The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Well, what do we need to say about Orion that hasn’t been said a thousand times already by other astrophotographers and astronomers?

One of the most iconic of constellations, and perhaps the most easily spotted alongside the Big Dipper in Ursa Major, the rise of Orion into the night sky heralds the oncoming autumn and winter months, with longer, darker, colder and (hopefully) clearer nights.

Orion has so much going on that it’s almost impossible to go into detail on everything. So, this season, I’m going to do a broad overview of Orion itself, and then break it down into imaging different aspects of it. From the wide views that encompass the entire constellation, molecular cloud complex and Barnard’s Loop, to the harder to image Messier 78, taking in the Great Orion Nebula itself, the Horsehead Nebula and others besides.

Orion, the Hunter. Taken from our class 4 skies at home using a stock 60D at 55mm

Orion is going to be my major project this winter and, weather permitting, I’ll be imaging as much of the individual components of it as I can. Not only that but we’ll also help fill in some of the blanks as well and give you some of the ancient histories and legends surrounding it.

So join us as we not only take you on a tour of perhaps the most majestic of all constellations, but also regale you with tales of where it fits in with human history, from the ancient Mayans through to the Greek legends and Native American stories passed down along the generations.

The Origins of the Orion Constellation

Orion has its roots in Sumerian mythology, specifically their hero Gilgamesh, who fought the bull of heaven, ie Gugalana, known these days as Taurus. Gugalana had been unleashed by the supreme god, Anu, at the behest of his daughter Inanna (also known in the Akkadian as Ishtar) after Gilgamesh had spurned her advances.

Gilgamesh kills the Bull of Heaven. Terracotta relief 2250-1900BC Source: Orion Constellation Myths of Sumer, Babylon and Egypt

Although Orion is often depicted as facing off against the bull, there is no actual Greek mythology that tells of such a tail. In fact there are many differing stories, depending on to whom you speak, most of which involve a scorpion bringing about his demise, hence why Orion and Scorpius are placed on opposite sides of the sky. In fact there is only one story that doesn’t involve a scorpion, that of Artemis, the goddess of hunting, who was enamoured with Orion. Her brother Apollo, in an effort to prevent her from giving up her vows of chastity, dared her to hit a distant target. This she succeded in on the first attempt, not realising it was her love. So distraught was she that she placed him forever among the stars.

In the late Bronze Age the Babylonians knew Orion as The Heavenly Shepherd, or the true shepherd of the god Anu, the god of heavenly realms.

The Egyptians, who believed that the pharoahs were transformed into the god Osiris when they passed, built the pyramids at Giza around 2260 BC to mirror the stars of the constellation, and to make the tranformation easier the air shaft in the Great Pyramid was aligned with the star Alnitak, the easternmost of Orion’s Belt. As an interesting note, the northern shaft aligns with the circumpolar stars where his soul would ascend to the celestial realm of the indestructible. Osiris was the god of agriculture, fertility and vegetation. As a god on earth he was the first pharoah and taught his people many things such as how to grow corn, make wine from grapes and bread and beer from wheat.

Source: Constellation Guide

There are more stories around Orion than I can go into, which is part of what makes it both such a fascinating subject, and a source of great sadness. The ancients knew much of astronomy and a large part of that I believe has either been lost or destroyed over time. But all of them, the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Aztecs, Hittites, Babylonians etc had a great fascination with the stars and constellations and its perhaps testament to them that our interest in them has persisted throughout time.

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