Celestial Classics: Orion

Orion The Hunter – A mythological figure, and a constellation clinging to our dark skies (Credit: GDJ via Pixabay)

CONTENT WARNING: May contain Ancient Greeks, therefore…just…rape, everywhere.

Inching his way, stalking his prey, Orion has been rising in prominence in the Northern Hemisphere skies for a few months now. He is one of only a few notable constellations to appear in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere skies, and as I have argued in my previous article about him, basically one of the few constellations actually worth noting.

I covered a lot of the astronomy in that article. Orion is a constellation – a collection of objects in the night sky that we decided looked a bit like a thing so we said it was a thing. Somewhere in human history, like kicking up dust and making shapes out of clouds on a hot summer’s day, humans looked up at night and played a mental game of dot-to-dot.

The constellation of Orion, your view/his angle may vary. Likely the two brightest stars will be his upper shoulder, the vibrant and (even with the naked eye obviously) red Betelgeuse and his lower foot, the blue-hot Rigel. For more information about these stars read my article exclusively on the astronomy of Orion. (Credit:
Anirban Nandi CC-BY-3.0)

The constellation of Orion contains a few things of note. Betelgeuse, one of the largest objects in the universe visible with our naked eye is the red twinkle of his one shoulder, his opposite foot, Rigel being opposite in more than just direction. While Betelgeuse is large, red and cool, Rigel is small, white and hot.

Around about where his dick should be (on what astronomers politely call Orion’s Sword) is the Orion nebula, a magnificent milky blue region that if you’re very lucky and somewhere dark you might even notice with the naked eye, if not even an average set of binoculars will show it.

The Orion Nebula, or M42 – I believe photographed with a filter and looking a little brighter than it would with the naked eye or a decent set of binoculars but otherwise an accurate version of what you can see with basic equipment. (Credit: CyclicalCore CC-BY-SA 3.0).

But, as mentioned, I’ve covered Orion the celestial body already. If you want a really good, detailed article go and read that one here.

What I didn’t cover in that was the myth, besides a brief and flippant passage. More important than the myth of Orion, I didn’t cover what the myth of Orion tells us about transmission of myth through the ages, which is actually one of the most interesting things about Orion.

Orion’s story is first documented, like much of the mythology of the time, around 800BCE, pretty concurrent with the founding of Ancient Greek culture as we know it. This is not to say his story was invented at that time. Far from it, it is likely the myths and legends written at the time were parts of much longer held oral histories, stories told around hearths and campfires.

It is likely the stories were first written down by Hesiod, active around 750-650BCE, he probably didn’t actually live 100 years but trying to pin down the specific birthdate of an Ancient Greek is like trying to keep an eel still on a slip-and-slide.

Bigfoot? Tar Man? Seneca? It could be any of these things but it is proposed to be a bronze bust of a fictional portrayal of Hesiod. Because as I said, trying to get anything solid on an Ancient Greek is next to impossible. (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen CC-BY-2.5)

So, too, is trying to find and identify all their works so the actual work in which Hesiod talks of Gods and myths is lost.

Thus what he had to say about Orion mainly comes to us via (allegedly) Eratosthenes, one of those Greeks who was the intellectual equivalent of a handy-man. He could do little odd-jobs everywhere in academia. He was also, at one point, chief librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria – you know, the one was famously burned down by Christians except it wasn’t.

I say allegedly, even the  second-hand interpretations of Hesiod’s work by Eratosthenes, a collection of Hellenistic (fancy word for old Greek) myths about the constellations titled “Katasterismoi” is, apparently debated as to its provenance. It has been attributed to Eratosthenes but, it’s back to the eel on the slip and slide.

You want to know how hard it is to pin an Ancient Greek writer down? You know Homer? Not the Simpson, the ‘writer’ of The Iliad and The Odyssey, two of the most famous works of Ancient literature, put to paper by a ‘man’ named ‘Homer’. Well it turns out he’s like the Jesus of literature in that it’s questionable whether or not the ‘man’ even existed. It’s questionable whether or not the same man wrote the Illiad and the Odyssey and it’s highly likely ‘he’ did not write them at all. It is much more likely they stem from a longer legacy of oral tradition, and were probably dictated sometime around 800-600 BCE.

What’s the point? Well let’s get to the myth of Orion, as interpreted from Hesiod, allegedly by Eratosthenes and then maybe you’ll start to see the point.

Apparently an etching of Eratosthenes, a Greek polymath who, on top of writing the version of the Orion myth as we know it, likely from Hesiod, also quite accurately measured the circumference of the Earth and it’s axial tilt, and came up with an easy means of identifying prime numbers…Smartarse! (Credit: Some old Book, Public Domain)

Orion was the son of Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea and Euryale, either a Gorgon, the daughter of King Minos or both. Minos was, of course, famous King of Crete who created the Minotaur.

Now some versions of the legend have it that Orion happily married the beautiful Side, they had two daughters, but then Hera got a bit upset that Side was considered hotter than she was so had her cast into Hades, the Underworld itself, not the God by the same name. (but this comes to us later from the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus – another collection of Hellenistic myths).

Whatever happened, Orion grows up big and strong. Inheriting the power to walk on water from his dad, Orion decided to go do what all ancient Greeks seemed to do – why, does this come up every fucking time? – He went off a-rapin’!

Walking to the island of Chios and either attempting raping, or succeeded at raping the Princess Merope, the daughter of Chios’ King Oenopion. He either did this because of an unrequited attraction, because he was drunk, or both. Neither is an excuse for that sort of behaviour. Oenopion, justifiably unhappy with proceedings, blinded Orion.

Blind Orion, imagined here as a giant, stumbles in search of Helios, the Sun, to cure his afflicted sight, guided by Hermes on his shoulders – a painting by Nicolas Poussin. (Credit: Nicolar Poussin, Public Domain)

He got better.

Orion stumbled his way to the Island of Lemnos, where he met up with the forge-God Hephaestus who basically fucked him off to go see Helios who healed his eyesight. This makes perfect sense because everybody knows having direct eye-contact with the sun makes your eyes better.

Orion, not happy letting bygones be bygones, tried to get revenge on Oenopion for the revenge Oenopion took out on Orion for Orion having been a dick in the first place – I don’t know – but apparently he hid and escaped Orion’s wrath.

In a sulk, Orion made his way to Crete where he met up with Artemis and they went hunting together. At this point the question you’re probably asking is “When did he rape Artemis?” but, actually, he didn’t, because Artemis would have fucked him up because Artemis is the best. Of all of the stories of potential perversion involving Artemis the would-be perpetrator suffers an ill fate, including Orion.

You see Orion and Artemis, both being cold-hearted hunter types, had a great time. Until one of a few things happened.

In one version, as far as I can tell, Artemis kills him by accident.

In another version, the Titan Mother Earth, Gaia, sends a scorpion to kill Orion because he says he’s going to kill everything.

In another version, Artemis’ brother, Apollo, unhappy at her close relationship to this man sends a scorpion to kill Orion.

Diana (the Roman form of Artemis) mourning over the corpse of Orion. A painting by Daniel Seiter. Many people perceive the tale of Orion and Artemis as a tragic love story (Credit: Daniel Seiter, Public Domain)

Whatever happens, the Gods petition Zeus to immortalise Orion as a constellation and they do so with the scorpion as well because, why not?

Thus we get the constellations of Orion and Scorpio.

So that’s the legend. You may notice whilst the bulk of that follows the Hesiod-via-Eratosthenes version I deviate. That is because it all deviates.

None of this was written down, as far as we know, until, at the earliest, 800BCE-ish. The oral traditions themselves could be hundreds, even thousands of years older.

There are Cults to Orion (particularly around Boeotia, his suggested birthplace) leading to the potential that a warrior-worship may have co-evolved with an ancient story of a legendary hunter.

The Fountain of Orion, Messina, Sicily. The historian Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Siciliy) links Orion to Sicily in his histories. In one story Orion helps the founder of the city of Zancle (now Messina) Zanclus build a harbour, another story says Orion built the Punta de Faro – the closest point of Sicily to the mainland, to aid transport to-and-fro. Orion got around! (Credit: Sebas CC-BY-SA 3.0)

There are aspects of the myth, such as his blinding, that classicist Robert Graves associated with the myth of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, or an Hellenic legend of a solar hero being blinded at dusk only to regain sight at night – a clear allegory for darkness and light, arguably the most important sense for human beings.

His larger-than-life hero ways recall the Epic of Gilgamesh, this man running around upsetting Gods – especially if his misbehaviour is after those gods have persecuted him by disposing of his wife Side (incidentally Greek for pomegranate, the fruit of the Underworld – and of Winter – when Orion is most prominent in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere).

It is even debatable which came first, the constellation Orion or the myth Orion. Homer mentions both in the Illiad and the Odyssey whilst never making a clear identification that the two figures are the same.

For some reason we like to think of all stories, particularly mythical ones, as being very separate. Inspired by their own events, recorded for their own reasons and never meeting anywhere in the middle.

The fact is since humans could first string together noises into stories, those stories have spread, combined, diverged, elements from story X being taken by story Y, elements of story A adopted by story B until what we have is an unclear, muddled, mess of interesting tales.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven – Incidentally Orion, in the night sky, faces Taurus, the bull. Could this celestial imagery, through comparitive mythology, reveal that mankind’s earliest stories tell the tales of a celestial map? Possibly, they could also just be cool stories with similar motifs. (Credit: Lucas CC-BY-2.0)

Sir James George Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion’ is probably one of the most famous works in what we’d now probably call ‘comparative mythology’ – demonstrating the similar themes, narratives and motifs of human myths.

Even our religious saviours of today are not free of this. The Christ myth, thought to be nothing but whole-truth by so many Christians, adopts motifs from Ancient Egyptian religion, pagan Sun worship and obscure mystery cults like Mithraism that to suggest the story of this anti-Roman rebel from Judea has not been adopted into monomyth is naïve at best and deluded at worst.

So the next time you look up in the sky and see that club-wielding warrior, and his dog-companion, Sirius, remember you’re looking not just at a myth, but an embodiment of all myth.

That’s human history, written in the skies.

Missed the other Celestial Classics?
Our introduction is here
or
Find out about Proserpina
or
Ceres
or
Vesta

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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