This is the story of two lovers, a weaving girl and a herd boy. Perhaps they are the original star- crossed lovers--the legend is reported to be at least 1,000 years old. The next time you look up at the sky on a clear night, notice how the Milky Way forms two branches between Vega and Altair. Here's one explanation for that celestial configuration.
In this popular account, the story opens with a herd boy named Niu Lang who is poor and has only one ox. One day the ox tells her master to go to a certain stream where he will see some heavenly fairies bathing. If he steals the clothes of one of them, the ox says, he will gain himself a bride, as she will be unable to fly away.
One day the herd boy does as instructed. All of the maidens fly away except the one Chih-Nu, who was also called the weaver. Because she can¹t do anything else, she follows the cowherd and becomes his wife.
A few years went by, and the old cow, feeling it was about to die, said to its master, "When I am dead take off my skin and fill it with golden sand. Then take the ring from my nose and make it into a packet pouch. Carry it with you always and when you are in trouble it will help you."
During the following years, the weaver bore the cowherd a son and a daughter. Often the weaver would ask her husband where he had hidden her fairy dress but he would never tell her. One night she pleaded so enchantingly that he told her--whereupon she quickly snatched the garment and flew up into the sky. The cowherd seized the children and flew up to heaven with the aid of the magic cowhide. The weaver's response was to take a golden hairpin and draw a long line to cut off the pursuit. This turned into a broad raging river. The cowherd poured the sand out of the hide into the river until if formed a big sandbank, which he was then able to cross. But the weaver again drew another long celestial river, which successfully impeded the cowherd who had used up all his sand. He then took the ring out of his packet and threw it at his wife; she threw her shuttle in return.
Suddenly one of the lesser gods appeared and ordered them to make peace. They were to stay apart except for one night of the year. In this version the two stars that are visible behind the cowherd (Altair) and the weaver (Vega) are the ring and the shuttle.
There are apparently so many versions of this story that you can pick and choose among the many subtexts and characters and just cut and paste and then spin them to your heart's content. However, the basic legend always concerns the weaving girl Chih-Nu and the herdboy Niu Lang, who fall in love and consequently neglect to do their work. The gods solve this problem by placing the River of Heaven (our Milky Way) between the two lovers with the provision that they will be able to see each other for at least one night of the year-the seventh day of the seventh month. On that day all the magpies on Earth fly up to heaven and form a bridge with their spread wings so that the lovers can cross the river to meet.
Some variations of the legend say that the lovers were actually told that they could only meet once a month. This message is given to a magpie for delivery--but the magpie gets it wrong and tell them they can only meet once a year! (So it goes.)
Don't be concerned if it rains.
I found a version that says the magpies enable the lovers to meet only if the weather is clear. If it rains the magpies cannot span the flooded waters. So on the day they are destined to meet, some people on earth pray that no rain falls so that the River of Heaven does not flood. But turn a page (or scroll down a bit) and you'll probably find another version, as I did, that asserts that this is a day on which rain should fall, as a cloudy sky gives the couple some privacy.
Turn another page and you'll find an offer that rain is actually the happy tears that flow because the lovers are finally able to meet after their long separation. Who is separating the lovers? What's that all about? And are we sure who, if anyone, is wearing the white hat? Well, in one version is the Queen of Heaven who created the Milky Way to separate the lovers so that they can only gaze at one another from opposite sides. And it is the King of Heaven who takes pity and allows them to meet once a year; but it is also he who, unfortunately, forgets to provide a bridge. So of course the magpies do their thing. (Traditionally, magpies are regarded as birds of good omen.)
Some accounts suggest the birds supplied twigs to form the bridge. This makes the story more credible, no doubt. But I found at least one version that reverses the white and black hats so that now we see the Queen of Heaven is softhearted, while the King is totally unsympathetic to the lovers.
In all versions that I encountered, Chih Niu is described as a celestial being. In some she is the daughter of the Kitchen God. In another, her father is the Jade Emperor for whom she wove endless webs. In this account, the Jade Emperor grants her wish to visit the Earth, whereupon she falls in love with the herd boy. After her marriage, she no longer attended to her weaving and it is said the heavens fell out of harmony.
How does this story work itself into the heavens? Chih-Niu is identified with the bright, pale-blue star Vega in the lower part of the constellation Lyra. Vega rises in the eastern night sky early in May where she attends to her weaving until the appearance of the herd boy in early June. Altair, the brightest star of constellation Aquila, is the herd boy, Niu Lang. Starting sometime in early May, the constellation Aquila also arises in the eastern quadrant of the nighttime sky. It is the day of the waxing half-moon that determines the time for the festival. It will help you locate the stars Lyra and Altair, if you remember that the pair, along with Deneb, constitutes the Summer Triangle in the Northern Hemisphere.
This legend had an influence on early Taoist physiological alchemy. According to Needham's "Science and Civilization in China," there is a diagram entitled The Internal Texture of Man on an engraved stone stele at the White Clouds Taoist Temple in Peking. The diagram shows the herd boy in the center of the heart region with the Weaving Girl underneath and to the right working at her spinning wheel and sending chi up to the throat, trachea and brain. The two lovers also provide us with a reading of the body internal.
In all of its guises, the tale of the herd boy and the weaving girl is much beloved throughout Asia. In China, it provides the basis for the Maiden's Festival (or Star Festival) which will be celebrated this year on August 25th--the seventh day of the seventh month, by the lunar calendar. In Japan, the celebration of Tanabata was held on July 7th.