“So there’s a beautiful, charming Weaving Maid who’s a servant in the palace of the Queen Mother, who is basically a really important female goddess. And this Weaving Maid just weaves all day.
“Then on Earth, there’s this, um, super hard-working Cowherd—that’s his name—who’s miserable and lonely because cows do not make inspiring companions. His parents died, he lives with his older brother and wife, and they treat him like a slave.
“No one really knows how the two of them [the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd] met, but the most common one is that one day the Weaving Maid and her six sisters came down to Earth to take a bath. And the Cowherd saw them. And being a creepy guy he picks up one of their clothes. And so when they see him, the six sisters turn into doves and flew away, but he took the Weaving Maid’s clothes. No one really knows how the negotiations went, but by the end she had fallen completely in love with him. So instead of turning into a bird and flying back, she stayed on Earth and married the Cowherd. And they had kids.
“When her master found out she was pissed. So she ordered the troops to abduct the Weaving Maid back up to Heaven. Um, the Cowherd tried to follow but he also had to carry the kids so he couldn’t catch up. He was a mortal so there’s no way for him to catch up to the god.
“But the Queen Mother, she doesn’t want to take any chances. So she takes a hairpin and forms a river—what we know as the Milky Way. And it flew between the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd, so then they’re separated forever. The kids that they had cried a lot to the Queen Mother to try to reunite the family, and the Weaving Maid’s six sisters also wanted them to reunite.
“So, after a lot of complaining the Queen Mother finally became a little bit merciful and called up a flock of birds to build a bridge over the river. She allowed the lovers to be reunited for one night every year, one the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. And on that day here, a flock of magical birds suddenly appear and form a bridge over the Milky Way, and they can meet up in the middle.
“Uh, so on the seventh day of every seventh lunar month, called the ‘Festival of the Seventh Evening,’ girls hold weaving competitions in honor of the maid and they sacrifice fruits that they put out overnight. It was a very good sign if you had spiders come out and spin webs over the fruit because it’s kind of like the weaving.”
My roommate, KY, performed this folk myth for me. He was born in China and lived there for the first few years of his life. The story of the Weaving Maid is a classic Chinese myth that is told all over the country. K told me there are many versions, but this is the one he remembers his parents reciting to him when he was young. He said that he always liked this story because it explains the Milky Way. He remembers that his dad would take him out at night to look at the stars and sometimes tell him about the Weaving Maid and similar stories. Apparently there are other Chinese myths that explain how different stars and constellations were formed.
K actually performed this piece for me when we were sitting out in our backyard one night. Being in LA, we couldn’t really look up and see the Milky Way. I don’t think the story had the same effect as it does when you can look up and see the “river” that the Queen Mother creates in the myth. But it still captured my imagination. My roommate and I are both physics students and avid lovers of astronomy. I asked him if he thought this story influenced his decision to study physics at all. He mused on this and replied that he had never thought of it, “but it must have something to do with my fascination of the stars and stuff.”
That is what I love about folk tales, and creation myths especially. Even though we know they are (probably) not true explanations for why things are, they allow us to think about beautiful, grandiose phenomenon, such as the Milky Way, in familiar, human ways. I believe myths were, in fact, early human’s first attempts at explaining the mysteries of the universe. Before we had hard science, we had our imaginations and our special ability to craft stories that could decipher this amazing world.
For another version of this myth, see Picturing Heaven in Early China by Lillian Lan-ying Tseng. This book features a lot of interesting Chinese creation myths about space and the stars.