The constellation Orion contains two of the ten brightest stars in the sky – Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) – a number of famous nebulae – the Orion Nebula, De Mairan’s Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula, among others – the well-known Trapezium cluster, and one of the most prominent asterisms in the night sky – Orion’s Belt.
Orion contains three Messier objects – Messier 42 (M42, NGC 1976,
Orion Nebula), Messier 43 (M43, NGC 1982,
De Mairan’s Nebula), and Messier 78 (M78, NGC 2068) –
and has seven stars with known planets.
The brightest star in the constellation is Rigel, Beta Orionis, with an apparent visual
magnitude of 0.18. Rigel is also the sixth brightest star in the sky. The second brightest
star in Orion, Betelgeuse, Alpha Orionis, has an apparent magnitudeof 0.43 and is the eighth brightest star in the night sky.
There are two meteor showers associated with Orion, the Orionids and the Chi Orionids.The Orionid meteor shower reaches its peak around October 21 every year.
In one myth, Orion fell in love with the Pleiades, the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione. He started pursuing them and Zeus scooped them up and placed them in the sky. The Pleiades are represented by the famous star cluster the same name, located in the constellation Taurus. Orion can still be seen chasing the sisters across the sky at night.
In another story, Orion fell in love with Merope, the beautiful daughter of King Oenopion who didn’t return his affections. One night, he had too much to drink and tried to force himself on her. The king, enraged, put out Orion’s eyes and banished him from his land, the island of Chios. Hephaestus felt sorry for the blind, wandering Orion and offered one of his assistants to guide the hunter and act as his eyes. Orion eventually encountered an oracle that told him if he went east toward the sunrise, his sight would be restored. Orion did so and his eyes were miraculously healed.
The constellation Orion has its origins in Sumerian mythology, specifically in the myth of Gilgamesh. Sumerians associated it with the story of their hero fighting the bull of heaven, represented by Taurus. They called Orion URU AN-NA, which
means “the light of heaven.” Their name for the constellation Taurus was GUD AN-NA, or “the bull of heaven.”
Orion is often shown as facing the attack of a bull, yet there are no myths in Greek mythology telling any such tale. When describing the constellation, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy describes the hero with a club and lion’s pelt, both of which are usually associated with Heracles, but there is no evidence in mythology books of a direct relation between the constellation
and Heracles. However, since Heracles, the most famous of Greek heros, is represented by the much less conspicuous constellation Hercules, and since one of his tasks was to catch the Cretan bull, there are at least hints of a possible connection between the two.
All myths of Orion’s death share the same outcome: Orion and the scorpion were placed on opposite sides of the sky, so that when the constellation Scorpius rises in the sky, Orion sets below the horizon in the west, fleeing from the scorpion.
There is one myth, however, that does not involve a scorpion: Artemis, the goddess of hunting, fell in love with the hunter and, to stop her from giving up her vows of chastity, her brother Apollo dared her to hit a small target in the distance with her bow and
arrow. Not knowing that the target was Orion, who was enjoying a swim, she hit it in a single shot, killing her would-be lover. Devastated by his death, she placed Orion among the stars.
Orion is a well-known constellation in many cultures. In Australia, the stars forming Orion’s belt and sword are sometimes called the Pot or the Saucepan. In South Africa, the three stars of Orion’s Belt are known as Drie Konings (the three kings) or Drie Susters (the three sisters). In Spain and Latin America, the stars are called Las Tres Marías, or The Three Marys.
Babylonians knew Orion as MUL.SIPA.ZI.AN.NA or The Heavenly Shepherd (The True Shepherd of Anu) in the Late Bronze Age and associated the constellation with Anu, the god of the heavenly realms. Egyptians associated it with Osiris, the god of death, afterlife and rebirth. Orion was also identified with Unas, the last Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, who was said to have
eaten the flesh of his enemies and devoured the gods themselves to become great and bring inheritance of his power. According to myth, Unas travels through the sky to become the star Sabu, or Orion.
Because pharaohs were believed to be transformed into Osiris after death, some of the greatest pyramids – the ones at Giza – were built to mirror the pattern of the stars in the constellation. To make the transformation easier, the air shaft in the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid was aligned with the star Alnitak, Zeta Orionis, the easternmost star in Orion’s Belt.
The Aztecs called the stars of Orion’s Belt and sword the Fire Drill; their rising in the sky signalled the beginning of the New Fire ceremony, a ritual Aztecs performed to postpone the end of the world.
In Hungarian mythology, Orion is identified with Nimrod, a famous hunter and father of Hunor and Magor, the two twins also known as Hun ad Hungarian. In Scandinavian tradition, the constellation is associated with the goddess Freya and called Frigg’s Distaff (Friggerock), after the tool she used for spinning. The Chinese knew the constellation as Shen, a great hunter or warrior.
Another ancient legend dates back to the second millennium BC. The Hittites (a Bronze Age people of Anatolia, the region comprising most of present-day Turkey) associated the constellation with Aqhat, a famous mythical hunter. The war goddess
Anat fell in love with him, but after he refused to lend her his bow, she tried to steal it. However, the man she sent to get the bow messed up the assignment pretty badly, killing Aqhat and dropping the bow into the sea. This is why, according to the myth,
the constellation drops below the horizon for two months in the spring.