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Celestial Hunter

Winter is, realistically, a couple of months away. Most of our trees still have their leaves, now in their party colors for one last hurrah before surrendering to the inevitable. And yet, if you happen to be outside before sunrise, you’ll find the constellation that I most associate with the winter sky, riding high in the south.

Mouse over the image, please!

Now on the Ram’s left flank and together with its tenth degree rises Orion; mightiest of constellations he girdles with his course the mighty skies: when Orion shines over the horizon drawing heaven in his train, night feigns the brightness of day and folds its dusky wings.

-Marcus Manilius, Astronomica

 

Orion the Hunter is one of the most prominent and interesting constellations in the sky. It’s absolutely loaded with stuff. Aside from the first-magnitude stars Rigel and Betelgeuse, I can also show you the Orion Nebula, in Orion’s sword, in this two second exposure with a 28mm lens. But when it’s photographed by someone with better skills and equipment, you get this:

Photo by Rogelio Bernal Andreo and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Is that not one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring photos you’ve ever seen? Anyway, now you can see all the nebulae of the Orion Molecular Cloud complex. The most obvious feature, that big red crescent on the left, is Barnard’s Loop, an emission nebula 518-1435 light years from Earth, making it 100-300 light years across depending on the actual distance. But that’s not even close to everything that can be found. There’s also the Horsehead Nebula,

NASA photo, Public Domain.

the Flame Nebula

NASA photo, Public Domain.

and still others including De Mairan’s Nebula (M43), M78, NGC 1999 and the Monkey Head Nebula (NGC 2174), which has to be the coolest astronomical name ever.

Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse marks Orion’s right shoulder—I know it’s on the left, but unless he has his back to us, that’s his right shoulder— and is a red supergiant, one of the largest and most luminous stars we can see. If Betelgeuse took our Sun’s place, it would engulf the inner solar system at least as far out as the asteroid belt and maybe as far as the orbit of Jupiter. Voted “Most Likely to Explode in a Type II Supernova” by it’s peers, Betelgeuse may in fact already be gone since it take it’s light more than 600 years to reach us. That probably hasn’t happened yet though, but sometime in the near future—say within a million years or so—she’s gonna blow.

Rigel

Rigel, on the other hand, is a triple-star system, the primary star being a blue-white supergiant, the brightest star in Orion and the seventh brightest star as seen from Earth. Rigel is 79 times the Sun’s radius and 120,000 times brighter. Like Betelgeuse, Rigel has burned through it’s hydrogen and is now fusing heavy elements in it’s core. It too is reaching the end of it’s supergiant life, but may well end with a whimper (turning into a white dwarf) instead of a bang (supernova.)

The Rigel system is obviously heavily populated, being home to a species of intelligent turtles (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), a humanoid, super-powered race of space colonizers (Marvel Comics Universe, Thor primarily) and 7-foot tall, drooling one-eyed creatures with eight tentacles and red-pupiled eyes (The Simpsons). Apparently, the short, grey aliens so popular with the UFO community also originate in the Rigel system. Alrighty, then.

Orion in Mythology

Orion is an ancient constellation, one of the few known to the earliest Greek writers, Hesiod, Homer and others. Looking heavenward, we see Orion defending himself from a charging Taurus the Bull.

Illustration from Atlas celeste de Flamsteed by Jean Fortin, 1776. Downloaded from Google Books.

 

He is also trailed by his dogs, Canis Major (which includes the Dog Star, Sirius) and Canis Minor. Canis Minor contains only two stars, the brightest being Procyon, the Little Dog Star. A relatively youthful constellation, it was first documented by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. I have to say that I realize the folks who came up with the constellations had wonderful imaginations, lots of time to do nothing but look at the stars and very dark skies, but coming up with a dog from only two stars?  How exactly does that happen?

The myth of Orion doesn’t mention any combat with a bull, so the depiction of such doesn’t really make any sense. At least not until you learn that the constellation originated with the Sumerians where it represented their greatest hero, Gilgamesh, battling the Bull of Heaven. Cool, huh?

But that only brings another question to mind. I’m going to be lazy here and quote a paragraph from Star Tales by Ian Ridpath:

Gilgamesh was the Sumerian equivalent of Heracles, which brings us to another puzzle. Being the greatest hero of Greek mythology, Heracles deserves a magnificent constellation such as this one, but in fact is consigned to a much more obscure area of sky. So is Orion really Heracles in another guise? It might seem so, for one of the labours of Heracles was to catch the Cretan bull, which would fit the Orion–Taurus conflict in the sky. Ptolemy described him with club and lion’s pelt, both familiar attributes of Heracles, and he is shown this way on old star maps. Despite these facts, no mythologist hints at a connection between this constellation and Heracles.

I didn’t know the part about the Sumerians and I find this all to be fascinating, layer upon layer.

There are at least two birth myths for Orion. In the first, he was the son of Euryale, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and Poseidon, god of the seas. Thanks to Poseidon, Orion had the power to walk on water. In Homer’s Odyssey, Orion is a giant hunter with an unbreakable bronze club. Honestly, that’s pretty pedestrian for a Greek myth. The other is a little less so.

An old farmer, named Hyrieus, lived in Thebes and offered food and drink to three strangers. The strangers turned out to be Zeus, Neptune and Hermes who asked Hyrieus if he had any wishes. He did: he wanted a son. The three gods fulfilled this by standing around the hide of the ox they had just eaten, urinating on it and telling Hyrieus to bury the hide. Months later, a boy was born whom Hyrieus named Urion (an early form of Orion) because of how he was conceived. Now that’s a birth myth, but it kinda makes me want to say “Ew!” I guess it could have been worse—the old farmer could have named him “Peeter”! Smile

There are also multiple variants of the myth concerning his death. The first begins with Orion bragging that he could kill any animal, regardless of how dangerous they might be and that he planned to kill all the animals on Earth. Gaia, the Earth goddess, was less than pleased with Orion’s boast and created a gigantic scorpion to eliminate him. The scorpion was so heavily armored that Orion could do him no damage but was stung to death in the attempt. Orphiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, provided an antidote which revived Orion. All three are in the sky, with Orion and Scorpius far apart, never in the sky at the same time, with Orphiucus between them.

"Scorpio", plate 23 in Urania's Mirror, a set of celestial cards accompanied by A familiar treatise on astronomy by Jehoshaphat Aspin. Public Domain.

The other story is more involved. It began with Orion falling in love with Merope, granddaughter of the god Dionysis, on the island of Chios. Her father, Oenopion, agreed to the marriage only on the condition that Orion kill all the dangerous beasts on the island. That was right in Orion’s wheelhouse, so he promptly met the condition. Oenopion had no intention of letting the marriage take place and kept making excuses to prevent it. Orion, frustrated and drunk on wine, forced himself on Merope. While Orion was still drunk, Oenopion blinded him in revenge.

Speaking with an oracle, Orion was told to travel east seeking the Sun’s morning rays. The sound of a Cyclops’ hammer led him to Lemnos and the forge of Vulcan. Vulcan took pity upon Orion and provided one of his men, Kedalion, to be his guide. Orion placed Kedalion on his shoulders and continued to the east, eventually meeting the sun-god, Helios, who restored his sight.

Now hot for revenge himself, Orion went to find Oenopion, but landed in Crete along the way. There he met the huntress Artemis, a match made in heaven if there ever was one. But there has to be a fly in the ointment and in this case it was Artemis’ brother Apollo, who didn’t care for Orion. But tricking your sister into shooting her lover by challenging her to hit a speck in the sea, which of course was Orion’s head as he was swimming, is a shitty thing to do, god or no god. Artemis was so upset she arranged for Orion to be placed among the stars. I imagine she at least had a few harsh words or worse (I hope) for Apollo.

Orion is also associated in myth with the Pleiades star cluster, in Taurus. The Pleiades, or seven sisters, were the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Orion fell in love with the sisters and pursued them, though it may have actually been their mother he was after. Zeus, apparently having had enough, tossed them all among the stars where Orion still follows them across the sky each night.

Conclusion

Far into the future, the constellation of Orion will drift apart, thanks to proper motion. However, Orion’s brightest stars lie so far from the Earth, even on an astronomical scale, that Orion will remain long after most other constellations, whose stars are relatively near-by, have become distorted and no longer recognizable. I find that comforting for some reason.

Well, this has snowballed out of control a little, hasn’t it? I think we’ll wrap it up here and I’m going to go take a nap. ‘Til next time.

 

References:

Bell, Cathy. “Orion.” The Mythology of the Constellations:. Accessed October 24, 2015.

“Betelgeuse Will Explode Someday.” EarthSky. Accessed October 24, 2015. http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/betelgeuse-will-explode-someday.

“Betelgeuse.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betelgeuse.

“Canis Minor.” Constellation on Top Astronomer. Accessed October 24, 2015. http://www.topastronomer.com/StarCharts/Constellations/Canis-Minor.php.

Flamsteed, John, and J. Fortin. Atlas Céleste De Flamstéed, Approuvé Par L’Académie Royal Des Sciences, Et Publié Sous Le Privilege De Cette Compagnie. 2. Éd. ed. Paris: Chez F.G. Deschamps [et Chez] L’auteur, 1776.

Grey, Kevin. “The Myth of Orion.” Stars and Constellations. Accessed October 24, 2015. http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/extra/OrionStory.html.

“Orion.” Greek Myth about the Hunter. Accessed October 24, 2015. http://www.windows2universe.org/mythology/orion.html.

“Orion (constellation).” Wikipedia. Accessed October 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_(constellation).

Peat, Chris. “Mythology of the Constellation Orion.” Mythology of the Constellation Orion. Accessed October 24, 2015. http://www.heavens-above.com/myth.aspx?con=ori&lat=0&lng=1&loc=Unspecified&alt=0&tz=CET&cul=en.

Ridpath, Ian. Star Tales. New York: Universe Books, 1988.

“Rigel.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 24, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigel.

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