I Wanna Shine in the Eye of Orion

July’s North Clare Local article… 


The Orion Nebula (the ESO via Wikimedia Commons)

The night stars have long been a source of wonder, comfort and inspiration to humankind. For our ancestors, being out alone after dusk could lead to attacks by predators. Small wonder then, we have affection for stars. Not only are they beautiful, they also have helped guide countless people home.

The love and awe we have always had for the stars are reflected in the stories we tell about them.

In the 1st century AD, the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy devised a system of 48 constellations, which formed the basis of our modern system of constellations. Even after 2000 years, many of these original constellations are still in existence. One notable former constellation was Argo Navis. The “ship” constellation was useful for sailors navigating the Mediterranean, but its stars have shifted position since its discovery. The Greeks saw it as the ship that Jason and his Argonauts sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. It has now been divided into three separate constellations.

A quick Google will reveal the simply gorgeous art produced in the mapping of the constellations prior to the development of photography, especially that of 17th century Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, who actually sketched the symbolic representations of each constellation in his maps. Though it may be far more accurate, the telescopic images of today do lack a certain romance.

Helevius’ depiction of Orion, the hunter about to strike with his fearsome club, is accurate for one of the brightest and best-known constellations. There are over 80 stars in this constellation, but there are seven main stars which form the hunter, sword and belt. These are Betelgeuse (for which the character Beetlejuice is named), Rigel, Bellatrix, Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak and Saiph. It’s generally most visible from January to March.

Orion’s distinctive shape has led to plenty of interesting beliefs throughout the century. The constellation is named after the figure of Orion from Greek mythology. While there are many stories about him, he is always depicted as a giant huntsman who Zeus puts among the stars. The star Sirius “the dog star” is depicted as Orion’s dog by Homer (Sirius is the brightest star in the Earth’s sky, and a part of the Canis Major constellation).


An artistic depiction of Orion by Jehoshaphat Aspin, 1825 (via Wikimedia Commons) 

Orion was the son of Poseidon, the sea god. One story has him attempting to rape Merope (who, as I mentioned last month, is one of the Pleiades). As a punishment he was blinded, to later have his sight restored by dawn sunlight.

There are multiple stories detailing Orion’s demise, but many have one thing in common. It was Orion’s own presumption and arrogance that led to his downfall. One story has him boast that he can defeat any beast on earth, only to be stung by a giant scorpion. Another states that the goddess Artemis, tired of his advances, sent the scorpion after him. In the sky, the scorpion (Scorpio) and Orion are now far apart.

Ovid was more sympathetic, saying that Orion died trying to save the goddess Leto from the scorpion. Another tale states that Artemis and Orion fell in love, but her jealous brother Apollo tricked her into shooting him. Devastated, Artemis placed Orion in the stars.

Orion was sometimes shown as fending off the charge of Taurus the bull, but there is no Greek mythological basis for this. However in Sumerian belief, the constellation represented their hero Gilgamesh fighting the Bull of Heaven.

Medieval Muslim astronomers called Orion “Al-Jabbar”, meaning the giant. The names of the seven stars, except for Bellatrix, derive from Arabic.

The myth of the hunter was extremely persuasive. While Chinese astronomers generally represented the constellations very differently to Westerners, they too believed Orion was a great warrior called Shen. The Chinese told of two brothers who fought so badly that their father sent them away to be in charge of separate temples to Shen and another deity called Xin. These are kept well apart in the sky, similarly to Orion and Scorpio.


Orion’s Belt (ComputerHotline via Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Indian texts saw Orion as a deer being pursued by a hunter and his dogs. Similarly, the Hungarians believed Orion to be an archer, and he is named Nimrod. Nimrod was the greatest hunter of all time, a view shared by Siberian and Native American people. The names may change, but the theme of pursuit and great hunters is remarkably consistent across the globe.

A variation does occur in Spain and Latin America; the three stars which make up Orion’s Belt are called “The Three Marys” or “The Three Wise Men.” In Australia and New Zealand, where Orion is viewed upside down, his belt and sword are sometimes affectionately named “The Saucepan and Pot”.

Orion is another constellation wrapped in romance and myth. When it comes to stargazing, it seems we cannot resist flights of fancy.

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