If you are able to see the southern sky tonight (January), the constellation we call “Orion” is prominent. It is one of the easiest constellations to pick out because of the 3 horizontal bright stars that form Orion, the hunter’s, belt and the three vertical stars that represent his sword. Located on the equatorial, it is visable to all parts of the world in both hemispheres.
What amazes me is that this very prominent constellation is not one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. It is in between and below the two Zodiac constellations Gemini and Taurus. It has been, for the Old World cultures a hunter since Greek times and for some Native American cultures, represents a very similar role as protector of the family. Some cultures associate Orion with Taurus by fantasizing that Orion is hunting Taurus, the bull.
For astronomers, this constellation holds a wealth of viewing pleasure. The Orion Nebula and the Horsehead nebula at the core of the constellation are two giant gaseous clouds that are birthing new stars into the universe. Both are visable in dark skies with high-powered binoculars or medium-sized telescopes. There are also double stars, star clusters, nebulas, and bright stars to focus on.
Something about “seeing objects” in star patterns has also prompted man to divine stories about them and their behavior. The Greek imagination still fascinates us today with their fanciful stories of gods interacting with humans. The Greek story of Orion is a perfect example where his total life is explained. The story goes that Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury were so grateful to Irieus, Orion’s father, that they granted him his wish for a son by urinating on an ox skin and burying it in the earth. Some say that “Orion” comes from the word “Urine”. He grew up to be a giant and a voracious hunter. He was blinded when he assaulted the beautiful daughter of King Oenopion. But goddess Helios fell in love with him and restored his sight. The pink sky resulted when Eos, the Dawn, blushed upon finding Orion and Helios one morning.
Apollo despised Orion and when his sister, Diana, fell in love with Orion he devised a trick. Apollo taunted his sister about her hunting skills and challenged her to shoot a black dot falling into the sea. The black dot was Orion leaping into the sea to escape the scorpion (Scorpio) that Apollo had employed to kill him. Diana hit the black dot to spite her brother, but when Orion’s body washed ashore she was so grieved, she placed Orion and the Scorpion in the sky as constellations.
Curiously, the Navajo, who named the constellation Atse Ets’ Ozi (ah-chay ets oh-see) meaning “First Slender One”, envisioned him a young, strong warrior who protected his family and people. They connected him to the constellation Atse Etsoh (ah-chay et-soh) which means the “First Big One”. This constellation represents a Navajo elder standing with a cane and holding a basket of seeds. Atse Etsoh is the upper part of the constellation we call “Scorpio”. The two constellation are never in the sky together and are seen by both the Greeks and Navajo as chasing each other
endlessly across the sky. Quoting from the book, “Sharing the Skies, Navajo Astronomy” written by Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay, “The relationship between the two constellations Atse Ets’ ozi and Atse Etshoh is illustrated in a traditional story about in-laws. The story says that a mother-in-law and son-in-law should not see one another in daily life. In fact, a traditional Navajo mother-in-law might even wear a bell to warn the
son-in-law of her approach. A similar relationship occurs between Orion and Scorpius.”
The Greek imagination held nothing over the Tachi Yokuts, a tribe that lived in California northeast of the Chumash. They tell his story about the three stars of Orion’s belt:
“Wolf was a good hunter, but he was also selfish. He went out hunting every day, but he brought nothing back for his wife, Crane, and their two boys. Wolf’s family had a hard time finding enough to eat without his help.
“One day when Wolf was hunting, Crane ran off with her two boys, hoping to find a better place to live. When Wolf returned home and discovered that Crane and his sons were gone, he became enraged. He decided to follow them and kill them. Because he had a good nose for tracking game, he soon picked up their scent and was on their trail.
“Wolf was a fast runner, and soon he could see Crane and the boys before him. He tried to shoot her with his bow and arrow but she was flying too high. He followed his wife until she had to come down to rest. Then he shot her. When he walked over to where she lay and pushed her with his paw to see if she was still alive, she reveved enough to imple him with her long, sharp bill. Though he fended her off and tried to pierce her with an arrow, she was able to knock him down and stab him until he was dead.
“With only a quick look back at Wolf, Crane and her boys flew off. They flew hight inot the sky until they turned into stars. Crane is in front and the boys are following her—they are the three stars of Orion’s belt.” [from “They Dance in the Sky” by Jean Guard Monroe and Ray A. Williamson]
I’m sure the constellation Orion will continue to fascinate us for a long time unless the light domes of our cities eventually erase the night sky.
Author of “The First Raven Mocker”
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles