Nantucket’s Night Skies
January 15, 2004

Once there were seven maidens that were being hunted by giant bears. The Great Spirit took pity on them, and built a giant tower of rock to keep them safely out of the bear’s reach. But bears are smart, and persistent, and soon they were climbing the sides of the tower, their claws digging deep furrows in the rock.

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.

A Starry Multitude

If you should want to gaze on the seven sisters, I highly suggest that you take some binoculars. When we say there are six or seven stars in the Pleiades, what we really mean is that we can see six or seven stars. There are hundreds of stars in the Pleiades. A good pair of binoculars will show the bright stars we can see set in a glittering field of fainter stars.

Stars are not born in isolation, but instead in
batches of hundreds or thousands or more.
The resulting star clusters do tend to evapo-
rate with time as individual members escape.
The Sun’s original family has long since dis-
persed, and we patrol the Galaxy in lonely
solitude. But the Pleiades is a young cluster.
Its stars burn the bright blue of exuberant
youth, and few members of the family have
struck out on their own. Photographs show
the cluster enshrouded in beautiful blue swirls,
wispy remnants of the cloud of gas that gave it

We think of our night sky as beautiful, but we
circle a lonely star stranded in the boondocks
of our galaxy. The same space that contains
hundreds of stars in the Pleiades contains a
handful in our vicinity. If the Sun were to find itself at the heart of the cluster our night sky would blaze with bright blue diamonds, and ghostly tendrils would snake across the sky. Poets and minstrels would have mighty competition indeed.

Russ Levreault is neither poet nor minstrel.