Where the Forest Murmurs,
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod


From the Persian shepherd to the shepherd on the hills of Argyll---in a word, from the remote East to the remote West---November is known, in kindred phrase, as the Pleiad Month.
What a world of legend, what a greater world of poetry and old romance, centres in this little group of stars. "The meeting-place in the skies of mythology and science," as they have been called by one of our chief astronomers. From time immemorial this remote starry cluster has been associated with festivals and solemnities, with auguries and destinies. On November 17, the day of the midnight culmination of the Pleiades, the great Festival of Isis was begun at Busiris: in ancient Persia, on that day, no petition was presented in vain to the King of Kings: and on the first of the month the midnight rites of our own ancestral Druids were connected with the rising of the Pleiades. To-day the South Sea Islanders of the Society and Tonga Isles divide the year by their seaward rising and setting., The Matarii i nia, or season of the "Pleiades Above," begins when in the evening this stellar group appears on the horizon, and while they remain above it: the Matarii i raro, or season of the "Pleiades Below," begins when after sunset they are no longer visible, and endures till once again they appear above the horizon. The most spiritual and the most barbaric races are at one in considering them centres of the divine energy. The Hindûs imaged them as Flame, typical of Agni, God of Fire, the Creative Energy: the several Persian words, from the ancient Perv or the Parur of Hafiz or the Parwin of Omar Khayyam---derive from Peru, a word signifying "The Begetters"; and we know that the Greeks oriented to them or to their lucida not only the first great temple of Athenê on the Acropolis, but its successor four hundred years later, the Hecatompedon of 1150 B. C., and seven hundred years later the Parthenon on the same side. [The great shrine of Dionysos at Athens, the still earlier Asclepieion at Epidaurus, and the temple of Poseidon at Sunium, looked towards the Pleiades at their setting.] But far removed from these are the Malays and Pacific islanders, who more vaguely and crudely revere "the central fires," and even so primitive and remote a people as the Abipones of the Paraguay River country worship them as their Great Spirit---Groaperikie, or Grandfather---and chant hymns of joy to this Pleiad-Allfather when, after the vernal Equinox, the mysterious cluster once more hangs visible in the northern sky.
It would be impossible, in a brief paper, to cover the ground of the nomenclature, of the literature, of scientific knowledge and speculation concerning the Pleiades. A long chapter in a book might be given to Alcyone alone---that bright particular star of which it has been calculated that, in comparison, out Sun would sink to a star below the tenth magnitude. Indeed, though the imagination strains after the astronomer's calm march with dazzled vision, our solar brilliancy is supposed to be surpassed by some sixty to seventy of the Pleiadic group, for all that our human eyes have from time immemorial seen therein only a small cluster of tiny stars, the "seven" of Biblical and poetic and legendary lore, from "the Seven Archangels" to the popular "Hen and her six chicks." Alcyone, that terrible torch of the ultimate heavens, is eighty-three times more refulgent than that magnificent star Sirius, which has been called the "Glory of the South": a thousand times larger than our Sun. I do not know how Merope and Taygeta, Celeno and Atlas are, but Maia, that shaking loveliness of purest light, has been calculated to be four hundred times larger than the Sun, and Electra about four hundred and eighty times larger. When one thinks of this mysterious majesty, so vast that only the winged imagination can discern the illimitable idea, all words fail : at most one can but recall the solemn adjuration of the shepherd-prophet Amos, "Seek Him that maketh Pleiades and Orion," or the rapt ecstasy of Isaiah, " O day star, son of the morning."
A Gaelic poet has called them the Lords of Water, saying (though under different names, from the Gaelic mythology) that Alcyone controls the seas and the tides, that Electra is mistress of flood, that Taygeta and Merope and Atlas dispense rains and auginent rivers and feed the well-springs, and that Maia's breath falls in dew. The detail is fanciful; the central thought is in, accord with legend and old wisdom. I do not know how far back the connection of the Pleiades with water, particularly rains and the rising of rivers, has been traced. It runs through many ancient records. True, in one place, Hesiod speaks of "retreating from the burning heat of the Pleiades," and mention has already been made of the Hindu association of them with "Flame." But Hesiod's allusion is a seasonal trope, and natural to one living in a warm country where the coming of the autumnal rains coincides with days of sweltering closeness and heat. Moreover, Hesiod himself uses equally deftly other popular imagery as it occurs to him, speaking of the Pleiades, as Homer speaks, as Atlas-born; and again (with Pindar, Simonides and others) likening them to rock-pigeons flying from the Hunter Orion, doubtless from earliest mention of them in ancient legend as a flock of doves, or birds; and again as "the Seven Virgins" and "the Virgin stars "---thus at one with his contemporary, the Hebrew Herdsman---prophet Amos, who called them by a word rendered in the Authorised Version of the Bible as "the seven stars." As for the Hindu symbol, it must be remembered that fire was the supreme sacred and primitive element, and that every begetter of life in any form would naturally be thus associate. The Hindus called the Pleiad-Month (October-November) Kartik, and the reason of the great star-festival Dibali, the Feast of Lamps, was to show gratitude and joy, after the close of the wet season, for the coming of the Pleiad-days of dry warmth and beauty. The "sweet influences" of the Pleiades thus indicated will come more familiarly to many readers in Milton's

                                                        "the grey
Dawn and the Pleiades before him danc'd,
Shedding sweet influence,

This ancient custom, the "Feast of  Lamps," of the Western Hindus survives to-day in the "Feast of Lanterns" in Japan, though few Europeans seem to perceive any significance in that popular festival.
In general, however, we find the advent of the Pleiades concurrent both in ancient and modern tradition, with springs and rains and floods: with the renewal of life. Thus the comment in the old Breeches Bible, opposite the mention of "the mystic seven" in that supreme line in job: " which starres arise when the sunne is in Taurus, which is the spring time, and bring flowres." A Latin poet, indeed, used Pliada as a synonym of showers. Again and again we find them as the Vergiliae, Companions of the Spring. They are intimately connected too with traditions of the Deluge : and in this association, perhaps also with that of submerged Atlantis, it is suggestive to note that early in the sixteenth century Cortez heard in that remote, mysterious Aztec otherworld to which he penetrated, a very ancient tradition of the destruction of the world in some past age at the time of their midnight culmination. A long way thence to Sappho, who marked the middle of the night by the setting of those wild-doves of the sky! Or, a century later, to Euripides, who calls them Aetos, our "Altair," the nocturnal timekeepers.
But to return to that mystery of seven. Although some scholars derive the word "Pleiades " or " Pliades," and in the singular "Plias," from the Greek word plein, "to sail," because (to quote an eminent living authority) "the heliacal rising of the group in May marked the opening of navigation to the Greeks, as its setting in the late autumn did the close" and though others consider that the derivation is from pleios, the epic form of the Greek word for "full," or, in the plural, it many "and so to the equivalent "a cluster," corresponding to the Biblical Kimah and the Arabic Al Thuruyya, the Cluster, the Many Little Ones---it is perhaps more likely that a less learned and ordinary classical reader may be nearer the mark in considering the most probable derivation to be from Pleione, the nympth of Greek mythology---"Pleione, the mother of the seven sisters," as she was called of old. Such an one, too, may remember that certain Greek poets alluded to the Pleiades as the seven doves that carried ambrosia to the infant Zeus.¹ To this day, indeed, a common English designation for the group is "the Seven Sisters": and lovers of English poetry will hardly need to be reminded of kindred allusions, from Chaucer's "Atlantes doughtres seven" to Milton's " the seven Atlantic sisters" (reminiscent here, of course, of Virgil's "Eoæ Atlantides") or to Keats' "The Starry Seven, old Atlas' children." The mediæval Italians had "the seven doves" again (sette palommiele), and to-day their compatriots speak of the "seven dovelets." It would be tiresome to go through the popular Pleiad-nomenclature of all the European races, and a few instances will equally indicate the prevalence, since the Anglo-Saxon sifunsterri. Miles Coverdale, in the first complete English Bible, comments on the passage in job, " these vii. starres, the cloke henne with her chickens"; and to-day in Dorset, Devon, and other English counties "the Hen and her Chickens" is a popular term, as it is in effect, with the Wallachians, and indeed, with or without the number seven, throughout Europe. The long continuity and vast range of this association with seven may be traced from the ancient Celtic "The Seven Hounds" to the still more ancient "seven beneficent sky-spirits of the Vedas and the Zend-Avesta" or to the again more ancient "Seven Sisters of Industry" of remote Chinese folklore. This feminine allusion in presumably the oldest mention of a popular designation for the Pleiades is the more singular from the kindred of the Roman writer Manilius---"The narrow Cloudy Train of female stars " . . . i.e., no doubt, Pleione and her daughters.


¹On reading recently a work on mythological ornithology by Mr. D'Arcy Thompson I noticed that he traces the word Botrus, equivalent to a Bunch of Grapes (as the younger Theon likened the Pleiades) oivá, a dove, so called from its purple-red breast like wine, oîvos, and naturally referred to a bunch of grapes; or perhaps because the bird appeared in migration at the time of the vintage. [And see his further evidence of Cilician coins.]


Nor, again, is it possible to record the many picturesque or homely Pleiad-designations, ancient and modern, in literature and folklore. What range, indeed, to cover . . . since we should have to go back to two thousand years B.C. to recover that fine name, General of the Celestial Armies! It would be tempting to range through the poets of all lands. Think of such lovely words as those from the Mu'allakat, as translated by Sir William Jones: "It was the hour when the Pleiades appeared in the firmament like the folds of a silken sash variously decked with gems": or that line in Graf's translation of Sadi's Gulistân . . . "as though the tops of the trees were encircled by the necklace of the Pleiades": or, of our own day, of a verse such a Roscoe Thayer's:

                                                   "slowly the Pleiades
Dropt like dew from bough to bough of the cinnamon trees,"

or lines such as that familiar bat ever beautiful couplet in Locksley Hall:

"Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising tbro' the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid."

As for many of the names, what store of old thought and legend they enshrine. "Seamens starres" our own King James called them, after the popular use. The Finns call them "the Sieve," and the Provençals the "mosquito net," and the Italians "the Battledore." With the nomad Arabs they are 'the Herd of Camels." Peoples so apart as the ancient Arabians, the Algerian Berbers of to-day, and the Dyaks of Borneo, have placed in them the seat of immortality. Races as widely severed as the Hebridean Gaels and certain Indian tribes have called them "the Dancers": to the Solomon Islanders they are "a group of girls," and (strange, among so primitive and savage a race) the Australian aborigines thought of them as "Young Girls playing to Young Men dancing." There is perhaps no stranger name than our Gaelic Crannarain (though Grioglachan or Meanmnach is more common), i.e., the baker's peel or shovel, from an old legend about a Baker and his wife and six daughters, itself again related to a singular Cuckoo myth.
But an end to this long excerpting from starry notes! In a later chapter, too, I propose to write of "Winter Stars," and the Great Bear, and Orion, and the Milky Way and I must take warning in time to condense better and write "more soothly" as Chaucer has it. So, now, let me end with a quotation from Mr. D'Arcy Thompson's preface to his Greek Birds, to which I have alluded in a footnote. "As the White Doves came from Babylon or the Meleagrian Birds from the further Nile, so over the sea and the islands came Eastern legends and Eastern names. And our Aryan studies must not blind us to the presence in an Aryan tongue of these immigrants from Semitic and Egyptian speech, or from the nameless and forgotten language that aras spoken by the gods."
Food for thought there, and in many of the other alluded-to clues of old forgotten faiths and peoples, for the Pleiad-Month!
What ages, what rise and fall of kingdoms and great empires, since the Arabian shepherd looked up from the illimitable desert and called this dim cluster, this incalculable congregation of majesty and splendour, Al Najm, "the Constellation ". . . "the Constellation", since the first wandering Bedouins halted in the moonlit Sahara to bow before Al Wasat, the Central One: since the poets of the Zend-Avesta hailed the overlordship of the Holy Seven! And still they rise, and set, changeless, mysterious. Still the old wonder, the old reverence lives . . . for not long ago I heard a tale told by a Gaelic story-teller who spoke of the Pleiades as the Seven Friends of Christ, and named them newly as Love, Purity, Courage, Tenderness, Faith, joy, and Peace.