The Sweet Seven Sisters

The Sweet Seven Sisters

Today I’d like to talk a little bit about a fascinating astronomical phenomenon, one that has been immortalized not just in the heavens, but in the myths and stories of every culture on Earth- The Pleiades or the Seven Sisters!

The Facts Are These:

Map of the Pleiades taken by the Hubble Telescope (source NASA- public domain image).

Map of the Pleiades taken by the Hubble Telescope (source NASA- public domain image).

    • The Pleiades and the Hyades help make up the constellation Taurus, one of the 13 zodiacal constellations.
    • Although they are called the Seven Sisters, they are actually a cluster of about 100 stars.
    • The stars in the Pleiades are fairly close- only 400 light years away.
    • They are some of the brightest stars in the sky. At Magnitude 3, (which is slightly brighter than the North Star)
    • According to astronomer Ian Ridpath, the name Pleiades might come from the the Greek word plein, meaning “to sail.” This might mean that the Pleiades are “the sailing ones”, because they are visible at sea all night during the ideal sailing months.
    • The Pleiades are what Astronomers refer to as an Open Star Cluster, a group of stars that has just come out of their Star-forming Nebula. As opposed to our middle-aged sun (4.6 billion years old), the Pleiades is made up of “teenage stars,” only about 100 million years old. Old by human standards, but since stars live for billions of years, you can see how even hundreds of millions of years is fairly youthful for a star.

One reason that the Pleiades are so bright, is because the stars heat clouds of super-heated gas and dust. The light from the star, reflected off of the dust and gas, is why the Pleiades has such a bright, bluish glow like a nebula.

    • Current location (Sky map by AstroViewer.com)
    • current night sky over Richmond, VA
  • The Pleiades are usually visible soon after sunset in the Northern hemisphere, around 8 PM Eastern Time
  • You can always find the Pleiades just above Orion.
  • Tonight the Pleiades will form a bright trio of celestial objects alongside Jupiter and the Hyades.
  • Right ascension- 3h, 47 m, 24 s
  • Declination- +24 degrees, 7′
  • Brightest Star- Alcyone- 2.6 Apparent Magnitude
Greek Myths about The Pleiades
"The Pleiades" painting by Elihu Vedder, 1885

“The Pleiades” painting by Elihu Vedder, 1885. Note that the seven girls are catching fireflies, which probably references Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall, in which he describes them catching fireflies in a silver braid.

“Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade,Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid,” -Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall.

In Greek and Roman mythology, The Pleiades were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas. Atlas fought in a war against the Greek gods and when he lost, his punishment was to hold the sky on his shoulders for all eternity, to keep the sky from falling on our heads. His seven daughters were:  Alcyone, Asterope (also known as Sterope), Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope and Taygete. They were very beautiful, and all but one of them bore children by gods such as Zeus and Poseidon. For a complete family history of the Pleiades, click here.

  • In some versions of the myth, the grief over their father’s punishment drove the seven girls to suicide, but Zeus saved them from death by placing them in the sky, allowing Atlas to see his daughters every night. In other versions, the hunter Orion became infatuated with the beautiful Pleaides, even though they were part of the entourage of the virgin goddess Artemis, and as such could not get married. To protect their virginity, the girls prayed to make them into doves and they flew away; another spelling of Pleiades means “doves” in Greek. Then Zeus transformed them into stars, and placed Taurus the bull to guard them from Orion. For this reason Orion can never catch the Seven Sisters.
  • Though they are referred to as the Seven Sisters, only 6 are visible to the naked eye. Many Greek myths have arisen to explain the missing Pleiad: in some adaptations, it is Merope, the only sister to betray her vow and marry the notorious trickster Sisyphus, who was later punished in Hades for trying to cheat death. Merope’s punishment was to be so consumed with grief, that she became invisible. In another myth, the missing star is Electra, who wept at seeing the ancient city of Troy burn to the ground. This version of the story was immortalized in a poem called, The Fall of Troy In Troy‘s last hour … Electra shrouded her form in mist and cloud, and left the Pleiad-band … Still rises up … their bright troop in the skies; but she alone hides viewless ever since the town of her son Dardanus in ruin fell (Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 13.555).

Hebrew (The Old Testemant) The Pleiades are mentioned several times in the Bible including Job, Chapters 9 & 38, and Amos, Chapter 5. Every time the Pleiades are mentioned, it is specifically to attribute their beauty to the god of Israel who made them, as opposed to any Greek or Roman gods. Job Chapter 38, verse 31 in particular has God asserting his power over Earth, by demanding of Job why he feels the right to criticize the god who created the Pleaides:

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loosen the cords of Orion?

Australian- The Aboriginal tribes of  Australia have many different versions of the Pleaides story, but they generally follow the same pattern as the story of Orion in the Greek version. One particular version I’d like to relate, is a family story from Aboriginal artist Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, Here is the story as it appears on her website:

Aboriginal Artwork of The Pleiades by Gabriella Possum Nungurayyi, 2003The seven Napaltjarri sisters travelled the earth, gathering food and water from Purrparlarlu to Kunatjarrayi, until they were pursued by a Tjakamarra man named Jilbi Tjakamarra (the Orion figure in the story). Jilbi tried to practice love magic to one of the sisters but the sister did not want to be with him and with her sisters, they ran away from him. They sat down at Uluru to search for honey ants but when they saw Jilbi, they went to Kurlunyalimpa and with the help of the spirits of Uluru, transformed into stars. the sisters escaped through a fire at Kurlunyalimpa into the Pleiades Constellation (Taurus). Jilbi transforms himself into what is commonly known as the Morning Star in Orion’s belt, thus continuing to chase the seven sisters across the sky

In our library at Primland, you can see a painting by this same artist, who painted a beautiful piece of artwork called The Seven Sisters Dreaming based on her family’s story I like to think that in this artwork, the seven sisters are at last at peace, and no longer need to run from Jilbi.

 

Chinese– Unlike the beatific Seven Sisters image that is so pervasive in western myth, In China, the Pleaides are called Mao , the six stars of the Hairy Head of the white tiger of the West!

Japanese– I don’t want to give this myth away, because it always gets a laugh when I tell it during Star Walk presentations, but I can tell you it shares a name with a famous Japanese car company.

So there you go; a smattering of the complex cultural history of this famous and bright cluster of stars. Stay tuned to this blog for more stories and legends about constellations like this! If you’d like to suggest a star or constellation for me to research, leave a comment and I’ll give it a shot!

-Paul

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  1. The more I read about space, the “hairier” it gets. The “…hairy head of the white tiger…” had me thinking about your favorite hero’s armpit. haha. Ursa Major and minor, although hardly in need of more recognition, make up stories I think you should share.

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