Using the Pleiades as a Natural Calendar (with video)

Open cluster, the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) Open cluster, the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). Pablo Carlos Budassi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

I have been watching the night sky for the rising of the Pleiades. The star constellation Taurus is rising and the Pleiades (sometimes called the Seven Sisters) are in the shoulder of the Bull. But just about every night of the past week has been cloudy.

I look toward the eastern horizon about an hour after sunset but the clouds obscure the night sky. The light pollution of the city doesn’t help. October 10th -15th is just about the time the Pleiades appear in the night sky.

This time of year is also two to three weeks before the first autumn frost. With the first frost the growing season is over. The fall appearance of the Pleiades has been a signal to traditional and indigenous gardeners and farmers all over the world for millenium. This is a phenomenal display of indigenous intelligence. And my curiosity all started with an episode of the zombie apocalypse television show, The Walking Dead. 

Planting Time and the Walking Dead

A couple of years ago,  I was watching an episode of the Walking Dead. The story took place in Negan’s compound. On the concrete and asphalt of a loading dock area, a few of Negan’s subjects were tending several raised beds of vegetables. I wondered how they knew when to plant the crops? Yes, spring vegetables was easy enough but what about summer crops? What about corn? In the story, new up-to-date calendars hadn’t been produced in years and the Internet was no more.

How would I know when to plant if there wasn’t anyway to know what day it was by the Western calendar? How would I know when it was after April 30th and frost was unlikely? How would I know when it was May 15th and safe to plant corn?

I remembered that the star constellation Pleiades were used as a guide for planting. I have always wondered how my gardening grandmothers both in Turtle Island (North America) and Africa knew when to plant. I knew they relied on phenology and the Pleiades but I didn’t know exactly how they used them. I promptly forgot about it until this past summer.

Digging for Useful Star Info

It wasn’t easy finding out how to use the Pleiades as a natural calendar. I had to piece together and make sense of astronomical terms. I have been researching indigenous agriculture and gardening here on Turtle Island for most of my life. I have been researching kitchen gardens, vegetable plots, and corn fields. Woven in and hidden among research articles and books were the answers to star gazing questions.

In indigenous and traditional cultures knowing the seasons of the stars is referred to as “star reading”. Star reading was a very important role in traditional and indigenous societies.

In cultures that used the Pleiades for gardening and farming purposes, the women would know how to read the stars. Oftentimes, the fact that women were star readers is often left out of written histories.

But around the world in traditional and indigenous cultures women grew the kitchen gardens for fresh daily eating next to the houses. Fields for the growing and preserving of grains and staple crops were often further away from the house or village. This fields were often grown communally. In many cultures women were responsible for the growing of staple crops and the men would help when heavy work or harvesting needed to be done.

Star diagram of Taurus the Bull, the Pleiades (M45), and Orion. Star diagram of Taurus the Bull, the Pleiades (M45), and Orion. Dumbbell at French Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Fall Appearance of the Pleiades

The Pleiades rise between October 1st and November 1st an hour after sunset on the eastern horizon

The Pleiades are a star cluster that is highly visible and easily distinguished in the night sky. Its’ white-blue stars shine brightly, are well shaped and easily seen with the naked eye. The group is shaped like a very small dipper

Seven stars are easily seen with ten to thirteen stars seen under exceptional conditions.

In some American Indian tribes, how many stars a young person could see in the cluster was a test of good eyesight. Keen eyesight was needed by star readers, scouts, and other people in the communities.

The Pleiades cluster actually has a hundred or more stars when viewed through a small telescope. And when a photographic plate is taken thousands of stars are revealed.

Drawing of the constellations Taurus the Bull with the Pleiades and Orion. Drawing of the constellations Taurus the Bull with the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and Orion. Boy Scouts of America, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Where to Find the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) 

The Pleiades star cluster is found in the shoulder of the Western constellation Taurus the Bull. The Pleiades are located at the Bull’s shoulder. The stars are also called the ‘Seven Sisters’. 

The Bull’s eye (the star Aldebaran, Magnitude 2) is among the brightest stars in the night sky.

The Pleiades is found in the night sky over most of the Earth except in the most southern latitudes.

Learn the Sky:Pleiades Star Cluster (Messier 45) in Taurus the Bull Constellation

Different Names for the Same Stars

the Pleiades are called by many different names in cultures around the world. Pleiades is the named from Greek/Roman/Western mythology tradition. In Greek Mythology the seven daughters of Atlas were turned into this group of stars. The star cluster is also known as the ‘Seven Sisters’. I use both terms in this post. 

The Eastern Woodland peoples have various names for the star cluster. The Lenni Lenape name, ‘asi skaewtaya’ means ‘bunched up’. The Narragansett name is “chippapuock” meaning “brood hen”. The stars are the ‘Got-gwar-dar’ to some Iroquois.

Around the world, the star cluster is called:

  • the ‘digging stars’ by the Amazulu and Bantu
  • ‘little parrots’ by the Inca
  • ‘summer stars’ by the Tewa
  • ’seed stars’ by the Zuni’
  • ‘dilyehe’ by the Navajo
  • and on and on

 

photo of Open star cluster, the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters). Open star cluster, the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. Juan lacruz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Pleiades as a Natural, Cosmic Calendar

In each culture reads the Pleiades for a natural calendar, often to supplement a solar calendar particularly of the solstices. Using the Pleiades is a ‘fine tuning” of the natural calendar.

The star clusters’ annual schedule is important to may cultures because the dates coincide with the ending and beginning of the growing season, seasonal changes, and activities.

All stars rise (appear above the horizon), cross the sky, set (sink below the horizon) four minutes earlier each night.

Each succeeding evening the Pleiades rise (appear) at a slightly higher point in the sky above the horizon. The set four minutes earlier each night. 

The Pleiades (Seven Sisters), Midwinter and a New Year

At midwinter the Pleiades rise (first appear) directly overhead. The cluster has reached its’ zenith or highest point in the night sky

You can mark the midpoint of the winter season but watching for the zenith. Many cultures begin their ‘new year’ at this time. Think Chinese New Year.

Traditional and indigenous peoples around the world use this zenith to begin their mid-winter ceremonies, festivals, and celebrations.

After midwinter the Pleiades begin to appear high in the western side of the sky. Each evening they descend closer to the western horizon.

A Recap

The Pleiades appear around the time of the first autumn frost which kills the hot weather loving crops (corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, etc.). Cool temperature crops can continue to survive.

As the growing season nears an end you watch the sky for the appearance of the Pleiades. You know you need to harvest all your crops before the plants are killed by frost and the crops are frozen, damaged, and no longer edible.

After the zenith of mid-winter, the star cluster descends on the western side of the horizon until they disappear in spring around May 5 to 10th. Which just happens to be the time of the last spring frost.

The Seven Sisters remain in the sky October 10 -15 to May 5 -19, for 153 to 163 days. This is about the length of the growing season in many places.

If you can see this star cluster in the sky in the early evening, your crops are in danger of experiencing frost (freezing temperatures).

Disappearing in the Spring

After the Pleiades disappear it is late enough in the spring for the danger of a spring frost  (temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder) to have passed. A temperature of 32 degrees is freezing which can kill tender seedlings.

The disappearance of the Pleiades means it is safe to plant crops such as corn, potatoes, squash, beans, tomatoes. I always wondered my my grandmother didn’t plant seeds and seedlings until May 15th. Now I know.

A good practice is to mark what happens phenologically when the Pleiades appear and disappear. The Iroquois of the Eastern Woodlands begin planting (particularly flint corn) when the Pleiades disappear and the oak leaves are the size of a red squirrel’s foot. How’s that for being tune with the rhythms of the Earth!

How to Collect Phenology Data

Reappearing with the Summer Solstice

The star cluster reappears in the the early morning sky toward the northeast horizon around the time of the summer solstice. This is used by the Navajo as a signal that it is too late to plant and to get a harvest before the first frost.  This means the stars are double useful as a guide to the summer solstice, the planting season, and that the first fall frost is not that far off in late September.

The Importance of Reading the Stars

By reading the stars we harmonize our lives with the rhythms of the cosmos. Your planting is tied to the movement of the stars across the sky. You can look up in the night sky and know what time of year it is. It is believed that the more closely the ceremonies follow tha natural calendar and rhythms of the cosmos, the more powerful they are.

We don’t have to ‘reconnect with nature’. Whatever the heck that is supposed to mean. We are nature. We are stardust. We just have to relax and just be.

Become a Star Reader

I hope you find this post useful. I whittled the information down. There is so much more about the Pleiades I didn’t include. I wanted to keep things manageable and easily digestible.

Learning all this information about one important star cluster highlights just how much we have be forced to forget with the dominance of industrialization, colonization, standardize education. But knowledge that was lost can be learned and given again. Stay indigenous my friends.

How to Find the Pleiades (Seven Sisters)

Finding the Pleiades: Pleiades or Seven Sisters Star Cluster  Sparkles in November (earthsky.org)

 

Resources Used

“Watchers of the Pleiades: Ethnoastronomy among Native Cultures in Northeastern North America” by Lynn Ceci in Ethnohistory, Autumn 1978, vol. 25, no. 4. pp. 301-317. Duke U. Press. (accessed in JSTOR).

“American Indian Astronomy; An Overview” by Ray A. Williamson in Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature. Marsha C. Bol, Editor. Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Niwot: Colorado, 1998. (out-of-print, search used book sources)

 

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