Finding the ‘Dinky Dipper’


By Dennis Mammana- Pay close attention to your everyday world and you’ll soon realize that we’re surrounded by astronomical words. Go to the cinema and you may see a film by Orion Pictures, or stay home and watch a video on your Quasar TV.

Find the Dinky Dipper after dark this week.

So much of our popular culture — from Polaris submarines to Beetlejuice, the zany character played by Michael Keaton (inspired by Betelgeuse) — have names that originate in the stars.

Automobile manufacturers particularly like using celestial words to name their cars: Ford Taurus, Saturn, Chevy Nova, Chevy Astro, Mercury, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Subaru.
Subaru? Yes, indeed!

In historical Japanese sky lore, Subaru represents the Pleiades, one of the most noticeable star clusters in the sky. To see this tiny, shimmering cluster — also known as the Seven Sisters — simply go outdoors after dark this week and look high in the eastern sky. Of course, you can also see the Pleiades in broad daylight. Just wander around any parking lot, and check out the emblems on the front of the cars until you spot it!

In Western culture, the name Pleiades is believed to derive from the Greek word meaning “to sail,” because when the grouping was seen to rise just before the sun, it was a sign of the opening of the navigational season in the Mediterranean world. In Greek mythology, these stars represented the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, who were pursued relentlessly by the great hunter Orion.

Eastern culture, however, saw it quite differently. Much of the Subaru myth arrived in Japan from China, and the term may have Buddhist roots. The word is generally thought to mean “united” or “getting together.” The Chinese character for Subaru, Kanji, also has connotations of being “bright,” and so the “bright” Subaru stars seem to “get together in one place.”

Over time, the lore was modified for local religious customs, or planting and fishing seasons. For example, in some farming regions, the stars of Subaru were seen as seeds, and their rising with the springtime sun signaled a time for planting. In some coastal areas, Japanese fishermen saw a fish net made of stones and bamboo (Sumaru) and, in a similar way, used the rising and setting of this bright “net” to determine when to cast their own nets into the sea.

As in Western lore, the Japanese often saw seven stars instead of six in Subaru. Travelers to Japan may be familiar with Shichifukujin (“seven lucky gods”), and locals in some areas still call the Pleiades “Shichifukujin.”
Imaginary lines connecting the stars of Subaru enable Japanese stargazers to outline such things as a strainer (Kozaru), a rather square sake cup (Masuboshi) pouring out rice wine and even something resembling a person’s elbow joint (Tsutokkoboshi).

Beginning stargazers looking into that part of the sky today often believe that the stars of the Pleiades form the Little Dipper. Not so, of course. The Little Dipper hangs down from Polaris, the North Star, at this time of year, and is considerably larger than this cluster. But so many people see a dipper there that I often just refer to the Pleiades as the third and least well-known of the Dippers: the “Dinky Dipper.”

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