Year of the Fire Monkey

How Various Cultures View the Pleiades

By Dikki-Jo Mullen

Prominent in the cosmology of nearly every culture, the legends of the Pleiades vary greatly throughout the world.
In the northern hemisphere the Pleiades is especially visible in November. Tied to frosty cold and increasing darkness, the stars are seen as distinctly baleful, harboring somber omens. They are called the weeping sisters or widows. One Native American legend links them to unwanted and unloved orphans who retreated to the sky to mourn and lament. A Cheyenne interpretation sees them as a group of puppies birthed by a girl after a visit from a mysterious dog. Among the Lakota tribe the Pleiades are seen as a devil’s tower. Celtic cosmology also sees them as tears and mourning symbols. Their appearance often coincided with funerals and death rites near Samhain.

Hindu astrology interprets Pleiades as a deity who is nursed by six separate mothers. In Greece the seven sisters were so sought after for their beauty and grace that Zeus transformed them into doves. In the Baltic countries, especially Latvia and Lithuania, they become a group of sisters walking to their weddings escorted by a benevolent brother. A Nordic legend hails them as hens belonging to Freya. Among the Berbers in Africa they are daughters of the night who bring a reminder to find a goat skin bag and clothing to prepare for inclement weather.

Ukranian stargazers see them as seven maidens who lived long ago and at death became immortal water nymphs. In the Andean culture the stars are seen as bringers of abundance and a summer harvest, while the Aztecs based a whole calendar around them and related them to the marketplace.

Another legend identifies the Pleiades as virgin companions of Diana fleeing the unwanted attentions of Orion. In Australia they are also sisters being chased by an unwanted suitor. In New Zealand they bring a happier message, becoming brides journeying toward their summer weddings. In Chinese astrology they outline the hairy head of a white tiger. In Thailand they are at the center of an elaborate tale involving an elderly couple who cared for them as a mother hen and her chicks. When the hen heard she was due to be cooked, she and her little brood sacrificed themselves in a fire. The gods were impressed by this act of love and transformed them into seven stars.