Pleiades Part 1
Also known as: The Seven Sisters, Vergilia, Vergiliae, Ladies of Plenty
In Greek mythology, the Pleiades are a group of seven sisters who are the daughters of Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione, a protector of sailors. A slight variation to this is that instead of Pleione as the mother of the Pleiades, it is the sea-nymph Aethra or Erechtheus who is their mother.
They were born on Mount Cyllene. As the daughters of Atlas, they are also the half-sisters to the Hyades. Like the Hyades, their brother is Hyas. Other accounts will place Calypso and the Hesperides as their sisters too.
The Pleiades are also some of the many nymphs associated with the goddess Artemis. With their sisters the Hyades, they were also called the Atlantides, Dodonides and Nysiades. Depending on the stories referenced, they served with the Hyades as nursemaids and teachers to a young Dionysus.
The Pleiades star cluster is known throughout the world and many cultures revere and refer to these stars in a number of different cultural mythologies and astronomies. Only those cultures and people located far to the south on the Earth seem to have no significant mythologies or astronomy related to this star cluster.
In astronomy, the Pleiades are known as the Seven Sisters or Messier 45 and are one of two star clusters or asterisms found within the Taurus constellation. The Pleiades is sometimes, erroneously referred to as the Maia Nebula. It is believed that only six of the seven stars can be seen without the aid of a telescope. The star that isn’t visible is Merope, who hides her shame at having married a mortal, Sisyphus, the king of Corinth. Latin author Hyginus has suggested that this star is likely Electra mourning the loss of her son Dardanus.
For many ancient people and cultures around the world, the appearance of the Pleiades often marks important or significant annual events for changes of the seasons or agriculture.
Famed astronomer, Galileo Galilei is considered the first astronomer to use a telescope when observing the Pleiades. He’s thus the first to discover that this asterism contains numerous stars that are too dim to be seen with the naked eye. Galileo’s book Sidereus Nuncius has a sketch of the Pleiades showing 36 stars. The use and aid of telescopes has shown that there are as many as 500 stars within the Pleiades star cluster.
People with exceptional eyesight have been known to see more stars within Pleiades than the seven of Greek legend. Some claim to have seen as many as 20 stars. Maestlin, who tutored Kepler is to have mapped out 11 stars within the Pleiades before the advent of the telescopes.
From the Earth’s perspective, the Pleiades appear to be within the Taurus constellation. In the Northern Hemisphere, the best times to view this star cluster is in September, November and January. For many cultures located in the Northern Hemisphere, the month corresponding to November is often seen as the month for the Pleiades it is at this time the asterism can be seen rising from dusk and setting at dawn.
Over the last few years, astronomers have been learning more and more about the Pleiades star cluster. Not just in the high number of stars that make up this asterism, but the discovery of stars known as brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are small stars that may have started off like other stars, they lack having enough mass to create enough of a temperature and pressure to burn. After a brown dwarf’s initial creation, it may flicker or give off a small amount of light due to small quantities of deuterium burning. Most brown dwarfs are about the size of Jupiter and have about 10 to 80 times its mass. Eventually, a brown dwarf will fade and whatever core temperature and light it did have is gone, making brown dwarfs hard to find.
The meaning for the word Pleiades has numerous different meanings. It is typically thought the Pleiades are named for their mother Pleione in Greek mythology. There’s a good deal of uncertainty as other words suggested are: plein, “to sail” and then there is pleos, “full, many” and lastly, peleiades, “flock of doves.”
Now days, the word Pleiades has generally taken on the meaning of “multitude.” It has inspired the name for a French literary movement called La Pléiade. There is also an earlier group of Alexandrian poets, known as the Alexandrian Pleiad.
Sisters In Myth, But Not In Astronomy
Nine of the brightest stars in the Pleiades are named for the seven sisters of Greek mythology and their parents Atlas and Pleione. While in Greek legends the Hyades and Pleiades are half-sisters, when it comes to astronomy, the two star clusters aren’t related at all.
While there are seven sisters and stars mentioned in the classical Greek mythology, the Pleiades are composed of hundreds of stars. In 1767 C.E., the Reverend John Michell calculated that the probability of such a seeming random chance alignment of so many stars to be 1 in 500,000. Since then, astronomers have found that the Pleiades star cluster is composed of hot blue-white suns, placing the age of this cluster to be some 100 million years old. The Hyades star cluster is composed of cooler red giant and white dwarf stars that place this cluster being far older at over 700 million years old.
Despite the myth of the Pleiades fleeing from Orion’s unwanted advances, this star cluster is slowly moving towards the stars that make up the feet of the Orion constellation. This will actually take about 250 million years.
The Seven Sisters
In regards to Greek mythology, the stars of the Pleiades represent a group of seven sisters, all of whom are daughters of the titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleïone.
All seven sisters had love affairs with different prominent Olympian gods with the exception of Merope who was punished for loving a mortal. For this reason, Merope doesn’t shine as brightly as the other stars as she is thought to be concealing her shame.
Their names are given as follows:
Alcyone – Also called Halcyone, “queen who wards of evil [storms]” or “strong helper”. By Poseidon, she is the mother of Anthas, Aethusa, Hyperenor and Hyrieus.
Asterope – Also spelled Sterope, “lightning,” “twinkling,” “sun-face,” “stubborn-face,” “star-faced” or “flashing-face.” By Ares, she is the mother of Oenomaus, the king of Pisa. Other stories place Oenomaus as her husband.
Celaeno – Also spelled Celæno, “swarthy,” “black” or “dark.” By Poseidon, she is the mother of Eurypylus and Lycus. A different account says that by Prometheus, she is the mother Lycus and Chimærus.
Electra – Also called Eleckra, “amber,” “shining,” “bright.” By Zeus, she is the mother of Dardanus, the founder of Troy. Some accounts place Electra as the mother of Iasion with Zeus as the father. She is called Atlantis by Ovid. According to Thaumas, this Electra may be the mother of the Harpies.
Maia – “grandmother,” “mother,” “nurse,” “the great one” or “good nursing mother.” The oldest of the Pleiades, by Zeus, she is the mother of Hermes.
Merope – “eloquent,” “bee-eater,” “mortal” or “sparkling-face.” The youngest of the Pleiades, she was wooed by Orion. In other retellings of her story, she marries the mortal Sisyphus and thus becomes mortal herself and eventually she fades away or dies. With Sisyphus, Merope had several sons: Glaucus, Ornytion and Sinon. She is sometimes said to be the mother of Daedalus, Alcippe and Iphinoe.
Taygete – Also spelled Taigete, “long-necked” or “of Mount Taygetus.” By Zeus she is the mother of Lacedaemon, the founder of Sparta. By this, she is an important goddess.
The Lost Pleiades
The Greek myths tell of the loss of one of the Pleiades, Merope who is said to be hiding her face in shame as she married a mortal, leaving only six stars that can be seen. Sometimes the missing Pleiades is Electra who is hiding her face at the destruction of Troy. She reappears afterwards as a comet and as a result, the passing of comets in the heavens came to be associated with impending doom or disaster. Other times it is Celaeno, who was struck by lightning.
The story of a missing Pleiad also appears in other cultures such as African, Asian, Australian, European, Hindu, Indonesian, Jewish, Mongolian and Native American mythology. The star Celaeno is currently the dimmest star. However the star, Asterope is actually two stars, both of which are dimmer than Celaeno. There does seem to be a basis for this part of the legends as astronomical evidence clearly points to a once visible star within the Pleiades cluster that has since become extinct by the end of second millennium B.C.E.