Pleiades in folklore and literature
The high visibility of the star cluster Pleiades in the night sky has guaranteed it a special place in many cultures, both ancient and modern. The heliacal rising of Pleiades often marks important calendar points for ancient peoples.
- 1 North Africa
- 2 Middle East
- 3 Europe
- 4 Indigenous peoples of the Americas
- 5 Asia
- 6 Oceania
- 7 Sub-Saharan Africa
- 8 Modern beliefs
- 9 New Age
- 10 References
The Tuareg Berbers living in the desert of North Africa call the Pleiades Cat iheḍ (pronounced: shat ihedd), or Cat ahăḍ (pronounced: shat ahadd). The name means in Berber: "daughters of the night". Other Berbers call this star cluster: Amanar (meaning: "the guide") or Tagemmunt (meaning: "the group").
A Tuareg Berber proverb says:
Cat ahăḍ as uḍănăt, ttukayeɣ ttegmyeɣ, anwar daɣ ttsasseɣ. As d-gmaḍent, ttukayeɣ ttegmyeɣ tabruq ttelseɣ.
Translation: When the Pleiades fall, I wake up looking for my goatskin bag to drink. When (the Pleiades) rise, I wake up looking for a cloth to wear.
Meaning: When the Pleiades "fall" with the sun on the west, it means the hot season is coming, which implies the heat and the thirst of the summer. When the Pleiades rise from the east with the sun, it means the cold and rainy season is coming, and thus one does well to prepare for the cold.
In the Bible, the Pleiades are mentioned as כימה ("Khima") three times, always in conjunction with Orion—Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; and Job 38:31. The first two verses are references about their creation, but the third (taken in the context of the following verses) may be more about their ongoing appearance in the night sky. In Job 38:31, the Lord is speaking directly to Job and challenges him, asking if he can bind the chains of the Pleiades—the implication being that Job cannot, but the Lord can. Talmud (Bavli, Berakhot, 58b) says that it has about 100 stars, understanding the word כימה as כמאה ke' me-ah, "about one hundred" in Hebrew.
They are known as kimah in Jewish culture.
Arabia and the Levant
In Arabic the Pleiades are known as al-Thurayya الثريا, and mentioned in Islamic literature. Muhammad is noted to have counted twelve stars in the constellation as reported in Ibn Ishaq (this was in the time before telescopes when most could only see six). The name was borrowed into Persian and Turkish as a female given name, and is in use throughout the Middle East (for example Princess Soraya of Iran and Thoraya Obaid). It is also the name of the Thuraya satellite phone system based in the United Arab Emirates.
A companion of The Holy Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) relates: One day we were sitting with The Holy Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) when this chapter* was revealed. I enquired from Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Who are the people to whom the words "and among others of them who have not yet joined them"** refer? Salman (may Allah be pleased with him), a Persian was sitting among us. The Holy Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) put his hand on Salman (may Allah be pleased with him) and said. If faith were to go up to the Pleiades, a man from among these would surely find it. (Bukhari).
**The verse quoted here is verse 4 from the aforementioned chapter.
In Turkish the Pleiades are known as Ülker. According to the Middle Turkic lexicographer Kaşgarlı Mahmud, writing in the 11th century, ülker çerig refers to a military ambush (çerig meaning 'troops in battle formation'): "The army is broken up into detachments posted in various places," and when one detachment falls back the others follow after it, and by this device "(the enemy) is often routed." Thus ülker çerig literally means 'an army made up of a group of detachments', which forms an apt simile for a star cluster. Ülker is also a unisex given name, a surname and the name of a food company best known for its chocolates.
To the Bronze Age people of Europe, such as the Celts (and probably considerably earlier), the Pleiades were associated with mourning and with funerals, since at that time in history, on the cross-quarter day[dubious ] between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice (see Samhain, also Halloween or All Souls Day), which was a festival devoted to the remembrance of the dead, the cluster rose in the eastern sky as the sun's light faded in the evening. It was from this acronychal rising that the Pleiades became associated with tears and mourning. As a result of precession over the centuries, the Pleiades no longer marked the festival, but the association has nevertheless persisted, and may account for the significance of the Pleiades astrologically.
In Baltic languages the name for this constellation is Sietynas in Lithuanian and Sietiņš in Latvian which is derived from sietas meaning "a sieve". In Lithuanian folk songs this constellation is often personified as a benevolent brother who helps orphan girls to marry or walks soldiers along the fields. But in Lithuanian folk tales as well as Latvian folk songs this constellation is usually depicted as an inanimate object, a sieve which gets stolen by the devil from the thunder god or is used to conjure light rain by thunder's wife and children.
In Ukrainian traditional folklore the Pleiades are known as Стожари (Stozhary), Волосожари (Volosozhary), or Баби-Звізди (Baby-Zvizdy).
'Stozhary' can be etymologically traced to "стожарня" (stozharnya) meaning a 'granary', 'storehouse for hay and crops', or can also be reduced to the root "сто-жар", (sto-zhar) meaning 'hundredfold glowing' or "a hundred embers".
'Volosozhary' (the ones whose hair is glowing), or 'Baby-Zvizdy' (female-stars) refer to the female tribal deities. According to the legend, seven maids lived long ago. They used to dance the traditional round dances and sing the glorious songs to honor the gods. After their death the gods turned them into water nymphs, and, having taken them to the Heavens, settled them upon the seven stars, where they dance their round dances (symbolic for moving the time) to this day. (see article in Ukrainian Wikipedia)
In Ukraine this asterism was considered a female talisman until recent times.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
(Alphabetical by people)
It was common among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to measure keenness of vision by the number of stars the viewer could see in the Pleiades, a practice which was also used in historical Europe, especially in Greece.
The ancient Aztecs of Mexico and Central America based their calendar upon the Pleiades. Their year began when priests first remarked the asterism heliacal rising in the east, immediately before the sun's dawn light obliterated the view of the stars. Aztecs called the Pleiades Tianquiztli (meaning "marketplace").
Paul Goble, Native American storyteller, tells a Blackfoot legend that he says is told by other tribes as well. In the story, the Pleiades are orphans ("Lost Boys") that were not cared for by the people, so they became stars. Sun Man is angered by the mistreatment of the children and punishes the people with a drought, causing the buffalo to disappear, until the dogs, the only friends of the orphans, intercede on behalf of the people. Because the buffalo are not available while the Lost Boys are in the skies, the cosmical setting of the Pleaides was an assembly signal for Blackfoot hunter to travel to their hunting grounds to conduct the large-scale hunts, culminating in slaughters at buffalo jumps, that characterized their culture.
A Cherokee myth (similar to that of the Onondaga people) indicates that seven boys who would not do their ceremonial chores and wanted only to play, ran around and around the ceremonial ball court in a circle, and rose up into the sky. Only six of the boys made it to the sky; the seventh was caught by his mother and fell to the ground with such force that he sank into the ground. A pine tree grew over his resting place.
A Cheyenne myth "The Girl Who Married a Dog", states that the group of seven stars known as the Pleiades originated from seven puppies which a Cheyenne chief's daughter gave birth to after mysteriously being visited by a dog in human form to whom she vowed "Wherever you go, I go".
The Hopi had a relatively limited star lore, but determined the passage of time for nighttime rituals in the winter by observing the Pleiades (Tsöösöqam) and Orion through a kiva entrance hatch as they passed overhead. The Pleiades were depicted in a mural on one kiva wall.
The Lakota Tribe of North America had a legend that linked the origin of the Pleiades to Devils Tower. According to the Seris (of northwestern Mexico), these stars are seven women who are giving birth. The constellation is known as Cmaamc, which is apparently an archaic plural of the noun cmaam "woman".
Monte Alto Culture
The early Monte Alto Culture, and others in Guatemala such as Ujuxte and Takalik Abaj, made their early observatories using the Pleiades and Eta Draconis as reference; they were called the seven sisters, and thought to be their original land.
A Nez Perce myth about this constellation mirrors the ancient Greek myths about the Lost Pleiades. In the Nez Perce version the Pleiades is also a group of sisters, however the story itself is somewhat different. One sister falls in love with a man and, following his death, is so absorbed by her own grief that she tells her sisters about him. They mock her and tell her how silly it is of her to feel sad for the human after his death, and she in return keeps her growing sadness to herself, eventually becoming so ashamed and miserable about her own feelings that she pulls the sky over her face like a veil, blocking herself from view. This myth explains why there are only six of the seven stars visible to the naked eye.
The Pleiades (dilγéhé) play a major role in Navajo folklore and ritual. In the Navajo creation story, Upward-reachingway, dilγéhé was the first constellation placed in the sky by Black God. When Black God entered the hogan of creation, the Pleiades were on his ankle; he stamped his foot and they moved to his knee, then to his ankle, then to his shoulder, and finally to his left temple. The seven stars of dilγéhé are depicted on ceremonial masks of Black God, in sand paintings and on ceremonial gourd rattles.
The Skidi Pawnee consider the Pleiades to be seven brothers. They observed the seven brothers, as well as Corona Borealis, the Chiefs, through the smoke hole of Pawnee lodges to determine the time of night.
The Shasta people tell a story of the children of racoon killed by coyote avenging their father's death and then rising into the sky to form the Pleiades. The smallest star in the cluster is said to be coyote's youngest who aided the young racoons.
Ben Raji mythology
Among the Ban Raji people, who live in semi-nomadic settlements scattered throughout western Nepal and northern India, the Pleiades are called the "Seven sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law" (Hatai halyou daa salla). Ban Rajis note that when the Pleiades rises up over the mountain each night, they feel happy to see their ancient kin (Fortier 2008:in press). On a more practical note, Ban Rajis can tell that evening has arrived, indicating that it is about eight o'clock by local time standards when their star-kin rise above the Nepali mountains bordering the Kali River.
In Indian astrology the Pleiades were known as the nakshatra Kṛttikā which in Sanskrit is translated as "the cutters". The Pleiades are called the star of fire, and their ruling deity is the fire god Agni. It is one of the most prominent of the nakshatra, and is associated with anger and stubbornness. The name of the god Kartikeya means him of the Pleiades. Karthigai (கார்த்திகை) in Tamil refers to the six wives of the six rishi (sages), the seventh being Arundhati the wife of Vasistha which relates to the star Alcor in Ursa Major. The six stars in Pleiades correspond to six wives, while the faithful wife Arundhati stuck with Sage Vasistha in Ursa Major. The six wives fell in love with Agni, hence the name Pleiades (star of fire).
In the island of Java, the asterism is known in Javanese as Lintang Kartika or Gugus Kartika ("Kartika constellation"), a direct influence from the ancient Hindu Javanese. Influenced by Hinduism, the stars represent the seven princesses, which is represented in the court dance of Bedhaya Ketawang of the royal palaces of Surakarta. The dance is performed once per year, on the second day of the Javanese month of Ruwah (during May) and is performed by the nine females, relatives or wives of the Susuhunan (prince) of Surakarta before a private audience in the inner circle of the Sultanate family. Another name for Pleiades in Java is Wuluh.
In northern Java, its rising marks the arrival of the mangsa kapitu ("seventh season"), which marks the beginning of rice planting season.
In Japan, the Pleiades are known as 昴 Subaru which means "coming together" or cluster in Japanese, and have given their name to the car manufacturer whose logo incorporates six stars to represent the five companies that merged into one. Subaru Telescope, located in Mauna Kea Observatory on Hawaii, is also named after the Pleiades.
In Thailand the Pleiades are known as rtgs: Dao Luk Kai (ดาวลูกไก่) or the "Chick Stars", from a Thai folk tale. The story tells that a poor elderly couple who lived in a forest had raised a family of chickens: a mother hen and her six (or alternately seven) chicks. One day a monk arrived at the couple's home during his Dhutanga journey. Worried that they had no suitable food to offer him, the elderly couple contemplated cooking the mother hen. The hen overheard the conversation, and rushed back to the coop to say farewell to her children. She told them to take care of themselves, and that her death would repay the kindness of the elderly couple, who had taken care of all of them for so long. As the mother hen's feathers were being burned over a fire, the chicks threw themselves into fire in order to die along with their mother. The deity, impressed by and in remembrance of their love, immortalized the seven chickens as the stars of the Pleiades. In tellings of the story in which there were only six chicks, the mother is included, but often includes only the seven chicks.
Depending on the language group or clan, there are several Aboriginal stories regarding the origins of the Pleiades. Some Indigenous Australian peoples believed the Pleiades was a woman who had been nearly raped by Kidili, the man in the moon.
In a legend told by the Wurundjeri people of south-eastern Australia, the Pleiades were represented by the seven Karatgurk sisters. These women were the first to possess the secret of fire and each one carried live coals on the end of her digging stick. Although they refused to share these coals with anybody, they were ultimately tricked into giving up their secret by Crow, who subsequently brought fire to mankind. After this, the Karatgurk sisters were swept into the night sky. Their glowing fire sticks became the bright stars of the Pleiades cluster.
Another version, often painted by Gabriella Possum Nungurayyi as this is her dreaming (or creation story), daughter of the late Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri from the Central desert art movement of Papunya, depicts the story of seven Napaltjarri sisters being chased by a man named Jilbi Tjakamarra. He tried to practice love magic to one of the sisters but the sister did not want to be with him, and ran away from him together with her sisters. They sat down at Uluru to search for honey ants but when they saw Jilbi, they went to Kurlunyalimpa and with the spirits of Uluru, transformed into stars. 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.
Occurring June 20 – June 22 the Maruaroa o Takurua is seen by the New Zealand Maori as the middle of the winter season. It follows directly after the rise of Matariki (Pleiades) which marked the beginning of the New Year and was said to be when the Sun turned from his northern journey with his winter-bride Takurua (the star Sirius) and began his journey back to his Summer-bride Hineraumati.
In the Swahili language of East Africa they are called "kilimia" (Proto-Bantu *ki-dimida in Bantu areas E, F, G, J, L, and S) which comes from the verb -lima meaning "dig" or "cultivate" as their visibility was taken as a sign to prepare digging as the onset of the rain was near.
In the closely related Sesotho language of the Southern Africa's Basotho people the Pleiades are called "Seleme se setshehadi" ("the female planter"). Its disappearance in April (the 10th month) and the appearance of the star Achernar signals the beginning of the cold season. Like many other Southern African cultures, Basotho associate its visibility with agriculture and plenty.
In Theosophy, it is believed the Seven Stars of the Pleiades focus the spiritual energy of the Seven Rays from the Galactic Logos to the Seven Stars of the Great Bear, then to Sirius, then to the Sun, then to the god of Earth (Sanat Kumara) and finally through the seven Masters of the Seven Rays to us.
In New Age lore, some believe that Sun and the Earth will pass through a Photon belt from the Pleiades, causing a cataclysm and/or initiating a spiritual transition (referred to variously as a "shift in consciousness," the "Great Shift," the "Shift of the Ages").
Barbara Marciniak, author of "Bringers of the Dawn", is one of the authors who contributes to the New Age mythos of Pleiadian ET beings who are linked to human ancestry.
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