Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Pleiades star cluster

The stars in the cluster known as the Pleiades are considered to be sibling stars in both myth and science.[1] They were apparently ‘born’ from the same cloud of gas some 100 million years ago, though they have evolved at different rates due to their different mass. Comprised of seven main stars that are visible to the naked eye. In Greek mythology they represented the seven daughters of the mythological figures of Atlas and Pleione, and each were given names and complex stories associating them with the pantheon of seducing gods, especially Zeus. They tell tales that underpin this mainly anthropocentric worldview as a means for explaining (mansplaining?) human behaviour in its relationship to the world of natural phenomena.

Then there are many cross-cultural stories, originating in prehistoric, pre-Neolithic cultures passed on down the millennia and created around loss and return, through which the strength, power and primal source of women is expressed and revered.[2] Developed in association with observation of seasonal changes in the natural world many have been forgotten, but some are still maintained within contemporary Indigenous cultures. In the Northern Hemisphere the first sighting of the Pleiades above the horizon in May signalled the season of spring and the beginning of the sailing season for maritime fishing and trade and the seasonal planting of crops.  In Celtic folklore the first showing of the cluster above the horizon in late May gave cause for the festival of life returning; and their disappearance in November the festival of death (Hallowe'en, or Samhain, which later became All Souls Day). Their movement across the night sky was symbol of the life cycle of life-in-death-in life, celebrated at the two Solstices. From the Crone aspect of Goddess cultures, the Pleiades are the seven judges of one’s life activities at the end of life, known as Kritikas (meaning razor in Greek and from which we get the word ‘critical’). It is the job of these sisters to assess one’s place in the after-life. Such concepts relating to end of life judgment were held in pre-Vedic India, in the archaic traditions of Egypt and no doubt other areas of the Middle East. The seven branches of the menorah (which translates as ‘moon priestesses’, and which were traditionally decorated with typical female genital symbols, lilies and almonds) may have represented the seven sisters.[3]

For those of us who live in the South the seasons are reversed, since May takes us into the winter season of dormancy and underground activities. In a imaginary, or a ‘mode of perception, in which all of the world is alive with spirit’, creating a lore  that situates Australian Indigenous peoples in deep spiritual relationship to all creatures and landscapes and celebrates the harmonious relationship between humans and their natural environment, the behaviour of the protagonists nevertheless has extraordinary similarities to the stories of the Pleiades evolved in other cultures.[4] In Australia the sighting of the Seven Sisters from dusk until dawn signals the time of growing coldness, associated with frosts on the ground, and the ending of the warmer months, so the narrative has the young women as very beautiful, their bodies sparkling with icicles. They refuse the courtship of amorous young men of another tribe, who tempt them with fresh honey, but when they are refused, pine away and die. Two of the sisters are abducted by a fiery Ancestor spirit, who tries to melt their icicles, which only results in putting out his fire but explains why there are two less bright stars in the cluster. In this season the Meamei, as they are called, break off some ice and throw it to Earth, which is used to numb the nose before it is pierced in the memory of the seven sisters who once dwelt on country before becoming glittering celestial bodies. There are other associations deriving from this story held in lore.[5] Here is another source used.[6]

Contemplating, cogitating, ruminating over how to represent this significant cluster in human cultural traditions I decided to listen to Jimmy Little’s song ‘Seven sisters’ from his album Resonate: “…we cannot do great things, but only small things with great love.” After toying with different fabrics and positions, feeling a little reassured by the lyrics and more akin to the story of the sisters, I am encouraged to keep holding the space in which the cluster form will take shape. This image shows one possible rendition, one that was discarded for reasons I’ll explain later.

[1] In the process of this research I began to understand where the names for the models of many cars have originated. And when I look into the star cluster of the Pleiades I realise that the design for the logo of the popular Suburu range of cars is based on these wonderful seven sisters (though there only six in the logo), whose story goes way back prior to vehicle automation. 
 [2] Munya Andrews, 2005, The seven sisters of the Pleiades: Stories from around the world, Spinifex Press: Melbourne
[3] Barbara Walker, 1988, The woman’s dictionary of symbols and sacred objects, Harper & Row: San Francisco
 [4] Joanna Lambert, 1993, Wise women of the dreamtime: Aboriginal tales of ancestral powers, Inner Traditions International: Vermont (pp. 44-50)
[5] ibid
[6] Antonella Riem Natale, 2012, The Pleiades and the dreamtime: an Aboriginal Women’s story and other ancient world traditions, Coolabah, no. 9, Centre for Australian Studies: University of Barcelona.

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