Pleiades Myths

Middle Eastern Myth (Babylonian, Greek, Roman): Orion and the Pleiades

Orion was the son of Neptune (Poseidon), the god of the sea, and so was an excellent swimmer and could even walk upon the water. He was very large and handsome and a mighty hunter. He fell in love with Merope (Aero) who was one of the daughters of Oenopion (Atlas), king of the island of Chios. Orion cleared the island of wild beasts for her. He was very persistent and pursued Merope and her sisters Electra, Maia, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, and Sterope. One day when Orion got drunk he got violent and insulted the sisters. King Oenopion was very angry and appealed to the gods for help. They made Orion fall deeply asleep so that the king could blind him. Orion traveled far to the east and fell on his knees with his face to the rising sun, and the gods had mercy on him and restored his sight. Then he returned to Chios to get revenge on King Oenopion, but he couldn't find him there, so traveled to Crete to look for him.

On Crete he met Diana (Artemis, Cynthia), the goddess of hunting. She fell in love with him and this angered her twin brother Apollo. He asked the earth goddess for a giant scorpion to challenge Orion. Back and forth the battle raged between them, but neither could strike a decisive blow. Finally Orion got very tired, ran to the sea and swam far out. At this point Diana came along the beach and Apollo began to taunt her about her hunting ability. He dared her to try to hit the tiny speck out among the waves. She quickly fit an arrow to her silver bow and shot. Orion died instantly and the speck disappeared. Diana was very pleased with herself until the next day when Orion's body washed ashore. She was heartbroken and wept bitterly, then took his body to Ophiuchus (Aesclepius) the doctor. Before he could restore Orion to life Zeus (Jupiter) struck him down with a thunderbolt, and set both Orion and Ophiuchus up in the sky as constellations. The Pleiades girls were changed into birds and flew so high they became stars also. Electra is pale because she was the mother of the Trojans who were defeated by the Greeks in war.

In the sky Orion always pursues the Pleiades girls but never catches them. Diana, the Moon, travels the zodiac and comes close to him but can never touch him, although from time to time she covers up the Pleiades. Ophiuchus and Scorpius are on the opposite side of the sky from Orion and the Pleiades.

by Mary Lou West

References: Edith Hamilton, "Mythology", New York, Mentor Books, 1940, p 297
Robert Burnham, Astronomy, January, 1987, p 54

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Native American Myth: The Origin of the Pleiades and the Pine Trees (Cherokee)

Long ago, when the world was new, there were seven boys who used to spend all their time down by the townhouse playing the gatayu'sti, rolling a stone wheel along the ground and sliding a curved stick after it. They did not do their chores, especially weeding the gardens. Their mothers scolded them but it did no good, so one day they collected some gatayu'sti stones and boiled them with the corn for dinner. When the boys came home hungry, their mothers dipped out the stones for them and said, "Since you like the gatayu'sti better than the cornfield, take the stones for your dinner."

The boys were very angry and went down to the townhouse, saying, "Since our mothers treat us this way, let us go where we shall never trouble them any more." They began a dance - some say it was the Feather Dance - and went round and round the townhouse, praying to the spirits to help them. At last their mothers were afraid something was wrong and went out to look for them. They saw the boys still dancing around the townhouse, and as they watched they noticed that their feet were off the ground, and that with every round they rose higher and higher into the air. They ran to get their children but it was too late, for they were already above the roof of the townhouse. One mother managed to pull her son down with a gatayu'sti pole, but he struck the ground with such force that he sank into it and the earth closed over him.

The other six boys circled higher and higher until they went up to the sky where we see them now as the Pleiades cluster, which the Cherokee still call Ani'tsutsa (the boys). The people grieved for them for a long time. The mother whose boy had gone into the ground came every morning and every evening to cry over the spot until the ground was damp with her tears. At last a little green shoot sprouted up and grew day by day until it became the tall tree which we now call the pine. This is why the pine grows straight up towards the stars, and why the seventh star in the Pleiades cluster is fainter than the other six.

by Mary Lou West

Reference: James Mooney, "Myths of the Cherokee", Smithsonian Institution, 19th Annual Report of American Ethnology 1897-98, New York, 1970 (E 99.C5 M763 1970)

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Last updated: September, 2000
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