Modern photograph of the Pleiades

The Pleiades in Arab Folklore

The most famous star in Islamic folklore is undoubtedly the Pleiades. Commentators regard the reference in surah al-Najm (#53) of the Quran as the Pleiades; in fact the Arabs often referred to the Pleiades simply as al-najm (the star par excellence), a usage parallel to that in Sumero-Akkadian (Hartner 1965:8). In a well-known tradition, Muhammad links the early summer heliacal rising of the Pleiades with the beginning of the heat, crop pests and illnesses. In another tradition, more political than weather-related, Muhammad is supposed to have told his uncle Abbas (for whom the Abbasid caliphate was later named) that kings would come from his descendants equal to twice the number of stars in the Pleiades. This would imply that Muhammad thought there were 13 stars in the asterism, since the Abbasid caliphs numbered twenty-six (Ibn Mâjid in Tibbetts 1981:84).

As one might expect for such an important star, there are numerous Arabic terms and poetic allusions. The standard classical term is thurayyâ, a diminutive of the Arabic tharwa, which means many in number. This is usually taken as a reference to the many small stars in the asterism, but some scholars also link it to the abundant rain. In poetry this asterism can be styled a bird, bridle, bunch of grapes, cup, flag, ostrich egg, and she-camel. Ibn Mâjid (Tibbetts 1981:83) remarked that because of the faintness of the stars, “it trembles so that it has been said that it resembles the ghost in the death agony, or the earrings of a young girl trembling for fear of separation from a lover or a cup being passed around a gathering.”

Most of the medieval sources claim that the Pleiades consists of 6-7 distinct stars with other faint ones in the asterism. Others think Muhammad mentioned 12-14 stars, depending on how one interprets the variants of the tradition on the number of Abbasid caliphs. There was disagreement among scholars if the Pleiades should be placed in Aries or Taurus. Al-Bîrûnî (1874:343) noted that the Bedouins saw the asterism as the tail of Aries, but he preferred to associate it with the hump of Taurus. Ibn Qutayba (1956:24) observed that the Pleiades occupied the middle of the sky in winter.

As one of the anwâ’ stars, the Pleiades was an important seasonal marker. The dawn setting of the Pleiades in mid-autumn signalled the rain period known as wasmı on the Arabian peninsula. Folklore throughout the region associates the autumn rains with the Pleiades as a marker. Musil (1928:9) commented that this was the most important rain for providing adequate pasture for the Rwala Bedouins.
In much of the Middle East the Pleiades appears to disappear from view under the rays of the sun for about 40-50 days in early May. This is referred to by several terms, including dufûn, ghâsiq, ghurûb and istisrâr. In Egypt this times marks the Forty Days of Summer (arba‘ın al-sayf) or period of the khamsîn winds (Klunzinger 1878:301). The Rwala Bedouins have a proverb that says plants dry up due to the heat at its disappearance (Musil 1928:17). This is a most inauspicious time, which some commentators link to a reference to the night of evil mentioned in surah al-Rûm (30:48) of the Quran. In Fezzan this period is a time for mourning (Paques 1964:100). In Sinai, according to Burckhardt (1831:2:91), the locusts only come during the disappearance of the Pleiades, because they fear it. According to al-Bîrûnî (1879:251) a pre-Islamic fair was held at Dair ‘Ayyûb when the Pleiades reappeared after their forty days absence.

The dawn rising of the Pleiades, after disappearing from view, is a major marker of heat and the onset of summer. The pre-Islamic anwâ’ rhymes mention that when the Pleiades rise, heat is vehement, pasturage is brittle and female donkeys bite each other. Another proverbial saying notes that this is the time when shepherds want to drink from their waterskins. It’s rising is sometimes associated with hot and damaging winds which damage crops and bring pests and disease. For the Gulf waters, Dickson (1951:24) noted that the wind of the Pleiades from mid-April to late May made it very dangerous to travel by sea. By contrast, the rising of the Pleiades indicated the time for the caravan to leave Timbuctoo in North Africa and for the local pilgrimage to the tomb of Sidi Abdelqadir al-Jilali at the oasis of Aoulef el-Arab (Paques 1964:283, 547).

Observation of the rising and setting of the Pleiades is an important marker throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean for timing agricultural activities. For example, the evening rising in autumn is a marker for dates to ripen on the peninsula (Ibn Qutayba 1956:31), sowing a variety of sorghum in Yemen’s coastal zone (Varisco 1994:169), sowing fava beans in Morocco (Westermarck 1926:1:130), and harvesting grains in Algeria (Champault 1969:130). Sometimes the agricultural timing is mentioned in proverbs. The Sinai Bedouin, for example, say “Planting time is Pleiades time” (Bailey 1974:590).

The magical significance of the Pleiades is frequently noted in texts and folklore. Because of its association with the Prophet Muhammed, some scholars say that if a person gets sick at the rising of the Pleiades, the disease will not result in death. Some physicians prohibited drinking water at night after the dawn rising because spirits can be in that water. Al-Qazwînî even noted that God gave the spirits (i.e., jinn) power over water at the rising of the Pleiades. This may be in reference to the rough waters on the Mediterranean at this time. This is also a time when waters are said to dry up.

References

Bailey, Clinton. “Bedouin Star-lore in Sinai and the Negev.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 37:580-596, 1974.

al-Bîrûnî, Abü al-Rayhân Muhammad. The Chronology of Ancient Nations (al-Athâr al-bâqiya). Translated by C. E. Sachau. London: W. H. Allen, 1879.

Champault, Dominique. Une oasis du Sahara Nord-Occidental. Tabelbala. Paris: C.N.R.S., 1969.

Dickson, H. R. P. The Arab of the Desert. London: Allen and Unwin, 1951.

Hartner, Willy. “The earliest history of the constellations in the Near East and the motif of the lion-bull combat.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24: 1-16, 1965.

Ibn Qutayba, Abû Muhammad ‘Abd Allâh. Kitâb al-Anwâ’. Hyderabad: Matba‘at Majlis Dâ’irat al-Ma‘ârif al-‘Uthmânîya, 1956.

Klunzinger, C. B. Upper Egypt: Its people and its products. London: Blackie and Son, 1878.

Musil, Alois. The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins. N.Y.: American Geographical Society, 1928.

Paques, Viviana. L’arbre cosmique dans la pensée populaire et dans la vie quotidienne du nord-ouest africain. Paris, 1964.

Tibbetts,G. R. Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese. Oriental Translation Fund, N.S., 42. London: The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1981.

Varisco, Daniel M. Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Westermarck, Edward A. Ritual and Beliefs in Morocco. Two volumes. London: MacMillan, 1926

Burckhardt, John Lewis. Travels in Arabia. London: Colburn, 1829.

to be continued…

Excerpt from Daniel Martin Varisco. Islamic Folk Astronomy, In The History of Non-Western Astronomy. Astronomy Across Cultures, pp. 615-650. Edited by Helaine Selin. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

For Islamic Folk Astronomy #3, click here.