July and August are special times for Japanese (and maybe for East Asians) to admire Vega and Altair and the Milky Way. I am going to post about Tanabata and its Chinese origin several times.
“Tanabata” is a traditional Japanese star festival. It is thought to be a mixture of a star festival for Vega and Altair in ancient China, and a spiritual event in ancient Japan. It has been celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month. Two stars on either side of the Milky Way are the main characters of the festival.
Tanabata and Qixi (in China) is based on the legend of a cowherd (Altair) and a weaver girl (Vega) in ancient China. The legend is believed to have been introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-794).
There are some variations of the tale of the cowherd and the weaver girl. The most popular in Japan is as follows (reference: an article in Astroarts’ website, https://www.astroarts.co.jp/special/2023tanabata/index-j.shtml#story);
There was a weaver girl to the west of the Heavenly River (Milky Way), who was a daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. Every year she wove very beautiful and high-quality cloths. To the east of the Heavenly River, there lived a cowherd, who was a hard worker and took good care of cows.
The Emperor took pity on his daughter’s solitude. He found the cowherd and brought them together. The weaver girl and the cowherd liked each other and married.
But once married, she stopped weaving, and the cowherd stopped taking care of his cows. The Emperor became angry and returned her to the west of the Heavenly River. However, he decided to allow them to meet only once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month.
A different story was told in Chinese folklore. I will post about it later.
In Japan, Vega is called “Orihime (織り姫)” (a weaver girl) or “Orihime-boshi(織り姫星)” (a weaver girl star). Altair is called “Hiko-boshi (彦星)” (male star). Tanabata used to be celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. Now Japanese people celebrate Tanabata on July 7 of the Gregorian calendar. However, some Tanabata festivals are held on August 7 (a month late Tanabata) or on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar (Traditional Tanabata). The date of the traditional Tanabata will be August 22, this year, August 10, next year.