The important thing to know about stories is their proper use and purpose. The proper purpose of our star stories is to tell us something about time; either about an event that occurred at a particular time, or an annual event to be mindful of. The tale that follows is not a cultural myth of any particular nation - or even one continent - but an amalgamation of many stories regarding the constellation known as the Pleiades, and how the time of their departure (April 15) is significant to living with the land here in Oklahoma. I should also point out that this is a bottle gourd story, and it is best told while preparing dried gourds for use as containers. I use a set of seven seashells for this, as they become characters in the story, as well.
Now once upon a time, long before I was a young person (which is a very long time indeed!) There were Seven sisters, who lived in the sky, and they were always together, Where one sister went, the others were bound to go. There was also a great giant who lived in the sky, and he kept a flock of beautiful white birds. Once, the sisters snuck into the giant's lair, and took the white feathers to make cloaks for themselves. The giant found out about the theft, and quickly began to chase after the girls. You can still see six of those Seven sisters in the sky today, wearing their white cloaks, and following behind them, there is the giant. What happened to the Seventh sister is one of the oldest stories I know. It involves a young human man named Ihiya, after the river cane that grows by his home.
Of course, one can't run all of the time. When the sisters grew tired of running for a while, they would come down to the ground, and dance across the ponds, lakes, rivers and streams, freezing them solid (it is very cold high up in the sky, and that is why the sisters make everything freeze. They are made of ice). Sometimes, the sisters dancing will stir up the waters, and make great clouds across the sky .. so that they can rest without the giant seeing them. On these occasions they rest all across the landscape, on ponds and lakes, on rocks, on trees, and even on the roofs of our homes!
On one evening the sky had cleared early despite the maidens' efforts, and the moon was shining brightly overhead. A young man ventured out to have a look at all of the brilliant whiteness reflecting the moonlight .. and that is when he saw her. Now I know that some of you reading, or hearing this story might not believe such a thing can happen yet, but In time, I'm sure you will: You see that special someone in the moonlight, and your entire world changes forever. So it was with this young man. As he gazed upon the youngest of the sisters, he fell completely head over heels in love.
Everyone here is relatively intelligent, so I don't have to tell you that one should always take care when walking in the woods after a snowfall. Aside from the pits and holes waiting to catch legs and break them, stepping on a branch is liable to produce a very audible crack, alerting everyone in the neighborhood to your presence. Ihiya was an intelligent sort, but he was so completely captivated by what he saw, that he neglected that moment of care, and stepped upon a branch. Sound carries so much better in cold weather, as you and I both know all too well .. and the maiden heard the noise, and looked to see its source .. finding our hero.
Ihiya stood perfectly still, uncertain what to do. The maiden simply smiled at him, and disappeared, going back into the sky again, as the sun rose. Determined to be with the sky maiden, Ihiya decided to seize her the very next time he laid eyes upon her, and bring her back to his home. The very next year, he had his chance - now would probably be a good time to mention that there is such a thing as respecting personal boundaries, and grabbing someone and dragging them back to your house is considered to be a violation, by most - as I say, he saw his chance to bring the Star maiden home, and so he took her up in his arms, and bought her back to his lodge.
I am sorry to say, I do not know what the Star maiden's name was, but today, we call that star Pleione. The maiden went with him willingly, of course .. and gave a gift of six white bulbs, one for each of her sisters - because where one sister went, all of the sisters would go - and she went into the lodge to stay with Ihiya. Only at this point did Ihiya discover that the maiden was made of only ice. When he tried to hold her, she melted away in his arms, leaving behind the six white bulbs. Ihiya planted those bulbs by his door, and from them grew all of the garlic, leeks, shallots, scallions, onions and chives. Now he was even more determined to take the star maiden to be his wife.
He dug a deep pit into the side of a hill, and built a timber frame within it of ship mast locust. He roofed the entire frame with locust wood, and then went down to the ocean, as was the custom every year, to catch fish and gather sea salt. Before leaving the river where Ihiya lived, he cut several lengths of river cane, and made a basket. Combing the beach with basket in hand, he picked up seven white seashells, one for each of the seven sisters, and put those in the basket (although I have also heard it said that it was seven mounds of shells, one for each maiden). On the beach, he found balls of black, sticky stuff - tar - and he put those in the basket, too.
Upon returning home, he began sealing the joints between the timbers with tar, then clay, then stone, then earth, returning the hill as it had been, but now with a cave inside of it. As the summer faded, he cut meadow grasses, and lined the little burrow with dry grass, just like a field mouse lines it's den. Finally, Ihiya arranged the seashells so that his love could see them from overhead, and return to him when autumn returned once more. Remember, this was an intelligent man, and he reasoned that what could keep a mouse warm in winter might keep a star maiden cool in summer. When the time came for the Seven sisters to once again depart, the youngest remained behind, but to keep from melting away, she had to stay in the ground, in the dark.
Our star crossed lovers found more woes, for Ihiya's embrace continued to melt the maiden, and she was obliged to spend her nights alone in the dark. All of her life she had known only the company of other stars, and she felt so alone. She cried, and those salty tears flowed down between the layers of straw, making them freeze over once again. During the hot summer months, she cried a lot. If you have ever spent a winter far enough north, you may have heard the sound of ice crying .. it can be quite unsettling, on a cold dark night. Some say that the Great spirit heard the crying, and came to have a look. "You're a sky spirit" said the Great spirit, "and you cannot go on existing like this."
Here is the point where the stories diverge, and some say the Great spirit transformed the Seventh sister into a human woman so that she could properly marry the man that she loved, and others saying that the giant heard the weeping, and uncovered her hiding place. In this version, the giant possessed the power to transform spirits, and turned her human as punishment for stealing, declaring that "She will now suffer the cold that the sky people bring with them when they rest here, hiding from me."
No matter which version of the tale one has heard, they all converge back at the wedding: Of course there would be dancing, and that brought the first concern for the upcoming nuptials. It had been decided that with a wedding of such importance, all of the humans should be allowed to attend - but the terrible force of the sisters' dancing had everyone terrified. The Great spirit intervened, bestowing his gift to the newlywed couple: He dug a hole between a hazelnut tree and a castor bean bush, and planted a seed. A vining plant grew up from that place, and it had beautiful white flowers, just like the feathers in the maiden's cloak. In time, the gourd grew to be big enough for all of the people to make a hole, and walk inside - safe from the storms that came with the Sisters' dance.
Now this would not be a good story unless the trickster makes an appearance .. and so he does, placing some kind of pithy film inside of the gourd, so that as soon as all of the people walked inside, they became stuck fast. At this moment, the Sisters arrive, and they have brought their shells with them - and this is where I think the 'mounds of shells' version earlier in the story makes more sense, because a gourd large enough to hold all of humanity would have to be very, very large. The sisters dumped the shells out into the gourd, and begin to dance .. whipping those shells about, scraping and abrading away all of the pith. The shells, amazingly did not harm the people, just cleaned them off, so when everyone emerged the bits of old pith just fell away like dust in the breeze.
Before taking their leave, the six remaining star sisters each left behind a gift for the newlywed couple: Corn, Beans, Squash, Sunflowers, Sunchokes and Ground Cherries. I would love to tell you that the married couple lived happily ever after, but there is more to the story yet: This was a time before the creatures of the Earth had met in council to voice their concerns about Man, before Bear tried to make a bow, and before the Great spirit had gifted Mankind with Atsina, the sacred cedar. The vine borer moth heard about the wedding, and decided to interfere, fearing how powerful humans might become now that they had an alliance with the people from the sky.
Chances are, if you have been walking in a vegetable garden during the day, you have seen Vine borer moth: She is colored orange and black, and is one of the few moths that are active in the day. It is her habit to lay her eggs on the vines of squash and gourd plants, near to the base of the plant as possible. When the eggs hatch, the larva eat their way through the vine, killing the plant. She was on her way to the wedding celebration to do just that, but she could not find the huge gourd that the Great spirit had planted! Her keen sense of smell could locate a squash vine for 2 day's walk in any direction, but she couldn't smell this vine. She tried looking for the gourd - her eyesight is not very good, but she can find the yellow of a squash bloom from a long distance away. Still, she saw no yellow blooms .. and, it being daytime, the white blooms of the great gourd were closed.
A great war was coming between the humans and the insects, and it is one that would involve all of the other animals as well .. but that is a story for another time. For now, I just want to take notice that Vine borer moth acted out of ignorance and fear .. and be careful to not be guilty of the same error. Vine borer has a real purpose, and it is a valuable one, too: Imagine for a moment, all of the cucurbits: the summer squashes, winter squashes, pumpkins, vines and gourds. They grow these long, strong vines, with little tendrils that let them grab on to anything, and if it is not strong enough to hold their weight, they will drag it down to the ground, where their broad leaves hide everything from the sun. Left unchecked, these plants could take over huge areas .. so Vine borer does a great service to everyone, when she is behaving according to her nature.
As for the Star maiden and the Human? They lived together happily for many years, and had many children, and their children grew up learning how to grow the small white bulbs that were the alliums, to plant the garlic when the Sisters appear in the sky every year. They learned to grow the corn, beans, and squash, the sunflowers that make seeds that are good for both men and birds, and the sunflowers that make edible tubers. They learned to grow the ground cherries .. and all of these things still grow in the remaining woodlands and along the coast where the people once lived. The shell mounds are there, too .. and some of them are big enough to be seen from far, far above!
Eventually, Ihiya grew old and died, and for a long time, it was thought that the star maiden had also passed away, until some men built a machine that allows them to see the stars better - and now we know that she did not die, but returned to the sky to be with her people .. but since the giant is still chasing the Seven sisters, she just hides among the hilltops and mountaintops - that is where you need to be in order to see her today, even with one of those machines.
A long time passed, and eventually the children of Ihiya and the Star maiden had to move to a new place, where the land was strange, and the familiar plants struggled to grow. The situation was not hopeless, although it may have seemed so at first! In time, this new land revealed its gifts to the children of Ihiya, and the alliance with the stars held true: Just as the Sisters leave the sky every year, right around April 15, most danger of frost will have passed, and it is a good time for planting corn .. the children of Ihiya still keep the river cane, and grow the alliums, corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and ground cherries or tomatillos where they can, cherry tomato and other tomatoes where they can't.
There never was another great gourd like the one that had been planted for the wedding, but the children of Ihiya took the seeds with them, too .. and those gourds still provide protection for the harvest once they have been properly prepared: They will not decay, and will even keep rodents from attacking the stores within, so long as they are properly kept. Of course all of that story will have to wait for another time, when we dabble in some simple chemistry, use fire to preserve wood, and meet a very poisonous plant, but one that is also a great ally. Until then, may your feet stay dry, and your hearth stay warm!