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July 20, 2014

The Pleiades star cluster is climbing higher into the pre-dawn sky each day. Tomorrow, it’s well up in the east at first light, not far to the left or upper left of a thick crescent Moon.

In western skylore, the Pleiades represent seven sisters — the daughters of Atlas. To Chinese skywatchers, though, they represented Mao — a spear or a fuzzy head of hair.

The earliest confirmed reference to Mao comes from a box found in the well-preserved burial place of Zeng Hou Yi. He was a governor who lived more than 2400 years ago, when seven feudal kingdoms were fighting for supremacy. The box is decorated with an astronomical map that shows the Pleiades with a Chinese character for spear, known as Mao.

When a historian wrote a famous book two centuries later, though, he used another character for Mao. It has almost the same pronunciation, but it means “hairy head.” Some speculate that’s because the historian thought the Pleiades looked like the fuzzy fringe of a spearhead.

Whether spear or fuzzy fringe, the Chinese version of the small dipper-shaped cluster is composed of seven stars, just like the Pleiades. They’re commonly referred to with the word Mao followed by the Chinese word for the numbers one through seven.

Again, look for the Pleiades about a third of the way up the eastern sky at dawn tomorrow, near the Moon. The cluster will rise a few minutes earlier each night, eventually moving into the evening sky of autumn.


Script by Robert Tindol and Paris Liu, Copyright 2014

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