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Summary Article: ORION
from Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

In ancient Greek mythology, Orion was a giant hunter. He features in numerous legends, many of which give contradictory accounts of his life and exploits. Every version agrees, however, that after his death he became a constellation in the night sky—the outline of the group of stars named for him appears to show the hunter wearing a lion's skin, carrying a club, and accompanied by two hunting dogs.

In most accounts, Orion was either the son of Hyreius, king of Boeotia, or of the deities Dionysus and Demeter. A few myths state that his mother was Gaia, the earth goddess; elsewhere his parents are said to have been either Poseidon and Euryale or Hyrieus and the nymph Clonia. One myth attributed Orion's origin to a bull hide: childless Hyrieus asked for an heir by sacrificing a bull to Zeus, Hermes, and Poseidon; they urinated on the hide, and Orion was born from it.

Love stories

As a young man Orion courted Merope, one of the Pleiades, seven nymphs who were companions of the Greek goddess Artemis (the others were Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Sterope, and Taygete). Merope rejected his advances. In one story, she married a mortal, Sisyphus, king of Corinth. According to another version, Merope became betrothed to Orion, but her father—Oenopion, king of Chios, an island in the Aegean Sea—kept postponing the date of the wedding. Eventually Orion lost patience and raped Merope; Oenopion blinded him in revenge. Orion then wandered helplessly until the god Hephaestus took pity on him and sent his own attendant, Kedalion, to help the blinded man. Sitting on top of Orion's shoulders, Kedalion guided him to the abode of Helios, the sun god, and Eos, goddess of the dawn. When Eos saw Orion she was moved to tears—they became the glistening morning dew—and immediately restored his sight. On seeing his savior, Orion fell in love with her, but this angered the gods, who ordered Artemis, goddess of hunting, to slay the man with her arrows. Before he died, however, Orion repaid his debt to Hephaestus by building a subterranean temple in his honor in Sicily. He also built walls around the island's coast to protect it from the sea.

Another legend states that Orion and Artemis fell in love and planned to marry. Their relationship was sabotaged by Artemis's brother, Apollo, who disapproved of the union between a goddess and a human. Apollo pointed to a small bobbing object far out to sea and challenged Artemis to hit it. The goddess would never turn down a chance to show off her marksmanship, so she shot an arrow from her bow and hit the center of the distant speck. The target disappeared beneath the waves. Not long afterward the body of the victim was washed up on shore—it was Orion, as Apollo well knew. Artemis, grief-stricken, asked Zeus to place her dead lover among the stars.

Several mythological accounts of the life of Orion end with his being stung fatally by a scorpion. According to some sources, the venomous creature was set upon him by Artemis after he had raped one of her followers. In other accounts, Orion boasted that he could slay any animal, so the scorpion was his comeuppance. In a variation on this theme, the earth goddess Gaia sent the scorpion. It stung Orion, but he survived thanks to an antidote promptly administered by Asclepius, god of medicine.

A modern place among the stars

Every legend of Orion agrees that after the hunter's death, Zeus granted the wish of Artemis and placed him in the heavens. The constellation still known as Orion, the Hunter, is the most spectacular and one of the most easily recognized in the sky. The stars represent the hunter holding a shield in his left hand and a club in his right. Betelgeuse, one of the largest stars known, marks his right shoulder. Bellatrix marks his left shoulder, and Saiph and Rigel mark his two legs. Other notable parts of the constellation include Orion's belt, consisting of three bright stars and including the dark Horsehead nebula; and Orion's sword, where the bright Orion nebula is visible to the naked eye. The constellation is located near the celestial equator and dominates the night sky of the northern hemisphere in winter. The nearby constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor represent Orion's two hunting dogs. Also in the same part of the sky is Taurus, the Bull, which was often seen as Orion's prey. Among the stars of this constellation are the Pleiades—this is particularly an allusion to Orion's pursuit of Merope, but also to a version of the story in which Orion pursues the seven sisters and their mother, Pleione, until the gods turn them into doves.

Another astronomical reference to the story of Orion is the constellation of Scorpius, the Scorpion, which is never visible at the same time as Orion—according to legend, that is because Zeus ordered the killer and its victim to be kept apart.

Similar legends in other cultures

The legends of Orion and his link with the stars have notable parallels in other ancient cultures. Sumerians saw the constellation as Sibzianna, a shepherd god; the neighboring stars were his flock. Mesopotamians called it Uru-anna (Light of Heaven), who, as Gilgamesh, battled Gut-anna (Bull of Heaven), which is represented by the Taurus constellation. What modern Westerners know as Orion was known to Hittites as Aqhat, a hunter. The battle goddess Anat loved Aqhat, but Aqhat rejected her and refused to lend her his bow. Anat sent a man to steal it, but the man killed Aqhat. Aqhat fell into the sea, an explanation for the constellation's disappearance below the horizon in spring. The ancient Egyptians were among the many other civilizations that attached mythic significance to the constellation. They regarded it as a manifestation of Osiris in his sky barge.

See also: APOLLO; ARTEMIS; ASCLEPIUS; AUSTRALIA; DEMETER; DIONYSUS; EOS; GAIA; HEPHAESTUS; OSIRIS; PLEIADES; POSEIDON; ZEUS.

Further reading
  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006.
  • Gayley, Charles Mills. The Classic Myths in English Literature and Art. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1893.
  • Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Grand Central, 2011.
  • Ovid, and A. D. Melville, trans. Metamorphoses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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