No other constellation in the sky has been subjected to so many myths, legends, and folklore in almost every culture on the planet. There are at least 43 different stories and names associated with the ‘Pleiades’ or the ‘Seven Sisters Constellation’. UniverSavvy traces the story and the mythology behind this celestial wonder.
Did You Know?
November is known as the month of the Pleiades as this star cluster radiates clearly in the sky from dawn to dusk.
In Hellenic Greece, the distinguishable cluster of stars forming the Pleiades were equated to the “Seven Sisters”―the virgin companions of Goddess Artemis who, to avoid the romantic advances of Hunter Orion, were transformed into a flock of doves and set in the heavens by God Zeus. They are viewed as positive omens throughout cultural history around the world as their ascent at dawn heralded the planting and navigation seasons. This constellation was revered so much in the Greek culture that a significant number of ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens were constructed facing towards the ascent of the Pleiades.
Astronomically, the Pleiades originated 100 million years ago and is situated nearly 440 light years away from the Earth as an open astral cluster in the constellation of Taurus.
Stories, Legends, and Myths
◆ According to Greek mythology, The Pleiades are seven sisters: Maia, Alcyone, Asterope, Celaeno, Taygeta, Electra, and Merope. It is parented by Atlas, a Titan and the one who bears the earth on his shoulders, and Pleione, a beautiful sea nymph or goddess and also known as the mythical patroness of sailors.
◆ Various stories indicate that during a leisurely stroll in the woods, the seven sisters and their mother became the objects of desire by hunter Orion, and he made a hot pursuit for them. In a bid to save them from the amorous advances of the hunter God, Zeus turned them into a flock of doves and set them in the heavens. It is believed that Zeus later fathered children with three of these beautiful maidens.
◆ The Seven Sisters are popularly known as the ‘Water Girls’ or the ‘Ice Maidens’ or ‘Oceanids’, imputable to their connection with water bodies: seas, rivers, rain, hail, snow, ice, or frost. Historic sources arrogate that the name ‘Pleiades’ originates from the ancient Greek word ‘plein’, signifying ‘to sail’, or it also means ‘a flock of doves’.
◆ Maia is the eldest sister known for her exceptional beauty and also her hermit life. Legend says that despite her striking good looks, she was a timid, slender woman who chose to live a solitary life in the caves. Maia means ‘mother’ in Latin, and in other versions, it also means ‘nurse’ or ‘Great One’. She was acknowledged by the Romans as their Spring Goddess, which is why the fifth month is called ‘May’.
◆ Alcyone (Ally) is the second sister and known as the leader. She is said to look after the Mediterranean Sea and make it calm for sailors. She was married devotedly to the son of a morning star, Ceyx, the King of Thessaly.
◆ Asterope (Star) is traditionally depicted as one of the fainter sisters, possibly since this star is one of the two that radiates less brightly than the others. She is said to be the mother of Oinomaos by Ares, the god of war. Some interpretations of the myth arrogate that Oinomaos was in reality her husband, not her son, and that after bearing four children unitedly, he subsequently became the King of Pisa.
◆ Celaeno (Ce-Ce) means ‘melon’ or ‘swarthy’. Celaeno, like Asterope, radiates less brightly than the others, as according to legends, she was once stricken by lightning by Theon the Younger. She mothered children including sons Lycus (wolf) and Chimaereus (part lion, dragon and goat) by the Titan Prometheus, and sons Lycus and Nycteus by Poseidon, the god of the sea.
◆ Taygeta (Tiggy), like Maia, appreciated her freedom and lived a solitary life in the mountains.
◆ Electra is known as the third brightest star. She bore four children, one of which was Dardanus, the founder of the ancient city of Troy.
◆ Merope (The Lost Sister) is more commonly assumed as the ‘lost Pleiad’ as it was the last star to be mapped by astronomers, and is the dimmest star in the constellation, not visible to the naked eye. Various legends hint that she got lost because she felt disgraced about marrying a mortal, King Sisyphus. Other sources suggest that Merope hid herself as her husband was a malefactor, whose punishment was to roll a heavy stone up a hill to the edge of heaven. The Jewish Talmud accords that God was displeased with mankind, and to punish them, he displaced the star from the cluster so that the cluster would rise off-season at daybreak, resulting in the Biblical Great Flood.
◆ According to Aboriginal tribes from the Northern Territories, the Seven Sisters or the ‘Yunggarmurra Water Girls’ were beautiful sorceresses of love, and their father ‘Dunia’ was transformed into a crocodile for his incestuous nature. The tribes also believed that the stars were crystals, which is why they shine brightly.
Native American Legends
◆The Kiowa tribe echoes stories of seven young girls playing along the stream when suddenly they are attacked and chased by bears. The petrified girls take refuge on top of a small rock and pray to the Great Spirit of nature to protect them. The Great Spirit heeds to their cries and makes the rock grow upwards, with almost vertical sides, taking the girls with it, thus not allowing the bears to reach them.
The rock kept growing tall towards the heavens and transported the girls into the cosmos, converting them into stars. This 1,200 ft tall landmark is now known as Mateo Tipi or Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, North America.
◆ The Western Mono Indians conceived the Pleiades stars as a group of wives who were overly fond of eating onions and were thrown out of their dwellings by their furious husbands! The aftermath was that they wandered into the sky and become stars.
◆ The Blackfoot tribes of Alberta and Montana believed that the stars were ‘The Orphan Boys’. The fatherless boys were eliminated by their tribe, but bonded by a pack of wolves. Because of their lonely living, the Great Spirit of nature turned them into stars so that they could play together in the heavens.
◆ According to Hindu legend, the Pleiades are conjointly known as ‘Krittika’, the wives of the seven wise men, also known as the ‘Seven Rishis’. Some legends suggest that they are the six mothers of the God of war ‘Murugan’, who explicated six faces, one for each of them.
◆ In Japanese culture, they are known as ‘Subaru’, which means unity.
Astronomical Facts about the Seven Sisters Constellation
◆ The Pleiades cluster of stars is located closest to the Earth by over 434 and 446 light years away. It is named after the seven sisters from the Greek mythology. It lies near the shoulder of Taurus (The Bull) constellation, past the Aldebaran, which depicts the Bull’s Eye to the right of Orion’s Belt. The Pleiades stars rise into the eastern sky before Aldebaran rises, and sets in the west before Aldebaran sets. But in the southern latitude, like at the South America’s Tierra del Fuego, the Pleiades rises for a short while after Aldebaran rises. Each of the stars shine over 100 times brighter than the Sun, and to the naked human eye, from anywhere on the globe. At least six stars are visible, while the seventh star is not visible always. There are as many as 1,000 stars in the cluster, the center of which spans 8 light years in diameter. The cluster is predominated by ‘hot blue stars’ which have shaped within the past 100 million years, and astronomers conceive that the cluster will exist for another 250 million years. After which, they will disperse as single (or multiple) marooned stars along their orbital path.
◆ The star cluster is visible in the Northern Hemisphere during late fall and throughout the winter months. Even though it resembles a tiny dipper, it is not a part of either Ursa Major or Ursa Minor. It was the forty-fifth image cataloged during the 19th century, by astronomer Charles Messier; hence, it’s also known as Messier 45. The Ancient Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Knidos (c. 400-350 BCE) first discovered them as a distinct constellation.
◆ The most lustrous stars in the cluster (Alcyone shines at a magnitude of +2.8, and Pleione +5.1) are dispersed over about seven light years, and although faint, these stars are over 40 to 1000 times brighter than the Sun. From the Earth, the cluster’s apparent size is 110 minutes of arc (almost 2°) in the plane of the ecliptic. The bluish streak associated with this constellation is due to the scattering of blue light from the tiny interstellar particles.
◆ The cluster has an ostensible motion proportional to the Earth to an angular rate of just over five seconds of arc per century towards the star lambda Tauri, that is, in a south-easterly direction. Thus, cosmically, it takes some 60,000 years to cross one degree.
◆ In both mythology and science, the Pleiades are conceived to be sibling stars. Modern astronomers say that the Pleiades originated from an identical cloud of gas and dust some 100 million years ago. This celestial wonder drifts through space unitedly at about 25 miles per second.
Significance in World Culture and Literature
◆ The Pleiades has worked as a calendar for many civilizations. During the ancient Mediterranean world, the duration when the Pleaides cluster first appeared in the morning sky before sunrise heralded the opening of the navigation season.
◆ The contemporary festival of Halloween initiates from an old Druid rite that concurred with the midnight apogee of the Pleiades cluster. It is conceived that the veil dissevering the living from the dead is at its thinnest when the Pleaides reaches the mid-heaven during midnight.
◆ The Zuni of New Mexico connotes the Pleiades as the ‘Seed Stars’ as its disappearance in the evening sky every spring harbingers the seed-planting season.
◆ There originated a group of seven Hellenistic tragic poets in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285 – 246 BCE), known as the Pleiades. Their famed literary works were lost during the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by Muslim armies in 642 CE. During the mid-16th century, radical French poets founded La Pléiade, which heralded the breaking away from medieval French poetic traditions.
◆ The famous Greek poet, Hesiod mentions the mythological Pleiades in his ‘Works and Days’, warning against the perils of sailing during the winter season:
And if longing seizes you for sailing the stormy seas, when the Pleiades flee mighty Orion and plunge into the
misty deep and all the gusty winds are raging, then do not keep your ship on the wine-dark sea
but, as I bid you, remember to work the land.
◆ They are the first stars mentioned in literature, in the Chinese annals of about 2350 BCE. The earliest European literature mentions are in a poem by Hesiod in 1000 BCE and in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.
◆ The Bible comprises three direct mentions to the Pleiades in Job 9:9 and 38:31, and Amos 5:8, and a single acknowledgment in the New Testament comes from (Revelation 1:16) in which a vision states that the Messiah holds seven stars in his right hand during his second coming.
Mythologically as well as astronomically, the Pleiades ruminates finest and closest instances of a reflection of a nebula related with a cluster of young stars.