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Orion the hunter is one of the best-known constellations. Its astronomy and mythology make it even more interesting to watch as it stalks across the winter sky.

Rising early in the evening, Orion is a superb winter constellation. South of the ecliptic along the stream of the Milky Way, he hunts on the fringes of the zodiac, facing Taurus the bull. A large rectangle defines the torso of the hunter, and a short, easy-to-spot line of three stars marks his signature belt. Orion reaches one arm over his head, wielding a club, and the other arm holds a shield. With more bright stars than any other constellation, this figure has been an outstanding character from ancient times, even among the other great "gods" in the heavens.

Stars of Orion

Betelgeuse (pronounced like petal-juice) takes the prize for the largest star in the heavens. Located in one shoulder, its odd and catchy name comes from the Middle East, and means armpit! Its orange color identifies it as a red super giant star. This star is so big that if you imagine the Earth as a period at the end of a sentence, Betelgeuse would be a twenty-two-story building in comparison.

Like other red stars, Betelgeuse is pumping away so hard to fuel itself that it periodically puffs up and gets larger. Plus, it is surrounded by a potassium gas field that is three hundred times larger than our solar system out to Pluto. According to modern astronomical measurement, Betelgeuse is about five hundred light years away, meaning it takes the light that long to get to us. The other shoulder star is Bellatrix, in any other constellation a more outstanding beauty itself.

At the opposite end of the rectangle of Orionís body is Rigel (rye-gell), a brilliant blue-white star sixty thousand times as luminous as our Sun, marking one of his feet, or knees. Even at nine hundred light years away, it is one of the brightest stars in the sky.

The three belt stars, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, are even farther. They are around one thousand five to six hundred light years distantóan exercise in time travel.

Myths About Orionís Stars

For some cultures, the belt stars make an image of their own, sometimes associated with animalsóthree stags in Siberia and Mongolia, or mountain sheep, antelope and deer for Californian Indians. In one story from India, they form an arrow that is fired at the creator god, Prajapati, their name for Orion, who lusted after his daughter Dawn, represented by nearby Aldebaran. For northern Australian Aborigines, the three stars were three fishermen in a celestial canoe, an image shared by the Wasco Indians in Oregon.

A canoe also figures in Mayan cosmology. The three stars outline the turtle that cracks his shell to rebirth the maize god. The god then traveled in a canoe, paddled by a stingray and a jaguar, to the Orion sector of the sky, carrying a sack of seeds (the Pleiades). They planted the first three stars in the sky in a triangle made of Alnitak, Rigel and Saiph, the other foot of Orion. When you trace this large triangle in the sky, you will find something special right in the middleóthe Orion Nebula. This is where the first hearth was kindled, according to the Maya.

The Orion Nebula

The Great Orion Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born. It looks like smoke, or a hazy star. Here is the usual way to find it. Hanging from the belt stars is a smaller line of stars, pictured as Orionís sword. At the bottom of the sword is the brightest star, actually a double star. Once you find that, go back up one star toward the belt, and you will see the Orion Nebula. Though visible with the naked eye, binoculars give a better view of the wispy cloud.

The opening show at the new Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York takes viewers on a deep space voyage right through the Orion Nebula and beyond. A favorite subject for astrophotographers, this Nebula is a stunning visual treat. No wonder the Nebula and its host are at the center of many cosmological myths. In Egyptian mythology, Orion was the great god Osiris, followed by his beloved Isis, the star Sirius. In Mesopotamia, too, he was an eternally dying and reborn god, Tammuz. For the Sumerians, he was the true shepherd in the sky.

But it is Orion the Greek hunter that we are most familiar with, a guy so big he could walk through the ocean and still have his head above the water. Unfortunately, his ego was big, too, and when he boasted he could hunt and kill any creature, Mother Earth had heard enough. She sent a scorpion to kill him. This story is told each year, for when Scorpio the scorpion rises in the east, Orion sets in the west, dead and gone for the season.

Orion has just started to rise for the season, and is visible for about three quarters of the year. For North America, it's visible in the early evening starting in December and remains in the night sky through April. In May, it starts setting with the Sun. The earlier in the season, the later it rises. In September, for instance, Orion rises later in the night, depending on your longitude. The more west you are, the later it rises.

So catch him while you can. And if itís a little too cold to stay out long, read about Orion in these recommended books: Secrets of the Night Sky by Bob Berman; Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myth and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets by Dr. E.C. Krupp; and Orionís Legacy: A Cultural History of Man as Hunter by Charles Bergman.


See ScienceNet for a more detailed map of Orion or a great image of the Orion Nebula taken by the Hubble telescope.



M. Kelley Hunter has studied the stars as an astrologer, mythologist and amateur astronomer for over 30 years. Co-founder of the Roots of Astrology experiential conferences, she is now astrologer-in-residence for the Omega Institute winter programs in the Caribbean. She leads star gazing nights and astrology workshops, and writes about the sky for various publications. She has mentored adult students at Norwich University and other colleges.

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For more information about Kelley Hunter, click here.

Other StarIQ articles by Kelley Hunter:

  • Locating Jupiter and Saturn: Astronomy for Astrologers   11/16/2000
  • Stargazing: Astronomy for Astrologers Part 2   9/2/2000
  • Stargazing: Astronomy for Astrologers   7/15/2000
  • Y2K: How Real Is It?   11/23/1999

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