his companion, an ox, he stole her clothes and waited by the side of the lake. When she came out looking for her clothes, Niulang swept her up and took her back home. In time, they were happily married with two children. But when the Goddess of Heaven found out that a fairy girl had married a mere mortal, she grew furious and sent Zhinü into the sky, where she became the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra the Lyre. (Watercolor by Robin Street-Morris, 2007.)

When Niulang discovered that his wife had disappeared, he searched high and low for her, but was unable to find her. Eventually, the ox told Niulang that if he killed him and wore his hide, he would be able to ascend the heavens to find Zhinü. Niulang did as the ox suggested, and took his two children with him to find his wife, becoming as he did the star Altair. Find her he did, but the Goddess of Heaven, angered once more by Niulang's impertinence, drew a river of stars—the Milky Way—forever separating Niulang (the star Altair) from Zhinü. Their two children became Tarazed and Alshain, the two dimmer (but still bright) stars that flank Altair in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle. But apparently the Goddess of Heaven was not entirely heartless, for once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh month, she sends a bridge of magpies (鵲橋) to connect the two lovers, for just one evening. And so Seventh Night is associated with romance (and also, interestingly, with domestic skills).

The celestial setting for the entire tale can be found in the Summer Triangle, which is bounded by three stars: Altair, Vega, and Deneb (in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross). The Summer Triangle can be found in the night sky throughout summer and autumn; at this time of year, it passes nearly overhead at about ten in the evening. (Photograph by Bill Rogers of the Sa-sa-na Loft Astronomical Society, 2009; click to enlarge.)

No comments:

Post a Comment