What happened to the Seventh Sister?
Among the great mysteries of the nighttime sky, none has captured human imagination more than the one associated with the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. Look for the cluster high in the ESE as a small, dipper-shaped collection of several stars above the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. While you’re at it, check out bright Jupiter to the left of Aldebaran.
More stories have been told about the Pleiades in more ancient cultures than any other object. Why? The Seven Sisters has only six stars in it.
The mystery is truly an ancient one. The stories explaining the missing star are thousands of years old.
The Greeks identified the stars with seven beautiful sisters who loved to romp among a meadow full of spring flowers. Along came Orion, the powerful and rash hunter, who immediately pursued them with (ahem, how shall I put this) amorous intent. As they ran in terror, the sisters prayed to the mighty Zeus, king of all the gods, to save them. Zeus turned them into a flock of doves, and they flew upward to take refuge among the stars.
They alit on the back of Taurus, the Bull, who provides protection from Orion to this very day. As fall turns to winter, the Pleiades rise first and after them the Bull. Rising last is Orion, who seems to battle the Bull, his club raised high, in order to bludgeon the beast to death so that he can gain access to the sisters.
The Greeks invented several other stories to explain the missing sisters. In one myth, she is Electra, the mother of the founder of Troy, an ancient city burned to the ground by the ancient Greeks. She left her place in the sky because she could not bear to watch the destruction of the city and could not find her way back.
An old Arab story tells of Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus, who was rejected by one of the sisters because he was so poor. He left the sky to pursue his fortune and became wealthy after long and arduous labor. He returned to the sky driving before him his herd of camels, which we see as the V-shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades, which form the head of Taurus.
However, the beautiful sister left the sky, no doubt frightened or infuriated by Aldebaran’s unwanted attention. The missing sister remains in hiding, but Aldebaran and his camels are still there, hoping against hope for her return.
A Native American legend describes the Pleiades as seven children who joined hands every night to dance with joy under the stars. The stars learned to love and appreciate the children. One season, the land was barren and there was little for the people to eat. The children appeared under the stars, but they were too starved and near death to dance. In pity and admiration, the stars invited the children to join them in the sky, and the dancers became the Pleiades.
Night after night, the children passed above the Earth they had loved so well. Night after night, they saw their friends and family mourning the loss of the children, but nothing could be done. The children must remain stars forever. As time passed, one of the children became so homesick that he wept bitter tears and hid his face in his hands. The child is inconsolable. His glowing face remains hidden to this very day.
The people of Mongolia say that the missing star appears elsewhere in the sky as the star Alcor, the faint star near Mizar, the star at the bend of the handle of the Big Dipper. In this story, Alcor is known as the Cold Star because it had been kidnapped from warmer regions to the south. The other stars of the Dipper are known as “robber stars,” proud of their brilliance and anxious to add bright stars to their gang. On one raid, they carried one of the Pleiades back to their perch near Polaris, where it must shiver forever in the icy north.
During the early history of humanity, seven stars must have been visible in the Pleiades. At some point, one of the stars dimmed. Such was the importance of the stellar grouping to cultures around the globe that they made up stories to explain the seventh star’s absence.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.