Astronomers use the word ‘occult’ to describe an event where one (larger) astronomical body passes in front of another, smaller body, momentarily blocking the view of the smaller object by observers on a third body (that would be us, on the home planet, earth). This Friday morning the waning crescent moon will occult, or pass in front of, the Pleiades. Eclipse is another word one could use, but I believe an eclipse, strictly speaking, is about the shadow it casts (upon earth, for example) rather than just blocking the view. But you’ll hear both terms used. (Occult from the Latin word occultus, “hidden.”)

Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi / Seven Sisters Dreaming

What is it about the Pleiades? An open star cluster in Taurus. A child’s box of precious jewels. Known and celebrated across so many cultures, distant and ancient, and there she is, in our own night sky, especially those clear, dark winter nights, a kind of spiritual time machine. It was common among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to measure keenness of vision by the number of stars the viewer could see in the Pleiades. I think about that.

The image above shows the seven sisters, the Pleiades, and is from a creation story that belongs to Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, a contemporary artist living and working in the Western Desert of Australia. (The Kluge-Rhue aboriginal art museum is here in Charlottesville, by the way, and probably holds the most important and complete aboriginal art collection in the world, outside of Australia, but this piece is not part of their collection.) In her dreaming the seven Napaltjarri sisters were chased by a Tjakamarra man. Quoting with from the gallery that represents the artist:

This painting depicts the ancient myth of the Milky Way and the Seven Sisters (Pleiades). This dreaming was inherited by Gabriella from her mother and grandmother and given to Gabriella.

This story takes place at “twenty mile” located near Napperby Creek in the Northern Territory. The Seven Sisters traveled over a vast expanse of country, until they realized that they were being followed by a man called Wati-Nyiru (who was a Tjakamarra man). He was a evil person who wanted to seduce the sisters and have ownership of them, and so the women were frightened of him. They tried to hide from the man in caves, however he began disguising himself as many different things to deceive them. With little hope of relief from the man, the seven sisters escaped through a fire at Kurlunyalimpa to the Milky Way where they became the stars of the Plaeiadies in the Constellation Taurus. There they are safe, and at rest and watch out over all the women on earth. Wati-Nyiru followed them to the heavens, and become the star Orion, unable to get near them as they move across the night sky. Gabriella depicts the cloud formations in front of the Milky Way in the night sky. The seven concentric circles represent the seven sisters while the lone star represents Orion (the Tjakamarra man) which can be seen on the extreme left of this painting shown with concentric circles.

Look for the moon early on Friday, about 4 AM to see the occultation. This is a good primer on observing occultations, at Sky&Telescope

And then there’s this: Subaru is Pleiades in Japanese. Wouldn’t you rather drive around with seven sisters than, say, or a ringed gas giant?