Pleiades in folklore and literature
High visibility of the star cluster Pleiades in the night sky and its position along the ecliptic (which approximates to the solar system's common planetary plane) has given it importance in many cultures, ancient and modern. Its heliacal rising, which moves through the seasons over millennia (see precession) was nonetheless a date of folklore or ritual for various ancestral groups, so too its yearly heliacal setting.
Tuareg Berbers of the northern Sahara call the Pleiades Cat iheḍ (pronounced: shat ihed) (or -ahăḍ). This Berber name means: "daughters of the night". To many other Berbers it is Tagemmunt ("the group").
A Tuareg Berber proverb says:
Cat ahăḍ as uḍănăt, ttukayeɣ ttegmyeɣ, anwar daɣ ttsasseɣ. As d-gmaḍent, ttukayeɣ ttegmyeɣ tabruq ttelseɣ.
When the Pleiades fall, I wake looking for my goatskin bag to drink. When (the Pleiades) rise, I wake looking for cloth/clothes to wear.
Meaning: When the Pleiades "fall" with the sun on the west, it still roughly (at J2000) means the hot, dry summer is coming. When they rise from the east with the sun, the cold somewhat rainy season is coming. Nomads and others need to brace for these.
Old Testament, the Pleiades appear (untranslated as כימה, "Khima") thrice. Mention follows (or precedes) of nearby Orion, a bright, anthropomorphic constellation: Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; and Job 38:31. The first two are references about their creation. The third (taken in the context of following verses) stresses their ongoing nature in the night sky; God 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 God can.
The Talmud (Berakhot 58b) suggests understanding כימה as כמאה ke' me-ah (kimah), "about one hundred" stars in the Pleiades star cluster. Like most astronomical figures in rabbinic writing, the Jewish sages pointed to this as having come from Mount Sinai.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki ("Rashi", 1040–1105) suggested even more stars within the cluster when he commented on the Talmud with a question, "What is meant by Kimah?” It is then understood that the Talmud was suggesting hundreds of stars in the Pleiades cluster, and that only the first hundred are mentioned due to them being the most important.
Other Jewish sources
According to Jewish folklore, when two fallen angels named Azazel and Shemhazai made it to the earth, they fell strongly in love with the women of humankind. Shemhazai found a maiden named Istehar who swore she would give herself to him if he told her the sacred name which granted him the power to fly to Heaven. But he revealed it to her, she flew up to Heaven, never to fulfill her promise, thus she was placed in the constellation Pleiades, although she is also associated with the planet Venus. It should be noted, though, that tales such as this are highly metaphoric.
Arabia, the Levant and Islamic sources
In Arabic the Pleiades are known as al-Thurayya الثريا, the first main consonant becoming a morpheme into outlying linguistic zones north and east, and is mentioned in Islamic literature. Muhammad made mention of the Pleiades. Some scholars of Islam suggested that the Pleiades are the "star" mentioned in Sura An-Najm ("The Star") of the Quran. The Prophet is noted to have counted twelve stars in the constellation as reported in Ibn Ishaq.
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 eponymises the Thuraya satellite phone system of 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[a] 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"[b] 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).
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.
Pleiades has gained, in a few tongues, several creative derivations of its French quite well-known, non-stellar meaning: "multitude".
To the Vikings, the Pleiades were Freyja's hens, and their name in many old European languages such as Hungarian compares them to a hen with chicks. In contemporary Danish the cluster is known as Syvstjernen, the Seven Star.
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.
Ethnographer Svend Grundtvig collected a folkloric account of the myth of the Pleiades in Danish folklore ("The Pleiades, or the Seven Stars"). In this variant, six brothers travel the world to learn a trade and, with their combined help, rescue a kidnapped princess from a dwarf. Unable to choose which brother she likes best, God allows the seven to pass out in their sleep and turns them into the seven stars of the constellation.
The old name of the starcluster in Hungarian is "Fiastyúk", meaning 'a hen with chicks'.
In historical Russian treatises about astronomy, the constellation was known as semizvedie, as well as vlasozelisci.
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.
The constellation of the Pleiades is known by several names in Belarussian tradition, such as Sitechko ('a sieve'), and, in a legend from the Horvats, there are seven vil ('spirits of deceased maidens') who dance around in a circle. Further studies by researcher Tsimafei Avilin show the main names of the constellation in Belarrusian: Sieve (Sita or, rarely, Rešata, and variations) and The Hens (Kuročka and variations).
In Serbian folklore, the Pleiades can be called Vlašići (“children of Vlas"), a title possibly connected to Slavic deity Veles. The members of this asterism, considered to be "seven starry brothers", each receive an individual name: in one version, duos Mika and Mioka, Raka and Raoka, Orisav and Borisav, and the last Milisav; in another, Vole and Voleta, Rale and Raleta, Mile and Mileta and Pržožak; in a third, Mile and Mileta, Rade and Radeta, Bore and Boreta and Prigimaz.
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.
According to Anthony Aveni 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 Tiānquiztli (Nahuatl pronunciation: [tiaːŋˈkistɬi]; Classical Nahuatl for "marketplace". Compare tianguis).
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 cosmic setting of the Pleiades 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.
In a Caddo tale, compiled by Frances Jenkins Olcott, a mother has seven boys who did not want to work. One night, their mother sent them to bed without supper and, in the next morning, withou breakfast. The boys, who knew magic song, begin to dance around their house and slowly making their ascent to the heavens, to become the Seven Stars, which can only be seen in winter.
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 determined the passage of time for nighttime rituals in the winter by observing the Pleiades (Tsöötsöqam) and Orion's belt (Hotòmqam) through a kiva entrance hatch as they passed overhead. The Pleiades were depicted in a mural on one kiva wall.
A tale atrributed to the Iroquois people shows that the Pleiades were six boys who danced atop a hill to the tune a seventh was singing. On a certain occasion, they danced so fast and so light they began to ascend to the skies, and thus became the constellation.
The Kiowa of North America legend of the Seven Star Girls links the origin of the Pleiades to Devils Tower. The seven little girls were chased by bears, and climbed a low rock. They begged the rock to save them, and it grew higher and higher until they were pushed up into the sky. The seven girls became the Pleiades and the grooves on Devils Tower are the marks of the bear's claws.
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.
In a tale attributed to Pacific Coast indigenous populations, the Pleiades are a family of seven sisters who, fed up with their husbands (all brothers) not sharing with them their game, want to be changed into stars. The husband of the youngest sister, the youngest of the seven brothers, accompanies his spouse and transforms into the Taurus constelation.
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.
A second tale tells the Pleiades are six brothers who rescue their sister, who becomes the seventh star of the constellation.
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.
In a tale from the Tachi people, the Pleiades are five sisters who lived in sky and marry a man named Flea. When he is ailed by an itch, they no longer like him and plan to leave him. He follows them to the sky.
In a tale attributed to the Wyandot people, seven Singing Maidens, daughters of the Sun and the Moon, who live in Sky Land, descend to Earth and dance with human children. Their father, wrathful at their disobedience, banishes them to another part of the sky. In another tale, the Pleiades are seven Star Sisters who descend to Earth in a basket. One day, a human hunter captures the youngest by her girdle while their sisters escape in the basket. The maiden promises to become the hunter's wife, but before he must accompany her to the sky.
Ban Raji mythology
To the Ban Raji people, who live semi-nomadically across western Nepal and Uttarakhand, the Pleiades are the "Seven sisters-in-law, and brother-in-law" (Hatai halyou daa salla). They hold or held that when they can first make them out annually over the mountains straddling the upper Kali they feel happy to see their ancient kin. This is about eight hours after noon by local, traditional time standards.
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. 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 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 the island of Java, the asterism is known in Javanese as Lintang Kartika or Gugus Kartika ("Kartika cluster"), 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 the Philippines the Pleiades are known as "Moroporo", meaning either “the boiling lights” or a flock of birds. Its appearance signified a new agricultural season, and thus starts the preparation for the new planting season.
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 the 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 cultural/language group, there are several stories regarding the origins of the Pleiades among Aboriginal Australian peoples, usually referred to as the Seven Sisters.
In the western desert region and cultural bloc, they are said to be seven sisters fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of a man represented by some of the stars in Orion, the hunter. In these stories, the man is called Nyiru or Nirunja, and the Seven Sisters is songline known as Kungkarangkalpa. The seven sisters story often features in the artwork of the region.
A legend of the Wurundjeri people of south-eastern Australia has it that they are the fire of seven Karatgurk sisters. These women were the first to know fire-making and each carried live coals on the end of their digging sticks. They refused to share these coals with anybody and were ultimately tricked into giving up their secret by Crow, who brought fire to mankind. After this, they were swept into the night sky. Their glowing fire sticks became the bright stars of the Pleiades cluster.
The Wirangu people of the west coast of South Australia have a creation story embodied in a songline of great significance, based on the Pleiades. In the story, the hunter (the Orion constellation) is named Tgilby. Tgilby, after falling in love with the seven sisters, known as Yugarilya, chases them out of the sky, onto and across the earth. He chases them as the Yugarilya chase a snake, Dyunu.
There is an analogous holiday in Hawaiʻi known as Makahiki. The makahiki season begins with a new moon following the rising of the pleiades (or makali`i) just after sunset instead of the heliacal rising.
The Hawaiian creation chant known as the Kumulipo also begins with reference to the pleiades (known as the makali`i).
Occurring June 20 – June 22, the winter solstice (Te Maruaroa o Takurua) is seen by the New Zealand Māori as the middle of the winter season. It follows directly after the first sighting of Matariki (The Pleiades) and Puanga/Puaka (Rigel) in the dawn sky, an event 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 (Sirius) and began his journey back to his summer-bride Hine Raumati.
In Swahili (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 related Sesotho (of far Southern Africa's Basotho (people of Sotho)) 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 neighbours, the Basotho associate its visibility with agriculture and plenty.
The 19th century astronomer Johann Heinrich von Mädler proposed the Central Sun Hypothesis, according to which all stars revolve around the star Alcyone, in the Pleiades. Based on this hypothesis, the Jehovah's Witnesses religion taught until the 1950s that Alcyone was likely to be the site of the throne of God.
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.
Children's book author Edith Ogden Harrison gave the myth of the Pleiades a literary treatment in her book Prince Silverwings, and other fairy tales, as the tale of The Cloud Maidens. The story tells of the courtship of one of the Seven Sisters by the legendary Man in the Moon. Unfortunately, the Cloud Maiden is banished to Earth and becomes the "Maid of the Mist".
Another etiological tale, from a Slavic source, is The Seven Stars: a princess is kidnapped by a dragon, so the high chamberlain seeks a "Dragon-mother" and her sons, who each possess extraordinary abilities, to rescue her. At the end of the tale, the rescuers and the chamberlain enter a dispute on who should have the princess, but the "Dragon-mother" suggests they should treasure her a sister, and to keep protecting her. As such, the seven are elevated to the sky as "The Seven Stars" (the Pleiades).
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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