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The Question

(Submitted May 11, 1997)

What is the tale of the two lovers that were kept from each other by the Milky Way? They were stars

The Answer

The story of two lovers kept apart by the Milky Way is told in a number of Asian countries. It originates in China, but I'm also aware of versions in Japan and Vietnam. The stars are Vega (in the constellation Lyra) and Altair (in the constellation Aquila).

I'm most familiar with the Vietnamese story, which is entitled "The Weaver Fairy and the Buffalo Boy". You can find it in a book entitled "Sky Legends of Vietnam" by Lynette Dyer Voung. Here is a brief summary of the story:

The Weaver Fairy lives in the sky. She weaves silken robes for the other fairies. She falls in love with the Buffalo Boy, who lives on the earth herding buffalo and playing his bamboo flute all day. The Weaver Fairy lives for a time on earth with the Buffalo Boy, but she is forced by her father, the Jade Emperor, to return to the sky. She pleads that the Buffalo Boy be allowed to live in the sky with them. Her father agrees, but only if he tends the herds of buffalo that dwell in the sky, and she returns to weaving silk robes for the rest of the fairies. The Buffalo Boy comes to live in the sky, but he and the Weaver Fairy are so happy to be together again that they soon neglect their duties. The Jade Emperor punishes them by putting the Weaver Fairy and her loom on the east bank of the Silver River, and the Buffalo Boy and the buffalo on the west bank. They beg for one more chance. The Jade Emperor allows them to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Every year they do so, and they are so happy that their tears of joy fall on the earth.

The story explains the apparent coming together of these two stars during the summer months. It also explains (from some things I didn't include in the summary) the disappearance of crows in the summer, the summer rains, and the appearance of rainbows.

I hope you'll look up the full story in Lynette Dyer Vuong's book, or in other collections of Chinese or Japanese star stories.

Jim Lochner
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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