Go out on a winter night in January and look almost straight up. Overhead you’ll see this tiny dipper shaped collection of stars. The seem to shimmer and hover at the edge of viability. They’re slightly misty but the tight knit group is an eye catcher. People unfamiliar with the stars mistakenly call it the “Little Dipper.”
But it’s not the dipper. It’s a small collection of stars known as the Pleiades or the “Seven Sisters.” Almost every culture has a name for them. I first heard them called “Jacob’s Ladder,” a reference to the early patriarch and how he had a dream of a ladder from Heaven to Earth, with the servants of God coming and going on that ladder.
Interestingly, there’s several peoples and mythologies that say humans came from there.
Most people can only see six stars, but those with exceptional eyesight up that to anywhere between seven and ten. I knew one guy with such good vision, he claimed he could see eleven, and I’ve no reason to doubt him. Some early astronomers, before the invention of the telescope, mapped as many as twenty stars there, so we’re talking some serious eyesight.
This small congregation of stars is known by every people on Earth. The Bible speaks of them in the Old Testament. Fantastic mythologies have built up around them, some are very romantic. Others hint at dangers.
But before we tell the stories, what are these stars? Well, the scientific name for the Pleiades is
M45. Not very romantic, but the name was given by Charles Messier, an avid comet hunter. He was always stumbling across fuzzy things in the sky. As a comet approaches the sun, it looks fuzzy. Since these things didn’t move and weren’t comets, he numbered them and mapped their position in the sky. That way he could separate them from comets. Interestingly, a couple of objects he mapped can’t be found, so they might have been comets after all.
While they’re a treat for the naked eye, they’re stunning through even a small telescope. The first time I looked at them through a telescope was when I was eleven. I received a small Tasco refractor for Christmas, and since the Sisters is high in the sky in winter, it was a natural target. What had been only a handful of stars was suddenly a dozen. Many were fuzzy since they’re so young and still swaddled in the nebula gases that gave them birth. As has happened so many times when I look out across the universe at something incredible, the sight took my breath away.
Modern thinking says the cluster is about 100 million years old, and all the stars in it
were born from same cloud of dust and gas. When you look up and see them in the sky, you’re seeing them as they were 430 years ago. Whole slabs of world history are sandwiched into the moment light left those stars and when it finally arrived at your eyes.
The nickname Seven Sisters suits them. All bound by gravity, the stars (even the ones the naked eye can’t see) move together through the galaxy like a fleet of grand ships at a stately twenty five miles per second. Many of the stars are brighter than out own sun, but that brilliance is diminished by distance.
No wonder they’ve inspired so many stories. Most people know the Greek legend of how they were all maidens dancing. The hunter Orion, taken with their beauty pursued them, but they were saved from him when the gods turned them into birds and they escaped into the sky. Orion still pursues them, but he’ll never catch them.
The Druids held the Sisters in high regard that when they were at their zenith in the winter, it meant the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.
But the Native Americans have some really cool stories. The Kiowas have a story that explains them, as well as one of the most enigmatic piles of rock in the Americas. In Wyoming, there’s a place called Devils Tower, a monolith of stone that rises straight up into the sky, its sides looking scarred.
According the legend, some maidens were out gathering when they were surprised by a hungry bear. The bear pursued them and the girls climbed up on a rock. The bear tried to climb the rock but kept sliding down, scratching the rock with its claws.
Since it wasn’t a very high rock, and fearing the bear would get them, they called on the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit caused the rock to thrust up into the heavens, taking the girls with it. The bear continued to try to climb it, and kept sliding down and leaving it’s claw marks on the stone. Today the girls are in the sky, protected from the bear by the Great Spirit.
A story I like is told by the Cherokees, which I read when I was eight years old. It centered around seven boys who danced for the Great Spirit. The Spirit was so impressed with their dancing, he took them up into the sky. But as they were rising, one of the boys’ mothers saw them, and was able to grab her son and pull him down.
But things didn’t work exactly as she hoped. He fell so hard that he hit the ground and it swallowed him up. For years afterwards, she went to that spot and wept, her tears wetting the Earth. And one day, a tree began to grow there. And that’s how the Pine Tree came to be.
The other six boys dance to this day in the heavens.
I like it because it helps to explain the so called “Lost Pleiades.” Most people see six stars but it seems that sometime in the past, one of them might have been more prominent and has faded from sight. We’ve learned that one of the stars, Pleione, is a hard to understand and complicated “Shell Star.” It seems this star has its brightness affected by the density of the gases it was formed from (they still surround it). It may have caused the star to vary in brightness.
So go out tonight, and follow the belt of Orion to find Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters. If you’ve binoculars, check them out. It’s a treat you’ll never forget.
PS – This one makes 200 entries. I hope to be around for at least 10,000.