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April 15, 2024

Backyard Astronomy: The Pleiades (2003-11-08)

By Cheryl Haimann

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

--From "Locksley Hall" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hallelujah, the blight is over. The astronomer's compensation for cold winter temperatures is earlier sunset, longer nights, and a much more interesting sky than has been visible recently. This change in observational fortune is heralded by a lovely and unassuming star cluster, The Pleiades (M45).

The Pleiades (PLEE-a-deez) is a true cluster, not an optical trick. The cluster contains more than 100 stars gathered in an area about 15 light years across. Most people will see four to six of the brightest stars without using binoculars or a telescope, although keen-eyed observers have reported seeing as many as fifteen stars under extremely dark and clear conditions. The brightest stars form a shape that resembles a cup or a dipper. In fact, some people have mistaken the Pleiades for the Little Dipper because of the shape.

The Pleiades rises in the east-northeast, about 10 degrees below the left star in Aries. At first you may only see a bright smudge with a couple of stars in it. By using averted vision (looking slightly to the side of the target)you should be able to see more of the individual stars. Binoculars offer a striking view of the entire cluster. A telescope sometimes reveals some faint nebulosity, although the view will usually be too magnified to see all of the brightest stars at once.

The oldest know mention of the cluster is found in Chinese documents from about 2350 BC. The Pleiades are mentioned in the books of Job and Amos in the Old Testament, and also in Homer's Odyssey. In the Greek myth, the stars were seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and companions of Artemis, who were pursued immoderately by the hunter Orion. Artemis pleaded with Zeus to intervene. He did so by changing the seven sisters into seven doves, allowing them to flee - but also removing them from their friend Artemis. Because the seven sisters are so close to the ecliptic, though, Artemis, as goddess of the moon, visits regularly. The Pleiades is still frequently referred to as the Seven Sisters. Artemis/Diana, you may recall, got her revenge on Orion for hassling the sisters by setting Scorpius after him.

An old television program began with "There are eight million stories in the naked city", and the same might be said of the night sky. These days we are most familiar with the Greco-Roman names and mythology surrounding the constellations, but many ancient cultures had their own stories to tell about the patterns they saw in the night sky.

Legend from Old Testament times tells that God created the Great Flood by removing two stars from the Pleiades, or Khima. Later, he had to borrow two stars from the Bear to close up the hole and stop the flooding. The Aztecs and Mayans thought that the world would end - in fact, had ended on several previous occasions - when the Pleiades stood overhead at midnight. The Kiowas said they were maidens escaping from a bear. The vertical marks on Mateo Tepe (Devil's Tower in Wyoming) were the claw marks of the bears trying to catch the maidens even as the Great Spirit carried them to the sky. Other tribes saw them as lost or orphaned children, or companions to spirits.

Another native legend told that they were wives cast out by their husbands for eating onions. The Hindu also saw wives, but more charitably linked them to the enlightened beings who revealed the Vedas.

In Japan, there are many interpretations of the group of stars, including tea strainer, sake cup, and Seven Happy Gods. More commonly, the cluster is called a Brush Daub. The name best known to westerners, though, is Subaru. The star logo on Subaru automobiles is a representation of the Pleiades.

Some of the legends account for the fact that only six stars are clearly visible by suggesting that one of them was unhappy and crying, or trying to run away. It's possible that one of the stars has dimmed over time. It's also possible that ancients persuaded themselves to see seven stars because they liked the numerology and symbolism associated with seven.

Also this week: The Leonid Meteor shower will reach its peak on November 17/18. Best time to view will be after midnight.

Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-11-08
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