The legend of Mara-riki
We denizens of the 21st century tend to look at the sky with a scientific eye, and, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.
We know the stars are giant hydrogen bombs. We see the constellations as useful conveniences to learn the sky. We are beginning to forget that humans used to tell stories about the stars — that our relationship with the starry vault was once personal and not pedantic.
We must listen to everything the stars tell us if we are to discover who we really are in this vast and glorious cosmos. We must open up our hearts as well as our minds. And we must remember that humanity is a family made up of many children, each of which has value, each of which has something to say.
Thus, this week we look not to our western traditions about the stars but to an old Polynesian tale about the most beautiful of star clusters, what we westerners call the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters.
Look for it high in the south around 8 p.m. as a tiny, dipper-shaped collection of six stars easily visible to the unaided eye. They can be found up and to the right from the V-shaped head of Taurus, the Bull. The left-most star of the Bull’s head is another character in our story. Aldebaran, the angry red eye of the Bull, is the dominant star in the region.
It was not always so. According to the old Polynesian story, near Aldebaran was a star so supremely bright that it outshone even Sirius, the brightest star in our contemporary sky. Brilliant Sirius, yet another character in the tale, can be found far down and to the left from Aldebaran on the other side of the familiar constellation Orion.
Long before humans made their appearance on Earth, that brightest of all stars was called Mara-riki, or Little Eyes. So enamored was it of its own beauty that it began to boast to nearby stars that it was more lovely even than the gods themselves. The gods did not take Mara-riki’s vanity well. They appointed Tane, guardian of the four pillars of heaven, to drive Little Eyes from the starry sky.
Realizing that vanity was not the singular purview of the brightest of stars, Tane asked the nearby bright stars Sirius and Aldebaran for their help. The two stars had always been jealous of Mara-riki’s brilliance, so they participated quite willingly in the conspiracy.
Together, the three headed for their brighter enemy, but it saw them coming and hid under the waters of the heavenly river we call the Milky Way. Sirius, whose brilliance extended to an agile mind, quickly dammed the great river of light. Thus revealed, Mara-riki ran away so fast that it began to disappear in the distance.
The powerful Tane picked up Aldebaran, and with a mighty throw hit the unfortunate fugitive. The blow was so enormous that it smashed Mara-riki into six dimmer pieces.
Fragmented and in pain, the six stars limped their way back to where the brighter star had once been located, near to the now brighter star Aldebaran. No longer do they outshine the Bull’s angry eye. Now Sirius reigns supreme as the brightest star in the dark bowl of night.
You’d think that the formerly brilliant Mara-riki would have learned something from these events. Pride, after all, to our western sensibilities “goeth before a fall.” It’s pretty tough to go from the brightest bulb in the cosmos to a scattered, little cluster of stars. Wouldn’t most of us be deeply despondent over these events?
Perhaps, but indomitable vanity is also something to admire. To this very day, Mara-riki still occasionally looks down with its six eyes upon its reflection in the ocean waters and whispers to itself that it is far lovelier as the glorious Pleiades than it ever was as a mere star. If you ever see those Little Eyes reflected in your own, you will know exactly what it means.
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory in Delaware. He can be reached at email@example.com.