Hunt down Orion's history

Orion the Hunter

In last week’s Starwatch, I described at least some of the celestial treasures that lie within the boundaries of my absolute favorite constellation in the sky, Orion the Hunter. Along with the Orion Nebula there’s much to explore in and around it with that new telescope you may have gotten for Christmas.

Orion, in my opinion, is by far the best constellation in the Rochester sky. It’s so bright and well defined. As soon as evening begins it will be there, proudly shining in the southeast sky, resembling a giant crooked bow tie or a tilted hourglass. The three bright stars in a perfect row that make up Orion’s belt really jump out at you.

While Orion the hunter is certainly rich astronomically, the mythological legend of the mighty hunter is equally as rich. He’s even mentioned in the Bible three times. Many different cultures have their own story of this ancient constellation and most of them have him as an imposing character, which is no surprise considering the show the constellation puts on in our celestial dome.

My favorite tale trickles down from Greek and Roman mythology and involves Artemis, the goddess of the moon. Orion the hunter was a real man’s man. He was also a rather shy giant who didn’t like to mix with other people, so he moved to a large but deserted island where he could hunt and fish to his heart’s content. He was big and burly and he lived for hunting and fishing. Like most of the animals he was after, Orion was nocturnal. He stalked and hunted by night and slept under a giant tree by day. He never had to see or hear about the Kardashians!

Life was great for Orion. The hermit hunter was living his dream. Every night he was out there slaying beasts of all kinds. He also had a secret admirer — Artemis, the great moon goddess. Every night, Artemis guided her moon chariot with magical flying horses. She really wanted to be with the mighty hunter. Artemis wanted to jump down and be with her unsuspecting lover, but she held back because she knew that would get her in a lot of trouble with her father, Zeus, the king of the gods. Artemis would be ignoring her duties as moon goddess, but much worse than that, it was a big no-no for gods and goddesses to be mixing with mortals.


So there she was, stranded in the sky night after night with the moon and those silly flying horses, being denied the company of Orion. One night, Artemis couldn’t take it anymore and headed on down to Orion’s island. It was love at first sight. Orion quickly gave up on the hermit thing after one look at the goddess. She changed out of her royal robe, put on hunter’s blaze orange and hunted with him the rest of the night. But when dawn approached she jumped back up to the moon chariot and raced it to the horizon. The next night she halted the moon in mid-sky again and joined her new love for another night of hunting.

This hunting love affair went on night after night. Eventually Zeus found out, but he didn’t want to lose the love of his daughter. So he hatched a scheme to have Orion killed during the day and make it look like an accident. He made arrangements for a giant scorpion to be dropped on Orion’s island and fatally sting the hunter in his sleep.

As Orion slept off another night of successful hunting with his divine girlfriend, the steroid enhanced scorpion crawled into his camp. But Orion had a security system. His buddy, a loud mockingbird, sounded the alarm. Orion bolted up as the scorpion attacked and an hours-long battle ensued. As evening set in, Orion had the scorpion in a headlock and had just about broken its neck, but Orion was distracted when he saw Artemis rising with the moon in the east. The scorpion managed to break out of the hunter’s hold and sting Orion’s neck. In a few minutes it was all over for our hunter.

Artemis raced to the scene but she was too late. Her boyfriend was a goner. The moon goddess grabbed the killer scorpion by the tail 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 into her arms and flew off to the sky. When she was high enough she gently tossed Orion a little higher in the sky, turning him into a bright constellation.

Artemis made sure that Orion was on the opposite side of the sky from the scorpion that assassinated him. That’s why we never see the constellations Orion and Scorpius in the sky at the same time. As soon as Orion rises in the east, the scorpion sets in the west and vice versa. That’s also why Orion is a winter constellation and Scorpius rides the summer evening sky.

Such drama in the night sky.

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