Our summer almanac 13.08.2010 – 19.08.2010

Star Watchers
During summer evenings our night sky is dominated by three bright stars, including Vega in the constellation Lyra the Lyre. The other two stars are Deneb in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, and Altair in Aquila the Eagle. It is called the Summer Triangle by star watchers everywhere, even though this is not an official name in the way that the constellation’s names define the parts of the sky these stars belong to.

Very low in the south you can just see the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion, chasing the Hunter Orion across the sky. The main bright star in Scorpius is Antares, which means ‘the rival of Mars’. Just like Mars, the star Antares is very red in colour. The stars of the Milky way are very abundant in Scorpius, so it is a pity it is difficult to see from our latitudes.

In ancient times stars were not only used to tell the times of the seasons, as in our Summer Triangle, but also to tell the time at night from hour to hour. While a sundial is a great way to tell the time in sunshine, at night there are only stars to help guide the timekeeper. In ancient Egypt astronomers found 36 stars that were very useful in marking off the hours as they were tracked across the sky from east to west. These stars were known as ‘the decans’

Qi Xi
In Chinese mythology, there is a love story of Qi Xi (七夕) in which Niu Lang (牛郎, Altair) and his two children (β and γ Aquilae) are separated from their mother Zhi Nü (織女, Vega) who is on the far side of the river, the Milky Way. However, one day per year on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, magpies make a bridge so that Niu Lang and Zhi Nü can be together again for a brief encounter. The Japanese Tanabata festival, in which Vega is known as orihime (織姫), is also based on this legend.

So, we can see how in late summer, the stars Altair and Vega are high in the night sky, inspired the Chinese over the centuries to tell the following love story, of which there are many variations:

A young cowherd named Niulang (Chinese: 牛郎; pinyin: niú láng; literally “[the] cowherd”), came across seven fairy sisters bathing in a lake. Encouraged by his mischievous companion the ox, he stole their clothes and waited to see what would happen. The fairy sisters elected the youngest and most beautiful sister Zhinü (simplified Chinese: 织女; traditional Chinese: 織女; pinyin: zhī nǚ; literally “[the] weaver girl”, the star Vega) to retrieve their clothing. She agreed to do so, but since Niulang had seen her naked, she agreed to his request for marriage. She proved to be a wonderful wife, and Niulang to be a good husband. They lived happily and had two children. But the Goddess of Heaven (or in some versions, Zhinü’s mother) found out that Zhinü, a fairy girl, had married a mere mortal. The Goddess was furious and ordered Zhinü to return to heaven. (Alternatively, the Goddess forced the fairy back to her former duty of weaving colorful clouds, a task she neglected while living on earth with a mortal.) On Earth, Niulang was very upset that his wife had disappeared. Suddenly, his ox began to talk, telling him that if he killed it and put on its hide, he would be able to go up to Heaven to find his wife. Crying bitterly, he killed the ox, put on the skin, and carried his two beloved children off to Heaven to find Zhinü. The Goddess discovered this and was very angry. Taking out her hairpin, the Goddess scratched a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever, thus forming the Milky Way between Altair and Vega.

Zhinü must sit forever on one side of the river, sadly weaving on her loom, while Niulang watches her from afar and takes care of their two children (his flanking stars β and γ Aquilae or by their Chinese names Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3).

But once a year all the magpies in the world would take pity on them and fly up into heaven to form a bridge (鵲橋, “the bridge of magpies”, Que Qiao) over the star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation so the lovers may be together for a single night, which is the seventh night of the seventh moon.

Qixi Festival
Qixi Festival (Chinese: 七夕节; Mandarin Pinyin: qī xī jié; Jyutping: cat1 zik6 zit3; literally “The Night of Sevens”), also known as Magpie Festival, falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar. This year it takes place on 16 August.

It is sometimes called Chinese Valentine’s Day (Simplified Chinese: 情人节 Pinyin: Qíng rén jié) in recent decades.
Young girls traditionally demonstrate their domestic arts, especially melon carving, on this day and make wishes for a good husband.


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