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The Pleiades are Back!

A tiny group of stars has entered our evening sky. Even though it has none of the brightest stars within it and it is only a portion of a constellation, this sparkling assortment of stellar gems is one of the most adored, most written about and most storied patterns in all the heavens. Most people know it as the Pleiades and might think of it as Seven Sisters or a heavenly flock of doves. We can be sure that they have been admired by all races around the world throughout all human time.

Many concept have been attached to this glittering bunch of stars: they have been called young women, old wives, boys, birds, chickens, camels, dogs, goats, raccoons, fish, rattles of a snake, seeds, a bunch of balls, crystals, eyes, and even pinon nuts. The Japanese call them Subaru, a name now associated with an automobile.

The Pleiades are an unmistakable feature in the sky: a tiny sparkling, closely packed cluster rises in the northeast to climb high throughout November nights. By midnight they are nearly overhead and morning twilight washes them away in the northwest. They are difficult to see from city lights, but from the country on a clear night they are a delicacy for the eyes to feast upon. In such a setting, it is easy to see six gleaming stars. Most people can discern that the number is greater, although it is challenging to count them individually. Anyone who takes the time to study them will be well rewarded. Through a good pair of binoculars one can see dozens of stars, and large telescopes reveal a few hundred composing this young cluster. Long photographic exposures reveal whips of gas and dust, evidence that the stars are of recent vintage on the astronomical time scale. Studies show that the stars condensed out of a cosmic cloud that held the material from which they formed.

This cluster has always been important to those who would attempt to comprehend the heavens. Indeed, these stars are like words on the astronomical rosette stone that is forever being inscribed by scientists attempting to translate and understand every message contained in light streaming down from stars. The phrases from the Pleiades are in the chapter about where stars come from, why they shine, how long they live and when they die.

Long before the founding fathers of our country penned the words that defined our United States, some Pawnee Indians, residing on the American Plains looked to these bunched stars to formulate an earlier concept of unity on this land. One of their ceremonies contained the words, interpreted into english:

Look as they rise, up rise
Over the line where sky meets the earth;
Seven Stars!
Lo! They are ascending, come to guide us,
Leading us safely, keeping us one.
Oh, Seven Stars,
Teach us to be, like you, united.

These early Native American hunters and farmers watched the stars to know when to plant their seeds, when herds of bison could be found grazing on the prairie, when it was time to harvest the wild and domestic crops and when ceremonies should be performed.

The Navajo people call the Pleiades, Dilyehe'. The pattern of these few stars on a sand painting, a ceremonial gourd rattle, or on old Navajo rock art in northwest New Mexico, represented all the stars of the sky. This pattern is typically drawn on the mask of Black God, the creator of everything that contains fire, including the Sun and stars. Most of the sacred Navajo ceremonies are not performed until Dilyehe' is present in the evening sky, and they are discontinued when the seven stars leave the evening sky in spring. Concerning agriculture, there is a common saying among Navajos that you should not let Dilyehe' see you plant: you must put crops in the ground between the time when these stars vanish in evening twilight in April and when they reappear before morning light in June. Following this guide will assure a successful crop, for plants started too early might be killed by late frost, and planting too late might not yield mature crops to be harvested. This is especially true in the high lands of the Navajo where water is scarce, summer Sun is fierce, and cold weather might come late in spring and early in autumn.

With the appearance of the Pleiades in our evening sky, we might emulate the harmony and balance Navajo people seek through the ceremonies they perform when these stars return, or with the Pawnees we can look to these stars for an American symbol of the pivotal principle of unity. With astronomers we can study these gleaming stars to learn about the evolution of the cosmos, and with poets and storytellers we can enjoy the images they have created in human minds throughout the ages. These star-jewels set in dark November nights are beautiful to any eyes that focus on them, no matter what experience lies stored in minds the sparks of light do play upon.

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