The Pleiades and the Seven Sages

The Pleiades and the Seven Sages

Figure 2020. (Right) The six or seven ladies (the Pleiades?) on an Indus seal

In the Indus script, numerals are marked by repeating a short vertical stroke the required number of times. The pictograms of 'six' (six short strokes divided to two lines) and (on its left side) 'fish' together form a syntactic unit (Fig. 13f). It corresponds to the compound aru-meen 'six-star' occurring in Old Tamil texts and denoting the asterism of the Pleiades. This constellation was the first one in the ancient Indian star calendar whose conjunction with the sun at the vernal equinox marked the new year around the 23rd century B.C.

The Pleiades hold a prominent place as the mothers or wet nurses of the newborn infant in one of the most ancient and central Hindu myths, that of the birth of the war-god Rudra/Skanda, who evidently represents, among other things, the victorious rising sun (and as vernal sun the new year). The Pleiades are said to have been the wives of the seven sages, who are identified with the seven stars of the Great Bear.

Figure 2121. (Left) Inscription on seal from Harappa.
The Great Bear's Old Tamil name elu-meen 'seven-star' corresponds to the combination of the pictograms '7' + 'fish', which alone constitutes the entire text of one finely carved Indus seal (Fig. 21).

The Satapatha-Brahmana (2,1,2,4) states that the six Pleiades were separated from their husbands on account of their infidelity; other texts specify that only one of the seven wives, Arundhati, remained faithful and was allowed to stay with her husband: she is the small star Alcor in the Great Bear, pointed out as a paradigm of marital virtue to the bride in the Vedic marriage ceremonies.

Figure 22. Amulet from Mohenjo-Daro22. (Right)Amulet from Mohenjo-Daro
Evidence for the Harappan origin of this myth is provided, among other things, by Indus seals which show a row of six or seven human figures (Fig. 20, 22); their female character is suggested by the one long plait of hair, which to the present day has remained characteristic of the Indian ladies.

[Originally published as Parpola, Asko (1988) Religion reflected in the iconic signs of the Indus script: penetrating into long-forgotten picto+graphic messages. Visible Religion 6: pp. 114-135.]