By Tom Burns
The biggest complaint I get about my astronomy writing is that there is “not enough science in it.” Those folks who love the science of astronomy perhaps rightly complain that I spend a bi
t too much of my time contemplating the old, dead myths and legends about the stars.
However, I truly believe that the stars have something to say to our hearts as well as our heads. Here is a case in point, which describes the origin of the Milky Way:
The Milky Way, the unresolved glow of hundreds of billions of stars, sits high in our late summer sky. You’ll need a dark, rural sky to see it properly, but to thousands of generations before us, the Milky Way was a common yet awe-inspiring part of their daily lives.
Many tales have been told about this shimmering river of light, but none speaks to our modern world better than a 3,000-year-old story from ancient China.
The Chinese believed that the Milky Way was the Ho, or Yellow, River extended into the sky. Around its banks forever immortalized, as stars are the Cow Herd and the Weaving Girl.
The story begins by a peaceful stream on Earth. The young Cowherd quietly tends his magical water buffalo when along comes seven beautiful sisters from the Heavenly Land. The maidens bathe in the stream, and the water buffalo notices that the youngest is the fairest of the seven. The maidens live in a celestial palace, where they weave the cloth used to make the clothes worn by the gods. Any one of them would make an excellent bride for the Cow Herd, advises the water buffalo, but the youngest is especially fair of form.
The buffalo tells the Cow Herd to steal her red robe. She cannot return to the heavenly realm without it, and if a man saw a woman without her clothes, then they must become husband and wife. Despite her embarrassment, the seventh sister faces the Cow Herd and asks for her clothes back, and the two are married.
The loving couple lives happily on Earth for three years and is blessed with two children, a boy and a girl. At length, the gods notice the absence of the seventh sister. Her loom stands idle, and she is the best of the weaving maids. So her grandmother, the Queen Mother of the West, summons her back to Heaven.
It is an order that she dare not refuse despite the heartbreak of her husband and children. At last, the buffalo says, “When I die, cut the hide from my body, and wrap yourselves in it. I will carry you upward to the Realm of Heaven where you can be reunited with the Weaving Maid.”
The Cow Herd places his children in buckets and lifts them on his shoulders with the help of a yoke. The Cow Herd drapes the buffalo’s magical skin on his shoulders, and they are transported to heaven.
The family is joyously reunited, but their happiness is short lived. The Weaving Maid’s loom has again fallen silent, so the Queen Mother of the West scratches a line in the sky with her silver hairpin. Into the gap flows the heavenly waters, the Milky Way, and the lovers are separated by the flood.
Thus, the Weaving Maid, the star we call Vega, sits above the Milky Way in August, and Altair, the Cow Herd, keeps a lonely vigil below. The children remain with their mother, and we see them as the two dimmer stars in the constellation Lyra closest to their mother. The Cow Herd still wears his yoke and buckets as the two bright stars near Altair.
The grief of the lovers is so intense, their melancholy so inconsolable, that even the stern King of Heaven takes pity. He decrees that once each year, on the seventh night of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the two may be briefly reunited.
On that night in August if the skies are clear, all the magpies on the Earth fly up to heaven and build a bridge of their wings so that the lovers can cross the silvery waters of the Milky Way. If skies are cloudy, the Weaving Maid and the Cow Herd must wait and hope that next year the river of light shines brilliantly in the summer sky.
We must listen to what the stars tell us. We are small and powerless compared to the vastness of the cosmos, but we have a strength that is greater than the stars, deeper and more unconquerable than the unfathomable void that surrounds us. It is our ability to hold fast to each other despite all the powers in the cosmos that seem to keep us apart.
We must show our children the stars. We must tell them the old stories and sail with them upon the shimmering river of celestial light. When we do, we honor the stars, but most of all, we honor what is best within ourselves.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.