The Weaver Fairy, Swan Maiden Myths, and “White Feather on His Head”

Seven fairies with feathered robes

Legends of the Wu and Yi peoples – include the Fairy Couple (Tian Xian Pei).

The seven daughters of the Jade Emperor travel to the mortal world. The youngest of the seventh fairy maiden Yunue was in search of her lost weaving equipment and the ” feather coat ” – without which she was unable to fly. Another version of story states that the seventh fairy’s flying ” feather coat ” was actually taken by a mortal named Dong Yong on purpose, advised by his cattle – which happened to be an exiled fairy as well and undercover the form of a normal old bull. During the staying the maiden falls in love with Dong Yong, a poor worker who had sold himself into servitude to pay for his father’s funeral. With help of the other fairies, the seventh fairy managed to weave ten pieces of brocade for Dong Yong to pay off his debt, shortening his indenture to 100 days. Before the couple can begin their life together, the Jade Emperor orders his daughters to return home, however kind enough to allow the couple reunite only once a year at the 七夕 (the 7th evening) – later known as the traditional Chinese Qixi Festival across the Milky Way.

Alternatively, another version of the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl, has it where one of the seven fairy sisters is taken as a wife by a cowherd who hid the seven sisters’ robes; she becomes his wife because he sees her naked, and not so much due to his taking her robe.

The ancient Chinese astrologer named two of the observed far apart star 牛郎 (literally ‘shepherd man’) and 織女 (literally ‘weaving girl’) – nowadays recognized as Altair and Vega in memory of this story.

People passed around written talismans believed to protect from disease and death. Some played games of chance associated with the immortals. [Cahill, 21-3] There were torches, drums, shouting. Farming and normal routines broke down. This goddess movement alarmed the gentry, and the Confucian historian presented it in a negative light. He warned the danger of rising yin: females and the peasantry stepping outside their place. The people were moving west—opposite the direction of the great rivers—“which is like revolting against the court.” The writer tried to stir alarm with a story about a girl carrying a bow who entered the capital and walked through the inner palaces. Then he drew a connection between white-haired Xi Wangmu and the dowager queen Fu who controlled the court, accusing these old females of “weak reason.” His entire account aimed to overthrow the faction in power at court. [Lullo, 279-80]

The Xi wangmu’s wild ecstatic dancing maiden cult seemed to alarm the court since the movement was put down within the year,

Change was in the air. Around the same time, the Taiping Jing(Scripture of Great Peace) described “a world where all would be equal.” As Kristofer Schipper observes, “a similar hope drove the masses in search of the great mother goddess.” [Schipper: 2000, 40] Their movement was put down within the year, and courtly writers tried to tame and civilize the shamanic goddess. Her wild hair and tiger features receded, and were replaced by a lady in aristocratic robes, jeweled headdresses, and courtly ways.

Her mythology also shifted though she remained the main goddess in the oldest Taoist encyclopedia (Wu Shang Bi Yao). But some authors begin to subordinate her to great men: the goddess offers “tribute” to emperor Yu, or attends the court of Lao Zi. [Cahill, 34, 45, 121-2] They displaced her with new Celestial Kings, Imperial Lords, and heavenly bureaucracies—but never entirely. In the later Han period, the spirit-trees of Sichuan show Xi Wangmu at the crest, with Buddha meditating under her, in a still-Taoist context. [Little, 154-5; Wu, 89] By the Six Dynasties, several paintings in the Dun Huang caves show the goddess flying through the heavens to worship the Buddha. [Cahill, 42]

But cultural shifts never succeeded in subjugating the goddess.

She held her ground in the Tang dynasty, when Shang Qing Taoism became the official religion. She was considered its highest deity, and royals built private shrines to her. Her sheng headdress disappears, and is replaced by a nine-star crown. Poets named her the “Divine Mother,” others affectionately called her Amah, “Nanny.” But some literati demote the goddess to human status, making her fall in love with mortals, mooning over them and despairing at their absence. In a late 8th century poem she becomes “uncertain and hesitant” as she visits the emperor Han Wudi. [Cahill, 82-3; 58-69; 159]

Others portrayed her as young and seductive. [Lullo, 276] Worse, a few misogynists disparaged the goddess. The fourth century Yü Fang Bi Jue complained about her husbandless state and invented sexual slurs. It claimed that she achieved longevity by sexually vampirizing innumerable men and even preying upon boys to build up her yin essence. But the vigor of folk tradition overcame such revisionist slurs—with an important exception.

The ancient, shamanic shapeshifter side of Xi Wangmu, and her crone aspect, were pushed aside. Chinese folklore is full of tiger-women: Old Granny Autumn Tiger, Old Tiger Auntie (or Mother), Autumn Barbarian Auntie. They retain shamanic attributes, but in modern accounts they are demonized (and slain) as devouring witches. Two vulnerable groups, old women and indigenous people, become targets. [ter Harrm, 55-76] Yet the association of Tiger and Autumn and Granny goes back to ancient attributes of Xi Wangmu that are originally divine.

On the celestial level, the goddess also manifests her power through the Dipper Stars, a major focus of Taoist mysticism. [Schipper, 70. He notes that Ma Zi was also seen “as an emanation of one of the stars in the Big Dipper.” (43)] A Shang Qing text dating around 500 says that Xi Wangmu governs the nine-layered Kunlun and the Northern Dipper. The Shih Zhou Zhi also connects Kunlun mountain “where Xi Wang Mu reigns” to a double star in the Big Dipper, known as the Dark Mechanism. The Dipper’s handle, called the Jade Crossbar of the Five Constants, “governs the internal structure of the nine heavens and regulates yin and yang.” [Cahill, 35-8]

Taoist texts repeatedly associate Xi Wangmu with nine planes, a nine-leveled mountain, pillar, or jade palace. She is worshipped with nine-fold lamps. She governs the Nine Numina—which are the original ultimate powers in Shang Qing parlance. The goddess herself is called Nine Radiance, and Queen Mother of the Nine Heavens. [Cahill, 68-9, 126]

Legend said that the Zhou dynasty king Mu (circa 1000 bce) travelled to Kunlun in search of the Western Mother. Many ancient sources elaborated on their meeting beside the Turquoise Pond. The emperor Han Wudi was granted a similar audience in 110 BCE. The Monograph on Broad Phenomena says that the goddess sent a white deer to inform him of her advent, and he prepared a curtained shrine for her. She arrived on the festival of Double Sevens, riding on a chariot of purple clouds. She sat facing east, clothed in seven layers of blue clouds. Three big blue birds and other magical servitors set up the ninefold tenuity lamp.

In a later account, the cloud carriage of the goddess is drawn by nine-colored chimeric chilin. She wears a sword, a cord of knotted flying clouds, and “the crown of the Grand Realized Ones with hanging beaded strings of daybreak.” She granted the emperor a long instruction on how to attain the Tao—which he failed to follow. Instead of nourishing essence, preserving breath, and keeping the body whole, he lost himself in carousing and indulgences. [Cahill, 81, 149-153]

Qi Xi, or the Night of Sevens

Over the centuries the Double Sevens festival drifted away from Xi Wang Mu, and toward the Weaver Girl. This night was the one time in the year that she was allowed to meet Cowherd Boy. An ancient legend says that the god of heaven separated the lovers, or in some versions, Xi Wangmu herself. Angered that the girl was neglecting her loom, she made her return to the heavens. When Cowherd followed, the goddess drew her hairpin across the sky, creating the celestial river of the Milky Way to separate the lovers. (They were the stars Vega and Aquila.) Later, she helped them to reunite by sending ten thousand magpies to create a bridge. So the holiday is sometimes called the Magpie festival.

***

Jade maidens  appear as long-sleeved dancers in the shamanic Songs of Chu and some Han poems. The Shuo wen jie zi defines them as “invocators [zhu] …women who can perform services to the shapeless and make the spirits come down by dancing.” [Rawson, 427] Centuries later, a Qing dynasty painting shows a woman dancing before Xi Wang Mu and her court, moving vigorously and whirling her long sleeves. [Schipper, 2000: 36] Chinese art is full of these ecstatic dancing women.

jade maidens gather in a wilderness garden  as the goddess flies in on a phoenix

The Jade Maidens (Yü Nü) are companions of the goddess on Kunlun. They are dancers and musicians who play chimes, flutes, mouth organ, and jade sounding stones. In medieval murals at Yongle temple, they bear magical ling zhifungi on platters. In the “Jade Girls’ Song,” poet Wei Ying-wu describes their flight: “Flocks of transcendents wing up to the divine Mother.” [Cahill, 99-100]

Medieval poets and artists show the goddess riding on a phoenix or crane, or on a five colored dragon. Many sources mention three azure birds who bring berries and other foods to Xi Wangmu in her mountain pavilion, or fly before her as she descends to give audience to mortals. The poet Li Bo referred to the three wild blue birds who circle around Jade Mountain as “the essence-guarding birds.” They fulfil the will of the goddess. Several poets described these birds as “wheeling and soaring.” [Cahill, 99; 92; 51-3; 159]

The sacred mountain is inhabited by fantastic beings and shamanistic emissaries. Among them are the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, a dancing frog, and the moon-hare who pounds magical elixirs in a mortar. There are phoenixes and chimeric chi-lin, jade maidens and azure lads, and spirits riding on white stags. A third century scroll describes Xi Wangmu herself as kin to magical animals in her western wilderness: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.” [Cahill, 51-3]

Han dynasty people placed bronze mirrors in burials as blessings for the dead and the living, inscribed with requests for longevity, prosperity, progeny, protection, and immortality. Taoists also used these mystic mirrors in ritual and meditation and transmissions of potency. One mirror depicting Xi Wangmu bears a poem on the transcendents:

The common people marched westward through various provinces, toward the Han capital. Many were barefoot and wild-haired (like their untamed goddess). People shouted and drummed and carried torches to the rooftops. Some crossed barrier gates and climbed over city walls by night, others rode swift carriages in relays “to pass on the message.” They gathered in village lanes and fields to make offerings. “They sang and danced in worship of the Queen Mother of the West.” [Lullo, 278-9]

***

Weaver Fairies and Heavenly-robed Sprites

There exists a similar legend of The Weaver Fairy and the Buffalo Boy in Vietnam or “The Exiled Fairy” (aka THE LEGEND OF PRINCESS LIEU HANH). In Japan, the Fairy Couple story elements are broken up and exists as two separate myths – that of Tanabata and that of the Swan Maiden element which is a common myth in many parts of the world see Swan Maid and Hagoromo This is a common motif in folk tales across the world, though the animals vary. The Italian fairy tale “The Dove Girl” features a dove. There are the Orcadian and Shetlandic selkies, that alternate between seal and human shape. A Croatian tale features a she-wolf.

Buffalo maidens

In Africa, the same motif is shown through buffalo maidens. In East Asia, it is also known featuring maidens who transform into various bird species. In Russian fairy-tales there are also several characters, connected with the Swan-maiden. In the Japanese legend of Hagoromo, it is a heavenly spirit, or Tennin, whose robe is stolen.

Another related tale is the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl, in which one of seven fairy sisters is taken as a wife by a cowherd who hid the seven sisters’ robes; she becomes his wife because he sees her naked, and not so much due to his taking her robe.

The crane wife

One notably similar Japanese story, “The crane wife”, is about a man who marries a woman who is in fact a crane disguised as a human. To make money the crane-woman plucks her own feathers to weave silk brocade which the man sells, but she become increasingly ill as she does so. When the man discovers his wife’s true identity and the nature of her illness, she leaves him.

Taoist themes, fairies and immortality

Many Chinese myths deal with natural disasters, especially floods. Others deal with heavenly bodies such as the sun and moon. Animals, including dragons, pigs, and monkeys, are also important figures in Chinese mythology. Reverence for ancestors is another common theme in Chinese mythology.

Immortality, which actually means long life – is viewed as a sign of the gods’ favor, and for many centuries, the Chinese have sought the secret of long life and immortality. In the past, Taoists believed that magic potions could be created that bestowed eternal life on people who drank them and that beings known as hsien gained immortality in this way.

Shortly before . 100, Buddhism arrived in China from India and added another important influence to Chinese culture and mythology. Buddhism arrived in China between 50 . and . 50, several hundred years after the rise of Confucianism and Taoism. It appealed very much to Chinese peasants, who suffered great hardship and poverty Chinese Buddhism became much more elaborate than Indian Buddhism, incorporating many Taoist and ancient Chinese gods. Among the most popular Chinese Buddhist deities are Emituofo, ruler of the Western Paradise, and Kuanyin, the goddess of mercy and the many Tennin, heavenly fairies.

***

Swan Maid

By Colin Chapman (942777u@merkland.rgu.ac.uk)

Description

An ancient kith, the Swan Maids are legend throughout much of the world, inhabiting much of Europe (especially Germany and Russia), Java, Indonesia and even Australia. Spread across the range of their blood animal, they have strong reputations for beauty, elegance, and powers of divination.

Sought in times of legend for their powers, much like the Selkie, their feather coats were sometimes held to ransom, in exchange for marriage or other favours, for just like the Selkie, the Swan Maids are skinchangers.

The black swan maids of Australian aboriginal myth were said to have lost their white feathers in a battle with eagles, and stood naked until the ravens took pity on them, giving them the black feathers from their own backs).

Sensual and seductive, this kith is strongly matriarchal, and the powers of the blood and feathers are never present in the male line. Love is known of course, but the most extreme regard males of any species as little better than breeding partners. Sadly, their mistreatment in the times of legend has done little to ease this attitude, and the Swan Women (the grumps of this kith) can be vengeful indeed to those who offend them. Just like real swans, they may be pictures of grace and beauty but they can be exceedingly temperamental or spiteful. Other kiths have learned to remain alert.

As skinchangers, the Swan Maids must physically put aside her feather coat in order to take human shape, and this coat has a mortal seeming itself, also containing her very fae essence and Glamour. If lost, stolen or destroyed it proves a terrible tragedy. A Swan Maid can use no magics if it is lost or stolen until it is recovered, and if destroyed her fae nature dies also. Small wonder that they were often held to ransom by greedy mortals who stole their coats.

The feathers themselves are surprisingly resilient, and may only be destroyed by cold iron or fire. In fact, cold iron does no damage to the fae aspect of the Swan Maid unless it damages the feather coat, although it can still cause real physical damage to the mortal body.

When a Swan Maid approaches death, her feather coat (and the Glamour it contains) are passed on to another female of Swan Maid blood, with favour being shown to close kinain. The new Swan Maid quickly learns the craft of skinshifting and passing on her Glamour to a skin of her own choosing. Very rarely a swan descendant may learn to remove the feather coat and take human form, and such wild sisters are greeted with much joy for their rarity and the continuity of the Swan Maid lineage.

Valkyrie corpse goddesses who taken on the form of swan maidens

The Original Valkyries The Valkyrie is, in the oldest strata of belief, a corpse goddess, represented by the carrion-eating raven. The name in Old Norse, valkyrja, means literally, “chooser of the slain.” The Valkyrie is related to the Celtic warrior-goddess, the Morrigan, who likewise may assume the form of the raven. [By the third to eleventh centuries]…this later time, the Valkyries, as demigoddesses of death, had their legend conflated with the folklore motif of the swan maiden (young girls who are able to take on the form of a swan, sometimes as the result of a curse). If one could capture and hold a swan maiden, or her feathered cloak, one could extract a wish from her. This is why valkyries were sometimes known as swan maidens or wish maidens.

Loki stole the feathered coat that Freyja lent Thor see The Lay of Thrym “shouted to Loki, “My hammer has been stolen! No one in heaven or on earth can know what a loss this is for me!”

Forthwith they rushed to Freyja’s shining halls.

“Freyja,” said Thor, “will you lend me your feathered coat to help me seek my hammer?”

Freyja said, “I would lend it to you even if it were made of gold or silver.”

Then Loki put on the feathered coat and, leaving Asgard, winged his way to Jotunheim, the world of giants.” http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/thrym.html

The Winebago version of the feathered shaman without the swan maiden – Wears White Feather on His Head, or Wears Sparrows for a Coat by Richard L. Dieterle

White Feather on His Head (Mąšųskakerega) is an unusual spirit who has come to earth on more than one occasion to help people in distress. His name, “Wears White Feather on His Head,” is what the spirits of the Upper World call him; those of the Lower World call him, “Wears Sparrows for a Coat.” They called him this on account of his very peculiar wrap, a coat made entirely of living sparrows. Whenever he took his coat off and began to shake it, the sparrows would birst into boisterous song. On his head he wore at least one pure white feather, and as part of his headdress, he wore a living loon. The white feathers were symbolic of the fact that he is chief of the white cranes.


See Notes on Celtic Sacred Birds for its sacred swan myth

See Afterlife 

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