It is a truth universally acknowledged that, if you get your ten-year old son a telescope for Christmas, there will not be a clear night for weeks. Sure enough, there has been a near-constant state of cloudy drizzle here since late December. Sewanee’s fogs are legendary for a reason, and you can barely see fifty feet in front of you with the naked eye. You can see even less with a telescope. So there it sits idly by the window, as we impatiently wait for the stars to be revealed.
Anyway, during the last part of this rainy holiday break, the boys and I were enjoying some “inside time,” which is another way of saying that they were being forced to help me clean up around the house. At the back of one of the kitchen cabinets, I came across a collection of teacups and coffee mugs that, for one reason or another, had fallen out of favor. Among this odd assortment was the cup pictured below, which I’d picked up for my wife some years ago in Boston’s Chinatown.
At the time I bought it, I had no idea what was depicted here, and only remember thinking how strange it seemed. Later on, in Sewanee, a Chinese friend was over to have some tea, and she remarked, “Ah, the three stars.” Huh?
For folks who know anything about China, I take it, the picture above is about as obscure as Santa Claus–that is to say, the image is a pretty familiar one. What we see here are personifications of Fu, Lu, and Shou–Good Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity, respectively. Together, the three figures represent the Taoist ideals of the good life, and are known as the “lucky gods.” Each of them, furthermore, is associated with a star.
According to Chinese astrology, Fu is the planet Jupiter, and is associated with Good Fortune. In his iconography, he is dressed scholar, holding a scroll, is frequently accompanied by children. He can readily be picked out in the center of the picture on my mug above.
Lu, which represents Prosperity, is depicted as a Mandarin, fittingly enough, and is seen on the right-hand side of my mug . The star with which he is connected is ζ Ursae Majoris, the middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper. In fact, this is not a single star, but a quadruple system of two binary stars which, in Arabic, are called Mizar and Alcor. The are sometimes called “The Horse and Rider,” and the ability for distinguishing them has been a test for eyesight since antiquity.
On the left above is Shou, the god of Longevity, who supposedly was in his mother’s womb for ten years and was an old man already when he was born. The idea of senex puer is familiar from classical mythology, especially the figure of Tages among the Etruscans. Shou’s high domed forehead, and the peach or gourd he carries, make him easily recognizable. The star he is associated with is not so readily spotted: Canopus is an extremely bright star of the southern sky, but cannot be seen above latitude 37°18′ north.
Sewanee is just south of the “Canopus visibility line” at 35°21′, but it hardly matters. I couldn’t see Canopus for all the clouds, anyway. The only stargazing I’ve done this past month has been in the cupboard, in fact. Still, I reckon it’s a sign of 福, Fu, Good Fortune. An old teacup that can’t be used for drinking can still useful for considering –quite literally, for “thinking about the stars”–even more so than a telescope in a month of rainy evenings.