No collection of stars is more recognized than Orion the Hunter, partly because he’s so easy to find.
Right now, look for him straight south at around 11 p.m. Three bright stars line up closely to form the hunter’s belt.
Orion is the centerpiece of a striking stellar tableau. Down and to his left, his trusty hunting dog, Canis Major (“Big Dog”) nips at his heel. His emergency backup dog, Canis Minor, (“Little Dog”) follows to his left.
Under his feet is his not-so-mighty prey, Lepus, the hare.
The deadly bunny is the least of his worries, however. He has for thousands of years battled Taurus the Bull, who charges him from his upper right.
Orion is undoubtedly one of the most ancient constellations. The battle with the bull goes back to the Sumerians, who dominated the southern Mesopotamian region 3,000 years BCE.
According to Ian Ridpath’s “Star Tales,” they saw Orion as their great hero Gilgamesh. In those days, Orion was also called Ur Anna, the Light of Heaven, and Taurus was named Gud Anna, Heaven’s Bull.
Orion spends half the year below the horizon. For that reason, he is emblematic of the winter season for most stargazers.
He rises early in the evening sky in December. By the end of March, he is setting in the early evening. In January, you can find him 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, his club is raised against Taurus the Bull, who has been charging him for millennia. Taurus’s 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. Some members of the Jewish culture associated him 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.
According to another Greek story, Orion gained his hunting skills from his immortal parentage. He was the offspring of a mortal woman and Poseidon. As a birthday present, Poseidon gave him the ability to walk on water, which, as we shall see, came in mighty handy later on.
In another story of Orion’s birth, his mythological origins were not so impressive. In that version, he was Urion, a name that derives from a particular excretion of the human body not mentioned in polite circles.
Oh, what the heck. We’re talking “tinkle” here. According to the Greek legend, Orion was born when Zeus, king of the gods, and Poseidon, the sea god, urinated into a mangy cowhide.
Orion was strong and brave, of course. The Roman writer Manilius called him “the mightiest of constellations.”
He was also hotheaded and dumb as a doorknob — if you will forgive the insult to doorknobs. Unfortunately, his reputation for impulsive behavior got him in a lot of trouble.
In his constant quest to find some new animal to kill, the mighty hunter paid a visit to the island of Chios off the coast of Greece. He immediately fell in lust with the beauteous Merope and her six sisters, daughters of Oenopeon, the island’s king.
Oenopion was not above exploiting Orion’s lustful infatuation. The king stopped at nothing to improve the health and safety of his island. So he asked Orion to clear the island of the wild beasts that threatened the safety of the people.
Sly Oenopion offered Merope in marriage as a reward. It was a promise he never intended to keep.
Despite Orion’s heroic battles against many deadly beasts, Oenopion continually postponed the wedding. Orion became impatient with the delay and, undone by his passion, rashly attempted to pursue all seven sisters.
They spurned the hairy brute’s awkward advances, and Orion responded with characteristic sensitivity. He got drunk and tried to rape them.
Old King Oenopeon did what any doting father would do. He waited until Orion fell into a drunken stupor, gouged out his eyes, and kicked him off the island.
Orion stumbled, blindly and in great pain, north to the island of Lemnos. There he found Hephaestus, called Vulcan by the Romans, god of fire and metalworking.
Hephaestus took pity on Orion. The forge master’s father, Zeus, had banished him from Olympus because he had been born “imperfect,” i.e., with a noticeable limp.
The lame metalworker offered Cedalion, one of his assistants, to act as Orion’s eyes. The Hunter lifted Cedalion on his shoulders and headed east across the sea. (Remember, I told you that walking-on-water thing would come in handy.)
Luckily, Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, was in love with Orion. As the first rays from the rising sun struck Orion’s face, Aurora’s heavenly glow restored his eyesight.
When he died, the gods honored Orion’s bravery and hunting prowess by placing him in the sky as the constellation we see to this day. But there’s a catch.
In the Roman poet Ovid’s story variant, Poseidon also put Merope and her six sisters in the sky.
As lustful Orion bore down on them, Poseidon took pity and turned them into a flock of birds. You can still see the Pleiades — the Seven Sisters — perched on the shoulder of Taurus as a tiny dipper of stars just up and to the right from Taurus’s V-shaped head.
Orion must pay for his sins by eternally pursuing and never capturing the Seven Sisters.
In the end, Orion’s pride was his undoing. He boasted that he could defeat any wild beast in battle. The Earth goddess, the protector of animals, was insulted. So she sent a tiny scorpion to sting Orion’s heel, and he died.
In another version of the story, Orion’s death was a tragic accident. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, shot him with a deadly arrow.
Artemis’s Roman name was Diana. Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of learning and the arts and Diana’s brother, knew that Diana was in love with Orion and his hunting skills.
At the time, Apollo was miffed with his sister because she had been neglecting her hunting duties.
Apollo saw Orion hunting in a patch of tall bushes. He teased Diana by claiming that she couldn’t even hit a hare supposedly hidden in those bushes.
Diana saw motion in the bushes. Acting on instinct, she fired one of her deadly arrows and killed Orion.
Diana was so distraught that she asked Jupiter, the king of the gods, to put Orion in the night sky so that humans would remember him forever. And so he did. And so we do.
Orion will rise steadily in the sky as winter progresses. He will be low on the western horizon as the sun sets by winter’s end. Two seasons will pass before he returns to the evening sky, but he will return as strong and bright as before.
As the stars of Orion rise high in the south this winter, may we all experience the same rebirth of vision — to the vast and glorious universe around us and to our responsibilities to all humanity.
Like Orion, we must be bold. We must be strong. We live in a world where many wild beasts remain to be conquered. They have names like Hunger, Disease, Prejudice, Intolerance, and Hopelessness.
Yes, we must be bold. But we must be careful. And we must learn to control our passions. Orion defeated many a giant, but he did not discern the tiny scorpion nipping at his heel.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.