F. E. Fillebrown engraving of The Dance of the Pleiades by Elihu Vedder
Courtesy of Art Connections

Pleiades Mythology

The mythology associated with the Pleiades cluster is extensive; Burnham alone devotes eight pages to the subject, and Allen more than twice that number (see references). Here only Greek legends are presented. Even so, these are manifold and often contradictory, being patched together from many different cultures over a long period of time. Further uncertainty is added by most Pleiads sharing names with otherwise unrelated mythological characters. So enjoy, but please do not consider this information to be infallible.


Possible Name Derivations


Genealogy

The Pleiad(e)s were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, and half-sisters of the Hyades, whose mother was Æthra (`bright sky'; a different Æthra than the mother of Theseus). They were perhaps also half-sisters of the Hesperides, who were daughters of either Night alone, or Atlas and Hesperis (`evening'), or Ceto and Phorcys. Both Pleione and Æthra were Oceanids, daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, the titans who ruled the outer seas before being replaced by Poseidon. Atlas (`he who dares' or `suffers'; from the Indo-European tel-, tla-, `to lift, support, bear'), another titan, led their war against the gods, and was afterward condemned by Zeus to hold up the heavens on his shoulders. The Pleiades were also nymphs in the train of Artemis, and together with the seven Hyades (`rainmakers' or `piglets'; individual Hyad names are not fully agreed upon) were called the Atlantides, Dodonides, or Nysiades, nursemaids and teachers to the infant Bacchus. The Hesperides (`nymphs of the west'), apparently not counted in this, were only three, and dwelled in an orchard of Hera's, from which Heracles fetched golden apples in his eleventh labor.


Individual Sisters

For each, a name translation is given first, followed by available biographical information, and parallel stories of like-named characters.


Astromorphosis

One day the great hunter Orion saw the Pleiads (perhaps with their mother, or perhaps just one of them; see Merope above) as they walked through the Boeotian countryside, and fancied them. He pursued them for seven years, until Zeus answered their prayers for delivery and transformed them into birds (doves or pidgeons), placing them among the stars. Later on, when Orion was killed (many conflicting stories as to how), he was placed in the heavens behind the Pleiades, immortalizing the chase.


Lost Pleiad

The `lost Pleiad' legend came about to explain why only six are easily visible to the unaided eye (I have my own thoughts on this). This sister is variously said to be Electra, who veiled her face at the burning of Troy, appearing to mortals afterwards only as a comet; or Merope, who was shamed for marrying a mortal; or Celæno, who was struck by a thunderbolt. Missing Pleiad myths also appear in other cultures, prompting Burnham to speculate stellar variability (Pleione?) as a physical basis. It is difficult to know if the modern naming pays attention to any of this. Celæno is the faintest at present, but the "star" Asterope is actually two stars, each of which is fainter than Celæno if considered separately.


References

The information above was taken from:

If you are aware of additional information or corrections, please let me know!


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