Orion the Hunter
Orion has to be the most famous constellation in the sky.  Situtated over the celestial equator he is easily visible to people both north and south of the equator.  The three stars of his belt have lined up nearly perfectly in a wonderful coincidence.  For us in the southern hemisphere the return of Orion and his dog Canis Major to the evening skies marks the start of the hot weather of summer.  He holds above his head a club and on his other arm is a shield, sometimes drawn as a lion's skin.   He is usually drawn as raising his shield towards the oncoming horns of Taurus the Bull.  At his feet lies Lepus the Hare.  Eridanus the River begins near Rigel, his knee.  Orion lies in the star clouds of the Mikly Way but they are not as rich as those towards Scorpius as in this direction we are looking towards the outer edge of the galaxy.  

An excerpt from Johan van Keulen's Boeck zee-kaardt, 1709.
A reversed Orion fending off Taurus as he stands on Lepus.
The dashed line marking the celestial equator runs though his middle.

Orion is also one of the oldest constellations.  The ancient Egyptians connected their god Osiris with the figure, the Jews connected it with the giant Nimrod and the Babylonians connected it with a giant figure as well.  The Greeks added their own story, of course, and theirs is the one commonly recited today in our culture.

Orion was the son of Posiedon and the nymph Euryale.  This son of a god was naturally of great beauty as well are large in size and had great strength.  He was a great hunter was well and boasted that he feared no animal on Earth, he could take them all on.  To teach him a lesson Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, sent a scorpion to slay him and Orion was hence struck down by a seemingly insignificant creature.  This is why, it is said, Orion sets in the west as Scorpius rises in the east.   There was also the story made to connect the surrounding constellations to Orion - that Orion lusted after the Pleiades but Taurus was placed in the sky to keep him away from the maidens.

The main shape of Orion and the stars that mark the "corners."

The brightest star in Orion is Betelgeuse.  It is commonly pronounced "beetle-juice" but for those who like to be correct the closest correct pronounciation should be "bettel-gerz".  It's current name is a corruption of an older Arabic name and is commonly described as meaning the "armpit of the giant" although some scholars will point out it actually means the "armpit of the sheep" (if you are confused and want to take the middle ground you can just call it the armpit).  It is a distinctive orange-red colour to the naked eye, an indication of it's true nature, that of a massive red giant star.  It is one of the largest stars known, so large some features can be discerned on it's surface.  One day our sun will look like this - a dying, puffed up star, about to start throwing off shells of gas to form a planetary nebula. 

Rigel, beta (b) Orionis, on the opposite side of the belt to the south, is by contrast a hot white star.  Rigel is the "knee" of the the giant.

Bellatrix, gamma (g) Orionis, marks the other shoulder of Orion.  It is the Female Warrior, from the latin, sometimes also called the Amazon Star.

The three stars of the belt are next in sequence.  On the western side is Mintaka, delta (d) Orionis, "the belt".  It is the first of the trio to rise.  Next is Alnilam, epsilon (e) Orionis, "the string of pearls".  Third and last to rise is Alnitak, zeta (z) Orionis, "the girdle."  It is below this star that the famous Horsehead Nebula can be found.  The horse's head is a dark nebula, a cloud of dust blocking off the light behind it, shillouetted against a red glowing emission nebula.  This nebula is very hard to see visually but is spectacular in photographs.

Saiph, eta (h) Orionis, makes the fourth corner of the larger rectangle of Orion's body.  It means "sword." 

Theta (q) Orionis is actually a group of stars that are imbedded in a much more famous object, the Great Orion Nebula (Also known as Messier 42)   To the naked eye this star is not that bright.  It is the middle of what is commonly known as "the sword of Orion" - or sometimes "the handle of the saucepan."  If you turn binoculars this way you will be able to discern a greenish glow surrounding these stars - this is the nebula!  A telescope reveals much more detail, including the group of four stars known as the Trapezium.  The Trapezium is designated as theta Orionis, their combined light is the "star" we see with the unaided eye.   They are the largest stars that have been born in this star-forming region - detailed study has revealed there are many other stars nearby and some blobs of matter that may yet ignite into stars.  The hot, young stars of the Trapezium are blowing away the gas of the nebula that birthed them at a tremendous rate.  One day, in the distant future, the gas and dust will have been evapourated into space and an open cluster will shine in it's place.   This nebula is one of the most studied areas of the sky and the first photograph of it was taken in 1880 by Henry Draper.

The Orionid meteor shower is active in October and is considered one of the major showers of the year.  Meteors seen from this shower are debri from Comet Halley  - this comet also causes the more active eta Aquarid meteor shower in early  May as well.

(Author's note: This constellation has so much connected both with cultural mythology and scientific discoveries with it that this article will revised and updated at some time in the future) 

This article is ©2001 Stargazers Astronomy Shop

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