Orion: How Did I Get Here?

I’m going to focus on the Greek myths of Orion, but that’s not for a lack of global myths that integrate the constellation into their cosmologies. However, the Greeks give us enough contradictory data to work with that I’m sure that their Orion has to ask himself the most human question of all:

How did I get here?

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Origin [1]:

Orion was the son of the Sea God Poseidon and Euryale, a daughter of Minos, and possibly an Amazonian Queen. This makes Euryale’s half brother the Minotaur, and one of her sisters Ariadne, who gave Theseus the thread that led him safely in and out of the Labyrinth. This also connects Orion – at least in some myths – with Dionysus.

The connection with Poseidon also explains his ability to walk on water…in some myths, that is…

Origin [2]:

Forget everything you just read. Here’s the real story:

Imagine being visited by three of the Olympian Gods:

Zeus, King of the Gods; Hermes, the intermediary between the human and divine realms, and Poseidon, the God of the Oceans.

What do you do? Well, you offer to feed them.

You roast an entire bull for them, and they are pleased.

Satiated, they ask you if you desire anything.

You’re name is Hyrieus, king of Tangara, and you have no male heirs; it only makes sense to ask for sons.

The Gods oblige; they take the bull’s hide, and take turns urinating on it. They then instruct you to bury the hide, and dig it up in ten months.

You follow their directions, and ten months later, you dig up a baby boy; Orion, the earth born.

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Early Life:

Orion grows up to be both a giant, and a hunter.

In one (Roman) account, he marries a young girl named Side, who makes a fateful mistake which is a recurring theme in Greek mythology:

She compares herself to one of the Gods.

In this case, she claims her beauty surpasses that of Hera, sister consort of Zeus, Queen of the Olympians, and not a being known for her forgiveness of petty indiscretions.

Hera responds by casting Side down into Hades, leaving Orion a widower.

Then again, this is just one version of the story.

Either way, he set off for the island of Chios; whether he swam, sailed or walked on water is a function of which version of his parentage appeals to your mythic sensibilities.

That’s where things turn murky:

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Merope [1]:

Oenopion was the king of Chiros, who welcomed the giant hunter into his palace.

Incidentally, he was also Ariadne‘s son, which relates him to Orion assuming his mother was Euryale. He was also the son of Dionysus (see below).

There, Orion got drunk (note Oenopion’s name: Oeno is the root of our word wine; wine making was a skill Oenopion purportedly brought to the island of Chiros).

In his stupor, he raped Oenopion’s daughter, Merope.

In response, Oenopion stabbed his eyes out, leaving Orion blind.

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Merope [2]:

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Oenopion was the king of Chiros, who welcomed the giant hunter into his palace.

Oenopion threw a banquet for Orion, who got excessively drunk.

In his stupor, he raped Oenopion’s wife Merope.

In response, Oenopion stabbed his eyes out, leaving Orion blind.

Merope [3]:

Oenopion was the king of Chiros, who welcomed the giant hunter into his palace.

Incidentally, he was also Ariadne‘s son, which relates him to Orion assuming his mother was Euryale. He was also the son of Dionysus, hence his wine making skills.

Orion fell in love with Oenopion’s daughter, Merope.

Merope reciprocated his feelings, and they were engaged.

However, Oenopion did not approve of their potential wedding.

In a fit of frustration, Orion forced himself on his fiance.

In response, Oenopion stabbed his eyes out, leaving Orion blind.

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Merope [1-3]:

Regardless of context, Orion raped Merope, and was subsequently blinded by king Oenopion.

Banished from Chiros, he stumbled across the ocean towards the sounds of a hammer striking an anvil. This led him to the island of Lemnos, home to the deformed God, Hephaestus, weapon forger and iron smith of the Gods.

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Hephaestus and Cedalion:

Hephaestus took pity on the blind giant. He offered his servant, the boy Cedalion (though one myth variant has Cedalion being Hephaestus’ former tutor), and gave Cedalion instructions to take Orion eastward to the rising sun, the God Helios.

Helios healed the blind giant’s vision, allowing Orion to continue his quest.

Orion_aveugle_cherchant_le_soleil
Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with blind Orion seeking the sun, (1658). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Note Diana (Artemis) above the vapors.

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Return to Chios:

Apparently, Orion felt wronged by Oenopion, which I think give some credence to what I referred to earlier as Merope [3]; the idea that Merope was engaged to Orion.

No matter what, Orion came looking for Oenopion, who had hid himself safely in an underground bunker.

Eventually, Orion gave up his search, and headed of again, these time for the island of Crete.

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Orion’s Death [1]: Scorpion

On Crete, he made friends with the Hunter Goddess Artemis, and her Titan mother, Leto.

One day, he boasted that left to his own devices, he would slay every living animal on the Earth.

The Earth, Gaia, overheard this comment; whether she was merely offended, or seriously considered this boast a viable threat, she responded by dispatching a Scorpion.

While attempting to protect Artemis and Leto from the Scorpion, Orion was mortally wounded.

However, Zeus decided that he deserved a hero’s ending, and so raised him to the heavens in the form of the constellation Orion.

[This is why you’ll never see the constellations Scorpio and Orion together in the night sky; Scorpio rises as Orion sets, and vice versa, chasing each other through the heavens, but never catching up]

Orion’s Death [2]: Artemis and Opis

On Crete, he made friends with the Hunter Goddess Artemis, and her Titan mother, Leto.

Artemis was a sworn virgin, as were her priestesses.

The very idea of sexuality in presence of Artemis was a crime punishable by death, as was the case for poor Acteon, who having gazed on Artemis naked, was transformed into a stag an was then torn apart by his own hunting does.

Therefore, when Orion attempted to seduce Artemis’ priestess Opis, Artemis’ reaction was swift. She shot a deadly arrow at the giant, felling Orion instantly.

However, Zeus decided that he deserved a hero’s ending, and so raised him to the heavens in the form of the constellation Orion.

Orion’s Death [3]: Artemis and Apollo

On Crete, he made friends with the Hunter Goddess Artemis, and her Titan mother, Leto.

Artemis was a sworn virgin, as were her priestesses.

However, she was spending a lot of time with Orion. Too much time, thought her twin brother, Apollo.

Worried that Orion would eventually seduce his sister, Apollo concocted a plan…

While Orion was out swimming in the ocean, Apollo summoned his sister to the beach.

Orion was out deep; only his head was visible, barely a speck on the horizon.

Apollo taunted his sister, claiming to be a better archer. He challenged her to prove him wrong by hitting the distant object on the horizon.

Not realizing it was Orion, she took aim and fired…

Artemis’ shot was as accurate as it was deadly. When she realized what she had done, she brought his body ashore and wailed over it.

Zeus, feeling for his daughter, raised Orion to the heavens, so she could always see him overhead, in the night sky…

Orion_constellation_Hevelius
Johannes Hevelius, Prodromus Astronomia, volume III: Firmamentum Sobiescianum, sive Uranographia, table QQ: Orion, 1690

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Orion: Looking Down

So, we can’t talk about his birth with any certainty. We can’t talk about his death with any certainty. There are even more variants than I’ve covered above.

All we can say is this:

Regardless of which hemisphere you live in, you can be sure of one thing:

At some point during the year, you can look up at night sky, and the Hunter will look back down on you,

possibly posing the question…

How did I get here?

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Sources: Good Hunting!

The root source of this myth is lost; it was called Astronomia, by Hesiod (author of Theogeny, which along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, forms the oldest extant Greek mythic writings).

However, much of the lost Astronomia was preserved by the Greek polymath Eratosthenes, who not only was the head librarian at Alexandria, but who also was the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth. His work, Catasterismi (1st c, C.E.), is our primary extant source for the Ur-Orion myth.

The variant about the three Gods urinating on a bull’s hide comes from marginalia written by the Empress Euodicia (401-460 C.E.) in her copy of the Illiad, which she attributed to an ancient Greek poet.

Pherecydes of Leros (roughly 450’s B.C.E.) is another source; his works made their way into the Roman mythological encyclopedia, the Bibliotheke (1st-2nd c. C.E.), which is typically misattributed to Apollodorus of Athens. In this telling, the Dawn, Eos, heals Orion, falls in love with him, and then takes him to the island of Delos where Artemis kills him.

Finally we have Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 B.C.E. – 17 C.E.) whose de Astronomia is a shorter recension of his Fabulae. His entry is notable because it implies that Orion’s long friendship with Oenopion led him to be boastful about killing every animal. Whether this ‘friendship’ also implied excessive drinking is left to the reader’s imagination – the whole entry is only three paragraphs long.

Many other classical writers, from Virgil to Lucian, have passing comments on the giant; more recently, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375 C.E.) added his own twist, supposedly derived from an ancient Latin poet. In it, Orion is the son of Oenopion, is seduced by Venus (Aphrodite) while sleeping in a cave, accidentally mistakes his sister for Venus as she stands in the glare of the sun, and is banished (along with his sister) for the act of incest that follows.

However, Boccaccio gives Orion a happier ending, where he goes on to form his own empire with his sister-wife and their son.

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At any rate, if you’re looking for the primary, uber-source of the Greek Orion myth, all I can say is (pun intended) – Good Hunting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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