Orion, c. 1770, Giovanni Battista Bernero( 1736 Cavallerleone - 1796 Torino )

Orion (Ὠρίων), one of the Titans of Greek mythology, provided the archetype of the primordial hunter in Greek culture. In modern interpretations Orion ("mountain man" if the name is truly Greek)(warden) exists on three mythic planes. On the Neolithic level he is a shaman, the "master of the animals," an Aegean counterpart to Enkidu, the wild companion of Sumerian/Babylonian Gilgamesh. On the Minoan level, he has been dedicated to the Great Goddess of Crete. On the Classical level, he has become a threat to the reformed and Olympian Artemis and must be destroyed. His myth survives only in fragmentary episodes and references, and its meanings were obscure to the patriarchal culture of classical Greece and need some explaining. Orion's journeys may be traced on a map.

Ancestry, origins, birth

The mythographers site the birthplace of Orion in Boeotia, the fertile heart of civilized Hellas, whose folk the Boeotian poet Hesiod described as farmers in the winter and sailors in the summer season. (Did the Boeotians sail but not swim, that they disputed whether Orion waded the Aegean from island to island or merely strode through the waves?) Though some say Orion sprang directly from Gaia, the Earth Mother, others make his father Gaia's grandson Atlas, who equally has his great feet planted in the sea.

Others select Poseidon for his father and the beautiful and awful Gorgon Euryale for his mother, the "wide-ranging" one, she of the "wide salt sea" (eureia halys(Kerenyi 1976, p.42)), herself a grand-daughter of Gaia.

Orion's birth in Boeotia took place at Hyrai, an ancient place mentioned in Homer's catalogue of the ships that set forth to fetch Helen home from Troy. Ovid in his Fabulae invents a tale of a king "Hyreus", father of Orion, but no "Hyraeius" dwelt at Hyrai. Like some other archaic names of Greek cities, such as Athenai or Mycenae, Hyrai is a plural form: its name once had evoked the place of "the sisters of the beehive". According to Hesychios, the Cretan word hyron meant 'swarm of bees' or 'beehive' (Kerenyi 1976 pp42-3). Through his "beehive" birthplace Orion is linked to Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean "Mistress" older than Demeter—who was herself sometimes called "the pure Mother Bee". Winged, armed with toxin, creators of the fermentable honey (see mead), seemingly parthenogenetic in their immortal hive, bees functioned as emblems of other embodiments of the Great Mother: Cybele, Rhea the Earth Mother, and the archaic Artemis as honored at Ephesus. Pindar remembered that the Pythian pre-Olympic priestess of Delphi remained "the Delphic bee" long after Apollo had usurped the ancient oracle and shrine. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo's gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee-maidens.

Many cultures regard bees as particularly rich in symbolism. The peoples of the ancient Near East and throughout the Aegean world saw bees as a bridge between the natural world and the underworld. Bees appeared carved on tombs. The Mycenean tholos tombs even took the form of beehives.

There he hammered out the earth, the heavens, the sea,                   
the untiring sun, the moon at the full, along with
every constellation which crowns the heavens
the Pleiades, the Hyades, mighty Orion,
and the Bear, which some people call the Wain,
always circling in the same position, watching Orion,
the only stars that never bathe in Ocean stream.
Iliad, Book 18

Orion and Side

Orion's first episode, represented as a "marriage," associates him with Side, quite literally the "pomegranate", in a consecration to that aspect of "The Goddess" of the pre-Indo-European peoples of the Aegean and the Fertile Crescent who later evolved into Hera. The union appears purely mystical, a civilizing rite for Orion the representative of Nature: we hear of no offspring; we know of no named place where Orion presided as Side's consort. The Boeotians simply used the word side as the name for the pomegranate. Other Greek dialects call the pomegranate rhoa; its possible connection with the name of the Earth Goddess Rhea, inexplicable in Greek, proved suggestive for the mythographer Karl Kerenyi, who suggested that the consonance might ultimately derive from a deeper, pre-Indo-European language layer.

The wild pomegranate did not grow natively in the Aegean area in Neolithic times. It originated in the Iranian east and came to the Aegean world along the same cultural pathways that brought The Goddess whom the Anatolians worshipped as Cybele and the Mesopotamias as Ishtar. The myth of Persephone, the dark goddess of the Underworld also prominently features the pomegranate.

Several "pomegranate" places called Side existed in the Greek world, though not in Boeotia. One stood in the Peloponnese, north of Cape Malea. Another Side, daughter of Taurus, gave her name to a place in Pamphylia, a country only marginally Greek during classical times and now part of modern Turkey. Still another Side committed suicide at her mother's tomb, to escape advances made by her father. She became transmuted to a pomegranate tree and he to a kite, emblem of a robber in the Greek mind. Because of the legendary connection, kites allegedly never land in pomegranate trees.

Primordial Orion

What was the Titan Orion, then, before the pomegranate transmuted him? Orion, literally "mountain-man," (compare orogeny) embodies some primeval aspects of untouched nature.

Readers may find a useful parallel of Orion in the valiant Enkidu, the opposite/brother and rival-made-friend and helper of Gilgamesh. Like Orion Enkidu was "tall in stature, towering up to the battlements over the wall," as his urban chroniclers described him. "Surely he was born in the mountains," the shepherds cried out, when they first saw him. There is no suggestion of a direct transmission from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (we have it in a late Babylonian version) which remained untranslated into Greek until modern times, and there was no direct knowledge of the Enkidu of the Gilgamesh story in the Achaean world, though pieces of tablet with fragments describing Enkidu's death have turned up at Megiddo in Canaan and at Emar on the upper Euphrates River in Syria, areas on the edges of the Mycenaean world. It wasn't a question of the figure of Enkidu influencing the myth of Orion. Both were survivals of a Neolithic Master of the Animals, surviving from the Neolithic hunt as the Ice Age waned. The Mother Goddess created Enkidu, just as Gaia gave rise to Orion.

An engraving of Orion from Johann Bayer's Uranometria, courtesy of the US Naval Observatory Library

Orion and Merope

When he came ashore, Orion found that he was once again in a place called Hyrai, another bee-swarm, but in the island of Chios. The two Hyrai may have functioned as two entrances to the netherworld, which would have enabled Orion to pass between Boeotia and Chios in a chthonic journey. In later Classical times, the "tomb" of Orion that was shown to visitors in Boeotia may have been the cave-entrance.

Main article: Merope.

Logically, the episode that resulted in Orion's blinding would have to be the next episode, though no connected string of episodes for Orion survives in Greek literature. This transpired in the island of Chios, where Orion sought Merope, whose Greek name seems to mean "honey-faced" in Greek, thus "eloquent," but surely at an earlier level her "face" was a bee-mask. The variety of "Meropes" in isolated mythic fragments suggests that a "merope" denotes a position, a priestess rather than an individual.

Such Bronze Age Aegean cult centers guided by priestesses dedicated to the Great Goddess were deeply threatening to the Hellene invaders and warranted close patriarchal supervision. Placed in charge of this Merope and her hive on Chios was Oinopion, the "wine-man," a son of Dionysus. Some say he came from Crete, others specify Lemnos or Naxos. Wine mixed with fermented honey, as at Chios, mediated between the sacred intoxicants of the old order and the new patriarchal Olympian one, and honey mixed with wine remained a suitable libation to propitiate both levels of divinity, as Jason and the Argonauts wisely showed when they first set foot ashore in the chthonic and dangerous land of Colchis.

Under the old regime that Orion embodies, Oinopion would have been the annual consort of the Merope, but at the time level of the Orion myths, he had become a guardian-sponsor represented as her "father" instead, though Oinopion betrayed a most unfatherlike jealousy and determination to preserve his position. When the Titan offered himself as a candidate for the role of consort to Merope, Oinopion set Orion a challenging contest to justify his right. Since he was so famed as a hunter, Orion had to rid the island of all its dangerous wild beasts. There was a shift in roles here, for the animal-master of the Neolithic had originally been the spirit-protector of the animals, similar to the untamed Enkidu, who released them from the hunters' traps and springes. At the Neolithic level, the Master of the Animals was their protector; the hunter had to propitiate him, so that he would release the animals from his care; only then could the hunt be successful. Orion, like primal Enkidu also the "offspring of the mountains," had been at one with the wild creatures until he achieved self-consciousness. Now the "awakened" Animal Master hunted them himself. There was further irony in Oinopion's demand, if the "bee-eater" were herself a bear. And in his heart the usurping Oinopion was unwilling to be bested, to resign, though no longer to be sacrificed in the archaic way, even though Orion might successfully master the ritual contests.

Thus it was that, though evening after evening Orion brought in pelts of bear and lion, lynx and wolf, and piled them in the Hyrian palace-hive, it was never enough. Even though the island was rendered secure from marauding beasts, wily Oinopion always claimed that there were still rumors of a wolf or a bear heard to be roaming the island's farthest mountain districts.

In the evenings Oinopion plied Orion with his wine. Wine, the civilized gift of Dionysus, has a wild other nature, as the toxic barren ivy. Wine worked potently on the Titan's own wild and earthy nature, and one night in darkness, after the household had all gone to their chambers, Orion, inflamed by wine, took the perhaps not-unwilling Merope, there in her palace-hive. Then, overcome, he slept.

While Orion lay in a stupor, Oinopion stole upon him and he put out Orion's eyes. With a shout, Oinopion called up the guards, and just as a hive of bees will cast out a giant hornet intruder, they cast Orion, blinded, down onto the seashore, where ocean and land come together.

Blinded Orion

In myth, when a figure has been outwardly blinded, he may receive in compensation a gift of inner sight. So Orion may have needed no oracle to know that he must seek out the first light of Helios, just when his chariot rises from the easternmost rim of Oceanus, that the place to achieve this was the eastern edge of the possible world, which is also known as the land of Colchis. There the sun's first rays would restore his sight.

Orion and the Pleiades

Meanwhile, how had Merope fared? In such mythic contests, the "prize" often favors the heroic contender, as Ariadne was to favor Theseus. Now this Merope of Chios was at the same time one of the seven Pleiades, the "sailing sisters." They were named in the old matriarchal way for their mother Pleione. Sometimes Atlas is said to be their father, and then they are called the "Atlantides." If Atlas is indeed the father of Orion too, then his daughters the Pleiades are Orion's half-sisters. No wonder then that Orion longed to cleave to this Merope, if they had indeed sprung from the same stock.

All Aegean sailors knew that the Pleiades mark out the season that is safe for venturing upon the sea. The season opens "when from the Bull, the Sun enters into the Twins at the rising of the Pleiades." Nowadays this falls in late May. The safe sailing is over "when the Sun enters the Scorpion, at the setting of the Pleiades," all according to the Roman Vitruvius, who was quoting the Greek astronomer Democritus. By a witty invention, Pindar made them the "Peleiades"- the flock of doves- but this was just a momentary trope.

But was this Merope at the same time one of the Heliades, the sisters of Phaeton and daughters of Helios, as Hyginus tells? That would have made her a doubly-fit guide to lead the sightless Orion through the seas to the house of the Sun.

Orion at Lemnos

Northwards from Chios Orion made his way, whether guided by his inner sight or led by the rising Merope and her sisters, once the late spring weather had safely settled. Within a day or so he came to the volcano isle of Lemnos, where Hephaistos maintains his forge. Orion descended to the underworld smithy in the island's fiery heart. Later the Lemnian cave would become famous for its mysteries, in which each initiate was united with his chthonic brother counterpart. Like them, Orion himself sought no product of Hephaistos' forge, neither armor nor cauldron nor tripod. Instead, from among the many apprentices in the cavernous smithy of Lady Hera's son, Orion took up one, Cedalion, for a guide and set the youth upon his shoulders. So together they sailed north and east, with Merope in her sailing aspect to guide them, through the narrows and the Propontis, into the wide Euxine Sea

Orion and Eos

Far to the eastern shore, in Colchis at the uttermost end of the world, Helios, whose bright eye misses nothing on the earth nor in the sea, sleeps by night in the golden house of Aietes, until he is waked by Eos, the Dawn. There, when Dawn came lighting the east with rosy fingers, the first rays of sunlight struck Orion's face and look! his sight was restored. But at the first flush of dawn, Merope faded and failed. Thus of seven Pleiades who still guide Orion across the vault of night, only six are to be seen, if there should be even the least hint of rosy-fingered Dawn. Alexandrian poets liked to imagine that Merope hides her face in shame, for having married the mere mortal Sisyphus, king of Corinth, while all her Pleiad sisters were given to Olympic gods. But that worldly snobbery speaks more of the Hellenistic Age of Monarchies than of the age of myth.

Eos too is of the Titan lineage, and she was immediately smitten by the handsomest Titan of all. That daughter of Hyperion always has weaknesses for demi-gods with some Titan blood in their veins, and Eos longed to cast her bright thighs across his dark ones. There in the house of Helios Orion tarried all summer. Yet at each approach of Dawn, Orion paled and grew faint, his flesh growing transparent under her very touch.

Next, Orion returned to the island of Chios, burning for revenge on Oinopion. But it appears that he arrived in the winter season, when the Chians had pruned their vines to stubs. For we are told that the "wine-man" Oinopion lay secretly in an underground chamber prepared for him by Hephaistos, awaiting his annual renewal we can be sure, and Orion sought him up and down, but in vain.

Then, at the end of winter, Orion passed under the horizon to Crete. Crete was still the homeland of archaic pre-Greek goddess-centered cult.

Catasterism explains how the constellation Scorpius rises just after Orion begins to set -- the scorpion still chases him, and they never appear in the sky at the same time. Orion's dogs became Sirius, the dog-star. The constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor follow Orion across the sky.

Some commentators suggest that Orion had two daughters, Menippe and Metioche.

The blind Orion searching the rising sun

Diana next to the corpse of Orion, Daniel Seiter 1685

Orion Constellation


Stephen R. Wilk, Futher mythological evidence for ancient Knowledge of variable starts

  • Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths 1955.
  • Kerenyi, Karl, Gods of the Greeks 1951.
  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.

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