The History and Significance of the Pleiades

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Greek mythology has always fascinated the world – some of the constellations of today are still known by their Greek names. For some mortals, and even divine or semi-divine individuals of Greek mythology, if you were loved by the gods you could gain some sort of immortality by being placed in the sky as a constellation.

One of the most famous group of stars in Greek mythology are a cluster of stars named the Pleiades; these were, according to mythology, a group of seven sisters named Maia (‘good nursing mother’), Electra (‘Amber-coloured’), Taygete (‘of Mount Taygetus’), Celeno (‘black’), Merope (‘with face turned’), Asterope (also spelt Sterope, ‘star eyed’) and Alcyone (‘strong help’ or ‘kingfisher’), who were the daughters of the Titan, Atlas.

There has been some debate amongst scholars to whether they were turned into stars or doves in order to escape the passionate intentions of Orion, the giant hunter, whose beauty aroused his ardour. In one version, the goddess Artemis sent a scorpion to kill Orion as she was angry that he had pursued the Pleiades.

Their rising as the constellation in the month of May, according to one scholar, is inimical as it marks the beginning of the summer heat and harvest (Ingalls, p.8). At this time the constellation of Orion rises and appears to be in perpetual pursuit of the seven beautiful sisters.

In literature, the Pleiades are typically viewed as ominous doom-bearing stars, chiefly on account of their association with the rough equinoctial gales of spring and fall (, p.400), as in Aeschylus’ lifetime, the Pleiades were near the horizon at sunrise from around mid-October. They set in early morning before the sun rose from about Nov. 1, and through the rest of the fall, and increasingly earlier in the night through winter and early spring (Pfundstein, p.401).

The Pleiades played minor roles in Greek mythology; they were mainly seen as the mothers of kings and other individuals – Maia became the mother of Hermes by Zeus and reared Arcas, the son of Zeus by Callisto; Electra became the mother of Dardanos and Iasion by Zeus, other sources say she bore him the goddess Harmonia as well; Taygete was the mother of Lacedaemon by Zeus; Celeno was the mother of Lycus and Chimaereus by Prometheus, other sources say she was the mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon; Merope was the mother of Glaucus by Sisyphus; Asterope became the mother of Oinomoas and Euenos by Ares; and Alcyone became the mother of Aethusa, Hyrieus, Hyperenor, Hyperes and Anthas by Poseidon.

Despite their minor roles in Greek mythology, they are fascinating characters and have lived on through the ages through their relationship with the night-sky.

Bibliography:

Ingalls, Wayne B. (2000) Ritual Performance as Training for Daughters in Archaic Greece, Phoenix, Classical Association of Canada.

Pfundstein, James F. (2003) Aeschylus, Astronomy and the Agamemnon, The Classical Journal, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South Inc.

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