The Stars Who Fed Us: the Onondaga and the Seven Sisters

A constellation that is central in the field of archaeo-astronomy is the Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters. If you want to know when to reap and when to sow the harvest, or how the seasons are changing, keep an eye on the Pleiades. Cultures the world over have known this; the Onondaga of North America were no different.

The Onondaga lived in upstate New York. One of the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Onondaga were called the “firekeepers”, the tribe who resolved disputes amongst the other members of this vast nation-state. The Onondaga story of the Pleiades revolves around dancing children and a mysterious elder, Bright Shining Old Man.

*

A band of Onondaga headed to a lake in southeast Canada which they called the Beautiful Lake. Starting their trek at the end fall, they decided to stay through the winter, as the area was rich in game, and the lake was filled with fish. As the nights grew colder, eight children from the tribe, including the son of the chief, starting heading to an isolated place away from the village, where they danced for hours instead of helping their elders.

Dancing for hours, not helping the elders…

Once, while dancing, they encountered a mysterious being – an old man, with long white hair, covered in white feathers, and shining like silver. He came with a warning, gently put, but ominous in its portent:

“Stop dancing, or something terrible will happen.”

The children paid no heed to the old man, and kept dancing.

He watched, silently.

*

This happened day after day, with Bright Shining Old Man repeating his message, while the children gleefully kept on dancing.

Humans.

Such stubborn creatures…

*

One day, the children asked their parents if they could take food for their sojourn. Their parents refused, telling them to eat at home before going out to play.

Of course, they didn’t listen.

They went dancing despite their parents wishes.

However, as they danced, they started feeling lightheaded from hunger.

so lightheaded…

So lightheaded that they started to float up towards the Sky Country.

Bright Shining Old Man looked up mournfully as they ascended the skies. Soon, the villagers took note, and rushed to the scene. The chief, seeing his son floating in the air, called out to him. Turning his gaze down to see his father, the boy came crashing to the earth, a shooting star burning its way through the atmosphere.

The other seven children continued rising, and reached the heavens to become the Pleiades.

Now, when the Onondaga see a shooting star, they are reminded of the boy who fell to earth, and the seven children, the Oot-kwa-tah, who reside permanently in the Sky Country.

*

So what’s the take away?

First, we have the Pleiades themselves; the story is seasonally situated, as one would expect – the Pleiades appear prominently in the Northern hemisphere during the winter. But there are two other themes here – regeneration and food.

The children – who are the next generation – become the Pleiades when their parents refuse to feed them, in part because they didn’t help with the harvest duties. This theme of fertility and nourishment is a recurring motif in the myths of the Pleiades.

Additionally, for the Onondaga, shooting stars became neither portents of doom nor tidings of good omens, but instead serve as a cold, hard reminder of the importance of feeding children for maintaining the cycle of life. This myth works on multiple levels, from the realm of the celestial down to the plain of tribal and family life.

For a more detailed version of this story (albeit for young adults), see They Dance in the Sky, Monroe and Williamson.

1280px-Pleiades_large
The Pleiades, an open cluster consisting of approximately 3,000 stars at a distance of 400 light-years from Earth. Image courtesy NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech,

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