The constellation Orion…so many stories
Last week in Starwatch I attempted to cover all of the astronomical treasures of the constellation Orion proudly shining in the Marshall southeastern sky. It’s loaded with many celestial jewels, such as the red super-giant star Betelgeuse; the bright belt stars; the colossal Orion Nebula, birthplace of countless stars and planets; and so much more. There’s just no way to cover all of Orion’s treasures in a single column!
Likewise, trying to cover all of the legends and mythological tales of the constellation Orion in a single column is just as daunting. That’s because it’s visible in the sky essentially all over the world, an imposing figure marauding across the sky with its posse of bright winter constellations, what I call “Orion and his Gang.” When we first see him in the late fall evenings rising on his side, he appears to be extra gigantic. That’s actually an illusion, because just like the sun and the moon, constellations appear larger when they are closer to the horizon. The illusion happens because our eyes are comparing them in size with adjacent land objects.
Just about every ancient and not so ancient culture has Orion touted as a very important character in the nightly celestial theater. He’s even mentioned three times in the Bible — twice in the book of Job and once in the book of Amos.
Many ancient cultures associated the giant frame of Orion with the sun, because just about all giants and heroes were associated with sun gods, either directly or indirectly. That was the case with the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and many other peoples. In the land of ancient Sumeria, which was about where present day Iraq is now, the constellation we see as Orion was known as Uru-anna, the Light of Heaven. Some of these ancient stories of the constellation we know as Orion involve cannibalism, as the giant figure among the stars grew as bright as he is because he literally fed off a menu of minor gods that added to his brilliancy.
Most of the best known tales of Orion, at least in this hemisphere, involve Greek and Roman mythology. Orion the Hunter plays a big part in these celestial soap operas going on nightly in the skies. One of the Greek and Roman stories I’ve told you many times in this column was how Orion the Hunter was dating Diana, goddess of the moon, and how her father Zeus sent a giant scorpion to fatally bite Orion to end the relationship. That’s a great story, but even within Greek and Roman mythology there are other wonderful stories of my favorite heavenly hunter.
One of them involves Orion’s love of Princess Merope, the daughter of King Oenopion. King O, as I like to call him, was the king of a large island nation and was not at all excited about his daughter marrying this rough around the edges behemoth hunter. He kept coming up with reason after reason to put off the wedding. He also sent Orion off on multiple missions with the false promise of rewarding the hunter with his daughter’s hand in marriage.
King O’s meanest trick was to promise Merope to Orion if he could rid his land of wild beasts that perpetually posed a threat to his subjects. He wanted people to feel safe from these beasts from shore to shore. Orion took on this monumental task without hesitation. He was hot for Merope. He’d do anything for his princess! He hunted night and day and day and night, and after months of slaying he was finally able to report to King O that the island was beast free. So was Orion finally going to hear royal wedding bells?
The answer from the king was “Nice job Orion, but I need just a little more time to give you my royal approval.” That did it! Orion was really ticked off. He attempted to run off with Merope and elope, but the royal guards caught up with the young couple and threw Orion in prison. To make matters even worse after all the work Orion had performed for King O, his royal heinous had his henchmen pluck out Orion’s eyes and then plunked him down on a remote beach on the other side of the island.
The distraught and sightless Orion wandered hopelessly for days on end. It looked like the end for the mighty hunter, but many of the gods of Mt. Olympus took pity on him and lifted him off the island, restored his sight, and planted him on a far off tropical island where he hunted and fished to his heart’s content. Life was so good there it was easy to forget about his lost love. In fact, Orion did fall in love again, but that’s a tale for another time.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores or at http://www.adventurepublications.net.