Orion is perhaps the most recognizable of all constellations, and as well as containing two of the night sky’s brightest stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, it also straddles the celestial equator, meaning that it can be seen throughout most of the world, except near to the planet’s polar extremities. It is no wonder, then, that this picturesque constellation containing several asterisms has been revered since ancient times and has various colorful myths associated with it.
The constellation of Orion is named after the legendary hunter from Greek mythology, and can be seen in the sky from November to early May by observers situated between latitude of +85° and -75°. It is the 26th largest of the 88 constellations, with its celestial neighbors including such recognizable constellations as Taurus, Canis Major, Canis Minor and Gemini, as well as Lepus and Eridanus. Orion lies along the plane of the Milky Way, and in addition to containing two of the top 10 brightest stars, namely Rigel (6th) and Betelgeuse (8th), it is famous for its alignment of three bright stars (Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak) which form the asterism known as Orion’s Belt. Hanging from the giant’s belt is another asterism called Orion’s Sword, consisting of the stars Theta Orionis and Iota Orionis, with the bright Orion Nebula (M42) located between them.
The earliest story concerning Orion was recorded by the Sumerians who ruled the southernmost region of Mesopotamia, or the land lying between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. To this urban civilization, the constellation represented their hero Gilgamesh, whose exploits were immortalised in the first surviving piece of heroic literature called the Epic of Gilgamesh. While records point to Gilgamesh being a historical king who ruled over the Sumerian city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia sometime between 2700 and 2500 BC, the mythology describes Gilgamesh as a demigod possessing superhuman strength whose great accomplishments assured his divine status amongst his subjects.
Amongst Gilgamesh’s many great deeds was ordering the city walls of Uruk to be built, and wrestling with the wild man, Enkidu, representing the natural world, who was sent by the gods to humble him. Following a fierce battle, they became great friends, and enjoyed many adventures together, including killing Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, who had been unleashed by the supreme god Anu to kill Gilgamesh after an appeal by his daughter the goddess Inanna (Akkadian: Ishtar) whose affections Gilgamesh had spurned. The Sumerians subsequently honored the struggle by depicting Gilgamesh in the celestial heavens as the constellation of URU AN-NA (“the light of heaven”) fighting a bull, identified as the modern nearby constellation of Taurus. Amongst the attributes ascribed to the constellation of URU AN-NA was a bow in Gilgamesh’s left hand, an axe in his right, and a sword hanging from his belt.
In 2334 BC, the Sumerian city-states of Mesopotamia were conquered by the Akkadian ruler Sargon, with the new empire they created eventually passing into the hands of the Babylonians after being conquered by Hammurabi in 1787 BC. Around 1000 BC, Babylonian astronomers then compiled the MUL.APIM, a comprehensive star and constellation catalogue in which the constellation of Orion was called MULSIPA.ZI.AN.NA, meaning the “True Shepherd of Anu”, referring to the Sumerian attendant deity Ninshubur, who served as a messenger to Anu, the god of the sky, and supreme ruler of heaven. Ninshubur was also a personal attendant to the goddess Ishtar (Sumerian: Inanna), the Queen of Heaven, who had earlier been rejected by Gilgamesh, but later Mesopotamian traditions would subsequently assimilate Ninshubur with the Akkadian messenger god Papshukal to become a herald to the general pantheon of gods.
In the Babylonian star map, the constellation depicted Ninshubu/Papshukal as a shepherd with his left foot forward, and a staff in his extended left hand. Traditionally, the deity was symbolized as the figure of a walking bird, and behind and below the messenger god was imagined a Rooster, with both separate constellations representing Papshukal in his bird and human forms.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the gods descended from the three stars of Orion’s Belt, and the bright star Sirius in Canis Major. Orion was originally regarded as the god Sah (Sahu), the “father of the gods”, with Orion’s Belt imagined as a crown upon his head, while the star Sirius was his wife Sopdet (Sothis), a fertility goddess whose earliest depictions were either as a reclining cow with a flower between its horns, or as a woman wearing a tall crown adorned with a five-pointed star.
Sah and Sopdet were later syncretized with the deities Osiris and Isis, and while the appearance of Sirius (Isis) rising with the Sun (heliacal rising) around the time of the summer solstice following a 70 day absence heralded the flooding of the Nile and thus the start of the agricultural year, the appearance of the three “king-stars” of Osiris (Orion) at night after a similarly absent period, before pointing to Isis, signified the flooding’s end around the time of the winter solstice.
The constellations associated with Osiris and Isis showed the deities standing on their separate celestial boats, both with human appearances, but with Osiris having green skin and a false plaited beard. Osiris was the deity in charge of death, the afterlife, and reincarnation, and the Kings Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza, completed around 2560 BC, was built with its southern air shaft pointing towards Orion’s Belt as a celestial marker for the pharaoh who would unite with Osiris in the afterlife and inherit eternal life. Incidentally, its northern shaft aligns with the circumpolar stars, where his soul would ascend to the celestial realm of the indestructible, undying stars that never set, a perfect destination for a king’s soul.