Samhain and the star nursery

If you look to the east tonight just after sunset, which is the only time the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster is visible to the naked human eye, you may be lucky enough to see them rising into the night sky. Each of its seven hot blue stars hovers in a sparkling, nebulous mist of stellar ‘afterbirth’ which hasn’t yet had time to disperse because the youngest stars of this constellation are only 60 million years old.

I often wonder if that’s why they have occupied such a huge place in the human imagination going back for thousands of years. After all, we are made of star stuff too! So could the Pleiades be our original nursery?

Alfred Tennyson wrote of them:

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

Samhain, in the time of our ancestors, would always be timed to the rising of the Pleiades at sunset, when they can be seen. Beltane, on the other hand, is timed to when the Pleiades are rising with the Sun in May, when they would have been invisible. So this tells us that Druids did not rely on the naked eye for the timing of festivals, but on calculations built on extensive record keeping. It is, in fact, the oldest festival known to man and the star cluster can be seen in a cave painting in Lascaux, France, that is thought to be 17,000 years old.

Star map from the Lascaux caves, France.

The Pleiades are on the Nebra Sky Disk which is 3,600 years old; they are mentioned in the Chinese annals, dated to 2357 BC and, not long after that, they appear in the Vedic sidereal zodiacs as the seven Krttika sisters who were married to the seven rishis. In my books of The Glastonbury Chronicles, they are the Sisterhood of the Deer.

In Hawai’i, the festival marked by the rising of the Pleiades at sunset was known as Makahiki and it would go on for four months, until the star cluster was no longer visible on the horizon at sunset. Australian aborigines danced to the Pleiades, and the Greeks and Mayans aligned their temples to their rising. The Mexican city of Teotihuacan, which was built in the second century, was oriented to the setting of the Pleiades and the Navajos associated the constellation with their principal deity, Black God, creator of fire and light.

Although the precession of equinoxes means that the first sighting on the horizon at sunset is getting earlier and earlier in the calendar as the years go on, astronomers say that the the visual arrangement of the stars of Seven Sisters would have looked exactly the same to our ancestors a million years ago.