The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 9, 2010

Tauroid Tales

It has been a long, long time since I've seen the stars. I'm probably of the last generation of urban dwellers that recalls ever having seen the stars atwinkle in a clear night sky. And the only reason that I saw them at all was that in the late 1970s, what with load shedding in Delhi, entire swathes of the city went dark, and cloudless and unpolluted skies meant that the constellations appeared near enough to touch, and the Milky Way truly was Hera's breast milk streaking across the firmament.

Because Taurus is my zodiac, I've had a particular attachment to the stars in this constellation. The Bull squared off against Orion in an eternal battle. Mighty Aldebaran shone orange-red, fiery eye of the Bull, and the nymphly Pleiades clustered playfully. I used to wonder why all the star tales we were ever told were Greek myths. Didn't any other people ever look up at the night sky and see patterns and tell legends that mirrored their lives?

As it happens, they did, and we now have a treasure trove of stories from varied cultures around the world. Among the earliest depictions of Taurus is in the cave paintings at Lascaux, where the painted bull is
depicted with a markings that might represent the Seven Sisters or the Pleiads. For the Chinese, Taurus was not a bull but a white tiger, and Aldebaran then became the eye of that tiger.

Take a look at the name Aldebaran, though. This is an Arabic word, الدبران, meaning
the follower, as the star appears to follow the Pleiades. Many of the brightest stars in the sky have names that come from the Arabic - Achernar, Betelgeuse, Fomalhaut, Mizar, Algol ... - tribute to the great astronomers of the Islamic Middle-East. Aldebaran's Hindu incarnation is Rohini, the ochre-red wife of the Moon.

The Pleiades were called Kṛttikā by Indian astrologers, thought to be ruled by Agni, the Vedic fire god. Kartikeya, the warrior god, was born as six babies from the flaming seed of Shiva, and cared for by the six Kṛttikā, and merged into one infant with six faces by Parvati. For the Hindus, as for many other cultures, there were only six Pleiads; the Greeks claimed there were seven, daughters of Atlas, but one of them, Merope, was shamed into dullness for having married a mortal. They were chased by Orion and Zeus saved them by placing them in the night sky; when Orion himself was catasterised, he was set behind them, in tribute for that great chase.

There is another tale of a chase that resulted in the Pleiads: among the Kiowa of North America, it is said that seven girls went out to play, and were attacked by bears, and they ran up a rock and prayed to the spirit of the rock to save them, which it did by raising the rock to the heavens and placing the girls there as stars. The bears chased the girls onto the rock and left deep gouges on its sides as it became too steep for them to climb. That rock, they say, is the
Devil's Tower, in Wyoming.

For the
Mungulkabultu of Queensland, the Pleiads were the disastrous consequence of the loosening of the taboos of marrying within the clan. The king, Yunguipan, an emu man, continued to consort with Wakolo and her sister, both emu women, despite the advice and warnings of his priests. An insurrection against him resulted in various ills and chases and magics, and he and seven women found themselves entrapped in a log, and raised to the skies, where they became Aldebaran and the Pleiads. Wakolo, injured as she was in the tribulations on Earth, became the faintest of the seven stars.

Recently, I came across a Manipuri tale of the Pleiads in
Medieval Indian Literature: An Anthology, edited by K. Ayyappapanicker. A 14th century poem, Khongjomnubi Nongaron, tells of six girls who went to the lake to buy fish, and met six youths who begged them to stay the night, which they did unwillingly. The next day the girls were turned out of their homes by their parents for the shame they had brought to the families; upset because they couldn't find their lovers, they climbed a lofty mountain and prayed to the Sky God Soraren to save them. He turned them into the Pleiades, and the youths who had been in pursuit of the girls were turned into stars as well. The girls and the youths were allowed to descend to earth to consummate their relationships only once a year, and their children became cicadas.

If you know any other tales of Taurus, do shout.


Anonymous said...

The Pleiades are my favourite group of stars! You always have to look to the side to spot them these days (London's light pollution is terrible and the night sky always looks orange to me). It's so interesting to learn that a lot of the star names come from Arabic.

km said...

So this car company in Detroit named one of their models...never mind, different Taurus.

I was recently traveling through the "rural South", here in the States, and was struck by how much I missed watching a starlit sky.

That said, great stories in the post.

Fëanor said...

Chasingbawa: I have to say I scarcely ever see the night sky in London, and when I do, it's difficult enough to distinguish between aircraft on the flight path to Heathrow and the planets!

KM: I hope you were keeping your eyes on the road, and not on the starlit sky!

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