Ladies of the Night II

© 2003 by Robert C. Moler

Three years ago we looked at the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters and some of their mythology. It’s time to return because these clusters are rising in the eastern sky these autumn evenings.

The Pleiades in the photo above shows many more stars than what can be seen with the unaided eye. Binoculars will show most of them. However there is a haze in the photo. It’s called the Merope Nebula; named for the star where it’s the brightest, the bottom most of the bright stars in the photo.

The age of the Pleiades is about 100 million years. The gas and dust that remains around the stars is the remnant from the nebula from which they formed. Unlike the hot stars in the center of the Orion Nebula, the hottest of the Pleiades stars are not hot enough to ionize the gasses that remain. Thus if you saw the Merope Nebula in color, it would not glow the red of Hydrogen, but the blue of scattered light from nearby stars,

The stars of the Pleiades have the names of the sisters. The negative photo on the right has their names. The two stars off to the left side, Atlas and Pleione, are their parents. A pronunciation note: An ending “e” in Greek names is not silent as it is in English. So the star Merope is pronounced Mer-o-pe.

In the sky they are to the west of Orion, so the story goes that Orion, that dirty old guy, is chasing them across the sky nightly. According to some stories, Orion pursued them on the earth, so the gods placed them all in the sky, so while Orion chased the still, he can get no closer. It is just another example of the rather unsatisfactory solutions of the Greek gods.

One of the puzzles about the Pleiades is that a sharp eyed person can see only 6 of the 7 stars without optical aid. I’m going on hearsay here because I’ve never been able to spot more than 3 or 4 of the stars. So what happened to the 7th star? Did it fade? So began the legend of the Lost Pleiad. According to myth it was Merope who married a mortal Sisyphus. Because she married a mortal instead of a god, she hid her head in shame. It’s a nice story; but Merope, though not the brightest Pleiad is distinctive in its position at the bottom corner of the “tiny dipper” that is the shape most folks see of the Pleiades.

Electra is another candidate, but of an aboriginal tribe of Australia. Finally there is Sterope, which appears as two close stars. Sometimes it’s called Asterope. This pair is the dimmest stars of the Pleiades Sterope 1 is magnitude 5.8, while Sterope 2 is 6.4. Could one of the Sterope components have changed? Or is the dimmest Pleiad only visible occasionally to the unaided eye only under the best conditions?

The North American Indians saw a group of maidens here also. They were being pursued too, but by a huge bear. These maidens finally made it to the top of a huge butte, we know today as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. According to the stories the long vertical cracks in the sides ware caused by the bear’s claws. They were then spirited to safety into the sky where we can see them today.

The Pleiades were famous enough in ancient times to be mentioned in the Bible. In Job 9:9, this is Job speaking about God:

“He has made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the Mansions of the South.”

In Job 1.38:31-32 God is speaking:

“Have you fitted a curb to the Pleiades, or loosened the bonds of Orion? Can you bring forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or guide the Bear with its train?”

In older translations the Bear is rendered Arcturus, the bright star found near the Great Bear or Ursa Major. The Pleiades is right up there with the prominent constellations Orion the hunter and the Ursa Major. In Amos 5:8 Orion and the Pleiades are mentioned again:

“He it is who makes the Pleiades and Orion, who turns shadow dark as death into morning.”

In some translations the Pleiades are rendered as “the seven stars”.

Enjoy the Pleiades with binoculars, or try to find the lost Pleiad with the unaided eye. It’s a fine way to enjoy an autumn evening.

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Updated: 12/19/03