Myth & Lore

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The Seven Sisters - Pleiades
By CinnamonMoon

From the Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker.

The Seven Sisters (Pleiades): The convoluted symbolism of the Pleiades or Seven Sisters suggests an extremely archaic tradition. The importance attached to this group of dim stars seems out of proportion to their apparent insignificance.

The sacrifice of the Mexican savior Xipe Totec, Our Lord the Flayed One, took place on the Hill of the Stars at the moment when the Pleiades reached the zenith on the last night of the Great Year cycle. It was thought if the Sisters were not propitiated by the sacrifice, the universe would fall to pieces and the world would come to an end.

Pre-Vedic India also attached sacrificial significance to the Pleiades, called Seven Mothers of the World, or Krittikas, "razors" or "cutters." They were also seven priestesses who "judged" men--a cognate was Greek 'kritikos', "judge"--and sometimes "critically" wounded them, for their razors were castrating moon-sickles. The fire god Agni copulated with the Seven Mothers while they were menstruating, the usual Tantric rite later outlawed by the Vedic priesthood. They gave birth to a solar hero enveloped in a great red cloud (female symbol) penetrated by bolts of lightning (male symbol). The hero was sacrificially slain, wounded in the side with a spear, and from his body sprang his reincarnation, another hero like himself. In this myth may be discerned rites of great antiquity, predating the discovery of fatherhood, when blood was the essence of generation.

The Pleiades were prominent in the early cult of Aphrodite, who was supposed to have given birth to them under her name of Pleione. Aphrodite was a castrating Crone-goddess as well as a Holy Dove; and the Pleiades were "a flock of doves." They were connected with sacrificial New Year ceremonies in Greece as in central America and southeastern Asia. The Seven Sisters stood at the zenith on New Year's Eve as if to select the god of the new Aeon. Old Babylonian texts began the new year with the Pleiades. Later, the zodiacal sign of the New Year became Aries, the Ram.

Egyptian texts allude to the Pleiades' archaic significance as Krittikas, judges of men, assigning them to seven planetary spheres as the seven Hathors. The dead had to speak the names of these Goddesses to pass their "critical" examinations and enter paradise: "Hail, ye seven beings who make decrees, who support the Balance on the night of the judgment of the Utchat, who cut off heads, who hack necks in pieces, who take possession of hearts by violence and rend the places where the hearts are fixed, who make slaughterings in the Lake of Fire, I know you, and I know your names; therefore know ye me, even as I know your names." The reference to tearing out hearts is remarkably evocative of Aztec religious customs. The Seven Mothers Who Make Decrees appear also in Arabia as Seven Sages or 'imams' (from ima, "mother").

In classical mythology the Pleiades represented the Maytime feast of life and the November feast of death at opposite points of the year. They were emanations of the Moon-goddess "who was worshipped at the two solstices as the Goddess of alternatively Life-in-Death and Death-in-Life and who early in November, when the Pleiades set, sent the sacred king his summons to death." Prayers for the dead were recited before the Pleiades on November 1, which became All Soul's Day.

Greeks said the leader of the Pleiades was the Dove-goddess, Alcyone, the 'halcyon' bird who brought good weather for the planting season. Another Pleiad was Electra, mother of Dardanus, legendary founder of Troy, whose name is still preserved in the Dardanelles. Another Pleiad was Merope, "Bee-eater," a title of Aphrodite's queen bee as devourer of the drone. Some said Merope was one of the Furies; others said she married the doomed sun-hero Sisyphus. Still another Pleiad was Maia "the Maker" or the "Grandmother," mother of Hermes the Enlightened One, as her Hindu counterpart Maya mothered Buddha the Enlightened One.

Classical writers seemed anxious to disguise the real nature of the Pleiades. One story insisted they were all virgins. Orion the Hunter tried to rape them, but Zeus protected them by turning them into doves and placing them in the heavens. The story was obviously absurd, as all the Pleiades had lovers or husbands, and three of them had mated with Zeus himself. In earlier myths, Orion the Hunter was their victim, not their attacker. The Huntress of the Seven Stars, Artemis, shot him to death in the sea, suggesting that victims were sometimes riddled with arrows then consigned to the deep.

Artemis personified another set of seven stars, the much larger constellation Ursa Major, the "Great She-Bear," who may have been another version of the Seven Sisters. Artemis and Aphrodite both were associated with ancient cults of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, seven mantic priestesses of Seven-Gated Thebes, where the Seven Hathors once ruled, where sacred kings were slain every seventh year, and where Teiresias was castrated and lived seven years as a temple woman. The same magic seven were called Seven Midwives in Egypt and the Orient. They were probably represented in pre-patriarchal Jerusalem by the holy Menorah (seven-branched candlestick) symbolizing the sevenfold Men-horae or Moon-priestesses, as shown by its female-genital decorations, lilies and almonds (Exodus 25:33).

Medieval superstitions betrayed fear of groups of seven females, perhaps as a relic of ancient images of the Sisters. East Frieslanders believed that in any family of seven sisters, one of the seven was sure to be a vampire or a werewolf. The sevenfold grouping could also be arranged in a vertical line of descent, e.g. in ubiquitous belief that a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter was always a witch.


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