The Mid-Autumn festival is one of the two key events of the Asian lunisolar calendar. The Chinese celebrated it at least since the Shang dynasty (1600BC). Like many ancient calendars, it divided the year into two main parts. The first and most important event was the Spring festival, which marked the beginning of the New Year. This is the time to saw, and the warm season begins. The other date was the Mid-Autumn festival, which marked the harvest, and the beginning of cold days.
In its essence, the Yin-Yang symbol comes from the same reasoning, symbolizing the eternal cosmic dance of light and darkness.
The Mid-Autumn festival and its symbols
For the sake of brevity, in this article, we will discuss only the Mid-Autumn festival. The basic idea is the same or similar all across Asia, although small regional differences do exist. As I am currently based in Vietnam, I will focus mostly on the local traditions of this region.
The festival begins on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, on the night of the full moon. The days are counted from the New Year, ie. the spring festival. As we are dealing with a lunar calendar, there is a small discrepancy between the dates of the astronomical Autumn (23.09.2019.) and the date of the festival (13.09.2019.). However, the meaning is still clear.
The main characters of the Mid-Autumn festival celebration are:
There are some other symbols as well: the dragon dance, the lanterns, and the Moon cake.
Dragon dance – the dance of the universe
In this article, we will entertain the possibility that all of the symbols of the Mid-Autumn festival are astronomical. We will start with an obvious one – the dragon dance.
Dragon dance has many variations, but the common thread seems to exist everywhere. A man is holding an “emerald”, “jewel” or a “ball” attached to a pole, and a dragon is chasing it.
This “jewel” is a clear representation of the brightest star of the night sky – Polaris. Its English name comes from an ancient belief that an invisible pole runs through the center of the Earth and ends in the polar star. The whole universe rotates around it. Polaris lies at the end of the tail of a small bear, and the constellation Draco – the dragon is right next to it. It looks as if the dragon is trying to catch it, but forever failing.
The idea of a “polar star” is so ancient, that we see it already in the paleolithic images of Europe. Here, the polar star is depicted as a bird on a pole. The pole is located on the left side of Orion, in the region of the Milky Way.
So, if a dragon-dance relates to astronomy and this is the Moon celebration festival, could the other characters also be related to the stars and constellations?
Chú Cuội (Uncle Cuội) – a representation of Orion
The Chinese equivalent of Uncle Cuội is Hou Yi, “Lord Archer”, also known as “a god of archery”. This is the first tell-tale sign that we are dealing with astronomical imagery. Orion is portrayed as an archer in dozens of Indo-European myths.
Things get much more interesting with the story of his Vietnamese equivalent – Uncle Cuội. He is also an archer and a hunter. But his main occupation is that of a farmer and a woodcutter. Interesting, because some two thousand years ago, the world embraced the story of another famous woodcutter.
The story of Uncle Cuội and the banyan tree
Uncle Cuội was a woodcutter. He had no money to buy himself an ox and a cart, so he had to carry the wood tied on a pole. One day as he was gathering wood, he saw three tiger cubs. By a twist of unfortunate events (the versions here vary), he had accidentally killed one or all three cubs. At that moment, their mother returned. He climbed the Banyan tree to save himself. The mother went to an old Banyan tree and picked some leaves. She then chewed them and put them on the cubs’ heads. To his amazement, the cubs were alive again.
Uncle Cuội discovered the elixir of immortality. First, he brought a dog back to life, then he helped other people. He built a house near the tree and he brought his wife to live with him. But one day his wife managed to hurt the tree. The tree started to fly towards to sky. Uncle Cuội grabbed one of its roots and flew to the sky with it. If you look at the moon, there is a figure of a man sitting under a tree, playing the flute. This is Chú Cuội, wondering if he will get back to earth again.
Uncle Cuội and the banyan tree – Orion and the Milky Way
Now, the story of Uncle Cuội is so filled with astronomical symbols that it shouldn’t be too hard to prove his connection to Orion. I wrote many articles on the subject of the Milky Way being equated with the cosmic tree. Please refer to the end of this article. Note also that the “three cubs” could relate to the three stars of the Orion belt, while the “Moon Rabbit” lies below him.
To save space, I have summarized all the other main symbols on an image below.
The similarities are obvious. But most importantly, during this specific time of the year, Orion is the first constellation visible on the east after the sunset. (or before sunrise) This can be easily verified with the help of any astronomical software. During the night, Orion will rise higher and higher above the horizon. This is the very image of Uncle Cuội following his Banyan tree to the sky!
The Jade / Moon rabbit
As we saw, the myths of the Mid-Autumn festival are impregnated with astronomical mythology. But above all, this is a lunar festival. All of the calculations are based on lunar months and moon phases.
Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the main characters, the Moon rabbit, lives on the Moon. This is quite a literal allegory, as the Moon markings really have the shape of a rabbit. But what is really amazing is that bunnies appear in the western culture around Easter. Easter is a western equivalent of the spring festival. The Moon phases are still used for the calculation of the Easter date – a relic of an ancient lunar calendar.
But how ancient is this idea, is best seen through the parallels with the ancient Maya culture of Mesoamerica.
Besides the Moon, the image of a rabbit appears also under Orion, as the Lepus constellation. According to the Wikipedia article on Lepus, this is not a coincidence, and it is somehow related to the Moon rabbit myth.
The story of Chị Hằng (sister Hằng)
In Chinese mythology, Chang’e is married to the archer Houyi (Orion). Therefore, we can assume that in Vietnamese myth she would be Uncle Cuội’s wife. (Although the myth does not clearly state this). In any case, this is her story:
The archer Huoyi got the elixir of immortality, as he saved the Earth from having ten Suns, by shooting down nine of them. He left the elixir home with his beloved Chang’e. One day, as he was hunting, his apprentice tried to steal the potion. To stop him, Chang’e had no choice but to drink it herself. She immediately flew to the sky and chose the Moon as her abode. Her devastated husband started the tradition of making Moon-cakes for her.
Chị Hằng (sister Hằng) – Virgo constellation
One of the names of Chị Hằng is “returning Maiden“. She endows her worshippers with beauty. The Mid-Autumn moon is the best time to celebrate marriages. Girls pray to Chang’e to help fulfill their romantic wishes. Both these words, “maiden” and “beauty” are typical attributes of Venus, ruler of the Virgo constellation. The notions of love and romance are also clear.
Moreover, during the Mid-Autumn festival, Orion appears on the East right after the sunset. Virgo appears in the same place, but right before sunrise. This is already a clear separation of the “two lovers”.
But there is more. As the constellations keep rotating on the horizon, Virgo will enter the realm of the day and become completely invisible for the three following months. She will start descending around Christmas but fully return only to mark the spring season.
The exact same allegory exists in Christianity, with Virgin Marry ascending to Heaven in Autumn – Dormition of the Mother of God. She will return for the Easter, her most important holiday. Here bunnies also imply fertility, as even the name Easter comes from Babylonian Ishtar, the name of the Venus.
This notion of this “Virgo return” is also clear from the Chinese name “returning Maiden”.
On death and immortality
One light-motive that we see in all of the stories related to the Mid-Autumn festival is the elixir of immortality. Uncle Cuội made it from the leaves of a banyan tree. The moon rabbit is always making it with his mortar and pestle, as visible on the markings of the Moon. And finally, even Sister Hằng and Uncle Cuội had access to this potion.
A quest for immortality is truly one of the most underrated concepts of the Mid-autumn festival. But to fully understand it we need to define some basics.
Moon cake, food for the ghosts
First of all, the Mid-Autumn festival happens right after “the ghost month“. All across Asia, the belief is that during this period the souls of the dead are allowed to visit Earth. This is a good time to honor the ancestors and deceased friends and relatives. But also the time when one must be wary of the hostile, hungry ghosts.
As this month comes to an end, on the night of the festival, children will put on masks and ask for treats. They represent these ghosts, who will now return to their realm, after being treated.
You have probably guessed it already – this tradition almost perfectly mirrors that of Halloween. True, nowadays the timing is not exactly the same, but the original holiday actually happened at the same as in Asia. According to Wikipedia, the Mexican Day of the dead is Pre-Columbian, and at least 2,500-3,000 years old.
It fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead”.
As we see, the Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico also had a ghost month, at the same time as the Asian one. There was also a “Lady” or “Goddess” involved – a clear allusion to Virgo.
In Mexico, they also dedicate food to their dead. Apart from the typical sweets and fruit, they even have a special cake – Pan de Muerto. This is a Mexican equivalent of the Moon cake and its purpose is exactly the same.
Obviously, this tradition is really ancient. Therefore it should not be surprising to see it in Europe as well. Slavs for example, have Zaduszki, with the same customs. During the year, there are many dates when families will make a ritual feast for their deceased. But of all these dates the most important one falls at the beginning of Autumn. A special bread is also made for this occasion, while the masked men visit houses looking for treats.
Lanterns, a guiding light for the underworld
Now, on the day of the festival, the souls of the dead have to return to the underworld. Astronomically, this is represented by the Sun’s crossing of the Milky Way. For the ancient Greeks, this was the river Styx, the gate to the realm of Hades.
This is the world of darkness, and to facilitate the journey, all ancient cultures were creating some form of light. In the west, we use candles for this purpose. In Asia, lanterns are more popular. In many parts of Vietnam, these lanterns will be let go to flow freely on the surface of the water. Another clear allusion to the stary sky and the Milky Way.
But lanterns also represent fertility and life-giving force. In fact, the same reasoning still exists in the Balkans, where the lamp is one of the most common wedding gifts.
And this brings us back to the topic of immortality.
The Champa influence
In Hinduism, Soma means both the Moon and the magical potion of immortality. Vedic texts are full of references to the Moon as a cup, holding the precious nectar. Since Rigveda is the oldest written document known to man, we can be pretty sure that these are some of the first ideas of the connection between the Moon and the nectar of immortality. The image of a banyan tree, a national tree of India, only reinforces this idea further. Buddha had reached enlightenment under this very tree. And here in Vietnam, the amazing Champa culture had spawn directly from these ancient Indian traditions.
This Champa influence could also explain the slight difference between the Chinese and Vietnamese image of Orion. Vietnamese culture is a mixture of different ancient traditions, not a copy of the Chinese.
Soma, an intoxicating potion
On the other hand, the soma-drinking tradition is probably even older than Vedic India.
According to some authors, professor David W. Anthony for example: “Soma was introduced into Indo-Iranian culture from the Bactria–Margiana culture. The Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran. It was “a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements”.
This Indo-European influence would surely explain many similarities between Asian and European cultures. Some of them we have seen in this article. But the tradition of drinking soma probably comes from the Shamans of Siberia. A separate article on that topic is linked below.
Nowadays, most scholars agree that the original soma was a hallucinogenic drink probably based on Amanita Muscaria mushroom. One of its known effects is the sensation of flying, so common in these myths. Moreover, autumn was the time to gather the ingredients and prepare them.
This is why the constellation Crater lies next to Virgo. The name of this constellation means “cup, grail”, “holy grail?”. But as the soma-drinking tradition is long lost, only the mysterious fairy tales for kids remained. Not unlike Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in the wonderland”, and her white rabbit.
As we saw, the Mid-Autumn festival is a celebration of both, light and darkness. This is the time when these two worlds collide and the ancients gave huge importance to this event.
In a nutshell, its meaning is simple.
First of all, the knowledge of these cosmic cycles was vital for agriculture. The knowledge of when to saw and when to reap provided food for the material existence. This is why Virgo holds a grain of corn in her hands.
Secondly, the spiritual realm followed the same universal laws. The movement of the Sun through the zodiac symbolized the movement of the soul through the light world of the living and the dark world of the dead.
Finally, these two worlds were connected – The seed came from the underworld and brought life. Therefore a sacrificial cake had to be sent back as a token of gratitude. Even in the Bible, Jesus says that the bread is his body and the wine his blood. 1 Corinthians 11:24-25
In a nutshell, this is an outline of the world’s oldest religion, at least as old as the agriculture itself, possibly even older. The vast knowledge of the movement of the stars and the other realms was preserved in the form of stories. Unfortunately, these stories gradually lost their meaning, but the power of their symbols is so universal and so potent, that it can still teach us, after so many millennia.
If we would only listen…