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The myths of Orion

Feb 5, 2013

For those voyagers in northern latitudes the winter months are the perfect time to contemplate the celestial sphere above us and re-familiarize ourselves with the night sky constellations. Even though we don’t use constellations in celestial navigation per se, knowing something about them can help with identifying stars. Plus, telling the myths associated with the stars is a fun way to get people interested in celestial navigation.

Orion and Taurus have some of the most recognizable navigational stars. (There are 57 listed in the Nautical Almanac.) Stars with familiar names like Rigel, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, as well as the two dog stars, Sirius (Canis Major) and Procyon (Canis Minor). 

The myth of Orion stalking Taurus is one we’ve inherited from the Greeks, but there are many older myths about the constellation. In the Greek story, Orion was the greatest of hunters, who bragged that he was capable of hunting and killing any living animal. This excess of pride was alarming to the Earth goddess, Gaia, who could tolerate much but not that. In order to bring Orion down a notch or two, Gaia sent a scorpion to even the score and put things right in the world. How this plan fared can be observed in the movement of the constellations of both Orion and Scorpio. As the seasons progress and Scorpio rises in the east, after the vernal equinox, Orion, seemingly stung and dying sinks to the west. When winter is upon us, it is Orion who rises in the east and a vanquished scorpion falls to the west, killed it is said by Aesculapius, the great healer who resuscitates Orion. 

The story though is much older than that, going back certainly to the ancient Egyptians to around 2,700 BCE. For the Egyptians, Orion represented Osiris, the great Egyptian god of the dead. It is believed that the fourth dynasty pyramids at Giza were laid out in such a manner as to reflect the earthly manifestation of Osiris. In this case it is believed that the river Nile mirrors the Milky Way. In Egyptian iconography, Osiris (Orion) is seen floating on a boat on the Milky Way.

Osiris traveled with his consort Isis, represented by the star that we call Sirius. It was the rising of this star; the brightest in the sky that the Egyptians believed caused the Nile to flood. Hang on. It gets better.

The Egyptians believed that Osiris was in the form of the constellation that we know as Orion. They referred to him as Sah and he is depicted in pyramids standing in a boat with arm raised looking back at Isis who, in the case of the Egyptians, was portrayed as a reclining crow sailing in her own celestial boat. This is the story then, not of a hunter and his faithful dog, but of a pharaoh and his faithful bride, at least according to the Egyptians.

There is yet another story, this one from the Hindu texts. In this story, Orion’s belt is actually an arrow aimed at the supreme god, Prajapati, who was attracted to his daughter, Rohit, the dawn. In order to consummate this incestuous affair, he changed himself into a deer, a buck, and his daughter changed herself in to a celestial doe. All of this was observed by the other gods who were put off by this ungodly behavior and had an arrow shot at Prajapati, killing him. According to the Hindis, the celestial doe, Rohit, is the star we know as Aldebaran, and the hunter in this case is actually Sirius. 

And so it goes. Whatever myth you choose to believe, when you look at the stars at night, contemplate the stories we have been making up since we began telling stories. The imaginations of human kind projected into the world always attempting to create order from the chaos that surrounds us. Much of the joy of using celestial navigation is in getting in touch with these ancient myths. For more reading, see “The Starlore Handbook” by Geoffrey Cornelius, and the Dover publication “Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning” by Richard H. Allen.

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Feb 6, 2013 03:01 pm
 Posted by

It's unfortunate that people are still recommending Richard H. Allen's "Star Names" book. That book was published 114 years ago, and its author included a great deal of pseudo-scholarship that is now known to be false. It's a real mess. The best modern work on star names and some constellation lore is "A Dictionary of Modern Star Names" by Kunitsch and Smart. Another excellent resource is "Star Tales" by Ian Ridpath.

It is seriously misleading to claim that Orion is connected with the pyramids without any qualification. That claim, despite its brief "pop" appeal in the 1990s, has been largely rejected by scholars. Here's a little background: It was fun in "Stargate SG-1" but let's not confuse science fiction with real history.

Frank Reed

Feb 6, 2013 05:58 pm
 Posted by  Brennan

Is there much point in arguing about myths, Frank?

Feb 6, 2013 11:30 pm
 Posted by  David-S

I think the comment about arguing over myths is funny, but off base.

In this age of sending around so much BS on the Internet, when a small effort verifies the truth of what was received, it behooves us all to kill the fallacies whenever we can. Navigation is an applied science, and science constantly seeks the truth. It's fun to hear about the constellation myths. It's too bad that people still believe in birth "signs" and astrology. How many charlatans are out there preying on people's belief in nonsense?

Feb 8, 2013 01:32 pm
 Posted by  Roy M

Any comments on Mintaka, one of the belt stars of Orion, which rises in the east and sets in the west? Anything from Polynesian lore?

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