Sirius Chasing the Pleiades

by

David Sheppard

 

I’ve always viewed the constellations as rather paper doll-like, static images pinned against the blackness of the night sky, but a few evenings ago while surveying the heavens for a night’s viewing, I spotted the star Sirius and started wondering about a passage in Euripides’ play, “Iphigeneia at Aulis,” that seemingly serves no narrative purpose. The tragedy concerns the Greek fleet prior to sailing for Troy to fight the Trojans. At the beginning of the play, Agamemnon, commanding general of the Greeks and father to Iphigeneia, paces outside his tent just before daybreak. He calls to an old servant to join him, and this short exchange of words occurs before more weighty concerns:

Agamemnon: What star is that, steering his course yonder?
Old Man: Sirius, pursuing the Pleiades sevenfold path, still traveling high at this hour.

I finally surrendered to the temptation to investigate this seemingly trivial passage, and since my inclination is to think in astronomical terms, launched Starry Night, my planetarium software. I first checked the declination of both Sirius and the Pleiades to see if Sirius does follows along behind the Pleiades. I found that they are off track from each other by some 40 º. That seemed to be a bit of a stretch for Euripides to mean that Sirius was actually pursuing the Pleiades because of their astronomical positions and motion westward with the evening. Plus, they are separated by the constellations Orion and Taurus.

To make sense of this, I would have to look elsewhere.

In antiquity the night sky was much more a part of the human experience than today with our never-dying street lights and blinking neon signs. Even miles from a major population center, the glow can dim our view of the heavens, which today is primarily of interest to professionals and a few dedicated amateurs. The night sky in Euripides’ time was brilliant and a constant reminder of both divine and ancestral presence to everyone. I trusted that he knew something I didn’t and had offered this brief observation to infuse his story with more meaning. Perhaps he had in mind a myth that connected Sirius and the Pleiades, one that would provide foreshadowing of the tragic event unfolding in his story concerning Iphigeneia and at the same time provoke his countrymen, the Athenians who were engaged in a war with Sparta that had been ongoing for over twenty years, to reconsider their own situation.

I pulled my Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology off the shelf. Of course, Sirius, known as the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the night sky and is in the constellation Canis Major, which represents the hound of Orion. Since it appears in the late summer sky, we have the term “dog days of summer.” The ancient Greek had an even more foreboding connotation of Sirius as illustrated by the following passage from Homer:

“…men call this star Orion’s Dog, and it is the brightest of stars, yet a sign of evil, bringing much fever on poor mortals.” (Iliad, Book 22, Lines 27-32)

Thus it is that Euripides, using Sirius, has set the mood of his play, and it is as if restless Agamemnon anticipates, perhaps even dreads, the answer from the old man because Agamemnon probably already knows that the star is Sirius and realizes its implications.

Yet, I still couldn’t understand why Euripides would use the words, “Sirius, pursuing the Pleiades sevenfold path.” I turned again to my handbook and Starry Night. Further west of Canis Major is its master, the giant constellation Orion and its blazing nebula fields, which I’ve viewed since I was an adolescent and purchased my first telescope, a four inch Dynascope that I still use frequently.

It turns out that Orion, though usually viewed as the hunter, was also what we would term today a stalker and obsessed with Atlas’ seven daughters, the Pleiades. He pursued them relentlessly. After seven-years of being chased, the sisters were placed in the heavens for safety’s sake. However, their security was short-lived. Orion was best friends with Artemis, and they frequently hunted together. One day he boasted to Artemis that he was a match for any animal on earth. This offended the earth goddess, Gaia, who sent a great scorpion to kill him. Grief-stricken, Artemis then put her friend in the heavens along with his hound where they then renewed their eternal pursuit of the Pleiades. But the scorpion, Scorpios, was also placed in the heavens to aggravate Orion.

This then solved my riddle, and the chase was mythological and not astronomical. But Euripides’ motives still nagged me. Why would he use this particular myth as a metaphor in a story concerning the Greeks going to war?

Agamemnon, like Orion, was also a great hunter. While the Greek fleet mustered at Aulis, a great center of Artemis worship, he had killed a magnificent stag sacred to Artemis and boasted, much as had Orion, that even divine Artemis herself, the quintessential huntress, could not out-shoot him with a bow. Artemis was so offended that she denied the Greek fleet the necessary winds to sail to Troy. She demanded that Agamemnon make recompense for his insult by sacrificing Iphigeneia, his eldest daughter, in exchange for favorable winds. At first Agamemnon agreed, but as exhibited by his pacing, had second thoughts about committing this heinous act.

To me it seemed that Euripides was suggesting a parallel between Agamemnon and Orion. Searching further, I determined that both were descendents of King Minos of Crete. If so, was Agamemnon himself in some way pursuing the Pleiades? When I traced back the ancestors of the Pleiades, I found to my astonishment that one of them, Electra, had a son by the name of Dardanus, who was the first ancestor of Troy. By going to Troy, Agamemnon was pursuing the descendents of Dardanus and thus those of the Pleiades. Agamemnon was in lockstep with mythical Orion.

As we all know, Agamemnon did finally overcome his misgivings, sacrifice Iphigeneia on the altar of Artemis, and the Greek fleet received the favorable winds. They sacked Troy and returned with many of the daughters of Troy, descendents of the Pleiades, as the spoils of war. Though many Greeks died in the ten-year battle and on the return home, Agamemnon himself lived only to be murdered by his own wife over his sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and because he returned with Cassandra, a daughter of Troy as his concubine.

But the evil didn’t stop there. Following the Trojan War, even though they won, the entire Greek Mycenaean civilization collapsed. Only after a four-hundred-year dark age did Classical Greece, of which Euripides’ Athens was the major influence, finally rise up from the ashes to invent democracy and lay the groundwork for western civilization.

Perhaps Euripides’ motivation for inserting this short exchange concerning Sirius and the Pleiades was to warn his countrymen of the possible aftermath of their own war with Sparta. If so, he would have been correct. Athens lost the war, and thus ended the first democracy on planet earth. But perhaps Euripides saw even deeper into the relationship of the metaphorical elements of his story and Athens’ war. The Spartans were decedents of King Lacedaemon, whose named stood for the entire area around its principal city, Sparta. Lacedaemon was the son of Taygete, another of the Pleiades, so that the Greeks at the time Euripides wrote his play were also engaged in a war with the descendents of the Pleiades, and the principal divine influence in Sparta was the goddess Artemis.

Just as I’ve deepened my knowledge of the constellations, I’ve recently also gone deeper into the cosmos by upgrading my four inch Dynascope to a twenty-inch Obsession, and now I pause in remembrance of Euripides’ play whenever I turn my giant Dobsonian toward this region of the sky. I no longer see any of the constellations as static images pinned against darkness but as dynamic figures full of life, purpose and desire. As I stare up at Orion, I sometimes believe that I hear his hound bay in the distance just as, for a fleeting moment, I see the stars shimmer, and he make up a little ground in his eternal struggle to overtake the panic-stricken Pleiades.

This was Euripides’ last play, and he did not live to see it produced, nor did he see the defeat of Athens two years later. Down through the millennia, all human beings have looked into the evening sky and seen Sirius, Orion, the Pleiades, light from the same stars bearing down on them as on us today as we live out our lives. Similarly, Euripides’ parting statement to the Athens he loved has resonated down through the millennia because he spoke for all peoples and all times, and none the less for our own. As we struggle with our own lives, internal misgivings and worldly conflicts, hopefully we'll have the courage and wisdom to contemplate Euripides’ ancient warning.

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