On August 15th the Chinese people offered up gifts to Chang-O, their moon goddess. (Technically they did it in the middle of the 8th Lunar Month of the year but in the modern day August 15th is the substitute date.)
Balladeer’s Blog presents the story of Chang-O, her husband Yi the Divine Archer, and the origin of that ritual.
I.WHAT’S UP WITH YI? – Yi the Divine Archer from Chinese mythology deserves to be remembered in one breath with some of the other great heroes and monster slayers from belief systems around the world. Most people are only familiar with his feat of shooting down multiple suns that appeared in the sky one day, but this article will provide a light- hearted look at all of his fantastic adventures.
Yi is pronounced “Yee” according to some sources, but according to others it’s pronounced “EEE”, so you can insert your own Ned Beatty joke here. (Mine would go like this: REDNECK: C’mon, ya fat little hog, what’s the name of the Divine Archer in Chinese mythology? NED BEATTY: EEEEEE! )
Yi was of semi- divine birth, but since “Yi the Semi- Divine Archer” doesn’t have the same ring to it, we’ll stick to his better- known nickname. Yi performed most of his heroic feats for the Chinese ruler Yao, the godling son of the supreme deity Huang Di. Yao would be remembered as the first of the Three Sage Kings in Chinese legends.
2. OFF- BROADWAY – Two of Yi’s earliest adventures after reaching manhood presented him with the weapons he would be most associated with forever after. Yi saved the people of Yao’s kingdom from a monstrous tiger, from whose bones he carved his indestructible bow. Conveniently his next adventure involved slaying a rogue dragon, from whose tendons he crafted thousands of unbreakable shafts, then affixed arrowheads and feathers to the two ends.
No mention is made of his bowstrings being made of anything special, however. Personally, I’ve always speculated that the strings were made from the nosehairs of the next creature he slew, but I’m kind of weird. At any rate, armed now with his trademark bow and arrows, Yi the Divine Archer was ready for prime time!
3. KISS MY BUTT, HERCULES – In the next period of his eventful life, Yi courageously took on a virtual bestiary of mythic creatures rivalling any that were slain by the other great monster slayers of global belief systems, like Hercules, Thor, Gilgamesh and others. As usual in mythology, the exact order in which our hero faced these menaces varies, so you can pretty much mix and match them however you like.
I’ll start with Zhayu, a gigantic beast with the body of a leopard, but the head of a dragon. Zhayu was using his fiery breath to destroy crops and defoliate the countryside and since that kind of thing can make a body hungry, he would also devour any stray animals or humans who crossed his path. The well-armed Yi was more than up to the task of dispatching Zhayu.
Next up was the monstrous Zaochi, a bipedal creature with teeth as sharp and strong as chisels. Zaochi was foiling the Divine Archer’s best efforts by devouring Yi’s arrows as quickly as he could fire them. Personally, I would have just stopped aiming at his mouth, but that’s me. Anyway, Yi wound up strangling Zaochi to death in hand-to- hand combat.
Jiuying was a cave-dwelling monster with nine heads, and it could pop one of its heads out of any of the nine caves that served as entrances to its lair. It didn’t do this just for fun, of course, but in order to seize and devour passersby. Yi, presumably knowing better than to shoot directly into his opponent’s mouth this time, soon added Jiuying to his “kill” list.
The next three creatures to have fatal encounters with the Divine Archer were Dafeng, an enormous bird that was flying around scooping up and swallowing people by the dozen, then Fengxi, a monstrous boar who also had a hankering for human flesh, and finally Hsiushe, a snake with a body as thick and long as the tallest tree.
4.I’M BIGGER THAN JESUS! – With several hard-rocking hits in the field of monster- slaying under his belt, Yi was soon to face two of his biggest challenges yet. Feng Bo, the wind god who had rebelled against the supreme deity Huang Di eons earlier, was once again displaying disobedient tendencies. The unruly god was causing severe windstorms to destroy the homes of many of Yao’s subjects, on his own initiative and against the Divine Order.
Huang Di gave his descendant Yao the okay to sic the heroic Yi on Feng Bo. First Yi found himself facing Feng Bo’s beast Fei Li An, the wind deity of an earlier era defeated and tamed by Feng Bo (Did this guy get along with anybody?) Fei Li An was a gigantic creature with the wings and head of a sparrow, the body and horns of a deer, the tail of a serpent and the fur of a panther. None of this impressed Yi after all his other adventures and he soon killed Fei Li An.
Next, in a climactic confrontation in the Qinqiu Marsh the Divine Archer managed to slay the errant deity with his bow and arrows. Then, really feeling his oats now, John Lennon style, Yi transformed the slain Feng Bo into swamp gas, trapping him forever in the Qinqiu Marsh.
It’s hard to stop after killing just one god, however, and before long the Divine Archer was once again sent out to deal with another rogue deity. He Bo, also called Ho Po, was the god of the Yalu River, and was crankily causing his realm’s waters to rise up and drown any and all people trying to cross the river from any direction.
He Bo’s sister was the goddess Chang O, also called Heng O, and He Bo kept her forever by his side (get your minds out of the gutter). Chang O was very desirable (I said stop it!) and Yi was immediately smitten with her. So smitten, in fact, that while fighting He Bo and shooting him directly in the eye, forever blinding him in that eye, he spared Chang O from all harm, merely parting her silky hair down the middle with a well-placed shaft (I’m not telling you again!).
He Bo vowed to curb his unruly behavior and Chang O was so grateful to Yi for not killing her she agreed to become his wife. (I can’t tell you how many couples I know who met in this EXACT same way!) To go off and marry the semi-divine Yi, Chang O had to renounce her own immortality, however, a decision that would have far- reaching ramifications down the road. For the moment, however, Yi and Chang O were a happily married couple. (Chicks just can’t resist a guy who permanently blinds their brother in one eye.)
5. HERE COME THE SUNS … TEN OF THEM – And so Yi and his wife Chang O spent a few years of marital bliss. Eventually, when the time drew near for King Yao to step down and name a successor he decided that none of his five sons were worthy of ruling. He therefore established the precedent that made him the most respected of the Three Sage Kings, that of passing the throne on to the most deserving person, not necessarily a family member.
Bypassing his sons, Yao named the demigod Shun as his successor, and Shun would go on to rule so well he became revered as the second of the Three Sage Kings. Initially, however, Yao’s deviation from what seemed like the natural order of the universe by going outside of his sons for a successor was causing the very fabric of the cosmos to be disrupted. (I get like that when it comes to talk show host succession so I can relate)
The greatest manifestation of this disorder arose when the giant crows who carried the ten suns rose all at once instead of one at a time on consecutive days like they normally did. For the first time ever all ten crows were carrying their suns across the sky a the same time, and as the days went by the damage increased. The multiple suns were causing the waters to dry up, the ground to crack and all plant life to begin withering, and it looked like the end of the world was at hand.
6. I’LL PUT MY BEST MAN ON IT – Yao once again called on the reliable Divine Archer, instructing him to shoot down nine of the ten crows carrying the multiple suns in order to save the world forever more from the threat of multiple suns. There was only one place high enough for Yi to accomplish this, however. The peaks of Kun Lun, the home of the heavenly gods.
Even with Yi’s superhuman strength and stamina it would take him several days to climb to the top of Kun Lun, so Yao gave him some of the Shirou, a staple of the gods’ diet. Shirou was meat shaped like calves liver with two eyes. As a hunk of Shirou was eaten, the amount bitten out of it would always grow back, providing a never-ending supply of food, that is if you can stand nothing but raw meat three meals a day.
The Shirou would satisfy Yi’s hunger on the long climb to the top of Kun Lun and therefore keep him full enough to resist eating the Pincao Grass that grew in patches on the way up the mountain. Eating the Pincao Grass would make anyone who consumed it forget all their troubles and linger forever in blissful happiness. (Did they eat it or smoke it? And how relaxed can you be living on the side of a steep mountain?)
7. TOP OF THE WORLD, YAO! – Reaching the top of Kun Lun mountain, Yi found his journey had just begun. None of the deities would help him because they felt that Yao’s foolishness in deviating from the way things were usually done had unleashed all this destruction. The gods felt that if it was meant to be, Yi would accomplish his mission. If not, no help from them could aid him and restore tranquility to the world.
The supreme deity, Huang Di, would not even let Yi enter the city. Kaiming, the giant tiger with nine human heads and the creature who guarded all nine gateways to the divine city, was instructed to bar Yi’s way and inform him of the gods’ non-involvement.
Alone but determined, the Divine Archer began his journey to reach the high peak overlooking the city of the gods. First he passed by the fields in which grew the forty foot high Grain of the Gods, used to make other delicacies for the deities. (“Join Emeril tonight on Delicacies for the Deities … “)
Next he had to pass through the Valley of the Phoenixes, in which the giant winged creatures wore deadly serpents as jewelry and in which even more deadly serpents filled every inch of the ground. Only someone of Yi’s supreme stealth could make their way through without disturbing the poisonous serpents and inviting their own doom.
After surviving that peril the Divine Archer found himself in the Celestial Orchard, filled with trees that grew pearls and jade the way trees in the mortal realm grew fruit. The orchard was the home of a giant bird with six heads: two dragon heads, two panther heads and two snake heads. Following a running fight through the orchard Yi succeeded in slaying the creature, freeing him to return to his mission.
8. I NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD BE THE BEES – The Divine Archer next found his way barred by a wide river, the Ruoshui. The river was impassable because its waters were too weak even to float a feather. Yi tried repeatedly to make a boat out of the trees in the orchard, but every boat sunk. He tried swimming across but the waters were too weak to support his body and he always sank to the bottom. He tried walking across the riverbottom but he couldn’t hold his breath long enough to get even halfway across.
After studying the situation for a time the Divine Archer became puzzled about how the fish in the Ruoshui were able to swim in the waters without sinking. At last he noticed that the fish nibbled the bark of some trees that had fallen partway into the river. These were the Shatang Trees, found only on Kun Lun. Chewing the bark of those trees would make you light enough to float across even the waters of the Ruoshui.
Yi approached the nearest Shatang Tree, but before he could chow down on some of the bark he found himself under attack by the Qinyuan Bees. These insects were the size of Mandarin ducks and their stingers killed any of the forest animals they struck. Not only that, but when the Qinyuan Bees stung the trees those trees would wilt and die.
Yi realized that the giant six- headed bird must have been the only thing that kept these destructive monsters away from the trees in the Celestial Orchard. With the bird slain the bees could intrude with impunity. (“D’oh!”)
The Divine Archer found himself in another pitched battle, agilely avoiding any contact with the stingers of the Qinyuan Bees while slowly but surely whittling down their numbers with his deadly archery skills. At times he would even take temporary refuge in the waters of the Ruoshui, then spring up from them, arrows at the ready. (Meanwhile I’m guessing the Earth below has been burned to a cinder by now as long as all this is taking.)
At last all the bees were slain and Yi then chewed some of the bark of the Shatang Trees, making himself so light he could simply walk across the waters of the Ruoshui River.
9. SUNRISE TIMES TEN – The Divine Archer believed he had passed the last obstacle to the topmost peak. Since that would be terribly anticlimatic he instead found himself facing the monster who called the peak home: Tulou. This creature was a giant sheep with four sharp horns protruding from its head. Tulou’s paws clung to any surface, so he could trot down the side of Kun Lun mountain anytime he pleased and prey on his favorite food: human beings.
Tulou was naturally delighted with having a meal walk right into his backyard, especially with game dying all over from the world-wide heat wave. Tulou attacked Yi, starting a prolonged battle between the two. Yi had to avoid being impaled on the beast’s horns or snapped up by its gnashing teeth while simultaneously shooting arrow after arrow at it. He also had to avoid letting himself fall off the steep peak as he dodged Tulou’s attacks.
Yi’s arrows just glanced harmlessly off Tulou’s horns or simply caught in his thick hide without penetrating further. The stalemate might have gone on forever but at length Yi saw the monster freeze in its tracks while looking at something behind him. Next Tulou galloped off in fear, freeing the Divine Archer to turn and see what had scared the brute away.
Yi was nearly blinded by the sight of the Ten Celestial Crows rising one by one over the horizon, the combined brilliance of the mammoth suns each bird carried driving him to his knees. A mere mortal would have been rendered sightless forever, but Yi had divine blood in him, and managed to rise and face the awe- inspiring beings approaching him. He had very few arrows left in his quiver by now, and had to make each shot count.
At the speed the Celestial Crows were flying, he couldn’t afford to let any excess suns pass since the suffering world below might not survive another day with multiple blazing spheres burning and drying the life out of it. Drawing his bow and squinting his eyes against the unrelenting glare and the rising heat as his targets approached, Yi aimed his shaft (You people are incorrigible) at the tender flesh of the lead crow’s neck, as Yao had instructed him to do. Yao, who had unintentionally unleashed all this destruction on the world by daring to grandly ignore tradition, thus upsetting the cosmic order out of his great love for his people.
The Divine Archer took strength from his faith in the correctness of the path the Sage King had chosen and let fly his arrow … and it struck true! The first Celestial Crow was mortally wounded and fell off into the void, still a majestic sight as it carried its glowing burden into oblivion with it. In rapid succession now, Yi unleashed eight more arrows and eight more times his shafts found their marks.
Once struck, the cosmic birds perished, joining the first in shrinking from sight off into the black void beyond Earth. Each of the suns fell along with each Celestial Crow, and Yi allowed himself to at last breathe a sigh of relief as the extraneous suns all vanished forever. Only the one Celestial Crow remained alive, and it would need to carry its sun around the world every day now, since its colleagues were gone. Never again would there be a danger of multiple suns eliminating all life on Earth. The Divine Archer had saved the world.
10. EPILOGUE: NOBODY LIVES HAPPILY EVER AFTER, YI – With the usual chill already returning to the lofty peak Yi was standing on he quickly retraced his steps all the way back across the Ruoshui River and into the Celestial Orchard. To his surprise the orchard’s guardian, the giant bird with six heads, had come back to life and was approaching him under the control of the goddess Hsi Wang Mu. That goddess grew the peaches of immortality (as opposed to the mangoes of stamina) in the same way that Iduna from Norse myths grew the golden apples that kept the Aesir and Vanir eternally young.
Hsi Wang Mu used the peaches to make the Elixir of Immortality and had used it to bring the six- headed bird back to life. Seeing that what Yi had accomplished was good, the goddess rewarded the Divine Archer by giving him a jar containing a serving of the elixir to take home with him. Because the rivers on the top of Kun Lun were the source of all the rivers in the world below, Hsi Wang Mu advised Yi he could return by rafting down one of those rivers as they poured down the side of the mountain. Yi complied and was home in much less time than it took him to climb to Kun Lun in the first place.
Yi was given a hero’s welcome and Yao rewarded him for his deeds with pensions, a mansion and various titles. Yi simply stored away the single serving of the Elixir of Immortality because he did not want to be immortal without his beloved Chang O, who, if you’ll recall, had renounced her own immortality when she became the Divine Archer’s wife. Yi even took a young apprentice named Feng Meng, whom he trained in the art of archery.
After several years of marital bliss and boring everyone with tales about his accomplishments (that’s just an assumption on my part) Yi was growing quite pleased with Feng Meng’s progress. For his part, however, Feng Meng had developed an unhealthy interest in the Divine Archer’s wife, Chang O. The apprentice was also very angry at being considered only the second greatest archer in the world, next to his master Yi, who had been sitting on his butt for years, living off the fame from his long- ago accomplishments, just like Jack Nicholson.
At length Feng Meng yielded to his darker nature and tried to force himself on Chang O, who, determined to resist, ran to the hidden Elixir of Immortality and drank it down, thus regaining her immortality and the power of flight that went with it. Fleeing the villainous Feng Meng, Chang O flew to the moon, where she lives to this day as the lunar goddess. Yi was devastated by this, since he could not join his wife in immortality. No, I don’t know why she couldn’t just fly back down to Earth after Feng Meng had been killed by Yi, but you know mythology!
At any rate, Yi spent the rest of his life gazing at the moon, and he initiated the custom of offering moon cakes and assorted fruits to the moon goddess every 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Of course, like most myths, this one comes with alternate endings, just like a DVD.
ALTERNATE ENDING ONE: After saving the world from the multiple suns and being buried in rewards, Yi became a vain, impatient, wicked and cruel lord. Eventually Chang O couldn’t bear him any longer and drank the Elixir of Immortality, flying off to become the goddess of the moon. A remorseful Yi longed for his wife’s return for the rest of his life, but Chang O would have none of it, becoming Cher to his Sonny Bono.
ALTERNATE ENDING TWO: Yi’s evil apprentice Feng Meng planned to drink the Elixir of Immortality, kill the Divine Archer and take Chang O as his reluctant bride. To prevent all this Chang O heroically quaffed the elixir herself, and flew off to the moon where she reigned forever after.
ALTERNATE ENDING THREE: Yi stopped Feng Meng from molesting his wife, then tore off Feng Meng’s mask to reveal Old Man Wong, who was trying to scare the Divine Archer and Chang O away so he could have the Elixir of Immortality for himself. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, that’s the ending to just about every Scooby Doo episode instead. Never mind!
© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.