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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 8: Stars and Star Myths

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 3

Venus... the planet; the goddess; the flytrap.
Mars... the planet; the god; the candy bar.
Saturn... the planet; the god; the compact car.
Mercury.. the planet; the god; the tunafish contaminant.

Is there a pattern here? Carnivorous plants, candy bars, uncomfortable cars and toxic wastes donít seem to have much in common, but gods and celestial bodies seem definitely to go together. Hmmm.

In 10,000 BC, Vega was the North Polar Star. Everything in the heavens spun around her as everything now spins around Polaris. Wouldnít it be nice if we could trace the origin of the Spinning Maidenís celestial representative, Vega, all the way back to those heady days of 10,000 BC? Not a chance. We just donít have records that go back that far.

Vega?... as the pole star?... you say with a certain quizzical look in your eye that indicates to me, at least, you didnít take Bonehead Astronomy. So allow me to pretend that I know something about astronomy. I donít. My bonehead astronomy class followed lunch.

Precession is the topic: The earth turns like a top. Despite the fact that most living human beings have never played with a top (tops having gone out of fashion before Barbie and Godzilla were born) the top is always the mysterious model. All right. Think "gyroscope" if you must. Iíll stay with tops. The top of the top does not line up vertically with the bottom of the top. It tilts and inscribes a circle as it turns. It wobbles. The pivotal bottom-point may stay in one place - though it usually doesnít, but the top of the top makes a circle of its own as it spins. And, naturally, the earth spins and wobbles like a top.

If you were to put an axis pole through the entire length of the earth-top and used that pole as a star pointer, youíd see that it would point to one star and that all the others would seem to revolve around that star. This is because you are standing on the earth and the earth is turning. But the center point, that axial-pointing star, seems to stay stationary for many years. Of course, since the spinning earth is a top and wobbles, that axial pointer will move around the circumference of the circle that the wobble describes. Because we look up towards the Arctic to locate that axial point, we call that direction North. But that would not be true North. True north, a point directly up, would always be some 23.5 degrees from where the pointer pointed because thatís angle of the cone that the wobble outlines. This may seem strange, but thatís the way it is. It takes the earthís axial pointer 25,800 years to complete one circle. So, Polaris is merely the "North" Star now. In 3,000 BC Thuban (alpha Draconis) was. In 14,000 AD, Vega (alpha Lyra) will once again be the North Polar Star. And so it goes. What goes around comes around.

 
The earth wobbles in its revolutions like a top, inscribing a circle that requires 25,800 to complete.

In trying to learn more about the connection between bovines and Zen masters, we have to chance extrapolation and risk conjecture from such data as exist. Letís consider the myth of the Oxherder and the Spinning Maiden and see what sense we can make of it.

Naturally, there are many versions of the myth; but they reduce essentially to two variations on the theme:

Once upon a time the Sun God, thrilled by the splendid weaving of his daughter, decided to marry her to an Oxherder. This doesnít sound like much in the way of a brilliant nuptial alliance, but evidently the match suited her fine. The Oxherder, who let his cattle drink at the River Han (the Milky Way) was so competent a lover that the Weaving Maiden no longer cared to touch a thread. She spun not and neither did she toil. Even the cows were neglected as the two honeymooners enjoyed their connubial blisses. The nasty old stars of heaven looked on and decided that this would not do. The once-industrious pair had become loveslugs. Soon all heaven was distressed at what was misperceived as inexcusable laziness. The Oxherder and his cattle got unceremoniously driven to the far side of the Milky Way. The Weaving Maiden was confined to her loom.

 
Favorite theme in Chinese folk tales. The Oxherder (Altair=alpha Aquila) is at the edge of one side of the Milky Way just as The Spinning Maiden (Vega=alpha Lyra) is at the edge of the other side. There is no question of the identity of these two stars which do, in fact, abut the Milky Way. From C.A.S. Williams, Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives.

But mercy being the politeness of gods, it was decreed that the lovers could have one conjugal visit per annum... specifically on the seventh day of the seventh month. A day that in the Gregorian Calendar happens to be the day that in Pamplona the bulls are run.

And on that day, a bridge of magpies, those black and white birds that figure so prominently in European Alchemy, forms across the Milky Way; and the lovers, one or the other rushing across the bridge of birds, are finally able to embrace. The stars near Vega in the constellation Lyra are the offspring of this celestial tryst.

 
Magpies, black and white birds, always appear to form sky bridges in the Alchemical work. From the Mutus Liber

Another version, one that is even better known outside China, tells the sad tale of a Oxherder who comes upon a group of girls bathing in a lake, their feathered clothing lying by the waterís edge. He steals the clothing of one of the girls and when the others dress and fly away to the sky, the naked girl has no choice but to remain with him. Fortunately, he is the marrying kind and so they start a family. They have a son who mischievously discovers the feathered garment which his father had hidden away. His mother, having taken up weaving in the meanwhile in order, presumably, not to have to remain naked, is delighted when her son presents her with her old raiment. She loses no time in putting it on and flying away to resume weaving in the company of her former friends. So much for domestic bliss. A kind and selfless cow comes to the grief-stricken Oxherder and tells him that the solution to his troubled love life is to kill and skin her, cover himself with her hide, and thereby gain the necessary altitude to pursue his wife. Aerodynamics aside, this plan works; and the two lovers are united in heaven. Clearly, the Spinning Girlís life without the Oxherder has been no picnic. She is so delighted to be with him again that she ceases to do any work at all at her loom. This angers the God of Heaven and he orders that they see each other only once a month, on the 7th day. However, he entrusts his order to an incompetent magpie who misunderstands and tells the lovers that they may see each other only once a year, the 7th day of the 7th month. To this day, on this date, young girls in China celebrate the loversí reunion. The girls pray for rain so that the clouds will conceal the lovemaking. Hmmm.

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