Orion the Hunter – King of the Winter Sky

Orion the Hunter is King of the Night Sky.

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Orion, Hunter of the Winter Sky
Orion, Hunter of the Winter Sky

Orion is one of the easier to recognizable and noticeable constellations. It is perhaps the most splendid of all constellations, befitting for a venerated character from ancient times. Named for a hunter in Greek mythology, it’s a name that’s so recognized its use pervades popular culture – from comic book characters to music song and album titles, to buildings, cities, and companies, and Nasa’s next manned space capsule. Not only is it a cultural icon, but it also contains a fantastic assortment of objects to photograph.  

Orion’s Place in the Sky

Located on the celestial equator, Orion is visible across the world. Often depicted as kneeling; his left hand stretched out, holding his shield with his right hand holding a club raised above his head. His right shoulder and left foot are denoted by two bright stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel, respectively. Three stars in a distinctive line form his belt. The Sword of Orion hangs from his belt, comprised of three stars and a sizeable gaseous nebula. His hunting dog, represented by the star Sirius, chases the constellation Lepus, a celestial rabbit found below Orion’s feet. Orion’s focus appears to be the constellation Taurus, the bull, which looks to be charging Orion.  But his real focus is the constellation Scorpio. Scorpio is on the nearly opposite sides of the sky from Orion, and they are locked in an eternal chase across the heavens.  

Johannes Hevelius (28 January 1611 – 28 January 1687) Scanned by Torsten Bronger, 4 April 2003., Orion constellation Hevelius, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
The constellation Orion prepared for battle in the skies as depicted by Johannes Hevelius (1611 – 1687) in his posthumously published book, Prodromus Astronomia (1690). (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mythology of Orion

Orion is a constellation that represents a rich tradition in Greek mythology. Many of his myths are contradictory, but all agree that he was a hunter with an exquisite physique, enormous in stature, possessing outstanding good looks, and remarkable hunting prowess.

Orion’s birth story’s conflict, one tells that he was born from the earth. When Orion’s father asks the gods for a favor, they took a bull’s hide and placed it into the ground, urinated into it, and then buried it. They told Orion’s father to dig it up ten months later, he did and found Orion in the hide.  

Homer and Orion

Unknown, Bust Homer BM 1825, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
Bust of the Greek poet Homer. Wikimedia Commons

Orion’s first literary appearance is in Homer’s 8th century BCE tale of the Trojan War, The Iliad. Homer refers to him as “huge” Orion as he was renowned for his large stature. Later in the epic, Homer tells of the Trojan King Priam spotting the Greek hero Achilles approaching the walls of Troy, seeking revenge for the death of his beloved friend Patroclus. Achilles rapidly crosses the plain toward the city to do battle with the only Trojan warrior who stayed to fight him, Troy’s greatest fighter, Hector.

Achilles, dressed in armor newly forged by the god Vulcan, shines so brightly that he is as “resplendent as the star Autumnal, of all the stars in the dead of night conspicuous most, and named Orion’s dog.” Homer is referring to the star Sirius, which represented the hunter’s dog. It’s the brightest star in the night sky, located near Orion’s right foot.  

In Homer’s second epic poem, The Odyssey, he mentions Orion several times. He tells us that Orion is the “finest” of all the “children that were ever born in this world,” and that Odysseus sees the shade of Orion during a dreaded trip to the Underworld.  

Odysseus, Calypso, and Orion

The nymph Calypso falls in love with Odysseus and enchants him, detaining him for seven years to make him her mortal husband. Odysseus’ patron goddess Athena intervenes and asks Zeus to set him free as it was not his destiny to live with Calypso forever. When Hermes goes to convey the god’s order that Calypso set Odysseus free, Calypso trebles with rage at the gods:  

“You gods,” she exclaimed, “ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony. So when rosy-fingered Dawn made love to Orion, you precious gods were all of you furious till Diana went and killed him in Ortygia”.  

Ancient Greek Navigation

Homer later tells us how Odysseus uses the constellation Orion to find his way to his home Ithaca in the Greek Ionian islands. Odysseus sails on a raft from Calypso’s island home during the night. Homer tells us,  

“Sleep never fell upon his eyelids as he watched the Pleiades and late-setting Boötes, and the Bear that men also call the Wagon; she turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion, and she alone has no share in the baths of Ocean. Calypso the goddess had told him to keep her on his left hand in his sailing.”  

By keeping the Bear (Ursa Major, aka The Big Dipper), which turns around the North Pole and never touches the horizon to his left, and then looking for Orion straight ahead, Homer is telling us that Odysseus steered towards the east. That is the only time Homer discusses navigation in his epics. 

Orion rising above the last colors of twilight reminds us of the marriage of Astraeus, the god of dusk, and Eos, goddess of dawn.
Photo Credit Till CrednerOrionCCCC BY-SA 3.0

Hesiod’s Works and Days

With numerous bright stars in an easily recognized pattern, Orion was not only used for navigation but reckoning the time of year.  In Hesiod’s Works and Days written about 700 BCE, he instructs us to, “Set your slaves to winnow Demeter’s holy grain, when strong Orion first appears […]” This would be late July.

Next, he says, “But when Orion and Sirius are come into mid-heaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus, then cut off all the grape-clusters […]” This is mid-October.

Hesiod then reminds us about year’s end, “But when the Pleiades and Hyades and strong Orion begin to set, then remember to plough in season: and so the completed year will fitly pass beneath the earth.”  

More Conflicting Myths

As with tales of Orion’s birth, stories of Orion’s death are contradictory. We saw in The Odyssey, Orion was killed by Diana. (Diana is the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature. She’s equated with the Roman goddess Artemis.) 

Another myth tells of Orion, possibly drunk, boasting to Artemis and her mother Leto, that since he was born from the earth, he can kill anything which came from the earth. Gaia, the personification of the Earth itself, takes offense and brings forth a giant scorpion. With a giant shudder, the scorpion emerged from a crack in the earth. The scorpion is presumed to have stung Orion to death.

That story is now immortalized with the constellation Scorpio on the opposite side of the sky from Orion, the two in a constant chase across the night sky. As Scorpio rises in the east, Orion tries to flee into the west. In 4 CE, Germanicus Caesar wrote in his adaption of Aratus 3rd century BCE Greek poem Phenomena, “Wretched Orion still fears being wounded by the poisonous sting of the scorpion.” 

Chinese Astronomy

The Chinese knew Orion as Shen, also a great hunter or warrior. Considering the outline that can be drawn between Orion’s stars, it’s not surprising that the Chinese identified this asterism as a man. It’s one of the rare instances where both Europeans and Chinese imagined the stars in the same way. The four stars that form his outline, three for his belt, and even the Sword of Orion, were identified as a “sword” by the ancient Chinese.   

Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians associated these stars with Osiris, the dying and rising sun-god of rebirth and resurrection. They connected his appearance each year with the annual floods of the Nile River.  

There is a controversial theory that the Giza Pyramids represent the stars in Orion’s belt. There is a geometric similarity, and the visual correlation is striking. Funerary texts do make mention of Sahu, the earliest Egyptian representation of Orion. But this theory has been pretty much refuted.  

The Stars of Orion

Orion contains two of the skies’ brightest stars – Rigel and Betelgeuse. These two stars make an interesting pair.  

Rigel is the brightest star in Orion and the 7th most brilliant in the sky, as seen from Earth. It’s a blue-white supergiant that is from 120,000 to 279,000 times as bright as the Sun. Rigel has used up all the hydrogen in its core, and it has expanded to about 100 times the Sun’s radius. It’s a binary star, with a companion that’s 500 times fainter and only visible with a telescope. In the southern hemisphere, Rigel is the first star visible in Orion as the constellation rises. In celestial navigation, Rigel is one of the most important as it’s near the equator and bright. It can be seen anywhere in the world except from latitude 82°N and higher.

Betelgeuse is the second brightest star in Orion and the 9th in the night sky as seen from Earth. It’s a red supergiant and one of the largest stars visible to the naked eye. Its diameter is nearly as large as the orbit of Jupiter! Yet its mass is estimated to be only as much as 10 to 20 Suns. For the northern hemisphere, it rises in the east just after sunset in January. Astronomers expect Betelgeuse to go supernova in as little as 100,000 years. What a sight that would be to see! 

A close-up of the three stars, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, which comprise the Belt of Orion.

Photo Credit: Davide De Martin (http://www.skyfactory.org); Credit: Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sword of Orion 

Orion’s sword contains an amazing assortment of objects to photograph. It includes three stars pointing southward and perhaps what it’s best known for, the Orion Nebula. This nebula has the Messier Object designation M42 and is a massive cloud of molecules that is 30 to 40 light-years in diameter. It’s about 1300 light-years from Earth, so it appears quite large in our sky. It contains what’s called a stellar nursery, a popular location for studying the birth of stars. It’s a significant feature of the Sword. It’s such an iconic object. 

The Sword also contains the Running Man Nebula. It’s difficult to see even with telescopes, but it shows up as the outline of a running man in photographs. 

Winter Triangle 

Like the summer skies, there is a triangle asterism in the northern hemisphere skies as well. A nearly equilateral triangle can be formed with Betelgeuse in Orion’s right shoulder, Sirius, the Dog Star, and nearby Procyon in the constellation Canis Minor. These stars are also known as the Great Southern Triangle.  

This triangle lies high in the sky during the winter of mid-northern latitudes. In springtime, it can be seen to the west in the evening hours. It appears upside down to viewers in the southern hemisphere and is up during the summer months there.  

Find Orion for Yourself

If you’ve not learned to find Orion, use the images above in this article to locate it. In January, head out after dusk ends and look towards the southeast. Orion should be near the horizon. Look for Rigel and Betelgeuse, and then find the three stars of his belt. It’s a distinctive pattern. It’s really easy to find. Once you find those, the rest will fall into place since so many of the stars are bright. It can be seen even with moderate light pollution.  

Adapted from www.keyesphoto.com Astro-Landscape Photography Notes for December 2018

kdk 583, 1/19/20