The Pleiades star cluster – also known as the Seven Sisters or M45 – is visible from virtually every part of the globe. It can be seen from as far north as the North Pole, and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America. It looks like a tiny misty dipper of stars.
If you’re familiar with the famous constellation Orion, it can help you be sure you’ve found the Pleiades. See the three stars in a row in Orion? That’s Orion’s Belt. Draw a line through these stars to the V-shaped pattern of stars with a bright star in its midst. The V-shaped pattern is the Face of Taurus the Bull. The bright star in the V – called Aldebaran – depicts the Bull’s Eye. A bit past Aldebaran, you’ll see the Pleiades cluster, which marks the Bull’s Shoulder.
The Pleiades and Aldebaran. The star name Aldebaran comes from an Arabic word for follower. It’s thought to be a reference to this star’s forever chasing the Pleiades across the heavens. As a general rule, the Pleiades cluster rises into the eastern sky before Aldebaran rises, and sets in the west before Aldebaran sets.
The only exception to this rule happens at far southern latitudes – for example, at South America’s Tierra del Fuego – where the Pleiades rise a short while after Aldebaran rises.
In our Northern Hemispheres skies, the Pleiades cluster is associated with the winter season. It’s easy to imagine this misty patch of icy-blue suns as hoarfrost clinging to the dome of night. Frosty November is often called the month of the Pleiades, because it’s at this time that the Pleiades shine from dusk until dawn. But you can see the Pleiades cluster in the evening sky well into April.
Legend of the Lost Pleiad. Most people see six, not seven, Pleiades stars in a dark country sky.
However, the story about the lost seventh Pleiad harbors a universal theme. The astronomer Robert Burnham Jr. found the lost Pleaid myth prevalent in the star lore of European, African, Asian, Indonesian, Native American and Aboriginal Australian populations.
Moreover, Burnham suggested that the “lost Pleiad” may have basis in fact. After all, modern astronomy has found that the seventh-brightest Pleiades star – Pleione – is a complicated and hard-to-understand “shell star” that goes through numerous permutations. These changes cause this star to vary in brightness.
Plus people with exceptional eyesight have been known to see many more stars in the Pleiades cluster. Claims go up as high as 20 stars. Agnes Clerke, an astronomer and writer in the late 1800s, reported that Michael Maestlin, the mentor of Johannes Kepler, mapped out 11 Pleiades stars before the invention of the telescope.
To see more than six or seven Pleaides stars, you must have very good eyesight (or a pair of binoculars). And you must be willing to spend time under a dark, moonless sky. Stephen O’Meara, a dark-sky connoisseur, claims that eyes dark-adapted for 30 minutes are six times more sensitive to light than eyes dark-adapted for 15 minutes. The surest way to see additional Pleiades stars is to look at this cluster through binoculars or low power in a telescope.
Pleiades as calendar, in history and in modern science. Historically, the Pleiades have served as a calendar for many civilizations. The Greek name “Pleiades” probably comes from a word meaning “to sail.” In the ancient Mediterranean world, the day that the Pleaides cluster first appeared in the morning sky before sunrise announced the opening of the navigation season.
The modern-day festival of Halloween originates from an old Druid rite that coincided with the midnight culmination of the Pleiades cluster. It was believed that the veil dividing the living from the dead is at its thinnest when the Pleaides culminates – reaches its highest point in the sky – at midnight.
On a lighter note, the Zuni of New Mexico call the Pleiades the “Seed Stars,” because this cluster’s disappearance in the evening sky every spring signals the seed-planting season.
In both myth and science, the Pleiades are considered to be sibling stars. Modern astronomers say the Pleiades stars were born from the same cloud of gas and dust some 100 million years ago. This gravitationally bound cluster of several hundred stars looms some 430 light-years distant, and these sibling stars drift through space together at about 25 miles per second (40 km/sec). Many of these Pleiades stars shine hundreds of times more brightly than our sun.
Bottom line: November is often called the month of the Pleiades – or Seven Sisters – because it’s at this time that the Pleiades shine from dusk until dawn.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.