Friday, January 21, 2011

Picture the Stars: The Great Hunter in the Sky

Contributed by R. D. Stephens

            I’ve always been fascinated with ancient mythologies; legends and folklore since I was young- well, younger than I am now anyway.  As an adult I’m often inwardly shocked at the enduring nature of these stories, names and images in times where things seem to have few enduring qualities.  These stories have remained in our daily language for thousands and thousands of years. 

             The time that I did spend in my childhood out under the stars of Little Blair Valley was spent hearing and wondering about these epic stories more often than with an eye to a telescope.  Hey, even the nerdy kids of the world have short attention spans!  Tales of demigods, vengeance, and love were more gripping at age 8 than M42. So I start my first post with the first constellation that I remember learning, Orion.  It’s safe to say it’s one of the most easily found constellations in the world thanks to his distinctive three-starred belt.  But there’s a lot more to this constellation than flashy accessories.

            Orion was a hunter of giant stature; the demigod son of Poseidon, god of the seas. Thanks to his father, he could walk on water and in his travels across the ocean he found himself on an island where he met with Artemis and, drunk, boasted that he was such a great hunter that he could kill every creature in the world.  Mother Earth objected and raised a mammoth scorpion, which killed Orion in a single strike.  Orion was well liked by the goddesses, and at their request Zeus raised Orion and the Scorpion to the heavens.   This, at least, was my favorite version of Orion’s legend.   There are several versions of this demigod’s life and death which connect Orion to several other constellations and stars.  He desperately pursued the 7 beautiful Pleiades.  Zeus grew tired of it and raised them all to the stars as punishment.  Canis Minor and Major are his faithful hunting dogs.  Another common story was that he was a great hunter and that Artemis loved him desperately.  Her jealous brother Apollo tricked her into putting an arrow through his head and he is commemorated in the heavens at her request.

            Orion’s showy appearance in the sky probably led the nearby star formations to be named in connection to his myths. Canis Minor and Major hover behind him, Orion chases the Pleiades across the sky, Taurus and Scorpio- Orion’s prey are always one step ahead of him.  In fact, Orion is such a central figure in the night sky that you can use him to find other objects! Follow the line of his belt to the southeast and you’ll land on Sirius- our brightest star and part of Canis Major, northwest and you’ll find Aldebaran which is a bright orange star starting the constellation Taurus.   Within Orion, Rigel at his left knee and Betelguese on his right shoulder, are two of the brightest stars in the night sky.  Follow a line from Rigel to Betelguese and you’ll come to Castor and Pollux, which create the constellation Gemini.  

            Orion is a bright beacon that can take you on a virtual journey through the constellations no matter where you might be in the world.  Take a little ‘walk’ through the night sky. If you’re new to the hobby, see what you can point out without your star chart or GoTo telescope controller handy and if you aren’t, take a moment to step back from the eyepiece and stare at the stars! 

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