In one of my previous posts, Star Chart Stone Shrine of Hội An, I delved into a hidden shrine in the ancient city of Hội An, not because I was curious about any golden treasure it might point to, but because I was curious about the meaning behind the engraved characters and what turned out to be a star chart.
I immediately recognized the Big Dipper and I could figure out what the characters were via a Han-Viet dictionary, but I was completely at a loss for the remaining scattered stars, even after a bit of brief preliminary research. My family had taught me the basics so I knew that the Big Dipper was also called the Sao Bánh Lái Lớn (The Big Rudder Stars) because they were (still are) used by Vietnamese fishermen to navigate with–at night…when it wasn’t cloudy. Or rainy.
I also knew that the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) consists of seven stars: Alioth (Liêm Trinh), Dubhe (Tham Lang), Merak (Cự Môn), Alkaid (Phá Quân), Phecda (Lộc Tồn), Megrez (Văn Khúc), and Mizar (Vũ Khúc). And if your eyesight isn’t too bad, I’ve been told that you can even see a second star hovering around Mizar.
Since I am near-sighted and can barely see the brightest stars in the sky, I took that information on faith (but also did a quick Google search to verify this info). And whadya know. It’s true!
This tiny companion star which hangs out with Mizar is called Alcore (Phụ Tinh).
The total came out to be eight stars, but the star chart stone at the shrine in Hội An had more than eight stars depicted on the stone’s surface. Obviously, I was missing something important.
I was stumped for the longest time and figured it wasn’t something I was going to be able to figure out. This thing is so old, nobody even knows who erected it.
You have to understand. Vietnam is a very old country. In the US, if something is a couple hundred years old, people call it an antique. In Vietnam, it has to be at least a thousand years old before we even give it a second look. Want to impress us? Make it four-thousand years old.
Out of a morbid curiosity, I even took a trip out to Hội An to look for the dang thing, but got caught up in all the fun things to do there and missed my chance of a lifetime to see this (supposedly haunted) shrine with my very own eyes. Oh well. Maybe I’ll revisit Hội An next year and make it one of my top priorities instead of the silk shops and the pearl shops.
In any case, since I am still walking this Taoist path, whereby I continue my ongoing journey of discovery, I simply shrugged it off and went on my merry way, knowing that things tend to resolve themselves when the time came for them to be resolved.
In this case, it was an accidental stumble across a book that mentioned a secret society from ancient Asia called The Cult of the Great Dipper that sent me back on the path to uncover the answers I’d been seeking.
Cult of the Great Dipper
Back around 785 AD, there was a North Pole/Big Dipper cult out of Japan known as Myoken cult. It was recorded to have been active within the Japanese court at that time.
Thanks to a well-translated book entitled, Nihonkoku Genpō Zen’aku Ryōiki 日本国現報善悪霊異記 (“Miraculous Stories of Karmic Retribution of Good and Evil in Japan”) there was quite a bit of detailed information presented within. This sect had many interesting practices, but I’ll save that for the next few postings on this subject. I am only interested in the Big Dipper aspect of their cult at this point.
Since I was adequately intrigued by this, I dug a bit further and found another tome of interest, a Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō edition of the Sūtra of the Great Dipper. Front and center of the book was an illustration which detailed the anthropomorphic forms of the seven stars of the Big Dipper. The Japanese ancient astro-sorcerers had drawn individual young men and gave them names that corresponded with the stars themselves, including a tiny dwarf-sized one that represented Alcor.
With that single volume of documentary work by the ancient Japanese Buddhist Astrologers, it should have been clear that the addition of this star should have expanded the Big Dipper into eight separate stars rather than seven, but this was not the case.
The ancient Taoist sorcerers, for some strange reason, kept insisting that there were nine stars that formed the Big Dipper, with one of them completely unseen, good eyesight or not. They were so convinced that they carved it into stone.
The image above is a Song Dynasty era Taoist carvings of a 9 star Big Dipper in Qingdao. The marks showing the the Ursa Major constellation were cut into the pink granite of Qingdao’s Laoshan mountains and reflect ancient Taoist astrology.
I have indicated the positions where the ‘invisible’ stars are supposedly located, but when I went to compare this carving to an actual photo of the stars, the two invisible stars really are invisible. Just for fun, I even went outside at night to take a peek (in vain).
There was also a drawing from The Winged Stanzas on the Golden Mystery of the Seven Principles of the Northern Dipper (Beidou qiyuan jinxuan yuzhang 北斗七元金玄羽章), complete with royal court men to represent the stars, but this one has two dwarves instead of the single one that the Japanese pointed out.
I’m starting to see the pattern here, of using young men to represent stars. Methinks the men need to look a bit hotter. They are stars, after all..
This, however, is also wrong.
With my handy dandy iPhone, I did a quick search and found out that the Big Dipper actually had even more than nine stars. In fact, there are a total of TWELVE stars that make up this constellation. Unfortunately, five of them require modern technology to be able to detect (a decent telescope and some knowledge of astro-physics and mathematics).
Since this technology has only been around in recent years, I am not surprised the ancients did not know that the Big Dipper had twelve stars; however, this meant that the old Japanese map needed to be redrawn.
To ensure accuracy of the numbers of stars that are actually present within the Big Dipper asterism, and in the interest of elevating the eye-candy quotient, I have recreated this star chart with hotter looking men.
In keeping with the ancient drawings, they all have long hair, all wear court clothing, and all are young strapping demigods, befitting the position of celestial beings.
Hội An Star Chart Shrine
Which brings me back to the original puzzling details on the shrine in Hội An. Remember that one? I went back to that posting and began counting the stars, and sure enough–there were a total of twelve stars on that ancient stone face, buried in the central region of Vietnam.
Whoever erected this stone either had access to a powerful telescope OR had access to information about the number of stars making up this asterism.
OR I could be completely wrong about this and those stars represent some other stars that have nothing to do with the Big Dipper.
But if that was the case, wouldn’t they have inscribed the names of those stars onto the stone as well? Why identify an easily recognizable asterism as the Big Dipper, but then keep the identity of the other stars a secret? Makes zero sense.
Perhaps the ancient Secret Sect of the Great Dipper already knew that there were twelve, but they were keeping it a secret, only allowing their high ranking members to know.
This must be the reason why all the original seven stars of the Big Dipper had their names inscribed, but not the other five.
FWIW: We do know what the names of these five stars are, but they are rather uninspired. The stars in the Mizar system only got the designations of Aa, Ab, Ba, and BB, and the twin stars of Alcor got A and B.
There is also the matter of that square in the center of the rock face. It seems to have the characters at the center like the one shown in the Japanese drawing, but the little circles joined by the dashes look more like the Taoist drawings.
Whatever the case may be, this continues to be a mystery to me. Too bad I’m not a scholar of ancient Asian hieroglyphs or I would be able to figure this out more than what I’ve managed to scrounge out. Still, there is truly much more to be discussed about the Big Dipper, and this posting has gotten suuuper long.
In my next posting, I will go into further detail about each individual star and the important role that it plays in ancient Taoist astrology. Until then, have an amazing day!
Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō edition of the Sūtra of the Great Dipper