The Pleiades in mythology

In the clear and unpolluted night skies of antiquity the Pleiades star cluster was an object of wonder and interest. It was the subject of myth and legend in almost every culture on the planet.

As the Pleiades cluster is close to the ecliptic (within 4°) in the constellation of Taurus it is a spring and autumnal 'seasonal' object in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Being close to the ecliptic, there are frequent occultations of the cluster with the Moon and planets. To our superstitious ancestors these were, no doubt, portentious events. Likewise, the apparent annual motion of the cluster would have been highly significant. The heliacal (near dawn) rising of the Pleiades in spring in the northern hemisphere has from ancient times augured the opening of the seafaring and farming season: while its dawn autumnal setting marked the season's end.

The Pleiades are among the first stars mentioned in literature, appearing in Chinese annals of about 2350 BC. The earliest European references are somewhat later, in a poem by Hesiod in about 1000 BC and in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad.

The Bible contains three direct references to the Pleiades in Job 9:9 and 38:31, and Amos 5:8, and a single indirect reference in the New Testament. This latter passage (Revelation 1:16) describes a vision of the coming of the Messiah – who holds, in his right hand, seven stars…

The etymological derivation of the name Pleiades (Πλειαδεσ) is uncertain. Robert Graves, the late English poet and writer, records in his 'The Greek Myths' (1955) that it may be derived from either the Greek 'plein' for 'to sail', or 'pleios' meaning 'many'. Another possible root is from Pindar, an early Greek poet, who named the cluster the Peleiades – 'a flock of Doves' – and this is, perhaps, the original form. A nearby cluster has retained its animalistic classical name of the Hyades, 'the Piglets'.

The 19th century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson probably did not realise how metaphorically close to the truth he was when he described, in his poem Locksley Hall, the rising Pleiades:

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

Poetic and apt – recent telescope observations have revealed that this most famous of open clusters is comprised of some four hundred stars wreathed in complex nebulæ of dust and gas. [1]

The Seven Sisters

In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were seven sisters: Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. Their parents were Atlas, a Titan who held up the sky, and the oceanid Pleione, the protectress of sailing.

After a chance meeting with the hunter Orion, the Pleiades and their mother became the object of his pursuit. Enamoured with the young women he pursued them over the face of the Earth. In pity for their plight, Zeus changed them into a flock of doves, which he set in the heavens. Thus the olympian added the penalty of the absence of his wife and family to the Titan's original punishment of eternally supporting the heavens from the Earth.

Only six stars are distinctly visible to the naked eye. The ancient Greeks explained the sudden disappearance of the seventh star in various narratives. According to one, all the Pleiades were consorts to gods, with the exception of Merope. She deserted her sisters in shame, having taken a mortal husband, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth. Another explanation for the 'lost' star related to the myth of the Electra, an ancestress of the royal house of Troy. After the destruction of Troy, the grief stricken Electra abandoned her sisters and was transformed into a comet – everafter to be a sign of impending doom.

The Greek legends of the disappearing star are echoed in Jewish [2], Hindu and Mongolian folklore: their basis in an actual event seems to be corroborated by astronomical evidence that a clearly visible star in the cluster became extinct towards the end of the second millennium BC.

In an alternative myth, the Pleiades were the virgin companions of Artemis, to the ancient Greeks, the goddess of hunting and the Moon. Whilst stalking a hind, the great hunter Orion crept into a sunlit glade, disturbing the innocent play of the sisters. They fled in alarm. His immoderate passions enflamed by their beauty and grace, he pursued them relentlessly, as was fitting for the greatest mortal hunter. In frustration, Artemis pleaded with Zeus to for his intervention. With characteristic olympian sarcasm, he did. As the hunter closed in on his prey, Zeus transformed the sisters into a flock of doves. They flew into the heavens, beyond the reach of their pursuer, but also removed from earthly companionship with the goddess!

Artemis, enraged by these twofold masculine affronts, revenged herself on Orion. Apollo, her brother, having been affronted by the mortal hunter's prowess, was persuaded to set a monstrous scorpion to attack Orion. Not to be outdone in this, in another characteristic display of mordant wit, Zeus set the dead hunter in the heavens in a vain pursuit of the Pleiades through the night sky for eternity, with the constellation Scorpio ever chasing after Orion. Even so the Olympian had some compassion for his daughter: the path of the Moon in the heavens passes close to the Pleiades, and thus Artemis – as the goddess of the Moon – had the solace of their frequent reunions.

North American legends

Coincidentally, a similar legend to that of the ancient Greeks is retold by the Kiowa tribe of North America. Seven maidens were transported in to the sky by the Great Spirit to save them from giant bears. The Spirit created the Mateo Tepe (the Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming) to place them beyond the bears. Yet the hunt continued, with the bears climbing the sheer cliffs – the vertical striations on the side of the rock formation were ascribed to be the bears' claw marks, gouged as they climbed after their prey. Seeing the bears close in on the maidens, the Spirit then placed them securely in the sky.

In Navajo legend, after the Earth was separated from the sky the Black Sky God had a cluster of stars on his ankle. These were The Flint Boys. In the Black God's first dance, with each stamp of his foot the Flint Boys jumped up his body, first to the knee, then the hip, shoulder and finally on to his forehead, where they remained as the sign that the Black God was Lord of the Sky.

The Western Mono Indians saw in the Pleiades a group of wives who were excessively fond of eating onions and were thrown out of their homes by their angry husbands. Repenting in their loneliness, the husbands sought after their wives, but in vain. They had wandered away into the sky, becoming the Pleiades.

To the Blackfoot tribe of south Alberta and north Montana the stars were known as the Orphan Boys. The fatherless boys were rejected by the tribe, but were befriended by a pack of wolves, who became their only companions. Saddened by their lives on earth they asked the Great Spirit to let them play together in the sky, and so he set them there as a group of small stars. As a reminder of their cruelty in contrast to the kindness of animals, every night the tribe were afflicted by the howling of the wolves, who pined after their lost friends.

The Inuit relate a legend that in early times a great bear threatened mankind. It was chased into the sky by a pack of dogs. As the Pleiades, they still pursue the bear through the heavens.

Other names

Many other civilizations have given names to the cluster:

Kṛttikā (कृत्तिका): literally "the cutters". According to Vedas, Kṛttikā, is the starting point for the nakshatras (that is, the sectors along the ecliptic). The six Kṛttikā were mothers to Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war. (Indian)

Mao (): literally "the hairy head of the white tiger of the West" – alternatively, the Blossom Stars and Flower Stars. (Chinese)

Kimah (כִּימָה): a cluster. (Hebrew)

Al-Thurayya: a cluster (الثريا). (Arabic)

Subaru: 'gathered together'. This was adopted as the trading name of a car manufacturer. (Japanese)

Hoki Boshi: 'dabs of paint on the sky', literally, the brush stars. (Japanese)

Ãlker: Mankind being afflicted with much evil and suffering, Tangri Ulgen (the creator god) met with the Sky Spirits of the West in the Pleiades (Ãlker). There they resolved to relieve these afflictions by sending an eagle as the first Shaman. To Turkic nomadic tribes the Pleiades was thus both a source of solace and their original point of contact with the realms of the gods. (Turkish)

Kungkarungkara: the ancestral women. (Australian aboriginal: Pitjantjatjara tribe)

Makara: the wives of the stars in the Orion constellation. (Australian aboriginal: Adnyamathanha tribe)

Matariki: literally the 'eyes of god' (mata ariki) or alternatively 'little eyes' (mata riki). One legend has it that when Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) were separated by their offspring, Tāwhirimātea (the god of the winds) tore out his eyes in rage, flinging them far into the heavens—so forming the star cluster. Another has Matariki as a mother goddess surrounded by her six daughters, who rise up from their winter oceanic home to reinvigorate the Sun (Te Rā), weary from his annual journey. Matariki is thus associated with the antipodean winter solstice and the Māori New Year festival. (New Zealand: Māori)

Khuseti: the stars of rain, or rain bearers. (Southern Africa: Khoikhoi tribe)

Tianquiztli: the 'marketplace' or 'gathering place'. (Aztec)

The seed scatterer or sower. (Inca)

To the ancient Egyptians the Pleiades represented the goddess Net or Neith, the 'divine mother and lady of heaven'.

The Bunch of Grapes / The Spring Virgins. (Classical Roman)

The Hen and Chicks. (Old English, Old German, Russian, Czech and Hungarian)

Freya's hens. (Viking)

The Grandfather: an ancient Paraguayan tribe, the Abipones, even worshipped them as an ancestor, specifically as their grandfather. This is a singularly inauspicious choice of origin – as it happens – since the youth of the stellar cluster, and the presence several energetic X-ray emitting stars within it, indicates that it is extremely inhospitable to life. Likewise, with no planetary content, other than rudimentary planetary disk formations [reference], the evolution of even primitive life forms in the cluster is highly improbable. Following an intemperate outburst from a philologist asserting the primacy of 'Indigenous Knowledge', this item has been reviewed. Notwithstanding his incoherent opinions and practised arrogance, this reference [see: Martin Dobrizhoffer (1763). Historia de los Abipones: Vol. II, Chapter X.] stands – since, as reality transcends rhetoric, physics trumps philology.

The Star Disk

A recently authenticated archaeological discovery in northern Germany may further enhance our appreciation of the significance of the Pleiades to our ancestors. Offering a glimpse into the human world of 3,600 years ago, the 'Nebra Star Disk' or 'Sangerhausen Star Disk' (Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra) may transform our understanding of the astronomical knowledge of northern Europeans in the early Bronze Age.

The Disk is exhibited at the Sachsen-Anhalt State Museum for Prehistory in Halle, Germany.

Beyond conjecture…

Now we will turn to the reality of the Pleiades…


1: The Ancient Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Knidos (c. 400-350 BC) accurately discerned them as a distinct and true con-stellation.

2: The 'lost' star(s) in Kimah: The Talmud Rosh Hashanah relates that God, angered by mankind's degeneracy, reformed the work of his creation by removing two stars from Kimah and caused the cluster to rise at daybreak, out of season. The biblical flood of Noah was the direct result.

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Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades…?

Job 38:31. Bible AV

If the Stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1936). Nature.

Emerson's musing is coming to pass. For many, the splendors of the night sky are fading memories — or even utterly unknown. Urban light pollution has banished them.

The International Dark-Sky Association is dedicated to stopping the adverse environmental impact of light pollution on dark skies.

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