The Beauty of The Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image courtesy of http://hubblesite.org/

The Pleiades are a wonderful sight to behold in our night sky. Located high on the back of the constellation Taurus, they make for fantastic wintertime viewing. This open star cluster is great for naked eye viewing and reveals even more of its beauty with binoculars or a telescope.

As with all things do to with the sky, there are several different names for the Pleiades. In Japan this grouping of stars is called Subaru (and yes if you look closely at the car company’s logo you’ll see the star pattern of the Pleiades), while in other countries these six neighbouring stars are known as the Seven Sisters.

It is true that a quick look through a telescope will reveal more than just the six stars visible with the naked eye, but that doesn’t explain why this star cluster has seven sisters if there are only six that are visible. There are a number of legends that surround the Seven Sisters that attempt to explain why there are only six sisters in the sky. In Greek mythology the seven sisters were the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. The sisters were Alcyone, Merope, Celaeno, Asterope, Electra, Taygete and Maia.

The Greeks had two stories that explained the absence of one of these sisters. It is said the Merope hides her light because she is ashamed that she is the only one of the sisters to have married a mortal, while another story pins the missing star on Electra who left the sky to avoid watching the fall of the city founded by her son Dardanus, Troy.

One North American legend tells of seven sisters who travelled the sky together. One of them fell in love with a man on Earth and they married. Every winter the six other sisters pass overhead to check up on the two lovers and make sure all is well.

There is also a Polynesian legend that explains the existence of the Pleiades. To the early stargazers of Polynesia, the Pleiades were not seven sisters, but the fragments of a once beautiful star. This star was once the brightest star in the night sky, outshining Sirius of Canis Major. Regrettably, this star was also quite vain and was constantly boasting about its beauty. Sirius, the brightest star in our current night sky, grew tired and a little jealous of this constant self-flattery and so convinced the god  Tane to do something about it. Tane picked up the star Aldebaran (they eye of Taurus) and threw it at the bright star shattering it into the small fragments that we see as the Pleiades today.

The night sky is a beautiful thing to behold and the Pleiades are among some of its more prized gems, but they sky is also rich in stories and mythology that can really add an interesting flavour to your nightly star gazing.

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