On Christmas Eve, my family took its traditional walk around the neighborhood to look at the lights. However, my attention was focused on another set of lights, the few stars that shimmered brightly though the dull glow of central-Ohio streetlamps.
The ancient hero Orion was rising in the east. You can always count on Orion. No matter how bright the glow of the city, his bright stars shine through.
Such it is with our true heroes. These days we mostly have celebrities. They appear to be celebrated primarily because they are, well, celebrities. There are too few heroes – those who put their own welfare and safety on hold to pursue the public good.
Mostly, our heroes operate without much fanfare. One of my heroes, Chaplain Jon Powers, our spiritual leader at Ohio Wesleyan University, has worked tirelessly to help not only the OWU community but also the community at large. He is now home recovering from a torn aorta, which required emergency surgery. It was a near thing, and it will be a while before he again pursues his public mission.
As my eyes turned to Orion, my mind turned to Jon Powers, my fallen hero.
Orion spends half the year below the horizon. He marks the winter season. He rises early in the evening sky in December. By the end of March, he is setting in the early evening. In January he can be found almost directly south around 9 p.m.
He is easy to recognize because of the three bright stars lined up to make his belt. Above and to the right, he raises his club against Taurus, the Bull, who has been charging him for millennia. Taurus’ V-shaped head is visible up and to the right from Orion’s shield, which is raised against the bull.
His name is a very old one. The constellation recalls a time when humans hunted animals and picked berries for food. As long as humans have looked at the sky, they have seen a mighty warrior or hunter in this pattern of stars.
He has been known by many names. He was the god Prajapati to the Hindus. The ancient Egyptians saw him as the great deity Osiris, who rose miraculously from the dead. He has been associated with the Hebrew warrior Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, and the Old-Testament Jacob, who boldly wrestled with an angel.
But we call him Orion, the Hunter. That name goes back to an ancient people called the Sumerians, who lived 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. They called the constellation Uru-anna, the Light of Heaven.
According to Ian Ridpath’s Star Tales, Uru-anna was another name for Gilgamesh, the powerful Sumerian warrior who was part man and part god. To save his people from destruction, the great hero fought the monstrous Bull of Heaven, which we call Taurus.
The Greeks saw him as a great hunter, the son of the sea-god Poseidon and a mortal woman. His father gave him the power to walk on, or even through, the sea.
On a visit to the Greek island of Chios, Orion fell in love with Merope, daughter of King Oenopion. The king asked Orion to clear the island of the wild beasts that threatened the safety of the people. As a reward, Oenopion offered Merope in marriage.
Despite Orion’s heroic battles against many deadly beasts, Oenopion continually postponed the wedding. When Orion became impatient, the king waited until he was asleep, blinded him, and threw him into the sea.
Here Orion showed how brave he really was. Although blind, he journeyed many miles on the sea to the east toward the sun. When he reached the island of Lemnos, the rising sun restored his sight.
In the end, Orion’s pride was his undoing. He boasted that he could defeat any wild beast in battle. The Earth goddess, protector of animals, was insulted. So she sent a tiny scorpion to sting Orion, and he died.
Artemis, goddess of the hunt, so loved Orion that she placed him up in the night sky.
In honor of Orion’s unfulfilled love for Merope, she and her six sisters were put in the sky as well. You can see them on the shoulder of Taurus as a tiny dipper of stars just up and to the right from Taurus’ V- shaped head.
As long as the stars still shine, Orion is thus permitted to gaze upon his beloved.
Orion will rise steadily in the sky as winter progresses. By winter’s end, he will be low on the western horizon as the sun sets. Three seasons will pass before he returns again to the evening sky, but return he will as strong and bright as before.
We can all learn something from Orion. We must be bold. We must be strong. We live in a world where many wild beasts remain to be slain. They have names like Hunger, Prejudice, and Hopelessness. I can think of no one I know who has done more in our local community to slay those beasts than Chaplain Jon Powers. I will never again look at Orion without thinking of him.
Jon, you must spend some time below the horizon, but like Orion you will rise again as strong and bright as you were before.
For our sakes, rest for a time. Above all, be careful. Orion defeated many a giant, but he did not notice the small danger nipping at his heel.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.