February 8th marks the rise of the new moon as well as the start of the Chinese New Year for 2016. Following a luni-solar calendar, Chinese peoples will again celebrate the New Year for 15 consecutive days (a lunar number combined with solar days). The New Year and its corresponding celebrations have deep mythological ties to the Chinese sun and moon goddesses.
As Chinese scholar Anne Birrell relates, in Chinese mythology, the goddess Hsi-Ho (also known as Xi-He) gave birth to the ten suns. For Chinese peoples in archaic times, ten suns marked a calendrical “week.” Hsi-Ho would bathe each sun after its passage over the world and hang it to dry in the east on the world tree, Fu-sang (Leaning Mulberry Tree). Additonally, in ancient Chinese mythological texts, Hsi-Ho was also the “charioteer of the sun,” transporting the chosen sun of the day through its path in the sky from sunrise to sunset.
In the top photo, Hsi-Ho rises above the river or ocean where she bathes the suns. In the bottom photo, the sun goddess is about to harness her solar horse next to the world tree. This photo also depicts an alternate version of the suns appearing as crows (or the crows beginning to carry one sun to the top of the tree where Xi-He will transport it across the sky).
Within Chinese mythology, we see another wonderful example of the familiar world-wide mythological motif of goddess/world tree/ bird/ & snake or dragon.
Balancing Hsi-Ho is the moon goddess Ch’ang-hsi who birthed the twelve moons of the year. She also bathes each moon after it’s monthly journey through the sky and hangs it up to dry in the world tree. Centuries later, Chang-hsi is no longer mentioned in mythological texts, but the immortal Ch’ang-O gains prominence. Birrell notes that Ch’ang-O‘s “lunar role is parallel in some respects to that of Ch’ang-hsi“. The Tang Dynasty bronze mirror shown below, displays some of the mythic iconography first ascribed to Chang-hsi shifted to Ch’ang-O.
Like other mythologies around the world, the Chinese moon goddess symbolizes immortality. For Ch’ang-O, the toad or frog and the world tree which is forever renewed stand for the immortality she possesses. A significant change for the Chinese moon goddess is the strong association with red. In certain texts, the world tree has changed to the brilliant red cassia tree and the red gem cinnabar (representing alchemy) was introduced to represent the ill-fated attempts of Wu Kang who tried to create the elixir of immortality.
Chinese New Year celebrations mirror these mythological sun and moon associations in several ways: ephemeral (solar) fireworks light up the dark new moon New Year night, New Year wishes for long-life are a key blessing; dragon dances carry luck in for the whole community; at the New Year, one of the twelve moons represents the year (the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac); and finally, red is predominate signifying prosperity, blessings, good luck, and protection.
Thanks for reading this brief introduction to Chinese sun and moon goddesses. Do you celebrate the Chinese New Year as part of your traditions? I’d love to hear about them in your comments!