The Spoke-too-soon Hunter

Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak: The names aren’t terribly familiar, but they are perhaps the three most famous stars after Polaris. These are the “belt stars” of mighty Orion, aligned in such a tight, unmistakable formation that they have probably captured the gaze of every human who’s peered into the night sky.

Orion’s prominence in the heavens and history is due not only to this stellar trio and the other brilliant astral beacons—Betelgeuse and Rigel in particular—that make up the rest of this constellation. It is celebrated around the world because it can be seen around the world. Orion bridges the celestial equator, the projection of Earth’s equator into space. This means the constellation is visible to inhabitants of both the southern and northern hemispheres. During our winter, Orion commands the southern night sky. Meanwhile, it is summer in the southern hemisphere, where Orion struts across the northern sky. Constellations closer to the North Star, such as Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), aren’t visible to southerners—just as bright southern constellations like the Southern Cross are beyond our range.

With such a pervasive perch, it’s no wonder that cultures spanning the globe have written and told stories about Orion. Many focus on the belt stars. Chumash and Shoshoni first nations of western North America, among others, called the stars “Three In A Row” in their native tongues. The Tachi Yokut natives of California told a parable of how a selfish wolf, married to a crane, never brought food home for his wife and two boys. A terrible domestic fight ensued, during which the crane killed the wolf and escaped with her two sons to become the belt stars. People on the Indian subcontinent saw a stag shot with an arrow; a more elaborate story recounts how the incestuous lord of creatures chased one of his daughters (represented by the star Aldebaran in Taurus) and was shot with an arrow by a character depicted as the star Sirius. (Aldebaran, the belt stars and Sirius form an almost straight line.) In Brazil, the three stars were a caiman, an alligator-like reptile. The Maoris of New Zealand saw a canoe. The Inuit looked upon three hunters.

Orion is famous in Egypt for representing the soul of the god Osiris, ruler of the afterworld and brother of Isis. Some modern Egyptologists have determined that the tunnels in the renowned pyramids at Giza aligned with the stars in Orion (and with other stars, including Sirius) when the pyramids were built about 4,500 years ago. Robert Bauval, in his book The Orion Mystery, has observed that the three main pyramids at Giza are arranged to match almost precisely the three belt stars in alignment and relative size. Aerial photos of the pyramids compared with astrophotos of the stars reveal an astonishingly similar pattern. This link with Osiris aided the journey of the Egyptian kings from the world to the afterworld. The pyramids were built west of the Nile to reflect the fact that the afterworld was associated with the west, where the sun sets. Osiris-Orion is also located west of that great river in the sky, the Milky Way.

The “belt star” description, of course, comes to us from Greek mythology. Orion was the great Boetian hunter, and it’s easy to discern his form in the stars. The belt stars define his waist; below them another string of dimmer stars make up his sword or scabbard. To the upper left of the belt stars shines the unmistakable Betelgeuse, a red giant about 50 times the size of the sun and perhaps 15,000 times brighter. Betelgeuse is usually translated from the Arabic to mean “armpit of the great one,” and indeed marks the right armpit or shoulder of the hunter in many ancient sky maps. His other shoulder is marked by Bellatrix, somewhat dimmer but still easily visible to the naked eye, even in light-polluted urban areas. Kitty-corner from Betelgeuse on the other side of the belt stars is Rigel, meaning “foot” from the Arabic and one of the oldest named stars. Rigel is the seventh-brightest star from Earth and one of the true powerhouses of the galaxy, with a luminosity estimated at 60,000 times our sun. Orion’s right foot is pinpointed by Saiph, though in some old maps Saiph and Rigel mark the hunter’s knees. Other stars in the constellation show Orion holding his shield towards next-door Taurus the bull, whom he hunts, while his right hand wields a club.

Most of the Greco-Roman myths focus on Orion’s death, and indeed there are at least seven versions of his demise, falling under two broad types: he was either killed by the goddess Artemis or her brother Apollo, or he was stung to death by a scorpion. The scorpion tales are the most intriguing, because they involve another constellation, Scorpius. Orion was a randy hunter who boasted that no animal could get the better of him. As usual with the Greeks, this hubris proved fatal. The spiteful goddess Hera sent a tiny scorpion to deliver a mortal, mocking sting. Orion was placed in the heavens opposite Scorpious, so that the two constellations would never appear together in the night sky—a reminder of Orion’s fate. His two hunting dogs–the constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor, notable for their stars Sirius and Procyon–were placed near their master. Orion was said to have coveted the daughters of Atlas, the Pleiades, and they became the famous star cluster near Orion—but always out of reach.

An Iroquois story also reflects Orion’s great abilities, and relates to his position in the sky. A noble hunter, the story goes, climbed a mountain to prepare for death. When the end came, he ascended the heavens where, remarkably, he recovered his powers. He was assigned a new job to carry the sun high in the sky during summer. Indeed, Orion is located in the day sky during the warm months, his presence blotted out by the glare of the sun. But as winter approached, the hunter tired again, and had to pass the job to his son. The layabout son shouldered his responsibilities poorly, and barely managed to carry the sun above the horizon, bringing cold, wintry days. His father, meanwhile, rested in the winter night sky, gaining strength to resume his role in the summer.

Like many stars and constellations, Orion is a harbinger of the changing seasons. It is first visible to sunrise watchers by mid to late August, clambering over the dark eastern horizon about an hour before the sun. It rises earlier every night as autumn progresses. “It’s arrival is an announcement that the outdoor season is past, that the nights are becoming more and more frosty, and that the gorgeous tapestry with which the autumn hills seem covered will soon fall away and give place to the lovely low tones of winter,” wrote the late Martha Evans in her popular book, The Friendly Stars. By mid-December, the hunter is rising over the eastern horizon shortly after sunset.

On a clear winter night, take a close look at Orion’s “sword.” It contains one of the most studied celestial bodies—the Orion Nebula, known officially as M42 or NGC1976. The middle star in a band of three small stars defining the sword roughly marks the centre of the nebula, and a faint but distinct hazy patch can be seen with the unaided eye and through binoculars. The bright star here is, in fact, a quadruple star system known as the Trapezium. The four separate stars are on the edge of visibility with a small backyard telescope. They are among the youngest stellar furnaces in the galaxy, perhaps 100,000 to one million years old, much younger than the one-billion-year-old rocks of the Canadian Shield in cottage country. The Trapezium’s blazing thermonuclear starlight illuminates the surrounding nebula, a wispy cloud of mostly hydrogen gas estimated to be 56 trillion kilometres (35 million miles) wide. Throughout the cloud, new stars and perhaps entire solar systems are being born. Like the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, the Hubble Space Telescope has returned stunning astrophotographs of this marvellous Milky Way region. Perhaps one day, intelligent creatures on a planet in M42 will take pictures of us. Say cheese.

Orion Facts:

Best viewing time: Stands indelibly in the southern sky throughout most winter evenings, moving from east to west as the night progresses. Due south around 9 p.m. by late January and early February. Early risers can catch a glimpse by mid-August about two hours before sunrise
Location: Virtually impossible to miss in the southern winter sky; look for three belt stars close together in a straight line. Like the Big Dipper, Orion serves as a “pointer” constellation to other stars. The belt stars point northwestward to the bright star Aldebaran and, beyond that, to the Pleiades star cluster. The belt stars point the other way to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.
Orion’s origins: Some say he was the son of the sea god Poseidon. But others say he emerged from the hide of an ox upon which Poseidon, Hermes and Zeus had peed, leading to his original name, Urion (urine). Which goes to show that even the gods had to go to the bathroom
Mintaka: Westernmost belt star. Means “belt,” from Arabic. Magnitude 2.2, distance about 1,400 light-years, though distances hard to pin down this far away. A double-double star
Alnilam: The middle belt star. Means “string of pearls,” the Arabic name for the entire belt. Magnitude 1.7, also about 1,400 light-years away
Alnitak: Easternmost belt star. Also derived from the Arabic for “belt.” Magnitude 2.0, distance 1,400 light years
Betelgeuse: Pronounced BET-el-jooz, this star is a red supergiant that may be experiencing its final stages of life. Astronomers believe it has used up its main hydrogen fuel, and is now “burning” other elements, causing it to expand and contract, a phenomenon visible in the star’s varying brightness. The variability is usually not detectable with the naked eye. Magnitude 0.5 (varies), distance 1,400 light-years. Two companion stars too faint to see
Plot of 1988 movie Beetlejuice: A young couple, killed in a car accident, return as ghosts to their home, only to find that obnoxious New Yorkers have moved in. The couple enlists the help of a demon named Betelgeuse to rid the house of its new occupants. Stars Michael Keaton (as Betelgeuse), Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara of Toronto, among others. Directed by Tim Burton
Rigel: Brightest star in Orion, magnitude 0.1, distance 1,400 light-years. Two companion stars too faint to see
Nebula: From the Latin nebula, cloud or mist. An interstellar nebula is vastly less dense than an Earth cloud, but does mark an area more gaseous than “empty” interstellar space
Fire of creation: The ancient Maya of Mexico believed the Orion Nebula was the smoke from the fire of creation at the heart of the universe. The fire’s hearth was defined by the triangle created by the stars Alnitak, Rigel and Saiph
M and NGC: Celestial sights denoted with an M are those plotted by Charles Messier of France in the late 18th century. A comet hunter, he wanted to mark all the fuzzy nebulae and star clusters that could be confused for a comet. NGC stands for New General Catalogue, a much more extensive record of thousands of deep-sky objects, first established at the turn of the 20th century
See also: Auriga, Ophiuchus & Serpens, Pleiades, Scorpius, Sirius & Procyon, Taurus & Hyades. Up North I: Stars

© Tim Tiner & Doug Bennet. Up North Again: More of Ontario’s Wilderness, from Ladybugs to the Pleiades, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1997


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