“The seven stars, glittering and quivering with radiance in the amethystine ether like
a breastplate of jewels.” In Starland 1922
by Fannie Dickerson Chase
One of the most known objects in the sky is now high in the eastern sky, as familiar to humans today as it was 5,000 years ago—The Pleiades.
Known in the modern world at The Pleiades for the Greek goddess Pleione and her six other sisters,
this cluster of young stars has influenced ancient cultures far beyond the scientific beauty we see.
When The Pleiades are seen in rising in the east, that signals the beginning of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and Spring in the Southern part of Earth. And on Jan. 1st the splendid star cluster is directly overhead around 8 p.m.
These stars meant so much to the peoples of antiquity who worshiped and found meaning in everything skyward. From savage tribes to the civilizations, The Pleiades are a well-known signpost in the night sky.
Often mistaken for the Little Dipper, as its stars also look like a tiny version of the much larger asterism of the Little Bear, in binoculars dozens of stars are seen to make up the cluster. And in modern day photos, the wispy gas cloud is visible from which these stars were born just a few hundred million years ago.
The history of The Pleiades is an amazing story of mankind’s imagination and how humans thought their lives were integrated with the cycles of the Earth and sky.
The Pleiades are one of the very first star patterns recorded in human history by the
Chinese in 2357 BC—nearly 4,400 years ago. All the classical writers and poets of the ages have referred to the star group, and it has influenced the alignment and construction of ancient buildings and temples.
The Pleiades have been called many things including: Pigeons, doves and the popular Hen & Chicks; a flame, a clever, a herd of camels, a cluster of grapes. Australian legends talk of young girls dancing to young men—the nearby belt of Orion. To the Persians they were “Parwin,” a derivative of “beginning.” Egyptians called them “Chu” after the powerful goddess Nit. The natives of Tonga Island call the star cluster Matarii or “Little Eyes.”
It’s easy to imagine the walls of ancient buildings and temples decorated with artwork of these stars. The Pleiades rose in front of some famous buildings, like the Parthenon and temple of Bacchus, both built in Athens, Greece in the 5th Century BC.
Many legends revolve around The Pleiades. In Greek mythology they are the daughters of the Titan Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione. In ancient Mexico is a tale of the world being destroyed when these stars stood directly overhead. The Great Pyramids of Cheops has seven rooms, said to commemorate the star group.
Some primitive peoples of antiquity began their year with the sight of the rising Pleiades. Hippocrates thought The Pleiades affected the weather; Aristotle wrote to never harvest honey before their rising. Philosophy and literature have been influenced with Seven Wise Men, Seven Sages and even a “Literary Pleiad” of writers and thinkers in groups of seven.
Among the famous literary references of The Pleiades include the Bible Book of Job 38:31, where God seems to show off his power with a popular constellation: “Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades or loose Orion’s belt?”
And Job 9:9 deals with the creation: “…which maketh Arcturus, Orion and The Pleiades and the chambers of the south.”
Amos, the first of the writing prophets, told of God’s power in the Universe in Chapter 5, verse 8:
“He who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turned darkness into morning and darkened day into night…”
One final Biblical reference is in Revelation 1:16…the coming Messiah holds in his right hand, seven stars…
Seeing all seven naked eye stars of this tiny star cluster is a challenge in 21st Century light-polluted backyards. But it was easy to see seven stars, even more if your eyesight was good, in the ancient days of dark skies nearly everywhere on Earth.
Native American Indians, and no doubt other cultures, used the numerous stars of The Pleiades to test eyesight of their potential warriors. If a young man saw seven or more stars, he was probably used as a scout. If he saw only five or six, he would be kept at camp to guard the women and children.
Other Native American stories have seven maidens transported in the sky by the Great Spirit to save them from giant bears. There are stories of fatherless boys rejected by the tribe; a group of wives thrown out by their husbands; and packs of dogs or wolves.
Where the individual names of the seven stars came from is vague, but the influence is part Arabic and part Persian. Alcyone, Maia, Electra, Merope, Taygeta, Celeno and Sterope are the seven. Added are fainter Atlas, the father, and Pleione, the mother of the Greek mythological tale.
These stars are individually immortalized in prose and poetry by Ovid, Longfellow and others. The legend of the “Lost Pleiad” is written about by Byron and others recanting the myth of Merope hiding her face after marrying a mortal. Telescopes later revealed this star partially cloaked in a beautiful, lacy nebula.
The Pleiades, called “M-45” in the famous Messier Catalog of easy telescopic objects, is in the shoulder of Taurus the Bull, in the ecliptic. Therefore, once a month the Moon is nearby and sometimes “occults” the cluster in what astronomers call an “occultation,” blotting out its stars for an hour or so, no doubt a great, mysterious sky phenomenon to the ancient world.
Alfred Lord Tennyson in 19th Century wrote a lasting image of the star cluster in his poem Locksley Hall:
“Many a night I saw the Pleiades, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.”
Just think of all the famous people of history who have looked up to see these celestial fireflies: from Cleopatra to Copernicus; Einstein to Elvis, all at some time noticing this distinct group of stars in the sky. And now, YOU!