The Hunter Orion

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When people say the name ‘Orion’, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the constellation. However, just as with most famous constellations, there’s a myth explaining it’s origin in Greek mythology. According to the myth, Orion was a giant hunter who was placed among the stars by Zeus after he died.

Who Was Orion?

Orion was said to have been the son of Euryale, the daughter of King Minos, and Poseidon, the god of the seas. However, according to the Boeotians, the hunter was born when three Greek gods, Zeus, Hermes (the messenger god), and Poseidon visited King Hyrieus in Boeotia. Hyrieus was one of Poseidon’s sons by Alcyone the nymph and was an extremely wealthy Boeotian king.

Hyrieus welcomed the three gods to his palace and prepared a grand feast for them which included a whole roast bull. The gods were please with how he treated them and they decided to grant Hyrieus a wish. When they asked him what he wanted, the only thing Hyrieus wished for was a son. The gods took the hide of the roasted bull they’d feasted on, urinated on it and buried it in the ground. Then they instructed Hyrieus to dig it up on a certain day. When he did, he found that a son had been born of the hide. This son was Orion.

In either case, Poseidon played a role in the birth of Orion and gave him his special abilities. Orion grew up to be the most handsome of all mortals, as some sources say, and was gigantic in size. He also had the ability to walk on water.  

Representations and Depictions of Orion

Orion is often depicted as a strong, handsome and muscular man facing an attacking bull. However, there aren’t any Greek myths that tell of such an attack. Greek astronomer Ptolemy describes the hunter with a lion’s pelt and a club, symbols which are closely associated with Heracles, a famous Greek hero, but there has been no evidence linking the two.

Orion’s Offspring

In some accounts, Orion was very lustful and had many lovers, both mortals and deities. He also sired many offspring. Some sources say that he had 50 sons with the daughters of Cephisus, the river god. He also had two daughters called Menippe and Metioche by the beautiful Side. These daughters were famous for sacrificing themselves to prevent the spread of pestilence across the country and were transformed into comets in order to recognize their selflessness and bravery. 

Orion Pursues Merope

When Orion grew to be an adult, he traveled to the island of Chios and saw Merope, the beautiful daughter of King Oenopion. The hunter fell in love with the princess instantly and began to prove his worth with the hope of wooing her, by hunting the animals that lived on the island. He was an excellent hunter and became the first to hunt at night, something that other hunters avoided because they lacked the skills to do so. However, King Oenopion didn’t want Orion as his son-in-law and nothing Orion did could change his mind.

Orion became frustrated and instead of trying to win her hand in marriage, he decided to force himself on the princess, which angered her father greatly. Oenopion sought retribution and asked Dionysus, his father-in-law, for help. Together, the two managed to put Orion into a deep sleep first and then they blinded him. They abandoned him on a beach of Chios and left him to fend for himself, sure that he would die.

Orion Is Healed

Orion seeks the sun
Nicolas Poussin (1658) – Orion Sseeking the Sun. Public Domain.

Although Orion was devastated at losing his eyesight, he soon found that he could recover it if he traveled to the eastern end of the earth and faced the rising sun. Being blind, however, he didn’t know how he was going to get there.

One day as he was walking about aimlessly, he heard the sound of crackling coal and hammering from Hephaestus’ forge. Orion followed the sounds to the island of Lemnos to seek help from Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalworking.

When he finally arrived at the forge, Hephaestus, being the sympathetic god that he was, took pity on the hunter and sent one his attendants, Cedalion, to help him find his way. Cedalion sat on Orion’s shoulder and giving him directions, he guided him to the part of the earth where Helios (the sun god), rose every morning. When they reached it, the sun emerged and Orion’s sight was restored.

Orion Returns to Chios

Once he’d fully regained his eyesight, Orion returned to Chios to take revenge on King Oenopion for what he had done. However, the king had gone into hiding as soon as he’d heard that the giant was coming for him. When his attempts to find the king failed, Orion left the island and went to Crete instead.

On the island of Crete, Orion met Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting and wildlife. They became close friends and spent most of their time together hunting. Sometimes, Artemis’ mother Leto joined them as well. However, being in the company of Artemis soon brought about Orion’s untimely demise.

Orion’s Death

Although it was said that Orion died because of his friendship with Artemis, there are several different versions of the story. Many sources say that Orion’s death came at the hands of Artemis, either on purpose or by accident. Here are most popular and well-known versions of the story:

  1. Orion was very proud of his hunting skills and boasted that he would hunt every single animal on earth. This made Gaia (the personification of the Earth) angry and she sent a giant scorpion after the hunter to stop him. Orion tried hard to defeat the scorpion but his arrows bounced off the creature’s body. The hunter finally decided to flee which was when the scorpion stung him full of poison and killed him.
  2. The goddess Artemis killed Orion when he tried to force himself upon Oupis, a Hyperborean woman, who was also one of Artemis’ handmaidens.
  3. Artemis killed the hunter because she felt insulted that he had challenged her to a game of quoits.
  4. Eos the goddess of dawn saw the handsome giant with Artemis and abducted him. Artemis became angry when she saw Orion with Eos on the island of Delos and killed him.
  5. Orion fell in love with Artemis and wanted to marry her. However, since Artemis had taken vows of chastity, her brother Apollo, the god of music, planned the giant’s death. When Orion went swimming, Apollo waited until he was far out in the sea and then challenged Artemis to shoot a target bobbing in the water. Artemis, being the skilled archer that she was, hit the target, unaware that it was Orion’s head. When she realized that she had killed her companion, she was heartbroken and wept copiously.

Orion the Constellation

Orion the constellation

When Orion died, he was sent to the Underworld where the Greek hero Odysseus saw him hunting wild animals. However, he didn’t stay in the realm of Hades for too long since the goddess Artemis asked Zeus to place him in the heavens for all eternity.

The Orion constellation was soon joined by the star Sirius, which was a hunting dog placed near Orion to accompany him. Sirius is the brightest object in the sky after the sun and the moon.  There’s another constellation called Scorpius (the Scorpion) that sometimes appears, but when it does the Orion constellation goes into hiding. The two constellations are never seen together, a reference to Orion running from Gaia’s scorpian.

Since the Orion constellation is located on the celestial equator, it’s said to be visible from any spot on earth. It’s one of the most recognizable and conspicuous constellations in the night sky. However, since it’s not on the ecliptic path (the apparent motion of the Sun through the constellations) it doesn’t have a place in the modern zodiac. Zodiac signs are named after the constellations which are on the path of the ecliptic. 

In Brief

Although the Orion constellation is well-known throughout the world, not many people are familiar with the story behind it.  The story of Orion the huntsman was a favorite that was told and retold throughout Ancient Greece but over time, it’s been altered and embellished to the point where it’s become difficult to tell what actually happened. The legend of the great hunter  will continue to live on as long as the stars remain in the sky.