The Pleiades in Mythology

June’s North Clare Local folklore column…

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The Pleiades (NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

Many a night I saw the Pleiades, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall

Even in our era of increased scientific understanding about space, the stars are source of wonder. One of the most distinctive sights in the night sky is that of the Pleiades, and this star cluster has fascinated many cultures for centuries.

The Eskimo Inuit people had a legend about Nanuk the fierce bear, who was pursued by hunting dogs. In the heat of the chase they ended up falling over the edge of the world, where they became the night stars.

The dogs and bear are also a feature of our Western constellations; the original 48 constellations were laid down by the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy. (Today there are 88 identified). These include Ursa Major and Minor (the bear) and Canis Major and Minor (the dog). The bear and dog the Eskimos saw was not the same as ours; they are the Pleaides. Our Ursa Major was a caribou to the Eskimos.

The Pleiades, a star cluster which is visible at certain times of the year, have long captured the imagination of people. Many Native American tribes used them as a test of eyesight; the more individual stars that a person could identify, the better their eyes. Today astronomers know there are over 1000 objects in the cluster, but generally speaking there are about seven bright blue stars visible to the naked eye.

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The Pleiades by Elihu Vedder (via Wikimedia Commons)

The name Pleiades comes from Greek mythology and refers to seven heavenly sisters; research points to the name of the star cluster being first to arise, and the mythology being invented to explain it. The word has a root in plein, to sail, hinting at the star cluster’s importance in Mediterranean navigation. The Pleiades (Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope and Merope) were daughters of Atlas. When he was forced to carry the world on his shoulders, Orion began to pursue the sisters. Zeus transformed them into stars to help them mourn their father. Despite affairs with gods and mortals, there they remain.

This may also link to the idea in the Celtic tradition that these stars were associated with death and mourning. It’s more likely though that it comes from the fact that the Pleiades would generally be visible about Samhain (Halloween). Thanks to the passage of time, the cluster no longer rises around the end of October. In modern astrology, they’re associated with death and mourning. Conversely, as they rose around harvest time in the Andes, the people there saw them as a sign of prosperity and plenty.

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Glendalough Round Tower with the Pleiades and Orion in the background (by Rob Hurson via Wikimedia Commons)

This association with death and stars doesn’t just stop with the Pleiades. For many cultures, including the Inuit, the stars were the spirits of the dead, and a falling star or meteor may signify a death. Even as recently as the Titanic disaster, a meteor shower was seen by some as symbolic of the huge loss of life arising from the sinking.

Rather more endearingly, the Vikings saw the Pleiades as the goddess Freya’s chickens. The Blackfoot Native Americans tell the story of seven orphan boys who were neglected and became the stars. The Sun Man was not happy at their treatment and so sent drought to punish the people. He also plagued them with the howling of wolves, who had always been friends to the boys.

There are many Native American beliefs about the cluster, including the delightful tale told by the Monache people; the Pleiades are six wives who preferred onions to their husbands.

The visible stars do vary, and legends attach themselves to a disappearing star. In Greek tradition it’s Merope, youngest of the seven sisters; in some stories she married Sisyphus (he who was doomed to spend eternity rolling a stone up a hill). She then became mortal and faded away. Alternatively, the lost star is Electra, who was the ancestor of the rulers of Troy. After Troy was defeated by the Greeks, she fled in shame. She transformed into a comet, forever after a symbol of doom.

The Nez Perce Native Americans say that one of their seven sister stars fell in love with a mortal man who died; her sisters mocked her grief. She became so distraught that she drew the sky over her face like a veil, and disappeared from view.

Astronomical research suggests that one of the stars did dim and become extinct towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC, forming the basis for these legends.

The Chinese saw Pleiades as the head of the Tiger of the West; and in Japanese they’re known as Subaru, meaning “cluster”. The car company is named after them; its logo is a group of stars.

More on stars next month.

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