Heavenly jewel illuminates the mysteries of life

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 19, 2003

Like a many-jewelled diamond brooch on a gown of black velvet, one of my favorite starry wonders once again adorns the longing night. Come with me as I follow it into its centre-sky ballroom where science, folklore and wisdom join hands in celestial celebration of winter's return.

The Pleiades (pronounced PLEE-ah-deez) is a faint, tightly-packed cluster of stars some 400 light years away in the constellation of Taurus, just to the upper right of the Orion constellation. Looking like a miniature of the Big Dipper, it fills an area of sky about as wide as one's thumb at arm's length. From Cochrane this month, it is visible mid-evenings halfway up the eastern sky, and at midnight, just south of overhead. (By mid-January, because of Earth's eastward journey around the sun, the Pleiades will be nearly overhead by 8 p.m.)

The six brightest stars in the cluster can be seen with the naked eye from reasonably dark sites, away from streetlights and other artificial illumination. But to really enjoy the Pleiades, view them through a pair of binoculars. That way, you'll be able to see a couple of dozen of the more than 200 stars that make up what Tennyson described as "a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid."

There are some great photographs of the Pleiades on a Web site maintained by University of Calgary astronomer Steven Gibson (www.ras.ucalgary.ca/~gibson/pleiades/). The site also contains lots of useful scientific and mythological information on this star cluster.

Since ancient times, the Pleiades have also been known as the "Seven Sisters." In Greek mythology, these are the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione (but no one knows for sure what ever happened to the seventh, since only six are usually visible).

First Nations of North America have their own traditions around the Pleiades. Dorcas S. Miller has recorded many of these traditions in his fascinating book Stars of the First People.

For example, the Navajo include the Pleiades among the eight primary constellations; they are important for healing rituals and agriculture.

The Blackfoot tell the story of six children who were bullied by other children because they were poor; they ran away and were taken up to the sky where they can be seen every autumn.

Other First Nations think of the Pleiades as prophets, wise men or a herd of caribou or deer.

Among the Stoney Nakoda people – also known as the Assiniboine, especially in Saskatchewan and Montana – there is the story of seven abandoned boys in search of a new identity.

One boy suggested they change themselves into the earth, but the others vetoed the idea because the earth was mortal. Another suggested they turn into rocks, but this was vetoed because rocks can be shattered. Another suggested they become big trees, but this too was vetoed because the wind can blow them down. Water was rejected because it can dry up. Night was rejected because it becomes day; day was rejected because it becomes night.

Finally, one of the boys said they should become stars, because they always exist. And so the youngest hoisted the others into the heavens on a spider web, and there they became the Pleiades.

One of my own all-time favorite references to the Pleiades is found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the Book of Job. This story that dates back long before the Christian era is about a once-prosperous godly man who loses just about everything – children, property, health and prestige. In his bewilderment, and amidst the ignorant speculations of his so-called "friends," he sits outside under the stars and says, in effect, "Why me, Lord?"

At the end of this tale of woe, the Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind and asks: "Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? . . . Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?" (Job 38)

And there, beneath that same jewelled splendor so admired millennia later, Job learns humility and patience in the face of life's trials, and beckons us to do the same.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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