A Complete Guide to the Mythology of the Orion Constellation

Orion constellation mythology
The myths associated with the Orion constellation takes various forms in the records and narrations available in different religions across the world. There are various anecdotes carried forward in different mythologies that string the legend of the Orion constellation together. Buzzle introduces you to the all these mythical beliefs regarding the origin of Orion in this article.
The Cold Deathbed Wish of Orion
Orion on his deathbed requested Zeus the commands over the storms of ice and cold winds to avenge the conspiracy of the Goddess of the Earth, Gaia, against him. Zeus acknowledged his request under obligation. This is why the Orion constellation is said to bring snow and frost along whenever he pays Earth a visit.
Right from his birth to his death, there is a plethora of variations to the legendary tale of the mighty hunter. The basic story-line remains almost comparable in all the interpretations around the world where Orion, in all his forms, is a great hunter. The tragic moment of the legend arrives when the hunter meet his end at the hands of a scorpion (or fights a bull in Sumerian Mythology).

Although there are different versions spun along the same story-line. Let us now delve into some of the mythologies to know more about the Orion constellation.

Greek Mythology

There are two stories associated with the birth of Orion. In one of them, Orion is the son of Poseidon (God of the Sea) and huntress Euryale. He acquired the hunting skills from his mother, and the ability to walk on water from his father. Homer in his work Odyssey, accounts Orion as exceptionally tall and armed with an unbreakable bronze club. He was the most skilled hunter of his times and was conceited by this fact. It was this vainglory of his, that he was killed by a small scorpion sent by Hera, the wife of Zeus. Zeus then had to put Orion into the sky as a consolation.

The other narration goes on to describe Orion as the creation of Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury together and gifted to the generous shepherd Hyrieus. He was blessed with unbeatable valor and charm. Such was his glory that King Oenopion appointed him to get rid of the beasts in his forest. Too arrogant in his quest, he ventured out on the king's commands. Flustered by his act, the Goddess of Earth, Gaia, sent a giant scorpion to end his quest. Orion was killed in the subsequent battle, and both he and the scorpion were placed amongst the stars.

In other versions, when he fell in love with King Oenopion's daughter, Merope (also the granddaughter of the Dionysus), the king denied his consent to this companionship. The hunter, following the denial, decided to abduct his love. One night, he got drunk and tried to force himself on her. The king was infuriated by this act. The hunter was exiled from lands of Chios after being blinded. Hephaestus felt sorry for the blind, wandering Orion and offered one of his assistants, Kedalion, to guide the hunter to the sun-god. Orion traveled east towards Helios, the sun-god and his sight was restored by the rays of the rising sun.

After the events of Chios, Orion is said to have moved to Crete. There he met the virgin huntress Artemis, (Diana in Roman Mythology), who fell in love with the hunter. In order to prevent her from giving up her vows of celibacy, her brother Apollo tricked her to kill Orion while he was out swimming in the ocean. Apollo dared her to hit his head, which looked like a floating object from a distance. Unaware of the target's reality, Artemis aimed for it with her arrow and killed it in one shot. On realizing the mistake, she was overwhelmed by sorrow and guilt. She then placed Orion in the sky amidst the stars along with his hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor.

It is also said that it was Artemis who had sent the scorpion which caused the death of Orion. Some versions also say, that it was in during his stay in Crete that Orion had gone astray and grown arrogant of his strength. He boasted to Goddess Artemis and her mother Leto that he could kill any beast on Earth, which led the goddess of the Earth, Gaia, to send a scorpion to destroy him. While in some accounts, Orion is said to be stung by the scorpion while trying to save Leto's life.

When describing the constellation, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy describes the hero with a club and lion's pelt, both of which are usually associated with Heracles, but there is no evidence in mythological texts of a direct relation between the constellation and Heracles. However, since Heracles, the most famous Greek hero, is represented by the much less conspicuous constellation Hercules, and since one of his tasks was to catch the Cretan bull, there are at least hints of a possible connection between the two. Here lies the disambiguation of Heracles with the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh.

In one myth, Orion fell in love with the Pleiades, the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione. He started pursuing them and Zeus scooped them up and placed them in the sky. The Pleiades are represented by the famous star cluster of the same name, located in the constellation Taurus. Orion can still be seen chasing the sisters across the sky at night.

Egyptian Mythology

People of Ancient Egypt related the constellation with Osiris, the god of death, afterlife and rebirth. Osiris and Isis are said to have descended from the belt of Orion and Sirius (brightest star in the sky), and then sow the seeds of human race. The three stars in the belt of the Orion are known to be the place where the soul of the god Osiris rests.

The narrations where Orion is stung to death by a scorpion can be associated with the tale of death of Horus, the child of Isis and Osiris.

Orion has also been linked with the last Egyptian Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, called Unas. In order to gain unmeasurable strength, he had wolfed the flesh of those he had conquered and the swallowed the gods. He then traveled to the skies and became the star Sabu or the Orion.

Hittities Mythology

The legend among the Hittities takes an entirely different course of narration in the second millennium before Christ. The Orion constellation is called Aqhat, the hunter. The war goddess Anat plagued by his charm tried to acquire his bow. When Aqhat declined to lend her the bow, she assigned a man to steal it. In the course of stealing, the man killed Aqhat and dropped his bow in the sea. This is how they explained the partial invisibility of the constellation beyond the horizon during spring.

Sumerian Mythology

In the night sky, Orion is perceived as defending himself against the nearby constellation of Taurus the bull. This myth finds its roots in the Sumerian mythology, where their hero Gilgamesh fights the Bull of Heaven, Taurus. The hero Gilgamesh or Orion was called URU AN-NA, which means 'the light of heaven', and termed the constellation of Taurus as 'GUD AN-NA', or 'the bull of heaven'.

Among Other Beliefs
  • Hungarians believe Orion to be the Archer (Íjász) or Scyther (Kaszás). They identified him as Nimrod, a great hunter.
  • Rig Veda, an ancient Indian scripture, refers to the constellation as the 'Mriga' (the deer).
  • The highest goddess of the Aesir, Freya, in Scandinavian mythology, is linked to the Orion. It is called Frigg's Distaff, or Friggerock, after the tool Frigg, that she used for spinning.
  • The stars of Orion's Belt and sword were coined the term 'Fire Drill' by the Aztecs. When 'Fire Drill' was seen in the sky, they performed a 'New Fire' ceremony to save the world from extinction until the next appearance of the constellation.
  • The constellation is identified as Shen, a great hunter or warrior in the Chinese mythology.
  • In Babylonian associations, Orion was called MUL.SIPA.ZI.AN.NA meaning 'The True Shepherd of Anu'.
Almost all the myths about Orion's death result in the placement of the Orion and the scorpion opposite each other in the sky. While Orion is seen in the winter, Scorpion makes its appearance during summers. Up in the sky, it seems that when one constellation rises, the other goes down in the opposite direction.
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