Perils of the Pleiades

The village of Woodstock, 12 minutes down the road from me, is renowned for Halloween. The residents and businesses take it seriously, and there’s even a parade. Grownups whose kids are now grown still dress up and stroll the streets. Then when night falls, the full spooky flavor envelops the picturesque scene.

Normally the end of October displays barren branches that perfectly complement the ominous stage set. Maybe not this year, since we’ve had an extraordinarily warm and lingering autumn, and some trees will doubtless still be clothed. Still, when night falls, one more prop is needed: the Moon. What’s the scariest or weirdest-looking Moon shape?

Not the full Moon, I wouldn’t think. It’s too bright, and brightness is the enemy of fear. What about the crescent Moon? Well, maybe; but perhaps that phase is too much associated with romance. Certainly not the half Moon. My vote would be the gibbous Moon. Looking a bit like a football – meaning fatter than half, but thinner than full – it’s a downright weird shape we see nowhere else in nature. A lot of people don’t even know what “gibbous” means. And that’s the Moon that will be up as night falls this Halloween.

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After 7 or especially 8 p.m., lowish in the east, another scary celestial object joins the party. It’s that little tightly packed cluster of stars. There’s nothing else like it.

These are the Seven Sisters, also called the Pleiades. They may seem harmless, but that wasn’t always the case. In ancient times, the Pleiades had a strange, sinister reputation. Such medieval rituals as the SatanistBlack Sabbath and All Hallows’ Eve, which evolved into our own Halloween, were set to occur when the Pleiades reached their highest point at midnight. In other words, Halloween’s date actually revolved around the Pleiades!

Some have speculated that these odd rituals originated as a commemoration of some ancient catastrophe that resulted in great loss of life. Some believe they may be linked to the Atlantis myth – itself perhaps a legend evolved from the awesome eruption of the Santorini volcano circa 1450 BC that devastated the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.

The Pleiades had an odd importance to civilizations throughout time and around the world. In Egypt, they were revered as one of the forms of the goddess Isis. In ancient Persia, the date on which they reached their highest midnight ascendancy was marked with ceremony. In Mayan and Aztec culture, this same yearly occasion had a forbidding undertone, and was given tremendous importance – with Mexico’s Teotihuacan city streets and pyramid aligned with the setting of the Pleiades.

In Japan, their ancient name is Subaru. Until very recently, the six companies that merged to produce automobiles in 1953 placed a crude star map of the Pleiades on each of their cars. But why Seven Sisters? That’s the real mystery. After all, normal eyesight readily sees only six, the same number found on the Subaru insignia.

If you can see a seventh, then you should be able to see an eighth as well. How many you can perceive tells as much about the purity of your sky as the state of your vision. With good eyes around here, nine are a cinch when there’s no Moon.

The real thrill comes when the proper instrument is pointed their way – and that would be binoculars, because low power and wide field are what are needed. Beginners often gasp when first seeing the Pleiades through binoculars, because dozens spring into visibility, and their blue-white color becomes obvious as well.

But now we’re crossing over into wonder and beauty and science. Next Tuesday night, let’s keep it “fear” just for fun.