Orion the Hunter

by Karen A. Bellenir

Since antiquity, people have observed the star pattern we know as the constellation Orion. Babylonians saw it as a shepherd. To the Egyptians, it was Osiris (god of the dead) or Unas, a Pharaoh from the third millennium B.C. who achieved immortality. In Armenian culture, the constellation was identified as Hayk, the nation's patriarch. Hebrews called it Kesil and mentioned the constellation three times in the Old Testament.

The more familiar name, Orion, comes to the modern era via Greco-Roman mythology where it makes appearances in writings such as those by Horace, Homer, and Virgil. The stories vary, and the classical accounts include episodes that aren't easily reconciled.

I've been reading a lot about Orion in preparation for giving a sky tour that will feature information about the constellations visible in the evenings of late winter. I'd like to tell a version of Orion's story that seems to best fit the pictures in the sky.

First, let's find the constellations involved in the story. If you need a sky map to follow along, you can get one from Sky Maps (be sure to choose the version for the appropriate hemisphere).

Start with the big guy himself: Orion, a formidable hunter. The three stars of his belt are perhaps the most easily identifiable part of the constellation. Below them, you'll see another group of dimmer stars forming the sword that hangs from his belt. Above the belt are two stars that mark his shoulders. And, where the head should be, there's a tiny, hazy group of dim stars. It may not be mere coincidence that his head is so dim. You can decide that for yourself after we finish the story.

Orion has two hunting dogs. If you follow the line of the stars in his belt as it points downward, you'll come to Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (the Big Dog) and, in fact, the brightest star in the night sky (disregarding planets). Above Canis Major is Canis Minor (the Little Dog). The Big Dog is looking under Orion's feet at another constellation, Lepus the Rabbit. Lepus actually looks more like a butterfly to me, but I suppose we can't have a famous hunter vanquishing a butterfly, so rabbit it is.

As he stands in the sky, Orion faces Taurus the bull, a representation of Zeus. Follow the line of Orion's belt up, in the opposite direction of Sirius, to come to Aldebaran, the reddish star that forms the eye of the bull. The V shape of the bull's head comprises a cluster of stars called the Hyades. Continue the line to reach another cluster of stars, called the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters). They ride on the bull's back. Orion's foot on the side facing the bull, marked by the star Rigel, stands beside the constellation Eridanus, a great ancient river.

There's another constellation connected with this story that you can't see when Orion is in the sky. That's Scorpius, the scorpion, Orion's mortal enemy. Orion and Scorpius are placed opposite each other in the heavens. When Orion sets below the western horizon, Scorpius will rise in the east.

Now, onto the story: Atlas, the Titan famous for having to carry the world on his shoulders, had many children by many different mothers. Most, but not all, of his children were daughters. One ocean nymph bore him six children, one son named Hyas and five daughters. The girls were known collectively as the Hyades, which means sisters of Hyas. Another ocean nymph, Pleione, bore him seven daughters. As a group they were called the Pleiades, which means daughters of Pleione.

These girls were all extraordinarily beautiful. To protect them from being defiled by men, Atlas sent the two groups of sisters to become companions of the goddess Artemis. Artemis, a daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo, was the goddess of the hunt. Among other things, she was in charge of wild animals. Let's leave all these girls cavorting on the hillsides and turn our attention toward Orion himself.

Orion was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Euryale who was the daughter of Minos, King of Crete. Although Orion was mortal, he possessed some godly characteristics. For example, because he was the son of the sea-god, Orion could walk on water. He was also exceedingly handsome, quite tall—giant sized by some accounts—and an exceptionally skilled hunter. Tall, handsome, a skilled athlete, and he could walk on water. Perhaps it's no wonder that he developed a bit of an ego problem.

One day, Orion was walking over the waters of Eridanus, and he came to the island of Chios, which was ruled by King Oenopion. Oenopion had a beautiful daughter, and Orion was smitten. He decided to court the young lady. Orion was used to having girls swoon in his presence, and Oenopion's daughter was no exception. Her father, however, proved to be a challenge. The king continually presented obstacles that kept the two would-be lovers apart. One night at a banquet, Orion became drunk and decided not to wait any longer. He went to his darling's bedchamber and broke the door down. The king's guards arrived in time to save the girl's honor. In his rage over having Orion gaze lustfully at his daughter, Oenopion had Orion's eyes put out.

Blinded, Orion stumbled away from Chios. He eventually wandered to another island, Lemnos, where he met up with the god Hephaestus, god of artisans, fire, and volcanoes. Hephaestus listened to Orion's story and took pity on him. Hephaestus provided instructions on how to get to the utter East where he promised the sun would heal Orion's eyes. To help Orion on his journey, Hephaestus gave him a young boy named Cedalion. Cedalion rode on Orion's shoulder and served as surrogate eyes. The two found the utter East and success. As soon as his vision was restored, Orion decided to return to Chios and seek revenge on King Oenopion.

Meanwhile, Artemis was still frolicking with her young charges on the island of Crete. Hyas, the brother of the Hyades, thought he would stop in for a visit—ostensibly to check on his sisters, but in truth, he was really hoping for a chance to impress Artemis with his hunting skills. He overrated himself, and tragically Hyas was killed by a wild boar. Artemis brought his body back to his sisters, and they were inconsolable. The Hyades were overcome with their grief, and they died. This distressed Artemis so much that she went to talk with her father, Zeus. In an act of compassion, Zeus put the sisters in the sky, where he could watch over them. Content with this consolation, Artemis went back to Crete.

Shortly after her return, Orion happened by. He was on his way to Chios, but then he saw Artemis and her remaining young charges—beautiful and, oh, so sorrowful. Orion was so sure he was just the right person to comfort all those lovely ladies, he abandoned his plans to seek out Oenopion and decided to stay on Crete.

Artemis had heard of Orion's reputation as a hunter, and she wanted an opportunity to witness his abilities. Eventually, the two became hunting companions. But, to Orion's distress, they did not become lovers. Artemis's brother, Apollo, put obstacles in their way, and Orion's own personality proved to be a hindrance in wining Artemis's affections. Although he was mortal, Orion considered himself to be her equal, and he never quite learned to humble himself before her.

Orion continued to hunt with Artemis, but to assert himself, he also started to hunt in her realms without her. And even without her permission. One day he was out with his faithful dogs and he killed a rabbit that was especially beloved by the goddess. She was enraged. Because she adored the rabbit, she placed its image on the moon in its memory. The next time you see a full moon, take a look and see if you can find Artemis's rabbit.

Artemis still had respect for Orion's hunting prowess, but after the rabbit episode, any affection she still had for him dissipated entirely. Instead of worrying about losing the goddess's favor, Orion simply turned his attention to the lovely young Pleiades. All seven of them. At a banquet, he got drunk and determined that he would catch and ravage them all. He nearly succeeded. Artemis cried out to Zeus for help. Zeus turned the girls into doves. This almost worked, but Orion was just as skilled at hunting birds as he was at hunting rabbits and other animals. In a moment of dire peril, Zeus turned the doves into stars and set them on his back so he could protect them.

Another man might have recognized that making the gods angry was dangerous. Another man might have taken stock of himself and adopted a more modest demeanor. Not Orion. Orion continued bragging about his manliness and his hunting skills. He started boasting that there wasn't a beast on the entire earth he couldn't kill.

This made Artemis uneasy—so uneasy that she went to consult with, Gaia, Mother Earth. Gaia developed a plan and sent a scorpion to kill Orion. The scorpion and Orion battled. The battle attracted the interest of all the gods and goddesses and they watched eagerly to see who would win.

In the end, the scorpion delivered a fatal sting but Orion crushed it before he died. In honor of the scorpion's valor, Zeus placed it in the sky.

Zeus also put an image of Orion, his dogs, and Artemis's rabbit in the sky. Some say he did so because he was impressed with the great hunter's skills. Others say that when Artemis saw his dead body, she repented of her anger and asked Zeus to honor the fallen giant equally with the scorpion. The version I like best is the account that says Zeus put Orion's image in the sky to remind humans of their need for humility.