Who is Orion?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Orion is both a figure in Greek mythology as well as an easily seen constellation in the winter sky. As a constellation, Orion is a hunter, with his club, shield, and sword at the ready.

The Orion constellation depicted on a vintage constellation map.
The Orion constellation depicted on a vintage constellation map.

There are a number of variant myths that reference Orion, and they cannot all be smoothly connected. Following one trail, he is the son of the god Poseidon and the Gorgon Euryale, with the power to walk on the surface of the sea. He was engaged to Merope, but blinded by her father for consummating their union prior to the marriage ceremony. Eventually healed by Helios, the sun god, Orion journeyed to Crete, where he met the goddess of the hunt, Artemis.

The Orion Nebula.
The Orion Nebula.

Because Orion gave Artemis her due, they hunted happily together for a time. From this point the story diverges. Either Orion threatened to kill every creature and Mother Earth, not being happy with that outcome, sent a Scorpion to kill him or Apollo became jealous of his sister’s pleasure in this mortal’s company and tricked her into shooting him.

How he got to be a constellation is a bit more certain. Orion’s placement in the sky is partly explained by a myth concerning his death. It seems that Orion was killed by a Scorpion, and Aesculapius, a doctor who had never lost a patient, tried to revive him. Hades, worried that if people were continually revived he would have no one to rule over, got Zeus to intervene, rather heavy-handedly, with a thunderbolt, killing the doctor. Because of his merits, however, Aesculapius was made into a constellation, along with the Scorpion. But to prevent trouble in the heavens, they were placed as far away from Orion as possible so that Orion and the Scorpion would never meet again.

Another Orion myth from Hesiod’s Works and Days tells it differently. It says that Orion is immortalized in the sky chasing the Pleiades, seven sisters who appear as stars in the shoulder of Taurus, and that Canis Major and Canis Minor are his hunting dogs.

The constellation of Orion has several very bright stars that are among the best recognized in the sky. Rigel, a blue-white supergiant 40,000–50,000 times brighter than the sun, forms Orion’s right foot, and Rigel, in fact, means “foot” in Arabic. Betelgeuse, a name derived by a series of scholarly errors, is the red supergiant that makes up one of Orion’s shoulders. It is about 13,000 times brighter than the sun, and its diameter is about 500 times larger as well. Bellatrix, a name perhaps better known from the Harry Potter books than from astronomical study, is the star that forms Orion’s other shoulder. It is a bluish-white giant, and also one of the most prominent stars in the night sky.

In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld and the chief caretaker of the abode of the dead.
In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld and the chief caretaker of the abode of the dead.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@ddljohn-- It actually depend how detailed you want to see the constellation. You can obviously see it without the need for anything on a very clear night but it won't be very vivid. You can use both binoculars or a small telescope to see it more closely. If you ever have the opportunity to look through a Hubble telescope though, its extremely vivid and you can even see the gasses that compose the stars.

I believe Orion can be seen in winter up until late Spring when it disappears and Scorpion emerges.


What size telescope do I need to see the Orion constellation?


A news article was talking about a mystery involving the Orion constellation and the Egyptian pyramids. It was discovered that the pyramids of Gaza are aligned in the same way as the stars that make up Orion. They think that the pyramids might have been built by an earlier civilization and not by the Egyptians.

I don't see anything here that deserves a huge discussion but still there are arguments about what the link is between the pyramids and Orion. I agree with the opinion that they probably wanted to represent Orion with the pyramids. But some scientists keep measuring the distance between the pyramids etc. and claim it is not a perfect representation, so it must be a coincidence.

The way I see it, people have always been interested in the stars and especially during that time period, there was a fascination with the constellations and the stars were used for mathematical and geographic calculations and also for spiritual purposes. So why wouldn't they build pyramids to remind people of the beautiful Orion belt?

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