Orion’s Origins

Orion is perhaps the most visible constellation in the night sky these days (well, at least in the Northern Hemisphere), due largely to the three stars known as Orion’s Belt, which have also been called the Three Wise Men. While Orion is known to be a character from Greek mythology, it’s rather unclear who he actually was, beyond the fact that he was a giant and a great hunter. The sources that address Orion contradict each other on most of the details, including how he was born and how he died. One version of the birth story says that he was a son of Poseidon, who gave him the power to walk on water, or possibly to wade through deep water. Another much more bizarre origin story makes him the son of Hyrieus, who was either a king or a peasant. Regardless, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hermes visited him, and without knowing who they really were, Hyrieus roasted a bull for them, and in gratitude the gods granted his wish for a son. How? By either masturbating or urinating onto the hide of the bull, which they then bury.

When Hyrieus digs up the hide ten months later, he finds the young Orion.

The giant went on to have many adventures, a lot of which have not survived. One that does appear in many sources involves his serving as a huntsman for King Oinopion of Chios, who promised Orion the hand of his daughter Merope in marriage if he would kill the dangerous beasts in the kingdom. The hunter succeeded at this, but the king reneged on his promise, so Orion raped Merope instead. Nice guy, huh? Oinopion not only banished Orion for this, but blinded him as well, and he had to journey to the place where the sun rose in order to have his sight restored by Helios.

Later, he became a close companion of Artemis, and apparently she even considered marrying him. Yeah, Artemis, I think you can do better than a former rapist. Apollo apparently thought so as well, and some accounts say that he tricked his sister into killing Orion herself. In other versions of the myth, the hunter claimed he would kill every beast in the world, and Gaea sent a scorpion to kill him.

Orion and the scorpion both became constellations, but were placed on opposite sides of the sky so they wouldn’t fight.

I’ve long associated Orion with Nimrod, who was said to be “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” and who was also considered quite prideful. I’m not the only one to have made that connection, and apparently the constellation was thought by the Jews to represent Nimrod. How old this connection is, however, is an issue on which I’m not really qualified to speculate. Did the Jews borrow the legend of Orion from the Greeks, or were they just two similar myths that eventually came to be tied together? I don’t know.

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3 Responses to Orion’s Origins

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