Astronomy | Poetry | seasons | Stargazing

The Seven Daughters of Atlas

“Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.”
– Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall

Orion and Taurus, the hunter and the hunted, have a long-standing adversarial relationship in the skies above us. If the Hyades are the face of Taurus turned towards Orion, the “body” of Taurus is a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades or the less magical M45. Looking up well before the dawn this morning they took my breath away. I carefully ran into a dark house for my binoculars for a closer look. While Mars and Venus and the Waning Gibbous moon setting in the west dominated the sky, the Pleiades drew most of my attention this morning.

The Pleiades cluster has many names across the globe, but my favorite is the Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters, all daughters of Atlas, dance in place, forever hunted by Orion (but just out of reach!) as their father holds up the heavens. I have but a sketchy knowledge of Greek mythology and rely heavily on Wikipedia and Google to help me out (the Tennyson above and the Hesiod poem below were both posted originally on Wikipedia). But the cluster was familiar to me, having always been there waiting for me to pay more attention.

And if longing seizes you for sailing the stormy seas,
when the Pleiades flee mighty Orion
and plunge into the misty deep
and all the gusty winds are raging,
then do not keep your ship on the wine-dark sea
but, as I bid you, remember to work the land.”
– Hesiod, Works and Days 618–623

This poem serves as a warning, for in late October and November when Pleiades is seen setting in the western sky it signals that winter is coming, and with it storms. Get your ships off the ocean and work the land instead. It’s September of course, but there have been plenty of storms already in 2020. And more change is in the air as the days grow shorter and we pivot towards Autumn. Our lives are nothing but change, no matter how much we sometimes wish to just dance in place forever like the Seven Sisters. But that’s not our fate.

Pleiades reminded me that I need to get up earlier more often, for the brilliance of the sky above is wasted on me in my sleeping ignorance. The magic hour between 3 and 4 AM seems to be the time with the most to see, but how rare it is for me to be outside at that hour to witness it! I feel like an overnight passage or a night awake on a summit are required in the near future. Sleep is essential, but the stars silently dance without you while you’re blissfully dozing. Like Orion, those Seven Sisters are just out of reach for me, but I swear they flirt back at a fellow Taurus. And stir my imagination.

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4 Comments

      1. However beautiful and wondrous, especially as viewed early on a crisp still morning, I find them virtually impossible to capture with the requisite shutter speed while on a boat!

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