Tanabata – Conscience-weaving under Summer Stars



by  Terry Boardman  May 1998

The Tanabata (or “Loom”) Festival has grown greatly in popularity since the end of World War  II.  In 1996 the first All Japan Tanabata Summit was held in Sendai when  representatives from 25 municipalities which hold Tanabata festivals got together to discuss the significance of the festival in Japanese history and its future development. One of the five traditional yearly sekku, and first celebrated at court in 691, the festival is based on an ancient legend which has acquired all kinds of embellishments over the centuries. Essentially, however, it is a love story of  the heavenly weaver princess Orihime (the star Vega) who comes down to earth, meets marries an earthly cowherd Kengyu, (the star Altair) and is so much in love with him that she neglects her divine task of weaving garments, and is therefore separated from her husband by the Milky Way on the orders of her father, the Emperor, Lord of heaven (Tentei). Kengyu rides up to heaven on a moon-shaped boat to try to rescue Orihime. A bridge over the Milky Way is built for the lovers to meet by birds – magpies in Japan, crows elsewhere in East Asia. The Emperor is impressed by their love and allows them to meet  once a year, on the evening of the7th day of the 7th month; birds always build the bridge.

What light can spiritual science throw on such a legend and its festival? Two sources in Rudolf Steiner’s work can help us here: The Cycle of the Year” (GA223)(1) especially the lecture of 3.April 1923, and “The Four Seasons and the Archangels” (GA229), especially the lecture of 12.October 1923. First, however, we should note that the 7th month in question is the lunar month, and therefore not July when the festival is currently celebrated, but a month later, and indeed in some areas of Japan, the festival is still celebrated on 7th August.  It is therefore connected to the preparations for Obon – another festival which has to do with the connections between the spiritual world and the earthly world. Many customs associated with Tanabata, such as the display of  bamboo branches as yorishiro, and the use of tanabatabune and tanabata ningyo are also involved in welcoming and seeing off ancestral spirits.

In the above-mentioned  work of Rudolf Steiner (GA223),  it is said that in ancient times humanity had little or no feeling for the ego of  Man or for the form of the human body; they were much more living in feelings of  their blood, race, and bodily life forces, in other words, they were oriented not towards the Ego and the physical body, but more towards the etheric and astral bodies. The love which existed in human communities was based on the feelings and habits – highly differentiated according to tribe and race – of the etheric and astral bodies. This bound the members of communities together but separated them from other communities and especially from foreigners. The initiates had to prepare humanity gradually for the new development of a feeling for the individual Ego and the universal physical form – both of which would enable human beings to see the humanity in those who were not of their own tribe or race. This was done by the festivals of the summer which gave humanity the feeling that the Ego, which they did not have yet as individuals, was being guarded for them in the spiritual world; they were enabled to experience something of the Ego in a dreamlike way. The experience of the physical form of the human body, on the other hand, was given to them in the various physical activities associated with winter festivals.

 In the summer then, people’s feelings were encouraged in the festivals to rise up to the heavens, as indeed all of Nature does in summertime when the Earth, as Steiner describes, is “breathing out”. The most suitable activities for celebration at this time are music, dancing and poetry, which take the soul out of itself in a dreamlike state of near-ecstasy. This musicality or song quality (and in Japanese, of course, poems are called ‘songs’) of summer festivals, Steiner says, Man learned from the singing of the animal world as a whole, and especially from the songbirds. Man added his voice in singing and poetry to the uprising praises of the animal world. Man was then encouraged to listen for what flowed back from the heavens as an answer to his voice. And what he heard and dreamily felt in the ‘greening’ of the atmosphere, in the plant-like quality of the air in summer, he experienced as the dream of his own Ego descending from heaven as the answer of the Gods; and when he heard and saw the mighty summer thunderstorms he dimly felt that that power lived also within the core of his own soul as his own Ego; he thus felt united with the spiritual world, blessed by it and protected by it, like a small child by the love of its parents.

But small children can also sometimes be naughty, and for different reasons, especially in summertime and wintertime. In summertime, people become drowsy and less awake; they are therefore more prone to errors, both of the practical and the moral kind; they may well forget to do what they know they ought to do, or even deliberately neglect it. These errors also rise up into the spiritual world in the summer, where they are seen by a Being who is a particularly stern judge, stern in the sense of the Buddhist deities of the Godai Myô-ô. This Being is called in the West by the name of Uriel, though the names are not important; he could just as well be called Zôjôten – one of the four great Beings (shitennô) who watch over the seasons of the year. Uriel is a Being of Enlightenment – he lives in the Earth’s circumference in the summer light where he weaves the golden raiment  worn by Michael. He  looks down to the Earth and sees the silvery crystalline forms of the Earth’s mineral body; he sees the errors committed by Man rising up from amidst them and he sees the virtuous acts of Man also rising up towards him. Steiner describes how Uriel looks upon Man with an earnest admonishing gaze – a look with which he seeks to encourage Man to develop conscience, a historical conscience – the ability to look back and reflect on his errors. This is the very activity of the Ego, for out of conscience comes  the will to do the Good. In summer we can be inspired by Uriel – if we have ears to listen to him – to think the Good. In autumn, we do the Good, and offer our good deeds up to Michael, who accepts them and transforms them.

In the light of all this, let us look again at the Tanabata legend. The princess is a weaver. What is she weaving? Celestial garments of light for the Emperor of Heaven. In the Chinese legend she is the 7th and youngest princess.  She is associated with the number 7, traditionally the number of Time in occult lore.  In terms of cosmic evolution, the 7th and youngest cosmic body in the solar system is the Moon (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury,  Moon) Now there is a deep relationship between the Moon and Saturn, which has to do with their forming the limits of our solar system, from Man’s point of view, as he rises into the spiritual world after death and descends to Earth before birth. What is he descending from? From the sphere of Saturn, the outermost of the traditional planets and the traditional guardian of Time and History. Another name for Uriel is Oriphiel – the Saturn Archangel. The Saturn sphere is “the 7th heaven” where each of us works out his karma for his next incarnation with the help of the Beings of the First Hierarchy who indwell the sphere of Saturn – this, for each individual soul is the sphere of historical, or perhaps we should say, biographical, conscience. Man descends before birth from Saturn to the Moon, where he waits in the ‘lobby’ of the spiritual world  for the propitious moment to be born on Earth. Gabriel/Tamonten is the archangel associated with  the Moon. Uriel/Zôjôten, lord of the South, of summer and Saturn; Gabriel/Tamonten, lord of the North, of winter, and  the Moon.

The princess Orihime is a weaver among the stars; the man Kengyu is a cowherd on Earth – these are pictures of the astral (‘astral’ means ‘starry’) and etheric life respectively. For the people of ancient agricultural societies, in which mining was a little developed skill, there was no more earthly existence than that of the cow. The star princess above, the cow below – a strong vertical image arises. We might recall that, alone of the shitennô, Zôjôten carries a spear, always upright as a sign of his cosmic will and task. We also recall that one of the main symbols of the Tanabata festival is the long paper streamers hanging down from high bamboo poles – decorations which give the impression of  cosmic bounty pouring down from above. The fireworks which often accompany not only Tanabata but many summer festivals in Japan also add to the cosmic revelation of light. We can imagine how these too might have given to the ancestors a dreamy intimation of cosmic thinking. Fireworks are the product of the mineral earth; these early products of Man’s earthly technical intelligence are thrown up by Man into the heavens and appear in their splendour as if they were an answer from the Gods. As such, they were an inspired addition to the summer festival.

But the princess  – the human soul – was so taken with her earthly lover that she forgot her cosmic tasks of  weaving and was punished by her parents. Her errors rose up and were seen by Uriel/Zôjôten. She was to remain in heaven and not lose herself in earthly love and pleasure; the time for the human soul to give itself  fully to earthly life was not yet. But her parents were impressed by the love she and her lover showed for each other, so they allowed the one meeting on the 7th evening of the 7th lunar month; in choosing this date the spiritual world impressed the importance of the number of the law of Time upon  the ancestors’ consciousness. They directed  people’s attention forward to the future, when Orihime and Kengyu would be together. And it was birds who enabled Kengyu to rise up to his love – crows in China, magpies in Japan. Neither of these birds are considered beautiful in the normal  sense; their voices are not pretty. Their voices are closer to those of  land animals or human beings, so they could be said to be more ‘fallen’, which means more evolved than other birds, which, in their musicality, remain more ‘heavenly, creatures. The interesting thing about the difference between the crow and the magpie however, is of course, the colour. Magpies, with their mixture of black and white, and their long elegant tails, are more attractive  than crows.  Do we see here a symbolic representation in the legend of human morality and human thinking rising up with Kengyu to heaven – human thoughts both erroneous and virtuous? In his lecture cycle entitled  “Man as Symphony of the Creative Word” (GA230;19.10-11.11.1923), Rudolf Steiner spoke at length about the relation between birds and human thoughts.

The practice associated both with Obon and Tanabata of tanabatabune and tanabata ningyo , floating straw figures of men and animals away on the river reflects the belief that one’s sins and evils can be transferred to these figures and  floated away like ridding onself of harmful sleep (nemurinagashi). The horses often used as figures originate from the Chinese astrological notion of  the horse as the animal of the 7th month. Here too we see the intuition that morality, dream, and sleepiness are related to summer – further evidence of the ancient knowledge that the weavings of the human soul and the cycle of the seasons are intimately related. Traditionally at Tanabata, people pray for their skills, especially in sewing and writing, to be improved; in so doing they seek to fulfil their duties as members of society. They also pray for success in love – they wish for Orihime and Kengyu to be united – which is the same as praying for the two sides of human nature, the heavenly and the earthly, to be healthily united in themselves.

Spiritual science can thus help us to deepen our appreciation of  ancient festivals such as Tanabata which have for centuries sought to strengthen the bond between Man and the spiritual world. In this age of increasing materialism excessive light pollution often prevents people in Japan from seeing Vega and Altair across the Milky Way from each other when, in early August they would normally be clearly visible. That seems symptomatic of an age when festivals are often regarded as no more than tourist amusements and money-making opportunities for business. In such an age, do we not need that appreciation and that bond ?

(1)  GA – Gesamtausgabe – refers to the collected works of Rudolf Steiner

© Terry Boardman

This essay was first uploaded Dec 1999.  Last updated 9.7.2012