There is a tiny grouping of stars in the winter night sky that has caught the attention of people for thousands and thousands of years and still captures their attention today. People frequently point to it and ask me, “Is that the Little Dipper?”
It’s a fair question. The stars make a shape that looks like a little dipper, but it’s far from being the Little Dipper. This star grouping is almost directly overhead around 8:00 pm in January, so it’s hard to miss. I’m talking about the Pleiades, which is pronounced plee-uh-deez.
WHAT IS PLEIADES?
Pleiades is an asterism within the constellation Taurus. But what’s an asterism? It’s a small grouping of stars that make up a smaller picture within the larger picture of a constellation. In this case, Pleiades is in the shoulder section of Taurus, the Greco-Romon bull of the night sky.
If you have decent eyesight, you can count six stars in the Pleiades with the naked eye. But once upon a time, people must have seen seven stars.
Many cultures worldwide have stories about this asterism as seven sisters or brothers. Here are several stories from different indigenous peoples across North America.
The Blackfoot live in the southern part of Alberta, Canada. In their stories, the Pleiades are orphans known as the Lost Boys. No one cared for these boys, so they became stars. The mistreatment of these orphans made the Sun Man angry, so he punished the people with a drought, causing the buffalo to disappear. Since buffalo aren’t available when the Lost Boys are in the sky, the Blackfoot assemble after the Pleiades disappear from the summer sky to do large-scale hunts at buffalo jumps.
You can learn more about these hunting expeditions at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Montana. The park hosts stargazing parties during the summer months.
The Cherokee have a story about seven boys who played instead of doing their ceremonial chores. They ran around the ceremonial ball court in a circle until they rose into the sky. As six of the boys rose to the sky, the seventh was caught by his mother. She yanked him down so hard that he sank into the ground when he hit. A pine tree grew over the place where he was buried in the earth.
The Iroquois version says that six boys danced on top of a hill while a seventh boy sang a tune to keep them dancing. One night, they danced so fast that they lifted off the ground and floated up to the sky. They became the Pleiades constellation.
In the Kiowa story, seven little girls were chased by bears. They did their best to escape by climbing on a low rock and pleading with the rock to save them from the bear. That rock grew higher and higher until it stretched up into the sky. Those girls became the Pleiades. And the grooves on Devil’s Tower (located in the Black Hills of Wyoming) are the marks of the bear’s claws as it tried to get them.
One of my favorite stories about the Pleiades comes from the Nez Perce because I grew up in Nez Perce County in northern Idaho. The Nez Perce see the Pleiades as a group of seven sisters. One sister fell in love with a mortal man, and when he died, as all mortal men do, she became overwhelmed with grief. Her sisters mocked her for feeling so sad about the death of a human man. But the sister grew sadder and sadder, making her feel ashamed. So she pulled the sky over her face to hide behind like a veil, explaining why there were only six stars visible to the naked eye.
The Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona have a story about a man who lived in a cave on Girded Rock. He taught the people many things and sang beautiful songs to them. He intended for them to learn these songs to sing for a girl who reaches puberty. But the women didn’t stop after the ceremony. They kept singing and singing. It wrecked their homes, and no one wanted them. People called them “homeless women” since they ran around and had no home. So, the women went to a powerful medicine woman who decided to put them in the sight of all people. The medicine woman said, “Every evening, your relatives will see you and tell their daughters why you are called the Homeless Women (the Pleiades). In this way, women will know what a good home is. Even though a puberty celebration is enjoyable, no one should go around just doing that.” Then, she sprinkled the women with water, and they turned to stone. She threw them eastward, and they landed in the sky where they are now.
PLEIADES IN A TELESCOPE
Galileo was the first person to look at the Pleiades with a telescope. He saw the six stars with his naked eyes, then peeked through his telescope. In March 1610, he published a sketch of his observations and showed thirty-six stars. Today, we know this star cluster contains over a thousand stars. It’s a gorgeous star cluster to view through a telescope.