Vega is the fifth brightest star in the sky, a brilliant blue-white star two and a half times larger than the sun. It takes turns with Polaris and Thuban as the pole star, and will be the nearest star to the celestial north pole again in 14 000 AD.
It lies in the constellation Lyra, and in the northern hemisphere you can see it from the middle of May onward. Its culmination is on July 1st. (The constellation was also known in ancient times as the Vulture, and the star’s name comes from the Arabic waqi, “swooping, falling”.)
Vega has an asteroid belt around it, which has excited speculation that it might have its own planets. It has always attracted attention because of its brightness, and was the first star other than the sun to be photographed, at the Harvard Observatory on the night of July 16-7, in 1850.
China: The Heavenly Spinster
The Chinese told a story about a simple cowherd who married the Heavenly Spinster.
In it, the Heavenly Spinster was the Sun-King’s daughter, and he married her off because she seemed so unhappy. After the wedding, she changed from an industrious young woman into a lazy, foolish one.
The Sun King became angry. He separated her from her husband, changing them into the constellations Aquila (Cowherd) and Vega (Spinster), placing them on opposite sides of the Milky Way. He also built the original bridge, using magpies to bring twigs, so that the husband could cross the river of stars (Milky Way) to his new station.
This is commemorated in a yearly festival. People pray for clear weather on that day, because the Heavenly River is very full, and if rain floods it, the husband and wife will remain separated until the next year.
Another version is a variant on the seal wife or swan maiden story in which a human compels a supernatural woman to marry him.
The cowherd saw her bathing in a stream one day, and stole her clothes so she could not return to heaven. She had to marry him, since she was stuck on earth. They had two children. As soon as she found her divine clothing, however, she returned to heaven.
The cowherd went to the sky and appeared before the August Person of Jade to ask for his wife. The Person granted the cowherd’s wish, making him immortal and placing him in the sky as a star on the west of the Milky Way. The Heavenly Spinster lived on the east side, and they could meet every seven days.
They misunderstood the Person, and thought they could only meet on the seventh day of the seventh month each year. Since there is no bridge across the Milky Way (the Heavenly River in Chinese myth) all the magpies fly up to heaven with twigs to form a bridge for them.
Korea: rain is good
There is also a Korean version of this story, in which two stars who attended the sun, named Ching Yuh and Kyain Oo, were also separated spouses. Their journey to the Milky Way, where they meet, takes six months, so that they spend all their time getting back and forth. Crows build a bridge for them to cross on, which explains why crows look bald in the seventh month.
The Korean version, however, says that rain is the joyful tears of the reunited couple, and a dry spell indicates that they were prevented from meeting.
Inuit: the moon’s brother
The Ammassalik Inuit of East Greenland call Vega Nelarsik. He is the brother of the moon, and according to the book The Ammassalik Eskimo: “he got into the sky in the same way”.
Since in other Inuit myths in which the moon committed incest with his sister and chased her into the sky when she fled from him, either Nelarsik violated the incest taboo and now lives in the sky, or else he ran into the sky the way the moon did.
Once he got into the heavens, however, he became quite a useful deity, lighting the sky at night and indicating the time during the sunless part of the winter. One can deduce the significance of Vega during the dark period from its name: Nelarsik, from nalerak, landmark.
Nelarsik also shot one of the thunder women with his arrows, to lessen the number of storms in the area. He appears in several stories alongside the moon; one in which the two of them attack a shaman (here called an angakok) and another in which they appear to a man who always wife-swaps with a neighbour, an act the two deities disapprove of.
In both stories the shaman sends his spirits (tartok) against the moon, and in both the moon asks the spirit if it wished that there be no more rain and no more seals born, which persuades the spirit to leave him alone. The two deities have a consistent appearance: the moon wears bearskin, and Vega water-tight skin clothing with white embroidery.
Persian: Guardian Star
In the Zoroastrian religon, Vega was one of the four stars who protected the earth. Vanant (Conqueror) ruled the western quarter, and he guarded the gates the sun passed through each day. The others were Tishtrya/Sirius (East), Satavaesa/Antares (South), and Hapto-iriñga/Ursa Major (North).
All four were invoked as part of the observance for Tir day each month. (Each day of the month was named for a god – Tir or Tishtrya in this case.) Vanant had a prayer of his own, as well, the 21st Yasht. It is a short prayer, of which this is an even shorter sample:
Unto the star Vanant, made by Mazda,
Be propitiation, with sacrifice, prayer, propitiation and glorification.
Yatha ahu vairyo. The will of the Lord is the law of holiness…
I will sacrifice unto Vannat, strong, invoked by his own name,
healing, in order to withstand the accursed and most foul
Khrafstras of the most abominable Angra Mainyu.
In the 16th century a sage apparently ended an eclipse by reciting this yasht, as it is a formula for exorcism as well as a prayer.
The Summer Triangle
Vega forms the Summer Triangle with Deneb in Delphinus and Altair in Aquila. You can see this in the sky from June until the end of December.
In astrology, it is one of the fixed stars, and it signifies success with material ambitions.
Krupp, E. C., Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Stars and Planets, OUP, Oxford, 1991.
MacDonald, John, The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore and Legend, Royal Ontario Museum and Nunavut Research Institiute, Toronto, 1998.
Miller, Dorcas S., Stars of the First People, Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder, CO, 1997.
Thalbitzer, William, ed., The Ammassalik Eskimo: Contributions to the Ethnology of the East Greenland Natives, Bianco Luno, Copehagen, 1914.
Werner, E. T. C., Myths and Legends of China, George Harrap, London, 1934.
As always fascinating information and stories. World-wide legends and explanations are always interesting. Loved both your pictures. Would I be able to save the magpies without causing anyone copyright concern. (In Oz our magpies are much more adapted to very hot rather than snow weather). Thanks for your always informative blog.
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The image is a wallpaper, so it’s free to use. Here’s the link: http://wallpaperweb.org/wallpaper/nature/magpies-pica-pica_58897.htm
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