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Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

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Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

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Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

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Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

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