Nantucket’s Night Skies
The Great Spirit didn’t appreciate being outfoxed by a bunch of bears. He took the seven maidens and placed them in the sky, leaving us with seven new stars and some hungry bears. The rock tower, scored by the bear’s mighty claws, is the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. And the seven new stars are the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters.
The star cluster known as the Pleiades is one of the most distinctive groups of stars in the sky. Not surprisingly just about every culture on the planet has some sort has a legend associated with the Pleiades. The Kiowa legend above is typical of the breed. Almost all involve pursuit and escape courtesy of a helpful deity. In Greek mythology seven beautiful sisters were pursued relentlessly by the hunter Orion until Zeus placed them in the heavens. To the Hindus they were the Krttika, the wives of the seven sages, who were pursued by the fire god Agni.
Step out your door around 8 P.M. any day this week and the Pleiades will be high in the southern sky. If you find them and look carefully you will see a problem with these legends. Unless your eyesight is considerably better than mine you, and most people, will see only six stars. So why the "seven" sisters?
Other legends suggest a solution. To the Cherokee the Pleiades are seven lazy boys who danced rather than doing their chores. One day, angry over being punished, they danced so fast that they started to rise into the air. One mother managed to snag one of the boys with a long pole, but he fell to the earth so hard that the ground swallowed him. The other six rose into the heavens. In the Greek myth one of the sisters was so distraught at the fall of Troy that she covered her face and faded from sight. And one of the Krttika remained faithful to her husband, and left to join him when the other six were divorced.
Such legends of the "lost Pleiad" have made many astronomers wonder if in fact one of the stars in the Pleiades was at one point brighter, but has since faded from sight. The Pleiades stars are young, and some are potentially unstable. Legends like the lost Pleiad may be the only way to study stars that take centuries or millennia to change their brightness.
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Russ Levreault is neither poet nor minstrel.