Wednesday, 15 January 2014


Ursa Major was not the only of the great constellations of the night sky to draw the attention of the ancients. Indeed all the major stars and their formations were well known in ancient times. All of them had their own origins and stories well recorded in lore, some in as many variants as the stars themselves. One such example is the story of the constellation Orion.

Blind Orion seeks the rising Sun
Painting by Nicolas Poussin
Long ago in Hellas, a place men now call Greece, there was a divine and regal birth. Brood of the god Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, and Euryale, daughter of King Minos of Crete, this would never be a normal child. Gigantic in stature, like his cousin the Cyclops Polyphemus, the boy towered over all of his peers, in ability as much as height. The boy was named Orion, and though good at heart, warred with the violent instincts that ran through the veins of all the Giants. As a result of his being son of the Lord of the Ocean, Orion found himself one day able to walk upon the surface of the ocean without falling through it - he could walk on water, unmolested by the horrors of the deep. As Orion grew, vaster than any mortal, though not blessed with a great mind he acquired a particular passion for hunting, a noble pursuit for a man in such days, and a way he might turn his aggression away from harming his peers. Soon his reputation was legend even as a teenager, as game fled his presence on sight, for well did they know that no being could escape Orion's hurled spear. In all things, Orion was never to be seen without his one true friend and loyal companion, his hound Sirius.

Searching for distant lands for ever more challenging game, great Orion ventured to the island of Chios, its isolation from the mainland no problem for the water walking giant, carrying faithful Sirius aloft. As Orion placed his vast foot on the sandy shore, he was welcomed to the island by King Oenopion and his entourage. Though much of the regal language was lost on simple Orion, the face of the King's daughter, Merope, was not. Intrigued by the foreign princess, and perpetually condemned to solitude, the giant desired a friend more than almost anything, save perhaps the choicest game under the Heavens. Oenopion invited his larger than life guest back to the palace, and threw a banquet in honour of him, for hospitality is a concept employed by the people of Chios with spectacular finesse. Orion, who had scarcely seen so many great things to eat, was overwhelmed. Due to his requiring more food than most simply to sustain him, the party dined well into the night. The hour grew late, and Merope retired for the night, leaving the revellers to their banquet, and Orion fell sad, though knew not why. The King, ever attentive to his guests, ordered the strongest wine brought to the table. When presented with a bucket sized goblet of shimmering red liquid, Orion knew nothing of it, having never before tasted wine of such potency, and drank as though he would water. The men of Chios laughed heartily, as the giant grew dazed and confused. The drink played its evil tricks on Orion's mind, already at war in the half human and half giant. Stumbling from the banqueting chamber, the drink lead him to Merope's quarters, sapping him of his human will. Crashing through the low threshold of the door, he fell into the princess's bedchamber, to the fright of Merope. As she ran to offer what help she could, Orion, lost to his senses, seized her with more strength than a man should. The racket caused by the door summoned the King immediately. When he saw the sight before him, the darkest suspicions reigned supreme. He at once, outraged at the abuse of his hospitality, ordered Orion condemned.

The Constellation Orion
Photograph by Rogelio Bernal Andreo
The King gave command that Orion should be blinded, so that his last vision would forever be that of the woman he longed for, and forced himself upon. Furthermore, Orion was banished from the kingdom. SO, once again, Orion set out on the road, destitute and ragged, with naught but his torn thoughts of grief and faithful Sirius to accompany him. One day, whilst on Lemnos, he encountered a stranger on the road, a stranger his eyes could not reveal as the god Hephaestus. Hephaestus took pity on the giant, and told Orion that if he sought the rays of the Sun as they were born, he would see again. His despair turned to joy, Orion eagerly asked the stranger where they could be found. Since the giant was blind, Hephaestus gave to Orion his own assistant from the forge, Cedalion. Taking up position of Orion's shoulder, Cedalion shouted directions in the giant's ear, and together they set off in search of the Land of the Sun. The vast journey, impossible for mortal feet, was swift for a giant, aided at all times by Cedalion upon his shoulder, and Sirius by his leg. At last the triad arrived at the Kingdom of the Sun, Cedalion and Sirius averting their eyes, Orion shielding them from the heat. Helios, the god of the Sun, indeed took pity on the giant, and as Orion closed his blind eyes from the heat, suddenly a slit of purest white appeared before him. He wrenched open his lids, and saw blinding light. He turned to his side, and saw a dog, and Cedalion on his shoulder, and rejoiced at his newfound sight. Thanking Helios dearly, the giant was filled with ecstasy.

For so long he had been denied the pleasure of the hunt, his great passion, and set off at once. Coming to the island of Crete, the home of his ancestors, he chased the game from sunrise to sunset. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was impressed by the hunter's prowess like never before in a mortal. Coming down to the Earth she offered him a unique honour, to join her in the hunt. He leapt for joy, and the games began.

Hither and thither the godly party went, and never before has so great a quarry been taken in sport. Deer, boar, bird and hare fell to the spears of Orion and arrows of Artemis. Soon near all Crete was empty of living beasts. At the moment of his pride, his giant instinct holding sway, Orion shouted to the Heavens that there was no creature on Earth that he, Orion, could not slay. But the balance of the cosmos had been tipped, that subtle yet ever levelling power which ensured no man or woman could ever be too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling them. Gaia, Mother Earth, was appalled at the slaughter on her body, and outraged at Orion's words. So the Titaness crafted a new beast to best the giant in his own game. Eight armoured legs she gave it, two crushing pincers and a lethal tail, brimming with fiery venom. To her new creation she gave the name of Scorpion, and thus was born the first of that race, the King of all Arachnids.

Artemis mourns the body of Orion
Painting by Daniel Seiter
At his side, Orion noticed the ground quake and churn as Mother Earth's revenge burst into the fresh air, divine fury in every inch of its chitinous hide. Orion drew back, wary of this new foe, and never was he to face such a terrible foe. He launched his spear, but alas, it span away, turned aside by the beast's armour. No arrow or blade would pierce that hide. So, across the valleys and mountains of Crete their duel raged, neither one able to best the other, Orion too swift for the creatures arms, the Scorpion impervious to Orion's blades. At last, with no more of the island left to run to, Orion, worked up to a giant's rage, hurled himself upon the monster, using his mighty strength to grapple the beast. The Scorpion writhed and injured the giant many times, but slowly, yet surely, Orion began to crush it inside its own armour. When at last victory seemed near Orion raised his head high and shouted in triumph. But alas, the momentary lapse of concentration cost him dear, for the creature's lighting flash of a move saw its stinger dart into Orion's shoulder, a lethal shot of venom upon its barb. The Scorpion died, but died avenged. Orion staggered away from the body of his conquered foe, the fiery venom robbing him of life. Lamenting his misfortune in life, he sought his last solace in the distraught eyes of Sirius, who licked his master's face one last time. So under the tears of his one true friend, Orion, the great hunter, felt the darkness close on his eyes.

Artemis, lady of the hunt, was devastated when she found his body, and appealed to Zeus the Thunderer, lord of the sky, for mercy. The god of gods was might, but could not turn the wheel of fate. Impressed by Orion's skill, yet warm human heart, he cast the giant into the skies, ever to shine in the night sky. To this day he is still there, the constellation Orion. Impressed too by the fearsome Scorpion, Zeus decided to make sure man would never forget to challenge Mother Earth, and cast it too to the skies. To this day, the constellation of Scorpio can be seen, set to rise when Orion falls. But one fellow lay not forgotten, and for his loyalty to his master and purest heart, Zeus the Thunderer placed Sirius in the skies, and the brightest of all stars he is to this day, amid the constellation of Canis Major...

United Kingdom

The Library of Mythology:
Library of Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

United States

The Library of Mythology:
Library of Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

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