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Astronomy at a distance: Myths and legends of the Pleiades

pleiades star cluster
One of the really cool things about the night sky is that many of the same stars, planets and constellations can be viewed from a huge range of places around the world. Because of this, many different groups have formed their own myths and legends about how they came to be, says Matthew Battley from Warwick's Department of Physics.

We as scientists have our own ideas about how these objects and structures formed, but sometimes it’s fun to step back and share the stories of the earliest astronomers. There are some amazing myths and legends associated with one particularly interesting constellation: the Pleiades star cluster.

The Pleiades is a beautiful group of stars which can currently be found to the West early in the evening (see the earlier Astronomy at a Distance article on Constellations for more information). With the naked eye you can usually see seven to nine stars close together in this star cluster, but with a telescope or binoculars you’ll discover a jewel-box full of even more.

The Pleiades is currently visible after dark for stargazers in the UK but will soon be out of sight from mid-May. So you only have about two weeks left to admire this amazing cluster of bright blue stars. Find out where to look and when, here.

In the UK and Europe we are most familiar with the Greek myths about the Pleiades, who are said to have been the seven daughters of the Greek Titan Atlas (who carries the entire world on his shoulders) and the Oceanid Pleione. The story goes that these daughters were later turned into stars by Zeus after Orion wouldn't stop chasing them. However, these Greek myths are just one of more than 40 different stories that have been told about the Pleiades around the world.

For the Native American Kiowa people, the formation of the Pleiades is closely linked to the formation of the impressive Devils Tower; rock formation in Wyoming. Legend has it seven young girls were being chased by bears and climbed a low rock nearby to escape. The girls begged the Great Spirit to save them from the bears, and so this Great Spirit raised the rock higher and higher, until eventually it pushed the seven girls right into the stars. However, the hungry bears kept scratching at the edge of the rock, forming the deep grooves that we can now see on the side of the Devils Tower.

This same star cluster is called Matariki by the Māori people in New Zealand, and its rising in the sky marks the start of the Māori new year. Stories for this cluster in Māori culture vary somewhat between iwi (people/tribe) and whānau (family), but is often described as the crushed eyes of the blind god Tāwhirimātea (Māori God of the wind and weather), with each of the nine stars having their own attached personality and connection to Māori life. Like many cultures in the Pacific, Māori were masters of navigating the ocean by the stars, so the night sky continues to play a very important part in their culture.

In Thailand the Pleiades (or Dao Luk Kai – the “Chick Stars”) have a slightly more morbid origin. According to the Thai folk story, a poor grandmother and grandfather have raised a hen with six chicks, but when a monk visits, they fear that they do not have any food to feed him. As a solution they discuss killing the mother hen. Overhearing this conversation, the hen races back to her chicks to say goodbye and reassure them that her sacrifice is worthwhile given the love the old couple have shown them in the past. However, later hearing their mother being cooked, the chicks run into the room and throw themselves into the fire to join their mother (don’t try this at home!). Impressed by their love and sacrifice for the old couple, a guardian angel rewards the hen and her chicks by turning them into the star cluster we now know as the Pleiades. Interestingly the Pleiades have also been likened to chickens in many old European languages/cultures, likely based on their place in Norse mythology as Frejya’s hens.

One final fun fact about the Pleiades is that in Japan this cluster is known as Subaru. If this sounds familiar it may be because you’ve seen it on a car, as Subaru is the name of one of Japan’s most famous car brands. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that the Subaru logo is actually composed of six of the brightest stars from the Pleiades.

These legends are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of astronomical myths and legends, and you can learn a lot more about the myths and legends around other stars, planets and constellations online. I’d particularly recommend the website http://www.datasketch.es/may/code/nadieh/ for a comparison of how the main Western constellations vary in different cultures.

But don’t just let the ancient astronomers have all the fun - I challenge you to wrap yourself up warm, step outside into your garden and invent some new stories about the sky you see above you. That way you too can join the international community of astronomers from the comfort of your own home.

 

Published:

1 May 2020

About:

The Astronomy and Astrophysics group at Warwick is interested in a huge range of scales across the Universe: planetary systems, how they form, live and die; stars, stellar binaries and and the exotic physical processes that they allow us to explore; as well as the transient events which mark the end of stellar lifetimes and the galaxies stars inhabit across the Universe. The group started in September 2003 and is both an observational and theoretical group. The group makes use of a wide range of ground-based telescopes, such as ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes (ING) in the Canary Islands, or the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), as well as space telescopes such as NASA's Chandra and ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Warwick astro group partners in the four large spectroscopic surveys (DESI, SDSS-V, WEAVE, and 4MOST) that will start operations throughout 2020-2021.

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