When the goddess Diana goes on a hunt she is always accompanied by her seven beautiful attendants. These maidens are the sisters known as the Pleiades: the daughters of the sea nymph Pleione and mighty Atlas, who bears the world upon his shoulders. But once these maidens catch the eye of the great hunter Orion, the pursuers of game become themselves the pursued.
In their frantic headlong flight to evade the advances of the amorous Orion, the youngest of the sisters, Merope, becomes separated from her siblings. What to do? Poor Merope stumbles through the woods of Arcady, searching desperately for her sisters and calling out to her mistress the goddess for help. But by now she has run so deep into the thick woodlands that her companions are no longer within earshot, and Merope is left alone and desolate.
Does this myth have a happy ending? Myths are not fairy tales, even though they share with such tales many of the great archetypes which make such retellings endure down the centuries. Fairy tales, as we know, end ‘happily ever after’, but this is not always true of myths. Myths seem to occupy a less certain reality, which perhaps ironically make myths reflect the events of our own world more accurately. Gods and goddesses in these mythic stories are remarkably human, with all-too-human shortcomings, and their illustrious immortality serves as no guarantee that they will manage to avoid the very human emotions of heartache, jealousy and anger at injustice – all of which and more are experienced by them in these stories.
But is it that we project our own human emotions onto the world of the gods? Or is it perhaps more that all the upheavals of emotions that we as mortals experience are an earthly mirror of what happens in the lofty realm of the immortals? If the gods exist then perhaps they are showing us the way; showing us that even gods can suffer heartbreak, even gods can know joys and setbacks, tears and laughter. Even for the gods there is no master plan, and no guarantees that they will live ‘happily ever after’. Like us, they just live out their lives, and cope with things as they happen. But there is a measure of trust that things will somehow work out, and the gods, for all their capriciousness, show us the way in this as well.
And what of Merope? The myth does not grant us a tidy end in which she eventually is reunited with her sisters. We are left to wonder. But there is that measure of hope. Look up into the sky on a starry night and you will see Orion the hunter still in pursuit of the six Pleiades. The stars rise and set, but they always remain the same distance from each other. However fast he might run, Orion will never catch them. And somewhere in the heavens overhead is Merope, the lost little seventh star who is still searching for her sisters. And although the story in the night sky remains as inconclusive as the myth, it also in that very inconclusiveness holds out the hope for us that a reunion with her sisters might yet be possible.
Sculptere of Merope by Randolph Rogers
Dance of the Pleiades - Picture by Mynzah from a painting by Elihu Vedder