There are warriors, kings, beasts and myths in our skies. If that kind of thing is your bag then I urge you to delve into Ancient Egyptian religion, because the whole thing is basically one elaborate star chart, it’s glorious. We in the so-called ‘Western World’, though, inherited most of ours from the Greeks, via the Romans.
Allow me to interrupt a chat about stuff in space to give a brief summary of history. The Etruscans were an Ancient Italian people with a culture similar to the Greeks, versus the Latins who were another group of Italian people about which we know less than we know of the Etruscans. What we know, however, is these Latins got somewhat bored with being little more than an eclectic group of migrant farmers merged into one village and fancied themselves a bit of culture so they either merged with, and/or murdered the Etruscans and nicked their business. The people would eventually grow their small village into a Kingdom and become known as Romans. From here they pretty much dominated (at various points, the borders changed,) the world from Britain and Portugal to the West, Iraq in the East, as far south as the Sahara and as far north as about the top of the Netherlands. They controlled, basically, the entire Mediterranean basin.
The thing is they did not forget their roots easily. They were big on history, big on document, big on legend, big on ancestor worship and respect. If they thought it made them who they were they respected it. So much so that their greatest ever enemy, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, had statues built in his honour to respect such a worthy adversary.
The Romans were a war-y sort of people, though. They were not prone to sentiment, pretension or over-culturalising their achievements. That is until they nicked Greece. By the time the Romans had brought this Hellenic (a fancy word for Ancient Greece) world within its grasp it morphed into something different. This culture of titans, of vast columns, huge temples, poetry and plays, humble pomp and favourable circumstance appealed to the sort of Roman who looked for ways to aggrandise himself – and no, I’m not being sexist here, Rome was being sexist. Women didn’t even have proper names for fuck’s sake – without sacrificing his pietas, his piety, his devotion to his nation, to selfishness.
The Greeks were very keen astrologers. It was a habit of superstition they had nabbed, themselves, from the Egyptians, but one they made at least semi-scientific. Of course they were still a bit rubbish, they didn’t have telescopes or binoculars available to be delivered to their door like we have now. That didn’t stop them creating the Antikythera device, which seems for all archaeological investigation to be the oldest known mechanical astronomical computer.
To cut a very long, thousands of years old story short, we inherit most of our planet, star and comet names from this Graeco-Roman culture, and most importantly we inherited their celestial observations and tales by means of what we call ‘constellations’.
Look up at the sky with the naked eye and they actually seem to be a thing but by the time you’ve pointed your binos at them you’ll realise what you’re looking at is someone else’s ghost in a fluttering curtain, or a branch tapping on the window. They’re a nonsense with modern observation equipment, for the most part. While there are bright points, you’d have to be very learned to know what you’re looking at through a small aperture, and very disciplined not to get distracted by all the, frankly, more interesting stuff behind it.
Look, constellations aren’t boring, they tend to be arbitrary collections of some of the most interesting junk to look at in our universe. It’s just, they’re not ‘real’ and I, personally, have a problem with that. At best they are useful for a little bit of celestial navigation, at worst they’re a meaningless distraction, a confusing and arbitrary grouping that doesn’t help anyone learn the sky.
Orion is globally recognisable. He’s a tough one, too. He is most visible in winter, whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere.
His mythology is classic Greekness. He’s the son of a Gorgon and a God who is also massive, for some reason. He offended Gaia so much by suggesting he would kill every animal on the planet that she tried to kill him with a scorpion. He’s also a massive rapist, but the similarity between Greek mythological figures and Hollywood producers is they’re all rapists. There are few demigods who aren’t born of some rape or deceit, it’s utterly deplorable but this was thousands of years ago before they had properly invented cups of tea and zip-up trouser flies, so what do you expect?
Why do I let Orion off the hook as a pointless constellation? One: because of his prominence. He can be seen in the northern and southern hemisphere and so can be used as a sky-navigation aid for everyone. Two: he’s got two very cool celestial things in him and one as a nearby companion.
One of Orion’s shoulders (I won’t tell you which one, let’s see if you can figure it out) is pointed out by the large red blobby star of Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is cool for a few reasons. Firstly, it gave its name to a visually awesome and very entertaining Tim Burton spook flick starring Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. I had the action figures when I was a kid, I loved that movie, even though I was far too young to understand the connotations within it. It was visually slick, cool, spookstuff. Secondly it is the home star system of both Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox from the Hitchhikers franchise, so this star is, so far, killing it.
The best thing, though? The coolest thing that will leave you hanging and begging in celestial time? It could go supernova at any minute. Betelgeuse is huge. If you find a scale diagram of our solar system, Betelgeuse’s surface is – if you place its centre at our sun – somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. It’s big, but it isn’t hot. It is about 60% as hot as the sun. This combination of size and temperature classifies Betelgeuse as a ‘red supergiant’. This is considered to be a star burning at the end of its life cycle. The combination of size and temperature means that the end of its life cycle is definitely a bang, not a whimper.
Betelgeuse could, within our lifetimes (finger’s crossed – unless it leads to some catastrophic cosmic cataclysm somehow) go supernova. That would mean it would explode and distribute its star-stuff in a cloud, becoming a nursery of new star and/or planet formation. If it happens, the supernova would be visible during the day from Earth, in fact it will be about as bright as a full-Moon. It would shine in our skies as a visible reminder that no matter how indifferent, violent and pyrotechnic our universe, it builds again, and provides beauty while doing it.
Then there’s Orion’s belt. Comprised of the stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Without a doubt one of the most famous shapes in the sky but also famous in modern times for being linked with all sorts of ancient alien conspiracies on account of the ‘fact’ that the Great Pyramids at Giza appear to be laid out in a similar formation to them. If there was any deliberate plan to mimic those stars in the layout of the pyramids it is my opinion that is was done in reverence to the star formation itself, and not, as has been suggested by some people not of sound mind, to teleport the bodies of dead pharaohs back to their true home in space.
Hanging below Orion’s belt is what many people too polite to call it Orion’s Dick call Orion’s Sword. This is not usually highlighted as an official part of the constellation but receives a lot of focus for a very good reason. Look closely, even with the naked eye, and you’ll see a smallish star surrounded by a foggy, cloudy region. This is M42 – or to give it its non-nerdy name, the Orion Nebula.
A nebula (as I explained in the first part of this guide) is a region of space full of dust and gas – usually as a result of a supernova – in which star and planet formation can take place. It’s like a nursery for stars and solar systems. Orion’s is so visible for one simple reason – it’s bloody close to us! It’s only 1,300 light years away from our solar system and is possibly the closest nebulous region to Earth. I was totally ignorant of it when I first started taking my binoculars to Orion for this article so I was dead chuffed to see his cloudy little bell-end and find out what it was.
My final point of interest is Orion’s left foot – Rigel. It is opposite Betelgeuse within the constellation and opposite Betelgeuse in colour. Where Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, Rigel is a blue supergiant. The supergiant part is the same as for ‘geuse, Rigel is an old star and has spent most of its fuel. It’s blue, though, because it is still ridiculously hot. It’s a good rule of thumb for stars – the redder it is, the colder it is, the bluer it is the hotter it is. Betelgeuse’s surface temperature is somewhere around 3,250°C, our Sun is around 5,500°C, Rigel is about 12,000°C! About 20 times as massive as our sun, too, that makes Rigel one giant damn furnace and a nice thing to appreciate when you look at it.
I also mentioned that Orion has a nearby friend that is quite amazing – that’s Sirius. Sirius will get an entry all of its own. For now I hope when you’re looking up on a crisp November or December evening, and you see the figure of the hunter/warrior posing in the sky you’ll remember my lesson today. Constellations are bollocks. They’re meaningless. Who wants to praise the figure of some rapey ancient Greek tosser? What’s cooler than Orion? The star in his shoulder that’s giant, red and could explode any second, the ludicrous conspiracies regarding his belt, the massive blue furnace at his feet and the fact that his bell-end is literally a spunky star nursery.