A catasterism is the transformation of a hero, after death, into a star or constellation. It is a quaint literary tradition that has fallen into obscurity as the reality of stars, galaxies, and the universe has become better-known to even the youngest schoolchild among us. Yet there must have been a time long ago when catasterisms must have seemed to be a very cogent explanation, indeed.
I first became aware of the tradition almost three decades ago in the time before my late wife’s death. Catasterisms were a prominent part of the remarks I made at Holly’s funeral, and in the years since then, the notion that we shared a star as a “meeting place” between us has been a constant source of comfort to me. The term has become less well-known than it must have been back then (even though it has always been a piece of “egghead” knowledge); last night I looked up “catasterism” on the internet, and was surprised to find precious little.
One of the most famous of catasterisms as an explanation of constellations is the story of the Pleiades. The Pleiades is an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars located in the constellation of Taurus. For untold centuries, the Pleiades was thought to contain seven stars—the so-called “Seven Sisters”—which could be seen with the naked eye in the winter sky. However, in the seventeenth century, Galileo was the first astronomer to view the Pleiades through a telescope, and thereby discovered that the cluster contains many more stars than can be seen with the eyes alone. He published his observations, including a sketch of the Pleiades showing 36 stars, in his treatise Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610.
Several of the most prominent male Olympian gods (including Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares) engaged in affairs with the seven heavenly sisters. These relationships resulted in the birth of their children:
- Maia, eldest of the seven Pleiades, was mother of Hermes by Zeus.
- Electra was mother of Dardanus and Iasion, by Zeus.
- Taygete was mother of Lacedaemon, also by Zeus.
- Alcyone was mother of Hyrieus, Hyperenor and Aethusa by Poseidon.
- Celaeno was mother of Lycus and Nycteus by Poseidon; and of Eurypylus also by Poseidon, and of Lycus and Chimaereus by Prometheus.
- Sterope (also Asterope) was mother of Oenomaus by Ares.
- Merope, youngest of the seven Pleiades, was wooed by Orion. In other mythic contexts she married Sisyphus and, becoming mortal, faded away. She bore Sisyphus several sons.
After Atlas was forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders, Orion began to pursue all of the Pleiades, and Zeus transformed them first into doves, and then into stars to comfort their father. The constellation of Orion is said to still pursue them across the night sky.
One of the most memorable myths involving the Pleiades is the story of how these sisters literally became stars, their catasterism. According to some versions of the tale, all seven sisters committed suicide because they were so saddened by either the fate of their father, Atlas, or the loss of their siblings, the Hyades. In turn Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, immortalized the sisters by placing them in the sky. There, these seven stars formed the star-cluster known ever more as the Pleiades.
The name of the Pleiades comes from ancient Greek. It probably derives from plein (“to sail”) because of the cluster’s importance in delimiting the sailing season in the Mediterranean Sea: “the season of navigation began with their heliacal rising.” However, the name was later mythologized as the name of the seven sisters, whose name was imagined to derive from that of their mother Pleione, effectively meaning “daughters of Pleione.” In reality, the name of the star-cluster almost certainly came first, and Pleione was invented to explain it.
The belief that souls achieve immortality by their transformation into stars is one of the earliest beliefs of humanity. Now the majority of humans cannot even see the stars due to light pollution, and we now know that most stars date from a time that long precedes humans and all life on earth. Whatever the explanation, it seems to me that all life is eternal is the essential belief.
I have come to think that all life recycles, thereby achieving timelessness… and is thereby sacred. Industrial farming and the commoditization of our regular food supply does more, on a daily basis, to teach and reinforce mindlessness and disrespect for the sanctity of life and the erosion of belief in life after death. I don’t have any grand scheme regarding what people should believe, only that we should all become more mindful and open to the possibilities with which we are confronted.
Groove of the Day
83° and Clear