Look up! The Pleiades

Fri, 04/22/2016 - 4:30am

The most noted star cluster in our sky is the Pleiades, a bright little group of many stars found in the constellation Taurus that is often mistaken for the Little Dipper. Indeed, it is a more obvious and visible set of stars than the Little Dipper, and is certainly, in my opinion, more interesting.

The Pleiades were first mentioned in Chinese annals around 2,300 BCE, and were referred to by Hesiod, by Homer in The Odyssey, in the Koran, and in the Book of Job in the Bible, among many other works throughout history; most cultures have some sort of story about the Pleiades. The stars' rising was often noted as a seasonal calendar marker, as well.

In Greek mythology the Pleiades were sisters, the seven daughters of the god Atlas, the big guy who carried the world on his shoulders, and Pleione, a water nymph: Alcyone, Maia, Electra, Merope, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Sterope. Their collective name has been said to derive from, most obviously, their mother's name, or the start of the Mediterranean sailing season indicated by their rising in spring (sustaining the association with their mother's name, as she was considered a protector of sailors), or, simply, a word meaning "many."

As the story so often goes, the luminous sisters became stars as a result of attempted rape. When the famous hunter (and apparent womanizer) Orion pursued them (all seven of them?), Zeus heeded their cries for help by turning them into a flock of doves, and then placing them in the night sky for added safety. (When studying Greek mythology and its associated star stories, it's difficult to avoid imposing a feminist judgment on the many rapes and attempted rapes that seem to form the basis for so much Western culture and literature.) The poor girls continue to be pursued each night by Orion in his stellar form.

Locating the Pleiades in the night sky is, in fact, easy if you first find the highly recognizable constellation Orion. Look slightly "ahead" of him (to his upper right) for a bright cloud of stars very close together. Also nearby is another notable star cluster, the Hyades, who were sisters of the Pleiades. They form the v-shaped head of the constellation Taurus the Bull, of which the most visible star is the bull's red eye, Aldebaran. The Pleiades form the bull's shoulder or tail. Relatively close to us in astronomical terms, the cluster's brighter stars range from 240 - 590 light years away.

While referred to as the Seven Sisters, only six are eminently visible to the average observer. Various stories explain what happened to the seventh sister, indicating that at one time seven stars were probably visible. Alcyone is the brightest of these. At least three more stars may be visible to those with very good eyesight (accounted for as the seven sisters and their parents), and hundreds more can be seen using binoculars or a home telescope. Several cultures around the world have traditionally used the cluster as a vision test of sorts--the more stars you can pick out, the keener your eyes.

Most commonly depicted by peoples around the world as a group of women or girls, the star cluster has also been described as a hen with her chicks, a circle of dancers, a herd of caribou, crying children, a bunch of nuts or seeds, and a litter of puppies. A Polynesian myth says that the Pleiades were once a single star, brightest in the sky, but it boasted so much of its beauty that one of the gods smashed it into little bits. Therein lies a morality tale for which the stars become a touchstone.

Despite the fact that the Pleiades set relatively early this time of year, here in Maine we see them year-round in broad daylight on the logo that graces the front grill of every Subaru car. The six stars that make up the distinctive Subaru logo are the six visible Pleiades, as well as symbols of the companies that merged to form Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries. The blue background represents the actual color of the stars.

As the poet Tennyson so evocatively described, the Pleiades "glitter like a swarm of fireflies, tangled in a silver braid."

The nebulous haze that often blurs the stars of the Pleiades makes it seem as if they are young stars still emerging from the cloudy caul of their creation. In fact, astronomers have learned that while the stars are indeed relatively young as stars go, the cloud of dust and gases around them is unrelated to their birth. They just happen to be passing through it in space. When it comes to the celestial perspective, everything's relative.

Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.


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