Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Giant, the Hunter

Urania's Mirror, 1825

Read what mythological writers have written on Orion on this Theoi Project webpage. Read a profile on Orion at Wikipedia

Orion is known as the "mighty hunter" and is one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky. The three stars in the 'Belt of Orion' show up clearly in northern winter sky and align with the celestial equator; halfway between the north and south poles.

Ancient sources tell several different stories about Orion.

He fell in love with Merope on the island of Chios and won her hand by ridding the island of wild animals, but Oenopion, her father, refused to grant her to him in marriage. Orion got drunk and assaulted Merope. In revenge Oenopion blinded Orion. Orion, who had the power to walk on water, found his way to Lemnos. There the god of fire and metalworking, Hephaestus, offered him the services of his servant, the dwarf Cedalion (Kedalion), who was placed on the shoulders of the giant. Orion asked to be led in the direction of the rising sun. Cedalion guided him east where his eyesight was restored by the rays of the sun god Helius and while there he attracted the amorous attention of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. When he returned to take vengeance on Oenopion, Orion was unable to find his foe.

There are at least two versions of his death.

One version says that Artemis was in love with Orion much to the disapproval of her brother Apollo. Apollo tricked Artemis into killing Orion. While the three were visiting the sea Orion went walking out into the water. Soon he was so far from shore that only his head bobbed above the surface. Apollo challenged his sister, alleging that she could not hit the small speck far out on the water. Not one to back down from a challenge to her abilities as an archer, Artemis fired an arrow out over the sea, hitting the speck squarely. The speck disappeared under the water, and later the body of Orion washed up on the shore [1]. In grief, Artemis placed Orion's image and that of the scorpion on opposite sides of the sky.

Another version of his death says that when he threatened to kill every beast on Earth Gaia (Mother Earth) sent a giant scorpion (Scorpio) to kill him.

The name Orion, Greek Oarion, is of unknown origin, though some speculate on Uru-anna, 'heaven's light'. Another theory says the name is from Greek ourios, 'urine'. The story goes that Hyrieus of Boeotia was granted a wish in reward for his hospitality to the gods Zeus (Jupiter), Poseidon (Neptune) and Hermes (Mercury), who were visitors in disguise. Hyrieus asked for a son, the gods responded by urinating into a bull's hide (nearby Taurus) and burying it in the earth which produced a child nine months later. According to the Roman poet Ovid "Hyrieus called him Urion, because of his conception: The first letter has now lost its ancient sound" [1]. The name deriving from the Greek word for urine Greek ouron, urine, whence the verb ourein, to urinate. It seems the name Urion or some say Ourion was later altered to Orion.

The word urine, from Latin urina, comes from the Indo-European root *-r-, 'water, liquid, milk'. Related words are: urine, from Latin urina, urea, uracil (a component of RNA), ureter (the long, narrow duct that conveys urine from the kidney to the urinary bladder or cloaca).

The Greek word for urine, ouron (or ourion), comes from the Indo-European root *wers-2 "To rain, drip." (Oldest form *a2wers-) Suffixed o-grade form *(a)wors-a-. ureter, urethra, uretic, -uria, uro-1, diuretic, enuresis, natriuresis, from Greek ouron, urine, whence the verb ourein, to urinate, make water. Related to Sanskrit varsa- 'rain.' [In Pokorny 9. aw(e)- 78.]

Isidore says:

 "Urine (urina) is so called, either because it burns (urere), or because it comes out of the kidneys (renes). By its indications are shown future health and sickness. This liquid is called 'piss' (lotium) by the common people, because with its help clothes are washed (lavere, ppl. lotus), that is, cleaned." [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.240.]

The word Orion was also believed by Strabo to be related to the Greek word for mountain, oros, from where we get our word oro-, combining form meaning 'mountain', as in orography and orology — Greek oro-, from oros, 'mountain', which is cognate with Old Indian rsvah, 'high', from Indo-European base *er-, *or-, 'to set in motion, raise', whence also Latin orior, oriri, 'to rise'. See orient, adjective, and compare oread, Orestes. [Klein]

"Oreios (in Euboia) is situated at the foot of the mountain Telethrios in the Drymos ... perhaps, it was because the Ellopians who formerly inhabited it were mountaineers that the name Oreios ('Of the Mountain') was assigned to the city. It is also thought that Orion was so named because he was reared there." - Strabo, Geography 10.1.4 [1]

Many of the older dictionaries (Pokorny, Klein, Merriam Websters) link Greek oros, mountain, to the Indo-European root *er-1, "To move, set in motion, to be, exist." See Merriam Websters Dictionary under 'orient', in which the word orient is explained as from Latin orient-, oriens, from present participle of oriri to rise; akin to Sanskrit ṛṇoti he moves, arises, Greek ornynai to rouse, oros mountain.

The star Rigel, beta Orion, on Orion's heel, is where the Eridanus river arises. This might explain the mountain association with the name, mountains are usually from where rivers derive. To orientate literally means to face east. Orion regained his eyesight by orientating himself, with the help of Kedalion, facing east; facing the orient where the sun rises. Orion has associations with the rising sun.

To move, set in motion. Oldest form *ə1er-.
I. Basic form *er-.
1. Probably Germanic *ar-, *or-, *art(a), to be, exist. are, art, from Old English eart and aron, second person singular and plural present of bēon, to be.
2. Perhaps Germanic suffixed form *er-n-os-ti-. earnest, from Old English eornoste, zealous, serious.
3. Uncertain o-grade suffixed form *ori-yo-. orient, origin, original; abort, from Latin orīrī, to arise, appear, be born.
4. Suffixed o-grade form *or-smā-. hormone, from Greek hormē, impulse, onrush.
II. Enlarged extended form *rei-s-.
1. rise; arise, from Old English rīsan, from Germanic *rīsan;
2. Suffixed o-grade (causative) form *rois-ye-.
a. rear2, from Old English rǣran, to rear, raise, lift up;
b. raise, from Old Norse reisa, to raise. Both a and b from Germanic *raizjan.
[Pokorny 3. er- 326; ergh- 339.] Watkins

The Indo-European root above; *er-1, is listed in Pokorny's Indo-European Etymological Dictionary under "Root / lemma: er-3 : or- : r-", "page(s): 326-332". In this root Pokorny lists words that have since been separated by linguists because of uncertainty. I will include them here because these words seem to have relevance to the character as described in the myths of Osiris and the description of Orion in the sky.

To flow, run.
1. Suffixed zero-grade form *ri-nu-. run, runnel, from Old English rinnan, to run, and Old Norse rinna, to run (from Germanic *rinnan, to run, from *ri-nw-an), and from Old English causative ærnan, eornan, to run (from secondary Germanic causative *rannjan);
2. Suffixed zero-grade form *ri-l-. rill, from Dutch ril or Low German rille, running stream, from Germanic *ril-.
3. Suffixed form *rei-wo-. rival, rivulet; derive, from Latin rīvus, stream.
[Pokorny 3. er- 326.] Watkins

Orion was seen as running in the sky; "the Scorpion rises as Orion starts to sink into the other side of the sky, and this was seen as Orion running away from the attacker, and still in fear of him. Thus, Scorpius rule the northern hemisphere's summer while Orion rules the winter skies.[8]" Osiris, who the ancient Egyptians said belongs to this constellation, was a rival of Set who killed him. The star Rigel, on Orion's heel, is where the celestial Eridanus River derives, presumably it would be a rivulet at that stage. The cognate word for Orion, Gk. oros and Germanic berg (below), suggest that this constellation was also a mountain or hilly region where rivulets form to join together to form a river. The Pyramid Texts speaks of the Nile in connection with Osiris:

"... The two mountains are split apart. The God comes into being, the God has power in his body. The month is born, the fields live." (2063) And "O Osiris! The inundation is coming; abundance surges in. The flood-season is coming, arising from the torrent issuing from Osiris, O King may Heaven give birth to thee as Orion!" (2113-2117) And in a hymn to Osiris, Rameses IV says "You are the Nile, Gods and men live from your outflow." http://alkman1.blogspot.com.au/2006/12/osiris-and-dionysos-compared.html

Fortis and Fortissimus, were Roman titles for Orion [Allen, Star Names] and these words are related to the Germanic word for mountain, berg, from the Indo-European root *bhergh-2 'High; with derivatives referring to hills and hill-forts'. Derivatives: barrow² (a large mound of earth above a prehistoric tomb, from Old English beorg, hill), iceberg, borough, burg, (these words from Old English burg, burh, byrig, fortified town), bourg, bourgeois, burgess, burglar, faubourg, (these words from Late Latin burgus, fortified place), borough, burgher, Burgundy, force, fort, fortalice, forte1, forte2, fortis, fortissimo, fortitude, fortress, comfort, effort, enforce, fortify, pianoforte, reinforce, (these words from Latin fortis, strong). [Pokorny bheregh- 140. Watkins]

Fortitude is a good word to fit the description Manilius gives in his astrological influences for Orion:

"Orion will fashion alert minds and agile bodies, souls prompt to respond to duty's call, and hearts which press on with unflagging energy in spite of every trial." [Manilius, Astronomica, p.305.]

Nemesis to Artemis:

"What impious son of Earth persecutes you? ... What? Orion is using force against you once more? The wretch that touched your dress still lies in his mother’s flanks [Gaia, the earth], a lifeless corpse; if any man has clutched your garments with lustful hands, grow another scorpion to avenge your girdle." - Nonnus, Dionysiaca 48.395 [10]

A constellation represents a number of things:

"Orion shines in the south, in front of the tracks of Taurus. It is named 'Orion' from urine (urina), that is, from a flood of waters, for it rises in the winter season, and troubles the sea and the land with waters and storms. Latin speakers call this constellation the Jugula [translator's note: compare iugulum, 'throat,' with a figurative sense 'slaughter'] because it is armed, as if it has a sword, and is terrible and very brilliant in the light of its stars. If all of its stars are shining, then calm weather is forecast, but if their sharpness is blunted, then a storm is understood to loom.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.105.]

Allen [Star Names, below] says "Plautus, Varro, and others called the constellation of Orion Jugula and Jugulae, the Joined, referring to the umeri (shoulder), the two bright stars in the shoulders, as if connected by the jugulum, or collar-bone. Such, at least, is the generally received derivation, but Buttmann claimed it as from jugulare (the jugular vein), and hence the Slayer, a fitting title for the Warrior" [Allen, Star Names, p.306]. The jugulum is the cavity of the posterior part of the head to which the neck is annexed. The jugular vein is the large veins of the neck that drain blood from the head. Jugula comes from the Indo-European root *yeug- 'To join'. Derivatives: yoke, jug-, jugate, jugular, jugum, conjugate, subjugate, zygo-, zygote, jostle, joust, adjust, join, joint, conjugal, conjunct, yoga. [Pokorny 2. ieu- 508. Watkins]

These etymologies should make this 'Mighty Hunter', this 'Giant', the zygote; the product of the conjunction of the sperm and egg cells in conception. A zygote is the original cell that comes to creation and will survive in this state for four days before dividing into a blastiocyst. In the micro realm a zygote cell would appear gigantic compared to other cells. In ancient Egyptian the germinating seed symbolized Osiris rising from the dead. The zygote grows into a child. Fertilisation also takes place in plants when the male gamete fuses with the female gamete to form a zygote. The zygote grows into a seed. The germinating seed symbolized Osiris rising from the dead.

According to Allen [see Star Names below] some think that the Belt of Orion stars, delta, epsilon, zeta, known to the Arabs as the Golden Nuts, first bore the name Jauzah, from another meaning of that word, — Walnut, and that title was later given to the whole figure of Orion. In early Arabia Orion was Al Jauzah. Walnuts (genus Juglans, note the similarity of Orion's title 'Jugula') from Latin juglans, 'walnut', is a contraction of 'Jovis glans'. Mythology describes a Golden Age when men lived on acorns the gods lived on walnuts thus the name Jovis glans or 'Jupiter's nut's. Jauzah also seems to be the term used for a black sheep with a white spot on the middle of the body.

Orion had a number of titles signifying the word 'giant': The Jews called Orion Gibbor, the Giant. "The Syrians knew Orion as Gabbara; the Arabians as Al Jabbar, both signifying 'the Giant', Gigas, giant, Greek title for Orion with Ptolemy, — and in Latin days occasionally Gigas; the Arabian word gradually being turned into Algebra (the prefix al- means 'the'), Algebaro, and, especially in poetry, Algebar, which Chilmead gave as Algibbar (Al Gibbar, 'the giant')". Our words giant and gigantic, and the word giga- (prefix meaning a billion) come from Latin gagas, Greek gigas. Orion is referred to as 'earthborn' because the gods Zeus, Hermes and Poseidon urinated into a bull's hide and buried it in the earth. In Greek mythology the gigantes were (according to the poet Hesiod) the children of Uranos and Gaea (the Heaven and the Earth). The prefix gi- of 'giant', is believed to come from Gaia, or Gaea, meaning earth, Gaea-antis.

Algebra, another Arabic title for Orion, has the same spelling as that branch of mathematics; algebra. Algebra comes from Arabic al-jabr, from al-, 'the', + jabr, meaning to join broken bones, to set bones, (a joint is the location at which two or more bones make contact), from Semitic *gpr, and related to the name Gabriel; Gabriel, Jibril or Jibrail, 'Fortitudo Dei', 'force from God' said to Mary "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus." -- Luke 1:31. "In that same time that she had thus given her assent to the angel, she conceived in her Jesus Christ" [2]. Conception took place while Gabriel was present; something involved in the creation of the zygote, perhaps the spirit, soul, or life force.

Algebra from Arabic al-jabr, from al-, the, + jabr, meaning to join broken bones, to set bones. Orion is identified with Egyptian Osiris who was cut up into pieces by Set and his body was reassembled by Isis, who is associated with Sirius in Canis Major.

Winter's Orion rises in the east as the cosmic Scorpion disappears below the western horizon [7]. Skorpios (Scorpius) was a giant scorpion sent by the earth-goddess Gaia to slay the giant Orion when he threatened to kill all the beasts of the earth. The Scorpion stung Orion on the heel (marked by the star Rigel, beta Orion) and killed him. These two opponents Orion and the Scorpion were placed amongst the stars as their namesake constellations, but are positioned on opposite sides of the sky, one sets as the other rises. The Scorpion rises as Orion starts to sink into the other side of the sky, and this was seen as Orion running away from the attacker, and still in fear of him. Thus, Scorpius rule the northern hemisphere's summer while Orion rules the winter skies.[8] July is the month for the Scorpion to reign supreme and for Orion to take his place in the underworld. [9]

"Scorpius, because of its position, is one of the two ‘gateways’ to the Milky Way, the other being the opposite constellation of Orion. The Scorpion men attacked Osiris in Egyptian legend, and the Scorpions sting killed Orion in Greek myth." [3].

Orion died from the bite of a scorpion:

"After being poisoned by the Scorpion, Orion was resurrected by Asclepius the God of Healing, whom we see in the sky as Ophiuchus, the Serpent Wrestler. Asclepius himself was killed by a thunderbolt of Zeus, because he was restoring too many souls to life so that the Underworld, the realm of the dead, was becoming depopulated" [7].

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

"Near neighbor to the Twins (Gemini), Orion may be seen stretching his arms over a vast expanse of sky and rising to the stars with no less huge a stride. A single light marks each of his shining shoulders, and three aslant trace the downward line of his sword; but three mark Orion's head, which is imbedded in high heaven with his countenance remote. It is Orion who leads the constellations as they speed over the full circuit of heaven." [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD. p.35.]

"Orion will fashion alert minds and agile bodies, souls prompt to respond to duty's call, and hearts which press on with unflagging energy in spite of every trial. A son of Orion's will be worth a multitude and will seem to dwell in every quarter of the city; flying from door to door with the one word of morning greeting, he will enjoy the friendship of all." [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD. p.305.]

The Greeks (and Romans) associated Dionysus with Osiris, and Osiris was associated with Orion by the Egyptians. It seems to me that given the paltry amount of information we have of such a large and prominent constellation there should be a more major character associated with it. This website, Osiris and Dionysos compared, gives in depth evidence of the similarities.

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Orion
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
Tabit pi33)  (1) 10GEM20 11GEM55 4h 49m 50.4s +6° 57' 41" +06 52 32 3.67 F6V
Rigel beta (β) 15GEM26 16GEM50 5h 14m 32.3s -8° 12' 6" -31 07 46 0.12 B8
eta (η) 18GEM47 20GEM10 5h 24m 28.6s -2° 23' 49" -25 32 23 var B1
Bellatrix gamma (γ) 19GEM33 20GEM57 5h 25m 7.9s +6° 20' 59" -16 49 21 1.70 B2
nu (ν) 20GEM32 21GEM55 6h 7m 34.3s +14° 46' 6" -30 33 02 4.64 B0
Mintaka delta (δ) 21GEM00 22GEM24 5h 32m 0.4s -0° 17' 57" -23 33 34 2.48 O9
theta (θ) 21GEM36 22GEM59 5h 35m 16.5s -5° 23' 23" -28 41 06 5.36 O6
Hatysa iota (ι) 21GEM36 23GEM00 5h 35m 26s -5° 54' 36" -29 12 23 2.87 O9
Ensis M42 Great Orion
Nebula NGC1976
21GEM35 22GEM59 5h32m49.0s -05°25'16" -28 40 54 4.00 N
Alnilam epsilon (ε) 22GEM04 23GEM28 5h 36m 12.8s -1° 12' 7" -24 30 46 1.75 B0
Meissa lambda (λ) 22GEM19 23GEM42 5h 35m 8.3s +9° 56' 3" -13 22 34 3.66 O8
sigma (σ) 22GEM43 24GEM06 5h 38m 44.8s -2° 36' 0" -25 56 13 3.78 O9
Alnitak zeta (ζ) 23GEM17 24GEM41 5h 40m 45.5s -1° 56' 34" -25 17 59 2.05 B0
Saiph kappa (κ) 25GEM00 26GEM24 5h 47m 45.4s -9° 40' 11" -33 04 37 2.20 B0
Betelgeuse alpha (α) 27GEM21 28GEM45 5h 55m 10.3s +7° 24' 25" -16 02 01 0.50 var M2
xi (ξ) 01CAN33 02CAN56 6h 11m 56.4s +14° 12' 32" -09 12 23 4.35 B3
pi (2) (π 2) 10GEM59 12GEM22 4h 50m 36.7s +8° 54' 1" -13 29 22 4.35 A0
tau (20) (π 20) 16GEM28 17GEM51 5h 17m 36.4s -6° 50' 40" -29 50 39 3.68 B8
pi (4) (2) (π 4) (2) 10GEM43 12GEM06 4h 51m 12.4s +5° 36' 18" -16 46 42 3.78 B2
chi 1 (χ1) 27GEM18 28GEM41 5h 54m 22.9s +20° 16' 34" -03 09 44 4.62 F9
chi (62) (χ 62) 29GEM32 00CAN55 6h 3m 55.2s +20° 8' 18" -03 18 15 4.71 B2

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Orion, the Giant, Hunter and Warrior admired in all historic ages as the most strikingly brilliant of the stellar groups, lies partly within the Milky Way, extending on both sides of the {Page 304} celestial equator entirely south of the ecliptic, and so is visible from every part of the globe.

With Theban Greeks of Corinna's time, about the year 490 before our era, it was Oarion, the initial letter having taken the place of the ancient digamma, which, pronounced somewhat like the letter W, rendered the early word akin to our Warrior. Corinna's pupil Pindar followed in Oarioneios, but by the time of Euripides the present Orion prevailed, and we see it thus in Polymestor's words in the Ekabe (Hecuba) of 425 B.C.:

through the ether to the lofty ceiling,

Where Orion and Seirios (Sirius) dart from their eyes

The naming rays of fire. 

Catullus transcribed Oarion from Pindar, shortened to Arion, and sometimes changed to Aorion; but the much later Argion, attributed to Firmicus, was for Procyon, probably from Argos, the faithful dog of Ulixes.

The derivation of the word has been in doubt, but Brown refers it to the Akkadian Uru-anna [Note at end of page 304:This divinity was the later Chaldaeo-Assyrian sun-god Dumuzi, the Son of Life, or Tammuz, widely known in classical times as Adonis. Aries also represented him in the sky], the Light of Heaven, originally applied to the sun, as Uru-ki, the Light of Earth, was to the moon; so that our title may have come into Greek mythology and astronomy from the Euphrates. The Ourion, Ouron, or Urion, of the Hyriean, or Byrsaean, story, the Urion of the original Alfonsine Tables, graphically explained by Minsheu, is in no sense an acceptable title, although Hyginus and Ovid vouched for it, thus showing its currency in their day. Caesius' derivation from Ora, as if marking the Seasons, seems fanciful.

At one time it was Aletropodion, found in the Uranologia of Petavius of the 16th century, which Ideler said should be Alektropodion, Cock's Foot, likening the constellation to a Strutting Cock; but Brown goes back to Ale, Roaming, and so reads it Aletropodion, the Foot-turning Wanderer, mythologically recorded as roaming in his blindness till miraculously restored to sight by viewing the rising sun.

The Boeotians, according to Strabo, fellow-countrymen of the earthly Orion, called his stars Kandaon, their alternative title for Ares, the god of war, well agreeing with, perhaps originating, the Greek conception of the Warrior.

Ovid said that the constellation was Comesque Bootae; and some authors asserted that Orion never set, an idea possibly coming from the early confusion in name with Bootes already alluded to; although even as to that constellation the assertion would not have been strictly correct. Matthew Arnold similarly wrote in his Sohrab and Rustum: {Page 305} the northern Bear (Ursa Major), Who from her frozen height with jealous eye Confronts the Dog (Sirius) and Hunter (Orion) in the South.

Dianae Comes, and Amasius, Companion, and Lover, of Diana, were other titles, the Hero, after his death from the Scorpion's sting inflicted for his boastfulness, having been located by Jove in his present position, at the request of the goddess, that he might escape in the west when his slayer, the Scorpion (Scorpius), rose in the east, — as Aratos said:

When the Scorpion comes

Orion flies to utmost end of earth.

Thompson sees in this alternate rising and setting of these two sky figures an astronomic explanation of the symbolism in classic ornithology of the mutual pursuit and flight of Haliaetos and Keiris, the Sea Eagle and Kingfisher, compared in the poem Ciris to these opposed constellations. In Horace's Odes the constellation is termed pronus; and Tennyson had

Great Orion sloping slowly to the west,

which, with the rest of the beautiful opening passage, adds much to the charm of his Locksley Hall.

Homer, who made but a single allusion in the Iliad to this constellation, followed by a parallel passage in the Odyssey, wrote of "the might of huge Orion," and described the earthly hero as the "Illustrious Orion, the tallest and most beautiful of men, — even than the Aloidae," adjectives all well applied to our stellar figure; Hesiod said:

When strong Orion chases to the deep the Virgin stars (meaning the Pleiades of Taurus);

Pindar, that he was of monstrous size; as did Manilius in his Magna pars maxima coeli; and nearly all authors, as well as illustrators, have thus described Orion, and as an armed warrior. In the Ekabe we read:

with his glittering sword Orion armed;

in Ovid's works, of ensiger Orion.; in Lucun's of ensifer; and Vergil has a fine passage in the Aeneid quaintly translated in 1513 by the "Scottis" Gavin Douglas, where Palinurus

Of every sterne the twynkling notis he

That in the still heaven move course we see,

Arthur's house, and Hyades betaikning rane,

Watling strete, the Home and the Charlewane,

The fires Orion with his golden glave;

{Page 306} these last a very liberal translation of the much quoted armatumque auro. But later on in the voyage, when the fleet was off Capreae, the old pilot, in his astronomical enthusiasm dum sidera servat, lost his balance, and tumbled overboard.

The constellation's stormy character appeared in early Hindu, and perhaps even in earlier Euphratean days, and is seen everywhere among classical writers with allusions to its direful influence. Vergil termed it aquosus, nimbosus, and saevus; Horace, tristis and nautis infestus; Pliny, horridus sideribus; and the Latin sailors had a favorite saying, Fallit saepissime naulas Orion. Polybios, the Greek historian of the second century before Christ, attributed the loss of the Roman squadron in the first Punic war to its having sailed just after "the rising of Orion"; Hesiod long before wrote of this same rising:

then the winds war aloud,

And veil the ocean with a sable cloud:

Then round the bark, already hauled on shore,

Lay stones, to fix her when the tempests roar;

and Milton, in Paradise Lost:

when with fierce winds Orion armed

Hath vexed the Red-sea coast, whose waves overthrew

Busiris and his Memphian chivalry.

Many classical authors variously alluded to it as a calendar sign, for its morning rising indicated the beginning of summer, when, as we find in the Works and Days, the husbandman was instructed to

Forget not, when Orion first appears,

To make your servants thresh the sacred ears;

his midnight rising marked the season of grape-gathering; and his evening appearance the approach of winter and its attendant storms: an opinion that prevailed as late as the 17th century, for in the Geneva Bible, familiarly known as the Breeches Bible, the marginal reading in the Book of Job, xxxviii, 31, is "which starre bringeth in winter." Plautus, Varro, and others called the constellation Jugula and Jugulae, the Joined, referring to the umeri, the two bright stars in the shoulders, as if connected by the jugulum, or collar-bone. Such, at least, is the generally received derivation, but Buttmann claimed it as from jugulare, and hence the Slayer, a fitting title for the Warrior.

The Syrians knew it as Gabbara; the Arabians, as Al Jabbar, both signifying "the Giant", gigas; with Ptolemy, — and in Latin days occasionally Gigas; {Page 307} the Arabian word gradually being turned into Algebra, Algebaro, and, especially in poetry, Algebar, which Chilmead gave as Algibbar.

In early Arabia Orion was Al Jauzah, a word also used for stars in Gemini, and much, but not very satisfactorily, discussed as to its derivation and meaning in its stellar connection. It is often translated Giant, but erroneously, for it, at first, had no personal signification. Originally it was the term used for a black sheep with a white spot on the middle of the body, and thus may have become the designation for the middle figure of the heavens, which from its preeminent brilliancy always has been a centre of attraction. Some think that the Belt stars, delta, epsilon, zeta, known to the Arabs as the Golden Nuts, first bore the name Jauzah, either from another meaning of that word, — Walnut, — or because they lay in the centre of the splendid quadrangle formed by alpha, beta, gamma, and kappa; or from their position on the equator, the great central circle; the title subsequently passing to the whole figure. Grotius adopted the first of these derivations, quoting from Festus the passage quasi nux juglans, that a lesser light, Robert Hues, thus enlarged upon:

Now Geuze signifieth a Wall-nut; and perhaps they allude herein to the Latin word Jugula, by which name Festus calleth Orion; because he is greater than any of the other Constellations, as a Wall-nut is bigger then any other kind of nut.

In mediaeval as well as in later astronomy, the original appears in degenerate forms, such as Elgeuze, Geuze, Jeuze, and the Geuzazguar of Grotius.

Al Sufi's story of the feminine Jauzah has been noticed at the star Canopus and under Canis Minor.

Hyde quoted from an Arabian astronomer, Al Babadur, the Strong One, as a popular term for the constellation. Sugia and Asugia were thought by Scaliger to be corruptions of the Arabs' Al Shuja’, the Snake, applied to Orion in the sense of Audax, Bellator and Bellatrix, Fortis and Fortissimus, Furiosus and Sublimatus, and all proper names for it in Bayer's and other early astronomical works, Chilmead translating Asugia as "the Madman." Similar titles at one time obtained for Hydra.

Al Firuzabadi's Al Nusuk may be equivalent to the Nasak, a Line, or Row, applied to the Belt stars, but there signifying a String of Pearls.

Niphla, attributed to Chaldaea, has not been confirmed by modern scholars.

In Egypt, as everywhere, Orion was of course prominent, especially so in the square zodiac of Denderah, as Horus in a boat surmounted by stars, followed by Sirius, shown as a cow, also in a boat; and nearly three thousand years previously had been sculptured on the walls of the recently discovered step-temple of Sakkara, and in the great Ramesseum of Thebes about 3285 B.C. as Sahu. This twice appears in the Book of the Dead: {Page 308}

The shoulders of the constellation Sahu;


I see the motion of the holy constellation Sahu.

A similar title, but of Akkad origin, appeared for Capricornus. Egyptian mythology laid to rest in this constellation the soul of Osiris, as it did in the star Sirius that of Isis; and, again, in the Book of the Dead we read:

The Osiris N is the constellation Orion;

in this connection, Orion was known as Smati-Osiris, the Barley God.

The Giant generally has been represented with back turned toward us and face in profile, armed with club, or sword, and protected by his shield, or, as Longfellow wrote,

on his arm the lion's hide

Scatters across the midnight air

The golden radiance of its hair.

Durer drew him facing the Bull (Taurus), whose attack he is warding off; but the Leyden Manuscript has a lightly clad youth with a short, curved staff in the right hand, and the Hare (Lepus) in the background.

The head is marked by lambda, phi1, and phi², the stars alpha (Betelgeuse) and gamma (Bellatrix) pointing out the shoulders, beta (Rigel) and kappa (Saiph) the left foot and right knee. But Sir John Herschel observed from southern latitudes that the inverted view of the constellation well represents a human figure; the stars that we imagine the shoulders appearing for the knees, Rigel forming the head, and Cursa of Eridanus, one of the shoulders.

In astrology the constellation was Hyreides, Bayer's Hyriades, from Ovid's allusion to it as Hyriea proles, thus recalling the fabled origin from the bull's hide still marked out in the sky. This, formerly depicted as a shield of rawhide, is now figured as a lion's skin; and it perhaps was this Hyriean story that gave the stellar Orion the astrological reputation, recorded by Thomas Hood, of being "the verie cutthrote of cattle "; at all events, it certainly gave rise to the tripatros and Tripater, applied to him.

Saturnus has been another title, but its connection here I cannot learn, although I hazard the guess that as this divinity was the sun-god of the Phoenicians, his name might naturally be used for Uruanna-Orion, the sun-god of the Akkadians.

Anterior to much of this, we find in the various versions of the Book of Job and Amos the word Orion for the original Hebrew word Kesil, literally signifying "Foolish," "Impious," "Inconstant," or "Self-confident." {Page 309} This perhaps is etymologically connected with Kislev, the name for the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar, the tempestuous November-December. Julius Furst considered this Kislev an early title for Orion. The epithet "Inconstant" has fancifully been referred to the storms usual at his rising.

The Kesilim of Isaiah xiii, 10, rendered "constellations" in some versions, is also thought to refer to it and other prominent sky figures; in fact, Cheyne translates the word as "the Orions" in the Polychrome Bible; while Rahab, in the Revised Version of the Book of Job, ix, 13, — the "proud helpers" in the Authorized, — is referred by Ewald, Renan, and others to this, — possibly to some other group of stars, — with the same significations as those of Kesil, or perhaps "Arrogance," "Rebellion," "Strength," or "Violence."

Later on the Jews called Orion Gibbor, the Giant, considered as Nimrod bound to the sky for rebellion against Jehovah, whence perhaps came the Bands, or Bonds, of Orion, which some say should be Cords, or a Girdle; but the conception of Nimrod as "the mighty Hunter before the Lord," at least in the ordinary sense of that word, is erroneous, for the original, according to universal Eastern tradition, signifies a Lurking Enemy, or a Hunter of men rather than of beasts. This idea may have led to a Latin title, Venator, for the stellar Orion.

But, relative to the renderings of biblical words supposed to refer to sky groups, the Reverend Doctor Adam Clarke wrote in his Commentary

that 'Aish has been generally understood to signify the Great Bear (Ursa Major); Kesil Orion; and Kimah the Pleiades (of Taurus), maybe seen everywhere; but that they do signify these constellations is perfectly uncertain. We have only conjectures concerning their meaning.

As to the Hebrew words, they might as well have been applied to any of the other constellations ot heaven; indeed, it does not appear that constellations at all are meant.

The discordance between the various renderings would indicate the probable correctness of these comments, and that we are in no respect assured as to the identification of Bible star-names. Yet it is worth noting that the three constellations adopted by the translators of the Book of Job and of Amos in the Revised Version fitly represent the cardinal points of the sky: the Bear in the north, Orion in the south, and the Pleiades rising and setting in the east and west.

In the Hindu Brahmanas Orion is personified as Praja-pati, [Allen notes: He was also, and differently, represented in the sky by Hindu astronomers as an immense figure stretching from Bootes through Virgo, Corvus, and Libra into Scorpio] under the form of a stag, Mriga, in pursuit of his own daughter, the beautiful roe Rohini, our Aldebaran. In his unnatural chase he was transfixed by the {Page 310} three-jointed arrow — the Belt stars — shot by the avenging Hunter, Sirius, which even now is seen sticking in his body. This hero was the father of twenty-seven daughters, the wives of King Soma, the Moon, with whom the latter equally divided his time, thus referring to the nakshatras.

The Chinese made up their 4th sieu (Moon Mansion) from the seven conspicuous stars in the shoulders, belt, and knees of Orion, with the title Shen, or Tsan, Three Side by Side, anciently Sal, which may have originated from the Belt having at first alone formed the sieu. Indeed, the lunar asterism was mentioned in the She King as the Three Stars, delta was its determinant; but it overlapped the corresponding nakshatra, although entirely distinct from the 4th mansil in the feet of the Twins. Orion was worshiped in China during the thousand years before our era as Shen, or Shi Chen, from the moon station; but it also was known as the White Tiger, a title taken from the adjacent Taurus.

The Khorasmians adopted Orion's stars as a figure of their zodiac in place of Gemini.

The early Irish called it Caomai, the Armed King; the Norsemen, Orwandil; and the Old Saxons, Ebuorung, or Ebioring, words that Grimm thought connected with Iringe, or Iuwaring, of the Milky Way.

Caesius cited the singular title Ragulon, perhaps from Al Rijl, the Arabic designation for the star beta (Rigel), but he made this the equivalent of the Latin Vir, the Man par excellence, the Hero; and suggested that Orion represented Jacob wrestling with the angel; or Joshua, the Hebrew warrior; but Julius Schiller, that it was Saint Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin. Weigel figured it as the Roman Two-headed Eagle; and De Rheita, of 1643, found somewhere among its stars Christs Seamless Coat and a Chalice; but he was addicted to such discoveries.

Argelander has 115 stars here; Heis, 136; and Gould, 186; while the whole is as rich in wonderful telescopic objects as it is glorious to the casual observer. Flammarion calls it the California of the sky.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]

The Belt of Orion

One of the most obvious features people see in the sky is the three stars that form the "belt" across the middle of Orion; three stars in a row that appear to us of almost equal size and of equal distance from each other; Mintaka, the westernmost star in the belt, comes from the Arabic word for belt; Alnilam, the center star in the belt, means "a belt of pearls"; and Alnitak, the eastern-most star, means the girdle.

Orion's studded belt.

— Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel.

These Arabian titles of delta (Mintaka), epsilon (Alnilam), and zeta (Alnitak), although now applied to them individually, were at first indiscriminately used for the three together; but they had other names also, — Al Nijad, the Belt; Al Nasak, the Line; Al Alkat, the Golden Grains, Nuts, or Spangles; and Fakar al Jauzah, the Vertebrae in the Jauzah's back. Niebuhr cited the modern Arabic Al Mizan al H'akk, the Accurate Scale-beam, so distinguishing them from the curved line of the fainter c, theta, iota, d, and kappa, Al Mizan al Batil, the False Scale-beam. The Chinese similarly knew them as a Weighing-beam, with the stars of the sword as a weight at one end.

They were the Jugula and Jugulae of Plautus, Varro, and others in Roman literature; the Balteus, or Belt, and the Vagina, or Scabbard, of Germanicus. The Zona of Ovid may have been taken from the Zone of Aristotle.

The early Hindus called them Isus Trikanda, the Three-jointed Arrow; but the later transferred to it the nakshatra title, Mrigashiras (or Mrigashirsha).

The Sogdian Rashnawand and the Khorasmian Khawiya have significations akin to our word "Rectitude," which this straight line of stars personified. The Rabbi Isaac Israel said that it was the Mazzaroth, Mazzaloth, or Mazlatha that most of his nation applied to the zodiac.

Riccioli cited Baculus Jacobi, which became in popular English speech Jacob's Rod or Staff, — the German Jakob Stab, — from the tradition given by Eusebius that Israel was an astrologer, as, indeed, he doubtless was; and some had it Peter's Staff. Similarly, it was the Norse Fiskikallar, or Staff; the Scandinavian Frigge Rok, Frigg's, or Freya's, Distaff, — in West Gothland Frigge Rakken, — and Maria Rok, Mary's Distaff; in Schleswig, Peri-pik. In Lapland it was altered to Kalevan Miekka, Kaleva's Sword, or still more changed to Niallar, a Tavern; while the Greenlanders had a very different figure here, — Siktut, the Seal-hunters, bewildered when lost at sea, and transferred together to the sky.

The native Australians knew the stars as Young Men dancing a corroboree, the Pleiades being the Maidens playing for them; and the Poignave Indians of the Orinoco, according to Von Humboldt, as Fuebot, a word that he said resembled the Phoenician.

The University of Leipsic, in 1807, gave to the Belt and the stars in the Sword the new title Napoleon, which a retaliating Englishman offset by Nelson; but neither of these has been recognized on star-maps or globes.

{Page 316} Seamen have called it the Golden Yard-arm; tradesmen, the L, or Ell, the Ell and Yard, the Yard-stick, and the Yard-wand, as occupying 3° between the outer stars, — the Elwand of Gavin Douglas; Catholics, Our Lady's Wand; and the husbandmen of France and along the Rhine, Rateau, the Rake. In Upper Germany it has been the Three Mowers; and it is often the Magi, the Three Kings, the Three Marys, or simply the Three Stars, that Tennyson had in his Princess, —

those three stars of the airy Giants' zone

That glitter burnished by the frosty dark.

The celestial equator now passes through the Belt, but was 12° below it 4000 years ago.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]