In last week’s column I described at least some of the celestial treasures waiting for you within the great constellation Orion the Hunter. You can have a lot of fun checking them out in our Rochester sky with even a small telescope or binoculars. You can dig for other treasures just by browsing "celestial objects in Orion" on the web where you’ll find some helpful sites. There are also smartphone apps like "Sky Guide" and great star map software such as "Stellarium," which, by the way, is absolutely free.
While Orion the Hunter is certainly rich astronomically, the mythological legends of the mighty hunter are equally rich. One of my favorite stories about Orion comes from Greek and Roman mythology. I have to warn you that this tale may be different from the ones you might have already heard. Since these stories were mainly passed down by word of mouth, they can take on variations. Is there such a thing as the correct mythology anyway?
Ever since he was a boy, Orion, like a lot of boys, took a real liking to hunting. He developed the discipline of patience that he would need on long stakeouts. He also sharpened his senses of smell and sight, and especially night vision. That was essential since most serious hunting took place overnight. Back then hunting wasn’t just a sport but a way of life that Orion embraced.
Orion grew up to be a large and handsome young man, and like most hunters he preferred being a hermit hunter. While he didn’t have human company, he traveled with two faithful hunting dogs that sniffed out potential prey and chased them down. Orion also traveled with a massive club and shield to fend off large human predators like lions, bears, or wild boar.
Orion’s favorite prey was wild hare. Many times, the hares would outsmart and outrun him and his dogs, but when they caught one it was a sumptuous feast for both he and his hounds. He would also place a little bit of meat on hot coals to offer a sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of hunting.
Artemis would watch over hunters and do the best she could to keep them safe. Since he was so handsome, Artemis took a real liking to Orion and even accompanied him on some of his hunts. Orion began to respond to Artemis’s affection. Suddenly though, Artemis had to cut off this fling, because gods and goddesses were not supposed to have romances with mortals. Zeus, the king of the gods, was Artemis’s father and she didn’t want to incur his wrath.
Even though they remained friends, Orion was bummed out, but life and the hunts went on. Romance was still on his mind though. In his travels he would periodically run into seven orphaned daughters of Atlas, one of the former chief gods that Zeus overthrew. Even though he imposed never-ending punishment on Atlas, Zeus had a soft spot in his heart for his daughters.
Orion’s interest in the seven daughters intensified and he began to pursue them much more aggressively. The young ladies pleaded for help from Zeus. He responded by changing them into a flock of doves and eventually into the bright Pleiades star cluster that still adorns our autumn and winter heavens.
That incensed Orion! He became a madman, reckless hunter that ravaged the countryside, trampling fauna, as well as looting and destroying the camps of other hunters. The goddess Gaea, the grandmother of Zeus and the goddess of the earth had to stop this menace, permanently!
She whipped up a significantly oversized scorpion to hunt down and kill Orion. Its deadly stinger was full of venom, much more potent and deadly than any snake.
On a moonless night she sent the scorpion out after his human prey. A few nights later, he found Orion, snuck up, and jumped him from behind. Orion managed to shake him off but a battle ensued that went on all night. Orion was getting the best of the beast. He was just about to land a crushing and killing blow with his club when he tripped over a giant boulder and hit the ground. That was the Scorpion’s big chance. It quickly thrust its heavily poisoned stinger into Orion's heart and that was it; the hunter was history!
Shortly after, Artemis discovered the lifeless body of Orion. She also could see in the distance the giant scorpion in retreat. Out of deep grief and anger the goddess grabbed the scorpion and flung it so far into the sky that it became the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. Artemis then returned to the slain Orion and wept over him for hours and hours. Finally, she cradled his body in her arms and flew off with him. When she was high enough in the sky, she gently tossed Orion a little higher, turning him into the bright constellation we still see on winter nights. She also tossed up Orion’s hunting dogs and a wild hare into the heavens along with him to keep her dead former boyfriend company. We still see them as the constellations Canis Major and Minor, the big and little dog respectively, and Lepus the Hare.
As a bonus, she made sure Orion was close to the Pleiades so he could forever admire their heavenly beauty. Her father Zeus placed Taurus the Bull between the Seven Little Sisters and Orion. Even in death the rogue hunter couldn’t be trusted!
Such drama in the night sky!