Astronomy: Orion’s hunting dogs


Orion has the reputation for being a winter constellation, but its visibility stretches well into spring. Right now, there he is in the southwest just after dark. The length of his sojourn in the sky makes it possible to find some of the constellations that make up what is sometimes called the Orion Tableau.

As one might expect, any self-respecting hunter has at least one huntin’ dawg, and Orion is no exception.

Canis Major (the “Greater Dog”) stands below and to the left of his master, who dominates the early evening sky this time of year. You can’t miss old Major. Use the three bright stars in Orion’s belt as pointers to find the brightest star in the night, Sirius, the Dog Star, which represents the faithful pooch’s head.

Wedged to the right of the dog and below Orion is Lepus, the Hare. Canis is presumably drawing a bead on the hare as it cowers at the feet of the mighty Hunter.

Like most diehard hunters, Orion has an emergency backup dog, Canis Minor (the “Lesser Dog”), far to his left and far harder to find than other constellations in the group. Its only bright star is Procyon, which means “before the dog” in Greek. The name indicates that, like most small dogs of my acquaintance, Minor is a touch hyperactive. It scoots ahead of Major, rising above the horizon just before the Greater Dog.

No story that I know of explains how Orion got his dogs. The ancient myths associate them with different owners.

Canis Major is sometimes called Laelaps, a dog so fleet of foot that no prey could escape it. In one story, the dog and a javelin were presented to Procris, daughter of the king of Athens and wife of the hunter Cephalus.

The javelin was magical. Its bearer could never miss, which turned out to be bad luck for Procris. She and her husband were hunting one day when Cephalus accidentally ran her through.

Thus, Cephalus inherited the dog. They went to a small Grecian town called Thebes, where a nasty fox was raiding the local hen houses.

Cephalus decided to do his good deed for the decade and set the dog loose to catch the fox. There was one small problem — the fox was so fast that nothing could catch it.

Here we have one of those logical conundrums that the Greeks were so fond of ­– a dog that could catch any animal and an animal that could never be caught.

Something had to be done, or the logic textbooks would all have to be rewritten. So Zeus, head honcho on mount Olympus, turned the fox and dog into stone. The dog he placed in the night sky to honor his swiftness. The fox became a lawn decoration, I guess, because no such ancient constellation exists.

The Lesser Dog, in the meantime, represents Maera, one of Icarus’s canine companions. Icarus was the first human to learn to make wine. He got some shepherds drunk, and in gratitude, they killed him on the spot. (If you must drink, please don’t drink and herd sheep.)

In Lassie-like fashion, Maera ran to get help. He dragged Icarus’s daughter Erigone to the scene, where, grief-stricken, they committed suicide.

Just how a dog can take its own life is lost in the inky depths of history. In any case, the gods put the Lesser Dog in the sky to honor its loyalty. We see it to this day, its head up, howling with pain at the loss of its master.

Ah, another inspiring tale of yore. It takes all kinds to make a universe, I suppose.

Canis Minor is nothing much to look at and contains practically nothing for a stargazer to see besides, perhaps, its brightest star. Procyon. However, Canis Major is awash with some of the most spectacular sights in the starry sky.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the objects you can see in Canis Major if you don’t mind breaking out your binoculars.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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