Battle rages on between Orion, Taurus


My family traditionally walks the neighborhood during the Christmas season to view the holiday lighting. On clear nights, my eyes inevitably wander up to the constellations Orion and Taurus, which are bright enough to cut through the glow of city lights that surround us.

Perhaps, this year I will tell my family his earliest story.

Orion the Hunter rises high in the south just after dark these days. His arm is raised. A club or sword is in his hand. To his right, he raises his shield, made from layers of animal skin in the ancient way. Why is the Hunter primed for conflict?

Above him and to the right is his eternal nemesis, Taurus the Bull, with his hindquarters strangely missing. Their battle has raged since the first great western civilizations rose from Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent section of what we now call the Middle East. The lifeblood of the region flows through the Euphrates River.

The historical source of the Orion/Taurus tableau is controversial to this day. However, most commentators agree that the Sumerian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” contains the first account of the Hunter and his nemesis.

A mostly complete version of the poem, incised on clay tablets, dates back to at least the 10th century BCE. Here, I use the English translation of Tablet VI by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, available at

Earlier, the Sumerians wrote five poems that date back to 2100 BCE. They recount the adventures of a real-life king called Bilgamesh, who ruled the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.

Those poems were used as source material to create a longer poem in the Akkadian language. That version dates back to around 1800 BCE.

The epic poem we read today is a later Babylonian version carved on clay tablets sometime during the 10th and 13th centuries BCE.

In those days, Orion was also called Ur-Anna, the Light of Heaven, and Taurus was named Gud-Anna, Heaven’s Bull.

The Sumerians — and the and Akkadians and Babylonians after them — saw Orion, the Greek corruption of Ur-Anna — as their great hero Gilgamesh, king of the ancient city of Uruk.

His power stemmed from his creation by the gods. When they gave him the gift of life, they made him part man and part god.

Gilgamesh was a capable king, but he was also arrogant, vain, and fiercely tyrannical. He was often absent from Uruk because he always looked for mountains to move and monsters to slay.

One fateful day, he returned to Uruk after killing the giant Humbaba. He bathed, put on his regal garments, and placed his crown on his head. He was a handsome devil, and he knew it.

Unfortunately, his regal splendor caught the attention of Ishtar, the beautiful goddess of love and the daughter of Anu, the god of the sky.

She fell instantly in love with Gilgamesh. As part of a proffer of marriage, she offered him “a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold, with wheels of gold.” She also promised that all the other monarchs of the world would bow before him.

Gilgamesh was disinclined to form a union with Ishtar. Unfortunately, he was far too frank when he gave his reasons.

Ishtar quickly tired of her paramours, and she often tortured them before she discarded them. In one case, she turned a former lover, the Shepherd, “into a wolf, so his own shepherds now chase him, and his own dogs snap at his shins.”

With a mixture of anger and tears, Ishtar returned to the sky and threw herself at her father’s feet. She demanded that Anu release Gud-Anna, the Bull we call Taurus, so that it could kill Gilgamesh.

As the god of the sky, Anu had the power to release Gud-Anna, but he hesitated. He cautioned Ishtar that seven years of drought, hunger, and death would befall the people if he let loose the Bull of Heaven.

Enraged Ishtar was determined to get revenge, so she threatened an even worse fate for humanity than hunger:

Father, give me the Bull of Heaven,

So he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling.

If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,

I will smash the doorposts and leave the doors flat down,

And I will let the dead go up to eat the living.

Nonplussed, Anu reluctantly released the Bull, and Ishtar led it by its nose rope to the gates of Uruk. The Bull descended from the city to the bank of the nearby Euphrates River.

Gilgamesh and his faithful companion, the half-human/half-beast Enkidu, sallied forth to challenge the Bull. It was no mean task. The Bull was as “large as a herd of elephants,” as Anita Ganeri writes.

A single snort of the Bull’s hot breath opened up a pit that sent 100 young men of Uruk to their doom. A second snort did the same to 200 men.

Enkidu fell into a third pit, but he immediately leaped out of it and grabbed the Bull by its horns.

The Bull covered Enkidu with its spittle. It used its tail to fling its disgusting dung at Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Fearlessly, Enkidu grabbed the Bull by its tail and invited Gilgamesh to slaughter it. At the risk of his life, Gilgamesh boldly approached the Bull. “Like an expert butcher,” our hero thrust his sword into the Bull’s neck, and it died. With the help of his friend, Gilgamesh had saved his city.

Gilgamesh ripped out the Bull’s heart and humbly offered it as a sacrifice to the sun god, Shamash.

Angry and heartbroken, Ishtar uttered this curse: “Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of Heaven!”

Enkidu was unimpressed. He tore off the hindquarters of the Bull and threw them at Ishtar. I’ve seen and heard many insults in my days on Earth, but I can’t imagine having a bull’s butt thrown at me.

Does the tableau of Orion and Taurus truly represent the battle between Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven? Here’s a clue. The constellation Taurus depicts the Bull’s head, horns, and upper body. The hindquarters are notably absent.

Afterward, Enkidu and Gilgamesh walked hand in hand through the streets of Uruk as the people of Uruk shouted their adulation.

The arrogant Gilgamesh took the opportunity to praise himself this way:

Who is the bravest of the men?

Who is the boldest of the males?

Gilgamesh is the bravest of the men,

The boldest of the males!

Ishtar assembled a motley crew of “joy-girls and harlots” to mourn the Bull of Heaven. Afterward, she presumably placed it in the sky as what we today call the constellation Taurus, the Bull.

Meanwhile, Gilgamesh hosted a night-long feast to celebrate his victory. Ishtar looked down upon the revelry and angrily plotted revenge.

When he finally fell into a fitful sleep, Enkidu dreamed that a council of the gods met to condemn the murder of the Bull of heaven.

The dream was prescient. Enkidu soon fell into a high fever and died.

In fear of his life and mourning his lost friend, Gilgamesh vowed to leave Uruk and seek the source of eternal life. To do so, he must find Utnapishtim, the only human ever granted immortality by the gods.

After slaying many monsters and suffering through “frost and fire,” Gilgamesh finally found Utnapishtim, but the immortal told him that the gods had decreed that all mortals must die eventually.

Instead, Gilgamesh should make the most of his time on Earth, no matter how long or short that life may be.

Gilgamesh did not heed Utnapishtim’s words. He continued his quest undaunted. He never discovered the secret of immortal life, but he came tantalizingly close before it slipped through his fingers.

At long last, he returned to Uruk and found his people drought-stricken and starving. Chastened, he finally heeded Utnapishtim’s wise words. In memory of his lost friend Enkidu, he vowed to rule wisely and fairly and help his people.

He never achieved the physical immortality he craved, but he did realize a far grander version of eternal life. Because he became the champion of his people and ruled with wisdom and restraint, his people told and retold his story. Some of us still tell that story to this very day.

Sigh. I know it’s not much of a Christmas story. But 4,000 years later, we can learn much from the tale of Gilgamesh and its faint reflection in the constellations Orion and Taurus.

Soon will come the time for New Year’s resolutions. I hope you will take a moment to look up at the mighty Light of Heaven and the fearsome Bull in the sky.

I will do so and whisper the vow that Gilgamesh uttered so long ago — to help others and make the most of every day for the rest of my life, no matter how many days that may be.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

No posts to display